On The Swirling Vortex of A-Morality

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The fight for the future of the democratic party is threatening to trash the whole election. Clinton is not “evil” and Sanders supporters are not irrational “bros”. We can’t hope to win the real fight unless we understand what we’re fighting against. Here’s another way to look at the system and why change is so hard.

One of the main troubles with calling people “evil” is that it’s not a spectrum. If you think Hillary is evil, and you think Trump is evil, they’re both basically the same. That’s pretty ridiculous, guys. It’s just lazy analysis. You can do better. Hillary doesn’t stay up at night cackling to herself about destroying america. Hell, not even trump does that. Instead, Hillary compromises and bargains priorities away as a matter of course, which many people see as simply how politics works. “It’s how things are done.” “Slow and steady.” Honestly, they’re 100% right, it is how politics works, in the US, right now.

Let’s step back from “evil” for a second, and step back from the awful, fucked up year 2016 has been, and try to put ourselves in Obama’s shoes in 2009, facing serious decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan. He promised to start pulling us out, but the governments we propped up were nowhere near strong enough to stand on their own without resorting to outright fascism (it’s a remarkably common theme in US foreign policy!). As a person faced with a complex, high-stakes decision, you have a few things guiding you:

  • Your own experiences and knowledge,
  • your instincts and moral compass, and
  • your advisors.

As a new President, even one who was a senator for a hot minute, your foreign policy experience is probably limited. Your advisors, on the other hand, are dripping with the stuff. They want you to send more troops. Your moral compass is telling you to be skeptical, but they’re telling you the world is going to fucking end. You can’t afford to let the world end, right? Right? So you have to do something. But you don’t like “send more troops” — we tried that, and it turns out it’s really hard and breeds ill will, because the troops mostly don’t speak Arabic (slash Pashto slash anything that’s not english) and don’t get the culture and don’t know the terrain and aren’t eager to explode themselves for allah like the other guys and at least a small portion of them are really, honestly just there to kill brown people. Plus the troops die — more people than have died in domestic terrorist attacks back to (including) 9/11. And we all agree that’s pretty dumb since anyone keeping a tally knows that means we haven’t won shit. So you push for alternatives, letting your advisors know your concerns. They go back to their advisors, and some geek in the corner says “finally! My drones get a chance!”

After a while people start to realize the drones aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, but at this point there’s no other politically feasible solution — nobody’s really complaining that hard ’cause the victims are brown — so you just keep doing it and meanwhile you’re getting kind of busy with other things. Plus foreign policy isn’t the only experience relevant here: most politicians in America are drilled over and over with “pick your battles.” Ceasing ineffective, civilian-killing, ill-will-breeding drone warfare doesn’t make the cut.

Obama’s not evil, he just listened to his advisors because they shouted louder than his moral compass and aligned with what experience he has.

So wait — are the advisors evil? Christ no. I mean, a few might be, but they were largely indoctrinated through a cold war that taught them that international relations is a zero-sum game, which for decades until the implosion of the Soviet Union, it largely was. They learned then that military might keeps you from getting attacked (wait, these new guys don’t mind getting blown up?!?), and that if you don’t protect your military and R&D budget, the baddies will catch up, and you’ve lost your advantage.

Their moral compasses might very well be telling them we’re doing ok, we don’t need to escalate to war robots, but the military contractors and military-contractor-backed republicans have them seeing demons of the past everywhere, and tell them that if they loosen their grip they’re not going to be able to tighten it again when they need to.

Wait so then the military contractors are the evil ones, right?

Well, considering they employ more highly paid engineers and middle class manufacturing workers than anyone else in America, and they have mortgages to pay and they know all their employees have mortgages to pay, fuck no. The execs have spent their lives building large companies that remain some of our largest domestic employers and keep huge swaths of America afloat. Seriously. Plus, y’know, shareholder value maximization is literally written into parts of our legal code. They’d be crazy and civilly liable not to lobby for more military spending. In some ways they probably know the country doesn’t need this right now, but they look at other industries who’ve lost their international advantage, and they know what y’all should know: the US couldn’t make a single fucking iPhone entirely from domestic components if our lives depended on it. With military shit, they just might. Moreover, the execs know they’re already rich and pampered and probably don’t need those few marginal dollars, but honestly mostly they’ve worked their asses off for their entire careers and realistically none of them are anywhere near easily replaceable (believe it or not, it is not easy to run a multibillion $ business), so no, they’re not evil. They’re kinda selfish, but mostly they lack the moral grounding that should tell them that relentless expansion of might isn’t always the best thing for the country/planet.

