Getting it wrong

With the handing down of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last week the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overruled their long-standing decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) making abortion a Constitutional right.

I don’t know what the fallout from Dobbs is likely to be, aside from making Margaret Atwood a prohibitive favourite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Nor am I up to making any kind of legal critique of the majority opinion in Dobbs. What the decision does force me to do, however, is consider how I got things so wrong.

I’m referring to an earlier post, from 2015, where I had this to say:

[The] problem with the Republicans may be that a particular historical strand of American conservatism has played itself out. In terms of cultural conservatism it seems as though the “culture wars” are, if not over, at least moving into a new, yet-to-be-determined phase. The right to an abortion is now settled, and the fight over gay marriage mostly is too. Human-driven climate change is a fact accepted by everyone who is not a complete idiot. The idea that the U.S. can build a wall separating itself from Mexico (or Canada), and somehow round up all its illegal immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin is laughable. And yet all of this can be found in the platforms of leading Republican candidates.

I returned to this point in a lengthier post a year later, where I talked a lot about “the end of the conservative road.” I didn’t think the Republican Party was dead in the U.S., or that Right-wing politics had passed its expiration date, but it did seem to me that a particular style of politics had had its day. I was wrong. The “new, yet-to-be-determined phase” of the culture wars was going to lead into a time warp.

Obviously I misjudged badly. What did I not anticipate? The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and his stacking of the Supreme Court with radical ideologues, just for starters. But the Trump years were symptomatic of a deeper malaise that I seem to have missed. In particular, there are two points that I didn’t pick up on at the time.

The first is the importance of anger as a political driver, and the way parties of the Right so successfully branded themselves as the standard bearers for so much resentment and hate. I’ve already written about this here, and won’t add anything more aside from asking if there are any angrier or more bitter people in the U.S. than the likes of Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh. The rage just seems to radiate off these guys, which puts the lie to the idea that anger is solely the province of men without a college education, or of the powerless “left behind.”

The second point has to do with how successful the Right, and in particular the Republicans in the U.S., have been at their demonization of their political opponents. This has become so extreme that I don’t think I would have credited it in 2015. But what has happened, and this may be the biggest transformation in American politics in its history, is that one of the main political parties now sees the other as being entirely illegitimate.

This is no longer the province of looney outliers and people who believe in conspiracy memes like Frazzledrip. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever a majority of Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen. They simply do not believe it is any longer possible for another party to be fairly elected.

But it’s even worse than that. Demonization is now taken literally.

In the world view adopted by Republicans, Democrats/progressives/liberals are not just seen as the lesser of two evils but as evil incarnate. They are terrorists, or lizard-headed aliens, out to destroy the country, enslave the population, and looking to kill and eat everyone’s babies (after they have sex with them and tear their faces off). And again, this is not a fringe belief. At the highest level, a second Trump presidency is endorsed not because of any love for Trump but because the alternative is seen as Satanic. Trump’s attorney-general, Bill Barr, was one such Christian apocalypticist, and his chief of staff Mark Meadows another. Meadows even tweeted to Ginni Thomas (wife of a Supreme Court justice) during the January 6 coup attempt that “This is a fight of good versus evil. Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs.”

One may ask how much of this is sincere and how much is just trying to justify or rationalize the GOP’s own slide into darkness. As Peter Wehner put it, writing in The Atlantic:

The sheer scale of Donald Trump’s depravity is unmatched in the history of the American presidency, and the Republican Party—the self-described party of law and order and “constitutional conservatives,” of morality and traditional values, of patriotism and Lee Greenwood songs—made it possible. It gave Trump cover when he needed it. It attacked his critics when he demanded it. It embraced his nihilistic ethic. It amplified his lies.

The only way to make this somehow come out right is to paint the Democrats in ever darker shades of black. What has resulted goes beyond polarization, and helps explain not just the radicalization of the Supreme Court but also why even the revelations of the January 6 commission aren’t doing much to move the needle. In 2015 I had no idea this level of extremism could have become so entrenched. I’m sad to say I was wrong.

Worse than I thought

In my previous post on the 2022 Ontario provincial election I mentioned that preliminary reports had it that voter turnout had dropped below 50%, after a high of 58% in 2018. Well, more information has come in and it was actually worse than that. At a shocking 43.03% (according to early data) 2022 marked the lowest voter turnout in provincial history, going back to Confederation. It was almost a full 5% lower than the previous record low, which was set in 2011.

2022: Election round-up

Ford more years. (CBC – Evan Mitsui)

Thoughts on the 2022 Ontario provincial election.

Ontario’s 2018 provincial election had a great turnout. Or at least relatively great. It was a 20-year-high but still only 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. As I’ve remarked before, roughly 40% of people living in a democracies today are never going to vote no matter who is running or what the issues are. They’ve checked out.

