the theory of soft secession

The South tried to break away twice. Once was in 1861, once was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In both cases, they were thwarted in large measure by the willingness of the Federal government to use force to stand up for the principle that where a conflict arises, the national government supersedes the state government. Since then, the South – mostly in the form of the Republican Party, which by 1994 was a party under the direction of the South if not wholly of the South – has attempted to win back the power to do what it pleases. Now we are seeing the fruits of two decades of strategy – a strategy which began with massive resistance to the legitimate election of Barack Obama and came to a conclusion in 2021, and one which betrays the utter cynicism of a party bent on one ideal and one only: that no one but them should ever wield power.

The plan was twofold. The first part entailed stuffing the judiciary full of political hacks who would in all things defer to their ideology, with no regard for precedent or law, and to get as many seated as possible without regard for two hundred years of prior practice. They stymied so many lower court nominations that the then-Senate majority leader carved out a clumsy exemption to the filibuster (rather than killing it outright as he should have done), which was then used for the trumpet call that the rules were being bent by Democrats and therefore any amount of rule-breaking was not only moral but necessary. Culminating, of course, in a logic that said that Antonin Scalia’s seat must be held open for a year to get a Republican President [sic] to fill it, yet Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s must be fulled in a month lest a Democrat be allowed to fill it. With the result that we have had thirty years of a conservative-majority court. Never mind Ford or Nixon: three Reagan appointees, four Bush appointees between the two of therm, and three more Trump appointees, as against four total for Democrats since 1976 – despite 20 years of Democratic Presidency and 24 years of Republican, they have almost triple the seats. The Court is broken, possibly beyond repair.

But that’s only half the plan. The other half is simply to have no policy whatsoever at the federal level, other than to thwart Democrats. In four years under Donald Trump, the GOP’s great policy initiative was to confirm judges and throw out Obamacare – the latter of which they couldn’t even find fifty of their own votes in the Senate for – and nothing else, to the point that they literally had no platform for the 2020 Presidential election. Democrats can do nothing at the federal level, the Republicans will do nothing, and the courts will defend the Republican point of view.

And so we reach the soft secession we have now. Rather than break away from the United States, the South and its fellow travelers will merely make one outrageous decision after another at the state level, confident that the machinery of the Federal judiciary will not touch them as it did sixty years ago – and confident that it can stop any federal agency from intervening, either through the judicial shield during a Democratic administration or their own indifference during a Republican one. Florida can throw out public health altogether, Tennessee can tiptoe up to the line of burning books, Texas can create a vigilante mechanism for attacking women seeking abortion care, and the federal government is stymied in any attempt to intervene, while the Neo-Confederates waltz away with their “low-regulation low-tax” paradise paid for with federal money leeched from California and New York.

Set against this, why even bother to secede by force of arms? Just brazenly ignore any number of norms and unwritten rules, get your tame Federalist Society judges to rip up any judicial precedent with language that would get a 1L laughed out of the classroom, and do whatever you want without let or hinderance – or consequences, to this point.

The only thing that is going to throttle this is an aggressive and comprehensive attack on Trumpism by everyone else, including Republicans who have supposedly disavowed Trump yet still want to reap the benefits of his ill-gotten power. Not allowed. Either you are on his side or you will do everything to remove them from political life, and if it means your Reaganite dreams are deferred for a generation, that’s the price of your folly. And there may come a day when the economic engines of America have to start giving serious thought to how their wealth can be diverted away from underwriting the very people who want to transform America into a new Confederacy.

Whatever it takes.

this world we made

I lost a cousin this week. He was 57, the youngest of four sons of my mother’s late older brother. He was the typical late-boomer East Tennessee rowdy boy of the 70s, of the sort I knew well knocking about town growing up in the exurban South. He also didn’t have a particularly easy run of things – the usual constellation of drinking, arrests, car crashes, divorces, gambling, kid or two out of wedlock. My mother mentioned more than once how he’d had a tough life, and how she was trying to help where she could, but sadly, her various reclamation efforts have not exactly borne fruit over the years.

Which seems harsh. Probably is, really. But maybe I finally understand how some of my “I can fix this” DNA comes from that side too. Then again, it’s also easy to pull on the JD Vance school of victim-blaming pathology and say “buy the ticket, take the ride” – which is a family motto, if not that part of the family. But that doesn’t satisfy things either. Because there are plenty of people who are only as successful as their options everywhere from East Tennessee to the California coast and everywhere in between. 

I don’t know the details of how he died. One of his brothers hanged himself eleven years ago. 57 is an age that could be most anything, but things being how they are in 2022, my first thought is obviously this damned ongoing pandemic. The easy assumption is that things being how they are, he was almost certainly not vaccinated, and Omicron did what it does. Or it could have been a car crash, or a heart attack, or whatever. There are a lot of ways to die in America in the 21st century. And that sort of strikes at the point of my thinking. We have not, by and large, done very much to reduce the number of ways to die – nor the odds.

