Our Weekly Discontents, 11/30/2020

Thanksgiving in the Time of COVID and other thoughts.

Hello friends, and another (belated, this time) Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrated.

Derek here, from Foreign Exchanges. Last week was a short one for most of the Discontents crew, so this newsletter might stray a bit from the customary “here’s what we’ve been doing” format. Or not. I really don’t know what everybody else has planned.

On the plus side, this year’s Thanksgiving brought a reprieve from the litany of “how to carry on a conversation with your conservative/liberal/moderate/fascist/Hoxhaist/etc. uncle” pieces that usually inundate online media this time of year, so that’s something. On the minus side, all we had to do to earn that reprieve was to struggle through a pandemic that’s officially killed nearly 275,000 Americans (maybe more by the time you read this) and almost 1.5 million people around the world, which made traveling home for Thanksgiving a much more controversial decision than it’s been in years past. Which is not to say people didn’t do it, clearly:

Some of our leading media lights even felt the need to take us through their holiday decisions in excruciating detail, even though they didn’t need to do that and, to be honest, I’m not sure anybody asked.

Whatever you did for Thanksgiving, I’m not here to judge. Everybody has their own circumstances to consider, their own decisions to make. But if COVID did affect your holiday please consider sharing your story in the comments. It might be a comfort to others who wrestled with similar issues, and who are going to be wrestling with them again with the December holiday season looming in a few weeks.

We stayed put. I mentioned last week that I was thankful my family is still around and intact, and that’s in part because my dad is in one of those high risk COVID pools. With Pennsylvania struggling to contain its outbreak just like nearly every other state, my folks have hunkered down and that made our decision not to see them an easy one. We won’t see them at Christmas either, which will officially make it a year since the last time we were all under the same roof. It sucks—we’re a small family and we’re close enough that not seeing them hurts. But what I worry most about these days is my daughter losing her connection with her grandparents. We try to make sure they stay in touch, but phone calls and FaceTime don’t make up for not being there.

It feels like everyone has a story like ours this year, and in many cases theirs are worse. They’ve seen loved ones suffer through this illness, often in isolation because of course it’s not safe to visit them in the hospital. Some of those loved ones haven’t recovered. Some have but will feel the effects of their bout with COVID for some time to come, perhaps for the rest of their lives. The good news, I guess, is that this is supposed to be the home stretch, because vaccines are right around the corner.

You’ve seen the stories, I’m sure—this vaccine is 90 percent effective, that one 95 percent, all based on partial, unreviewed results and all written up in a style that suggests the target audience is less prospective COVID patients than prospective shareholders. I hope they’re all true, but I also wonder. I wonder whether these vaccines will really be as effective in practice as they’ve been portrayed in the media. I wonder how long it will take, once we really do have an effective vaccine or vaccines, to manufacture and distribute enough doses to meet demand. I wonder whether our broken health care system will ensure that everyone who wants the vaccine will be able to get it. Globally, I wonder whether wealthy nations will do what’s needed to ensure that developing nations are able to access these vaccines. I wonder if we’ll learn any lessons from this experience that we might be able to apply to the next pandemic—or the next international crisis, like climate change.

OK, I don’t actually wonder about that last one. I’m pretty sure we won’t.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

As I said above, it was a short week for many of us, and that was certainly true for me. But I did break what I was hoping would be a total news fast to offer some initial thoughts about the assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran on Friday. It’s been a few days now but I stand by most of what’s in there except the part about MEK fighters carrying out the attack. That’s because it appears no humans participated in the actual strike at all. Iranian media is reporting that the hit was carried out with some kind of remote controlled truck/gun combo. I’m not sure how believable that is but I guess we have to at least consider it a possibility. Iranian officials are still claiming that MEK was involved, and given that the group has (allegedly) collaborated with Mossad on four previous (alleged) murders of Iranian nuclear scientists, it seems a safe bet they did so in this case as well.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

Just one edition of Hell World this past holiday week (subscribe for like $1 a week to read it here) although it really didn’t feel much like a holiday sitting here in the same space we typically sit in 23 hours a day just with a lot more turkey leftovers to be responsible for. I don’t want to do this anymore. I gotta get out of here man.

