at the mountains of political madness

at the mountains of political madness

I tried writing about politics for a year and a half. My experience was eye-opening in the worst possible ways…

One of the best, yet often least appreciated things about being a science writer is the ability to unapologetically come down on the side of established facts. You can say that the Earth is an oblate spheroid without also having to explore why some people think it’s flat unless you really want to delve into their psychology. Dismissing proponents of the electric universe as cranks or spaceflight denialists as conspiracy theorists is not going to get you a scolding for not respecting their “alternative reality.” In science, facts rule supreme and you aren’t just allowed to be a vocal, unabashed advocate for them, you’re expected to be one.

The other fantastic aspect of wiring about science is that nine out of ten times, you’re writing for people who want to learn something, or at least have their worldviews challenged. Sure, they might not agree with everything you say and ask a lot of questions, or challenge you with different studies and statistics, but fundamentally, you’re inhabiting the same universe and are trying to come to a fact-based consensus. And after November of 2016 I made the mistake of thinking I could apply the same approach to political writing with Rantt’s Politech.

My hypothesis was simple. In an environment in which both sides are screaming past each other, arguments rooted in facts, figures, and evidence would be a refreshing diversion. I even summarized a number of policies that tried to bridge the gaps between liberal and conservative proposals and theories in a longform article using this approach. At this point, I would love to tell you how this attempt at bipartisan, evidence-based substance was wildly popular, I really would. But no, a polemic about Roy Moore, a.k.a DA Bad Touch, and his supporters got twenty times the traffic and attention.

What was my most popular Politech piece? A review of nuclear weapon design and what would happen if we used them on North Korea. (Spoiler alert: nothing good.) And while that article was a somewhat refreshing change of pace because it was an excuse to dive into how humanity’s deadliest inventions work, it was almost cheating because nothing brings the clicks like nuclear apocalypse porn. Even articles boosted and endorsed by political celebrities like Rick Wilson and Anne-Marie Slaughter got a mere fifth of the views and engagement.

Almost two years of watching the cold hard stats very clearly showed me that what the news junkies reading my articles wanted were takedowns, fire, and fury. Any evidence or facts that I had to bring to make my arguments were just a bonus, many of the links to supporting data seldom clicked by fans and critics alike. The fans just wanted confirmation of what they long believed was true. The critics were looking for buzzwords and key phrases to respond with talking points that may as well have been copied and pasted. I started feeling that I was no longer writing to inform, I was doing the equivalent of trying to bathe a rabid cat.

In a way, this reminded me of the dark undertone of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. Yes, it was a good-natured show about good people trying to make life in their hometown better with their work in local government before moving on to higher political posts or private industry. But a frequent plot point was how citizens whose lives they were objectively helping made sure their jobs were arduous, thankless tasks, and the city council was staffed primarily by venal, self-dealing politicians over whose heads they had to go to affect any positive change. It obviously tried to nudge viewers to consider public service, but sternly warned them expect mute cooperation at best, and be ready to become the public’s punching bags if they displeased said public in any way, for any reason.

And this is how Politech ended up for me. I wasn’t doing it for praise and applause, I was trying to reach people who needed to hear harsh realities and cold, hard facts. But what I very quickly learned is that those people hated me, and not in the exaggerated, figurative way. I wasn’t just some writer with different views, or who came to different conclusions. I was an enemy. I was everything wrong with America, a coastal immigrant elitist who betrayed his adopted Midwest home, on the take from the Deep State to spread sinister Satanic disinformation and undermine this country from within. And I finally realized that I wasn’t fighting bad information. I was fighting visceral, personal, deep-seated hatred fanned by right wing propagandists.

It’s actually been a jarring and unpleasant surprise to witness the descent of the American right into a crude, two-dimensional caricature seemingly written by a liberal partisan who’s never met a Republican in his life. Even The Onion often finds itself throwing in the towel and publishing headlines that change only a few words of actual quotes from GOP lawmakers and President Trump’s surrogates. And amazingly, as they pound their chests with cries of how much they love America and how patriotic they are, they certainly seem to hate just about everything the country has pitched as evidence of its wealth, progress, and advancement.

