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Author: Steve

I live and work in the Philadelphia area. I am an ETL software tester by profession but I also enjoy writing, tabletop gaming, reading and thinking about history, binge-watching Netflix, and traveling with my BFF. We especially like going to the Big Apple to catch a show.
Boomer Moralism and Today’s Dysfunctional Politics

Boomer Moralism and Today’s Dysfunctional Politics

I’ve read somewhere, more than once, that the Baby Boomers are the worst generation of political leaders in U.S. history. They are presiding over an era of extreme political partisanship and government paralysis. What I mean by “presiding” is that they are the majority of top political leaders, and that it is their generational peer personality that is primarily responsible for the combative, partisan nature of politics today. As I reviewed earlier, some Boomers acknowledge this, and that it’s even worse than you think. Basically, with Boomers in charge, nothing will ever get done, and government is doomed to be an ever-worsening shitshow.

At the heart of the problem is the moralistic character of the Boomer generation. This character was evident in their youth, which was famous for campus unrest and protests against the government policies of older generations. When Boomers aged into mid-life and entered politics themselves, starting in the 1980s, they brought their righteous indignation with them. Politics became more about confrontation over moral principles, and less about actually instituting policy.

This tracked with the overall evolution of the social order, which was steering away from the outer world and collective action, and toward the inner world and individual empowerment. It was what Strauss & Howe call the Unraveling Era, when the demand for social order reaches a nadir. But now that we are in the Crisis Era, and the demand for social order is rising, the confrontational, partisan mode of politics is proving to be severely detrimental. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, for God’s sake!

Which brings me to this remarkable essay by Julius Krein, called “The Three Fusions.” I bring it up because the author pinpoints moralism and ideology-driven politics as the root of this era’s failures of government. I’ll briefly review the essay, without going into what he means by his three fusions, or the details of how he breaks down the ideologies of the Left and the Right.

In “The Three Fusions,” Julius Krein argues that moralism in politics has undermined the democratic nation-state, which is why neither political faction (Left or Right) has been successful at implementing its particular political agenda. The problem is neither faction really wants the collective to be empowered, since each sees virtue as residing in the individual, not the collective. Both the Left and the Right end up trying to advance their goals by putting responsibility on individual morality alone. Each side’s vision of an ideal society can only be achieved by having all individuals freely internalize its moral principles, since neither side will allow for the empowerment of collective will through state action. Hence the ridiculousness of virtue-signalling memes buzzing through our social media feeds, as though given enough time they will cause a majority of the populace to internalize the correct moral viewpoint. But that doesn’t happen; each side’s social media bubble is impervious to the memes of the other. Representative democracy can’t work with two factions in total opposition and government consequently gridlocked by partisanship. So we’re stuck without any means to empower the state to serve the national interest.

Krein is a Millennial, born in 1986. His generation is of the opposite archetype of the Boomers, so it’s no suprise that his instinct is to turn away from moral correctness as the legitimating principle of government. He clearly yearns for a more practical, functioning mode; one that acknowledges differences in belief about morality while still allowing for collective decision-making. I think many in his generation do, as their political activism shows.

But how to get past the dysfunctional Boomer paradigm? And to be fair, it’s not just the Boomer generation that bears a responsibility for excessive moralism. Younger generations are playing along, even Millennials – just scroll through Twitter to see what I mean. They are following the lead of their visionary elders, which might work, if only there were a more clearly dominant vision.

Eventually, as the generations age, moralism will fade away on its own accord. But by then the damage done may be irreparable. There’s certainly no resurrecting all the people who have died from Covid. And it might be too late to restore trust in democracy, or to revert the trend of ever-widening inequality. We’ll end up in a 21st century dystopia.

I honestly think that getting to a dominant vision is probably the only way to a quick resolution of this problem. It allows the Boomers to fulfill their archetypal role of visionary, and the younger generations their roles as well. It won’t matter that the dominant ideology has logical contradictions. Obviously, not everyone is going to like it. But it’s either that or twisting in the wind and enduring the pain of a broken system. Lord knows we’ve endured enough pain as it is.

