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Misc

I’m still mad about Aaron

A bunch of us are reading David Graeber’s Debt. In the course of preparing for our upcoming discussion, I started re-reading that amazing resource: Crooked Timber.

That reminded me that Aaron Swartz wrote a couple guest posts on Crooked Timber. I reread one of his essays. Then another. Then more. You can guess what happened next. DANG. What an amazing writer. What a thinker.

There’s no one I’ve met in my life that I was so sure would change the course of history. No one I’ve met that was so obviously, even qualitatively, smarter than me. For a while, it felt like every big project I joined, or every cool thing I tried, he was there first, and happened to (sometimes co-)found it.

I think about Aaron all the time. Even now, years later.

For a long time, he was my role model: clear moral compass, brilliant, a tech genius but at the same time rooted in movement work and so much more than “the computer guy”.

It’s weird when your role model used to be your boss, is the brother of a friend, the ex of your boss. It’s weird to have this role model be a real person.

I was so angry when he died. I went on, well, a rampage, for the next few years. I never forgave Obama, Eric Holder, Carmen Ortiz, Steve Heymann, MIT, and the Democratic Party in general. I talked about it as part of my personal life story on dates, organizing 1-1’s, etc. I grew close to the angry wing of the radical left. I traveled the country. I took jobs based on what I felt he would have wanted me to do. When I played role-playing games, I would make a character named “Aharon Schahor” to try to process things.

I still get angry about his death. I still tell people about it. I still tell people about how important he was to me. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers who happen catch me in a particular mood.

Once, to my horror and embarrassment, I realized that one of those strangers was his brother. Oops! Sorry Noah. I seriously didn’t know.

Sidebar — Babbling about Aaron helped a friend introduce me to Mek, though, so overall the “talk about your feelings” seems to be working for me.

I’m still mad.

PS — And of course, Chris Dodd, that scumbag, the villain in the SOPA/PIPA fight that Aaron won for us; Chris Dodd, who flat out lied about his revolving door plans; Christopher J “Waitress Sandwich” Dodd — that’s the guy that Biden is tapping to lead his VP search.

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Misc

My Debt story

Our book club is reading Debt, The First 5000 Years. A prompt before starting has been: “What is your professional and personal experience with the concept of debt?”. This is lightly adapted from my response:

My last decade or so of life has been conducted just a little bit under the shadow of Debt, (the book). I remember reading the Crooked Timber symposium on it when it came out, reading the back and forth in Jacobin, etc. I think I’ve read more criticism and reviews of the book than there are pages in the book itself.

In that decade, I’ve felt a need to have read the book, in the same way I feel the need to read Keynes, Piketty, and Marx’s Capital. If I haven’t read those, how else could I show my face in public and dare to have opinions?

But I haven’t read the book. That is, until now. (And I’m not finished yet!)

I also have had a relationship with debt, the improper noun.

  • My father’s business has depended on debt. Loans, rotating credit cards, etc, in order to fund the expansion of a small real estate business. And he’s been remarkably successful!
  • I grew up feeling afraid of repeating his feat, and then failing. 
  • I went to my second (or fifth!) choice university to escape debt and high tuition. 
  • I arguably ruined my first startup / my relationship with my best friend, in part, because we both paid ourselves high enough salaries to pay our university debt. 
    • (This might a bit of a stretch. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I was so worried about paying off my university debt that it overhung my actions the entire time)

Debt has been a political topic I haven’t quite cracked. Post-Occupy, the group Strike Debt came out with the Debt Resistor’s Operations Manual. I remember poring over it. Feeling so excited. Part manual, part guide to “this is how the world works, you’re being screwed”. In my travels, I’d recommend it to strangers who were having debt problems. They often followed up to thank me. 

I dimly know that debt has been used to reinforce the post-WWII US-centered order. That it has to do with oil, Confessions of An Economic Hitman, and private equity. That leveraged buyouts are bad. And that there’s a weird thing where people feel obligated to pay their debts but corporations are assumed to be allowed to default on them all the time.

But I haven’t, yet, stitched that into a holistic idea of how the world works.

I’ve been excited to read this book for a long time. 

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Misc

Workers of the world, unite.

It’s May 1st. An international holiday commemorating an event that happened in the US, celebrated everywhere but in the US.

Except, slowly, over my lifetime, that’s changed. The big “day without an immigrant” strike of 2006 kicked it off. The slow buildup of left organizations starting to march and celebrate it over the years. Occupy gave it a kick in the pants, too.

Happy International Worker’s Day. Happy labor day. Happy socialist day. Happy strike day. (Like all good holidays, it contains several different meanings).