The right loathes multiculturalism and seeks to shut its borders to newcomers who aren’t wealthy and white despite the country’s image being that of a nation of immigrants and a melting pot of cultures and ideas. They hate our growing cities, the trading hubs that bring in trillions in wealth and serve as incubators for future ideas, decrying them as a conspiracy to seize and destroy their precious suburbs and collectivize their farms. As we tout our technical and scientific prowess, they dismiss our researchers as liars and engineers as far left ideologues trying to defraud and brainwash them. And they decry our commitment to an international order built around the idea that all people deserve to be treated fairly, despite the United States being its pioneer in order to counter Soviet authoritarian nihilism — even if it didn’t always live up to the principles it espoused at home.

Fairly quickly I learned that all those invocations of patriotic buzzwords were hollow at best and often coupled with voluminous whataboutism to make their disdain for those looking towards the future and trying to experiment with new ideas sound more palatable. They were pining for the good old days and looking for scapegoats to blame for the consequences of their own complacency and decades of reelecting politicians for accomplishing nothing more than myopia and grandstanding, but certainly weren’t ready to admit it to themselves or anyone else. And they did not want a dialogue, a negotiation, or a debate. They wanted praise and obedience, a participation trophy for “owning a libtarded cuckflake,” and were enraged when they did not receive one.

newspaper on fire

Unfortunately, the American media keeps failing to reach the same conclusion even though it’s staring them right in the face. They’re afflicted with chronic both-sideism and an addiction to interviewing small town Trump voters who spit their predictable venom in reporters’ faces while the president calls them “enemies of the people” for literally quoting his own words and replaying his own rallies. Twitter, where most journalists and political talk show hosts hang out, is alight with hundreds of thousands of people screaming “for fuck’s sake, take the hint, stop giving these people bullhorns!” and yet, they don’t.

One would think that a week after a Middle Eastern despot had his goons dismember a critical journalist while he was still alive as the American right ran interference for this act of barbarism, smearing the journalist’s memory and praising the despot’s wealth while President Trump free-associated about how awesome assaulting reporters is, the media would finally shake itself out of its stupor. But instead, we woke up to op-eds about how Trump is bound to keep winning unless the Dems “hit him back hard,” forgetting the 7,832 pieces they wrote the week before lamenting “the left’s incivility” and regurgitating Republican conspiracy theories about violent, Jew-led leftist mobs on loan from 1930s Germany.

Similarly, the day after CNN’s offices were evacuated to secure and remove a pipe bomb, one of those sent to people on Trump’s hit list and featuring a far right Tea Party meme on its casing, the media dutifully played clips of Democrats arguing to not let the GOP monopolize the national discourse and be willing to confront elected leaders while the right wing huffed and puffed about “false flags” and insinuating that the media more or less deserved it, sticking to whataboutism even after Cesar Sayoc Jr. — or, as he’s known on social media, the MAGA Bomber — allegedly tried to kill journalists and prominent liberal politicians and financiers, clearly and obviously inspired by Trump’s rhetoric. And as a kicker, it took Trump all of a few hours after Sayoc’s arrest to double down on his conspiratorial bloviation and go on to spout doomsday fantasies about Democrats at his rally that night.

Instead of standing up for themselves and the majority of Americans, they cowered in fear of being accused of “having a liberal bias” even though this is the charge leveled at them for merely existing and having the temerity to do anything other than pipe straight-up Republican propaganda praising Emperor Trump I of House MAGA and his glorious and righteous work of “restoring America” in a style not too dissimilar from North Korea or China. And their fear of right wing rage is so great, they seldom push back on their nonsense-spewing GOP guests, who erupt in tirades and hysterical shrieking at the slightest provocation.