The problem is, so many of the things that would reduce the likelihood of premature dying don’t exist in America in the 21st century. We could have lowered the number of firearm deaths – suicides, mass shootings, accidents – if we took mental health seriously and made firearms harder to get than real Sudafed. We could have prevented literally hundreds of thousands of deaths by taking public health measures seriously and uniformly embracing masks and distancing nationwide for six lousy weeks in March 2020. We could have a measure of universal healthcare, or some level of basic income, or underwrite college to the point that six figures of debt are not an entry level requirement for the job market, all of which would lead to an improvement in stress reduction and life expectancy. There are a lot of things that could have made life easier for a working class man in Anderson County in the last forty years.

But at some level, there is an ideology that has slowly permeated most of our American society in those forty years, and it boils down to one very simple idea: the notion that you don’t have to know or care that there are other people. Some people dress it up as “libertarian” and call it the triumph of rugged individualism. Others wrap it in language of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. A handful of people disappear up their own ass into Ayn Rand and proclaim that selfishness is the highest moral virtue. But at the end of the day, it boils down to the simple proposition that what we owe to one another is absolutely nothing. And once we don’t have to consider anyone else, then we can have all the assault rifles and 20-round pistol clips we want and who cares how they’re stored, because freedom. We don’t have to care when nine cops team up to shoot one man on a freeway, because who cares if the cops killed someone else? We can make up whatever we want and broadcast it over cable as news, no matter how logically inconsistent or factually disprovable, and live by it as literal gospel even when it conflicts with the actual Gospel.

And it’s turned into a whole ideology with tentacles in every aspect of world and life. It’s the common thread underlying the financial fraud of crypto and NFTs, the manosphere and its whole ecosystem of podcasts and chat boards, the rejection of the international order by China and Russia and the Trumpian United States, the doctrine that the same sort of injection that was a rite of passage for polio and an annual afterthought with flu is now some sort of unspeakable imposition – and best of all, the notion that the way to deal with a global pandemic is to ignore it, and doing anything to prevent spreading or perpetuating it is an act of submission and fecklessness. Because you should be able to do whatever you want, all the time, with no regard for the consequences, because consequences are for other people.

The problem with this worldview is that it has been leveraged against most of the people who have adopted it. It’s a great ideology for those that have got, but for those who ain’t, it offers you equal freedom to starve under the bridge to the financial benefit of them that’s got. You can’t afford to look at the bad knee that could really stand to be scoped, or go to rehab for the oxy you were overprescribed for bad cramps, or send your kid to the good school they got into. But you can engage in all the performative defiance you like. Performative defiance is free, and easy, and you can sing its praises to the masses who refuse Moderna and Pfizer while you require it for your employees, and if they die of performative defiance, well, you just told them to march on the Capitol and take their country back, you didn’t make them do it.

In 1995, I had the privilege of sitting in a lecture hall at Vanderbilt and listening to Benjamin Barber elucidate the principles behind what would become Jihad vs McWorld, where he pointed out that neither retreat into nationalism and/or religious zealotry nor the deracinated sterility of neoliberal late capitalism lend themselves to a healthy viable democratic society. The solution, as he sees it, involves civic engagement – which is the exact diametrical opposite of the ideology of the 21st century. I thought at the time that the solution would be broadly communitarian, with the Internet as the connective tissue for people forming common bonds. More fool me. I expected that the USENET ethos against spam and misuse would serve as an underpinning value system for a modern social contract. More fool me. I thought having embedded newsgroups as part of the newspaper would be as essential as live coverage on the spot. (This whole “more fool me” thing is making me question how bright I really was in the 1990s.) But it turns out that free trade plus low taxes plus small government sends the money in one direction, to the cost of most. And rather than unwind that process, those who it cost the most would rather find someone to loathe that makes them feel superior, or defy reason and logic for the sake of no man living telling them what to do.

I don’t know what killed Matthew. But at the bottom of the pile, I guarantee you I know what fed it and enabled it to kill him. It didn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t have to be like that. But it starts with asking what are you prepared to do, and what you are prepared to do for others, and accepting that there is in fact something we owe to one another, whatever framework you may couch it in.

Of, as I say, which.

first impressions

In mid-2020, we blithely put in a reservation for an electric vehicle, thinking it would mainly be a goof – we had no room in our garage for it, we didn’t actually need more than one car, and we were in the midst of a global pandemic and were working from home anyway. And then we ended up moving, and to a place without transit, and there’s going to be a time when we need two reliable cars again. And so, last Wednesday, we scrambled to do a deal and take possession of the new ride. And thus was my wife’s 22 year old Jetta replaced with a brand new ID.4 AWD Pro S.

