Our Weekly Discontents, 2/22/2021

Disasters and the American Way

Patrick Wyman here. Hope you’re all safe and well.

For millions of people living in Texas, the last week has been a rolling series of disasters: a winter storm that would’ve been difficult to handle under any circumstances, followed by cascading failures of the power grid and water systems, made still worse by the lack of access to basic necessities, including food. Elected officials who are at best comically disconnected from reality (Ted Cruz flying to Cancun!) and more often actively making things worse (by blaming green energy, like Greg Abbott) have overseen every stage of this dystopian mass suffering.

This is bad. People have frozen to death in their homes and died for lack of electricity to power their oxygen tanks. It’s also not a natural disaster in any meaningful sense; instead, it’s the direct result of the systems that generation of Texas politicians and power-brokers have chosen to create. The decision to disconnect Texas from the national power grid, the decision not to regulate or to regulate only in specific ways, the decision not to winterize, letting surge pricing stick people with bills for thousands and thousands of dollars to keep the heat on: these are all decisions, not the natural state of reality. The winter storm, induced by a changing global climate, was simply the trigger for an essentially man-made disaster. It’s a disaster made by politicians and the political system they inhabit.

Far too often, politics is treated as an aesthetic contest carried out on cable news, or a series of social media shit-posts. That’s not what it is. Politics is the power to shape lives, for better and worse.

A few years ago, Texas Monthly editor Christopher Hooks wrote a line that’s stuck with me ever since: “That’s what politics is — the way we distribute pain.”

The people suffering in Texas now are suffering for concrete reasons, because of the actions of politicians and the mechanisms they’ve chosen to put in place. The pain has been distributed, and now it’s being felt.

There’s a certain kind of person who has taken a ghoulish pleasure in blaming Texans for their fate: vote for these politicians, they say, and this is what you get. That would be a sociopathic tendency deserving of censure under any circumstances, but even more for the fact that a great many (or most) of those suffering have made no choices along those lines whatsoever: children, the undocumented, millions of Democratic voters in Austin, Houston, Dallas, people who feel completely left behind by the choices offered to them, and so on. When people suffer, it’s disproportionately the people who haven’t chosen their fate who get the brunt of it.

That’s true in Texas now, and it’ll be true across the United States as the climate continues to shift. Bad things will always happen. You’re never going to prevent hurricanes, completely avoid a severe winter cold snap, or stop an earthquake. But what happens afterward, after the storm passes or the earthquake hits, is within our power to decide.

Politics has gotten us into this mess, and only politics can get us out — serious, collective action to prepare for disasters and address their consequences as they arise.

If you’re able to give, here are a few charitable outlets dealing with the storm and its aftermath:

Before you donate, we recommend checking any charity via a reputable rating service like Charity Navigator or Guidestar.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

I’m staying about as far away from the present and its vicissitudes as possible in my newsletter, focusing instead on the emergence of complex societies and states in the Near East more than 5,000 years ago. This past week, I covered the city of Uruk in southern Iraq, the place where writing and the state were probably first invented. Before that, I looked at Egypt before the pharaohs, where cities of the dead preceded cities of the living.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Part of the holistic nature of the Cold War meant that, in the decades before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States military prepared for arctic battlefields. From snowmobile-mounted infantry to icebreaker navies to arctic overflights with bombers, the military was ready, or at least imagined itself ready, for fighting on frigid fronts. 

News that the Army is relearning arctic tactics hit this week. It isn’t exactly surprising, but if I had to pick a time to drop an announcement about polar warfare, I would try and not do so in the middle of a catastrophically mishandled snowstorm.

Texas isn’t the federal government, the military is a different budget than an energy provider, sure, fine. The juxtaposition is still worth highlighting, I think, because it gets at a broader truth about the entire military beat. Here are the things we can spend collective resources on in the name of safety (little trucks with treads for the Army in snow) and here’s what we can’t (heat for millions, in a way that eats into the profit margin of a private public utility).

In my upcoming issue of Wars of Future Past, I talk about endless wars, and how they’re sustained by fears of enemies domestic. 

Sick Note

Libby Watson

Last week, I interviewed Lee, a Virginia man with severe back problems. He needs three complicated surgeries to correct them all, and a week before his first one was scheduled, the spinal surgery center called him to demand a $7500 up-front payment. He negotiated them down to $3500 after several calls, and a GoFundMe covered it. But I would say it is generally not a good model for healthcare when medical providers are calling patients and threatening to cancel surgery if they don’t come up with thousands of dollars in a week’s time. I also wrote about Texas, and the devastating long-term consequences when a winter storm collides with a free-market ideology and not having a healthcare system. When a catastrophe like that happens, it gets much worse, becomes much crueler, and lasts much longer when people can’t go to the doctor. It’s all very simple, really.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

Last Friday, Joe Biden made his big world debut, addressing the annual Munich Security Conference and participating in a meeting of the heads of the G7 states. He did both of these things virtually, of course, because that’s how meetings and conferences are mostly conducted in the age of COVID. I mention this because among the many things Biden discussed with his fellow world leaders on Friday, he made a $4 billion pledge to the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. Like Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, this amounts to sticking America’s finger in a dike that’s already collapsed.

