Dune and the end of empire
Our weekly Discontents 11/1/21
You can feel the Forever War all over Dennis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune (2021).
The film's pandemic-delayed release has it arriving as a formal cultural footnote to the longest overseas war waged by the United States, though that's by accident. From the Operator-esque war wariness of returning Sicario company player Josh Brolin to the deadpan "Who will our next oppressors be" from Zendaya, Dune is meant to hit a culture at the edge of war weariness.
We make our shared metaphors out of the culture produced at us, and I’ve spent the better part of October thinking about the ends of war, civil service in empire, and, for better or worse, really big sandworms. (This will be a spoiler-laden Discontents; if you saw the movie and want a refresher, let me heartily recommend Max Read’s really big “Dune, annotated” post).
Frank Herbert conceived his universe of great power struggle, imperial decay, resource war, and limitless psychedelics from a moment that must have felt like peak American power. Published in 1965, the novel acknowledges the Cold War around it by spelling out the role of nuclear arsenals as primarily constraining the scale of violence between the great houses. (The weapons are as best I recall unmentioned in the 2021 film).
Not counting Jadorowsky’s famously ill-fated attempt, the two durable live-action adaptations each arrived at subsequent peaks of American power. David Lynch's 1984 cinematic version and the Sci-Fi channel's 2000 television miniseries hit when Imperial Decline was a thing that happened to other countries, leaving only inevitable End-of-History victor the United States still standing. Against that backdrop, it's easy to read Dune as not a commentary on Lawrence of Arabia (cinematic release, 1962) but a reflection of it, a variation on the familiar form of imperial saviors bending locals to their whim with ultimately unfulfilled promises.
If Dune resonates in 2021, it does so because the collapse of institutions within empire has never been clearer. Duke Leto Atreides, ill-fated father of protagonist Paul, rises to foreign occupation in the name of duty, one that may eventually pay off with future wealth. His charisma, central to the casting of Oscar Isaac in the role, is an asset in the Landsraad, the sclerotic deliberative body of galactic governance, and while there's no on-screen evidence of him marshaling a coalition to power, the mere possibility is enough to mark him and his entire line for an elaborating orchestrated death.
Coup-proofing against energetic leadership isn't a new story, yet it feels prescient. The old world is dying, and is doing monstrous things to keep the new world from being born.
What are we to make of the servants of this state in the moment before imperial collapse?
In and around Dune, I’ve spent time reflecting on the long career of Colin Powell, first at Jacobin and then, later, how Powell’s career paralleled my grandfather’s time in the Foreign Service for Wars of Future Past. Skipping past the uselessness of hagiography, there are two real ways to evaluate the lives of such public figures: did the work of their life cause harm, and did it successfully further the interests of empire? There’s no doubt as to history’s judgement of Powell on the first count; the hundreds of thousands dead from the Iraq war is a definitive answer, though hardly the only one.
What’s worth a deeper thought, what lines up with the various aides and attaches we see fall short of their purposes in Dune, is that Powell’s career also failed to leave empire more powerful than when he began. Had Powell declined the offer of further office in 2000, he might be able to point to an end goal reached by his careful mustering of violence. That is, ultimately, what the careers of people in service to hegemony ultimately produce. Yet in the final judgement, he was unwilling or uninterested in making a case against further violence, even when abstaining from that violence would have served the empire better.
There’s abundant evidence of that set-in-motion collapse around us, so much that it makes leaning on cinematic metaphor almost superfluous. From metaverses to the durable inability of congress to tackle climate change, we have a host of bad futures laid out before us.
I’ll end with this: if there is any modicum of benefit to living within an empire as its ability to shape the future falls apart, it at least means we can see the structure more clearly. Success hides fractures and faultlines; stagnation makes the structural damage clear.
Without further rambling, the rest of the Discontents crew.
Welcome to Hell World
The other day Miles Howard wrote for Hell World on the city of Boston’s plan to force unhoused people into shelters, the concept of “dignified incarceration,” and the Boston Globe’s dubious reporting on the entire affair. “This sort of thing really exposes the rotten heart of the expensive liberal city,” he wrote.