Subreddit of the week: murderedbyAOC

Subreddit of the week: murderedbyAOC

Years back, I wrote a blog post about how Millennials use social media for consensus building. I was tying into predictions based on Strauss & Howe generational theory on how the Millennial generation would behave as young adults in this era, the Crisis Era. One prediction is that they will enforce a code of good conduct.

Prediction about Millennials from The Fourth Turning.

Fast forward to today, and cancel culture is fully in place. Well, what is “cancel culture” if not an effort to enforce a code of conduct by ostracizing those who violate the code?

It seems that complaints about cancel culture come mostly from the political right. But before you call it a phenomenon of the left, I challenge you to go to a right-leaning site like parler and express support for President Biden. I’ll bet you get “cancelled” pretty fast.

Could the right’s problem with cancel culture just come from the fact that the left has been more successful at it? Perhaps that is because the left’s code of conduct better reflect’s the majoritarian view. Perhaps that is because the left didn’t choose a champion who is a criminal mountebank.

Or maybe the left really is just better at the culture game. We all know from reddit that the /r/TheRightCantMeme. And look no further than reddit to find a Millennial who excels at enforcing good conduct with her brilliant wit.

I mean Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has her own subreddit, dedicated to reposting the stinging comebacks to red zoners that she makes on social media. It’s a happy little bubble for a blue zoner to go and assure themselves of the superiority of their partisan viewpoint. And as a partisan blue zoner myself, I’m happy to declare /r/murderedbyAOC the subrreddit of the week.

Silent of the Week: Mitch McConnell

Silent of the Week: Mitch McConnell

He may well be the most hated man in America. Mitch McConnell has simultaneously angered Democrats by letting Trump off the hook for the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and angered Republicans by betraying Trump. In a bizarre moment in American political history, he acquitted the former President at his impeachment trial, then made a speech blaming him for the very crimes for which he had been acquitted.

Senator Mitch McConnell (b. 1942) makes a blistering speech condemning the former President, moments after voting to acquit him.

Egregiously, his reason for acquitting the former President was that the Senate didn’t have the power to convict an impeached officer once they were out of office, even though, as majority leader when the impeachment articles were presented to the Senate, he had refused to try them! It was like he was playing a shell game. Because of this, McConnell will likely be remembered by history for duplicity, even cowardice.

And yet there was that speech, laying the blame wholly at Trump’s feet. What gives? Well, consider that McConnell, as I have brought up before, is from the Silent generation (b. 1925-1942). This is a generation that puts process over principle. They are indeed masters of process, which McConnell certainly demonstrated with his little political trick that enabled him to personally blame Trump for January 6, while sparing his fellow party members from having to make any similar such political statement.

Honestly, I think that is his game. He is trying to divest the Republicans of Trump with as little risk as possible to the current Republican office-holders. At least, that’s my understanding of his motivation. If, ultimately, this gambit fails and Trumpism rises again (the feared “beer hall putsch” scenario), then McConnell will go down in history as one of those double-dealing politicians who fails to confront a growing threat until it is too late. Like the Compromisers before the U.S. Civil War, or like Neville Chamberlain.

But for now, since Mitch McConnell has demonstrated the art of political process and a thorough appreciation of his powers within the political system, I name him my Silent of the week.

The Small Wars Come Home

The Small Wars Come Home

In their book The Fourth Turning, Strauss & Howe assert that there is a difference in the way wars are fought in the third phase of their historical cycle, versus the way they are fought in the fourth and final phase. In the third phase, wars are fought with moral fervor but without resolution or consensus. In the current cycle, this was the phase of the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. In the last cycle, this third phase coincided with the First World War.

In the fourth phase, the Crisis Era, wars are fought to conclusion, for maximum effect. In the last cycle, this was the time of the Second World War. One can easily see how the Second World War can be understood as the First World War re-fought, but to a more decisive end.

