Our Year End Discontents, 12/21/2020

Space Force has Guardians now, while terrestrial Americans dies by the hundred thousands

Space Force is the newest branch of the world’s most expensive military. On Friday, it announced that, after “hundreds of submissions and research involving space professionals and members of the general public,” it finally had a professional moniker to go alongside the Army’s Soldiers or the Navy’s Sailors: Guardians.

Also on Friday, 2,866 people in the United States died of COVID.

Friday’s deaths, almost an entire 9/11 worth, capped off a week in which 18,000 people in the United States died from the virus. Or, more accurately, died from the complete inability and unwillingness of the federal and state governments to control the spread of the virus. 

In absolute terms, it’s hard to comprehend what it means for thousands of people to die all at once from the same thing. Wars and battles are an easier comparison, numbers-wise, but at least when roughly 19,000 Americans died over the course of the Battle of the Bulge, they did so in combat against fascists. When COVID kills 18,000, it’s because people died simply from trying to exist in a nation that decided to sacrifice its own people on the altar of, not even the market, but the idea of the market.

The branding campaign for “Guardians” broke like a wet fart from a priest at a funeral. It’s a tragedy that we have to be here, and an insult for this to be how those in power are acknowledging it.

The Guardians of the Space Force at not protecting anyone from anything. They may be launching, maneuvering, and managing data from objects in space, but barring the sudden declassification of previously unacknowledged orbital weaponry, Space Force is the branch of the military least equipped to do violence. 

We don’t really need Space Violence to pass over from fiction to reality. Instead of clean lasers and unambiguous wins, the most certain consequence of any actual fighting in orbit is a rapidly increasing cloud of debris, which grows by destroying other satellites and destroys other satellites as it grows. The likeliest outcome of a war in space, even if it does the impossible and remains confined to space, is that orbit, as a place and a resource, stops being useful without tremendous effort involved in cleaning up debris. The 2020s are expected to see the number of satellites go from somewhere above 2,000 to well over 10,000 by the end of the decade. At that scale, debris is inevitable and collision likely, and that doesn’t even account for nations blowing up each other’s satellites with missiles or space forces.

Space doesn’t need Guardians, it needs custodians.

It might just be my particular beat, but the roll-out of Guardians in the deadliest month of the pandemic is the entire year in one grim, tidy package. The NDAA, the big bill that funds the Pentagon, passed Congress handily, a bipartisan triumph. A new stimulus bill, which would do the absolute bare minimum in allowing people to not starve when not working at a time when breathing around other people is deadly, has yet to pass, even as it’s been watered down to little more than a thank-you card and a half-off coupon for a lunch entree at Olive Garden.

There is money in Congress for present and future violence, and there is nothing for day-to-day survival.

In June, I lost my job covering weird bits of Pentagon spending. Technically, I lost it with the furloughs imposed in the middle of March, though there was always a chance with an aggressive government response and funding support, even the private equity group that owned the publication could have seen profit in hiring back reporters. I’ve found other work since then, and no small part of that has been the opportunity to write a newsletter directly to readers. I know I am incredibly fortunate in this regard, and also, every day I find inability of government to do the bare minimum in taking care of people in a disaster to be financially, personally, and spiritually exhausting.

We deserve better, broadly, as people, though so far the most 2021 is offering is a slight toggling down of the most visible abuses of the immediate past. It is not nothing, I guess. In the meantime, it’s entirely likely a few hundred thousand more people will die directly from the virus, and tens of millions more will suffer from hunger, eviction, and the other cruelties of a market and government wholly indifferent to mass suffering. 

Congratulations on the new name, space professionals. As for the rest of us, well, the government has spoken: Let them eat Space Force.

With that, Discontents is taking a break for the holidays and the new year. Expect to see us back in your inboxes on January 11th. If you’re hungry for more newsletters in the meantime, I highly recommend any and all of the back-issues of every writer here. And, if you’re looking to keep up with newsletters without drowning in your inbox, I’d be remiss to not mention that Substack just rolled out a Substack Reader. Experience the internet like it’s 2013 again!  