People expected a big dip in voter turnout this time around and they got it. Preliminary reports I’ve seen say that it dropped below 50% (update: it was worse than that). This was the first time I’ve ever voted where there was literally not a single person either voting or in line to vote at the polling station I attended. Yes it was an advance poll, but it’s still something I’ve never seen before and I usually vote at advance polls.

One of the factors playing into the low turnout was the fact that the election was over almost as soon as it was called. Pollsters were practically guaranteeing another Ford majority weeks out from election day, and the only story that pundits were left to discuss was who was going to form the official opposition. It’s pretty rare for election results to feel so predetermined. If nothing else the media love a horserace and are often accused of trying to whip one up when none exists. This time they didn’t even try. I can’t remember the last election I’ve voted in that played out so predictably.

It was also an invisible election. Again this year the only party that had canvassers going door-to-door in my riding were for the Greens. The Greens were also the only party I got a phone call from. Perhaps everyone else had just given up (Mike Schreiner, the provincial Green leader, won my riding in a landslide).

But I was called nearly every other day for the last two weeks to take part in a poll. Somebody was working hard.

While the result was anything but a surprise, the fact that it played out so predictably does seem to call for a bit of comment. I don’t think Doug Ford was all that popular with Ontarians and his record in office was nothing to get excited about. The deficit in 2022 (for those who still care about such things) ballooned even beyond what had been run in the COVID years, all while Ford pulled silly stunts like cancelling vehicle registration fees. He’d cut back on services, boosted some shady development deals (the boondoggle of highway 413), bungled the response to COVID (though arguably no worse than anyone else), and still won smashingly, facing no real opposition. Why?

I’ll take a shot at explaining, but before I do I want to just add something on the highway 413 fuss. I totally understand people who think the whole thing is rotten, but what I don’t think a lot of critics appreciate is just how dirty a business real estate development is. It’s all like this. Development and infrastructure is one of the areas where public and private actors work together very closely, and at every level — municipal, provincial, and federal — there’s a lot of pay-to-play going on. I don’t know how much of that was happening here, but it’s the nature of the business. No one should be surprised at it.

But back to Ford’s success. Some of this can be attributed to what are global trends. For example the way the right is killing it on the culture war front, and the continuing divide of political parties into those of the private sector and those of the state. With regard to the latter point, it was striking that a number of unions come out in support of Ford, but these were all private sector unions, specifically in the building trade. No public sector unions backed him. I think that tells you something about where the new line is being drawn. And given how much support I think there is for the Tories among a lot of public sector union members I think things are looking even worse for the left on this front.

Another factor putting the wind in Ford’s sails was the hangover from the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne years. It’s hard to overstate how deeply those two were disliked, and the metaphor of the Liberals still being in the penalty box held true. Voters can hold long grudges. Federally, the Liberals are still running against Stephen Harper, and even Brian Mulroney, while in the U.S. I imagine Donald Trump is going to occupy a similar place for many years to come. Meanwhile, the presence of Justin Trudeau (and his partnership with Jagmeet Singh) on the national stage only added fuel to the Tory fire. Again I don’t think you can overstate how sick many people are of Trudeau.

Then there is the first-past-the-post electoral system. The Tories took roughly 2/3 of the seats with just over 40% of the vote. The Liberals, NDP, and to a lesser extent the Greens split the anti-Tory vote, while Ford had nothing to fear on his right. I had to go online just to find out who the New Blue, Ontario, and Ontario First Party even were.

Veteran NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal newbie Steven Del Duca, who both resigned as party leaders after the election (Del Duca even failing to win his own seat), were criticized for not being more inspiring, not to mention better prepared, but I don’t think they were going anywhere regardless. My big question going into the election was whether, given this state of affairs, there was any chance the Greens could make a breakthrough. They did not, only holding on to their single seat. At this point, and after their disastrous showing in the 2021 federal election, you really have to ask whether they have any role to play in Canadian politics at all. It’s not just that people aren’t voting for environmental issues, they are actively voting against them (see the union support for the highway-building project). I don’t see where there are any hopeful takeaways from that.

Draft notes

First overall pick Travon Walker. 6′ 5″ and 272 pounds. Boom or bust?

We’ve just finished the first two days of the 2022 NFL draft, which was held this year in Las Vegas. It’s hard to overstate how big an event this has become. Taking place over three days, the amount of media coverage and fan interest rivals that for the Super Bowl.

Why? Because unlike the Super Bowl every team’s fan base is involved, each hoping for a transformative pick or picks. Because you can lay an infinite number of bets on the various outcomes. Because with trades allowed the whole show becomes a giant poker game. And I think mainly because anyone can pose as an expert.

Teams invest an incredible amount of resources in preparing for the draft, preparing their big boards with armies of talent scouts and crunching numbers with various sorts of analytics. All of which counts for something, but given the randomness of the results, where even in the first round of the draft your hit rate on picks runs around 50%, just how much it counts for is open to debate.