In the mid-2000s, when the U.S. was floundering in Iraq, I actually described a kind of heady vision of how affairs might be different in the next era. In other words, how the nation-building wars in the Middle East might be re-fought, but more decisively.

As I understood it, we would finally have the right generational constellation for the Boomers to translate their values obsession into significant world change. Back then in the Bush era, it seemed to me that red zone values were dominating and a Republican would likely be the one to fulfill a role like that of FDR in the last cycle. Here’s what I wrote in conclusion:

Imagine, if you will, a President Sam Brownback. He knows the greatest poverty and oppression in the world lies in the continent of Africa, which is also where the greatest terrorist threat now lives, since Al-Qaeda has fled there after the Middle East has finally been stabilized. Imagine serious nation-building efforts to raise up the poorest of the poor African countries, which might include invasions to depose an intransigent dictator or two. Imagine a corps a hundred thousand strong of enthusiastic young Millennials, guided by competent middle-aged Gen-Xers, joining up to serve in one or two year tours, helping to build infrastructure and train indigenous peoples and do police work. This would be Boomer values finally bearing fruition…

–me, ~2008

It seems ridiculously out of touch now, but where I was clearly going in my thought process was to imagine that there would be a redux of the failed intervention in the Middle East, but one that would actually be successful. Just as World War II had been World War I fought to conclusion, I conceived of a future United States embarking on a new round of nation-building wars, but this time seeing them through to the end.

What’s actually happened, we now see with hindsight, is that nation-building has been repudiated, and the United States has pulled back from its global wars of intervention and turned its focus inward. And the circumstances the United States military faced in the Middle East, it now faces at home. Armed militias disrupt the functioning of government. A “green zone” like the one that was set up in Baghdad is set up instead in Washington D.C. itself.

During the War on Terror, doctrines emerged for fighting “asymmetric warfare”, part of a new focus on “small wars” in an age of unilateralism, with the United States as the sole superpower. “Post-conflict stablization” became a new mission in the wake of invasion and regime change. In a kind of karmic comeuppance for U.S. hubris, these small wars have come home. It’s like the mission now is to stabilize the United States – in the era in which the last round of wars are re-fought, but decisively.

Arguably, the degree of political instablility in America is nothing like what it is in the parts of the world where the U.S. once felt obligated to intervene. But consider that in the Crisis Era, to quote The Fourth Turning, “wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.” (p. 104). The fact that the energy of the U.S. has turned inward, and that the nation has just had a brush with violent domestic regime change, is ominous.

Subreddit of the Week: enlightenedcentrism

Subreddit of the Week: enlightenedcentrism

There is a subreddit devoted to the idea that the claim “but both sides are doing it…” as some sort of above-the-fray stance of moderation is really aligning oneself with the extremist right. It’s called /r/enlightenedcentrism and it freely admits in a reminder on a pinned post that it is left-leaning.

An image taken from a post on /r/enlightenedcentrism.

I bring up this subreddit because I recently read the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” It’s authors argue that the Republican Party bears the greater responsibility for creating the partisan rift and for disrupting the functioning of government. It’s been their strategy since they started pushing against the New Deal coalition of the Democratic Party, way back when conservative Baby Boomers entered politics. It’s part of their Ayn Rand-ian “no government is good government” agenda. The authors also argue that the problem has been exacerbated by the professional media’s inclination to attempt to report objectively, to treat both sides of the partisan divide fairly. This has obfuscated the truth that one side is deliberately being disruptive and causing damage to the democractic process.

Doesn’t this make sense of recent events surrounding the election of the new President, a Democrat? Let’s face it, being an enlightened centrist isn’t a useful option any more. As Dr. Maggie Gravel says at the end of Death to 2020, “pick a side and hunker down.” Either get on your Russian-hosted social media site with the other red staters and plot against the United States, or join the blue state and the mission of restoring the nation.

2021 State of the Coup

2021 State of the Coup

If you haven’t seen any videos by YouTuber CGP Grey, then you should check them out. I highly recommend them for being engaging and informative, as well as amusing in that they are mostly stick figure animations. Grey is one of those Millennial “explainer” YouTubers; I’ve blogged about them before. What gives these folks the credentials to speak authoritatively about the subject matters they cover? Basically, being intelligent and educated and willing to take the time to do some research and thinking.

