Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, June 14, 2013

Retreats Into Fantasy Are Not Demonstrations of Seriousness

A few days ago I posted what seemed to me an innocuously cute picture of a very young Nancy Pelosi with President Kennedy. This was on the occasion of Pelosi's (hopeless) effort to break Republican obstruction of a pay equity act for women in today's congress, fifty years after Kennedy signed an act that represented a precedent for this latest one. I should have thought the specificity of that context justification enough for what was mostly a throwaway post stating the obvious, but one of my readers took passionate exception to it, declaiming in the Moot:
Two extra-strong douchebags together. Kennedy, he of the stupid and wasteful Apollo programme, the guy who cracked in face of Soviet pressure but lied about it publicly so the Missile crisis resolution would look like a win for the US. Political classes everywhere are the same. Liars, thieves, narcissists, high-born morons. But hey, at least in democracies they can theoretically be chucked out after elections. Funny how you Muricans never manage to throw them out.
Now, this is clearly a rather scattershot bit of invective, and I don't always feel compelled to respond to these sorts of things, but there were a few bits of reasonable critique in there, and I certainly didn't want to be misconstrued as endorsing these politicians in an uncritical or universal way simply because of the endorsement of the particular policy of the particular moment actually indicated in the post, so I responded:
Plenty to criticize in both of these politicians, of course, but plenty to praise in both as well, far more than most. If you simply hate all elected officials one wonders why these two especially inspired your ire. I personally think Apollo was a stunning accomplishment, and I'm not sure we would be alive if Kennedy hadn't "cracked" as you call it. Who knows what you specifically have against Pelosi. On this blog you will find fairly exhaustive critiques of what passes for US democracy and proposals for what I take to be achievable improvements.
I would have expected this to end the exchange, honestly, but it did not. My interlocutor replied at length:
Actually, right around the time of the Cuban crisis, the balance of forces was such that if USSR fired first, US would still win, probably with 30-50 million dead, tops, depending on the breaks. (I can't help quoting media I like. Sorry) In case of first US strike, US could destroy all Soviet ICBMs (there were few - all slow to fuel, could not be stored ready to launch etc). First minutemen missiles came online just during the crisis. First comparable Soviet missiles appeared years later.

I am not sure what to praise in Kennedy? Vietnam escalation? He did have a decent economic and human rights policy... that is true. As far as elected representatives are concerned... I would say Mencken is right. In big democracies, decent and able men get to the top only by accident. And lately, US is a sham democracy. The media manipulation and campaigns ensure that whoever is elected is going to have strongly pro-business elite policies. And screw the rest. See how US productivity and incomes have de-coupled since you lot elected that two-bit actor from California? Good and hard..

Apollo program seems stunning, if you have no knowledge of Project Orion. It was brief, just perfect for a country that cannot maintain national attention longer than two electoral cycles.. Apollo brought US the moon. It was nothing more than a bigger version of Von Brauns Amerika rocket. No imagination at all: launching rockets from a Maglev can massively improve efficiency. Would it have been so difficult to build a hundred mile long massive maglev track somewhere in the Rockies, and launch thousand ton rockets at slightly below the speed of sound? No. NASA never attempted that.. A later, successful project Orion would have brought humanity the whole planetary system. The designs were easily capable of travelling to Saturn and back on one fuel load inside half a year .. and could have brought a way more reliable nuclear deterrent system. It was a very ambitious project, but if the physicists who were on it thought it tough but feasible, it probably was .. Submarines can launch surprise strikes .. flight times of three-five minutes, or even less, and are relatively easy to destroy. Nuclear-armed spaceships lurking somewhere beyond moon orbit .. those could only launch retaliatory strikes, never surprise one. It would take hours to days for the missiles to get back to Earth. Furthermore, Orion spacecraft would highly unstealthy, due to the propulsion system. So performing a sneak attack would be highly difficult. Developing such deterrent would also make further space exploration cheaper. It'd also massively lower cost of orbital structures. Kennedy signed the atmospheric test ban treaty. Pity no one thought later (1970s) about sharing all the data with the Soviets, who by then had enough nukes so they would not really benefit from the data. A joint space project..

[W]hat [do I] specifically have against Pelosi[?] Her husbands business deal. Seems to profit quite handsomely from her political position. Also, she was one of the proponents of the fairly idiotic assault weapon ban.. which banned guns depending on mostly cosmetic features. Which also ignores the point that murder rate does not really depend on gun availability (that only really influences the percentage of murders commited with guns). Homicide rate is mostly determind by social variables. If you would like to dispute this, first look it up. Even tribal medieval mudholes like Yemen, where almost every adult man has an AK are less violent than mostly disarmed US cities, especially those with big disadvantaged populations.. Furthermore, all such hasty legislation following statistically insignificant atrocities like Sandy Hook is odious to me. It usually aims to confiscate or outlaw billions worth of property from law-abiding citizens.. for what? There would be no reduction in death rate, since various US nuts have proven that deer rifles (Charles Whitman) or just handguns (such as can be easily stolen by clubbing a cop from behind and taking it from his holster) would still be available to various narcissistic assholes ... Failing that, they'd have to stick to trucks, truck bombs, swords and such, which, well...cannot be really banned. Everyone ignores the 5000-7000 victims of black-on-black gang violence. That is about eighty to hundred times worse when it comes to loss of life than spree killings, even in the worst years. Of course, no is willing to admit that they do not care about dead blacks in inner cities. A problem which is not really solvable with gun bans, since confiscating all the guns from Americans is practically and politically impossible. And why should they? Implicit association tests have shown that most Americans subconsciously hate or fear black Americans. ( Drug legalisation would greatly diminish the violence very quickly, just like scrapping the similarily moronic Volstead act ended the prohibition gang wars..
Whew! Quite a lot there, some bits a bit more sensible than other bits, clearly. Again, I don't necessarily think a reply to this screed is warranted or even welcomed here, but there was a larger issue in there that comes up quite regularly in the Moot among those who seem to think there is something naive or hypocritical in the way I endorse compromised processes and outcomes in the debased scrum of partisan electoral politics and convulsive reform that fail to measure up to the radical outcomes I also advocate as urgently necessary if the world is not to perish from catastrophic climate change exacerbated by wealth concentration and immiserating general precarity in the context of weapons proliferation. And so, perhaps rather ruefully, I replied again:
Needless to say, your alternative history didn't happen and had any episode of history unfolded a bit more like you seem to think it should have it too would have turned out differently than you seem to think it would have, and in ways you would denounce just as ferociously as measured against the slightly different alternative history you would have crafted in consequence instead.

