How 2024 Came To Pass: Grading Joe Biden’s Presidency

[This article first appeared under a different title in 2021, in my literary magazine, AUTOMACHINATION. Its core prediction has come to pass: Joe Biden, for structural reasons, has been unable to enact the reforms voters might consider ‘good enough’, even as crises pile up. COVID measures went from punitive to laissez faire; inflation has suppressed real wages, leaving Americans feeling worse-off than in 2019; lobbyist spending has led to political and humanitarian disaster with unqualified, bipartisan support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza; nonwhite voters have continued to leave the Democratic Party; the militarization of police has accelerated; any promise to reverse Trump’s tax cuts was dead from the beginning. I argued that Joe Biden would be more superficially ‘progressive’ than Barack Obama, but that it wouldn’t be enough to really be felt. The response to Trump’s 2024 campaign has been to disqualify and/or imprison him, largely due to the fact that the Biden administration was paralyzed from the beginning. These are sentiments echoed by Benjamin Studebaker in our discussion of American democracy.]

In the last few decades, the term forever war has come to denote an unpleasant fact for imperial ambition- namely, that superpowers have ceased to exist, dislodged by regional actors limited to their own spheres of influence, while influence itself grows narrower and more abstract. Thirty years after America failed to take Vietnam, it would fail for much the same reason in Afghanistan and Iraq: lately, empire cannot explain its purpose even to itself, much less to its victims, whose soft power must be recruited to win modern wars. But while there is no way to hide material losses in combat, the world’s gradual abandonment of violence will, ironically, do more to expand the concept of ‘forever war’ than the usufructs of empire ever could. That’s because the forever war abroad- wasteful, belligerent, transparent in intent yet maddeningly plausible to the median dolt- is being transformed into a cultural war of attrition at home, through the same loss of purpose. I mean, what is America’s legitimating function anyway? It can’t be to lead the world on climate change. It’s certainly NOT to teach others how to mitigate a global pandemic at a time when infectious diseases are slated to redouble. It has terrible health outcomes, bad infrastructure, political gridlock, and- with crisis after unresolved crisis- doesn’t even pretend to care about the working class. Put another way, America has scrambled its own legitimation story, even though the rest of the world has not believed this story for some time now. And so, America has lost its wars and is in the process of losing the most important one, as faith in democracy collapses at home and authoritarian doldrums envelop abroad. No one, it’s been said, saw this coming, but isn’t that the point? If civic engagement is cratered- that is, if the legitimation story gets rejected- this is less a failure of voters than of the choices they are bullied into. Now that Donald … Continue reading →

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White Guilt, White Fragility: Robin DiAngelo Doesn’t Understand Race

[This is the transcript for Alex Sheremet’s video essay, White Guilt, White Fragility: Why Robin DiAngelo Doesn’t Understand Race. It first appeared in the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine.]

In 2011, an academic named Robin DiAngelo coined the phrase “white fragility” in reference to white people’s perceived defensiveness over questions of race. It didn’t explain this defensiveness—it only gave it a name. And it named only a small part of a more general condition. We’ll get to the condition of the white race in a bit, but for now, suffice to say that there are many types of white person. Some are just as fragile, yet break in a less predictable direction. Under the right circumstances, they could pressure themselves into joining a revolution. In more stagnant periods, they reach out to anyone willing to touch them. This is still fragility because it is unstable, because it is easy to recruit, because it is so common. Yet Robin DiAngelo—who is technically a scholar of ‘whiteness studies’—has little space for it. This means that ‘whiteness’ itself is not really being examined, and in failing to explain whiteness, or to give a credible story of what it means to be white, she cannot properly deal with race. Her work alludes to her own racial anxiety, but will not make sense of it. Her theory of racism is a theory of rugged individualism—and this is why it’s popular. The individual is tasked with the burdens of racism. So the individual, as under all right-wing systems, is forced to kneel.