The dynamic of an electric car is very different. Set aside the mechanics of an electric motor – you make a normal start off the line from a stop sign and one second later you’re doing 40 in a 25 and still accelerating, and you have to get used to that – the dynamics of how the car functions will blow your mind. There’s no ignition, just an on-off switch, and even that is superfluous. The car unlocks when you walk up to it and starts itself when you sit in the drivers’ seat and put your foot on the brake – walk up, get in, go. There is no gear shift where I’ve rested my hand since 1993; a knob above where your right hand holds the wheel will switch you from neutral to drive to reverse, and instead of shifting into park, you stop and press a button which puts it in park and sets the parking brake all at once. The display shows your speed, your remaining charge, your nav directions if set, and your road surroundings – what’s the speed limit, what sides can you pass on, how close are you following. No odometer. No trip odometer. No tachometer. No oil pressure or engine temperature. Basically, what you are driving is a well-appointed electric golf cart that was 295 brake horsepower, which is within a rounding error of my late father’s 1969 Corvette Stingray.

There’s a lot to relearn in the dark when you leave the dealership in a car like this. Not just where the turn signals or the windshield wipers are, but what the haptic-touch buttons on the wheel do and where the controls are buried in the 12-inch touchscreen UI on the dashboard. The mechanical controls are the pedals, the wheel, the turn signal, the wipers, two buttons for four power windows and the seat controls. Everything else is either a haptic button or a touchscreen control. Muscle memory avails you nothing here; you’re meant to tell the car what to do with “Hello ID” and it can’t necessarily do it all. (The lack of tangible controls for climate control will be a pain in the ass sooner than later, especially when all you want is the fan blowing and not “get me to this set temperature on this side of the car”.) On the other hand, it does mean fewer mechanical switches to wear out and break. On the third hand, Volkswagen is not exactly famous for its robust and reliable electrical systems. On the fourth hand…it’s an electric car. Either they haven’t figured out the electronics and it’ll be towed back to the dealer in 500 miles or it’s going to be all right soon as you learn it.

There are nifty touches. All the modern bells and whistles, like a fairly aggressive lane assist that will make sure you don’t drift on curves (and will supposedly slow you gradually to a stop if it thinks you fell asleep or had a heart attack) or wireless phone charging and wireless CarPlay (which, combined with the interior club lighting and the fact that CarPlay continues until you climb out and thereby power the car off, increases the odds that you’ll inadvertently park with the Village People blasting and look like you’re stepping out of Heaven on the Charing Cross Road rather than a compact SUV). The glass roof doesn’t retract, but the shade does with a finger swipe and it’s a panoramic view the length of the whole vehicle. The bottom is almost completely flat, with no transmission or emissions elements to catch anything, and coupled with six and a half inches of ground clearance gives the real and imagined advantages of some height (not inconsiderable in a world where the luxury-station-wagon-with-a-lift-kit has become the default vehicle of Silly Con Valley, whether it’s a Tesla Y or a Mercedes G-class). 

Which leads to this: there’s a certain appeal to pushing what Volkswagen is sotto voce promoting as “the people’s EV.” Not the people’s car; you can’t be the people’s car at $40K even after federal tax breaks. But this is about the cheapest way into a compact electric crossover – I don’t know if the Bolt EUV is out (and if it is, whoever is in charge of promotions should be sacked forthwith), but even as loaded an ID.4 as this is will still save you $10K over an equivalent Tesla Y, with the added satisfaction of promoting electric driving without being a Muskmelon.

There’s one other issue: charging. There are plenty of places to charge in Silly Con Valley, some of them even gratis depending on day and time, but so far, level 2 charging is not as easy as “roll up, plug in, fill ‘er up” – instead, you have to specify how much charge you want and in what amount of time, and the app will balk and tell you that it takes longer, and you’ll have to keep tweaking back and forth until you can get what you want, and then you have to start all over again because it’s estimating a cost greater than what you have in the app wallet, and then once you have the money in the app wallet it quotes you a different rate than you thought, and and and. Plus you have to use the VW’s own app to release the charge cord when you’re ready to call it quits. It’s going to take some getting used to; the car, like the phone, is going to be something you charge overnight when it’s down to 25% rather than something you’re likely to top up at every stop. (I did use the Level 1 portable charger that came with the car to try topping up overnight and got it from 70% to 85%, which suggests that I could charge it from 20% to 95% in about five days. Mixed bag. Maybe if we drive to Tahoe and leave it plugged in outside the cabin the whole time, who knows?)

