Gambling With Other People's Lives: Discontents 6/28/21
The Surfside collapse will happen again.
On Thursday morning a 13-story residential building in Surfside, Florida collapsed into a pile of rubble, almost certainly killing dozens of people who were inside. Right now the official death toll is 10, but there are more than 150 people still unaccounted for after five days of fires, flooding, torrential weather and brutal heat.
This is obviously a major national story, as it is any time a large number of people die in shocking circumstances. NBC sent Lester Holt down, CBS had Norah O’Donnell on scene, and of course CNN sent four anchors to hoover up the rubbernecking audiences of cable news viewers who are, like all of us, drawn to death and pain like flies.
What interests me now is where the story goes. For the big dogs at CNN and the other networks, covering trauma is largely a self-masturbatory exercise. There are clear narratives to follow, but most importantly, mainstream audiences want to feel like these episodes are just islands of horror out of sync with the American experience. Major anchors are happy to oblige them. Sure, there will be reporting on who is to blame. A villain will be found. NPR reported yesterday that residents were assured by a building inspector back in 2018 that the building was “very secure,” despite an engineering report from the same time frame that warned of failed waterproofing in the building’s concrete slab.
What won’t happen, I’d bet, is that Wolf Blitzer or Chris Cuomo or Anderson Cooper or Lester Holt or any of the others down there will conclusively link the devastation in Surfside to anything else wrong with this country. It’s trite and boring at this point to say “capitalism is the problem if you really think about it,” but I’m really not sure how else to articulate that point. There’s a very clear reason that dozens of people are now crushed under the weight of their neighbors’ homes and decomposing in the sweltering Florida heat: the company responsible for making sure that didn’t happen decided to cut costs and put their lives at risk. The core function of capitalism is to gamble with other people’s value, whether that’s their money or their labor or just their assumption that their roof won’t fall in and kill them at any minute. The people who made that wager in Surfside lost, and will surely pay some price though lawsuits and restitution, but their pain will only be financial. The people who let the building fall weren’t inside when it crumbled, just like the people who run the companies that sell the guns are never inside the school when it gets shot up and the people who write the laws are never turned away at an emergency room. They won’t be the next time it happens either.
Anyway! If you want to hear me and other members of Discontents talk about cheery stuff like this, you’re in luck. Last week we held our first private roundtable on Discord, where myself, Derek, Ashley, Libby, Eoin, Gabby, Felipe, Kelsey, Shane and Luke had a great time talking shit about the country’s future. The audience in there was great, chiming in through text chat and making the hour we were all online fly by. If you want in on the next one, coming sometime in the next few weeks, smash that paid subscriber button to any blog on this list. And hit subscribe below for more Discontents!
Before I go, here’s what the rest of my colleagues were up to last week:
Jack Mirkinson on NYPD cops attacking Pride celebrations
Katherine Krueger on the time Trump almost d***
Samantha Grasso on freeing Britney Spears
Rafi Schwartz on Eric Adams’ weird Israel statements
Paul Blest on Kyrsten Sinema’s vibe-partisanship
And finally, Me (Jack Crosbie) on legal weed
Welcome to Hell World
In this piece I used this lovely thread as a jumping off point to talk about digital remains and loss and visiting my parents for the first time in over a year since we’re all vaccinated now.
My dad asked me if I remembered so and so and it’s never a good sign when your parents ask you if you remember so and so because that dude is fucked one way or another whoever it is.
Later in the week I collected stories from a couple dozen readers about how their drinking and other drug use has gone throughout the pandemic. Some did fine. Others did not. There’s also a few great poems on drinking inside from Larkin and Bukowski and Symons.
“I remember this MASH episode, one of the ones where they do a mock-documentary, where B.J. Hunnicutt says, and I paraphrase, ‘Do we drink a lot? Not for Korea.’ Obviously, I'm not living through a war, but that's how I feel about my increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Do I drink a lot? Not if you made it through the pandemic.”
Then Paul Bowers who writes the great newsletter Brutal South reported on the situation with the death penalty in South Carolina and caught up with Fred Leuchter who you may remember as “Mr. Death” from the Errol Morris documentary.
Fred A. Leuchter Jr. is retired now, but he wishes he wasn’t. He told me he worked in the hardware department at a Home Depot in Somerville a few years ago, but someone figured out who he was and got him fired.
“I keep getting fired,” he said. “I agree it’s a step down if I’m selling hardware in Home Depot from working as an engineer, but I’ll do anything. Unfortunately nobody wants me to do it for them.”
He said he lives frugally and gets by on Social Security checks now. I asked him if he had any regrets about his career working in capital punishment.
