We(?) Do This(?) ‘Til We(?) Free Us(?): Grappling With Abolitionism

from Haymarket Books, and I swear, if you buy this off Amazon…

Last week, when it was announced that the jury in the Derrick Chauvin case had reached a decision on whether or not to convict the former cop in the clear-as-day murder of George Floyd, there was an odd tension. Everyone knew he was guilty. Everyone adduced that the jury’s swiftness indicated one result. But all that surety almost added to the palpable cynicism: of course he’d get off.

That he didn’t, and was indeed indicted on all counts, was met with relief, but rarely with joy. Of course not — how could there be any joy? Floyd was still dead, and as so many of us rushed to social media to point out, this didn’t really mark a difference in the way policing in this country operated.

Typical piety

But what does that mean? What does “justice” mean in this context? If you were to ask me, I would have probably said something about how racial disparities were eliminated and the police no longer treated non-whites as an occupied people. “Justice”, I’d intone, “is not when George Floyd’s murderer goes to prison,” (dramatic pause, lip bite) “but when no one has the power to murder George Floyd under the flag of Law.”

You have to admit that “the flag of Law” would have been a nice touch, but then you’d ask: so, what does that mean?

And that’s where I’d falter. That’s where my edifice of justice starts to crumble. Because the truth is that I don’t know what that means. For me, those words are almost an act of magic. It’s a sentence that sounds good.

That’s because I, like so many liberals and leftists in this country, have not done the work to grapple with the fundamentals of the system. Because of that, the solutions seem both easy to say, and impossible to imagine.

For me, facing someone who has done the actual work is almost as impossible.

Mariame Kaba has done the work. Kaba, better known to most people in the online community through her blog Prison Culture and her twitter handle @prisonculture, has actually been working with the idea of what this kind of justice means.

I was reading her new collection of essays and interviews, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, last week when the results of the trial were coming in. This exact timing was a coincidence, but that I was reading it — or the book existed at all — was not.

The murder of George Floyd, the national outcry, the protests, and the immensity of the police violence that followed, moved more people into a radical direction than I think anyone had ever thought possible.

Anecdotally — but anecdotes borne out by data and by our politics — people started to question what the police actually meant, and why they were needed. I know so many people who were liberal-but-still-hated-hippies who went full “fuck the police” over the summer. Older liberals started truly seeing the darkness. It was in this milieu that “abolish the police” started to be heard.

Police and prison abolition is work that Kaba has done for decades. It’s work that she has explored, thought about, perused, and worked. This, then, should have been her moment.

In a way, it was: there was certainly more exposure for her work than ever before. But in the mainstream liberal-left, the argument tended to break down into two sides.

  1. No, we don’t actually mean “abolish the police” but it is a useful slogan to think about shifting funds into more community services while keeping police for limited duties while still making sure they are very regulated.
  2. Yes, get rid of them, yesterday.

The first one is a throat-clearing misrepresentation of how truly radical the notion of abolitionism is. And the latter is in its own way even a greater misrepresentation of the movement’s true radicalism. The idea isn’t just to get rid of the police because they are a corrupt, racist, violent paramilitary. It is to change a corrupt, racist, violent, militaristic society so that the police are no longer needed.

Now, this is where the argument begins to losE people like me. Let’s call us “wise people” because we like to think of ourselves as so. “Well that’s all well and good to think about, but what does that even mean? Is it not a pipe dream?”

Pipe dreams, for me, are comfortable. If I can call something a pipe dream, then I can pretend it isn’t serious, or at least not achievable, and continue to march and donate to mutual aid and all that without having to actually do something. It’s all well and good to imagine a different society, but we live in this one, don’t we? What would we do if there were no cops? Be serious.

Kaba’s great power is that she is deadly serious, because she’s done the actual work of thinking through what this all means. She forces people like me to actually confront the actual work. She doesn’t try to persuade through comforting pieties. She is not writing for me. But her words force me to turn my own pieties against themselves.

There’s an early example in the book, an essay from October 2020 entitled “So, You’re Thinking About Becoming an Abolitionist”, where she differentiates between what is criminal.

Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized. For example, wage theft by employers isn’t generally criminalized, but it is definitely harmful.

This seems like a very simple argument. Sure, we all agree wage theft is bad. But very few of us would say that employers who engage in wage theft deserve to be in prison. After all, they are just stealing not-yet-earned money from people’s lives, as opposed to someone who steals money (whatever money means) from someone’s wallet.

But why is that different? Why shouldn’t the wage thief go to prison?

Or, more accurately, why should the traditional thief? If we believe that one kind of theft is ok, and punishable maybe by fines or something, why should the other one rob someone of their life for years or decades of grinding cruelty and systemic violence?

That, to me, is where the whole thing starts to get really uncomfortable. Because it shows that how we think about criminality is, essentially, random. And when you start to think about that…well, what else do you have to confront?

What Kaba does is make everyone confront the reality while presenting what could be. What it is is an act of imagination. In the same essay, she says that our adversarial court system is set up to create these adversarial positions, this godly idea of guilt and freedom. It removes accountability by placing fate in the hands of the a third party — and we take that as a natural law. Kaba writes that the “abolitionist imagination takes us along a different path than if we try to simply replace the (Prison Industrial Complex) with similar structures.”

It’s this “imagination” that is key to the project of abolitionism of prisons and police. It’s not, for Kaba, a matter of saying “no more police”, but a matter of creating a society where such a thing isn’t needed. It’s asking “what would it be like if we didn’t organize our society around the mostly-race-based carceral violence it’s been organized around since forever?”

To me, there is a slight parallel with Milan Kundera saying that the only way to live under the absurd but deadly literal totalitarianism of Czechoslovakia was to live “as if”: as if you were free, as if imagination was allowed, as if irony was the currency of life. Kaba is insisting that another way is possible and organizing and acting as if we already know the goal. The parallels between Czech communism, the tanks of 68, and the POC experience in America aren’t far off. As Kaba says elsewhere, “Black and brown people know that the state and its gatekeepers exert control over all aspects of our lives. This is not knew.” (I, belatedly, agreed.)

This act of imagination works backwards. It conjures up a society of transformative justice, of equality and freedom, of intersectional approaches to everything in life — the spectacular and the mundane — and works backwards. It imagines a world filled with mutual aid, or community accountability, and of an operation outside the confines of what we assume is the natural order of law and order, and organizes backwards from there.

Now, I want to be careful here, for a few reasons, that are tied together. I don’t want to oversimplify the arguments her and other serious abolitionists have made. There is enough of that on both the right and the left, and it gives people an out.

When that world, that future, is described as “imagination”, it makes it seem unserious. It allows for “serious” people to say that it is a pipe dream, and if we are well-meaning to advocate, even advocate ferociously, for piecemeal reforms that keep the system intact. (A brief instructive chapter is titled “Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose”; the bulk of them are what s proposed every time we cycle through these endless cycles.)

But “imagination” here is misleading. It doesn’t mean “make believe”. It means asking what kind of world we want, and then doing the work to get there. As Kaba says, in a line she got from a nun, “Hope is a discipline.” It’s not about wanting something. It’s about working for it.

This is where her philosophy is both urgent and unrelenting and also long-term. One thing that keeps coming up throughout the book is a captivating modesty (and not only that she was reluctant for decades to put her name on the work she was doing). But she talks of how she is just part of the work of building a new society. Not only does she acknowledge that there is no clear finish line, but that this is the work of generations, and will not come close to fruition in her lifetime.

That’s hard to acknowledge if you are an activist or if you care. Or, let me be more accurate: that’s hard to acknowledge if you are an activist because you want to feel better about things. I can’t speak for true activists; they are lit by fires that I can’t bellow. But for myself, someone who is involved, the idea that change happens outside of my lifetime is extremely difficult. And the reason why is even more uncomfortable to acknowledge.

I can’t fathom a different society. I can’t imagine the world that Kaba and the other activists are envisioning and fighting for. And not (just) because it is so much work, but because I am the beneficiary of these cruel systems. They were set up for someone like me. And so it is much easier for me to imagine short-term solutions, fight for those, and feel good. Because a world in which everything we have now is inversed is a world in which I, and not just the bad people in riot gear, have to change.

Abolitionism doesn’t mean a reorganization at City Hall; it means tearing down the racist and classist and sexist and fear-based and cruel systems that were built by fearful and cruel racists and classists. It means acknowledging not just that the wallpaper is off, or that the plumbing is wonky, but that the whole damn house was designed by cannibals and built out of bones and its weight is borne by the suffocating masses underneath trying not to hold it up but to stave off its crushing, choking weight. That we can’t fix the house, but we have to move out of it, to blow it up, and to plant something new in the garden.

And so it is easier to ask “ok, but what about rapists?” and handwave off her long-term ideas about changing a culture of sexual violence. It’s easy to ask “and what of murderers, hmm?” than to engage with the idea of a violent society. And, to be sure, I don’t quite think that these are addressed by the idea of community accountability, but I am also vested in not having that imagination.

Kaba and other abolitionists don’t give themselves that luxury, and she admits that not everything is ironclad. That makes it easy to scoff, but in a long passage talking about failure in an interview, she basically says “fuck that”.

