As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time, people will solemnly vote against their own interests.
– Gore Vidal
Today I write from Mendocino County, CA – 120 miles north of the Bay Area, on the edge of the “Lost Coast,” and in the circulation zones of both the Anderson Valley Advertiser (“Fanning the flames of discontent”) and the Green Fuse – where the effects of a freakish “split polar vortex” are impossible to ignore. This weather anomaly delivered a biting cold wind that has dug in with icy claws and is hanging on persistently. Snow is on the way.
It’s not Minnesota cold (where I spent seven winters) and I’m certainly grateful for that. So, though nightly lows have dipped below freezing, the lettuce that overwintered in the garden has survived, and the kale and carrots have been deliciously sweetened. (If you’ve never tasted winter-harvested kale or carrots, then you’ve never tasted kale or carrots, as far as I’m concerned.)
Though on the chillier end, these temps are not out of the historic range for this area at this time of year. What’s jarring about them is that they came right on the heels of a warmer-than-usual mid-winter thaw. The sun heated the oak-dotted hills to 75 degrees for a week, coaxed out flushes of wildflowers on the slopes, induced the mustard greens to bolt, and hatched clouds of moths. For a few sultry, open-windowed nights, the spiders in the cabin captured these moths by the dozens and wrapped them up tight for later. Some are still hanging high on the walls like ill-fated campers in mummy-style sleeping bags (or dwarves from tree branches).
For me, the most impressive event of the thaw was the cacophonous outbreak of frog song in the pond near the cabin. At its peak, the sound was nearly deafening at close-quarters. Fortunately for the frogs, this pond is located quite a ways up from the valley-bottom and no one is farming, ranching or timbering on the ridge above it that drains into it, so the water is clean. In this neck of the woods, that means no chemicals from a Cannabis grow, which I’m grateful for since some of those are pretty nasty.
One night I went out into the dark to listen to the frogs and record their sounds for later listening. There were so many voices. Certainly hundreds. As I made my away around the muddy edges of the pond, where the Pennyroyal creeps and the Cattails crowd, the din constantly changed, as different voices rose in prominence and then fell off again.
I wondered if I had ever heard frog song this loud before. I also wondered how many people have never heard frog song at all. Then I wondered how much longer it would go on; not just that particular season of calling (which subsided considerably with the arrival of the polar vortex), but also the range of conditions that is amenable to amphibious life in riparian zones in this part of the world.
Rainfall been below average so far this year, not just in Mendocino County, but across the whole state. According to the Anderson Valley Advertiser (“Drought Bound?” by Marshall Newman, 2/14/2018), “a veteran meteorologist commented that no year with a similar extended early snowfall shortfall in the Sierra Nevada has ever finished the snow season with an average snowpack.” Like the author of this piece, I had also been noticing the lack of mud and puddles this winter on the unpaved back roads. One bright sunny day in particular, I was taken aback by the cloud of dust kicked up by the truck in front of me. In the summer, it’s standard operating procedure to leave some distance between yourself and the vehicle in front of you so you don’t have to breathe their dust, but not in February!
On another day, shortly after the moths appeared, I was distressed to see a few butterflies. Butterflies usually have narrow diets, sometimes comprised of a single species of plant. Looking around, I wondered if there was any larval food available and I doubted it. Much of the plant world still slept. Spring’s bounty was not here yet. Butterflies have short but urgent to-do lists: get it on and lay eggs. But if their food isn’t around yet, then there’s nowhere to fulfill the second task and that individual’s lineage dies. The evolutionists will assure us that this is merely the unfit not surviving, but as unseasonal swings become more extreme and erratic, the rate of ecological change will exceed that of biological adaptation. So goes the sixth great extinction.
The fact is, the warm spell was too warm and this cold one is too cold. If we’re getting a “polar vortex” here at this latitude, and despite the marine influence, then the Arctic is missing out on some cold up there. That’s bad news for Arctic creatures, whose seasonal food-web will be disrupted and habitat degraded. It’s also bad news for the planet. When it comes to anthropogenic climate change, as goes the Arctic, so goes the world. A collection of environmental feedback loops are developing there, with increased warmth creating conditions that increase warmth creating conditions that increase warmth creating conditions that…
On Feb. 14th, the Independent reported that, for the first time at this time of year, a ship traversed the Arctic Sea without an ice-breaker. This is big news because the Arctic route is a short-cut between many destinations. Perversely, the ship that made this news was a liquefied natural gas tanker. The Independent quoted a Greenpeace activist as saying: “[N]ow, ironically, we can deliver fossil fuels more quickly. It’s like a heavy smoker using his tracheotomy to smoke two cigarettes at once.”
