Our Weekly Discontents, 12/7/2020

Things could be a lot worse!

Hi everybody, Patrick Wyman here.

It’s been more than a month since the election, the All-Consuming Election, and we’ve all kind of settled into this bizarre state of affairs where the current president, his most rabid supporters, and a significant chunk of the political establishment is inhabiting an entirely different reality than the rest of the country. For everybody else, Joe Biden is in the midst of an almost entirely normal presidential transition, staffing up, addressing ongoing problems, and rewarding some followers while withholding patronage from other parts of his governing coalition. I have no idea what the long-term implications of that might be, but it’s weird as hell and I think we should take a moment to appreciate just how impossibly weird it is. Rudy Giuliani is leaking all sorts of gases and fluids in public and that’s just a thing we’re all rolling with. It’s weird.

Is weird bad in this context? Probably. But not everything is bad, and I feel like it’s important to remind ourselves of that, particularly if - like me - you’re not exactly a glass-half-full kind of person.

The scope of the politically possible has shifted over the past few years, and over the past nine months in particular. These things don’t happen overnight, and even if they’re not happening fast enough, and may never happen at all, the parameters really have changed in some important ways. The deficit hawks, for example, have practically no leverage now. Nobody has to listen to them, far less than they did back in the aftermath of the Great Recession (though pretty obviously nobody should have listened to them then, either). That’s an unalloyed good thing that opens the door for genuine social investments in the future.

Even if the stimulus package that’s currently being debated is a joke compared to what’s actually necessary to ride out the next few months, the fact that it’s even thinkable is miraculous compared to most of the past decade. Student debt cancellation? That never would’ve been on the table, even in theory. There’s a vaccine on the way, and hopefully we won’t lose millions of people as we wait for it to be administered. The pre-pandemic world isn’t coming back - lots of broken things are broken for good, including millions of people’s lives - but maybe we’ll be able to hug and shake hands and go to crowded events again. That would be pretty cool.

These are minor things, they’re nowhere near enough and we don’t have to be anything close to satisfied with them, but they’re not nothing. When the two dominant political parties represent a spectrum from frothing reactionaries to moderate conservatives (that’s what most of the Dems are by any reasonable international standard!), you’ve got to celebrate the little things.

Maybe it’s because the holiday season is coming up, and my kids are singing songs and making Santa art and there are Christmas lights and trees everywhere. “Optimism” is a bridge too far, and I wouldn’t be caught dead crossing it, but at least in a couple of ways things could be a lot worse. For the moment. I’ll take it.

Be well, friends.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

In 44 days, control of one of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals will transfer between septuagenarians. In the meantime, the biggest story about war is that, as the incoming administration is ambivalent on who will handle the machinery of war, the outgoing administration is shuffling troops between passes, trusting that the sprawling opacity of the forever war is enough to get favorable coverage while doing virtually nothing of consequence.

My latest newsletter touches on none of this. Instead, I take the time to look at how Star Wars ingested World War II tropes, and what that means for a popular understanding of war. When pop culture wants to tell a triumphant war story, it leans on the one big war that boomers tend to agree was rightly fought. We are decades now into tropes of “greeted as liberators,” and while few things at present is as insidious as that phrase was in 2002 or 2003, there’s never much thought put into “greeted by whom” and “as liberators from what.”

By sheer coincidence, this is coming out on the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roughly as many Americans died in the Pearl Harbor attack as are dying of Covid every day in the United States, in this, the worst part of the pandemic so far. At a certain scale of continuous death, it becomes impossible for any single day to live on in infamy. This is just the background tragedy of life, now.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

I’ve been thinking a lot about Guys Being Dudes lately. Maybe it’s the pandemic and being stuck at home, maybe it’s getting older and turning into more of a dad and being ever-more-distant from my friends, but my years spent in gyms and guy spaces has been pinballing around my head. With that in mind, I wrote a long essay about bro culture, fitness, medieval chivalry, and American ethnonationalism this past week, touching on everything from Joe Rogan to “tactical” coffee brands to lifting weights. This coming week, I’ll have a post on East Asia in deep prehistory, leading up to the invention of agriculture. That’s something completely different!

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

Last week, I waded into The Canon Debate. I didn’t reach many conclusions, other than that I understood some of the frustration with the way cultural capital is distributed and, most often, withheld. But I also came down on the side of reading the classical canon, if only because doing so has done a lot of good things for me. I got there by way of a story about a beloved high school English teacher.