The freaking tech folks and the people who are running the banks talk about failure all the time. They normalize it. It’s only on the other side of folks who are interested in social transformation and change where failure is not supposed to be spoken about or a sign that you’re horrible or that your ideas don’t have merit. I just want us to be building a million different experiments….We’ll figure it out by working to get there. You don’t have to know all the answers in order to be able to press for a vision.

That seems correct. It isn’t evasion. It’s having an idea and making it happen. It is fiercely demanding immediate change and justice while working on a long-term vision to make a world where even more change is possible. That means organizing, teaching, building networks, creating workshops, teaching teachers, listening, learning, making mistakes, and moving forward. It’s endless, tiring work.

As Kaba says, not everyone is an abolitionist. Some of us just can’t do it, or genuinely want a graded step. But it is serious moral duty of anyone interested in transforming justice, anyone who has been made more radical, either slowly or all at once, to respect those who have done the work, to engage with their arguments with the same seriousness with which they are making them, and to support their vision of a world where we don’t have to have these arguments.

Warlords of America

Photo: NBC News

One of the more common hallmarks of what are referred to as “failed states” is the checkpoint. You’ve seen it, or read about it, or maybe experienced it while traveling in regions where the center failed to hold. A road blockade, manned by armed men, slowing and stopping cars. Picture it, if you want to heighten the drama, at night, your headlights glinting off Kalashnikovs.

In some cases, they are there demanding tribute: a toll for using the road, used to fund their insurgency. In other cases, they may be there to stop enemy militias or terrorists or other brigands and bandits from entering their newly-gained territory. It’s usually both. In any case, in the absence of the restraining power of the state means that they have the force of law. Their strength, their guns, give them power.

The primary difference between a “failed state” and a strong one is the regulation of violence. In America, as in pretty much every other country, we have given a monopoly on legitimate violence to the police. This can be defined broadly to include all state and federal organizations, or, as most of us experience it, the day to day local cops. The social contract underpinning this is that we have granted them the extraordinary right to use violence and to kill when needed, so that the rest of us don’t have to resort to doing it on our own.

Obviously, the “monopoly on legitimate violence” is a pretty thin veneer. Nearly every town has organized crime, whether that’s the demonized gang or the romanticized mafia. None are legitimate, per se, but all operate through corruption, blind eyes, and a rough agreement to uphold the status quo. In-group violence is usually tolerated; out-group violence is often prosecuted. It’s uneasy.

But that’s not really the problem. The problem is that, as a country, we have only ever really completed half the bargain. The social contract shouldn’t just be “you, because of your badge, are allowed to do violence.” It’s supposed to be “We are entrusting you with terrible power; you will be restrained (in every sense), plainly scrutinized, and judicious.”

American policing is the exact opposite. It’s unrestrained, flush with political power, and the default mode is to demand obedience and passivity. It is power, and its power gives it power. It takes extraordinary rights while bucking off even the most basic restrictions. It controls your day-to-day and is a life-and-death authority in every interaction, based entirely on the power it has taken for itself.

It is, in short, warlordism.

Glimpses of a Hot Midwest Spring

Photo Credit: Unicorn Riot

In Chicago, this afternoon, a police accountability board released bodycam video of the killing of 13-yr-old Adam Toledo, who we were told by cops, prosecutors, the mayor, and even the defense, had a gun. In the video, he had dropped the gun, and had his hands up, turned toward the police, before being gunned down. There is a grotesque argument being had as to whether there was a reason to shoot him; what there is no argument about is that the cops lied. Their story was a lie, a knowing lie, and was only shown to be a lie when the footage was released. But even so, cop union officers howled at the injustice being shown to them, and quailing politicians spent more time praising police than questioning why we should ever believe them. Is ever thus.

In a suburb of Minneapolis, police killed Daunte Wright a 20-yr-old Black man, pulled over for having an obstructed rearview mirror. He had a warrant for a misdemeanor. The cops treated it as a matter of life or death, and when he didn’t comply, he was shot. The official excuse is that the veteran cop thought she was aiming her TASER. The official excuse still can’t explain why such a nothing situation demanded obsequious compliance or face an execution.

Meanwhile, the Kenosha cop who paralyzed Jacob Blake for the crime of not listening will not face any discipline. After all, he told Blake not to get into his car. Blake was doing nothing wrong, and wanted to leave. But when a citizen disobeys a cop, that citizen risks the death penalty.

Meanwhile, the trial for Derrick Chauvin, the murderer of George Floyd, whose death sparked last summer’s searing heat, continues.

Back in Brooklyn Center, protests over Wright’s killing grow, as does the police reaction. Riot-gear clad cops complain of having soup cans thrown at them and react with tear gas and rubber bullets. Mass arrests, curfew, and pleas from politicians for citizens not to be violent. After all, violence is the responsibility of the police. They treat it as a duty.

These cops, and the Minnesota State Police, know how to handle protests. They’ve been training for it in a multi-state effort to crush protests against pipelines, in this case Enbridge 3 — As the excellent investigative journalists at the anti-fash outfit Unicorn Riot revealed, the MSP worked with police from North and South Dakota to learn tactics used to attack peaceful protesters at the treaty-breaking DAPL line. (Background on that here)

To recap just what is happening in Minnesota: a city already on-edge over the police murder of a Black man sees another clear killing which, even if it was an accident, was the direct result of police treating Black people like an occupied people. As good citizens protest, as they get rightfully angry, and don’t feel that they have to be docile in the face of brutality levied out by ostensible civil servants, they are beaten and gassed and broken by police who trained for this in defense of a private company.

The Occupied and the Enemy

Taken together, this seems to be a story entirely about race. And in a way, it is that, of course. The history of American policing has been that of systemic abuse against people of color. If people like me are just beginning to see America as a police state, where the police act as an occupying force, that’s been the reality for Black people for centuries.

But even though I argued the police state reality in that link above, I sort of want to walk that back a bit. And here I want to tread carefully, since I do not mean to even sort of imply equivalence. I don’t think that the police treat Blacks, Latinos, and others as an occupied people, as I said. I think they see white people as the occupied people.

This is what I meant above by “warlordism”. Warlords (an inelegant and usually racialized term, but we’ll reclaim it for white folks) have territory that they control. Even if they see themselves as defending their people, they do so from a position of unquestioned power. They brook no dissent. They control any petty local politicians, who usually are allowed to operate under very constrained circumstances, and never allowed to interfere. They operate with impunity. And while the people in that territory aren’t under the gun, and indeed can live very well if they agree to the system (which, why wouldn’t we?), there is the knowledge that the warlord and their men can fuck you up at any time.

I can get away with a lot as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, but if a cop feeling his oats told me to jump, I might not have to ask how high, but I damn sure couldn’t stay planted.

So where does that leave the primary targets of police violence? As the people outside the warlord territory. Here I admit the idea is complicated, since we aren’t talking about physical territory. It’s mental territory. It’s the idea that the fiefdom belongs to a few, for the complicit comfort of the many, and paid for with the lives of others.

This is literal, in the sense that so many police departments get their funding from traffic tickets, and those are usually targeted at the poor and people of color, who have to comply or face a beating or killing (this was probably the case with Wright). This was the case with Ferguson, whose revenue came disproportionately from fines and fees levied against its black citizens, which led the DOJ to call the police department a “collections agency“.

That’s targeted theft, yes. More than that, it is targeted theft done with the explicit promise that if the target resists they will be killed and their murder will be lied about. If they don’t stop at the checkpoint and pay money to the men with guns, the guns will be turned against them, and there is nothing anyone can do.

There are attempts at reform, but the police wield too much political power to truly be stopped. Politicians from the most performatively blood-thirsty Republican to the most reform-minded Democrats parrot police narratives and mewl about good cops, as if the reality of good cops changed the larger reality of a broken system. In big cities, reformist Mayors come in and then are instantly broken by the police unions, who threaten to withhold services if anyone sniffs at their prerogatives.

The Breaking Point

What has happened is what has happened around the world for nearly all of history. The powerful need protection. They grant a license for violence to a small protected caste. That caste accumulates more power, usually by its license for violence, but also by its ever-present threat to turn that violence against the powerful or back away and let anarchy bloom.

They become insular. They become an institution unto themselves. They become unaccountable. And they expand the scope of their targets, until everyone is a potential target. Some much more than others; some are ever the targets, and live their entire lives in the shadow of this violence, their possibilities mutated and warped by the reality of fate. Others keep their heads down and thank the violent gang for stopping the other violent gangs, pretending that because the system works for them, the system works.

It doesn’t, of course. There was never really a social contract with America’s police, because from the beginning they were granted the right to commit unchecked violence. The system was set up to allow them to do whatever they wanted against runaway slaves, immigrants, fieldworkers, union organizers, Blacks trying to vote, Black people driving a car anywhere, Black people just standing on the corner. They were granted these rights and left unobserved, because that’s how our system worked. America’s inherent racism ensured that there never was anything to check the violent rights of police. After all, they were just using it to protect us against them.