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

When asked to reflect on the “best of the year,” as someone who writes about arts and culture, you’re typically supposed to pull a Barack Obama and list, like, your ten favorite albums to send emails to. I don’t really operate that way. In a given year, I consume far more “old” (as in, not from that year) arts and media than new. I’m much more likely to re-read Dracula than to read the zeitgeisty novel du jour. I sometimes make exceptions—earlier this year, I did read Ben Lerner’s Topeka School only a few months after it came out, because he’s one of my favorite novelists—but generally I consume what I feel like. And that often means consuming things I know are likely to be good, because they’re either already familiar to me or have stood the test of either centuries or at least a couple of years.

I think the best new piece of art I consumed this year might well have been Ghost of Tsushima. (Not as good as, say, Ulysses, which I read for the first time this year; Or Shirley Jackson, ditto—but those books aren’t “new.”) It was not my best year for reading or watching new things, to say the least. I went back to a lot of comfort food on the page and on the screen. I did get a lot of writing done! Including launching my newsletter.

On that note, readers responded especially well to me revisiting one of my absolute favorite novels and doing some close reading. So you can expect more of that kind of thing if you sign up. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite pieces of my still-nascent newslettering career: Hamilton, Michael Clayton, Being That Guy in Your MFA, The Canon Debate, and Babylon Berlin.

I sincerely hope you’ve had as painless a year as possible. See you next year!

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Last week, I wrote about Christmas Trees, nuclear risk, and Civil Defense. I think it’s the right note to end the year on, full of bitter admiration for the optimistic apocalypse planning of the past, relative to the nihilistic apocalypse mismanagement of the present.

With that, here’s some stories I wrote this year that I particularly like. In February, back when both travel and staff jobs were a thing, I traveled to the never finished Satsop nuclear reactor outside Elma, Washington, and watched as robots autonomously navigated a DARPA-designed obstacle course under ground

I wrote about the long history of plague as a tool of war. Early in the pandemic, I took a stab at why cyberpunk feels so prescient, and spoiler, it’s because the unchecked techno-capitalism of the 1980s continues to be unchecked today. On the nuke beat, I wrote about the harms of restarting live nuclear testing, the way EMP fears obscure what nukes do to flesh and blood, and how fallout shelters were mostly a grift.

On the drone beat, I wrote about how the sword missile isn’t an answer to forever war, about the continuity of the drone war from Obama to Trump, and about how drones are as much a propaganda tool as a weapon. They’re also joining police forces, to provide high-resolution real time video to aid police as they fire rubber bullets at the heads of folk for saying police are too violent. Tangentially related, I took a look at how UFO sightings are an outgrowth of permanent wartime footing and the post-1947 security state.

And also, if you’re sick of wars without lightsabers and eager to ingest one in podcast form, we’re recording the last season of A People’s History of the Old Republic. Give it a listen!

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

I’m a pessimistic person by nature, but man even I was ready to tap out of 2020 by about September. The year started with a literal bang, with the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani that briefly looked like the opening shot in another major Middle Eastern war. We were lucky to avert that, but we didn’t get so lucky when it came to COVID-19, or wars in Ethiopia and the southern Caucasus, or a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, or…well, you get the idea. Kelsey covered it pretty well in his introduction.

At least we averted a war between India and China, I guess. That’s something.

Personally the global tragedy that hit hardest for me was the August explosion, caused mostly by official negligence, that destroyed Beirut’s seaport and a sizable chunk of the city. I’ve been to Lebanon, I’ve met Lebanese people, I know how badly they’ve been betrayed by their political class and by the international community for most of the past century. They, like all of us, deserve better.