Sheriff Tompkins recently gave Leung a tour of the new jail and forced rehab center that he’s preparing for the less obedient unhoused people from Mass and Cass, and at one point he explained to her that the facility will offer prisoners a more “dignified incarceration” (a term which Leung uncritically parroted in her most recent Mass and Cass piece.) But putting the insane notion of dignified incarceration aside, the fact that Boston is calling this sweep of unhoused people a “cleanup” really gives the whole game away. Boston, as an expensive liberal city, effectively requires its residents to contribute to the high valuation of the city. Unhoused people aren’t paying rent or property taxes. Their presence is embarrassing to Boston: exposing the void beneath Boston’s liberal image. So the unhoused must be excised.
Read it here.
I also ran an interview with a dentist about the pressures to churn and burn patients at corporate dental chains, coming out of school with $500k in debt, unethical colleagues, and the struggle to maintain your ethics in a money-driven field.
You are paid on commission?
I make 35% of whatever money I collect. That’s fairly standard across private practices. I know dental specialists, endodontists and oral surgeons it’s a little more complicated than that.
So again that’s incentive to churn and burn.
Absolutely. My company has started sending out a report everyday of every dentist in the company and what their production was the previous day. They’ll shout out all the dentists that had good production. So I’m supposed to be having $3,500-$4,000 of procedures a day, of which I’ll collect 35% of what is paid on that.
And will they put the dude who’s slacking on the list too?
Absolutely. There was one day last week where my name was at the bottom. Everybody in the company sees that.
Read it here. Both pieces were behind the paywall. Subscribe for $5.23 a month to unlock them.
It’s open enrollment, which means Americans are going to be calling into call centers to help manage the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the ACA. When they do, they’re likely to talk to workers from Maximus, a federal services corporation—workers whose company healthcare plans are more expensive than the ones they help others get.
That’s according to a new report from the Communication Workers of America, which claims that “on average, Maximus plans are a worse deal for workers than the ACA plans.”
“This means that, in many cases, workers at Maximus are being offered worse health plan options for themselves than the ACA plans that they are responsible for helping fellow citizens access,” the report adds.
More at the link.
Last week, I looked at how right-wing wannabe commentators follow Tucker Carlson’s lead like lemmings, as seen in his homophobic attacks on Pete Buttigieg for taking parental leave.
It’s not just those who are openly on the right. Faux-left Carlson hanger-on Jimmy Dore followed the Fox host’s lead, making a similar “joke” to Carlson’s during a segment with guest Max Blumenthal discussing Buttigieg’s time off.
Dore—rubbing his hands together like Gargamel—giggled over the secretary taking time off.
“He gave birth,” Dore said. “It’s going to take him a few months.”
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I said last week we were going to take it easy after publishing the Snowden document. Instead, I ended up reporting on one of the most harrowing episodes of the War on Terror: Majid Khan detailing his rape and torture by the CIA. It looks likely that Khan, who made a deal almost a decade ago to cooperate with the military commissions, will not serve most of the time the Pentagon seeks. Carol Rosenberg reported Sunday that the officers of Khan’s jury have written an extraordinary appeal for clemency. But no clemency could make right what the CIA did to Khan. One of the reasons that it could brutalize him was that America didn’t bring war crimes charges against the architects and contractors of the Vietnam War. Shudder to think what will be unleashed in the future by the lack of war crimes charges for the architects and contractors of the War on Terror.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
It’s pretty routine for law enforcement and security agencies to throw up roadblocks against inquiries and investigations into their conduct. From police forces refusing to release personnel records and body camera footage to the intelligence agencies locking out Congressional oversight, it’s a long and unfortunate tradition. However, according to records obtained through litigation, records requests, and leaks, and synthesized by a nonprofit umbrella organization in a letter to various House and Senate committees, Border Patrol went way further with this concept, straying into potentially illegal conduct to thwart investigations of its agents.