What happened could have been predictable to anyone who knew the slow tide of history. The police became so powerful that resistance is impossible. And so the social contract is completely broken. There is no oversight, no accountability, no scrutiny. Those given the power of life-and-death demand it with no strings attached. They demand obedience. They demand passivity. They were granted it so long that any attempt to rein it in even a little bit spins them into convulsions of murderous violence — the crunch of the baton, the hot choking gas, the flying bullets, the rageful beatings, the gleeful stompings.

In other countries, when people resist their warlords we see it as bravery. Here, it is decried by Presidents demanding that citizens remain peaceful while cops are allowed to rampage behind body armor. That’s more than a broken social contract. That’s a society completely broken and failed. It’s one where the powerful can kill the powerless without hesitation. It’s just another country, collapsed under the terrible weight of its own violence.

The Agony of Possibility: The 2021 White Sox

What’s pictured above, courtesy of @SoxShowdown, is the exact moment where every possibility converges, and all but one are eliminated at the speed of sound: an obliterating burst and the instant gasping awe of the crowd. And that, in its heart, is baseball.

On this Opening Day for the White Sox (and, I guess, all of baseball), I’ve been thinking about how I treat the game. It’s a weird dualism. I certainly know that every game is a long series of events, and every season is a long series of games. Baseball is the art of accretion and accumulation. You can rarely (though not never) point to one thing and say this is where everything changed. Barring injury, and without any narrative-confirming retrospect, there is rarely a moment where you say “everything from here on out is different.”

I know that. But I never believe it when I am watching the game.

If Tim Anderson starts out with a 3-1 count leading off today, I will already be giddy about the patience of the team and how they are balancing a mature approach with their frantic enthusiasm. A loss makes me ready to write off the season. This goes on all year. A couple of hits in the top of the 7th during a desultory 5-1 loss in the middle of a losing streak has me calculating the comeback, the turn around, filling the calendar with wins toward the playoffs, looking October-ward even while the pitch that ends with a routine 6-4-3 inning killer is screaming toward reality.

But it’s that moment! It’s that moment that the pitch is thrown that matters more than anything. Baseball, more than any sport, lives in the liminal. It lives in the instant of possibility. This is true in a way that can be maddening and frustrating for people who, for understandable reasons, aren’t fans. In every play in football, something happens. That might be a 2-yard carry which brings up 4th and 8, but something happened. There was potential energy that turned into kinetic, even if, as is the case in every goddamn Bears game, it dissipates. And it can do so predictably. There is a certain inevitability to football, a grinding certainty, even when it occasionally chances us with frightening beauty.

In baseball though, when the pitch leaves there is no possible way to know what is going to happen. It could be a triple or a triple play, a pop up or a screaming homerun, a bolt that whispers along the line, a foul ball, or a routine grounder. Or, nothing. Just a ball. Just another pitch where nothing happens.

But of course, it is not nothing. There’s never nothing that happens in baseball. Pitch counts go up. At-bats change. Postures move slightly. It’s not much — we’re not going to say that this is a game of Go, where every move reshapes the universe — but nor is not nothing. And what it does is close the realm of possibility, for that at-bat, that game, this season, just a tiny little bit, the same way that every street down which you want takes away the possibilities of what you’ll see at that moment on any other street. You have something, but it can no longer be anything.

This season, more than maybe any other in recent Sox memory, is filled with the giddy terror of the possible.

  • The rotation could be very good and trending toward unreal. One superstar, two solid to excellent, and a 4th starter — Cease — who if he hits even the midrange of his projections could make this a fearsome lineup.
  • The bullpen is ridiculous. Get a lead and close the goddamn door
  • Even without Eloy, and even with, for now, Billy Hamilton getting at-bats, this team will score some runs.
  • And holy gods, are they fun. Again, losing Eloy takes out a lot of dingers, and a whole lot of goofy joy, but this is still a team that you will enjoy watching

And yet…it’s not hard to read the above and not feel a little bit of panic. Some players who should not be getting a lot of at-bats will. A guy like Leury Garcia is awesome to have, and any team would be lucky to have someone so versatile, but more than 200, 250PAs and something has gone wrong.

There are clearly depth issues, as well as the normal Sox plan of hoping that everything goes exactly to plan, which it already hasn’t, which shows how a lot of the season depends on wishcasting. That kind of sucks. And we still don’t know how Tony La Russa is going to play out. Will he enable this team, or stifle it? My guess is really neither, but I generally think a manager, on the whole, is more likely to do harm than to elevate their team.

And yet…hellfire, it’s Opening Day. There are literally endless possibilities. This team could be a contender, and should give us something fun to watch. They can be there, day after day, as the spring lazes into summer and shudders into fall. They can be there as the days move on by, each one lasting more than a hundred years, each one disappearing before you got a hold of it. Each one so distinct in the moment and then blurring into memory. Each day eventually faded.

But not every day disappears. Not every moment fades. There are things that last. There are moments where a pitch turns around and you know in your heart that it is leaving the park before the sound even fully reaches your mind, when you are out of your seat making an involuntary gasp, when you jump off your couch or grab the fan next to you, when everything that was possible becomes this one thing, this concrete joy, when it all converges, and you know that it could only have happened this way.

And even if that’s not true — nothing is determined, and an eyelash of difference in the swing would have left you in your seat, unaware that you were so close to joy — that doesn’t matter. It happened. Things happen in this game. To be aware of any possibility is to embrace the chance of all possibilities, no matter what street you walk down. The moment is endless.

Donald Trump Was Always The Conservative Movement. The Conservative Movement Is Donald Trump.

The nightmare continues (Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare”, 1781)

There’s an instinct, on waking from a nightmare, to shake it off, to give yourself a pinch as the jumbled, discordant terror reassembles itself into the coherence of your room. The fear lingers, but its intensity fades as the real world becomes solid again. You shake your head, and move on. 

That is the understandable temptation here, as the endless Trump years draw to a close. The last five years have been filled with hallucinatory impossibility, as time stretched in all directions. At one point Trump had only been President a day; a moment later we forgot everything that came before. 

They’ve been filled with massive corruption and tawdry scandals. They’ve echoed with the wails of families cruelly torn apart. They’ve been marked by the grim saga of theocrats and sex pests being elevated to the highest courts. In the last year, they’ve been marked by a stalking death, a plague that has shut down the country and killed hundreds of thousands, disporportionately the poor and people of color, and most of them dead due to Trump’s indifference, laziness, and vanity. 

All the while the country raged at racial injustice, openly brutal police forces, outright murders, and the systemic barbarism of white supremacy. Vast swathes of the west burned. Lunatic conspiracies grew and grew and sent people to Congress, a congress that was stormed by violent insurrectionists in thrall to the same lie: that Trump was the advocate of the people, and that anything against him should be met by death. 

The pulsating fever of the last four years hit its pitch that terrible day. For months, the psychologically damaged and weak-minded President refused to admit he lost (and probably believed it was stolen, inasmuch as he believes anything he needs to avoid the cruel mirror). Right-wing militias, Q-Anon poisoned petit bourgeois, and every radical with an axe to grind descended on the Capitol to murder lawmakers and intimidate them into refusing to ratify Joe Biden’s victory. It was one of the darker moments in American history.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it seemed like the fever suddenly broke. Trump lost his platforms and seems like a broken man. His party, in part at least, has fled him. He’s facing bankruptcy and ruin. His name is all but unmentioned. 

Like from a nightmare, the country, and specifically the Republican Party, is trying to awake. They are trying to reshape the room into something that makes sense. They are attempting to move past the Trump years. 

This is, of course, absolute balls. Trump is theirs, and more importantly, they are Trumps. Always have been. Now and as long as the conservative movement has any life left in its wolfish desires. 

Ben Sasse Sets Up The Next Lie

Look at that face! He’s not like the other guys…

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has set himself up nicely as the reasonable conservative. He is skilled at balancing a folksy, almost awkward aw-shuck mein with an eloquent breakdown of what ails our politics. He speaks movingly of service, or helping out our neighbors, and of being together as a society. 

In short, in every way, he seems like the anti-Trump. And he wants to create a Republican Party that can move past this nightmare. 

Writing in The Atlantic after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, Sasse laid out some stark choices for the party he chose to join. 

The violence that Americans witnessed—and that might recur in the coming days—is not a protest gone awry or the work of “a few bad apples.” It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice. When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones. We can applaud Officer Goodman or side with the mob he outwitted. We cannot do both.

I think Sasse is sincere here. The article goes pretty far in blaming rot in the party, even if he later balances it out with some both-siders-ism. I think Sasse, a smart guy, recognizes that there is a serious moral decay in his party. 

But where this falls apart is the choice of being the “party of Eisenhower” or of ALex Jones, Q, Trump, and the rest of the far-right. Because there is no longer any Republican Party without the far right. Indeed, the entire conservative movement, to which Sasse (who voted with Trump 87% of the time, and only deviated on things like COVID relief) has dedicated himself, makes up the whole of the GOP. 

The GOP and The Right

Liberty from being forced to give other people basic rights

Sasse would disagree that the far-right and the conservative movement are synonymous. He, and most of the respectable press, would separate the party of Reagan from the lunacy of a bunch of anti-Semites who believe that there is a global pedophile ring about to be brought down by Space Force. 

