This is a very passionate moment – a lot of people are incredibly upset – and there are a lot of good reasons to be upset. But our peculiar western vanities and self-delusions have never before been quite so dangerous. Truth actually does matter – you can’t steer without a clear view of what is outside your windshield – but right now most of us have our eyes closed in panic and/or rage. The question of where we went wrong to get to this furious place is very complex, and I have far more nuanced and detailed things to say about that coming soon. For today I mostly want to make a few functional observations to set up my main point.
Humans are animals. We have finite life-spans, capacities and attention. We wish a lot, but we get much less than that done.
There were a lot of things wrong with older models of citizenship – and there was a lot of unfairness built into the old power structures which sat at the top of them (imagine having to ask your manager for permission to get married, or risk losing your job – that kind of petty paternalism is only a bit more than a half century back, even in the advanced and ‘freedom loving’ Canada and the US).
BUT – in the old model of citizenship (which has been deliberately eroded by corporatists and monopolists for roughly a century now – but really started to be obliterated as our dominant culture only after the second world war) we were citizens with rights. Government was not our boss or parent, they were the structure to which we as adults granted (or from which we withheld) our collective will as citizens, depending on how well they were serving our greater interests (or, especially more recently, how good a PR team they could deploy).
I’m not saying anything about levels of honesty injustice and corruption (a separate, vast topic) I’m talking only about our attitude toward the nation states of which we are a part by birth or by effort.
You don’t meet very many CITIZENS anymore. But if your eyes are open, you know it when you do, almost instantly. They laugh, they listen, they are interested, and they like to do useful stuff that helps – especially if they can cooperate and help build teams in so doing. And they are happiest of all if they can help get some inertia going, so more good work, learning and cooperation flows from that well founded start.
Almost all of us now spend almost all of our time thinking like consumers, but a consumer is an altogether more feeble and helpless creature in every way. When we don’t like something, we think our only job is to complain to the supplier. We don’t think like builders whose work was thwarted by a slacker team-mate, we go directly into asshole customer mode. Demand that our (most often conflicted and thus nonsensical) consumer preferences simply be met – by that vast whatever that we don’t really want to think about or have much to do with. Star Trek fans will remember the haughty deity’s idea of a practical solution “Well then, just make a small adjustment to the gravitational constant of the universe.”
Even stranger (and so pathetic it is heartbreaking) we westerners have now spent generations bolstering our infantile fantasies of self-importance – assuring one another gravely that our deep inner feelings about things are all incredibly important. Perhaps for a brand, our feelings really are a key consideration. If life actually was nothing but a cluster of marketing relationships, our cultivated and maximized petulance might conceivably serve some political purpose.
The problem is – the government isn’t the supplier – WE ARE. They only have the tax money we pay them, the authority we vote for, the resources we consider theirs to distribute and the rules which we (citizens) are willing to authorize. Nothing is theirs but what we allow them.
We can clearly see that they do not care at all whether we respect them, they require only our compliance – and they outright love our imbecilic branding mentality, because it means they no longer have to deliver the slightest bit of governmental competence to win our votes – all they need to do now is to reach in and make us ‘feel.’
A citizen doesn’t operate like that, because a citizen is an adult with met needs and understood limits, who knows – how I feel inside is almost irrelevant – using whatever strength I have to help solve our common problems in the external world is what really counts.
As I mentioned above, a citizen also laughs a lot easier, this is because they recognize how often and easily our feelings can trick us, and how important it is to practise surrendering those deceptions with a laugh, when confronted with superior reality – so that we can always courageously engage in the most direct possible way with that reality and thus have the best possible hope of pushing it with our efforts. The alternative means circling endlessly inside our own hearts and heads in a private worrying whirlpool we consumers tend, almost like a garden!
You won’t ever get an abuser to suddenly become a helpful and nourishing life partner by complaining, pouting or begging, not by most powerful reason and almost never even by extended therapy – in fact, you usually need to seek out a new and healthy relationship before you can even begin to clearly see the extent of the hurt which you distorted your whole psyche, to so long accept.
Similarly – when you have two parties who are completely bought and paid for by sociopathic monopolists, it would be ridiculous to think one need only express the correct formulation of consumer demand to them, to have these demented and incestuous scoundrels suddenly say “You got us” and surrender the corrupting, lethal and parasitic scams which have served their tiny clique for generations.
We need a whole new relationship, where we don’t spend our political energy stomping, pouting, and looking for powerful tribal psychos to smite enemies. We need to rise as citizen-builders, demand government get out of the way of solution, and remember what democratic politics are for. (Not ever perfection – though pursuit of happiness was certainly mentioned. Death-cult for investor profit? Really not so much).
We have to find new ways to stand up on our own feet, so we can all help build the sort of strong and thriving society we all want to live in. Making it ourselves, is the only way we can live in something which reflects us. When we beg the powerful to make us feel better, they will always say yes, then create another (often even bigger) problem, to balance any advance they ‘generously’ give us (all the while taking full credit, as they use and skim OUR tax dollars and state power to do it). Sigh.