Not sure what’s on the roster next, except that I may take a week or two off during the holiday season. I have a draft going in which I talk about the openings of novels and analyze a quiet opening that I believe to be underrated—that of Never Let Me Go. I’m also once again watching Icelandic noir show Trapped, and will probably write about that at some point. But as you probably know by now, I have a way of changing my mind and doing the newsletter about whatever catches my fancy. That’s part of the fun! Sign up and let’s change our minds together.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

Last week I wrestled with the question of just how funny are we supposed to think it is when a Covid denialist catches the shit and gets owned rather spectacularly. It’s different when it’s someone like Rudy (lol) and a random person right? Or is it?

I also posted my list of the Top 45 Songs of the Year including Hum, Deftones, Doves, Dogleg, Lydia Loveless, Loathe, Soccery Mommy and more.

And yesterday comedian, author, and director Aisha Tyler chimed in for The Last Normal Day series writing on the feeling in Los Angeles as the second shutdown is about to begin.

There wasn’t a grand apocalypse, but there have been lots of little tiny ones: cataclysmic losses that have shuttered businesses, relationships, families, lives. Here’s the thing: an apocalypse doesn’t have to be a global event. All it has to do is alter your life irrevocably. We will eventually recover from this pandemic. We will rebound. The world isn’t going to end. But for so many families, it already has.


Felipe De La Hoz & Gaby Del Valle

A lot about this time of year involves looking towards the future, and we had concrete things to look at this week, with additional thoughts on Biden’s pick for Homeland Security Secretary — a crowd pleaser who can effectively act as a vessel for whatever immigration agenda the president-elect’s team settles on — and what will happen to the many people who have already been affected by Trump-era policy. Because no matter what happens next year, hundreds of thousands of people will already have been denied protections, expelled, and deported based on that policy, no matter how short-lived it is, and even in cases where it’s been struck down as unlawful. These things have consequences lasting far beyond this four-year term; a deportation, for example, precludes any future asylum claims, even if the policies have change. Some of those sent back to danger won’t try again, or are already dead, but the administration needs to think long and hard about the remedies available to those who want to try again.

Of course, the ongoing administration won’t allow us to just focus on the future, as in the present is still very much active in the immigration sphere, attempting several major regulatory changes in just the month since the election. These rules make it easier for immigration officers to summarily reject applications, interfere with immigration court due process, and make the citizenship test more difficult and political to the point of inaccuracy, among other things. All of these are things that Biden could theoretically turn back, but the idea is to make it as difficult and time-consuming as possible to turn the immigration system ship around.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

While it would be nice if conflicts and the many other ills afflicting humanity these days stuck to a rigid Gregorian calendar schedule and had to be wrapped up by December 31, that is of course not the way things work. And so, for example, the undeclared civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region appears to be raging on, despite assurances from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that the whole thing was wrapped up when his army seized Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, a little over a week ago.

It’s been especially difficult to figure out what’s really going on in Tigray because of a communications blackout Abiy’s government has imposed over the region. What information has slipped out suggests a humanitarian crisis, one that can’t easily be managed because of the ongoing fighting. There are also some troubling signs that what was supposed to be a “law enforcement action” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is instead verging on an inter-communal war against all of Ethiopia’s Tigray population. Earlier this week I spoke with the University of Florida’s Terje Østebø, whose research focuses on the intersection of ethnicity and religion in modern Ethiopia, about the TPLF and the course of the war.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week we bring back our friend Hasan Piker to talk about the post-election fallout, Trump’s ongoing refusal to admit defeat, Barack Obama joining in the chorus of establishment liberals lecturing Defund the Police activists for being divisive or whatever, and how the Americans struggling to pay their rent right now can take solace in the fact that there’s a new president who believes in science.

There’s also some stuff about how social media algorithms are destroying our brains and society, and Rob updates Jordan on his Zoom call with Team Ossoff in which he advised them to continue standing for nothing in particular.

Discourse Blog

There were two main themes for us this past week: the shitshow of the end of the Trump presidency, and the shitshow that is looming in the Biden administration. There’s some nuance there, of course: the Trump administration is drowning in its own farts as it reaps what it sowed through endless conspiracy theories and legislative flailing, whereas the Biden presidency hasn’t even had a chance to be bad yet. But oh boy, is it going to be a fun one. Like Insurgents, we also covered Obama’s fundamental misunderstanding of the Defund the Police movement, and then moved on to the slow churn of establishment power reasserting itself in Congress and in the Supreme Court, where former Obama official Neal Katyal defended slavery, culminating in an administration that already looks like the liberal “hire more women guards” meme. I also wrote about Biden’s dogs, if you’re into that sort of thing. We’ll be back with more of the same this week, as I just filed a blog about MSNBC panicking over Chinese supersoldiers. Until then!