I bring up CGP Grey because of this remarkable video of his titled “The Rules for Rulers.” It’s a 20 minute long primer on how to stay in power under various forms of government, including a dictatorship. There’s even an example of a coup which shows a little stick figure mob storming a government building. This is obviously relevant today.

I can’t speak for how accurate Grey’s video is in terms of political theory, but it is certainly compelling. The description of the video indicates that it is adapted from the book “The Dictator’s Handbook“. One of the basic tenets of rulership as described here is that, as a ruler, one must retain influence over the “keys to power.” These are the people/social elements that let you get things done.

We can see in this video that the little stick figure dictator needs the help of other stick figure “keys” that look like they belong to three distinct branches of society: the military, the police, and the business elites. A wannabe dictator pulling off a coup needs these keys. Sending a mob to storm a building is a useful ploy, but only when these keys are in the wannabe dictator’s pocket. The mob itself is not a key to power.

And so you can see the fundamental flaw in the plan of a certain wannabe dictator. He has a violent mob, but he doesn’t have all of those keys in his pocket. He certainly doesn’t have the business elites; they have deplatformed and pulled financial support from him and his political allies. And he doesn’t have the military, as evidenced by the statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in support of the U.S. Constitution and the incoming Biden administration.

Now it’s possible, unfortunately, that the wannabe dictator has some support from the police. It’s been known for a long time that police forces in the United States have been infiltrated by white supremacists. Connecting this fact to a certain leader’s need for keys to power casts a whole new light on the protests against police brutality last summer.

A violent mob and a percentage of rogue law enforcement officers is not enough influence to install a wannabe dictator in power, but is still a danger to the public. We’ve all seen the threatening postings on social media. While the coup has failed, we’re not out of the woods yet.

So be careful out there. Be prepared for some disruption in the days to come. Domestic terrorists can do a lot of harm, but they can’t take down our Republic. Their blind rage alone is powerless to overcome us.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

I still sometimes see people out and about and not masked. I call them “death spreaders” and give them a very wide berth. There was a death spreader at the Post Office over the Christmas holiday. It was in much too close quarters for anyone to be unmasked and it pissed me off. It’s sad that this is still a problem, with the pandemic raging and the numbers just getting worse and worse.

When I first observed this phenomenom I called these people Covidiots. Their presence was ominous and invoked the feeling of being in an apocalyptic movie. How can it be getting worse?

We all know the real problem. The pandemic has been politicized. One side of the political divide believes the pandemic is a lie, just as they believe the election is a lie. And now the Covidiots are out on the streets, armed and dangerous, attacking democracy itself.

It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. So get ready for the final chapter in the trilogy, coming soon to a country near you.

What I learned in 2020

What I learned in 2020

Looking back at 2020, it at once one of the most eventful and one of the least eventful years of my life (of all of our lives, I imagine). Mostly we stayed at home and did nothing. Very uneventful. But also, we experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic, and I moved in permanently with my BFF. Absolutely earth-shattering.

And then there was this insane election and this dreadful sense that we might be close to a coup of some sort and the end of democracy in the United States. I believe that danger has passed, but for awhile there I was shaken up.

This year I’ve blogged extensively about both the political divide and the pandemic. On this final day of 2020 I wanted to think a little more about the year’s lessons.

My BFF was telling me that some Trump supporters on her social media feeds have argued that total deaths this past year are actually no different than in past years. It’s not to deny the reality of Covid-19, but to say that because of the lockdowns other causes of death have been reduced (for example, vehicle-related), so it’s evened out. I guess they think this is a reason to open up the economy again, though when I think about it, wouldn’t it make sense to never reopen, even after everyone is vaccinated and Covid is no longer a threat? Then the death rate should really go down!