There’s a lot to say. About the importance of labor unions. Of worker militancy. How “solidarity” is a term with a ton of meaning and power, too-often cheapened by easy use. About the situation of capitalism, of the bosses and 1%, and so on.

Too much, to say. So let’s talk about the celebration itself.

Every May Day, I take the day off work and go marching. And, in the last few years, it’s been fantastic. So much energy. All the signs! All the different groups, showing themselves off, meeting each other, building energy.

A good May 1st march can give you enthusiasm and energy to last for months.

Here’s a sense of what it could be like. May 1, 2014.

Same march, different vantage point:

One one hand — so much energy! On the other hand — we could do better today. We’re growing.
It’s sad that I can’t go to a march and feel a little happier about the world. But we do have one of the largest strikes by non-unionized workers in memory. We have calls for a rent strike. That’s a pretty nice May 1st.

In my last year of college, our big musical extravaganza, Springfest, hit on May 1st. I spent the first half of the day stuck in my room, playing the Internationale at full blast, and doing my best to memorize the lyrics. Only after I could belt out La Marseillaise from memory (and the first few stanzas of the Internationale), did I go out into the sun and enjoy the beautiful day.

I think about it from time to time. I was a weird kid. But maybe, while we’re stuck here in our homes, memorizing a few classic labor songs doesn’t sound like a bad way to celebrate.

Here’s a new favorite:

This world looks like a chain of heavy broken hearts
It chains my brothers and sisters all apart
Link after link it clatters thru my land
This long heavy chain of broken hearts

Selfish pride is one link in this chain
And you better drive it out of your heart
Brother and sister when you do it’s then that you’ll get loose
From this long heavy chain of broken hearts

It’s this long heavy chain of broken hearts
It’s this long heavy chain of broken hearts
You gotta find your union before you can get free
From this long heavy chain of broken hearts

Fear is a link in this chain
Of sorrow and trouble and pain
Drive out your fear and you will break apart
This long heavy chain of broken hearts

Jealousy is a link of the worst
A worry, a blister and a curse
Join our union band and break with your hands
This long heavy chain of broken hearts

This long heavy chain of broken hearts
This long heavy chain of broken hearts
You gotta find your union before you can get free
From this long heavy chain of broken hearts

It’s when you are free from this chain
Love will come and fill you up again
Show your friends and neighbors how to break away
From this long heavy chain of broken hearts

Yes this long heavy chain of broken hearts
This long heavy chain of broken hearts
You gotta find your union before you can get free
From this long heavy chain of broken hearts

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Misc

What to expect when you’re expecting a crisis

Imagine a city, on a beach. Relatively bustling. Prosperous — more or less. At least, the parties are really fun (for those allowed in). And the art and food is really good (for those who can afford the best food and have the money for art). Sure, sometimes people disappear, never to be heard from again. Sometimes strange ritual chanting rings out at night. But the chanting never hurt anyone — at least, not one of our people. And the disappearances, well, they’re not of anyone important. Or at least, anyone disappeared is no longer important. The city endures. The city thrives.

Then, one day, a tsunami hits. Trees are uprooted. Sand and dirt are blasted away. The city comes together to save itself. Heroes reveal themselves.

But, so, too, does something horrible. In the midst of heartwarming cooperation, the citizens realize a truth. The entire city was built on the site of an old temple to the mad god Bel-Shamharoth. The mayor was a vampire the whole time. Those parties were also recruiting sites of the more refined cults.

There’s a crisis to deal with, sure. But, in the apocalypse, the veil has finally lifted. No one will quite look at each other the same way again.

What foundations have been exposed by the tsunami we are now facing? Now that the dirt and cobblestones of “normal times” are being ripped away, what truths stand stark, bold, and naked?

It might be too early to be certain. But I have some hunches. Keep an eye on these storylines in the times ahead:

I’m also watching some other things:

  • China. It’s authoritarian, it’s scary, and it’s exporting its model. We haven’t been taking it seriously enough.
  • Fights between the white-supremacy-curious faction of the conservative movement and the “let’s loot the country” faction of the movement.
  • We’re going to see a lot more strange bedfellows and left-right alliances between people of different parties.

What stories are you tracking and predicting?

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Misc

TrumpLiedAboutCoronavirus.com

We saw it, for weeks, with our eyes. Trump, Republicans, Fox News, the conservative movement — all lying about Corovirus. Calling it a hoax, downplaying the threat, saying that the left was hyping it as “second impeachment.”

We saw the absolute, morally criminal lack of preparedness. The the hospitals not prepared, the population not distanced, the mocking of anyone who took this seriously.