Now – before someone tries to miss the point by referencing finicky history, let me stop you right there to agree with the skeptical – yes, one very big part of our problem is probably built-in to humans in modern (that is, literate and industrial) societies. This part of it predates advertising, consumerism and all of our modern infantilizations – real (and cumulative) though those newer effects also are.
Here’s an observation from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), which goes to a very similar place, without needing any of our modern arts or delusions.
“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts…
…The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigour of wild virtue. For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?”
I’m too burned out to attempt a transposition today (and anyhow, western leftists are determinedly crazy and racist on the subject of 20th century communism) but I can’t help feeling there is an important clue to what went wrong with the USSR in Emerson’s question about Christianity. At what point do we delegate so much of our own necessary will and power to institutions, that our individual instincts for responsibility and general compassion begin to atrophy? When does the machine of society control so much of our range of thought and action, that our hearts are fundamentally oppressed, and we stop even hoping for real significant participation?
Long before we start caring more about our pets, than the dying children of the starving poor overseas – that’s for sure. And so, a great many years back for us modern westerners in all our conceited glory, without a doubt. Not so long ago, we really did care enough about famine to act to help the poor and suffering – go look up Biafra, and then ask yourself – how did a bunch of disgusting old time unreconstructed racists, sexists and capitalists manage to care so much more and more effectively than us? Do you see Tigray on the news every night? Do you know more about Taliban sexism, than the calculated starvation of Afghan women thanks to American theft of assets? Why do you think that is?
As I have been steadily fulminating against tribalism these last few years, I have had one excellent question put to me again and again from sincere friends in the middle, on the left and on the right, which deserves to be answered well. (but I’ll just have to do my best at it, in the meantime) ;o)
“Okay fine. Say everything you’re saying is true (and I’m not saying it is). What Can We Do About It?”
One part of the answer is to start thinking of ourselves as citizens instead of consumers. We are the ones who are supposed to steer, and learn to organize and cooperate to build the changes we want to see. We aren’t beggars – we aren’t serfs – and though some have been trying to push us in that evil mechanical hive direction for a century (go watch Chaplin’s “Modern Times” again) we are not the docile, threatened and invasively surveilled work units of a seamlessly propagandized and inescapable digital police state (quite yet).
I know – “still way too general, dude” – but don’t worry, I agree with you!
What can we do today that will actually help? I’ve got you there, too.
Break a pattern. Step outside your comfort zone. Leave the whirlpool which worries you aside for awhile and learn something new.
Most importantly MAKE A NEW (and different) FRIEND!
The reason we are so frightened right now is because we (correctly) feel that great forces are working against us, which we are too small weak and helpless to oppose. But the reason we are so angry right now, is because we are so proud of our ignorance about why we feel so small and divided.
We keep investing all of our energy into difference (tribe) and petulance (war) instead of civilization (compromise and cooperation – flawed as they always are), which remains a better answer for all of us, than any tribalist’s paranoid and vengeful agenda, fully realized.
Vast numbers of people on the left mock Q as a dangerous delusion. You know an even more dangerous delusion? The idea that Donald Trump owed his presidency to Vladimir Putin. Millions are now pushing the world directly toward nuclear war and thinking themselves righteous, because of that idiocy. The hazards of January sixth are NOTHING on this scale. I mean that seriously. Ratiocination (from which we get ‘rational’) is about clearly perceiving RATIOS OF IMPORTANCE.
The idea that Putin put Trump in power is simply not true. Plenty of things are wrong with Putin, but Trump isn’t one of them (and vice versa, for that matter).
Exactly like (and exactly as creepy and weird as) Q – that whole Russiagate conspiracy theory was the work of political operators – psychological warfare agents. Good ones, too. The Pee tape, the Alpha bank back-channel, secret meetings of an illegal treasonous or conspiratorial nature – all of these were completely fictional – and yet they were reported as if they were well-sourced fact for years, as if wishing and hating can make a thing so (not a position reporters, even at their worst, ever used to take). This alone should tell you corporate media is beyond rudderless and completely untrustworthy.
Trump did have more regard for Putin than most US presidents, and that struck many people as creepy. But we must also allow that as extreme as the full Q goes, Jeffery Epstein was real as can be, and he was not the only ultra rich person with ultra rich friends who got away with serial pedophilia for many years, while hundreds of rich and powerful friends willfully looked away. Weinstein’s predation was an open secret in Hollywood for decades, and the Nygard case is no less creepy than Epstein’s – though Nygard seems to have been a personal creep – whereas, from all the clues we have, Epstein was almost certainly operating an industrial scale honeytrap and blackmail ring for a foreign intelligence service (which is not likely to be named later). So shocking that he “killed himself” before he could testify, isn’t it? (one can all too easily imagine two or three independent assassins from different agencies bumping into one another in the hallway, in the interval between bed-checks.) This kind of real life weirdness makes people prone to consider a lot of possibilities they would have confidently ruled out, in a world without so much coverup lying and corruption. Those games actually make us paranoid.