I’d like to end this on an optimistic note, so let me leave you with a couple of things. By far the best thing that happened to Foreign Exchanges in 2020 was the addition of Daniel Bessner as a regular columnist. If you’ve missed any of his columns this year please go check them out. While you’re there, please feel free to leave a comment in one of his pieces telling him to add an image to his author page there. It looks a little sketchy like that. Finally, despite the year we’ve had, I want to wish every one of you a happy and safe holiday season and an auspicious start to 2021. See you then!

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

I’m sure there were things that delighted me this year I am just having trouble thinking of any of them right now besides this:

And this:

RIP to a king. Gunned down in his prime.

In Hell World I took a few opportunities to share things that weren’t exactly terrible from time to time in 2020 like my look back at the best songs of the year. I was also very fortunate to publish a bunch of essays by some of my friends and great writers in The Last Normal Day series:

The Last Normal Day:
Part 1 by Samantha Irby
Part 2 Zaron Burnett III
Parts 4-5 by Chris A. Smith and Shane Ferro
Part 6 by Kim Kelly
Part 7 by Julieanne Smolinski
Part 8 by Josh Gondelman
Part 9 by Jeb Lund
Part 10 by Joe Keohane
Part 11 by Linda Tirado
Part 12 by Aisha Tyler

If you were going to read anything on Hell World this year I guess I would want it to be one or both of these pieces I wrote Death is the capital of Uruguay or Kingdom Come. Ok bye.

Air Gordon pt. 2

Jeremy Gordon

Last week’s newsletter was all about what I did in 2020, so I will be lazy and relink to it here. My two favorite stories I wrote this year were a look into the music of The Last Dance (but also, so much more) for the New York Times, and an year-end essay about Cats (but also, so much more) for Hazlitt. I used to make more ornate year-end lists about my favorite cultural products but I was a much less disciplined consumer this year, and also — this will sound like a pretentious, hyperbolic excuse, and perhaps it is, but hear me out — the middle-brow appropriateness of Obama’s music/TV/movies/etc. lists struck a queasier chord with me this year, inasmuch as it really just is much easier than ever to have “good taste” without adding much more than that, and simultaneously signaling yourself as a conscientious citizen. That said, if there is one piece of content that sums up this entire year — and I say this not pretentiously or hyperbolically because I simply believe it to be true — then it’s probably David Guetta’s George Floyd tribute track. DFW/George Saunders/etc. eat your heart out.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

I’ve spent most of my professional life as a historian talking about things that are conventionally assumed to be bad: imperial decline, plagues, economic collapses, wars, and the basic misery of many folks’ lived experiences in the past. In a strange way, the waves of misfortune that swept over 2020 have felt like less of a shock to me than par for the historical course. That doesn’t make them better, but if you look out the window expecting a downpour and you see one, that’s less of a letdown than if you’re expecting to see bright sunshine.

On the plus side, I’ve had the chance to dive into essay-writing on the present, which has been fun and cathartic under the circumstances. This one on Bro Culture is my most recent, and I think it turned out well. I’m especially proud of the one I wrote on how imperial wars always come home sooner or later. The essays have helped keep me sane, I think, providing some sense of order and perspective on the present.

I’ve also been working on a series on the deep human past, the most recent installments of which focused on East Asia in prehistory through to the invention of agriculture in the region. It’s fascinating stuff, I promise, even if you’re not usually into that sort of thing.

This has been a hell of a year, and I hope you’re all well and staying safe and sane.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

This year was full of a lot of professional changes for me which included restarting my Substack and returning to the freelance game. I think the freelance stuff has gone pretty well—my stories on the Boston Police Department and the Alex Morse scandal are career highlights—and using Substack to tell stories that I feel are undercovered. I'll do a year end wrap at some point over the next two weeks. 

As far as what I enjoyed this year, I did a rewatch of the outstanding British procedural Line of Duty recently and  read Dan Simmons's Hyperion and James Gleick's The Information. 

There was a lot more but the year's been such a blur of stress and media consumption that I'm drawing a blank. I also got really into playing Diplomacy.

