Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Ten things I grew up believing about the United States that turn out not to be true

A few days ago the Biden administration granted Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sovereign immunity over the brutal execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.  If this had happened under the Trump administration I would have immediately listed it as yet another reason that Trump was unfit for office.  So why should I not apply the same standard to Biden?  The administration tried to justify this by saying that "the doctrine of head of state immunity is well established in customary international law" but this is clearly bullshit.  The United States holds heads of state accountable for crimes all the time.  The fact that Saddam Hussein killed his own citizens was cited by the Bush administration as one of the justifications for initiating war against Iraq, so the idea that the United States gives a rat's ass about "the doctrine of head of state immunity" doesn't pass the laugh test.

It turns out this is far from an isolated incident.  The mythology of the United States that I was raised on turns out to be shot through with lies.  Here are ten examples.

1.  The United States was founded on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights

Do I even need to explain this one?  Google the phrase "three fifths" some time.

But even beyond the obvious hypocrisy of founding a nation with legal chattel slavery on the premise that it is a self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" (at least they were straight-up about leaving out women) the United States has never accepted that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are unalienable rights.  We alienate people from those rights all the time.  We imprison people, sometimes for years without charges.  We have a death penalty.  We allow people a nearly unfettered right to own firearms, despite the fact that those same firearms will be used to alienate innocent people from their supposedly unalienable right to life.

It is an inspiring phrase, but it has never been a reflection of reality, not at the founding, and not now.

2.  One of the bedrock principles of the United States is that there should be no taxation without representation

The residents of Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa (and a few other places) have to pay taxes despite the fact that they have no representation in Congress.  The United States was born in a revolution against a colonial oppressor, but it is itself a colonial oppressor, and has been pretty much throughout its history.

3.  The Civil War ended in 1865

It is true that the armed conflict ended then, but the underlying political divisions did not just magically disappear.  The northern states effectively conquered the southern ones, and then proceeded to make an absolute hash of the reconstruction process.  Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, was essentially a Southern sympathizer who inherited a military victory from his predecessor but failed to leverage that victory into actual legal protections for newly freed slaves.  The result was 100 more years of black servitude under Jim Crow laws.

4.  The fight for civil rights was won with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act

These two landmark pieces of legislation were passed about the time I was born, and so when I was coming of age I was taught that civil rights were a fait accompli.  Demographic trends made it inevitable that social progress would continue unabated into the indefinite future.

It is true that things are still vastly better now than they used to be, but the intellectual heirs of the people who perpetuated Jim Crow for 100 years are still very much with us, and they have been gaining power and influence for the last 30 years or so, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the subsequent shift in the Supreme Court to a (so-called) conservative majority.

5.  We are the Good Guys

I came of age in the heady days of the shadow of our victory in World War II.  The United States was the only nation on earth that emerged from that conflict with it industrial base intact, and we pretty much literally ruled the world for several decades.  To go along with our unequaled military, economic, and political clout we cultivated a myth of heroism and self-sacrifice: we saved the world from the Nazis.  We made the world safe for democracy.  And there was some truth to that.

But the conduct of the United States has not been one of unalloyed heroism and philanthropy, neither during the war nor since.  There were plenty of Nazi sympathizers in the U.S. before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made it unfashionable, and despite the Holocaust having cemented Adolf Hitler's place in the popular imagination as the very archetype of villainy, there are, sad to say, still plenty of neo-Nazis in the U.S. today.

To say nothing of the fact that we have behaved like absolute assholes in the Middle East with disastrous consequences both for ourselves and the people who live there.  We deposed the democratically elected government of Iran and (re-)installed the Shah (for the oil, of course).  We instigated wars of aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan.  All of these things have ended in disaster, so they are not even defensible on practical grounds, let alone moral grounds.

And that is jut the modern United States.  If you go back in history things are even worse, starting with our treatment of indigenous peoples, including Hawaiians (which are on my radar at the moment because Hawaii is where I happen to be).

6.  America is the Land of Opportunity

Like the previous myth there is a grain of truth to this.  America is certainly the land of opportunity for some people.  It was for me.  But opportunity is not exactly uniformly distributed here, nor is the playing field anything close to level.  The best predictor of your socioeconomic status here is your parents' socioeconomic status, and the second best is the color of your skin.  Social mobility has declined dramatically since World War II.  And before that, of course, it was confined mainly to people with white skin and Y chromosomes.