We saw the clownish press conferences, claiming that “it’s only a flu”, that everything was under control, etc. The sort of obsequiousness to Trump that would be laughable if it wasn’t so scary. We saw Fox News hosts downplay the threat. Even in the last we saw Trump shaking hands during a press conference about the virus.

The propaganda onslaught from the right is coming. They’re going to try to pretend it never happened.

I bought the rights to TrumpLiedAboutCoronavirus.com and RepublicansLiedAboutCoronavirus.com. What should we do with them?

Right now I’m pointing them both to this post by James Fallows: 2020 Time Capsule #4: Trump Is Lying, Blatantly.

Instead we could point them to this video timeline of trump downplaying everything by The Recount. Or maybe this video tracking Fox New’s lies and sudden reversals about coronavirus created by the Washington Post.

Or a microsite! Or something else entirely. If you have a great idea for these domains, or even a bad one, let me know!

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Misc

It’s History Time

We are now in a special kind of time. “Revolution time”. “History time”. “Disruption time”. Whatever you want to call it.

Every day, huge events are happening. Things that seemed impossible now are a matter of course. Right now I’m watching a speech from the president of Serbia attacking the EU and throwing himself onto the arms of China. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Fox news) is proposing a much stronger (and equitable) response to the crisis than Nancy Pelosi. The Fed just took most of the 2009 playbook and deployed it in one big go yesterday.

In History Time, the rules are different. Opportunities arise. And the knives come out. For example: Right now the US airline history is asking for a $50 billion bailout because they “have no cash”. They just spent the last decade spending their cash on stock buybacks. Stock buybacks used to be illegal.

We have to be aware of the disaster profiteers. Not the small time chumps selling Purell at markup from their garages. I mean the titans of industry that will grab as much free money as they can.

In History Time, ideas that used to be laughable are now on the table. After 9/11, the FBI took out their wishlist from a filing cabinet, bound it up on one bundle, called it the Patriot Act, and dared congress not to pass it. After the 08 crash, banks started even more mergers and paid their executives even more money, and dared congress to stop them.

Now it’s History Time again. Will we cede the field to the white collar criminals? Or will we step up with our suddenly reasonable demands? Remember, right now Tom Cotton is to the left of Nancy Pelosi on the crisis response. Anything is possible.

(How do we do it? As a first step: Start organizing your literal neighborhood. As a second step: join a local political group that has dues-paying membership and democratic control by its members. As a third: let me think about it and get back to you)

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Misc

Don’t wait for the Republican Party to collapse on its own

The Republican Party didn’t collapse after Katrina. It didn’t curl up and die in shame after lying about the Iraq War. The conservative movement wasn’t saddled with the shame of Bush for a generation. Instead, they rebranded as “The Tea Party” in two short years and went on as they always have, only more so.

Lovingly, patiently, try to convince your parents and older friends to take this seriously, to stay safe, to change their habits. You’ll do this already, of course. You love them and care about them.

At the same time as you do this: make sure to point out again and again that the republicans and right wing media (not just Trump) are lying to them and getting them in danger of death. We can’t rely on them to figure it out on their own.

It’s inevitable that at some point the R’s are going to try to turn this crisis into an opportunity to do ugly ugly stuff. Will it be camps? Border shutdowns? Sweeping surveillance powers? Bailouts for crony industries? It’s going to get dark.

If (if! Not when. IF!) the faction of the country that accepted lies, corruption, venality, more lies, racism, incompetence, illegality, and lies from Trump finally leaves the death cult cocoon — it won’t be over.

The conservative media movement will turn on Trump just like they turned on Bush. They’ll pretend that he never was the beloved head of their movement. It might take them an election or two, but they’ll create some new brand name (just like the Tea Party), and start over again.

Don’t let them get away with it. Mark down, out loud, what the Fox News position is right now. What it was last week. The horrific blithe comments from their local generic Republican elected official. The warnings of death and absolute incompetence from experts. The timeline of responses by the White House. The callousness of it all.

And it’ll get worse. They’ll actively interfere with normal ways of helping people as a cover for them to cut taxes / deregulate / hand over cash to their favorite corrupt industries.

Examples: Trump administration blocks states from using Medicaid to respond to coronavirus crisis and The Trump Administration Will Move Ahead With Its Plan To Kick People Off Of Food Stamps Despite The Coronavirus Outbreak

Already, as I write this, the right wing is changing its position. It’s going to pretend that it didn’t spend months claiming this was a hoax. It’s going to hope you forget that Fox News claimed that the hysteria was the real problem.It’s going to hope your parents forget everything that happened, because they weren’t really paying attention in January and February, were they?

Make sure your parents remember. Make sure everyone remembers.

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Misc

Letter to a young leftist re:failure

Failure.

The thing you have to understand is simple: I’m used to failure. Failure, and, I suppose, betrayal.