A week later, Boston recorded two days in a row with temperatures of 70°F or more, the first time that’s happened in February in 150 years of record-keeping. Washington, DC, hit 80° with a heat index of 83°. In Kentucky and Maryland, spring is apparently running three weeks ahead of schedule [ Grist ].
On Feb. 25th, a weather station north of the Arctic Circle recorded above-freezing temps for a 24 hour period which is “virtually unheard of” in this month, according to an article on Mashable. The sun is not even shining there at this time of year. What’s more, the extent of sea ice in some parts of the Arctic Sea declined in February, even though it should be expanding until March.
These are all signs of a global crisis that without exaggeration can be described as existential. That is, the continued survival of our species – and of countless others around the world – is an open question. Some, like activist Kevin Hester, whom I interviewed in January, make the case for near-term human extinction, “near-term” meaning within the lifetimes of people alive now. If that seems far out to you, be informed that the climate change reports produced by the IPCC – which sets the establishment narrative that the mainstream media follows – are always out of date due to lengthy processing times preceding publication and are overly conservative resulting from a consensus process that is increasingly politicized.
But even by the IPCC’s numbers, we are facing a conundrum of planetary proportions that demands significant transformation: logistical, economic and social. Metaphorically, the planet is burning. Business-as-usual cannot continue. If there was ever a time to collectively get serious and focus, this is it. With each passing day, the urgency of our need grows more intense.
But, with each passing day, the possibility of such action in the US lessens, or so it feels like to me.
* * *
Partisanship increasingly dominates public discourse, effectively sucking the oxygen out of every discussion, reducing all debate to oversimplified either/or propositions.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pining for some tragically-passed era when learned gentlemen politely debated and compromised. First, such an era is a myth. Looking back at the 1800’s (was that when America was “great”?) partisan disagreements were combative to the point of violence. Disagreements in Congress could escalate to a beating, a brawl or drawing a pistol. Recall that this was the age of dueling. Then of course there was the Civil War, a profoundly divisive partisan event that left at least 618,000 dead. We don’t have anything on that.
Secondly, the bipartisan cooperation in government nowadays is deeply problematic. There is no disagreement in Congress about anything important: capitalism, militarism, the continuing occupation of Native lands, prisons and policing, fossil fuel dependence, centralized ownership of media, the surveillance state, Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Wall Street just to start the list. All of these are fundamental to the US and are not up for negotiation, period.
But these institutions are responsible for the horrific suffering of innumerable humans and non-humans around the world. If left to run unattended, they will eventually enslave everyone and reduce the planet to barren unliveability. Both major political parties support this status quo, with equal gusto. They are two sides of the same dismal coin.
The Republicans and Democrats have also been described as “two wings on the same bird of prey,” but I find that metaphor problematic. Birds of prey are not malicious, cruel gluttons. When we assign our nasty qualities to other animals, we misunderstand them and underestimate ourselves. We need more reflection and less projection.
The partisanship I’m talking about that’s obstructing collective action is practiced by the people, not the politicians. Everyone knows some of these folks among their family, friends and coworkers. They truly believe there’s a big difference between the Rs and the Ds. They’re engaging in what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” and in so doing, are empowering the machine of ecocide, which grinds on, consuming everything in its path, belching out toxins as it goes.
Political partisanship does not bring out the best in anybody on the personal level. Republican partisans encourage hate, greed and bigotry. Democrats foster denial, pomposity and wishful thinking. None of these characteristics lead us to clear understanding or wise choices. Republicans are openly mean about the brutal US system, but Democrats prefer to act nice about it. Neither has any interest whatsoever in jettisoning it, which is what we need to do.