7.  The U.S. is a democracy

Democracy is a continuum, not a dichotomy, but the general idea is that decisions are made based more or less on what a majority of the citizens want.  The U.S. is not like that, and never has been.  The U.S. Constitution intentionally gives disproportionate power to citizens of states with lower populations.  American is anti-majoritarian by design.  And this is woven so deeply into the fabric of our system of government that you can't even change it by amending the Constitution.  Article V explicitly prohibits amendments that deprive a state of its equal representation in the Senate.  (OK, it allows this to happen if a state consents.  But come on...)

8.  Democracy (or whatever this is) ultimately produces good results

The theory behind the structure of the U.S. government is that its system of checks and balances will prevent crazy people from taking over.  It was easy to believe in this myth, at least until 1980, when an actor was elected president.  Still, Ronald Reagan was not too crazy, and things soon reverted to the mean.

And then came George Bush the second, who was installed in the White House by the Supreme Court, and proceeded to lead us into two of the most disastrously misguided wars in our nation's history.  But even Bush was not really crazy, just stupid.  (It is arguable that the country was actually being run by Dick Cheney, and that Cheney was crazy, but that is neither here nor there, because...)

Then, of course, came Donald Trump.

Now, anyone who has read my blog knows that I think Donald Trump is crazy, but that is not the point.  It doesn't matter whether or not I am right about Trump being crazy.  What matters is that a lot of people agree with me that he's crazy.  We may be right, or we may be wrong, but that is neither here nor there.  What matters is that we have so far been unsuccessful in removing him as a major influence in American politics.   Even if Trump himself eventually fades away, the movement he launched will outlast him.  Xenophobia, misogyny, and open contempt for expertise and even facts are now thoroughly established.  They will be nurtured and catered to by Republican politicians long after Trump is gone.  And this will happen despite the fact that a majority of Americans vehemently oppose it.  (To say nothing of the fact that substituting ideology for expertise and facts rarely ends well.)

9.  The United States is the Land of the Free

Again, there is a grain of truth here.  There is quite a bit more freedom in the U.S. than in other countries.  You can, for example, cross state boundaries without showing identification.  You can change your residence without having to get approval from the government.

But there are a lot of things you cannot do.  You cannot start your own bank.  If you try, the government will come down on you like a bag of hammers before you even open your doors.  Depending on where you live it might not even be legal to open a lemonade stand.

And the government is not the only entity that constrains your freedom. Most American's freedoms are curtailed much more severely by economics than the law.  Corporations and wealthy individuals have so much de facto power that they are essentially quasi-governmental entities unto themselves.  Want to run your own code on your iPhone?  Sorry, can't do it without paying Apple.  Want to buy glasses from a store that is not owned by a single corporate monopoly?  It's possible, but good luck figuring out how.  Want to work at a job where you are treated with respect, as if you were an actual human being rather than a replaceable cog in a machine?  Again, it's possible, but most people aren't so lucky.

American freedom has always been reserved for a select few.  America was certainly not the Land of the Free blacks before 1965 (and certainly not before 1865), nor women before 1920, nor gays before 2015.  It has never been the Land of the Free for native Americans.  It is still not the Land of the Free for undocumented immigrants.  And yes, I get that we have to protect our borders and reward people for following the rules, but deporting people who were brought here as children and have never known another home doesn't seem like the right answer either.

10.  The United States is in an inexorable decline

This is not something I grew up believing, but it is something that a lot of people around me seemed to believe at the time, and that a lot of people still seem to believe, except that the demographics of the people who believe it have changed.  In the 70's this was mostly believed by conservatives.  Today it is mostly believed by liberals.

I think the conservatives were wrong then, and I think the liberals are wrong now, and this is the motivation for writing this post.  I don't want to just gripe and complain about how horrible the U.S. is.  I want to point out that, although despite the fact that the United States has never lived up to its lofty ideals, those ideals have always been worth striving for, and they still are.  The United States are not a democracy, but they should be.  The United States are not the Land of the Free, nor the Land of Opportunity for All, nor always the Good Guys, but they should be.  I want them to be.  Living here has been very good to me because I'm white and male and I chose my parents well, but I want everyone to have the opportunities that I have had.