You see where this is going? It’s a huge, swirling vortex of a-morality. It will never, ever stop on its own. But the number of people involved who are routinely evil is very small. It’s just a sucking million-toothed charibdys of short-term, small thinking.

Here are a couple more swirling vortexes of amorality:

DWS, DNC and the Clinton campaign

DWS honestly doesn’t think Bernie has a chance and loves Hillary. She’s not evil, just really removed from how much most Americans hate most politicians. So she thinks in summer 2015 that it really isn’t a big deal to limit the number of debates, or reach out to friendly journalists and frame things positively for the Clinton campaign. She and her staffers just tend to think this behavior isn’t a big deal because Hillary is going to win the nomination anyway, and that it ultimately helps democrats to make sure Clinton look good when they talk to the press, and individually they make some offhand comments on the side about how Bernie isn’t realistic. It’s not a vast conspiracy against Bernie, it’s misguided individuals trying to work for the democratic party and make sure Hillary looks good in the general. It’s a total abuse of power but it’s also total politics as usual. Meanwhile the Clinton campaign thinks basically the same thing and tacitly collaborates. They’re all vastly more skilled at access peddling than the Sanders campaign, so the journalists who are scared they’ll lose their in with the campaign (and busy trying to churn out four articles every single day) wind up stenographing whatever the Clinton campaign tells them and probably mostly accidentally deriding Sanders and his supporters.

It’s not evil, it’s not really a conspiracy. It’s a swirling vortex of busy people indoctrinated with establishment beliefs doing what’s convenient and seems helpful and not stopping to realize that their job — their real job not the fifteen things they have to finish by 6pm tonight — is to ensure fairness and even coverage in the political process.

Who knew representatives were so cheap?!?

You’re elected to congress (congrats!). Within your first week, amongst all the fundraising calls you’re busy making, a dairy lobbyist comes in for a scheduled meeting. It’s nothing big, he’s just here to meet you since you’re new. He wants you to know that the dairy industry in your state is expanding, largely due to some subsidy increases your predecessor fought hard for. He hopes you two can work together in the future, which is also totally reasonable. You can be as skeptical as you want, but there’s really nothing to be skeptical of. Everyone loves jobs — there’s nothing wrong with that.

On Friday you talk to another freshman who had basically the same meeting with a wheat industry lobbyist (this could literally be the same guy, btdubs). Farming doesn’t seem like a huge deal to either of you, but you agree it’s nice to hear that there’s job growth going around.

You’re feeling pretty good about your first week in office — nothing has blown up in your face, and you’ve made a contact related to jobs in your state and a friend in the House.

Next week, you get a copy of an amendment to a bill that proposes cutting back both the dairy and the wheat subsidies (and some others), and institutes an offsetting increase in funding for grants related to reticulating splines or something else you’ve never heard of. It arrives concurrently with a memo from the ranking member of the relevant committee recommending that the party vote against it. It’s a no brainer — 100% of your votes so far are pro-jobs in your state, and you didn’t even have to do anything.

The problem with all this is that you forgot a couple things: you just peddled access to the people who could afford it and didn’t hear from the rest. Did the lobbyist know about the upcoming vote? Of course he did. Neither you nor your colleague who’s swirling ‘round the vortex with you actually know anything about these issues, and there are experts with real data trying to make logical policy decisions and you’re getting in their fucking way. You blindly listened to your party and feel-good vibes from a paid lobbyist. You probably entered office with some real goals, but between fundraising phone calls and meetings and gladhanding and bill reading, you haven’t made any progress on them. Was the time you spent worrying about subsidies time you could have spent on real issues, like fucking global warming or whatever? Yes. Was reticulating splines more, or less important than the subsidies? You don’t even fucking know.

Politicians don’t mean to be bought. In fact, “bought”, like “evil”, is yet another bullshit term that only serves to obscure the truth. It implies that they have sold themselves deliberately. In reality, they’re just people being whipped around a money-driven system who usually lack the experience, information, and moral clarity to understand that granting access to one interest inherently creates a bias against others, and that when they trade favors or blindly follow the party line, the people on the other side are usually in the same compromised position and really they’re all getting played and distracted from what’s really important.