If you don’t know what COVAX is, that’s understandable. It’s the WHO’s effort to ensure that poorer countries have access to an adequate supply of COVID vaccines, via donations of money and vaccine supplies from wealthier nations. It has to date mostly been an afterthought, badly underfunded and undersupplied even as those wealthier nations hoard what, according to one recent study, amounts to a cool one billion more vaccine doses than those nations actually need to inoculate their populations. According to the Mexican government, which has begun sounding the alarm over unequal vaccine access, three-quarters of all the initial vaccine doses administered worldwide have been administered in a mere ten countries, who collectively account for 60 percent of global GDP. In over 100 countries, not a single person has yet received a COVID jab.

It is becoming clear, especially in light of the rise of more infectious variants of the coronavirus, that there can be no end to this pandemic, no return to anything approximating “normal,” without a robust global vaccination program. And no vaccination program can be “robust” when the richest handful of nations are stockpiling vaccines they don’t need while the world’s poorest nations go without vaccines at all. This level of inequality will only ensure that the coronavirus continues to spread and continues to mutate—meaning that in addition to being morally abhorrent, vaccine hoarding is also likely to be self-defeating in the long run. Donald Trump may be gone, but the “vaccine nationalism” on display right now shows that the myopic greed of his “America First” approach to world affairs was not a novelty and isn’t just an American phenomenon.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week on The Insurgents we spoke to author and photographer Chris Arnade about what he calls America’s “back row” — working class communities that have mostly become disengaged from politics — and how some of these folks may respond to events like the winter storm and subsequent power outages that have devastated Texas over the last week, what role economic anxiety plays in the ability of demagogues like Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson to flourish, how places like Wal Mart and McDonald’s have become important community centers for many working class, especially immigrant communities, whether America is on the brink of a hard right turn and a lot more.

“What people in America’s working class want” has been subject of much debate and discussion especially since 2016, and as someone who has spent years actually hanging out in and getting to know some of these communities for his book Dignity, Chris has a unique and interesting perspective on all this.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

Last week I wrote on the Ted Cruz vacation fiasco and the loss of a truly vile piece of shit Rush Limbaugh which you can read here.

I briefly took some solace as many of us did in his death but it’s hard to maintain more than a fleeting buzz when one of these monsters croaks as soon as you remember just how overwhelmingly successful they were at their lifelong project of weaving unending suffering into the fabric of the country. I’d say the world is a better place without this man in it but everything he stood for is alive and well and not going anywhere anytime soon.

Also readers chimed in with some more of their absurd predatory student loan nightmares:

  • By my reckoning I have paid out a total of $112,000 since 2008 on a $90,000 balance after graduation. Have refinanced/consolidated a few times to push interest rate down. Currently owe $69,000. I’m glad that it hasn’t gone up but Jesus Christ people you’ve made your money.

  • Took out $40,000 that turned into $80,000 to pay for a school that doesn’t exist anymore to get into an industry that’s fighting for a $15 (?) min wage. I should have worked harder imo.

Today’s Hell World is paid only.

One year ago today Bernie Sanders won the Nevada caucus and I think that was probably the last time a lot of us felt any real sense of hope for the future. I forget what happened next.

You’ll recall this was when we were fully entrenched in the debate over Medicare for All and the line from Pete and Joe and them heading into Nevada was that implementing it would somehow rob union members of the “good insurance plans” they had bargained so hard for. In typical Democrat fashion the prospect of helping vastly more people was framed as a necessary taking from others. Around that week I talked to a bunch of union members with supposedly great insurance for a piece which you probably read but I was thinking about this line from an organizer this morning and it’s worth revisiting.

“Healthcare is an albatross around my neck,” he said. Meaning all the time they have to spend negotiating to keep their health insurance it means less time working toward anything else.

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Discourse Blog

Hi all. Good news! Rush Limbaugh died. I wrote a very short obit of him, and then promptly did not think of him again for days, which is both good in that he is in hell now, and probably shortsighted as we’ll all be living with his legacy for decades. We had plenty of other stuff on the blog this week as well.

Paul Blest wrote about how Ted Cruz’s openly craven, completely morally vacant trip to Cancun probably won’t change his career at all, and Jack Mirkinson wrote about Andrew Cuomo’s violent disrespect for anyone beneath him in his ceaseless quest for power, as well as Biden’s immediate caving on student debt relief. Paul also wrote about the absurd discourse around teachers’ unions. Rafi Schwartz wrote about the GOP’s purge of anti-Trump voices, and Sam Grasso covered the demons at work in her own state of Texas. She also chronicled the Texas freeze and its after-effects, which landed her on Mehdi Hassan’s show, one of our first real (streaming) TV spots!  We’ve also had a great couple weeks in the What Now premium newsletter: Katherine talked to Brandy Jensen last week, and we’ve got a conversation between Rafi Schwartz and Eli Valley up today. More to come!