In all seriousness, I understand that we accept certain levels of risk in our society. There is no way to eliminate altogether the possibility of death or bodily harm. We can’t live our lives at all if we are too cautious about accepting risk. And we have schemes to mitigate risk; we all accept the dangers of automobile use, knowing that our insurance system will absorb the costs, if not guarantee our lives. Less effectively, our health insurance system does the same for medical risks.

The point that anti-shutdowners seem to be missing is that the costs associated with Covid-19 are much too high for our healthcare system to absorb. So just accepting the risk in the way we do with the dangers of automobile use is not a good option. To bolster their arguments, pandemic deniers fall back on questioning the data altogether. It must be that it’s all overblown. And I understand part of the motivation for believing this – for many people, the shutdown has been financially devastating. It is quite a quandary.

So a big lesson of the year is that we need to restore trust in our society, and to heal the political divide. It has been tough living in this time of contentious politics. And we need to reform our fragile system so that when public health demands drastic change, it isn’t quite so destructive of people’s livelihoods. It’s certainly doable, with all the wealth in our country.

And maybe we should have been practicing some of these health measures already – wearing face masks in the flu season, for example. Certainly when we ourselves are symptomatic; this is common practice in other societies.

I know its easy for me to accept the pandemic protocols, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker. Personally, I’ve had one of the healthiest years of my life, except for a bit of a lack of exercise. Not travelling, and having the boys stay home from school has meant that I haven’t had a cold since early in the year. Usually I get sick a couple of times at least. And not commuting has been a blessing, saving both time and money. But like I said, that’s not an option for everyone.

Ok, I’m rambling. What did I learn this year? That I am very lucky. That what matters is family and loved ones. That we should enjoy life while we have it, because it is very fragile. Our whole world is fragile. Live fully in each day because time always rushes on.

Subreddit of the Week: aboringdystopia

Subreddit of the Week: aboringdystopia

I’m sure you’ve heard of the science fiction genre known as cyberpunk. I’m not talking about the recently released video game; I mean science fiction that is high-tech and futuristic in its setting, and politically and socially dystopian in its outlook.

An early example in film was the 1982 movie Blade Runner, based on a Philip K. Dick novel from the 1960s. It was a real trendsetter for the cyberpunk aesthetic – bleak and dark, but also slick and stylish. Like how everybody dressed in the nineties. It promised a future of brutal corporate rule and film noir cool. Did it get that future right? Not really. But as I broke it down in a review of the film and its sequel, science fiction is just modern mythology. Most of it is fantastical and completely unrealistic in its extrapolations; the real point of it is to explore the human psyche and the meaning of life.

Cyberpunk took off in the late 1900s, but as the world turned and the real cyberworld evolved, it looked less and less like the jaded, punk settings of the fictional genre. Going into the twenty-first century, cyberreality was becoming helpful and consumer-oriented. A more accurate depiction in dystopian fiction of the world to come was captured in the 2002 movie Minority Report, also based on a Philip K. Dick story. It was quite prescient in its forecast of a society under continuous surveillance and evaluation. The world it envisions even includes targeted advertising, and self-driving cars. The big thing it gets wrong is that, instead of psychics, we use machine learning algorithms to predict human behavior.

Now that we’re one-fifth of the way into the new century, and deep into the Crisis Era, the luster has come off of the consumer-oriented market society. Concerns about wealth and income inequality, and the plight of the underprivileged, have come to the forefront of popular dystopian science fiction. In the 2018 movie Ready Player One, a powerful tech company dominates society and a permanent underclass can only find respite in virtual reality. Sound anything like your life?

In the even higher stakes story of 2013’s Elysium, the Earth inhabited by the poor is almost unlivable, and the privileged middle class has taken to an orbital space habitat, where they enjoy vastly superior lives to those on the planet surface. Clearly this society has not dealt successfully with either climate change or the rising cost of healthcare. As far-fetched as the techonologies may be in the film, the allegory of an elite class that has completely abandoned any sense of social responsibility is unmistakeably relevant.

