RW129 - The High Ground

This week, Dan and John talk about:

Bonus-content for Patreon supporters:

  • How is Alaska different from the lower 48? (Geography)
  • Gentrification in Seattle and Austin (Geography)
  • Polyamorous relationships and dom/sub culture (Humanities)

The show title refers to America having lost the moral high ground when they attacked Iraq after 9/11.

John’s computer is garbage! After he updated the operating system to Mojave it is not quite bricked, but everything he does is super-slow and for the first time in as long as Dan can remember there are occasional Skype issues. John had turned on some Google thing (see RL311) and he just figured out how to pause it. He doesn’t even want to resume it, but he wants to go back to a time when all he had was a Walkman.

Dan is doing fine! He can’t complain, which is something in this day and age because how is he going to communicate with people when he has nothing to complain about? People get offended and then they talk about it or they talk about how they are hurting or what people have done to them or what they are afraid of. It is all just complaining!

The 2018 Midterm Elections (RW129)

It was the midterm elections of 2018 and John both votes and actively participates in his local government. There are people who are a lot more engaged than he is and who are on the barricades and for whom politics is their sports. John is not like that, but he is engaged in the issues. This time around he really struggled with how to participate in the ”Get out to vote!” campaign when people reached out and wanted him to be part of it.


The right to vote is enshrined in the US and over the many moons that this country has existed, they have extended that right, which is called the franchise, to more and more people. In the beginning it was white male property owners in certain areas, which was a pretty limited number of people, because the idea democracy was different back then, which is to say that they didn’t feel like the mob was educated enough or capable of understanding the issues enough and if they were given the vote it would be an enormous problem because the mob tends to vote emotionally and tends to be easy to sway with nativist xenophobic arguments.

The mob in 1780 were a bunch of hard-scrabble American farmers with a 3rd-grade education and the founders did not see them as very good voters. As time went on, the democratic experiment of the US has extended that franchise to more and more Americans and now the only people who can’t vote are convicted felons who don’t have their voting rights restored and anyone who hasn’t registered to vote. They even discovered a lot of people who had registered but had been unregistered by political operative. It turns out there are a lot of people who can’t vote for various reasons.

During the 20th century the perception of the two parties was that the Democratic party traditionally represented a greater swath of minorities and poor people while the Republican party sought to keep those people away from the polls by various means. It is harder to get poor people to the polls because it is sometimes even hard for them to travel to the polls. The conservative party would engage in all kinds of duplicitousness to keep the poor people away from the polls, while the Democrats always wanted to pack the polls with as many poor people regardless whether they were politically engaged. That is all old politics!

Why people don't vote

In today's youth culture there is the sense that people are not voting anymore because they are either cynical or bored or they don’t know about voting. There are people who couldn’t point to Texas on a map and there are lots and lots of people who just don’t know what voting is or they don’t feel that it is relevant to them. It is astonishing how few people vote at these big elections! In some other countries democratic voting is such an exciting new concept or such an engrained part of the culture that you get a really large percentage of the population to vote, but in the US we get a little more than half of the eligible population to the polls.

During election season there is always a lot of energy around the idea that we need to get people to vote. Back in the days MTV ran the Rock To Vote campaign where Bill Clinton did a fireside chat with the MTV generation. Dan remembers watching that and being super-impressed that a presidential candidate knew about MTV and acted like he watched it. Getting young people out to vote has been a popular thing ever since.

There are similar groups who want to get for example rural black people out to vote because no kid is too busy to vote, voting is not that hard, it does not take up that much time, and it is a responsibility. There are just a lot of people who feel that voting is not for them. They don’t follow the issues closely enough and when they look at a ballot it doesn't make any sense and they don’t want to deal with that.

Most people probably don’t know what a state legislator or a district attorney does, but you have to know that in order to know what you would want. John's dad taught him that in the old way of political thinking you generally don’t want a Liberal in the role of district attorney or public prosecutor. John’s dad got elected to the legislature in the late 1940s and the governor at the time, Warren Magnuson, was a family friend and a mentor. Already when John’s dad was a little kid he would sit on his knee and when he grew up and became political, Maggy shepherded him through and was a larger than life figure.

John's dad running for prosecutor

As John’s dad ran for prosecutor, the governor asked him: ”Let’s say a guy has committed a crime and you are putting him on trial for it. If you found out that he had a rough childhood, would you factor that into your decision to prosecute the case?” - ”Of course! If he had a tough upbringing…" and so on Liberal talk. The governor said: ”Dave, no! That is not what we ask prosecutors to do!” A prosecutor does not take into consideration whether or not the perpetrator had a rough childhood. That is the case the defense attorney will make and the judge will then take that into consideration, but the prosecutor's job is to punish wrongdoers in the interest of the state.