This year was a more open and unpredictable draft than ever, in large part because there were few blue chip prospects and no top quarterbacks in the mix. As it turned out, only one QB was taken in the first round (Kenny Pickett, who went 20th overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers).

The low evaluation of the QBs in this draft underlines another change that’s become more pronounced around the league. Of course it’s long been recognized that the QB is the most important player on the team. No other position is even close. What’s changed is the mindset that says that you have to have an elite or franchise QB (read: top 10 or so) to even be relevant. One or two of the best QBs in this draft might turn into decent starters, but teams want a lot more from their QB prospects now. You have to have the potential to be one of the very best. In draft terms, this means the position has become totally front-loaded.

That’s a philosophy that was underwritten this off-season as well. Not only did Deshaun Watson, despite having to deal with a bunch of sexual assault allegations, receive a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns (which also cost the Browns three first-round picks), but otherwise serviceable-to-good QBs like Jimmy Garappolo and Baker Mayfield became toxic assets. It’s not the high price of talent that kills you, as one owner put it, but the high price of mediocrity. You can pay an elite player anything, but you can’t afford to have players who are JAGs (Just-A-Guy) on your roster.

It’s hard not to see this as yet another example of our winner-take-all economy in action, which in turn makes the draft seem like even more of a lottery. Is that another reason that it’s become so popular? It’s a sporting event for our time.

Why does anyone still care about Tiger Woods?

Still going strong, at least in terms of ratings. (AP – Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Years ago I was assigned to review a little book about Tiger Woods. At the time Woods was the best golfer in the world and in the running for being considered the greatest of all time. His father spoke of him, without irony, as having been sent by God and as potentially being the most important human ever. Not, as the author of the book noted, “the most important golfer or the most important athlete, but the most important human.” As in, bigger than Jesus.

Woods was young and good-looking and multi-racial and seemed on his way to overturning a lot of the old stereotypes of professional golfers as wealthy white retirees while he was re-writing the record books. But that was all a long time ago. Since then Woods survived a messy divorce, the disintegration of his body (he just recently had his fifth back surgery), and a car crash that fractured his leg. His game, as you might expect, has suffered. But for his surprise victory in the 2019 Masters he hasn’t been great for nearly a decade.

None of this is very surprising. Top athletes usually only stay at the top of their sport for about a decade. Golf is a little more forgiving than professional football, but no one beats Father Time. This makes it all the more surprising to me that whenever Tiger Woods picks up a golf club he is still treated as front-page news.

This weekend was the 86th Masters Tournament and Woods got off to a good start. Which meant that he was the top story not only for sports channels but even for news programming. A writer for USA Today called the story of Woods’s “transcendent game” “much more than a sports headline.” On CNN the Breaking News followed up events in Ukraine with Tiger’s miraculous comeback.

As it turned out, Woods crashed at the Masters, quickly falling out of contention with some disastrous rounds that ranked as his worst ever at the Masters. But that seems not to have diminished him as a draw, with commentators insisting that his performance was must-see viewing.

I can understand some of this, since everyone likes a comeback story and Woods overcoming his long list of injuries is inspiring. But lots of older athletes have had to do the same. The continuing attention given to everything Woods does, so long after his becoming just another golfer, doesn’t make sense to me. Why, on broadcasts of these events, are they even still following him?

The reason this disturbs me is that professional athletics is one of the few public spectacles where you can still count on achievement and ability trumping mere celebrity. It doesn’t matter how famous you are or how much money you make from endorsements if you can’t run faster or jump higher or hit harder than the competition. For years now, however, Tiger Woods has put a lie to that. He is without question the world’s most famous golfer, but is far removed from being the best. And yet the media continue to build him up, with their coverage making him the main focus of interest.

I don’t follow golf, but I am a sports fan. And as a sports fan I feel the same sense of despair at this as when MMA fighter Conor McGregor fought Floyd Mayweather, a publicity stunt that had the second-highest pay-per-view buy rate in boxing history. If this is the future of sport — and Mayweather’s next fight was against YouTuber Logan Paul, which also did over a million buys — where achievement means nothing and we’re just paying to watch famous people perform (and not always perform well) then what’s the point? We might as well be watching Dancing with the Stars.

A conversation on American politics

I only recently heard the sad news of the death of the visual artist Tom Moody, a frequent commenter on my blog here and at Alex on Film. I never met Tom, but we had some great discussions online and I always appreciated getting his unique point of view. We can have a real connection and attachment to people we only interact with online, something that Tom’s death brought home to me.

The last set of posts Tom put up on his blog were responses to things I had written, which he put in the form of a dialogue. Since I don’t know how much longer that material will be kept up, I thought I’d repost a bit of those conversations here with some light editing.