I also want to emphasize that, as bad as things may be, they are still vastly better now than they were for most of our history.  Far from being a story of inexorable decline, the story of the United States is one of more or less continuous improvement.  We are far from our professed ideals, but we are a hell of a lot closer than we have been in the past.

But you can't solve a problem without first admitting that you have one.  And we do still have one.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Send in the clowns

The papers are full of articles proclaiming that the mid-term election was a victory for democracy or some such similar nonsense.  It was nothing of the sort.  The Democrats hold the Senate by -- quite literally! -- the slimmest of possible margins, and as I write this the jury is still out on the House, with the Republicans favored to win a majority there.  I was going to wait until that had been decided before writing this post but it looks as if it's going to take a while so I decided to go ahead an just go with a prediction: the Republicans will take the House, Kevin McCarthy will become speaker (though that bit hardly matters), and the Republicans will impeach Joe Biden.  What will they impeach him for?  I have no idea, and neither to they, because there are no legitimate grounds for impeaching Biden.  But they will come up with something.  If there is one thing one can confidently say about Republicans nowadays is that they do not let a little thing like reality stand in the way of their ideology.  It is true that things are not as bad as they might have been, and the outcome of the election does present a small glimmer of hope.  But it was not a victory, any more than having an artillery shell land 20 yards away rather than directly on top of you is a victory.

I came of age in the 1970s and 80s.  My earliest memory of American politics is the 1972 election where Nixon stomped McGovern into the ground.  Watergate and Viet Nam were the topics of the day, and the cold war was still in full swing.  I was only dimly aware of these things or what they entailed, but there were two invariants in American politics during these formative years: first, the Democrats had a iron grip on Congress, and second, nothing really bad ever happened despite the threat of disaster that seemed to be constantly looming over the world.

I was vaguely aware of the fact that there were crazy people in America, but my parents were both well-educated and I grew up in their bubble.  Everyone I knew was comfortably well-off and reasonably sane and very, very liberal.  The Civil Rights Act had recently been passed (though I did not realize this at the time) and I grew up believing that racism and prejudice were things of the past.  Social progress was as inevitable as rain.  And at the end of the day, reason seemed to prevail.  Nixon resigned.  The clean-air and clean-water act were passed.  Relations were opened up with China.  The USSR fell.  This new thing called the micro-computer was looking kind of promising.  I had never heard of global warming.  The future looked very bright indeed.

In the early 90s I stumbled across Rush Limbaugh's radio show and I was stunned to learn that such a thing even existed in America.  The slogan of his show was "America held hostage" -- by liberals.  Liberals were the root of all evil.  Eceonomic problems?  Liberals.  Social unrest?  Liberals.  Crime?  Liberals.

For a while Limbaugh was an interesting (if somewhat disturbing) side-show.  I really believed that people like Limbaugh were going extinct.  But in 1994 I was roused from my political stupor by the news that the Republicans had swept the congressional elections and now controlled both houses of congress for the first time in my life.

I remember thinking: this is going to be bad.  And it was.  Newt Gingrich shut down the government and impeached Bill Clinton because he lied about getting a blow job in the oval office.  (To be sure, getting a blow job in the Oval Office was a pretty stupid thing to do, but Clinton was probably not the first.)  Fast-forward 28 years and here we are, in a situation where I can confidently predict the impeachment of an American president before anyone -- even the people who are going to impeach him -- has any idea what they are going to impeach him for.

Getting ourselves out of this mess is going to take a lot more than a razor-thin victory in a mid-term.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Ron descends from the mountain

It has been over a year since I wrote a real post here.  The reason for my long absence is that I have been struggling with a number of existential crises.  Three of them, in fact.  The first is over climate change.  The second is over the political situation in the U.S.

The third is not so easy to distill into a slogan.  It has to do with the idea that the kind of outcome I want to see for the world is simply not possible because it actually violates the laws of physics.  It's pretty geeky as existential crises go, and one of these days I'll write about it (click here for spoilers), but for now climate change and politics are more than enough to fuel my despair so I'll focus on those for the time being.