Because I am a history nut, I have to note that the Democrats have used shrill red baiting and accusations of treason repeatedly, for electioneering purposes. Kennedy ran on a missile gap that did not ever exist (they literally suggested century old churches were actually disguised nuclear silos). Historians also widely agree Kennedy won against Nixon in 1960 because of corruption – Bill Daley, as much the boss as the Mayor of Chicago, absolutely did stuff the ballot boxes in his favour, and that was the thing that tipped the numbers in that cycle decisively. Sorry to bust up your Camelot This is the boomer equivalent of my younger friends heartbreaking discovery that Barrack Obama couldn’t even be bothered to forward a bill to codify Roe (though he ran on it) and called senior bankers (foxes) before he even took office, to ask them “Who would you like me to hire, to supervise you?” (run the henhouse) – we always sort of knew the glow was a fantasy, but it is still sad to lose such lustre, even for the sake of education and clarity.
I’ve read a couple of biographies of Nixon, so I can say he was already a paranoid and unprincipled operator (won his own first election by dishonestly smearing a woman he later described as one of the most honest politicians he ever knew). But you don’t have to be a psychologist to see that having massive corruption used against him, made him all the more determined to use any corrupt means he could, to win. Hyper paranoid and competitive people are like that. Poking the bear with a stick, is what the kid does in the fable, just before they are eaten (and then everyone listening to the story laughs, because the kid so obviously deserved it). Watergate was absolutely nuts – also – and an historic transgression in terms of cultural impact (the birth of modern cynicism). But in another way, a canny observer might almost have thought it inevitable. A simple Newtonian reaction.
As I have noted before – Any weapon you bring onto the battlefield which works, will very quickly be adopted by your opponent.
Curiously, there are still many ‘culture critics’ who assert that Nixon lost the election to Kennedy because he looked sweaty on television, and Kennedy looked great. Specialists have a funny tendency to think their special thing just has to be the most important factor in everything. (Psychiatrists, at their most patriarchal and power-mad cold war moment in the mid 1950s, asserted they should be put in charge of every branch of government – with a very similar restraint and modesty).
Trump was elected because he channelled working class anger effectively. The Democrats said the working class were deplorables who should shut the fuck up, then sabotaged their own best hope of channeling working class energy – Bernie. Instead they offered a grand shit sandwich – one of the most widely hated politicians in the history of America – who also happens to be a resolute and unwavering war monger. (A proud “Goldwater girl,” from way back).
When people from all over responded – “but we already told you we hate her, like, a lot” the rudderless idiots announced that anyone who didn’t love her was clearly a sexist, or a racist, or a Day-Glo vampire who drops kittens into toilets and leaves bottles of tabasco sauce uncapped, everywhere they go. You know, any contemptuous sneering bourgeois pile of shit thing they could think of to smear long screwed-over workers – who the sophisticated and professional modern Democrats obviously now consider disgusting unwashed peasants who should know and keep to their place. So much for a mainstream ‘left’ party. It isn’t privilege they miss – it is much simpler stuff like hope and dignity. (all common causes expressed in dissonant language, where we should be continually finding and emphasizing that common citizen interest, in the most wide open and embracing language we can find).
The main thing is – whatever you might think of Biden or Trump or Q or Russiagate – your neighbours did not suddenly become crazed brain eating zombies during covid lockdowns – notwithstanding the uncountable (and fast multiplying) panicky reports to the contrary. They are still about ninety nine percent like you (and ninety five percent like every other human on earth). Conflicted, worried, trying.
For many people around the world, the last couple of years have forced us to spend way too much time in our own whirlpools of worry – and we got fed lots of fear filled propaganda treats to churn the water enough to make our malign fantasies threaten to outright sink our happiness. But as a wise philosopher once said “DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE.”
The thing about making a friend who has a lot of ideas you don’t already agree with, is that no one on earth can teach you more of what you’re missing. What makes it challenging, is that we must break our habits of lazy toxic tribalist sneering, and figure out how to listen to them and share with them respectfully. That’s also an adult part of being a citizen – recognizing that this real person in this real moment is infinitely more important than any emotion-laden logical categories we have already established inside our heads. We are music, patterns of movement and relationship – not rocks!
I shouldn’t have to say this part – but I will, because we have become so bad at friendship in the west (and I have been fortunate enough to get a heart-filling reminder-lesson myself). Friendship takes time. It means spending time, and showing care. Almost any mutual interest will open the door. A craft or project of common value is a great way to start. A community barbecue? A citizens campaign for a new crosswalk? Fundraiser for the local rec centre? Photo club? Or maybe you just all enjoy playing poker on Saturday afternoons for nickels! The point is – don’t stay in your regular gang – make it an all-outsiders club, people who don’t quite ‘get’ each other, yet.
When we get spiritually lazy and allow ourselves to think in tribalist terms, we always reduce and dehumanize real human beings. Crude sorting categories help us more easily assume we have nothing in common – but that is very rarely true of any two people. Humans are amazingly complex, and over the years, I have found ways to connect with and build mutual respect with many, with whom I had very significant disagreement, in other areas. So and so was a lousy manager, but a great father, which I can respect. Or a great teacher but a shitty father (which takes more work). Thing is, if I want to help a great teacher become a better father, I have to find that respect path into his life and friendship, before my words become wise counsel, instead of an attack from outside his trusted circle.