But that is simply untrue. It might have been true at some point, but the trajectory of the conservative movement has led to this state. It was always going to end this way. It’s driving force — a rejection of everything past the Jim Crow consensus — would lead to this graveyard. The only thing that wasn’t set in motion was which party it would overtake. 

Here in 2020, it is impossible to imagine the GOP as being distinct and separate from the American right in its most ravenous, snarling form. But that wasn’t inevitable. The Republican Party of Eisenhower was of course the conservative one, but that was largely in the idea that the federal government shouldn’t spend money on things or have any dominion over the states. 

There were liberals in the Republican Party, in the 1950s sense, who wanted a small government but didn’t like the racism inherent in the compromise (never mind that, in practice, the whole “fiscal conservative/social liberal” thing is nonsense). And the Democrats, of course, were a party consisting of northern machine politicians and the racist terrorists of the post-Reconstruction south. Both parties existed in an increasingly impossible agreement that Jim Crow worked, even if it wasn’t, like, good

The Civil Rights movement broke that bloody consensus. The Democrats adopted the platform of equality, for partly cynical reasons (including the combination of the Great Migration and machine leaders being able to count). That left apartheid revanchists without a home. They found one in Barry Goldwater, who captured the Republican nomination in 1964, just four years removed from the supposed halcyon days of Eisenhower. 

But it isn’t true that the GOP became conservative, per se. It’s that the conservative movement worked to overtake the GOP, purge all liberals, and reshape it in its image. 

And it’s worked. As we said when Trump was cruising toward the nomination, he was the culmination of this complete takeover of one of our two major political parties.

It’s the pinnacle of the movement, stripped away to the barest essence of hostile xenophobia, violence, white nationalism, and inchoate anger. It’s what Strom agitated for, and Wallace brought to life, and Goldwater cut deals with, and Nixon exploited and made Republican, and Reagan brought fully to power. It’s the backward rage that every GOP politician either agrees with, channels, or manipulates. Now it’s the day of the locusts. Trump understands this in his bones, because he has the mind of a child, one that revels in simplicity and rage. One that is all emotion at something being taken away.   That’s what the movement boils down to: a petulant child standing athwart bedtime, yelling stop. 

From Buckley to Trump

The last line there is, of course, a reference to the father of the modern conservative movement, the erudite, witty, urbane, William F. Buckley. It seems absurd to compare him to Trump. But let’s take a look at his most famous line:

“A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

There’s a certain thrill to that: the lone man (or woman, but man) standing against the tide, the surge, rebelling against the manufactured consensus. It paints the conservative as the true rebel. 

Of course, then, one has to question what history he’s demanding, in a mid-Atlantic snarl, the stop. What’s happening when he laid out the conservative doctrine? At that point, the civil rights movement. More women in the workplace. More sexual freedom. More opportunities for non-whites. The first flickers of the environmental movement. The beginning of a reckoning with our past. The diminished authority of authority, in the classroom or the bully pulpit or the lectern. 

That’s what they want to stop, and that has always been the case. They want to stop change, but a very specific type of change. They want to stop the wrong people from enjoying full citizenship. They want to push back against the expansion of rights. They want to thwart the idea that we are all entitled to protection of the law, and not merely subject to its truncheoned whims. 

Most of this is rooted in racial hatred. But there are a few other intellectual forces that drive the conservative movement. The most obvious, I think, is that there is no common good. There is no shared heritage. There is only the idea that the strong should take from everyone else. 

That’s why the movement became the dominant force when the so-called “Rancher’s Rebellion” joined forces with the forces of apartheid. The “Rebellion” was the idea that people should be able to own federal land…that is, land that we all own and can use. But rich ranchers (portrayed, as always, as rugged individualists) wanted that land. They thought that the earth and its yield should belong to them. 

That was tied to the aparthied faction of the party, who didn’t think the government should interfere with how they controlled people’s lives. It was always about power in its purest form: dominance over the land and over the weak. 

No one has ever embodied that more than Donald Trump. 

How Trump Has Always Been The Conservative Movement

Unidentified DHS stormtroopers have always been what the movement is about

Donald Trump is, of course, not a strong man. He’s a weak and whimpering whiner, a man with depthless insecurities, an empty nobody who is in constant fear of that emptiness. He’s a consistent failure who has been cosseted by a system set up specifically to prop up such men. 

But he understands power, in a dim sort of way. He understands that the system is designed to let him exercise that power, that his wealth lets him force people to call him “sir”, an unearned and groveling show of fake respect. He knows that he has always been able to get away with everything he wants. And that’s how he embodies the movement. 

There is the flagrant racism, of course. “Make America Great Again” was heard, by those for whom it was meant to be heard, as “Make America YOURS Again.” He took all of Buckley’s textual parsings and made them flesh. He thinks Black people should be grateful to the cops for not always killing them, that Natives should be grateful to have their casinos and not so pushy about treaties, and that Mexicans should die in the desert. In saying that power in America comes from white people, and that any sharing of that power should be met with gratitude, he embodies the overt beliefs and unexamined prejudices and assumptions of so many white people.

There are other ways in which Trump, often inadvertently, captures everything about the conservative movement. There is, of course, the relentless advancement of mediocrities, despite or even because of their sadism, Brett Kavanaugh being most prominent. He loathes smart people who are respected, like Anthony Fauci, because learning anything means admitting he didn’t know something. In his desperate lack of curiosity, he matches stride with the anti-intellectualism that has become a hallmark of the right. 

Perhaps most strikingly, though, Donald Trump, more than perhaps anyone else in the country, rejects the idea of the common good. He is incapable of loyalty, of concern for anyone else, or of thinking beyond his most narrow and immediate self-interests. He’d fill the Grand Canyon with a swimming pool if he could see his reflection in it. 

The conservative movement despises government because it stops the powerful from doing whatever they want. That’s the heart of the movement. It’s why while there are corrupt Democrats, corruption is the ruling ideology of the GOP: because the country and its institutions exist for the benefit of those who can best take advantage of it. Trump wants to do whatever he wants at all times with no one stopping him. In that, as in so many ways, he is the true heir of Buckley. 

The End and the Beginning

The movement is Trump; Trump is the movement

Four years ago, right before the beginning of the Trump administration, a phrase that still seems surreal (and has led to surreal moments we won’t ever be able to explain), I wrote that we were crossing into a different land.

The true psychic shock of this transition will, I think, be hard to measure, and hard to predict. But I do think, now that the elegies are over and Donald Trump is sworn in, placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible, that there will be a subtle breaking. Its effects won’t be felt all at once, of course. But our conception of who we are will change.

We’ll have a penny-ante strongman in the White House instead of a President. We’ll have a witless dummy who thinks his smirks are poetry. We’ll have a man whose conception of leadership is finding and punishing enemies. Our country will be different. We’ll be different.

The slow slog away from liberal democracy is suddenly happening very quickly. It’ll be aided, I think, by this psychic shock. Our idea of who we are will change, because we’ll be seeing this monster in our mirrors, and that could sap our resistance. After all, we’ve crossed the border. We are now in a foreign land. It’s time to learn the language.

But while I was sure it was going to be horrifying, for so many so much more than for me, I didn’t see it all coming at all. I didn’t see, of course, the pandemic, and even if I had wouldn’t have imagined that there would be such indifference and boredom and murderous vanity. 

I didn’t see Q, either. I wouldn’t have guessed that such a wild conspiracy could have taken on such life as to alter the fate of our democracy. 

But maybe I should have. After all, a public health crisis was inevitable. And Trump wouldn’t want to do anything about it. It bored him, and wasn’t about him, and the government should only exist to please those whose hands were on the tiller. In that, as ever, Trump is a true conservative. 

It goes much deeper than that, though. A public health crisis is one thing, but America is uniquely ill-equipped to handle it. Uniquely, and deliberately. Health is a common good, and the rich can afford great health care. So everyone else has to pay, especially if they are poor, Black, or Brown (or all of the above). COVID has reaped those populations. Deliberately. 

Q was also inevitable, at least in some form. The GOP has spent decades making the government the enemy, both in their rhetoric and by breaking the ability of the government to function. And Trump, always in the need of enemies, painted the government as his biggest enemy, and the impediment to your life getting better, even as he and hs party were the biggest culprits. Of course a conspiracy in which Trump is the hero and everyone else (Jews, BLM, socialists, the CIA, Soros, Italy I guess, etc) is the enemy. 

This is what these decades have led to. Hundreds of thousands dead, an economy is shambles even as the rich get much, much, richer, violence in the streets, an environment even more ravaged, murder and mayhem in statehouses, the poor freezing in unfunded shelters, endless lines at food banks, open fascism in FOPs, true believers throughout the legislature, grim terrors on every page. 

There’s a reason why thirsty careerists like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley hitched their stars to anti-democratic conspiracies. The GOP has been fighting against democracy since suffrage became universal in 1964. They saw history going against them, and have battled to cut it off at the legs. It’s a straight line to refusing to certify an election they lost. 