See you all next year!

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

It’s become a cliche to point this out, but this year really has been kind of messed up, hasn’t it? As the parent of a young kid (this is Rob btw) I don’t really get out to see a lot of new movies in a normal year and 2020 was no different. I also have aged out of needing to know about or listen to any new music until years later after it has ceased being cool or relevant. I think my most listened to song this year was “Margaritaville”. I was going through some stuff, we don’t need to get into it. I did enjoy The Boys and have been digging The Queen’s Gambit so far. I also managed to find time to play The Last of Us 2 and found that it somehow managed to exceed my extremely high expectations, so that’s my game of the year. The runner up was probably Control, but to be honest this was the only other video game I found time to play. It’s good though. I haven’t talked to Jordan about this but I feel confident telling you that his game of the year, on an unprecedented two-decade run in this category, was Magic: The Gathering.

In keeping with the overall awfulness of 2020, we’re ending the year with some of the most deranged and toxic online discourse we’ve seen yet, so for this week’s episode we brought on Dan From the Internet to talk to us about taking on the Democratic Party establishment. We all agree this is something that needs to happen, but the question is how? According to some, the only possible way to do it is to force Nancy Pelosi into holding a doomed vote on Medicare For All. Can we add some nuance to that discussion or will we reveal ourselves to be the sellout neoliberal shills that we are? Tune in to find out and we’ll talk to you next year.

Discourse Blog

Jack Crosbie (writing for the collective)

It’s been a wild year for Discourse Blog, which didn’t exist when the year started and is now a fully-fledged media company. I’ll keep this short as the draft is running out of space, but might as well take this chance to thank everyone who has followed us in every incarnation we’ve been in this year — from the janky Wordpress blog to the slightly-more-polished Substack to the gorgeous, custom-designed website we hope to keep around for many years to come. We’re still working towards making this thing a sustainable, full-time gig for everyone who works there, but the support and subscriptions we’ve gotten thus far have made something that seemed like a pipe dream when Splinter died an actual reality. We’re in this for the long haul and we hope you’ll come along.


Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz

lol this year. It’s been bad! And also—this feels so gross to say, please put me on the cross—kind of professionally… good? Felipe taught a journalism class and published a bunch of shit for a bunch of places, I published One Big Feature and started grad school and tweeted less, the newsletter had a small scoop re: ICE using deportation planes to “evacuate” Americans stuck in Latin America due to the pandemic, and also we published our weekly policy analysis without fail, even when I was very tired and didn’t want to! 

Last week, we looked at the vast powers the executive branch has regarding immigration, and the ebbs and flows of enforcement priorities over the last few decades. Put simply, the president has a lot of power over who to deport—or not to deport—and the incoming Biden administration could, in theory, decide to use those powers to drastically reduce or even stop deportations altogether. That said, it’s pretty unlikely that’ll happen, given the Obama administration’s own immigration enforcement choices, the fact that Biden is somehow already pissed at immigrants’ rights groups for being too “combative,” and the immigration enforcement system’s insistence on getting rid of “criminal aliens” regardless of which party is in office.

Be The Spark

Kim Kelly

I’ll keep it brief and posi here, and say that it was also a good year for me strictly and solely from a professional (lol) standpoint. I filed over 100 stories (which I very much wish had been like 25 stories for way more money apiece instead) with some of my favorites appearing in Esquire, Food & Wine, and NYT, plus basically everything Teen Vogue let me get away with this year. I also sold my book on intersectional labor history, FIGHT LIKE HELL, which is due out May 2022 on One Signal/Simon & Schuster. Now I’ve just got to write the thing, which I surmise will take up most of my 2021.

There’s no more room to type so, one last thought: if you’ve got some downtime coming up, do yourselves a favor and rewatch The Golden Girls. Those rambunctious old broads have helped keep me sane during a dark and terrible year that robbed me of the ability to visit my own grandma. I’m a Dorothy-slash-Blanche, obviously.