I have spent my life on the left, and still go by the same principles of putting human needs and humane values ahead of the often destructive and capricious dictates of capital. But I have to say, the common tribalist assumption that there is nothing to learn from challenging thought from the other team is bizarre. This is not a wisdom of the left, as it is far too often thought, but a widely shared smug and ignorance-reinforcing form of bigotry (and yes, of course there are similarly unhelpful patterns on the right – but I’m speaking to the side of it I know).
You definitely can’t even try to claim to be the science team, if you don’t cheerfully invite any and all kinds of criticism and analysis of your theories, paradigms, proposals and policies. As anyone with half a memory will remember – the anti-allopathy left invented the long established anti vaxxing mania, not the right – hence the recent resurgence of Polio – people stuck inside their own whirlpools of pain, and not thinking like well informed and responsible citizens about their part in steering the whole community.
I honestly believe that neither of the paranoid and restricted mindsets now popularly known as the left or the right are adequate for a compassionate and functional approach to reality. Put another way – both teams are quite correctly concerned about some genuine threats the other ignores, and also fearful out of proportion about some other stuff which is actually mostly a whirlpool of feelings. Each has half the puzzle, and half of the required technique.
You know the set of concerns we all share? Why doesn’t the money flow fairly anymore? How many of us will get decent work with which we can afford to buy a house – and how come investors get to skim the cream off every damn thing, and somehow we struggling scrabblers are stuck paying for their gold plated yachts? Why do we have competitive kill-or-be-killed capitalism for working and middle classes – and cushy taxpayer risk-buffered corporate welfare for the old money and investor classes?
I mean it. You really want to bring some people from the left and right who care about the state of the world together? Try meeting to talk about how citizens who do not have wealth can cooperate to regain their democratic power to steer their own governments and hold them to account, so that governments can again be made to restrain those corrupting monopolists who always try to use capitalism to profit most, from the greatest harm. We should remember that not so long ago such war profiteers were considered treasonous scum and shot – for established, excellent and socially beneficial reason.
Yeah, okay, maybe work on Saturday nickel poker for a year or two first – but you get the idea here, right?
Don’t start with your favourite angry flashpoints. Start by getting all the kids together to make preserves for everyone from that old fruit tree out back. Or perhaps cleaning out the garbage from the vacant lot, so they have a nice safe spot to play. Do something that makes things a little better, together.
And then wake up the next day and do it again.
As for the spirit to bring, each and every time? I can’t help thinking of one of my all time favourite ways to welcome a stranger into a warm fireside circle (from the Sufis – and I humbly paraphrase)
“Come sit with us and share what you have learned, and we will share our best with you.”
Because of two straight decades of unending criminal and corrupting warfare and a more recent revenue-model implosion (thanks mostly to the internet, which stole all the ad money), even the great reliable old commercial news outlets have been turned into servile dishonest propaganda shite pushers, for whirlpool obsessed consumerists. You can pick your favourite flavour of lifestyle outrage. Plain truth? Sorry, that model has been discontinued!
(To be clear, the servility to dangerously unrestrained power thing happened to most outlets in a general way twenty years ago now, as an adaptation to war mentality, but the disappearance of objectivity has got much worse and more intense over the last five, thanks to the revenue drying up).
So – for those who aren’t satisfied with wide eyed pretty folk who read press releases uncritically and always ask the advice of (retired?) spies and military man(iacs) on all matters of importance, here are a few things with which to helpfully stretch the head.
I absolutely do not agree with all of these folks (and I have a few categories worth – to which this applies) but even when I find them completely wrong about almost everything, I find their arguments sincere and intelligent enough to be worth the exercise of refuting rationally. (And in some cases, as with all learners, I must adopt some of the insight I formerly despised, in order to address a reality which was helpfully expanded by the engagement). THIS IS THE POINT OF AN OPEN MIND (an approach to life, like friendship, which is rather moribund of late, hereabouts).
First off – in the completely useless category – you have to feature the Guardian, Mother Jones, and CNBC. At least as heartbreaking, the formerly useful ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Centre (which really did do sterling work for many decades) have all lost their way, with respect to science math and reciprocality. Institutional capture is real, and they are some of the really painful casualties of it.
NONE OF THIS IS ACCIDENTAL. The Guardian (and Glenn Greenwald in particular) made the US security state just as furious by publishing Snowden’s incredibly important revelations about recent American lies and war crimes, as the New York Times once did when it published Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers about corruption in the then ongoing American invasion of Vietnam. Both revealing in a way so clear it is grotesque, that just like every other damn war which has ever happened – especially in the last century – we citizen/consumers were all sold a giant pack of lies, and the liars turned decades of death into money and power for themselves (our expense and bloody hands, always).
For almost half a century, leftist publications ‘on both sides of the pond’ were (usually reasonably, and with historical grounding) consistently critical of the secret intelligence state and the great war machine at the heart of America and the European Colonial powers. I read reams of this stuff, from the subdued and rigorously sourced, to the somewhat imaginative theories, where available facts were incomplete. This is what free speech is for – challenging the abuse of power BEFORE it kills again. So we are not stuck as critics, endlessly complaining about the criminality of already accomplished recent history, but can finally advance one tiny step to the project of ending the ongoing damage and violence being done in our name and by our nation states, right now – along with that being planned long into the future.