Alex Good (from my review of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit): Sandel and [David] Brooks are right in seeing in the myth of meritocracy a mighty engine for the generation of mass resentment. Meritocratic hubris leads to smug self-congratulation among the fortunate and anger among the left behind. “There is reason to think,” Sandel opines, “that popular antipathy toward meritocratic elites played a part in Trump’s election, and in the surprising vote in Britain, earlier that year, to leave the European Union.” People were confused at Trump’s railing against elites when he was himself, at least by his own reporting, a billionaire. But Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t talk about merit. He talked about winners and losers. And what Trump’s supporters recognized was that Trump was actually a giant loser: a serial bankrupt, serial divorced male, clinically obese, deeply ashamed of being bald, and acting out his various insecurities in giant rages on the most public of stages. His favourite word with which to tag anyone he hated was “loser.” This, like everything else about him, was pure projection. That loser rage, however, struck a mass chord. His anger – and he was anger incarnate – was a kind of therapy. His fear of being laughed at and humiliated was something everyone suffering from a loss of social esteem could relate to.

Tom Moody: This is an interesting take on Trump but omits his smart mouth that appealed to many Americans. Trump heckled loser Jeb about his sainted mother — who was actually a battle-ax and mediocre dynasty-builder, much kidded by Dems in the Bush years for talking about her “beautiful mind” that would not be cluttered with Iraq war details. While Jeb was waxing sentimental about her during the Republican debates Trump wisecracked that “she should be running” (as a candidate herself, annoying the clearly-not-ready-for-prime-time Jeb).

Calling Bush Jr.’s Iraq war a mistake based on lies, on the national debate stage, is something the media would expect from a Jesse Ventura or Mike Gravel or Ron Paul but here it was being voiced by a juggernaut candidate on his way to the presidency (though no one knew that yet). The US public wasn’t just thrilled to hear the Iraq truth spoken aloud because they identified with Trump as a “fellow loser,” as Alex Good suggests, but rather because it was true and no establishment debater or media figure up to then had the courage to speak it. Later, as President, Trump wanted to know what could possibly justify the U.S. presence in Syria post-ISIS. (Fighting a dirty war on behalf of some sleazy U.S. “allies”? Or was it the instantly-manufactured defense of “the Kurds! the Kurds!”? it depended on the politics of who answered.) Eventually Trump’s handlers reeled him back in and he made his laughable claim that the US was there to “protect the oil” (that is, Syrian oil in the ground coveted by other countries).

If Bush Jr were still president, the “left” would have applauded all these “outrageous” Trump statements. With the onset of Trump Derangement Syndrome in 2016 (a term borrowed from Bush Jr.), the antiwar faction immediately discounted Trump’s few sensible/courageous statements simply because he was Orange Hitler. The MAGA crowd was paying attention, though, including many families of maimed veterans, and appreciated hearing those occasional, inconsistent truth bombs from the mouth of their chosen “loser.” If you want to understand the election, understand that at least — it wasn’t all about bullying and “racism.” It was straight talk people forgotten could be spoken.

Tom Moody: One thought on why the US succeeded postwar and began failing after Reagan’s election. It was actually due in part to a system the US Republicans would say was the opposite of merit: the US Civil Service.

In order to execute the New Deal programs you needed a dedicated, mostly not corrupt caste of worker bees. These people weren’t paid super-well but had good pensions and benefits.

The US Republicans spread the propaganda meme of “lazy government workers” in order to justify dismantling and privatization of Civil Service positions, carnage that is still ongoing. As government gets noticeably less competent, this justifies further cuts.

Alex Good: Agree completely. What the Republicans stand for more than anything today is hatred of the government. The more old-school “conservatives” will describe this as “limited government” but what it really amounts to is what Sarah Kendzior refers to as stripping the state down and selling it off as spare parts/scrap. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk is a popular take on this, but it’s really everywhere. Big Government is now so evil that it can’t even be trusted to handle things like rolling out a vaccine. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of tearing down the government has always been there (Grover Nyquist’s line about shrinking government to the point where it can be drowned in the bathtub), but it’s been taken to a new level, and new seriousness, with the program of people like Bannon, who talk explicitly and enthusiastically about destroying the state.

My own theory here is that the Republicans are basically looking at what happened to post-Soviet Russia as a model to be followed. Single-party rule, one state-owned media outlet, and control of the economy by a group of oligarchs who represent a government-business partnership. It’s not far removed from China either. It’s something that a lot of the old Cold Warriors seem to be missing. These guys aren’t the commies any longer, with a godless, evil system that’s a rival of or threat to capitalism. They have a better system of capitalism that America’s oligarchs want to emulate.

Tom Moody: Post-Soviet Russia had a lot of interference from Milton Friedman types in the US. That stopped under Putin and Russia seems to be evolving its own hybrid system. China has a better safety net than the US and actively funds its rural areas under Xi. Both countries are autocratic but seem to be run by a government as opposed to a handful of private corporations and CEOs.