These forces didn’t start with Trump. He embodied and exaggerated and exacerbated them, and now might start his own party. If he does (and I doubt he has the follow-through) he’ll take the true conservative movement with him: the gun-toting Q-addicts, broken by the internet, filled with racial hatred and self-centered conspiracies, the well-off who hate the idea of anyone else having any, the selfish and greedy and violent. The ones who want to crush anyone who isn’t them. 

Men like Ben Sasse think, or want to think, that the conservative movement can be purged of these elements by making the right choice. He thinks they can move past Trump and get back to their roots. But their roots were always going to grow into Trump. He’s the flower, and the harvest, of what Buckley started. Sasse either has to leave it or be a part of it. He has no other real options.

Tomorrow Trump will no longer be President. But the movement that propelled them is entering a new and unpredictable phase. It’s been 60 years in the making. It will have to be fought against for another 60 years. But doing so is the only hope for a democracy where the common good means something again. 

Trump is a waking nightmare. There’s no room for sleepwalkers.

Risen Waters: The Books That Captured 2020

(Note: this is a more targeted piece, but I’ll do my “Favorite Books of 2020” tomorrow. There’s some overlap, of course)

Books discussed:

Afropessimism, Frank B Wilderson III

A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet

Angry Weather, Friederike Otto (translated by Sarah Pybus)

Empire of Wild, Cherie Dimaline

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), Katie Mack

High as the Waters Rise, Anja Kampmann (translated by Anne Posten)

Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam

Weather, Jenny Offill

On the last day of February, I was at a friend’s quadrennial Leap Year party, a celebration of the calendar delaying its way into what would prove to be an endless March. Talking to another friend about books, we discovered we had both just read Weather, by Jenny Offill, a short punchy novel that feels like the lived experience of doom. 

We agreed that it was brilliant, mordant, funny, and deeply difficult to read. It carries dread on every page, a sickening almost unnameable feeling of portent. Discussing it, we consistently stumbled around some variation of “And it feels especially strange, considering…”

Considering what might happen. Considering the gathering news of the epidemic that had shut down China, terrified the world and at the time was ravaging Italy, Spain, and other European countries. The virus that had already been spotted in Seattle. The thing that was coming. 

Offill’s book deals, in a gut-level way, with the ravaging of the world, with the distinct and quest knowledge that things are wrecked, that the climate is ruined and that the worst is yet to come. But it isn’t dystopian. It’s not a vision of the future. It’s the knowledge that the terrors are here now, that they are around us, and that while it can and will get worse, we are no longer living in the good times. 

In a way, even though I feel like I read it in another lifetime, Weather is a book that captures the experience of 2020, of knowing that there is no more road down which to kick the can. That all of our devil’s bargains have come due. It’s a book that doesn’t so much frighten you about the future as pull the blindfold off the terrible present we feel but had trouble acknowledging. 

But now, 10 months later, I don’t think many people have trouble seeing that present. 

Even though it was written before 2020, then, it stands as a testament to this year of sickness and fire, of ruin and anger. It joins what, for me, are books that capture 2020. Because we aren’t at the apotheosis of a disaster, nor at the fateful beginning. We’ve realized that we’ve been descending a dark staircase that descends into the unknown, and the steps above us have fallen away. 

Imagining the End

When we think of “the end”, there are at least three distinct types. There is our own personal gotterdammerung, death, which is essentially the end of the world as far as we are concerned. Then there are actual apocalypse stories, which imagine the end of society, of the things we’ve built, of our great civilizations and our hopes and fears as we plunge into some kind of pre-and-post history savagery (Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11 is, with good reason, the most celebrated recent entry in this canon). 

These driving engine of these kind of books can vary, from zombie horrors to nuclear war to environmental disasters. They can be as bleak as The Road or carry within them the seeds of a rebuild, like the monologue at the end of Fahrenheit 451. But, historically, they usually always involve human agency. Even post-Earth dystopias know where to assign blame. 

That’s not the case when you look at the third category of “the end”, which is the actual earth being destroyed by forces outside our control (like in the film Melancholia). To take an even broader view, we can look at what astrophysicist Katie Mack titled The End of Everything, a wonderful book in which she detailed the various ways that the universe might end. 

That phrase alone is enough to send one into tremors of awe and sacred terror. After all, the idea that the universe can end is at once both absurd and mystifying. How can everything…just end? 

Mack explores the different models with humor, grace, and a commitment to science. Whether she is talking about the narratively-satisfying Big Crunch, in which we collapse back into a singularity (to maybe be reborn again!), the sad sigh of heat death, or the (relatively) sudden disaster of the Big Rip or Vacuum Decay, she paints a universe that is far stranger and more vast and inhuman than most of us can conceive. 

Luckily, Mack conceives it, and explains it in a way that even non-physicists can grasp. Even if the science is much bigger than I can quite wrap my head around, and the implications of nothingness give lie to my attempts at meaning, the book makes you feel like the end of the universe is a possibility that can be explained. It isn’t an apocalypse; it is math. 

Usually. One of the great joys of the book is how Mack admits what we don’t know and what we maybe can’t know. As she says, talking about the “Hubble-observable-universe thing” in which, far out in the universe, distant objects appear bigger than they actually are, “The universe is frickin’ weird.”

It’s that weirdness, that unknowableness, and the way in which it reminds us of how small things here really are, that makes her delight of a book unsettling. And to me, anyway, it echoed two of my favorite fiction books of the year, where unknowable disasters began to befall people as the world fell apart. Because unlike the apocalypse stories of yesterday, where madmen mashed buttons to rain fire on ideological enemies, the disasters of today seem like they are already beyond our control. 

The idea of control, and the loss of it, is central to Leave the World Behind, a novel by Rumaan Alam. This novel is many things: an exquisite and minutely-observed comedy of manners about race and class, a character study of recognizable types made real, and an end-of-the-world novel in which the end is a rumor that the characters attempt to ignore. 

Two families are in a house. One older couple owns the place, far in the wilds of Long Island, and the other couple and their two young kids was renting it for a getaway. The couple that owns the house comes back after there is a sudden blackout in New York. No one’s phones work. There’s no signal. 

As the couples decide what to do, aspects of ownership come into play. Who is in charge? Whose house is it? How do you react when thrown together with strangers in extreme circumstances (really, in any circumstance, as our world gets more extreme)? They consistently try to rationalize away what is happening, and assume that things will be fine soon enough. How could they not be? That’s not the way things work? 

Alam never quite lets us in on what happened, at least not in any way that we understand everything. There are terrible noises and unexplained tooth-losings and odd animal behavior. The books focuses on the house, but sometimes you get a glimpse of the world outside. A cleaner someone thinks of, we learn in a brief aside, had been trapped in an elevator for hours, and he would die there, “though not for many more hours.” But for the most part, we focus on the families, and their increasingly-desperate denials that anything has happened. 

That denial is a luxury for many of us, and this year has made it even harder. Denial is one of the main themes in Lydia Mallet’s A Children’s Bible, in which the rains finally come, and they don’t stop. 

Many families, old college friends, meet on a raucous vacation near the water. Booze flows day and night. Grotesque economic and sexual entanglements ooze into the daily routine, lechery and forced laughter and sloppy parenting. The children are left to their own devices. There are pairings and cliques, there is mysticism and hard-earned reality, and most of all, there is the knowledge the children have that the adults don’t: the storm is here. 

Waters rise. Hurricane winds lash. At times the books feels like a standard “after society” book, sometimes a leering fable, and sometimes a harshly realistic book about how we will act when it is too late to act. 

Really, though, those are all the same thing. What is happening to our planet feels like fiction, feels like a fable, feels like an impossibility. And so we drink and carouse and have bitter meaningless fights over nothing and bitter and meaningful fights over how to make lives better for those victimized by the changes. But underscoring those actions is the idea that it isn’t too late — or, rather, that the worst of it hasn’t started, and maybe if we just pretend it’ll be fine it won’t impact us. 

A Children’s Bible takes those who believe that and turns them into degenerate infants, shows them — us, me, maybe you — for what the are: fools. Deliberate, mewling, fools, who deny the waters around our feet. When the children started taking over, Millet throws in this line, which has stuck with me all year. 

“The parents complained, indignant. It was so sudden, they said. They’d all been told there was more time. Way more.”

That, to me, is the heart of 2020. We’d all been told there was more time. We’d all been sure that these things could be fixed, the scientists would figure it out, we’d be ok. Carbon capture! Yeah, carbon capture. And pandemics? Well, they seem to get those under control. The big one might come, but not in my lifetime. Right? 

That was an illusion. But, to be fair, it wasn’t an illusion shared by everyone. 

The Ones Who Saw It Coming

Not wanting to see the terrors of the world is more than an illusion conjured up by holy fools; it is a luxury for those who, maybe until this year, didn’t feel the terrible weight of today. The way that the ground underneath you can fall open and you can plunge into poverty, at Whole Foods one week and a food line the next. The way that a shift in ocean temperatures too small to feel can create storms that ruin your city. The way the government can suddenly turn against you. 

Of course, with the last one, that’s something that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have always known. As I said, with the luxury of realization earlier this year, the idea of a police state is not new for many people. The idea that the state is against you, that law enforcement is meant to drive you down, is the reality for millions of Americans. 