But here’s the thing: this feels like the car of the future. I got my Monte Carlo with its mechanical radio dial just as digital tuning became a thing and the world started moving to fuel injection. I got my Saturn with its cassette deck as CDs and sunroofs became cheaper. I got the VW Rabbit with its quirky I-5 engine just as navigation screens and hybrid drive trains began to proliferate. The Malibu was the first car of my life that didn’t feel like it was obsolete six months after it rolled off the lot. But this…this is a Great Leap Forward. With the soft teal glow inside (adjustable across the spectrum depending on mood!) and the automatic wireless pickup of BBC Sounds or Apple Music or SomaFM (we’re going to try this one without paying for a second satellite radio) and the destination outlined on Apple Maps on a dashboard display the size of an iPad and the full moon through the glass roof and the eerie electronic whine that’s legally required under 20mph to warn others of a vehicle, it feels for all the world like the dream of a 1979 My Weekly Reader come to life. Unlike the last time I moved into this address, this time I got a new VW within four months. 

Now we see what life in the future is like.

the country record played backward

“you get your dog back, your truck back, your wife back, you get out of jail…”

The big open-ended things are beginning to fall. The new vehicle is here at last (of which), the house and mortgage are finally sorted (for better or worse), I have an interview for another job, and even if I don’t get it, the labor I have done to facilitate it is paying out in a work project. And the back-end server support I’ve been waiting on for six to eight weeks has finally been sorted out to the point I can start trying to do my actual job.

It’s not bad, really. The problem of bashing your head against the wall is it feels so good when you stop. My sister pointed out that you can endure almost anything as long as it comes with an end date, and the things that tend to torture you are the open problems that lack a date certain for ending. It doesn’t do much good to say “it gets better” if you can’t say how or when.

There are still big things ahead that are not my call. Some state power could put paid to our plans to go to London. No other employer has to offer me a job. The current one could easily resume ignoring me, or worse. There’s always the risk of something unexpected stepping backward out of the fourth dimension to slit your throat when you weren’t looking. And while worrying means you suffer twice, it’s good to be prepared for – or at least cognizant of – the risk posed by known unknowns. And realistic about it.

For now, it’s tempting to believe that after a turbulent year, things are finally settling into the new normal. Not back to the way they were, which is never possible; the bell doesn’t un-ring. But if we reach a stable state we can live with rather than an unceasing river of anomaly…that would almost be enough, wouldn’t it?

first impressions

“But if there’s a new iPad mini coming in 2021…maybe? At this point I think it’s turned into a gadget that I aspire to because I want it as an accessory for the kind of life I want to live, one where video chat with friends is a regular feature rather than a momentary pandemic novelty. One where I need the big display to dash off a little bit of remote work from the Adirondack on the porch overlooking the fog in Galway or Pescadero or the Smokies. It’s my age old story of wanting to need the things I want…and wanting to live in a world where the need for the things I want is both possible and realistic.”

-27 May 2020

This post is coming from the back yard, tapped out as is tradition on the device itself. iPad mini, sixth generation, purple with a purple cover (in tribute to my mother in law), and featuring the Apple Pencil. The post has been saved for a while, because I was told on Christmas morning that it was coming, and I figured I should have it prepped.

My last iPad was the second generation mini, acquired exactly eight years earlier, which has not seen an OS update in three years apart from emergency point patches. It wasn’t really a concern, either; by that point my work-provided iPhone X was a one-oversized-fits-all option. The 7.9-inch screen of the mini made sense when I had a 4 inch phone screen, less so with 5.8. Well, now I famously have a 5.4″ phone…which is great for phone stuff but not so great for, you know, reading. Or video chat with multiple people. Or battery life if you’re going to lean back and cast it to the TV.

But there’s also work to consider. It’s become readily apparent that I need to get my personal life off my work computer. This splits the difference nicely and would be less than a pound in my laptop bag. And then, there’s pub night at home on Sundays. It’s hard not to be tempted by things on the phone, so why not do away with the legal pad, the Kindle and the iPhone altogether and just take the iPad out by the firepit to help with physically detaching from the weekly grind?

I am going to have to relearn my two finger glass typing techniques, though. I haven’t figured out the on screen keyboard with its vital differences from a laptop or phone. And writing directly on screen is an art that may take me a while to master. Simple deletes and returns are a challenge, because my reflexes for such things were honed in the dot com era on the Graffiti system adopted by Palm, and they are still buried deep in my operating system to be unlearned before the Apple Pencil can be more than a fine-point finger.

This is an aspirational device. This is a take-abroad-to-spare-the-phone device, a do-some-work-in-a-pinch device, a pop-it-up-on-the-coffee-table-to-Zoom-with-friends device. A force multiplier for iOS. A way to ensure that the phone lasts all day when I’m not at my desk with a charge cable all the time. The tweener for IMDb use watching Disney+. Something that doesn’t have Twitter on it, or at most the tightly constrained friends-only variety.

Hopefully it will be my personal computer for the world to come. Of which.