To the paranoid power-freaks in the intelligence state and that tiny rulership class they serve, this sort of intelligent skeptical and perceptively critical media represented an existential danger. A force which kept trying over and over again to inform and energize the populace – and threatened to mobilize significant citizen opposition to their long habit of subversion and cooption of popular democratic will ‘for reasons of National Security’.
The really scary thought (for fogeys with a memory, like me) is that the Obama team has proven far better at effectively suppressing politically embarrassing dissidents than ultra paranoid cold war Nixon at his worst. The fact that Assange and Snowden are still being persecuted to this day (in Assange’s case, for violating American law while nowhere near America – which is beyond insane), quite simply proves that there has not been a principled leftist in power in America in decades. Not one. Please remember, it was the Clintons who turned the Democratic party into ‘Republican-lite’ giving Gingrich a green light to take the republicans far further to the right than they ever could have gone, if the dems still put workers ahead of Wall Street.
Watching the Guardian do a vicious hit-job on Jeremy Corbyn (which I read in depth, daily, with increasing disbelief) was the evidence which finally convinced me they had been completely coopted by a faction of foul war and mammon. (I have since seen far more detailed reporting on the way their wise old hands were all pushed out in favour of credulous new ideologues – very similar to the purging of the NYT, as described by Gurri).
So – here’s the way my mind works. It breaks my heart to see my old favourite paper acting in a determined way to push leftists into frothing and demented support for the war profiteering state, and an outrageously racist geopolitical view so ignorant it is likely to lead directly to nuclear war. But I still read the Guardian fairly regularly – because I want to see the sort of crazy things I can expect many of my uncritical “leftist” friends to believe right about now. We still pay far too little attention to Pavlov.
Okay – now you have an idea of how (and how deeply) I read news, you can make much better use of (or confidently reject) my links, in the spirit intended.
High Frequency Sources (news and reality – as opposed to views and riffs)
I love this show, and while I have not yet subscribed, their free episodes are great, and I’m confident they offer even more to those who do. One person with left ideas I can often relate to, and another person with right ideas I mostly disagree with, but can understand the source and logic of. Both of them hate scammers, liars, idiots and incompetents. Which means they both kind of hate the state of both parties and all servile corporate media! (Not in a mean or petty way, just universally skeptical – like say, I don’t know, one of those old timey reporter thingies we used to have back in the day).
The fact that they easily agree on a lot of things is hopeful and fun to watch. Again, there are more places were sane people meet than we imagine. Helps to see it done often and well. They even do really great passionate solo rants from time to time, when one of them has a particularly vexing issue to get into.
They add new Breaking Points shows three times a week (Mon, Tues, Thurs) and they’ve hired a new team to do a Friday show to compliment their work – which also looks promising so far (cool how many youtube and substack projects like this, have been able to expand and hire other fine reporters). When you go to their site, click on ‘playlists’ that way you can play the full day’s worth of segments, without having to click on each one individually.
Where I tend to disagree with both of them is on American exceptionalist bias – but even there, they are far more considered and self-skeptical than most outlets – left or right.
For my friends who would rather read than watch or listen, Scheerpost is a special delight. As I mentioned recently, Robert Scheer was once a writer for and editor of the classic magazine ‘Ramparts’ and was more recently the main force at the Truthdig website. Much like Greenwald at the once important and objective Intercept, when management wanted to tack toward the tribalist, instead of the truth, he was ousted from an outlet of which he was the beating heart. BUT HE DID NOT STAY DOWN. And the website he has built since is a gathering place for a fantastic array of smart contrarian voices – just the sort of questions we need to hear, from people of serious heart and character.
If you’ve been interested in left politics for awhile, you’ll encounter a lot of old friends who have been kicked off other platforms – Chris Hedges, just for a start – also Patrick Lawrence, Scott Ritter, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Caitlin Johnstone, Noam Chomsky, Maj Danny Sjursen and many others. Don’t forget to check out Scheer’s own podcast also – he talks to some really interesting people, and he generally keeps it tight and well focussed.
Scheerpost also has one of the most vicious and excellent cartoonists working today – Mr Fish. With a line that can seem as innocent as Thurber, and a fire which burns more like dear old righteously cantankerous Ted Rall. (love some, hate some – but I salute him either way, for taking it to eleven).
There are traces of American exceptionalism in some articles here – but also some of the finest challenges you will ever hear to that toxic (and dangerous, because reality-distorting) mindset
For even more of that most helpful challenge (and the superb Andrew Bacevitch, in large doses) it is also worth stopping at Tom Dispatch from time to time. Principled and scholarly military skepticism from experienced officers and people on the left who have opposed wars on principle for more than half a century, has a great deal of extra authority.
Responsible Statecraft is a far more mainstream (as in K street) take, but still worth looking at, to check on what some of the smarter people in Washington are considering.