This hot violent year of protests and rage, of police brutality, of murder and fire, of mechanized cops smashing protestors in every city across the country, has opened the eyes of millions and has produced a raft of literature. But of everything I’ve read, I think that Afropessimism, by Frank B. Wilderson III, has stuck with me the most. Because it isn’t saying “here’s how we got here” as much as “here’s how it’s always been.” 

Afropessimism is the idea that the master-slave dynamic, that the logic of slavery, is not just the groundwork on which this country was built, and with whose legacy we are still dealing, but that it is the driving force behind the whole of the Black experience. That capture and control of Black bodies and culture and history and future is more than the basis of our laws, which is damning enough, but the absolute fiber of the nation. 

From that lens, nothing that has happened for the last 450 years is inexplicable. Everything fits. And even if you don’t take that extreme point of view, and “merely” believe that much of our society is structured around erasing the civil rights movement, it is ultimately the same thing. 

This year has revealed fully the weaknesses in our systems. It’s shown that the government, if ruled by a dull thug, can clear out a public park of peaceful protestors for a dopey photo-op. It’s sent tear-gas into houses. It’s clubbed and quartered thousands. It’s very, very willing to let people get sick and die by the hundreds of thousands. It’s willing to at least try to become an authoritarian police state, if by lazy default. 

For many Black people though, that revelation isn’t new. Wilderson’s book is in the long lineage of books that showing that while some might have been comfortable, many knew that this was an illusion, and one that had to be revealed as such. 

Of course, the Black experience is not the only one that knows America primarily as a vehicle for spitting fire and bringing death. The Native experience is, if anything, more distant from the center of American life. The last few years have seen an resurgence of activism and a reclaiming of rights, partly due to the coalescing anger around the Dakota Access Pipeline and other treaty-breaking energy-based concerns, and due to the Trump administration’s gleeful attack on Native land and rights. 

It would be hard to say these are direct themes in Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, a sort-of spooky genre book about possession, myth, religion, and family. It’s a thriller of sorts, and despite the presence of spirits and spooks, is far from “mystical” or any other trope. In this way, it is like The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. Both deal with Indigenous stories, but taken on their own terms. They aren’t metaphors for oppression and occupation. In that way, they are striking, they are individual, and they are a reclamation. 

Of course, occupation and oppression are always on there. Racism is always there, as the old stories have to be filtered through the current realities of poverty and cruelty and indifference by the occupiers. Empire of Wild, in particular, doesn’t shy away from the way that colonizers still use corruption and the false carrot of colonizers religion is used to subject the lives and bodies of First Nations people to make money from the land. 

The colonizers might be called Canada or America or Enbridge, but it is the same story. When you look at it, the line from missionaries to mercenaries is a short one. And as 2020 showed time and again, you have to look at it. You have no choice. 

The idea that we can’t look away anymore is a big theme of this year, because while there might have been some fun times with sourdough, all the rot at the heart of intersecting systems of capitalism and climate have been exposed. Things are happening, have happened, and will happen. And what makes it almost more devastating is that we know why. 

The “why” is a question asked and partially-answered by Angry Weather, an extremely detailed science book by Friederike Otto, one of the leading proponents of attribution science. Attribution science is how a changing climate is applied to extreme weather events, whether it is as sudden and devastating as a hurricane or as insidious as a drought. 

For years, most people would avoid attributing any one event to climate change, and for good cause. Any weather event is a confluence of many different factors, from the local to the global. And so while it was easy and correct to say that climate change probably was responsible for more and more devastating hurricanes, we couldn’t say that it was responsible for this hurricane or these deaths. 

Otto’s book (translated by Sarah Pybus) goes a long way to showing how that kind of thinking is outdated. Through extremely complicated calculations, they are able to judge in real time how events are worsened by climate change, how much more damage there is, and even what might happen moving forward. 

This is the sort of book that one would have to be a truly cynical skeptic to dismiss. While some climatologists are still iffy on attribution, largely for political reasons, it makes no grand claims. The book dismisses the impact of climate change on some events, and mediates its influence on others. On some, it shows a huge impact. It’s very scrupulous. 

And yet the picture it paints is one where things are beginning to change faster and faster, swirling like a portrait of a hurricanes forming over the Atlantic, one after the other, as we run out of names, as we forget major events that happened just this year, as the fires that ravaged Colorado and devastated California become yearly events, and become part of the background. A world in which the dryness of attribution suddenly has an acrid smell and a burning taste. It’s a year in which, in so many ways, we can ignore neither cause nor effect. 

Cause and Effect

A big theme here has been exploitation and appropriation catching up with the rest of us. America has oppressed Black and Brown people for centuries; that anger is something which the rest of us now have to support or, essentially, still fight against (placidity is support for the status quo). Europeans came to this land, eliminated the nations here, and converted all of the land, the earth, the minerals in the ground, and all the new inhabitants into capital. It’s a process that is still happening (as we see in the dying administration’s cruel push to open more native lands to mining concerns). 

That process, of extraction, of taking from the earth and making it into energy, and thus capital, is one of the driving factors of climate change. It’s destroying our world. What we don’t always see if the people ground up in its relentless machinery. High as the Waters Rise, by Anja Kampmann, is a strange and sad attempt to change that. 

Kampmann’s novel, translated by Anne Posten, tells the story of a man whose friend and lover was killed on a vast offshore oil rig, his body never found. He may have fallen into the crashing seas, or he may have been murdered. That mystery drives the book, but “drives” implies action, and there is little. 

Waclaw, the protagonist, leaves the ship. He’s comforted by some mates, men who have given their lives to this liminal world of oceans and helicopter, of months on the North Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico or maybe an onshore assignment. He travels through weary, brightly-lit but still dim areas of machinery and bureaucracy. His is a world of transitory people, a united nations of workers who power the world, who have no country and no home and no real future, who just hope that this mission isn’t the one on which they die. 

Waclaw floats, and he remembers. He goes through the surface of the world. The novel is dry and anguished and painful and feels underwater. Waclaw, like so many in this industry, in this great suppurating maw, is detached. From himself, his family, his loves. This is an exquisite novel, both suffocating and expansive, never didactic, but showing a vast world which is everywhere, but somehow underground. Showing the ruined lives that make our comfortable ones possible. 

That comfort has been taken away. Sure, for many of us, we’re still ok. We have our homes, hopefully our jobs, and food in our belly. I go to one of my local breweries to pick up beer a few times a week. We order in. As I write this we’re planning a delicious New Year’s meal for two. My life hasn’t really changed, a lot of people can say the same. 

But it’s different now. THe horrors of this year hardly need to be repeated and are still impossible to fully enumerate. Rumors of a deadly disease in China, official indifference, the magical thinking of a party devoted to a conman’s death cult instincts, Lockdown, hundreds of thousands dead, bodies piled in vans, police truncheons crunching into skulls, old men shoved to the ground, food lines stretching for miles, hurricanes and hunger, and all the while people partying, dancing, carrying guns into state houses to protest masks, heat heat and more heat…it was all too much. Even the comfortable can’t look away. 

Lizzie, the narrator in Weather, the book that somehow presaged this horrible year, has taken over the role of answering letters for Hell and High Water, a doom-and-gloom podcast that attracts end-times-fanatics from both the left and the right. Needless to say, this has made her both more pessimistic and more obsessed for answers. In one brief scene, she talks to her mentor, who left to go live in the country, about mystics. She thinks that if we can maybe learn some clarity, we can change things. 

There’s that idea in the different traditions. Of the veil. What if we were to tear through it? (Welcome, say the ferns. We’ve been expecting you.)

“Of course, the world still continues to end,” Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden. 

2020 has revealed everything to those who thought the end had yet to begin, who wished we had more time, who used the idea of more time as an incantation against harm and a ward against having to change. But we don’t have a choice anymore. The fire is now. The dead offer no alternative explanations and refuse comfort. The high waters are here.

Favorite of 2020: Music

Favorite books will be coming out later this week. (I’ve never understood how people release these lists in like early December; there’s still a month of reading to do!) But thought I’d try something new, which are my favorite albums of the year. I am very much not a music critic, nor am I very widely-listened, but have made an effort to be more engaged.

Anyway, here are my 20 favorite albums (not in any real order, though the ones at the top are probably the ones I’ve listened to the most). There are 10 that didn’t quite make the cut, and two honorable mentions that I just didn’t have time to listen to enough.

As always, this is very much “favorite” and not “best”. I wouldn’t have any idea how to judge “best” nor assume that I had listened to enough to even begin to chip away at it.