It’s as if the media is someone stuck in an abusive relationship with a sociopath, someone you desperately want to help because you rely on them. But even after a long heart-to-heart that ends with a deep sigh admitting that the relationship is toxic and unhealthy for everyone involved, they check their phone, see a “u up?” text from their abuser, and rush to him to do the same thing yet again, seemingly unable and unwilling to learn from their experience. To editors in mainstream media, this is all just a game anyway, and they absolutely refuse to understand that tens of millions of citizens have been indoctrinated for decades to see them as enemies in a holy war for the soul of their country.

Journalists, editors, and pundits spilled a lot of ink and built up terabytes of text and images about why Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office was such a blow for so many people, often in cliches and two-dimensional partisan cutouts to either avoid or trigger the ire of the right, whatever was more profitable that day. But they still don’t seem to understand that there’s more to it than party affiliation, or Trump being a shady, kleptocratic vulgarian, or even the sudden loss of hard fought political high ground in America from which we hoped that politicians would hold themselves to at least some basic standard of civilized behavior.

It’s downright nauseating to see so many people emboldened to indulge in their worst urges, proudly unleashing their ignorance and hate at family gatherings across America and in noxious social media screeds, openly cheering for the dehumanization of their own families, friends, and neighbors, and responding to any criticism with a profound lack of basic decency and empathy. This especially hurts from people you really thought were better than that, and it’s aggravating that so many writers with massive platforms and global reach avoid talking about this because it plays such a big part in today’s political culture.

In short, our embarrassing racist relatives whose holiday fist-pounding-on-a-table-red-faced tirades induce family-wide groans, and for who we have to make countless excuses in polite company, wound up running the country at literally the absolute worst possible time. But even more so, Trump’s victory shows that a country divided largely along urban and rural lines was in effect told to take its ball and go home rather than address the challenges of the future, and it happened through a process that can be hijacked by a histrionic, conspiracy-driven minority which can dig in and survive numerous voter revolts.

Even worse, with experts and engineers constantly trying to set off alarms about how and why rampant automation and a lack of planning for the post-industrial world is creating a surge of nativism and populism, and trying to offer solutions in countless op-eds, the media’s favorite pundits continue to either regurgitate obvious nonsense or pretend it’s a complete mystery. And if you have the education and experience to know what might be going on, they absolutely do not want to hear from you because you’ll want politicians to actually do something serious and potentially expensive, so the resulting conversation goes something like this…

Pundit: “It simply boggles my mind why authoritarianism and populism are on the rise across the world even as the global economy is doing well!”

Expert: “Well, if you consider the looming income inequality and rampant automation which is eliminating jobs, with no long term plans for investing in the workforce…”

Pundit: “It’s a mystery with no solution in sight. We need to come together as a nation and have a dialog about what’s troubling us!”

Expert: “Yes, about the effects of post-industrialization and government inaction on…”

Pundit: “Like I said, no one understands this perplexing and disturbing enigma…”

And in this vein, Trump in the White House is the equivalent of the American right saying they will not give up on shoving square pegs into round holes, and that instead of trying something new, they’ll just find someone to blame for their failures and give the country the political and fiscal equivalent of a DIY lobotomy with a rusty, soot-covered pickaxe. The past three years of watching American politics was like watching a seriously ill patient rejecting every attempt to get a better diagnosis, pulling out his IVs, spitting out his pills, and throwing his soiled bedpan at the doctors, cackling with psychotic glee if he manages to get his filth on their scrubs.

In the same simile, Politech was an attempt to violate the professionalism demanded of you even when dealing with such a difficult patient, grab him by the gown and firmly ask “what the fuck is your problem?” to snap him out of it just long enough to explain what it is that ails him. You can’t shy away from this task or consider yourself too good for it because this lunatic is immune to civility and empathy, considering them personal flaws, and his goal is to make you stop so you can’t cure him and he can spread whatever he has to the rest of the hospital. And so far, he’s succeeding.

horror diner
Illustration by Jeff Lee Johnson

Living in America in 2018 feels a little like inhabiting a Potemkin village. All the trappings and veneers of a wealthy, post-industrial nation are there, but if you scratch just under the surface, you find systemic and endemic dry rot, cracking, and water damage in the supporting structures. As long as you stay on the main roads and don’t look too closely past the facades, you’ll be fine, but for hundreds of millions of Americans that’s not an option because they often have no choice in venturing off that idyllic path.