I mentioned the US Civil Service in response to Michael Sandel’s statement “Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful.” The 1940-1980 elites created the social programs but left them for non-elites to run. I haven’t read Sandel’s book so I don’t know if he makes that distinction.

Alex Good: The private sector in Russia and China is very much subordinate to the government. But I think that’s actually the system that the right wants in the U.S. because it’s not a communist or socialist government but one where a bunch of rich families and oligarchs own everything, whether they’re members of the (only) party or friends of people who are. Putin is reportedly the richest man in the world for being czar of what is not a wealthy country. What politician wouldn’t want a slice of that? Think of how much money can be made from dismantling the American state.

I think the endgame the Republicans, or Western elites more generally, seem to be aiming for is something very similar to these formerly communist countries: control the media, get rid of democracy and replace it with one-party rule by a class of oligarchs who control the government, and then work together with the private sector to enrich themselves.

Tom Moody: Trump and Bannon (I know we don’t agree on this) are bugbears for the real villains: the “liberals” that internalized Chicago School talking points about budget-balancing and the free market. There is almost no space between Bill Clinton and Paul Ryan on the issue of so-called entitlements. They think social spending threatens to drain the country and they don’t care at all about the cost of military spending. (There is actually a video somewhere of Clinton and Ryan having a tête-à-tête backstage at some event, where Clinton is assuring Ryan that on the “next vote” — whatever that was — they would have support for the cuts Ryan wanted.) Of course the right believes in “markets” but the Dems have actually been able to turn this ideology into policy. I would say on the “need” to cut Social Security and Medicare, Clinton, Obama, and the hated Trump are in near-complete agreement. Biden currently has an appointee inside Medicare (Elizabeth Fowler) who is working to privatize the system as much as possible.

Alex Good: I’d agree with that, but what I think the Trump phenomenon revealed to the Republicans (and elites more generally) was that they could go a step further. For example, as bad as Clinton and the neoliberal Dems were (and are) I don’t think they believe in getting rid of democracy entirely and turning the U.S. into an authoritarian state run by the Party, with all other parties being deemed illegitimate. After Trump I think the Republicans saw that this was possible and it’s what they’re working toward. As for Trump himself, I don’t think he has any political ideology at all, or goals beyond using the office to get attention, make money, and stay out of jail. But he’s been useful for pushing things along in this direction faster and further than anyone thought possible. Or at least that I thought possible.

Tom Moody: The Republicans (Trumpist and otherwise) and Democrats all benefit from the appearance of a working two-party system as cover for the orgy of looting by the oligarchs (tech, Wall Street, Pharma, etc) who back both parties. Trump’s flaw was “he gave the game away” with his flaky outspokenness (Iraq was a mistake, we’re in Syria for the oil, CNN is fake news — the latter of which is certainly true, as evident from their “Russian aggression” narratives concerning Ukraine). All those truth bombs meant Trump had to go — hence the Russiagate propaganda blitz and weak cases for impeachment.

Hitler/Trump comparisons never persuaded me — Hitler was a fanatic and control freak; Trump likes his golf and luxury. The MAGA hat rallies apparently scare people outside the US. These are conservative people who fear change and Modernity (not without reason) — there may be brownshirts at the rallies but it’s mostly about solidarity among the working class and rural population.

Alex Good: Yes, Trump is no Hitler. As one historian pointed out a couple of years back (I can’t remember his name), Trump is what the German conservatives wanted Hitler to be: a demagogue buffoon who would get people to vote for him but who would have no interest in actually governing. Instead he (Hitler) turned out to be something more dangerous. Trump, on the other hand, really is a moron just trotted out to play to the rubes, with no political platform at all. The tax cuts and stacking the judiciary were things he didn’t understand or care about, though he’d brag about them all the same. That was all Ryan and McConnell.

I agree that fear of change is a big part of his appeal, especially among older voters. I think we have a difference of opinion on Russia. As far as I can tell Trump’s only real business for the last twenty years or so has been money laundering for Russians. I actually thought he did enough to get impeached the first time, and the second time should have been a slam dunk. The Ukraine phone call really was a hundred times worse than Watergate.

Tom Moody: I don’t think Trump was trotted out — I think he trotted himself out in a wild-card year of working class rebellions. We started 2016 with the depressing news that the media had decided the election was going to be Jeb vs Hillary — two utterly mediocre dynasties — and ended 2016 with the certainty that both those fools were gone from the world stage. I found this uplifting but by that point most of nt friends were far gone into Trump Derangement Syndrome and couldn’t share my joy.

The news outside the CNN bubble is the world is realigning to a tri-polar situation after 30 years of US control. If de-dollarization continues the US will have to act less like The Hegemon bully to other countries and will have to get its own house in order. Riots, COVID, woke destruction of standards, offshoring, etc.