This is why you traditionally vote for a conservative prosecutor even in Liberal communities. The fact that the district attorney is an elected job is very interesting because it is a political position and the person is going to set a certain tone in your city. If you elect a really Liberal district attorney you will find that the court system isn’t going to work very well. Nowadays everything is up in the air and bass-ackwards and in a lot of ways, though. You are for sure not going to find a leftist district attorney in Abilene, but even liberal towns no longer know exactly what they are supposed to do. There is no centrist path through politics anymore.

People needing a guide

In order to effectively look at a ballot you need a method of interpreting it. The newspaper The Stranger in Seattle publishes an election guide for every election and explains why they are endorsing certain candidates. They basically print a sample ballot and say: ”Just vote like this!” If you are part of the liberal community and believe in the same politics, this is your general guide for how to vote. If you want to go down and read all the things, you can vote a different way. There are a lot of things on a ballot, like the dog catcher and some referenda are worded in a way that makes them very confusing. You think you have to vote 'No' on I42 if you support teachers, but it turns out that I42 totally fucks teachers and fucks the community. Vote for I79 if you want babies made into paving stones!

Seattle is a vast majority Democrat city and there is no outside-the-polls energy, particularly in a national election. Nobody is going to stand outside a polling place on Capitol Hill saying ”Vote for Trump” because it wouldn’t make any sense. Even in other elections there is never really a question which way Seattle is going to vote. Maybe there are some city council candidates out there who vote differently but they always do that very politely and there would never be any yelling.

There is a candidate for congress named Dino Rossi who is a Republican operative. He has run for governor and he has run for election 3-4 times but he has lost every time because he is a bad candidate. For whatever reason he got that combination of being a handsome guy with a certain amount of charisma and his politics are in line with his party, so they just keep putting him up for election, but he is a bad politician. Now he is running for a congressional seat in a suburban district that goes either way. They voted for Obama, but they also voted for Trump.

Districts like that create a lot of excitement because Seattle is a Democrat city while Washington is not a Democrat state. Washington is very rarely going to elect a national candidate that is not a Democrat, but when it comes to state legislator or sending people to the house, many parts of Washington are very Republican. Politics is very regional and candidates from Western Washington want to save the whales while candidates from Eastern Washington think we should drill the whales for oil.

John McCrae

John McCrea, the singer of the band Cake has been politically very active for a long time and John crossed paths with him a few times over the years. He is a good sort, he is smart, and he reached out to John wanting him to do something about the Get Out To Vote thing. The assumption is that it is basically Rock The Vote and there are all these people who are aware of voting, but they are on the fence and they feel that it is so much trouble to get out of the house that day because they have got to get their hair done. They don’t understand what is going on or they don’t like the current politics and the way to avoid it is to avoid it entirely and disengage.

A lot of young people feel, like John did when he was young, that so much about the United States is bankrupt and protesting the brokenness of the United States by not voting seems like a smart move. It is the opposite of a protest vote where you vote for Ralph Nader or Jill Stein or somebody you know who isn’t going to win, but somebody you vote for to make a point. Deciding that you are not participating in this broken system is way worse than that and not really effective.

John McCrae and like-minded people and every single person John knows on Twitter and Instagram are really making a lot of noise about voting, like ”Get out and vote!” and John thought long and hard about it. On one hand he feels that anybody who would take that kind of advice from him and who would see him saying ”Vote! 👍😉” as they are scrolling through the Internet do already know how John feels about voting and that he wants them to vote.

There is probably nobody listening to this program who wonders what John Roderick says about voting and he doesn’t think he has the power to be the tipping point for anybody. The people in John’s community are just talking to one another, posting pictures for each other like ”I’m doing my part, but what are you doing?" David Rees wrote letters to random voters, which is pretty amazing. There are people who are really engaged, but making a video saying ”I want you to vote!” feels a little bit like the politics of now. You put a post of Facebook and ”My work here is done!”

The retweet experiment

In the last election, not the 2016 one but the last little national one before that, Alabama had everyone’s attention when they had a good candidate and a bad one. John sent out a tweet asking people to retweet him and see if he can get a single reply from any Alabama voter who is considering voting for the bad candidate (see AL22618), he just wanted to hear from one. It got retweeted a lot (852 times) and John heard from a lot of Alabama voters, but they were all already voting for the good candidate.