The other day I took a look at Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ decision to extend his executive order prohibiting municipalities from instituting mask mandates around the state despite a group of mayors practically begging him to let them put stricter safety measures in place. If Covid were a sentient being and it arrived on earth and communicated with DeSantis and Trump and similar denialist leaders and promised them riches and power beyond their dreams if they only agreed to comply with its nefarious designs on taking over the planet how exactly would they have behaved any differently do you imagine?

I also touched on Biden’s seeming insistence on getting Rahm Emanuel a job in his administration.

To his credit when people have pushed back on some of the jobs floated for Emanuel Biden’s camp seems to have listened and then thought about it and said… what if we put him up for this other job instead? Will that get you people to shut up?

Listen there are some rooms in your home where it would be worse to have a dead skunk in the walls than others but ultimately it's the skunk being inside that is the problem.

Also my new book is coming out soon. Pre-order it here if you like.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Presidential transitions are a great time for other countries to get a little war on. As Trump winds down his term trying to bring back firing squads, President-elect Biden is using the time to nominate vultures and torture apologists while putting out press releases entirely in barks. In the meantime, as Derek mentioned above, a remotely controlled gun in the back of a truck was reportedly the weapon that gunned down a nuclear scientist in Iran. 

That’s a heckin’ yikes, Hegemony Granger.

The conduct of world affairs is always a continuous process but it’s worth catching the moments when other countries get to act while the United States enjoys a leisurely self-inflicted bout of incapacity. The singular failure of the federal government to handle pandemic itself should permanently put an end to the notion of this country benevolently shaping events around it. The US instead sits as an armed bastion built to protect itself against imagined enemies, while other people across the world sneak a little extra violence around the edges.

As for the remotely controlled assassination: it is a style of violence that predates the drone war. As much as people like, say, John Brennan like to imagine a clean divide between enemy combatants on a battlefield and civilian leaders in military jobs at home, the logic of assassination sees no such distinction. Robots, at least, don’t change the underlying rules. A robot gun in a truck is just drone politics by other means.

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

I was actually quite proud of last week’s newsletter. I guess “last week’s newsletter” could refer both to the latest edition of my own newsletter, and to the intro I wrote for this very newsletter. I was happy with both, honestly. I got to write about two of my favorite made-up stories—Computer Chess (2013) and Wuthering Heights (1847). What could be better than that?

To continue with last week’s theme, that’s where I find myself lately: Trying to focus on gratitude. Perhaps that’s the kind of corny sop that the forces of capital want me to immerse myself in rather than penning my piercing critiques. So be it—I write about made-up stories. The stakes are fairly low. Whether it’s good praxis or not, I’m going to let myself be happy with all the things I do have, and especially the people in my life who make those things worth having. (I actually do think this is also good “praxis,” but my recursive, undercutting style requires me to entertain that it might not be.)

Anyway, the point of my newsletter is to delight. To inform, yes, maybe sometimes to provoke, but mostly I want you to enjoy reading it. I will continue that effort this week. I’m thinking I’ll do a samurai movie? I said that last week. You never know what you’re gonna get, until you sign up and check your inbox.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

In light of the last several weeks’ events, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the great dumbasses of history. The record of the past is littered with idiots, fools, morons, blinkered idealists, and those whose reach simply exceeded their grasp. Donald Trump and his coterie of imbeciles, both those working directly on his behalf and the marks still beholden to his dead-end cause, are no different.

Because we know how things turned out, we have a strong tendency to simplify the confusing jumble of shit that was going on at any given time in the past, to reduce it to single stories or analytical processes. This is natural. We’re creatures of narrative, and boiling a story down to its most essential beats and themes is how we make sense of the world. When we do that, we choose our protagonists and antagonists, decide on the organizing principles, and cut out the extraneous bits, including the ambiguity and contradictions. The past begins to seem inevitable: Civil Rights legislation passes, Nazis go down in flames, George Washington gives up the presidency after two terms, and so on.