Alex Good: I agree with you that Trump wasn’t initially trotted out. He was seen as a party crasher. I think Republicans hated him from the start, and from all the reporting I’ve read they still do. Even the ones who kiss his ass the most.

But despite that hate they find him a useful idiot for the reasons I mentioned: he fires up the base and has no interest whatsoever in actually governing, giving the party establishment a free hand to do pretty much whatever they want. Some may grumble about trade wars and the rest, but when push comes to shove — and that was the tax cut bill — they drew a hard line in the sand. The donors were insisting on that. And after tax cuts and stacking the judiciary there really wasn’t much else on the agenda. The Republicans are a party without a platform. Building a wall, infrastructure, a big beautiful new healthcare bill . . . these were things they didn’t even attempt. It got to the point where they finally didn’t even bother publishing a platform for Trump’s second nomination. I don’t think so much because they were just deferring to “whatever Trump says” as that they didn’t have much they really wanted.

Ah, we do part ways on Russia. I am not in the NeoCon camp and think Russia had plenty of legitimate grievances with NATO expansion etc. Nor do I think Trump is a Manchurian candidate figure. I do, however, think Putin thinks of him as (again) a useful idiot to have in the White House (he publicly stated he wanted Trump to win), and I don’t think there’s any denying that Russia did intervene in the election to help Trump. I don’t know how big a part that played in the election (Clinton was probably the very worst candidate the Dems could have put forward), but it was an issue. I’m disturbed by writing off the connections that were made as a hoax or a fraud. The two sides were meeting. They were working together. They were trying to keep it secret. We don’t know how much of it they did keep secret.

Boyhood crush revealed!

The wreck of the Endurance has been discovered 3000 meters beneath the Weddell Sea.

The story of the doomed Endurance expedition, headed by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is considered (at least by Wikipedia) “to be the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.” As it turned out, Shackleton never even set foot on the continent. The Endurance got stuck in and then crushed by ice, leading to heroic efforts made by the crew to survive.

Arctic and Antarctic exploration has always fascinated me. I remember reading every book there was about these expeditions when I was a kid. It was big news for me when the wrecks of the Erebus and Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Because of where they sank, these wrecks are in remarkably good condition today. The pictures are amazing and only add to the romance.

Blowing bubbles

(Getty Images – Anatolii Stepanov)

On February 24 Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This was a mistake, but an even greater crime. According to the judgment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Few events in recent times have had such moral clarity, and the invasion has been met with near-universal condemnation.

Intelligence leading up the outbreak of war was good and (a bit surprisingly) much of it was made public. Still, when the invasion came it took many people by surprise. I think mainly because it seemed to make no sense. It was often repeated by the talking heads and experts featured in various media that the only person who knew what was going on was Russian president Vladimir Putin, who seemed to be behaving erratically as of late.

This isn’t hard to understand. With all our talk of privilege — white, male, or whatever — the master privilege of those who are wealthy and powerful has always been the ability to create and live within their own alternate realities. These bubbles are never impermeable. Illness, in particular, has a way of breaking in, like the Red Death crashing Prince Prospero’s party. But while the bubble lasts, and they can last up until the end, they’re both a nice place to visit and to live.

A bubble’s biggest weakness, however, is the denial of reality that is their whole reason for being. Within the court of Prince Prospero, nary will be heard a discouraging word. The wealthy and powerful, surrounded by courtiers, yes-men, flunkies, and flatterers, come to believe not only that all their jokes are funny but that they have an invincible destiny.

I wrote about the effect this can have in my review of Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir What Happened. Clinton should not have run for president in 2016 but by that point ClintonWorld, as it had come to be known, was a bubble swollen to bursting. Critics and detractors had been weeded out of an inner circle where, in her words, loyalty was “prized most among human traits.” Trump, in turn, was no different, prizing loyalty just as highly and making sure that everyone around him was an obsequious toady. And while today his bubble has shrunk to Mar-a-Lago and fringe news outlets, it is still being maintained.

Another example of the bubble phenomenon, bearing perhaps even more directly on the Ukraine invasion, was Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. The German high command wanted nothing to do with the folly of launching a war against Russia, but by that point Hitler was in such control and had been proven right so often that no one dared speak out against his decision.

It’s quite natural to want to shape reality to one’s own desires and push contradiction (or “negativity”) to the side. Natural, but dangerous. Of course, you may still get away with it. It’s been often remarked, for example, how J. K. Rowling badly needed an editor on the final Harry Potter books, someone to tell her that things were going wrong, but who would have done that? And why? By that point nothing was going to hurt her sales anyway.

I’ve heard it said that Warren Buffett has an advisor on the payroll whose only job is to argue against every decision he makes. He has to do this because he knows that otherwise nobody would speak out against him. I think this shows how smart a guy Buffett is.