Space Daily might seem an unlikely source for important regular news updates, but they have a whole cluster of websites, all linked, which serve the military-industrial-environmental complex in a shockingly direct way. So much more information than I ever would have believed remained open-source, post 9/11. (Old readers of Janes Defence weekly, will know what I mean). If you want to see what armies are actually researching, testing, buying and deploying, you’ll see it here (and if you subscribe long enough, they’ll even start inviting you to conferences on things like Small Modular Reactors and Hypersonic and Kinetic Weapon Systems). The best treat to look for on their large and various site? (tons of delicious detailed and up to date space-keener stuff aside), they regularly post essays on strategic thought from people who aren’t in our local war-cult. The world looks very different to India, Indonesia, Korea, China or Russia, just for a few examples – and we are way too self-absorbed to understand that, unless we apply constant informational correctives (Korean politics are almost as wild as their brilliant television dramas).
Matt Taibbi is a superb writer and reporter who I have mentioned before. Impressively smart and funny is always a charming combo – he is also wonderfully relentless when it comes to going after the powerful, and their special games of corruption. While working for ‘Rolling Stone’ he famously wrote a whole book about how investment banking was hurting America, in which he described Goldman Sachs as “A great Vampire Squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood-funnel into anything that smells like money!”
Like anyone trying to find the truth (and undermine the deceptive and self-flattering press releases from all sides) he has been attacked as both a fascist and a communist – but then nowadays, that seems to be a sign you’re doing something right (which is making liars, scammers and incompetents uncomfortable). Again – just like a – what did we call them? Oh yeah, an investigative reporter. He has also teamed up with some daring young street reporters who bring him stories which are absolutely verboten to the mainstream press. (The Black Lives Matter people marching WITH (not against) an armed white militia group, was a particular surprise, and while unsettling, also weirdly hopeful).
Glenn Greenwald has been attacked even more often than Taibbi, by people who are even more foolish. Why? Mostly because he won’t stop reporting, just because the majors hate the way he insisted that Hunter’s laptop was real, and also offered serious evidence of active corruption of the man who is now the sitting president of the United States. The fact that Greenwald was ABSOLUTELY CORRECT – has so far not made anyone apologize for turning on him.
There are some other reporters who cover the way the unelected parts of the American State bend their own rules in order to treat citizens unfairly – and especially to lie to the public about the realities of American foreign policy, but I don’t know any who have been so relentlessly focussed on this, with such a steady civil rights foundation as their compass. James Bamford and Chalmers Johnson once worked similar territory, in their slower book-paced way, but Greenwald stands rather lonely now.
Millions piled-on to hate him for saying something negative about sweet uncle Joe, just before an election. But the idea that he is a right-winger, when he risked the wrath of Bolsonaro and his supporters and doggedly rescued Lula DaSilva from a corrupt prosecution and brought him back to political viability, is either insanely racist (as if Brazil doesn’t count, only the states) or just insanely panicky (as if no other moments will ever count). He ain’t that. But he also isn’t going to shut up, just because the truth happens to be inconvenient. For which principle and courage I love the guy. His husband (the only openly gay minister sitting in Brazil’s right wing dominated government) has been very ill of late, so Glenn’s reporting has been sparse – here’s hoping hubby will recover speedily and completely, and Greenwald will be back to his best form in short order. There are almost too many kinds of corruption to write about in this moment, and a greater density of power serving lies than I have ever before known in my almost sixty years on earth. This is a job for Greenwald.
I have mentioned the fantastically insightful music (and social) critic Ted Gioia several times recently – you want his stuff in your in-box, smart and unexpected. Cultural insight without wide-eyed fantasy (and with hard numbers)
The giant hearted Caitlin Johnstone has also been mentioned recently – and is also good to have in your morning mail. Helps to know you aren’t the only one concerned about the madness.
To them I also have to add the superb “Stoic Observations” by Michael DC Bowen. He challenges my tribal habits more, but as a stoic, one never gets the feeling his takes are about self flattery or rationalization – he isn’t asking us to take any medicine he won’t accept himself, which I respect. He’s also beautifully well read and thoughtful – plus, like all of my favourite thinkers, he shares his process, shows earlier less refined versions of his big ideas, to point out how any of us can take up a weight of thought and interest any time we like, and with steady effort, tease more and more out of it over time.
This rough but exciting piece which he wrote eight years ago, and was a big part of leading him to his current focus and column, is where I got the deliciously resonant Emerson quote.
Astral Codex Ten (Scott Alexander) is almost too smart – and his website is utterly delicious for the clever and well intentioned. His passions (and education) are in medicine and computer science (AI and prediction markets, in particular), and he has so many smart readers that when he asks questions like – “can we achieve the effects of a super expensive breakthrough drug using cheap and well understood off the shelf alternatives?” he not only gets back reams of hard data from practising physicians and researchers, he also gets a following wave of suggestions for more ways to analyze that data, to be sure the clearest and most useful answer is found. One of his long-term obsessions is “effective altruism” and the complexities which are involved in simply doing the most good with finite resources, are alone well worth a regular visit. Almost like a crowdsourced version of Scientific American (back when it was GREAT) only incomparably funnier and more inspiring.