We have vast road networks and a complex infrastructure, but large swaths of it are poorly maintained and there’s little in the way of public transit. We have a booming economy, but it’s plagued with rampant inequality in which wages for typical workers haven’t risen for over three decades while the top 1% owns 40% of everything. Education and healthcare can both be top notch, but only as long as you have the money or the opportunity to enjoy them. Police officers are often within easy reach, but if something goes wrong during an incident and a civilian ends up dead, there are virtually no consequences for poor policing or being trigger-happy.

Safety nets and social services have been shredded, decried as crutches for the weak and lazy. Pension funds are drained for Baby Boomers’ votes and left overflowing with IOUs for future generations. NASA, the world’s premier space agency is riding on past glories, left with expensive white elephants and little in the way of mission directives. Healthcare and education costs are allowed to keep shooting into the stratosphere. Regulations meant to stop pollution are being discarded on ridiculous pretenses. Foreign relations are in tatters. And even all those weapons for which we pay so much are proving to be easily hackable and over-designed, poorly suited for the wars of the future. All of this, a product of decades of neglect and inertia.

And while we are ostensibly free to choose new leaders should our current ones fail us, we allow politicians to pick their voters, let a radicalized minority entrench itself and disregard the popular will with very little risk of being voted out, put countless hurdles to voting in many states, and refuse to update our electoral infrastructure for the modern era despite its many well known vulnerabilities. A system supposedly designed to give everyone a voice and quickly punish politicians who can’t do their jobs is rewarding failure and promoting gridlock.

Just consider what is so often referred to as a democracy in which a gubernatorial candidate who is also overseeing his own election is purging voter rolls as fast as he can, had to be stopped from using a law allowing him to purge votes on a whim, and complained to his supporters that he’s concerned about people actually exercising their right to vote. And note that everything he’s doing is legal and that he’s not the only candidate doing the same thing. Americans are living in a country that prides itself on freedom, but its party in power is busy turning its elections into a charade.

And here’s the kicker. We know these are problems and we have plenty of solutions for them, many being quite easy to implement, others much more difficult but absolutely workable. None will result in a utopia, but that’s impossible anyway, and all we really need is to start taking big, rapid steps in the right direction. But despite majorities of citizens solidly behind many of the solutions in question, we just refuse to fix things and pay anything more than the bare minimum for anything other than wars and tax cuts.

The result is a nation that’s grown far too powerful to be brought down by any outside enemy without destroying the world as we know it in a nuclear apocalypse, engaged in a spectacular, public act of auto-cannibalism while being literally laughed off the world’s stage.

A big part of the problem is generations of voters who grew up to define themselves and the country by what they feared and opposed, not necessarily what they stood for outside of a few tingly buzzwords. But as foreign foes collapsed or were neutered, they turned inward to look for new adversaries, which they found in their fellow Americans thanks to the conspiracy-mongering mill of right wing media. And the GOP capitalized on this, using the same playbook as every far right populist movement in world history, making the figurative destruction of different ideas, instead of compromise and forging a common identity, the stated goal of 21st century American “greatness.”

For nearly seven decades, America pitched itself as an indispensable partner, a global arbiter of right and wrong, a nation equivalent of a superhero on speed dial. Today, it’s seen more as an old, disheveled, wealthy man who developed dementia and now marches up and down the neighborhood, yelling at everyone about how much they owe him and airing his grievances. Its self-destructive actions on the world stage are leaving a vacuum, one that many countries are eyeing to fill. If the United States remains in its stupor for much longer, it will start suffering the full effects of brain drain and economic stagnation similar to that of ex-Soviet states.

world according to reagan

As an ex-Soviet myself, watching my adopted home go through this is like having a second close relative succumb to dementia. After a messy and painful decline, the lights are still on but almost no one is home, and instead of remaining a part of your family, he’s in a facility you visit once in a while so he can stare at you blankly and try to reminisce about the good old days, getting countless details wrong in the process. And it’s even worse when you see the disease coming and know how to reverse its ill effects, but that relative refuses to even think about it, accusing you of trying to poison him to steal money and valuables he gave away or sold off long ago, but is convinced are still in his possession.