My own hunch is that Putin fell into this same trap. Russia has no opposition party or critical press. Putin enjoys unchallenged political power and enormous wealth. Watching his televised meeting with his security council in his throne room I was reminded of when Trump made everyone in his cabinet humiliate themselves by going around the table and forcing them to debase themselves before their Dear Leader. The difference being that Putin has even more control over his bubble, and his flunkies were almost fainting in terror. Trump was only ever a wannabe dictator, not on that level at all.

A piece in Slate by Ben Judah fleshed out some of my thoughts on how this works, describing Russia today in political-science terms as a “personalist dictatorship, where the whims of one man, and one man only, determine policy”:

Americans tend to see the world in much the same way as President Joe Biden frames it in his speeches, divided neatly between “democracies” and “autocracies.” But the reality is that authoritarian states exist on a political spectrum depending on how much power is exercised by a single individual—and where states land on this spectrum has a big impact on matters of war and peace. At one end, you have civilian-run regimes, like Hu Jintao’s China or Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, where political power is checked and shared within a ruling party. At the other, you have personalist dictatorships like that of, say, Saddam Hussein, where rivals are purged, loyalists are rewarded, cults of personality flourish, and all authority runs through the glorious leader.

As Judah goes on to observe, “A key reason that many wise foreign policy hands thought Russia was bluffing about an invasion was that they assumed Putin wasn’t making his decisions alone. . . . But the world is now realizing that the Putin regime is really just Vladimir Putin. And he is apparently no longer worried about what war will mean for Russia’s rich, much less its masses.”

I don’t think this is all that’s going on, but I do think that a big part of why Putin invaded Ukraine is that there was nobody left within his bubble to tell him that it was a stupid idea. There’s a line about celebrities going bad when they start believing their own press. For politicians it’s changed to believing their own propaganda. It comes to the same thing. Living in a bubble must be great most of the time, but you have to be conscious of the fact that none of it is real. If you imagine that it is then you may be heading for a fall.

End of the road?

(Bloomberg – David Kawai)

Well, it looks like the Freedom Convoy is over now. They’re just clearing the last of it away. What, if anything, did it all mean?

(1) It was great political theatre. This was a story that got major media play not just in Canada but in the U.S. and Europe too. I can’t think of the last time that happened with a Canadian news story.

(2) It didn’t make a lot of sense. Indeed, I said when it started that it was born of a certain lack of seriousness. The ostensible point was to protest vaccine mandates which required Canadian truckers to show proof of vaccination to enter back into Canada from the U.S. Without such proof they were required to quarantine for two weeks. Since they already had to show proof of vaccination to enter the U.S. from Canada this seemed like reciprocity. Also, apparently 85% of truckers were vaccinated. But then they were against all vaccine mandates (passports) and perhaps even more against Justin Trudeau. And it’s still an open question as to how many of the protesters were even truckers.

(3) If they’d stuck to just having a quick demonstration I think they could have called it a huge success. But they kept hanging around in Ottawa and Windsor, with no clear idea what for, and that started to irritate people. Rule for protests: Don’t be too annoying! Though given how Ottawa is a Liberal stronghold they probably figured they had nothing to lose there.

(4) As it is, the whole thing might still be considered a success by those involved in that it provoked the government into an overreaction with their invoking the Emergencies Act to clamp down. I don’t think this was necessary, and the business of going after funding, most of which was domestic, strikes me as particularly problematic. This was not “Canada’s January 6,” or anything even close, though both sides were certainly channeling the energy and iconography from that event.

(5) That said, it might also have been successful in firing up an American-style culture war, one that had both sides calling the other Nazis. (An aside: Will we ever be free of this tired and misleading rhetoric? The threat of authoritarianism in our time isn’t Nazism, or Communism, but something new.) Who gains the most from this polarization? The results will probably take a while to tally, but I’m inclined to think Trudeau was one of the losers, as he came across as both weak and sanctimonious, qualities that have become his most readily distinguishable and least admirable trademarks. On the other hand, the convoy was pushing the Conservatives further than I think many of them wanted to go. What began as farce might still end as tragedy.

The football news

Terry Bradshaw. Love me, love me, say that you love me.

The days leading up to the Super Bowl (this would be LVI) haven’t been full of good news for the National Football League. In particular, a lawsuit filed by former Miami Dolphins Brian Flores coach alleged all sorts of misconduct by various teams. But it was a couple of other NFL-related news stories that caught my eye this past week.

The first story had to do with a documentary on the Tuck Rule, a controversial call made in a playoff game in 2001 involving the now newly-retired quarterback Tom Brady. Jay Busbee, writing for Yahoo Sports, introduces us to it:

Farewell, Tom Brady the football player. Hello, Tom Brady the Image Builder.

This weekend, ESPN will debut “The Tuck Rule,” a “documentary” in the sense that it’s a series of real people discussing, dissecting and squabbling over a real historical event — the fateful play in a 2001 season AFC divisional round game between the New England Patriots and then-Oakland Raiders.