Russell Brand is a happy kind of weird, and he is so enthusiastic he can be a bit offputting at first (especially to anyone with cult experience). But he is trying for something very helpful, with a level of energy openness and sincerity which is ultimately winning.
Very few figures in the modern “media landscape” (ugh, I hate our language) have done a better job than Brand of saying who they are in a way that feels honest and relatably flawed, but also truly welcomes challenging perspectives from others, whether or not they agree on substance or conclusions. Like Joe Rogan, Brand was a comedian first – making him a performer journalist – but I have heard him talk to people on the left and the right, and with his genuine interest, draw out what they have discovered which might be useful to others, where so many of our modern journalist-performers get stuck in a fly-trap of false moralizing and sanctimonious tribalist nonsense – and never do get to the point at all. Surprisingly, he does just as good a job on long pieces about meditation spirit and psyche, as he does on his short and more youth focussed political hits.
I also read some sources which will be particularly challenging for some of my leftist chums (more familiar to those in the centre or right of things) – and particularly energizing and helpful for others. Voices which bear no resemblance to the old left, but are smart as can be anyhow, and important to consider when we are thinking about our principled arguments with our friends with a more conservative perspective (yes there are plenty of rational positions held by many on that team, which have not recently been well represented from on high – just as with the sincere on the left).
Bari Weiss, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now like Taibbi and Greenwald an independent on Substack, is a crazy good editor. It may be mostly due to the rapid contraction of the industry, and the concentration of good experienced writers into fewer paying markets, but I have been surprised by how many columnists (of widely varying opinions and voices) appreciated her fine work as their commissioning editor. She is also a damned good writer (far rarer now than it should be, in journalism). The fact that she takes a consistently conservative position on Israel means I find much with which to disagree, but her arguments are important to recognize and acknowledge even there, because they are hardly rare, and very rarely more coherently conveyed. Her perspective about the state of the culture wars provides a great deal of challenge which is currently missing from mainstream media. Some might find it outright offensive, but I can’t help thinking of that lovely old line: “To you I’m an atheist, but to god, I’m the loyal opposition.”
We really cannot hope to convince anyone skeptical, if we refuse to listen to them when they explain why they disagree. Like Taibbi and Greenwald, she has also reached out to hire other journalists and essayists to broaden her site and her coverage. I suspect she has the best phone book for this of the three, and she has introduced me to many other excellent writers. It seems even ‘sans patron’ her superb editorship continues, unabated. (Which is itself hopeful, whatever your tribe or thinking).
Tablet Magazine is specifically meant for a Jewish audience, and also has some politics I disagree with – but the quality of stories, and especially essays and editorials is unusually fine (superb design, too – very eye friendly).
Finally, for balance, Jacobin Magazine often rubs me the wrong way for being too (traditionally, and rather romantically) left. That old “They just didn’t do Marxism right” (utterly racist) nonsense. But they do have tons of great articles about leftist ideas and history, all the same.
Now for a few Podcasters who take their time and really get into topics in an intelligent and challenging way. (And yes, thankfully, youtube does remember your spot, when you have to pause a really long one, and finish it off the next day).
Glenn Loury is a regular stop for me, and I especially appreciate his conversations with John McWhorter. Two super intelligent black guys who aren’t interested in fetishizing victimhood, and don’t see the general demonization of American society as a way forward. Glenn is a top flight economist and professor who made his name characterizing social capital, with an eye to raising the prospects for blacks in America (on that old idea that you can’t promote what you can’t measure). John is a linguist with a wry sense of humour, so together they bring both mathematical and critical rigour to their wide ranging discussions. They are considerably mellower in some ways, and Glenn is unashamedly to the right, but their spirit still reminds me of the much missed Tavis Smiley show (curse those PBS racist scum). They want to raise people, hope and aspirations upward, instead of smashing institutions down to achieve cold grey poverty rations for everyone. He usually releases short teaser clips early in the week, but I wait for the long versions on Fridays.
Coleman Hughes is so young that he sometimes comes off as impossibly knowledgable – but I used to be able to do that trick as a young man myself. There really is something about being a maniac for learning, when your brain is in it’s softest, most open and fast-acquiring state. The motivated student (or autodidact) can add many more years of information than the clock might seem to allow for.
He’s also (as Coldxman) a great and very courageous musician. He first came to public attention when he testified before congress, to make a case AGAINST reparations for historical wrongs done to American blacks. The far better known (and senior) Ta Na-hesi Coates spoke on the ‘for’ side, and Coleman took a great deal of heat (from fellow rappers in particular) for his principled and altogether relatable stance. You can watch their actual testimony and feel the weight of the moment, but I especially like the stark super-powerful way he put it in his song “Blasphemy” (Dodging nothing – and absolutely superior “flow” too).
To me, Coleman is a superb reflection of what an especially smart young person can and probably does know about the modern world. There are places where he shows very understandable ignorance (like recent history that happened before he could form his own opinion of events, which we have yet to write into our history books in anything close to an honest way). But the questions he asks and the courage he shows are impressive and very hopeful indeed.
Before I get to some more traditional egghead types – I have to share one other black voice who represents a smart perspective which strongly contradicts the nearly monolithic (and grossly reductive) politics of the black democratic party political machine.