The TL;DR is that a while back I came to the conclusion that the climate change situation was hopeless, that the distance between what would need to be done to avoid catastrophe and what could plausibly be done given the geopolitical situation here on earth was so vast that the odds of averting catastrophe were indistinguishable from zero.  But it was even worse than that.  I first became aware of climate change more than thirty years ago.  Back then it was a long-term concern, something that might start to produce some observable effects in my lifetime, but where the really bad stuff wouldn't happen for 100 years or so.  Twelve years ago I moved from LA to San Francisco thinking that would make a difference in my personal exposure to the worst effects of climate change.  I now think that was wildly overoptimistic.

Let me be clear about what I mean by "the bad stuff".  I'm not talking about the extinction of life from the surface of the planet, or even the extinction of homo sapiens.  That is not going to happen.  We're not talking about "saving the planet".  The planet, and even our species, has been through much bigger changes than what we are facing.

I'm talking about the end of technological civilization, the organization of humans into cooperating groups larger than tribes.  I'm talking about what happened beginning at the end of the last ice age when humans stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and started to engage in large-scale agriculture.  That led to the formation of city-states, then to empires and nation-states, and ultimately to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and cat videos on your smart phone.

I've become a big fan of industrial civilization.  It has allowed me to live a life of relative leisure compared to most of my ancestors.  I have beheld great wonders.  I have even been privileged to participate in the production of a few of them.  I want those who come after me to have the same opportunities.

But the maintenance of our civilization is heavily dependent on a stable climate.  This is because it depends on infrastructure, and infrastructure is generally not mobile.  Factories and data centers are generally housed in buildings and connected by networks of roads that are attached firmly to the surface of the earth.  And the same goes for farms.  And so civilization depends on a certain amount of climate stability.  In particular, it depends on rain falling in somewhat predictable patterns.

Those patterns are changing.  And that change is happening with breathtaking speed.

This has become very evident to me living in California, which is one of the epicenters of climate-change-related drought.  But this phenomenon is not unique to California.  It is global.  The Mississippi river is at historic lows because there is drought not just in California, but across the U.S.

The reason that all of these places are getting drier is that the jet stream, which once brought winter rains, has been moving further and further north.  The reason for that is that the jet stream is caused by the temperature difference between the arctic, which once has a giant ice cap on it year-round keeping it nice and chilly.  But that ice cap has been melting.  That moves the jet stream, and the rains, to the north.

Some time in the next 10-20 years the arctic ice cap will almost certainly melt entirely producing a so-called blue-ocean event.  What happens after that is anybody's guess, but whatever it is it will almost certainly not be good.  The jet stream could stop altogether, along with rain in California.

California currently produces 13 of the agricultural output of the U.S.  Without rain, all of that will stop.  If it were only California that might be survivable, but it won't be.  Droughts do not respect political boundaries.  There is a real possibility of drought-induced global famine some time in the next 10-20 years.  Within 100 years it is all but certain to happen.

This in and of itself, as bad as it is, would not necessarily be calamitous if not for the second problem: humans are very resourceful creatures, but to be our most effective we have to cooperate.  To solve the climate-change problem we are going to have to cooperate on an unprecedented planet-wide scale.  And lately we have not proven to be very adept at this.  We can't even agree that climate change is in fact a problem that needs to be dealt with, let alone what we're actually going to do about it that has a chance of succeeding.  Our geo-political institutions just do not appear to be even remotely up to the task.

In the past year I have been holding my breath to see if the Democrats could address the short-term problem of crazy Republicans trying to overthrow the government of the United States.  As I write this the jury is still out, but I've decided that it doesn't matter.  Despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so at times the right thing to do is to suspend disbelief and proceed as if you believe that there is an answer even if you have no idea what it might be.  You never know when you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that you got it wrong.  And make no mistake: literally nothing would make me happier than to find out that I'm wrong about this.

So I've decided to start blogging again in the hopes of discovering that I'm wrong, that there is in fact hope of saving civilization from itself.  Over the course of the next few weeks I'm gong to write up some detailed analysis of both climate change and U.S. politics in the hopes of starting a discussion that might lead to either uncovering existing ideas that I'm not currently aware of, or generating some new ones.  I have no idea where this is going to lead, or indeed, if it's going to lead anywhere.  Like I said, in my heart of hearts at the moment I think this effort is doomed.  But there is something inside me that won't let me rest peacefully unless I try nonetheless.