In a more accurate sense, though, “The Tuck Rule” is the first step in the construction of the post-NFL Tom Brady. Co-produced by 199 Productions — which just happens to be the production company of one Tom Brady — it’s a carefully curated version of the truth, one that just happens to break Brady’s way at every turn.

Busbee is right to be suspicious. What’s happening here is something I’ve written about several times before, most recently with regard to the dust-up over tennis star Naomi Osaka’s picking and choosing what media she would do. Osaka was lionized in the press, but I had my doubts about the way she was being allowed to play the reporters whose job it was to cover the story:

I want to express my concern at the way a widespread anger at and distrust of the media has become cover for those in positions of wealth and power who want to take control of the way they’re presented. To ask the obvious question: Who wouldn’t “much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them”? How brave is Osaka in ditching press conferences for social media platforms where, as Jones puts it, “she can control the conversation without risk to herself”?

Everyone wants that kind of control. But who has that privilege? Only the most powerful. Billionaires. Those with “massive social-media followings.” Celebrities who own their own media companies.

Celebrities who own their own media companies. Would that be Tom Brady? Why, yes it would. And to these alternative-reality bubble-blowers we might add celebrities with leverage over mainstream media companies. Like Michael Jordan, who was given editorial control over the 10-part ESPN documentary The Last Dance, which wasn’t exactly a warts-and-all portrait of the superstar basketball player. Or we might think of LeBron James, whose Space Jam 2: A New Legacy was nothing if not an exercise in personal-corporate branding. These athletes are immensely talented in their field, but also smart enough to know how much money can be made as a brand. They are Image Builders, in Busbee’s phrase.

I wrote about this in a post several years ago that I’ve since updated a few times. But it’s worth repeating: a celebrity, or really any individual in a position of wealth and power, will manage their public profile very carefully. Which means that representations of these people, whether in the form of interviews, documentaries, official/authorized biographies, or anything else like that, are pretty much worthless. They are only advertisements for a brand.

Of course the chief reason they do this is to make money. But it’s not all about the money. This was brought home to me in the second bit of NFL news I wanted to talk about. In an interview for ESPN former Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and long-time Fox Sports commentator Terry Bradshaw was asked about any regrets he might have looking back on his career. His response was surprising:

“If there’s one thing in my life I do wish I had . . . I wish I was loved and respected. . . . And I understand, I know I don’t deserve this, I just wish I had it. Like [Tom] Brady, and like Peyton [Manning], Roger Staubach . . . ”

At least it was surprising for a moment. But then I thought of Brett Favre, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers who left that team under something of a cloud, apparently because he didn’t like the fact that the organization was moving on without him (his successor would find himself in a similar position a decade later). It was even reported that Favre might have talked to the manager of an opposing team to give them some inside scoop on the Packers out of spite. It’s hard to tell if this was really what was going on, but it sounded right. I mean, in more recent NFL news the quarterback Tom Brady retired and made a lengthy statement that didn’t even mention the team he’d played on for twenty years and that he only left at the end of his career in order to make another Super Bowl run.

It would be easy to write Favre and Brady off as just a pair of divas. But as Bradshaw’s interview suggests I think it goes deeper than that. All three of these quarterbacks were idolized not just in their home markets but nationwide. They achieved the most that anyone could achieve in their sport: Super Bowl rings and entry into the Hall of Fame (not yet for Brady, but a foregone conclusion for the player many consider to be the greatest of all time). They of course became fabulously rich, and in the case of Bradshaw and Favre went on to become film and television figures who could also cash in on how well liked they were. Indeed, according to Wikipedia: “Among U.S. consumers, Bradshaw remains one of pro football’s most popular retired players. As of September 2007, Bradshaw was the top-ranked former pro football player in the Davie-Brown Index (DBI), which surveys consumers to determine a celebrity’s appeal and trust levels.”

This is the guy whose greatest regret is that he wished he received more love and respect.

To have done so much, gained so much fame and recognition, to be worshipped as gods, and yet . . . to take away from it that it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. More respect. More love. They had been treated so unfairly.

In my earlier post on Osaka I mentioned how her media strategy was taken straight out of the Trump playbook: grievance used as an excuse to tightly manage and control one’s coverage. Unsurprisingly, Trump would also become a bubble blower with his own media company, the Trump Media & Technology Group. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that Favre and Brady are both big Trump supporters (and golf buddies), since Bradshaw was a critic, at least when Trump was in office. But it’s interesting to look at the psychology in play here through the lens of Mary Trump’s profile of her uncle in Too Much and Never Enough. In that book she saw Trump’s narcissism as at least partially being a way of acting out a need for love he didn’t receive from his father.

Are today’s celebrities damaged in the same way? Will too much ever be enough to satisfy their craving for more? More money, more attention, more respect, more love? And how accommodating will supposedly objective media have to become in order to placate these needs?