* * *
Something snapped in me a few weeks ago after it was reported that US President Donald Trump, while meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office, had characterized Haiti, El Salvador and the nations of Africa as being “shithole countries” [ Washington Post ]. It wasn’t the remark itself that got me. After all, the president’s sentiment on the topic is entirely in line with US popular opinion across the political spectrum, regardless of class. It’s just run-of-the-mill “American exceptionalism.” “We’re #1” and everyplace else is a “shithole.” This doctrine is pushed day in, day out, by the church, state and media. Virtually no politician has ever said anything different, in essence, than what Trump did. More significantly, the Ds and Rs have been enthusiastically bipartisan in pursuing a foreign policy of actively treating Haiti, El Salvador and the nations of Africa as “shitholes” since the 19th Century.
No, what got me was the response from the Democratic partisans. They were aghast, but apparently only by the use of profanity. Because it’s not like there’s much sunshine between Trump’s words and Democratic war policies. Not much has changed since Trump took office, although more drone attacks, tragically. If Obama’s policies over the previous eight years had been so enlightened, Trump and his generals would have made major adjustments by now, but they haven’t. They haven’t needed to. Obama was already treating these places like “shitholes” well enough. I know I shouldn’t be surprised that Dem partisans continue not to care about US imperialism, but I’m still disgusted.
Trump reflects the general population of this nation better than any president since, I would guess, Andrew Jackson, whose election also dismayed elements of the establishment, who feared the rabble would take over. At the wild White House party after Jackson’s inauguration, they briefly did. “Old Hickory” is not on record swearing but hilariously his pet parrot was removed from his funeral when it started cursing a blue streak. Okay, I’ll allow myself to indulge in one “good old days” moment about that funny scene!
* * *
Speaking of obscenity, let’s flash back to October 2011. As reported by CBS News:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared a laugh with a television news reporter moments after hearing deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had been killed.
“We came, we saw, he died,” she joked when told of news reports of Qaddafi’s death by an aide in between formal interviews. [my emphasis]
For the full effect, watch the 12 second video clip.
Talk about ugly, monstrous or – to use Hillary’s own word – “deplorable.” This is it. Totally stomach wrenching. Is this proper diplomatic rhetoric when referring to an officially recognized head of state? Hardly. Unlike Trump, she can’t be excused for lack of education or government experience. She was the Secretary of State when she said this, for crying out loud. She also knew full well her comments could be publicized; she was sitting with a reporter in front of a camera, not behind closed doors in the Oval Office.
Qaddafi was killed during the US-led NATO attacks on Libya that Clinton pushed for (some have claimed against Obama’s better judgment). She was proud of this illegal act of war and during the 2016 campaign, refused to acknowledge the destructive effects on the Libyan people or to walk back her support of it [Democracy Now | Foreign Policy].
Additionally, Qaddafi did not die “humanely” from, say, a firing squad after a trial. He was beaten, sodomized with a bayonet, and dragged around bleeding before the fatal gunshot [The Guardian | Wikipedia]. Brutal, and never denounced once by Hillary or Obama.
For his part, Obama referred to the state of Libya after NATO intervention as being a “shit show” [The Independent]. True, he used this term “privately” but the war on Libya was entirely public and was met with virtually zero protests from Democrat and liberal partisans. Treating Libya like a “shithole” until it turned into a “shit show” was perfectly acceptable to them. Calling it that now, though, is unforgivable. I’m disgusted.
* * *
In 2013, former US President Jimmy Carter said: “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.” Of course this story did not get the attention it deserved – banner headlines and breaking news bulletins – because it doesn’t fit the corporate media’s national narrative. But we ignore it at our own peril.
In the place of democracy – rule by the people – what we have is oligarchy: rule by a powerful few. This was demonstrated in 2014 by a Princeton University study that used “a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.” The study found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy” while “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
In other words, how we vote for president or Congress means jack shit. Elected officials take orders from their donors, not us. It doesn’t matter what team we root for. They’re owned by the same class of people.
The world of politics doesn’t operate on facts, it manipulates emotions. The devotion that partisans feel for their parties is entirely irrational. They are swayed by rhetoric, be it bracing or eloquent, but froth is froth. Unfortunately, “news” media and “social” media are both spewing froth in copious, suffocating quantities, and it’s working.
Of course collectively, across partisan lines, just about everyone in the US prefers to focus on words, intentions and appearances rather than actions, efforts and realities. As the crisis of global ecocide intensifies, one scenario is that our preoccupation with the superficial will increase with it, in order to sustain our denial. If we take that road, it will be a far far more serious crime than one stupid man blurting out obscenities.