What kind of harrowing, high-tech dystopia do we actually live in today? That takes me to the title of this post and the subreddit /r/aboringdystopia. Here the teeming digital masses chronicle all the petty injustices and cruelties of the modern world, all the ways the megacorps keep us under their thumbs, all the ways that late stage capitalism is failing us. We did manage to get to a dystopia of oppressive corporate rule after all, it’s just not futuristic or cyberpunk.

Somehow we became an oppressed underclass without keeping any sense of style. We’re sitting in our sweatpants and binge-watching Amazon Prime, not running around in cool leather jackets like Neo and Trinity. But in our own sad way, we’re jacked in to the Matrix and trapped in a dystopia.

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

I just finished this quick read – It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Here’s my review on goodreads:

The Boomer generation is one whose scholars and thinkers (and they are a thinking generation rather than a doing generation) tend towards pessimistic outlooks and dire prognostications. They are also the most politically destructive generation in living memory. The destructiveness the Boomers have wrought in American government is the subject of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”, a collaboration by two of their own chorts. While the book isn’t explicitly generational history, the story it tells, of government becoming increasingly partisan and conflict-oriented rather than coalitional and achievement-oriented, clearly coincides with the Boomers’ rise to political power.

The authors trace the beginnings of this trend all the way back to 1978, when Newt Gingrich first took office in the House of Representatives. Before reading this book, I had not realized how far back the inception of the Gingrich Revolution was, or how long it took to come to fruition. It was predicated on a strategy of confrontation and disruption, and of questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions: the Boomer modus operandi since the days of the student movements of the 1960s. By the time of the Obama administration, when this book was first published, the strategy enabled a Republican minority to hold the United States government hostage.

The fundamental problem which Mann and Ornstein diagnose is that parliamentary style political parties do not mesh well with a system of separate branches with checks and balances. A minority party can easily exploit one branch’s power to limit another’s and prevent any governing from happening at all. This suits the ideology of the Republican party, which holds that government is actually undesirable altogether, and their asymmetric use of this strategem against the Democratic party has defined politics in the United States in our time. Generation X politicians in the GOP, like the “Young Guns” of the 2008 election cycle, have been happy to take up the banner of obstructionism in the name of anti-government principles. This alliance between Boomer and Gen X conservatives has wielded considerable power, and clearly marks a generational shift in U.S. politics.

Again, the authors don’t explicitly make a generational point. What they do is break down the problem in terms of specific factors and offer some possible remedies. Foremost is improving voter participation and shifting away from winner-take-all electoral processes, which prevent moderate politicians from winning elections. Campaign finance reform is another possible remedy at the electoral level. At the institutional level, reducing the use of the filibuster to obstruct legislation and executive nominations is key. Finally, improving the culture overall is required, to restore public trust and recreate a sense of public space.

The authors released an edition in 2016 with the title updated to “It’s Even Worse Than It Was”; this is the edition I read. In the afterword, Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that nothing improved since 2011, that all the trends of hyperpartisanship and extremism and lack of compromise have worsened. And this was before Trump won the election; I can only guess that a third edition published now would be titled “It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined”. The disastrous inability of the government to address the Covid-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates the damage that the insurgent Republican party has done to our political system.

Overall this book is a quick and easy read, and an eye-opening work of political analysis. It explains the changes that have occurred in government since Boomers and Gen Xers have come to dominate in office, and how the confrontational style of parliamentary politics has rendered our constitutional system dysfunctional. It understands that restoring the functioning “normality” of the past, with parties that are adversarial but able to work together, will be difficult. Informed by generational theory, we must recognize that it will take future generations of politicians to get us there.

I’ll just add that, despite the pessimistic title I gave to this blog post, I feel like we might soon be over with this period of hyperpartisanship. I think the worst of the extremists are being discredited, and are being marginalized in the public sphere. Trump’s hopes of a coup of some sort are fading, and Trump supporters are heading for the shadows.

Obviously a lot is riding on the transition to the Biden administration and its first few months. Like all of us, I will watching intently to see if it finally starts getting better.