Vortex. of. a-morality.

Back To Bernie

I said above that the swirling vortex will never stop on its own. That’s where Bernie comes in. People feel him so hard because he offers a route out of the vortex. He offers a re-setting of our national baselines for militarism, corporate power, social benefits, campaign finance, minority rights and protections, and more. We’re all crippled by rent and debt, we can’t imagine how we’ll buy a house or retire, we’re petrified by the idea of a medical catastrophe, and a lot of us don’t even feel like human fucking beings half the time unless we’re cis straight white males.

There are major political and economic issues in this nation that poll incredibly well across the political spectrum, but the establishment doesn’t have the moral clarity to enunciate why they’re important and reshape national policy. It’s too hard or some bullshit like that. I always return to Obama’s “evolving” stance on gay marriage in 2012. 2012! It was only a few years later that the scales tipped and Obama and the rest of the democratic establishment decided maybe it wasn’t political suicide after all to support a basic fucking human right for consenting adults. It was only a few years, but y’know, a few years stepping on a whole lot of peoples’ sense of humanity when some leadership or even offhand supportive comments could have moved it forward is just wrong. It’s politically convenient, but wrong.

Our leaders should fucking lead — we need them to help give voice and shape to national priorities and actively work to make the world better. If you’re a Clinton supporter and you don’t see why people feel Bernie so hard, then honestly I think you’re kind of a privileged asshole. People are poor and scared, and he’s legitimately the only person we’ve seen in a long time who has the moral clarity to get into office, listen to his advisors, and say “I’m sorry, but we need to step back and re-invent this policy so it actually improves things.”

And it didn’t cost him political capital to be honest and moral. It won him political capital.

But the fact remains that Clinton is not fucking evil. And Bernie is smart, and 73 years young, and helping to put forth a host of new, progressive politicians who are energized by a new understanding that doing the right thing — vocally — can be even more effective than doing the convenient thing. We’ve got Warren and others queued up for the next time around, and so really, it’s OK for right now for you to let Hillary win this time without trying to get her thrown in jail or whatever you think the end game is.

Sanders supporters: don’t let yourself get dismissed as a bro — nobody takes you seriously when you say Hillary is evil or use stupid ad hominems like $hillary. Also, please fucking god don’t feed the very real, very disgusting sexism that underlies a lot of people’s hatred for her. That shit is fucking dark, guys. Help Bernie be taken seriously by listening to him, giving money to candidates he endorses, and making sure all possible votes go progressive. Build your credibility and his through legitimate criticism. OK, comrade?

Clinton supporters: don’t stick your head in the sand about what a compromise Hillary is. Her callous disregard for things like information security and the fact that she’s been on the wrong side of all kinds of history when it was politically convenient makes it clear that while I’m sure she knows right from wrong she doesn’t especially care when she’s in the moment. But she’s capable, really fucking smart, can handle Putin, and does actually know right from wrong, and also Trump is ungodly fucking terrifying. She’s never gonna lead us out of the Swirling Vortex of A-Morality, though. Don’t trick yourself into forgetting that. Never feel ok about “It’s just how this stuff works.”

A nice side note to the Swirling Vortex of A-Morality analogy is this recent article by my very good friend Adam over at FAIR. Basically, the same people who used to dismiss the notion that the DNC was not treating the two campaigns even handedly as a wild conspiracy theory are now describing it as obvious, and simply “politics as usual”. The reality is that it absolutely politics as usual, but it’s NOT evil. It’s simply a-moral behavior by people we need to be moral. Almost everything works this way, and we should neither dismiss it as fiction nor treat it as OK. Behaviors like this are the root of our issues as a nation, and the reason change is so hard.


Do I think Bernie supporters should vote for Hillary? No. I think they should vote their conscience. I happen to think Hillary is one step forward, one step back. But that leaves us neutral, which is a hell of a lot better than zero steps forward and like nine hundred and thirty-two steps back with Trump. So they should vote their conscience, and be working to bend (and bind) the democratic establishment towards a progressive future so that by November 8th they can feel comfortable compromising on her if they’re in a contested area where it’s really going to matter. None of us need to hate each other over this, and yet we do. Let’s try to understand why politics and capitalism aren’t working for most people in America, and work to change that.

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