He also heard from a lot of people who retweeted it and who had people in their family or who had followers voting for candidate Bad, but none of those ever replied either. In the end John didn’t get a reply from a single person who was going to vote for candidate Bad. Some replies suggested that those voters might have read John’s tweet but they were not going to reply because they didn't want the trouble, but if that was true, then those people are probably not swayed by tweets.

Dan wonders if there is anybody who will base their decision on whom to vote for on something that somebody said on Twitter, but of course there are when you extend the franchise to everyone. Dan finds it horrible when people care what other people vote for, but he simply will vote for whoever he thinks should win. Then why do people wear Red Sox hats? Nobody should wear Red Sox hats! Wearing a nice sweater is not only for your own benefit, but also for the benefit of all the people who encounter you through the day because they are going to be stuck looking at you. Nobody knows how you voted unless you decide to share it and in Dan’s opinion, nobody should be sharing their votes!

Finding common ground for opposite views on America

Every person has a different vision of what America is and what the world is. We all think we are speaking the same language, but we are not. If the education you received in school taught you that America was a country built on slavery and American Indian genocide, and that every piece of property is stolen and every bit of American ingenuity is just the product of exploiting labor, then you will see American institutions in a certain light.

But if you believe that America is the land of opportunity and Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered it and planted a flag. If you believe that America is a Christian nation, that we are the smartest people and we have invented all the great things and the world looks to us as a leader, then you look at American institutions in a completely different way from the very root of your thinking.

The only way for those two people to express their differences electorally is to vote for candidate A or candidate B, but these candidates are completely insufficient proxies for having those two super common-place mainstream mentalities share any common ground. Even if they are not mainstream, there are still tens of thousands of people who believe in either one of those two ideologies.

Where is their common ground in understanding how the courts work? Who are you going to put on the state supreme court? What ballot initiative are you going to chose for how we tax to fund road building? You have to figure out which one of these capital improvements expresses best the fact that America is a bankrupt slave-economy or which one expresses that America is a Christian nation with a manifest destiny.

There is not real national conversation anymore attempting to bring those two world views into a room and find a common story. Where can you find a common story between those two? There is no place where you all agree and for example that due process is a good thing. It sounds good to both sides, but do both sides agree that the cops should read you your rights when they arrest you? One person is going to say ”There shouldn’t even be any cops!” and the other side is going to say ”We don’t need to read people their rights. If they are criminals, then they are already guilty!” How can we find a place where voting is anything other than a stick-fight like that? A lot of people are not voting on the things that are on the ballot, but they are trying to figure out which bubbles are the closest to promulgating the ideology that they are invested in.

Horse-trading in politics used to be ”I don’t want to vote for this guy, but I need to get the land-use laws changed so I can build my supermarket, therefore I’m going to vote for this guy, because he is just the right amount of corrupt. I don’t like him or his politics, but I need this bill” Now the horse-trading has become like ”I don’t like this guy but I believe he is going to bring a Christian nation onto this Earth”, which is the evangelical thing with Trump. He is obviously immoral, but he is the closest candidate to bringing forth a global ideology.

Being called an apologist

The reason why John has not been very vocal on politics online is not that he has grown cynical, but he doesn’t know what the right voice is. Whenever John talks like this, people think that he is saying ”Both sides have good points”, which is a rhetorical flourish that has become popular among leftists: Whenever you talk about politics as though Trump-voters have any sense of reason behind their choices, as though they have a functional world-view, you are basically an apologist and you are doing this mainstream media thing where you are saying that both sides have a point.

It is a fashion among young leftists to dismiss everybody who makes any political pronunciations other than denouncing the current regime. This was not the way John was brought up to think, but he rather wants to talk about politics instead of screaming ideological viewpoints. John really doesn’t like being attacked by leftists, particularly not as a Nazi-apologist, just because he refuses to preface every sentence with a denunciation of Hitler or of Trump.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is very difficult to teach, but academics in the liberal arts are still saying that they are not just teaching history, but critical thinking, which sounds amazing and makes everybody feel really smart, but the problem with teaching critical thinking is that it requires a lot of discipline in order not to provide conclusions. You are only teaching a methodology and students will ask you for the answer at the end of a course, but you have to tell them ”That is not the question, but the questions are: How do you think through problems and arrive at conclusions? How do you put those conclusions to work? How do you reconcile them against history?” This isn’t to say that critical thinking hopes that every single person will come up with their own personal answer.