That’s obviously not how it really works. Every moment is full of possibilities. Every outcome is dependent on some bizarre combination of structural tendencies and contingencies. It’s now almost safe to look at Trump’s pathetic coup attempt as the unstoppable defeat of an incompetent boor, but what if he and his allies had managed to send out a second stimulus check? What if Joe Biden had tripped over his dog a week before the election and broken his hip? What if it had been just a bit closer, and Trump’s desperate gambits had been less an attempt at ice-skating uphill and more like a subtle tug on the sleeves of Republican elected officials looking for an excuse to support him?

Lots of the past’s great dumbasses failed. The Beer Hall Putsch was a fiasco. William Walker’s filibusters to Central America ended with his capture and execution. The Bay of Pigs didn’t go too well. But plenty of successful coups and revolutions looked like fiascos in the making, right up until the moment they weren’t. Dumbasses and morons are perfectly capable of doing enormous amounts of harm. They’re perfectly capable of winning.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week, after we pay tribute to woke girlboss queen DNI Avril Haines and talk about how much Jordan hates Christmas, we bring on Ricci Sergienko of People’s City Council LA and Sunrise LA to talk about some of the horrific viral videos of CPH evictions of unhoused families trying to occupy state-owned empty housing the night before Thanksgiving, the looming eviction crisis, what kind of direct action or mutual aid can help fill the void that elected officials are leaving through their lack of action, and how LA Mayor Eric Gacetti is being considered for a Biden cabinet position despite overseeing maybe the most catastrophic homelessness crisis in the United States.


Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz

We didn’t publish a newsletter last week, because we were both too tired after our Very American Thanksgivings. Personally, it was my first time cooking a turkey (a 16-pounder, for literally just me and one other person) and it was very fun. I got to stuff a lemon up its butt and almost started a grease fire. Felipe also had a Very American Thanksgiving. He went on a turkey trot! Love that for us.

If we had published a newsletter, though, it would’ve been about Biden’s nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas, the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Obama, to head the Department of Homeland Security. All the headlines were about how Mayorkas would be the “first Latino DHS secretary,” which, yeah, that’s true. There’s a bit more to it than that, obviously.

Per the Times, former Obama administration officials encouraged Biden to nominate Mayorkas “in part because of his immigrant story”: Mayorkas was born in Cuba, “and his family fled the Castro revolution.” If you ask me—not that anyone did—the emphasis on Mayorkas’s “immigrant story” is indicative of liberals’ pernicious assumption that all immigrants and all Latinos are the same, but that’s neither here nor there. 

None of this is a criticism of Mayorkas, who by all accounts seems at least okay. He helped create Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a stopgap program that shields certain undocumented youth from deportation. He’s no radical, but he doesn’t appear to be a deportation hawk either.

Discourse Blog

The past week we’ve been focusing on the interregnum period of Trump’s presidency, which we are in the middle of, and which promises to get more destructive over the next two months. Before the long weekend, I wrote about the relatively-unprecedented push for federal executions before Trump and Bill Barr leave office. Jack Mirkinson has a good breakdown of what the Biden cabinet picks mean for the next four years, as well as his own take on the lame duck period (it sucks and we should drastically shorten it). Caitlin wrote a definitive essay on why Thanksgiving sucks in particular this year, which, bear with us, isn’t the same contrarian hot take that always gets passed around. Paul, meanwhile, investigated just what the fuck Jake Tapper’s problem is (it’s Islamophobia). Sam gave us the week’s cultural content, going into TV’s retroactive purge of blackface, which did little to change the conditions that filled TV with blackface jokes in the first place. Fortunately, none of this matters, because thanks to Joe Biden, America is Back. We’ll see you next week.