Howard Dean didn’t win. In the end, he didn’t come close. He had a growing, internet-fueled movement of people (young and old but mostly young) doing crazy new innovative things for his campaign. He called out the cowardice, the infuriating (or was it chillingly) dystopian way that the democratic party was rubber stamping surveillance, the police state, the war. He lost.

The netroots didn’t win in 2008. Obama did. He grabbed the loyalty of the members of “the bloggers movement” away from the bloggers themselves. And even before he got elected, he reversed himself on FISA, on spying, and on the banks. His ads were about “tax cuts to corporations who ship jobs overseas”. He never really explained what that was about. His presidency, at least at first, was a weird disaster. All the organizations that clearly called out Bush-era corruption just stopped doing it when Obama ran the show. Directors told me in confidence that their funders threatened to quit if they even mildly opposed Obama. The federal government had an explicit policy of allowing millions of people to get their houses foreclosed on, as long as the banks were okay. After a bailout overseen on insanely generous terms, the Federal Reserve pumped money into any bank, hedge fund, holding company, even McDonalds it could find.

And the “normies” around me, the people who admirably opposed Bush and his excess, were silent.

And the NSA grew.

Nancy Pelosi wants to jail Edward Snowden. MIT and Eric Holder threw Aaron Swartz to the wolves. Zephyr Teachout lost to Andrew Cuomo. SEIU backed Andrew Cuomo. Tish James backed Andrew Cuomo.

And still the surveillance state grows.

Google and Facebook were meant to be foils to the corrupt venality of the Verizons and Comcasts of the world. VoteVets ended up endorsing Pete Buttigieg. Pete, who Mark Zuckerberg tried to steer engineering talent to. Pete, who vied with Kamala Harris to be America’s first red diaper baby president.

And Amazon shares Ring data with cops. And license plate readers are everywhere. And Facebook will comply with “all local laws and regulations”. And the surveillance state grows.

I remember Chris Dodd’s campaign in 2008. I remember Tim Tagaris, an early internet politics hotshot, running an honorable campaign about “restoring the constitution” post-Bush. Chris Dodd was the man behind the SOPA push that tried to shut down free speech on the internet to protect the MAFIAA.

Meanwhile, our man Howard Dean quietly became a corporate lobbyist. (And, weirdly, a shill for literal terrorists.)

Bernie didn’t win. Shahid didn’t win. Most Brand New Congress candidates didn’t win. Tom Geohegan didn’t win. Carl Sciortino didn’t win. Paul Wellstone died. Tom Periello didn’t win. Zephyr Teachout didn’t win over and over again. Eric Massa won, then … got weird. Russ Feingold lost twice.

And today Nancy Pelosi is trying to reauthorize the Patriot Act.

So, you see, Bernie (and Warren) losing now feels bad, but not a gut punch. I expected it.

Sam Adler Bell, darling human that he is, knows that feeling is dangerous. The feeling of “I expected this to happen, we always lose”, can easily turn into “let’s not try to win” or “we lost because we are good”. Let’s remember instead that we lost because we are weak.

There is comfort in this sense of fated doom. We lost not because we did something wrong, but because we did something right in a world that’s wrong. When we acknowledge the awesome might and baleful intentions of our enemies, when we point our fingers at the traitors in our midst, what we seek is not a clear-eyed reckoning of the battlefield, but freedom from guilt for failing to win. Lurking behind our dour pessimism is, at times, a desire to evade accountability for our own mistakes.

Let’s talk about mistakes. But let’s not do it from the perspective of a candidate in a race, because we are not candidates and we are not bound to only think about specific contests for power via a presidential primary system. If we do it right, candidates (politicians) are pawns on our chessboard, not the other way around.

I love your passion, and your energy, and your way of seeing how the world is just so disconcertingly bad. I love it, and sometimes I worry that I’m smothering it with my world-weariness, with my “hey, actually this thing you’re mad at is fine and normal”, or my “you’re mad at the wrong institution”. I wanted you to know why.

There’s a particular feeling you get when you start politics. Little respect for everyone in the field already: after all, they’re part of a failed system. A sense of camaraderie with other people who start at the same time as you: after all, you’re all fighting the same enemies! And then as time goes on, you see your heroes fail you. You lose respect for people you started out with (both institutions and elected officials). And you celebrate the victories you have, because if you don’t, you burn out.

So when we talk about how bad it was, and how far we’ve gone, and how certain people you don’t like are Actually Good, and have street cred, that’s why.

We thought we found One Weird Trick to fixing politics, and we were wrong.

I hope the same doesn’t happen to you.

(And one more thing — read Sam’s full piece: Beautiful Losers)