This is why I started writing more political posts after the 2016 election and joined Rantt. It was an attempt to exercise what I saw as my civic duty. Having seen how a very similar movie ends, I wanted to offer as many spoilers as possible, raise as many red flags as I could, and point out the ways we got into this mess and could potentially get out. But I underestimated the all-consuming incandescent fury of the right and their death grip on conspiracy theories which render them deaf to anything outside their apocalyptic echo chambers and eagerly joining those with views so backwards, you have to communicate with them through an elaborate series of grunts they’ll struggle to hear over the scraping of their knuckles.

False flags and sinister New World Order plots used to be the stock and trade of professional fearmongers and shock jocks like Alex Jones only a few years ago. Now, they’re mainstream right wing orthodoxies. They’ve abandoned reality for a realm in which they’re surrounded by enemies and nefarious schemes to subjugate them to the will of faceless, nameless Others. Instead of being forgotten and left behind by a rapidly automating, connected world, they’re under siege from the Illuminati/Muslim/MS-13/Deep State/Reptoid cabal. Meanwhile, Fox News is quite literally broadcasting conspiracies torn from the Protocol of the Elders of Zion around the clock in prime time to make sure this hateful lunacy really sticks.

And this worries me a lot more than Trump and his team of dregs over the long term. Yes, they’re terrible human beings who put party and personal gain over country. But technically, we can still vote them and their enablers out in large enough numbers. The problem is that they could easily get replaced by even worse, more unhinged politicians with even more extreme and toxic theories, and an even bigger appetite for destruction if we ever drop our guard. The rage and hatred for one’s fellow citizens that put Trump behind the Resolute Desk isn’t going anywhere soon.

I wish that my experience in Eastern Europe gave me some magic blueprint to offer, but sadly, we’re in uncharted waters. The implosion of the USSR was a top down event. The implosion of the United States is happening from the inside out. We are no longer dealing with two parties with different ideas for how to keep American running, which is a healthy a normal thing for any functioning government. No, we’re dealing with an environment in which a third of the country very openly loathes the other two thirds and is on a mission to either hurt them as much as possible or skewer their sacred cows for the sheer joy of it. Our national identity has unraveled.

The task before us isn’t to just play tug-of-war with control of branches of government. It’s to address a culture in which selfish greed and sociopathic disdain for your fellow citizens is seen as “individualism” and “taking personal responsibility,” in which politicians succeed in winning office using divide and conquer tactics, urging voters to go to the polls to defend themselves from their own families and friends, and in which we allow social media to help radicalize our less tech savvy elders as their recommendation algorithms fill their timelines with apocalyptic nativist propaganda. We shouldn’t be taking this country back, we should be fixing its basic identity from living caricatures of malignant narcissism who kidnapped the national conversation by screaming louder than everyone else and flinging their verbal feces at anyone who dares to object.

Our enemies aren’t our fellow Americans, it’s the politicians who want the country to remain broken, to keep the older, whiter, more rural minority seething with Hulkian rage at the urban, mobile, connected majority because they live in the right imaginary lines and will happily vote to cut taxes for billionaires in their golden years, gut social services every other developed nation offers for their kids and grandkids, and saddle the country with trillions in debt they’ll never have to repay while they gut that nation’s coffers and start countless wars to feel respected. It’s a strategy of divide and conquer, then rape and pillage.

But all these are abstract messages and narratives that are tough to get behind, composed of many buzzwords and metaphors. It’s much easier and more effective to get people behind something a lot more concrete. This is why I’m investing in World of Weird Things again. It’s one thing to tell people to aspire to do more with science and technology, to build global hubs where innovation and connectivity rule, creating new jobs and encouraging radical transformations for the better. It’s another thing to show them what they could do and what could be waiting for them if they just open their minds a little.

# politics // culture war / government / media /


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