If you are really invested in teaching critical thinking you are not providing solutions and you are not saying that critical thinking inevitably produces a certain conclusion. It requires a lot of discipline from teachers and students to come out of a class, feeling like they know less than they knew when they went in, which is how John always rates a great college class. You walked in, thinking that you knew a bunch of shit about a thing, you spent an entire quarter or semester studying, and you realized you didn’t know nearly as much as you thought and a lot of the things you thought you knew are wrong or at least don’t hold up.

You walk out and go ”Well, shit!”, because if you thought you knew so much about one thing and it turned out you knew so little, then this is probably true about a lot of other things you think you know a lot about. You start to become an educated person by learning how little you know. It requires a lot of heart and a lot of fucking guts and it is hard for teachers because it is hard to grade whether or not a person had that experience, and students don’t like it because they want the teachers to tell them what the story is and they want to write it down, get a grade and graduate.

What ends up happening is that even if academics teach critical thinking methods, the teacher can’t resist providing a conclusion at the end, either subtly or explicitly. The students were begging for it, they are satisfied, and they are ”Thank God!”, because their teacher explained the process of critical thinking and at the end they demonstrated that all of the thoughts they already had were true all along. Thank goodness for having a system to justify their believes! You get a generation of people who have not had the transformation of having their ideas knocked out of their head, but who have been given the rhetorical tools of ”critical thinking” to reinforce their sense that they are correct and they have science to back it up. What should have been a generation of people who were enlightened by their education, has come out the other side having learned nothing.

This is part of the democratization of universities. You can’t really export critical thinking to the masses. The liberal dream is to create an utopia by the method of education. If everyone learns to have critical thinking, then our civilization will lift up because all these people will finally understand how little they knew and it will spark conversations producing new ideas which will take us higher places. Instead you will end up with having an awful lot of universities. Because we don’t have time for everybody to learn critical thinking we are just going to cookie-cutter this critical thinking syllabus and we are going to send hundreds of thousands of newly graduated kids into the world and hope that this toolkit will create real critical thinking somewhere down the line.

The opportunity for those students was lost when they were 18-20 and now they are 30 and everything they have learned in college reinforces their belief that they have a capacity to weigh information, make informed judgements and come to conclusions that they feel very secure in. They feel like they are the intellectual class or they are the people who are trying to bring a better world into existence, but they are not doing it by starting from a presumption of their own ignorance. They are not having conversations, sharing ideas or having ideas in conflict and trying to resolve those conflicts in a neutral atmosphere using history and science to create new ideas. Instead they use terms like science and rhetoric to confirm their ideas and once their ideas are confirmed, they are not interested at all in hearing other ideas because those are proven wrong.

People having pre-made conclusions

This could just be an era, but an era often determines the course of people for 100 years or longer. Civilizations do go into decline when something in their core is broken, which is a super-pessimistic view. John can’t say that it is all going to be okay, or that 10 years from now we are going to shake off this fog and there is going to be a renewed interest in finding a common path. John still sees a multiplicity of paths through the forest, but he doesn’t see anybody interested in it because it is very hard, it requires a lot of discipline, and people who were trained that way have a very hard time explaining it.

It is hard to come up against a very smart and articulate person who believes they have all the answers, and tell them that you were trained not to think you had all the answers, but that even the idea that there was an answer needed to be interrogated. It is hard to shout that across a picket line and it is even harder to say that in a public meeting or even over dinner with a friend, to say that although you agree with everything they say, you still don’t think that is it the route to get there by feeling you have all the answers and that your opponents are dumb, ignorant, racist or bigoted because that would be the only way they possibly could hold the values they claim to hold.

John often enough finds himself in situations where he is here to argue with somebody, but they are operating from the presumption that he is a secret bigot, even though they both have the same goals. For instance, John is going to argue that you shouldn’t punch Nazis (see RW54), but does that mean he is a secret white supremacist, or even an open one? That is crazy! John can’t engage with that kind of world, but sadly there is no Slack channel where John could go to talk with like-minded people about politics where the conclusions weren’t all foregone. A lot has been lost in just very recent years!

Obama talking about civility

Obama was cheered for saying ”Are we really talking about civility? When we are up against white supremacists let’s not waste time talking about civility” because it is nice to see Obama be partisan, it is nice to feel like he is the last reasonable person, but this turns the word civility into a word to mock people. ”Oh, are you interested in civility? Meanwhile the Nazis are cramming their dicks in your ear! How does that feel? Are you going to use the right fork while the Nazis are pissing in your food?”