(Links are to Spotify, but support artists by buying their albums, if you can)

    1. Certainly in contention for favorite album of the year. So many styles, all driven by rich, lush vocals, which in some songs are looped and recorded hundreds of times to make it sound like an orchestra, or maybe that’s a din of birds. Some songs sound like a 50s soundtrack wrung through the dull light of the modern experience. Some sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. I was hooked from the first three seconds. 
  2. Michelle Gurevich, Ecstasy in the Shadow of Ecstasy
    1. Hmmm…how does louche, deeply funny, middle-European-seeming gypsy music about aging and desire sound to you? Gurevich explores what it means to lose love, to gain it, to get older, to be seen as older, and to still want to fuck the whole world. She is witty, both obscene and demure, and the songs are sneakily complex. Also maybe my favorite album of the year. 
  3. Squirrel Flower,  I Was Born Swimming
    1. Mature, melancholy sometimes hard-driving art-pop-rock that doesn’t quite sound like anything else. She’s neither bedroom nor anthemic nor lilty-folky. She finds her middle ground on backroads and in the corner of parties and in the strange reflections you see on puddles. My most-listened-to album of the year, if just by dint of coming out early. 
  4. Alexandra Savior, The Archer
    1. The whole album has a strange desert honky-tonk vibe, but like if that remote bar was the backdrop in an X-Files episode. Everyone’s seen strange things in the sky and heard weird noises through the air. It’s really woozy and wonderful.
  5. Agnes Obel, Myopia
    1. You have to be very much in her through-a-mirror-darkly groove to dig this, but if you are her strange tones coming from different angles, looping and droning instruments, and genuinely provocative ideas make this one to listen to as you stare out a window, seeing your reflection and the streetlights outside, remembering. 
  6. Sarah Mary Chadwick, Please Daddy
    1. Not a lot of laughs on this. Chadwick doesn’t so much sing about depression as belt out the lived experience of it. This Aussie singer opens herself up to the world with soaring and crashing songs, that veer on the edge of mocking anthems, but have such broken fragility that draws you in. 
  7. Drive-by Truckers, The Unraveling 
    1. The great chroniclers of America’s broken economy, this tight guitar-driven rage makes you feel every decision that leads to people’s lives being tossed aside so someone else can get rich. There’s nothing subtle about it, but it is excellent. Drive By Truckers are the political band that actually feels like they’ve been on the side of the road, thumb out, hoping for some redemption. 
  8. NNAMDI, Brat
    1. Strange, queer, electronic, spoken word, lush melodies, decidedly ones self. His Black Plight EP was also astonishing but this is just albums. Genre-bending stuff from a Chicagoan
  9. Porridge Radio, Every Bad
    1. British band, hard charging rock. Dana Margolin has a way of repeating phrases over and over with growing intensity that seems to change the meaning every time. There’s desperation in there, but also hope. 
  10. DakhaBrakha, Alambari
    1. Ukrainian folk meets electronica meets a drunken Polish wedding band on the Hindenburg. These are fun, wild, catchy tunes that make you feel like you’re on a different planet, or maybe ours after all the continents slam back together. 
  11. Daniel Johnston, Chicago 2017
    1. Half live, half recordings of this brilliant, sweet, outside artist who was some kind of sad genius. He warbles his soul into every note. RIP, Daniel. 
  12. Yves Tumor Heaven To A Tortured Mind
    1. I don’t really know how to describe this one, to be honest. Extremely experimental, extremely sexy, extremely arty. I gotta say I really like it. 
  13. Perfume Genius Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
    1. They make me happy on this album. There are some romantic problems, some memories of first loves who went away, some problems. There are stringy strung-out vibrations and upbeat whammers. There’s a lot on this album, and it’s all good. 
  14. Rina Sawayama SAMAYAMA
    1. A debut album, this one crosses like 25 different genres and to me really embodies what is great about music today: anyone can do anything without any labels. She can belt a poppy bit of fluff or scream with Pantera-like guitars before sliding into Asian melodies, often in the same song. Just a joy to listen to. 
  15. Run The Jewels, RTJ4
    1. Not sure what there is to say about this one. It’s the perfect album for the year. If the music was shitty and the messages were the same, it would be great. And reverse. So put it together, and you can’t do much better for this year of cleavages, where we were ripped apart, but came together onto the streets, with both anger and hope, desperation and drive. 
  16. Joan Thiele Operazione Oro
    1. I don’t speak Italian so I have no idea what any of this is about but it sort of seeped into my soul on multiple listens. 
  17. Rosemary Standey/Birds on a Wire/Dom le Nena, Ramages
    1. Modern baroque, I guess. Old guitars, various angels singing with just a hint of irony, gorgeous compositions, and the occasional unexpected cover of a modern song in the same style. Cohen’s “Who By Fire” is the perfect cover on this album. The way they sing it, it sounds like he dusted off a song that was a few hundred years old. 
  18. Torres, Silver Tongue
    1. Man, I love Torres. Every song on this is unexpected, with a climax that kind of brings me to sweet tears every time. She’s a great songwriter, under the radar, and I think at the top of her game here. Just straightforward art rock, I suppose. 
  19. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
    1. It’s a Fiona Apple album. Come on. It’s great, you know what it’ll sound like, and you’ll be surprised at every single turn. 
  20. Moses Sumney, grae
    1. A 30-song exploration of self. Sometimes tiresome, always revealing, always feeling just a beat off in a way that makes it impossible to turn away. This is an album I’d put on and forget I was listening to it and then realize I’ve stopped what I was doing to listen much closer. 

Honorable Mention

  1. Angelica Garcia, Cha Cha Palace
    1. Just got turned onto this one the other day but can tell it’ll be in the steady rotation
  2. Megan Thee Stallion, Good News
    1. I’ve only been able to listen a few times, but she’s even more ferocious and funny and just filthy hungry than even on WAP. Thee Stallion sees what she wants and grabs it. 

Not Quite Making the Cut

  1. Eden Abhaz, Wild Boy: The Lost Songs of Eden Abhaz
    1. Odd, odd, deeply odd recordings by a man who wrote hit songs in the 50s for other people and saved the avante garde for himself
  2. Kaki King, Modern Yesterdays
    1. Cool-ass guitar from one of our most inscrutable composers
  3. Emma Ruth Rundle/Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full
    1. Noise. Lots of loud atonal noise
  4. Mary Lattimore, Silver Chairs
    1. Harp. Lots of quiet, pretty harp
  5. Honey Gentry, H.G.
    1. A very strange and haunting sort of country
  6. Mint Field, Sentimento Mundial
    1. Lush, vibrating orchestrations that sounds like someone whispering something urgent
  7. Clara Rockmore, Music and Memories
    1. If you like old ladies playing the theremin and talking about the theremin you’ll love this
  8. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
    1. This is genuinely very great, his best in forever, but it just wasn’t hitting me this year like it might have, or maybe will, in other years
  9. Toro y Moi, Causers of This
    1. All instrumentals with his trademark beats from underwater loopy reflection vibe
  10.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Never Alone
    1. 86 songs from the woman who merged the sacred and the wild to create rock. 

It’s Not an Incipient Police State. It’s an Expanding One.

Fascism is about enemies. Black people were always on the frontline. It’s the most obvious fact of American history…and one people like me never fully grasped.

When Donald Trump cleared Lafayette Park with pepper gas and the thwack of shields, when he did his lazy march to a transparently idiotic photo op, it seemed a tipping point for this country. We stared into the roiling cauldron of fascism.

It was easy to see why. Helicopters thwacked protesters away. Federal cops chased citizens into private homes. Across the country, MAGA-empowered police shot tear gas and paint grenades and rubber – and sometimes real – bullets at people protesting thuggish police violence. Good cops were

For a time, it seemed like Trump’s cruel stunt overshadowed the meaning of the protests, about the searing cry that Black lives matter. It seemed, on that terrible Monday night, somehow only two days ago as I write this, that the enemies of Black lives and of American freedom had merged, and that Trump’s authoritarianism was about to overwhelm us all.

That’s bullshit, of course. The fascism was always there. The police state was always there. It was just that white people were now beginning to be considered enemies.

Because, really, what is a police state? If there is any non-academic definition, any meaning for daily life, it is a state where the police are empowered to be an occupying force and to see the people as enemies. It is a state where the authorities entrusted with violence have a responsibility only to the class they protect.

It’s pretty obvious now, and should have always been, that Black lives have forever been lived under a police state.

There is no time, and really no place, in our history where police have consistently treated Black people as full citizens. They have never had the protection of the state. Every day has been a day where they have had to prove that they deserve to live.

This is extremely different than what white Americans are used to. Even white criminals who see the police as enemies aren’t inherently the Other. Their enmity comes from action, not blood.

And for the rest of us? For myself? The lacerating knowledge that I’m complicit. Even if I loathe the carceral state, and march and sign petitions and donate, my comfort is built upon the bones of others. Twas ever thus. It is lacerating and shameful, but that’s not the point right now. My admiration for police in my family or friends isn’t the point. My story isn’t valuable.

But…I get it now, at least a little more. Even safe in my lily fastness, it is beginning to be clear what a police state truly looks like. It looks like unidentified cops given full authority. It looks like armored cars patrolling the streets. It looks like Evergreen Park jabronis decked out like they’re in Fallujah. It looks like good cops being outnumbered, like in a cartel drama. It looks like what it means to be occupied.

That’s what Trump is doing- that’s his ultimate evil. He’s soaked up the violence. He thrives in an “exterminate the brutes” fury. He both is enlarged by and gives succor to the worst elements of the law. He draws everything into his dark gravity, unleashing a fury.