It should go without saying.
* * *
The seating of Trump has led to new levels of partisan shrillness, stoked vigorously by the news media. The vapid quality of social media is also an enormous factor. As a form, it is not merely poorly suited to productive discussion, it is antithetical to it. Additionally, the majority of people in the US access the internet primarily through their phones, devices that don’t lend themselves well to in-depth reading or participating in thoughtful commentary.
One result is the mainstreaming of political conspiracy theories. As a form of propaganda, they are intended to defame opponents and swing non-partisans to join a particular side, or at least oppose the other one, and they have a long history. But until the last few years, such unsubstantiated pablum was relegated to the margins. Now it’s the bread and butter of major news organizations.
Though a political conspiracy theory might include factual elements, the real game is implication. The illusion of evidence is created by a constant stream of insinuations. Some of these are exposed as baseless almost at once, but as a rule the correction never garners as much attention as the original accusation. The impression made by the implication is not undone and in a very real sense can’t be undone. This is especially the case for the dedicated partisan, who wants the smear to be true. Retractions make no difference; partisans are still emotionally convinced of the alleged sin, and that’s all that matters. When the next story comes out, it will be more evidence, even though the previous piece was proven false.
Currently, the big political conspiracy theory is Russiagate, which, as an activist friend of mine pointed out, is just the liberal equivalent of Birtherism. It’s long on suspicion and short on authenticity. Though no solid evidence has yet to be presented in over a year of story-telling, the number of Democrats who believe it continues to rise. The lack of facts is of no consequence to its efficacy as a distraction. As that same friend also said: “The moment people start rallying around something truthful, they might get a taste of truth and that is dangerous for the power structure.” Indeed. Knowingly or not, partisans constantly obscure truth.
The Russiagate conspiracy theory illustrates two common fallacies of partisan politics.
First is the fallacy that the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend. This is how we end up with the nauseating lionization of a former FBI director. Robert Mueller is not one of the good guys, but the power of this fallacy is irresistible to some. I personally know someone who’s drinking that particular glass of Kool-Aid with gusto. We were Indymedia activists together over a decade ago, during the Bush/Cheney regime. Indymedia was a radical, anti-establishment project based on anarchist principles. We all knew that the “intelligence” agencies were the enemy, with their well-documented history of disrupting social movements through infiltration and assassination. But what’s my friend doing now? He’s all-aboard the Russiaphobia train and his social media profile pic shows him wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “It’s Mueller Time,” making a play on the Miller beer logo. Pure shwap. So sad.
The second fallacy is that anyone who is not on your side is on the side of your enemy. I.e., if you criticize Russiaphobia you are a Russian troll and are “on Trump’s side” or peddling “fake news.”
This fallacy is especially distressing to me because of how it’s being used to attack my beloved alternative media. The hi-tech censorship by Google, Facebook and Youtube is only the beginning. Government harassment will not stop with the bullying of RT. For independent journalists, the road is getting rougher. The ability to expose and publicize facts and truth is shrinking.
In my opinion, the peak of influence and popularity of US alternative media on the internet – which was never that high or that wide in the first place – is now behind us and will never be attained again. We are witnessing a decline that will not be reversed. All because the damn partisan Ds are butt-hurt that their candidate lost and blame everyone but themselves.
But really because the bipartisan powers-that-be want to demonize Russia as part of their world-domination game. The partisan Ds are “useful idiots” to that cause. They’re helping to manufacture and popularize the new bad-guy narrative and they’re dominating the media space to the exclusion of everything else and they’re eliminating the competition.
There is nowhere in the partisan realm for a person of real conscience. To support the Republicans or the Democrats is to support militarism, capitalism, racism, patriarchy and ecocide.
The real change that the planet needs for survival will not come from within the political scene of the US, and likely not from inside the US at all, I suspect. Bringing down corporate dominance will require more life than is left in the desiccating husk that is this nation.
Fortunately, it’s a big planet.
* * *
When the polar vortex moves on and the heat returns, will all the frogs raise their voices again? Will more flowers bloom? Will more butterflies and moths hatch and will there be food for them? If so, for how much longer? These things really matter. Cursing in the Oval Office really doesn’t.