As summarized by the Southern Border Communities Coalition, Border Patrol field offices have long had units known as Critical Incident Response (BPCIT) units, which intercede in criminal and civil investigations and litigation against Border Patrol officers explicitly in furtherance of, in their own words, “mitigation of civil liability.” They act as a sort of bizarro Internal Affairs which, instead of attempting to bring officers to justice, attempts to obfuscate the evidence and protect them from consequences. They are not authorized by Congress and seem to possess no clear authority to conduct such investigations, but are so brazen as to actually have specific challenge coins.
As we detailed in last week’s BORDER/LINES, the closest look at their operation came through litigation in the case of Anastasio Hernández Rojas, a man who was beaten and tased to death by BP officers in 2010. In that case, the CIT is alleged to have actually tampered with evidence including the initial incident report and video footage relevant to the San Diego Police Department’s criminal investigation. The letter calls on the committees to launch and investigation and recommend criminal charges against CIT agents.
We’re still waiting for a final deal on Biden’s ever-shrinking reconciliation and infrastructure packages, which has been perhaps the most depressing thread to follow over the past few weeks. And yet, as Katherine wrote for us last week, the Democrats still expect us to cheer for the crumbs that we get out of it, instead of being furious at everything that got left on the table.
We had several blogs this week that emphasized some of the issues that these bills, or ones like them, could fix if they tried. Sam wrote about the hell of trying to get medical leave, and Paul covered the dismal state of paid family leave in the country.
Meanwhile, I wrote about Charlie Kirk and the right wing fever swamp’s flirtations with violent rhetoric, and how they’re becoming experts in toeing a disingenuous line between outright calls for action and careful denouncements when their supporters get a little too bloodthirsty.
As far as fun stuff goes, I cannot stop laughing at Rafi’s breakdown of a GOP campaign ad that largely features a mom owning her large adult son over and over again. And don’t miss Sam’s lovely Halloween bird art! That’s it from us for now, see you next week.
Last week, I connected a few dots in an ongoing story with the help of a kind Internet stranger. 1,100 United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, AL have been on strike since April 1st, and one of the major themes of the past seven months has been the lack of media attention that the strike has gotten, especially compared to other, more recent actions; the encouraging flurry of activity and interest over Striketober has largely these folks behind.
I've been doing my damnedest to call attention to the miners' plight alongside a number of local and independent labor reporters (shout out to the Valley Labor Report!), but it's been an uphill battle. So imagine my surprise, then, when a rash of articles began appearing in local Birmingham-area news publications painting the miners as violent actors—while ignoring the stark and documented fact that there have been at least six vehicular attacks on the picket lines, sending multiple strikers—and one striker's wife—to the hospital with injuries.
As I dug deeper, I discovered that it was all part of a coordinated PR strategy that culminated in the company shutting down the picket line (whether or not that's even legal under the First Amendment is a question the UMWA's lawyers are busily asking). Read all about that here: Warrior Met Coal's New PR Strategy: Smearing Striking Miners.
The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter
Last week, I explored a road not taken by the publishers of Rolling Stone.
I also wrote about pizza, the question of wanting pizza, promises made about pizza size and toppings, structural and institutional barriers to pizza delivery, and whether our system is even capable of delivering pizza in quantities large enough, and of quality high enough, to meet the myriad national and global problems we face.
Now the guy says he probably can only get us about half as much pizza as he said he could at first, and also he’s still not really sure when it’s going to arrive, because one of the guys on the Council of Pizza Guys is basically opposed to getting anyone pizza, period, and the rules of the Council of Pizza Guys are pretty complicated and they give each Pizza Guy a lot of power to delay pizza delivery or even just stop all pizzas from being made at all. (The council rules were mostly created to make sure no one delivered pizza to Black people.)
Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau
If you haven’t heard, there’s a war happening right now. A Treat War. How did it start? Whose side are you supposed to be on? Are the much-talked-about supply chain issues a minor inconvenience or the harbinger of something much more serious? This week we brought on Sean KB of The Antifada to help break this down. Also: the soulless shitposters daring to suggest that the heroes of the intelligence community are lying about the very real, very serious Havana Syndrome, and how through the India Walton race, the Democratic Party once again has exposed itself as being completely hostile to anyone even remotely on the left — even women of color, the supposed backbone of the party — trying to work within the system to make things in America ever so slightly less miserable.