Actual politics is a series of compromises between stakeholders mediated by conspicuously inadequately accountable institutions maintained by mostly scared scarred parochial error-prone people. As a general matter all this is made worse by the comparative geographical historical resource-rich insulation of America's highly privileged population from the consequences of their wasteful, violent, polluting conduct, as well as by the fact that our notionally democratic governance is stratified by plutocracy and both legacies and realities of white-racism.

Nonetheless, one can engage in efforts of education, agitation, organization, and electoral participation to reform the status quo in the direction of a more sustainable accountable equitable consensual polyculture. Party politics are inadequate but nonetheless indispensable to these efforts.

I disagree with you that the ready availability of military weapons has nothing to do with the catastrophe of gun violence in this country, as do the facts, but I agree with you that the racist war on (some) drugs has been a catastrophe that should end -- I advocate legalization, safety regulation, and taxation supporting rehabilitation programs for those who need or desire them. I won't even get into what seems to me to be the madness of your contemplation of "better" or "worse" nuclear wars -- nuclear war is always only an absolutely unfathomable catastrophe. <-- period.

But whatever our agreements or disagreements about ideal outcomes, there remain the whole range of judgements connected with the effort to arrive from where we are toward where we want to be in the actually-existing world of actually-existing institutions and actually-existing diverse stakeholders using actually-available means. Too many of your glib denunciations seem to me to amount to the self-satisfied refusal of available means to achieve ends closer to the ones you claim to care about all the while pretending you care about these ends more purely or clearly precisely because you refuse to endorse or engage the processes that might painfully bring something like them about.

For what it's worth I profoundly DO care about dead black people in cities (that association test notwithstanding -- a test which also suggests those who suffer from racism have inculcated such racist prejudices, so presumably they don't care about their own deaths or those of their families? -- not to mention that is isn't ought so a test demonstrating the obvious legacy of the irrational rationality of racism among Americans hardly endorses that racism as you seem to with your "should") and millions of others do as well -- I daresay Nancy Pelosi is one of them. Who knows if that makes her more odious or less to you.

And by the way, Apollo still seems stunning to me even knowing all there is to know about Orion -- and also knowing Orion did not nor would have actually happened (feeling rather differently about nukes than you seem to do, nor do I think it really should have happened). You are right when you point out that Apollo was a glorified conventional rocket -- the lander was the real engineering standout in the project in my estimation -- but to me this doesn't make coulda woulda shoulda any more compelling than reality, though it does suggest why a real Mars program implemented by an international consortium of real governmental space agencies (none of this for-profit McVegas smoke and mirrors crap) would contribute so much more substantial civilizational progress than Apollo did.

I honestly don't see why your point about the shortness of the American attention span and the evident unwillingness of most people to invest in long-term outcomes from which they would obviously benefit themselves without palpable in the shorter-term as well seems not to represent a fact altering your sense of pragmatic possibility and realistic reform strategy but one recommending instead the superiority of escapes into wish-fulfillment fantasizing as if that demonstrates greater integrity rather than folly conjoined to mild cowardice.
Not voting for Reagan (that two-bit actor from California) would almost surely have been better for America than voting for him was, even though it would hardly have been entirely good for America or the world any more than voting for Reagan was all rather than just mostly bad for America and the world, especially since Carter's Fed Chair was a key agent implementing the neoliberal phase of global capitalism and Carter himself invigorated socioculturally reactionary christianist politics in the US. The better of two evils is still evil ethically, but politically the better of two evils can be the difference that makes the difference facilitating better outcomes still, eventually outcomes that actually count as goods. I said it before and I say it again, electoral politics are inadequate for the achievement of the necessary outcome of sustainable accountable equitable consensual planetary polyculture but are nonetheless indispensable to that achievement. That is not a particularly comfortable reality, nor does it lend itself to concise assessments of what is happening and can happen in the world. But that is the way of the world. For now I'm treating this person as a good-faith interlocutor and not a troll. Perhaps the saga will continue, with more light than heat one can only wonder.


jollyspaniard said...

Uh why did we have to have a nuclear war in the 60s again?

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

Y. said..., because US did not do what Patton wanted, that is, re-arm the best of surrendered Wehrmacht and Waffen SS troops, rescind all aid to Soviets, turn the strategic air-force loose against their supply lines and boot them out of central and eastern Europe?

USSR fucked up regional development here for at least a century. Back during WWII, Austria was as poor as Slovakia, for example. Maybe twenty-thirty years from now both areas are going to be equally well-developed.

Not voting for Reagan (that two-bit actor from California) would almost surely have been better for America than voting for him was, even though it would hardly have been entirely good for America or the world any more than voting for Reagan was all rather than just mostly bad for America and the world, especially since Carter's Fed Chair was a key agent implementing the neoliberal phase of global capitalism and Carter himself invigorated socioculturally reactionary christianist politics in the US.

Carter was equally awful, yet in a different way. Often, there is no good choice.