From @ayeshaasiddiqi No badges, no names, just the authority to do unquestioned violence…an experience with which too many are familiar

What he does, in his rhetoric and his actions, is expand the circle of enemies. There’s no real ideology here, except self-protection, but that’s what is happening. He wants to test the loyalty of soldiers, federal troops, and police unions across the country. He wants to make everyone who is against him the Other.

This isn’t to compare suffering. This is certainly not to say that my white body is a level target with Black bodies. This isn’t even to say that my life will materially change if there is a true slide into fascism.

It’s just to say that when we talk about the last few months of increasing unstable authoritarianism, that’s stupid. When we talk about the last few years, that’s nuts. When we talk about the post 9/11 militarization of the nation’s police, that’s shortsighted. All these last terrible years were doing was expanding fascism…not starting it.

So many of us ignored it for too long. So many of us ignored that the people on the front lines of fascism were real people, real humans, who feel and hurt and love and die. Too many of us thought that it was a goddamn shame and hopefully this will be a change! Too many of us thought that Black Lives Matter without ever thinking about what it meant for those lives to be alive.

And now? That police state has been empowered. That police state is growing. That police state can expand its idea of enemies. It can expand who is the Other. But that designation isn’t new. Occupation isn’t new. This country has always needed enemies. And they have always been next door.

It can happen here. It’s happened here for centuries.

The Question Isn’t Whether We’re At War: It’s What Phase of This War Are We In?

A literally crushing new phase

Yesterday evening, as people were getting home from work and unfurling into an already restless eve, phone alerts started coming in- the ping ping ping soundtrack of our heightened anxious lives. Rockets (the first alerts said rockets) struck an American base in Iraq. Without many more details, that is what we were going on.

Then came the texts, and the tweets and all the sundry messages? Are we at war?

As the next few hours tensed up, we got more information and disinformation, and the queasy helpless feeling kept setting in. These weren’t rockets, they were missiles- a difference of type, not degree. 30 Americans were killed. The President was now being briefed by Mike Pompeo, the theocratic Islamophobe who interprets his role of Secretary of State as one to bring about war. At one point it was being reported that both Iran and the US were launching fighters- an exercise which, in a vacuum, doesn’t mean anything, but added to the dread uncertainty. It was rumored the President was going to speak, and he wouldn’t speak to say they were laying off.

And the questions kept coming: are we at war?

Then we learned more. It wasn’t 30 Americans killed; it was none. We learned, with point-proving dismissive relief, that the dead were “only” Iraqis. It became clear that Iran was sending a message, with an off-ramp, to return to the status quo.

So, then, I guess we aren’t at war. For now?

But of course, that’s the wrong way to look at it. We have been at war for at least 16 years, and possibly much more depending on how you want to parse it. But if we just take the 2003 invasion of Iraq (and you can go back much further) the United States has been in a state of imperial war for nearly a generation. This is the latest, and possibly most dangerous phase of it, doesn’t mean it is something new.

By “imperial war” I don’t mean a war of straight plunder or theft, regardless of what our idiot President says about “taking the oil”. I mean a war to control the politics of a region to benefit our interests. A means of using violence, extortion, and the basic methodology of a protection racket to bend the region to our will. That it has been wildly unsuccessful doesn’t change its very nature.

This war is related to theft and plunder, of course: we want to make sure the US has the resources it needs to continue its growth, as well as dictate trade across all oceans. That’s part of our soul-soaking all-in alliance with Saudi Arabia. This is becoming more important, from a grim geopolitical standpoint, as we see the establishment of China and the expansion of Russia in a world that is increasingly multipolar.

We didn’t know that in 2003, of course. Russia was floundering between Chechen disasters and China barely had a Navy. The Iraq war was an imperial swagger to show the world we could do anything. The wreckage of America in that war, the catastrophic suffering it inflicted, set off a chain of events that helped the world become the place it is today.

As the US fought in Iraq, China established bases and ports around Asia and Africa, reaching westward across its imperial territories to start to make rough alliances with the oil-producing nations. That was their strategy.

At the same time, Iran, which had been trying to shake off the West, saw an opening. There was a brief period after the fall of Saddam Hussein of potential alliance between the US and Iran, led by (amazingly), the now-dead Soleimani, but the US under George Bush shrugged that off, ready to enact regime change.

Iran, since then, has become more and more aggressive in its own imperial plans. Since the Revolution, it had always supported militias in other countries, most notably Lebanon, and has always tried to influence politics. US policy has been to contain that with the hope of regime change. The US has clearly become less and less effective. Iran has gotten stronger and stronger, able to bolster Asad and bloody Saudi Arabia in Yemen and assert more control over Iraqi politics than the US. They have done this on the corpses of tens of thousands, on the ruin of cities, and the starvation and misery of millions. And that’s the point: Iran is also an imperial power.

Iran has been checking the US in Iraq for over a decade now, through political influence and violence. They have killed US soldiers; the US has killed their militias. The two countries have fought by proxy and nearly face-to-face. They’ve also fought side-by-side when interests match.

And now we’ve come to a new phase of this war-within-a-war. The status quo doesn’t look good for the US in the long-term. It is either being dragged into out-and-out conflict, or be bled out. It is either stay for another generation, or leave with Iran in near-total control of the region.

So what we have is the US fighting a war with a potentially very-hot war with a regional power inside a larger imperial struggle. In the Middle East- which, really, is the heart of Eurasia- Iraq is the last place we have influence to contain and check Iran, who is working in rough concert with Turkey and Russia, who are varying degrees of influential powers. This fragile alliance is far closer to China’s orbit than the United States’s.

To see it like this you have to step back from American exceptionalism, which doesn’t actually exist. The United States is a country, with interests. We’re fighting a war, for our interests. That we are now being led by an unstable authoritarian dipshit who has more in common with adversaries than allies doesn’t change that. He wants a multipolar world, because he believes he can make the best deals, and he doesn’t believe in any sort of order.

But that’s not really different. The US has been waging war for a generation. It is barely clinging on to its last foothold. It will probably be forced to leave soon, and power will recalculate. That will neither end, nor start, the war. As we flail and recalibrate, bluster and blunder, the fighting will change, but the meaning won’t.

To ask if we’re at war is wrong. We’ve been at war forever.

A Brief Note on Soleimani

By now, you’ve certainly seen the news that Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds force, and a true hardliner straight out of central casting, has been assassinated in Iraq by a United States airstrike.

In grasping for a modern historical equivalence, one comes up short. There is no way to say it other than the United States killed one of the most powerful men of a country with whom we are not at war. This was extrajudicial, almost certainly extra-legal, and extraordinarily dangerous.

That’s not to say that his end isn’t essentially fitting. This was a man who brought violence and chaos to the region, and many met far worse ends because of his manipulations and his paths of glory. In Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and around the globe, people have been killed by his forces and his proxies. He was a true fanatic, and it is impossible to mourn him.

What we have to recognize, though, is what he was a fanatic for: Iranian influence throughout the region. The reversion of Iran to its typical historical glory, and its power in western and central Asia. To being the center of Middle East like it was when this was not the Middle East, but the dead goddamn center of the world.

That’s one of the reasons this is so dangerous. Soleimani was inarguably the 2nd-most powerful man in Iran. He was because he represented the reality of the Revolution. It wasn’t about Islam, exactly. It was about overthrowing Western dominance and the corrupt, West-backed Shah. As I’ve argued before:

The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.

Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.

And that is really Soleimani’s symbolic role, or more precisely the symbolic weight of his very real actions. He was the outstretched fist or Iranian power, bending the region to Iran’s designs. He was so powerful in the country because the whole point of the Revolution was to bring that back, and he’s doing it.

None of this is to say that he was legitimately popular in Iran, as of course the government itself is deeply unpopular. And I’m certainly not going to insult you by pretending to know how “the Iranian people” will react. But this is pure American dominance and arrogance. It’s an act of slapping back Iran for daring to practice politics in the region. It will be seen as nothing more than the cruelest imperialism. This ignores, of course, that Iran politics are bloody imperialism, but we aren’t pretending that humans are rational.

The Supreme Leader will have no choice but to retaliate. Whomever takes over Quds will have every incentive o activate militias and hit US targets directly. His fiercely loyal fighters will be almost impossible to restrain. And a bungling, incredibly incompetent US government, which has systematically forced out expertise, isn’t prepared for what’s next. How could they be? They don’t know, and don’t care, what came before.

As a sort-of aside, the extra-legal part of this is pretty important domestically. There is no real justification for this under the AUMF, and if that pernicious bit of hasty paranoia is stretched to encompass the killing, it will be sad lunacy. Really, it will be the apotheosis of the AUMF, which has perverted further an already deeply-expeditionary and evangelical approach to violence. It is the culmination the last 20 years, but not an end. This is the beginning of a new and even-more dangerous phase.

2019 In Books

OK, I know it’s been a little bit since I’ve written. I would really like to do so more as we round into the new year, and as we try to save our democracy from a death-cult that worships only the raw exercise of power. But for now we’re going to look at the last year in books.

As in other years, this is NOT a “best books of 2019” or anything. I wouldn’t lay claim to having read enough to begin to adjudicate that. These are just my favorites: books that have moved me, that have educated me, that have made me see things differently.

Anything I’ve missed you think people should read? Please leave it in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that…

(Read more!)

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