That is really clever! If you start to feel that civility is naive, complacent, appeasement or collaborationist, and that manners and civil discussion mean that you collaborate with the enemy, who is clearly and vocally opposed to civility, and that arguing for civility is to be on their side rather than on the correct side, then something is lost! That was not what Obama necessarily was saying, but he used this buzzword and it is very easy to feel emotional, like "What we should be doing is firing rockets on the Capitol!", but that is not what the United States is! If you fire rockets on the Capitol you will lose, you will be sad and we will not have a better world than we have now. Civility is a component of it.

John is not saying that we should shake hands with nazis, invite them into our home and feed them. Although civility is not a small or weak word, people feel that being civil is to be weak and that civility, patience and non-violence are weak things, while being strong is being angry, violent and confrontational. If the centuries have taught us anything, they have taught us the opposite: Violence is weak and non-violence is strong. Non-violence is strong and hard and it is strong because it is hard and it is hard because it is strong. To stand still while someone is spitting in your face and not hit them is harder but stronger and to scream at someone and to spit back in their face is weak. That lesson has been forgotten and cheapened in such a short amount of time!

People lecturing John

John got a letter from a guy lecturing him that Martin Luther King was not against violence. This is stuff you learn in college: the debate between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the early 1960s, the two ideologies of those two men in terms of what constituted the civil rights movement, non-violent vs violent action, the communities that those two guys represented, their paths together through the 1960s towards one another and not away. It has all been shadowed and crystalized and if you are taking a 20th century history class at some university, you are getting a version of that. Your textbook or your professor will tell you that Martin Luther King wasn’t really non-violent or that Malcolm X actually wasn’t in favor of violence or whatever story they want to tell.

That white kid on the Internet is lecturing John about it because he is scared and because he is upset that he doesn’t know what to do except to yell. He yells at people he admires and who share his politics, but who are not doing it right. Non-violence is hard and violence is easy. Punching Nazis is easy, not punching Nazis is harder. Where is the political party where we can talk about that stuff? Who is standing up right now with a banner and saying ”No! Don’t forget what we know! Don’t forget what the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries taught us! Don’t forget that technology and machines make all of this much more dangerous, not easier!” Machines make it possible to kill millions of people over ideological grounds and the next big war is going to be bad because of machines. We saw that in the last couple of wars.

How we lost the High Ground

After 9/11 blood was in the air and the feeling that we needed vengeance was strong. It was the death throw of the liberal intelligentsia who failed utterly to make a national case that attacking Iraq was in a lot of ways the end of the American epic. We lost our moral standing and we lost the High Ground through this vengeance war but nobody made that case. The case you heard about in the newspapers and in the senate was all about little piddly shit because the left was afraid to stand up and say that every war has taught us that war is not the solution. Are we going to start a war with an entire quadrant of the world because some tiny minority of fanatics pulled off a good raid? Where are the adults? Where are the people who went to college? There were just little mainstream protests that gained steam by the end, everybody fell in line for 8 years because they were all scared to stand up and say that the only option was not to attack Iraq.

No-one wanted those wars, left or right! Where can we start over and have Martin Luther King not just be portrait on the wall with some inspirational quotes? John’s daughter knows more about Martin Luther King than she does about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined because every year in school they talk about Martin Luther King all day and night because he got some great inspirational quotes, he makes the teachers feel good and he is an icon.

Imagine that he was walking into a world every day where somebody was going to shoot him or sic a dog at him or hit him with a club! He walked into the face of that every day, brought thousands of people with him, and empowered thousands of people by virtue of him just standing there with calm strength. Find somebody doing that now! There are 100.000 people who claim the legacy of that movement, but find somebody with that kind of fucking balls, or find somebody like Ghandi! That is what we need! That was the movement, that was what the 20th century produced.

John is not that person and he has not that strength, but he is is too relativistic. He can witness and he can be behind that person, he can use whatever power he has to contribute, but you have to be a person of tremendous personal conviction and that is not what God put John here to do. He looks to that flag, wherever it comes next. We are living in an era of demagogs which is the opposite of that. The current idea is that the liberal side needs an angry warrior to match the angry warriors on the other side, like two armies clashing outside of Minas Tirith, but in reality it is an army trying to attack a movement of people who refuse to fight with sticks over lofty ideals and will take the casualties. The lofty ideals are the sword.


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