Even when you see him without any sort of underdog set-up, Roland Fryer is immediately fascinating. The moment he begins to speak you can tell two things – he is actually thinking fresh thoughts, and he is fearless (and funny with it).
This short documentary includes a few clips of Loury talking about him, and explains how he ran afoul of the bourgeois clique of culture critics with already established power bases, at Harvard.
You might also dig this daring experiment – in which Loury, Hughes and Fryer all met with a group of comedians, for a live talk and a Q and A, about what could only now be said in comedy (and what could no longer be said, even there).
Doctor John Campbell has been the most consistent, scientific and compassionate voice on covid, for a very long time. For those with underlying health conditions which elevate their concern about the state of the bug, he has regular updates on what the latest science reveals, he shows and links to his sources, and he also (most commendably) notices that the world is a whole lot bigger than the rich west.
I can’t help thinking that had he been trusted with the bully pulpit, instead of figures who have clearly become more politician than physician, public trust that the system was trying its best would have been much higher, and always toxic panic, much lower.
Lawrence Krauss is brilliant – I mean that with no hyperbole, he is an accomplished physicist and a refreshingly skeptical materialist. He is also unfailingly civil, without ever yielding an important point, just to be polite (as some of us Canadians are woefully wont to do). But what I like most about him is the breadth of his curiosity. He is interested in art and cinema (his talk with Werner Herzog was superb – especially because Werner is so often stuck talking to half-wits), he is interested in politics and policy (his long piece with Michael Shellenberger is a great introduction to that lively heretic’s alternate take on big humanism. You have to at least listen to a guy who despises Malthus with such fervent passion!) and he is interested in people, and how their lives lead them to discover or contribute the work for which we know them. His podcast is called Origins – and sure enough, for fans of super-hero origin stories, this is a really nice gateway drug to take some of that playful hagiography out into the real world, where we can find models worth emulating (even if you don’t have super-powers).
I am still trying to figure out where Lex Fridman is coming from, exactly, but in just the last week he talked to both Ray Kurzweil and Will Sasso – talk about range! And I have greatly enjoyed many of his long and probing conversations with deep minds. Like Coleman Hughes, Fridman seems a bit young to know so much, but the combination of a comparatively young spirit and an old man’s trove of knowledge is exciting. He is extremely thoughtful and speaks with discipline and deliberation, bringing a perspective combining original and non-trivial insight into great literature and his own work in artificial intelligence. One gets the feeling that he follows debates on a whole range of deep questions and rejects distraction by trivia – wonderful to see in any public figure under fifty!
His conversations are LONG – but because he takes so much time, his guests are never rushed from one point to the next, in a way which makes you frustrated, because they never finished their thought (how is Charlie Rose, anyhow?) If you want to understand a controversial public figure about whom you have heard conflicting rumours, and you see their name on Lex’s site, chances are he can catch you up on their story and thought in a couple (or three) hours, in a surprisingly comprehensive way.
Brett Weinstein is another guy with such a sharp and well developed mind, his Dark Horse podcast is often thrilling to listen to, even when you disagree with him completely. He got in a lot of trouble because, as an evolutionary biologist, he expressed deep skepticism about things which even scientists are no longer allowed to be skeptical about. I have a feeling that the fact that his public career comes out of a traumatic culture shock, has made him a bit too fearless for his own good – and still he tilts – and smiles! (and his partner and wife, Heather Heyer, is if anything, an even more perceptive and fearless critic). If Chomsky was an evolutionary biologist…
This recent conversation “Are We Living In A Dark Age”, in which Weinstein reached out to a young philosopher, just because he really appreciated an essay he wrote, was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. I desperately want to be able to go sit at a bar where I can listen to conversations like this all night long, even if I never do think of anything clever enough to add, myself.
And now finally, let me suggest an hilarious experiment I ran myself, just to reveal how much where you speak changes what you say.
Try looking up Jonathan Haidt on any of these podcaster’s sites. His exchange with Loury is almost combative in places – which helps bring a lot of lazy left bias – even in a guy who tries to study such unconscious bias – into sharp relief – as both acknowledge.
When Haidt speaks to Hughes, there is a stimulating dialogue. On Fridman’s show, Haidt gets more pushback again, but in a sense clearly designed to prompt answers to questions which Haidt had not fully addressed, for a kind of skeptic Fridman personally best understood. So interesting.
Michael Shellenberger is a similarly varying interview (and fascinating, every time, even when you disagree). A part of me wants to say he is just plain wrong – but I actually know he is definitely right about some things, which makes me ask myself how much of my skepticism about others is long habit (or whirlpool fears) and how much is rigorous rational and principled. We have to ask and test ourselves this way, especially when we encounter someone who says – “No, being humane doesn’t look like what you think at all – it is actually over here, in a place where the scammers just don’t happen to make as much money, and the fools can’t sustain such comforting delusions.”
And if you think I’ve picked too many folks with critiques which are not rooted in the left – try doing that same “where can he say what?” search with the engaging and almost uniquely realistic Marxist, Adolph Reed!