“No, not really. I got into this because I had to,” he said.
Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau
Despite our best efforts, Ken Klippenstein managed to sneak his way back into Insurgents Global HQ this week. We talked about his unique penchant for making a wide variety of strange characters very angry (just a few days later this manifested yet again, amazingly, in the form of an actual diss track). We also talked about the controversial idea that the FBI may have had something to do with the Jan 6 Capitol Riot, and recent leaked documents that suggest the US government is planning on using the threat of “domestic extremism” as, once again, an excuse to target leftist activists.
Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future
Researchers have discovered what they claim is a new species of archaic human, dating to at least 146,000 years ago, in northeastern China. Dragon Man was big and robust, around 50 years old when he died, with a brain about 7 percent larger than that of a modern human. Have we found a new species in our family tree? How are they related to us, and to the other groups of archaic humans who wandered the earth until not that long ago? Pretty exciting stuff.
I went on Tech Won't Save Us last week to talk about how venture capital is affecting the news media.
During our chat, which is at the link in the embedded tweet below, I talked about billionaire investor Marc Andreessen's support of Substack—the medium by which you are reading this—as well as attempts by tech CEOs around Silicon Valley to control how they're covered.
At The Flashpoint, I talked about drugs in a three part series on how people turned to using substances during the pandemic.
Means Morning News hosted me on Thursday for an interview on the above reporting.
This week, prison labor at Russell Stover, a guest post from Discourse Blog's Paul Blest on No Evil Foods, and a look at ICE prisons.
Sign up and I'll see you there.
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
Before intercontinental missiles, wind delivered the first intercontinental attack. The FuGo balloons, built and used by Imperial Japan in 1944 and 1945, were a passive weapon, lofted into the jetstream and sent, in the strong air current, towards the continental United States, where the balloons would crash and ignite incendiary devices. It was a novel tool of war, one with great reach, yet it suffered the main limitations of any balloon-based weapon: it couldn’t be aimed, and the harm it caused was at the mercy of the weather.
In the latest Wars of Future Past, I write about the FuGo balloons in the broader context of intercontinental warfare, missile defense, and asymmetry in balloon attacks. Fear of cross-continental attack, far more than experience of such, drove an entire Cold War industry of trying to shoot a missile with a missile, in an effort to safeguard against apocalypse.
That approach has profound limits, even when scaled down from the threat of thermonuclear reckoning to smaller rockets and the asymmetric wars of occupation and resistance. There is not really protection under a sky protected by missile defense, but for a time at least, such weapons offer an illusion of protection.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
A common point of criticism against the Biden administration’s immigration actions so far is that they’ve tended to go for symbolic resonance rather than fundamentally shifting the landscape for people on the ground. This was more true at the start of his presidency, when he, for example, ended the Muslim ban on his first day in office only to leave in place a much broader immigration executive restriction that made that rollback functionally pointless. In recent weeks, the public castigation seems to have driven Biden officials to be more proactive and led to some significant policy shifts, such as Attorney General Garland vacating some restrictive precedent decisions for immigration courts.
One area that advocates had been pressing the administration for action on involved the thousands of asylum seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico, who were ordered deported or had their cases terminated after they didn’t make it to hearings in the United States. Forced to wait in Mexico for their U.S. asylum cases, many migrants failed to secure lawyers, were given confusing or incomplete information about their cases, or were targeted by criminal groups, leading to over 31,000 to miss their hearings for reasons that were often not their fault. Biden ended MPP and allowed those still in processing to enter the country, but had left this group out.
Now, in an acknowledgement of the program’s failings, the administration is planning to allow these migrants to enter the U.S. and re-apply for asylum. However, as we noted in last week’s BORDER/LINES, this doesn’t mean much on its own if the government doesn’t take steps to ensure that they know about the change and can safely make it back. After their cases ended, many of them left northern Mexico and may have returned to their countries of origin. Absent a real effort to assist them, this may be just another symbolic shift.
On last week’s FX podcast I was joined by Andrew Leber and our very own Kelsey Atherton to talk about a new project of their Fellow Travelers Blog. Just prior to the election they began commissioning a series of policy briefs intended to provide some substance for members of Congress looking to steer US foreign policy in a more progressive direction. The series is concluded and they’ve compiled those briefs into a a briefing book they’re hoping to get in front of congressional staff. Toward that end, they’ve started a GoFundMe to cover publication and distribution costs, and if you’re able to help out in that regard please do. Since Kelsey was on our discussion naturally turned to drones, particularly those recent and somewhat sketchy reports of autonomous drones targeting fighters in Libya and efforts to draw up international standards for the use of such weapons systems.