Robin DiAngelo soon published a book, White Fragility, based on her original paper. There are many problems with this text, but chief among them is that she treats black Americans as if they were extraterrestrials—and some, without any idea of who she is, will rise to her challenge. After all, why should a black American feel any affinity for exotic cults, or religious bullying? This sort of idleness used to be the domain of white America, which once held a whip and defined itself against it. Today, it is not so much that the whip is out of fashion, but how it is held has changed. On occasion, the whip even gets handed over to nonwhites. What they are allowed to do with it is rather limited, but sometimes, a white woman or a white man will beg to be whipped. At other times, a white person will grow impatient and will grab the whip so they could self-flagellate more effectively. It is as if, by first losing the right to own slaves, and then other forms of status, some are now trying on a new identity in their free time. Meanwhile, black America, in gaining a little bit of freedom, is encouraged to exaggerate this freedom—to bandage over all the history and paper over all the present with publicity stunts. No doubt this kneeling woman believes that she is doing something right. Yet the Black Israelites believe this too. It might have … Continue reading →

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What The Al-Ahli Hospital Bombing Really Meant

[This essay first appeared in the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine. You can watch an in-depth discussion on the al-Ahli Arab Hospital bombing with Alex Sheremet and Keith Jackewicz here.]

Yesterday, the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza was hit by an IDF airstrike or a “failed rocket” launched by Palestinian militants. In some ways, this felt like an existential moment for Israel—more so than even the Hamas massacres on Israeli territory two weeks prior. That’s because despite America’s claims of an “existential threat” from terrorism in 2001, or Israel’s perceived security needs in keeping a stateless population at bay, terrorism rarely poses serious (i.e., existential) danger to nations, and most terror campaigns fail. Of course, there are exceptions. Jewish terrorism in Mandatory Palestine forced Britain to disengage in the midst of political assassinations, kidnappings, and a hotel bombing for which Israel was awarded the legal right to statehood. Palestinians soon adopted these tactics, yet lacked the strength, and, until recently, sufficient public opinion to achieve their aims. In the meantime, Israel has become a nuclear-tipped hegemon with an identity crisis. Many young Jews want nothing to do with what the UN and human rights groups call an apartheid state, while Israel itself has become increasingly corrupt, right-wing, and religious. So when news broke of (yet another) potential war crime in Gaza, Israel needed to respond—and quickly.

As in previous situations, Israel’s behavior inspired little confidence. Hananya Naftali, who works for Benjamin Netanyahu on “media content”, tweeted, then deleted, “breaking [news]” that “the Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza”, alluding to Hamas’s “heartbreaking…use of human shields”. This was soon replaced by a message blaming a Hamas rocket which failed to reach its target. Irrespective of whether or not the IDF was responsible, one could already detect hasbara in action, down to the evidence-free assumption of “human shields”. The IDF, for its part, released an analysis which concluded “an enemy rocket barrage…[aimed] towards Israel” struck the hospital. Once it was pointed out the video was dated forty minutes after the blast, the IDF quietly removed it from their statement. Such sloppiness is reminiscent of the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in 2022, wherein “Palestinian militants” were angrily blamed until CNN published its own analysis of the “targeted killing”. Likewise, in 2018, as Israel massacred hundreds of mostly-civilian protesters in Gaza, 21-year-old medic Rouzan al-Najjar was “intentionally targeted” by the IDF. Israel soon released a deceptively edited video purporting to show that she was a “human shield for Hamas” as journalists hunted down the actual source material. Naturally, these terrorist actions are long forgotten, but the al-Ahli Arab Hospital strike would not be. Jordan, the West Bank’s Mahmoud Abbas, and Egypt pulled out of a meeting with Joe Biden, while the United Arab Emirates—an ally of Israel after 2020’s normalization agreement—released a statement explicitly blaming Israel for the attack. If Hamas’s targeting of civilians provided respite for Israel’s flailing … Continue reading →

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DEEP WEB (Alex Winter, Ross Ulbricht) Is Libertarian Hypocrisy

 

Ross Ulbricht lies in grass

Let’s get aesthetics out of the way, first. If a film about a drug boss starts with an anarchic proclamation, it needs- at a minimum- for that proclamation to be well-phrased. This will at least offset some of the political clichés surrounding drug prohibition, and might make it easier to repeat them without hurting the film on more substantive grounds. But if after engaging with the writing- “giant Fuck You to the system”, “fascists”, “real base of power lies with us”- one wonders WHY the film was even made, that question IS a relevant lens through which to view the film’s subject. I mean, just consider any other work on any other drug dealer: from the experts’ self-pillory in Mr. Untouchable, to the dread and ennui of Mean Streets, to the dum-dum brutality of American Gangster, the world’s mobsters are rarely presented as unequivocal heroes. In most cases, they aren’t allowed to have childhoods, nor to wax philosophical from home videos (although, in the coming decade, some will). They do not earn science degrees, and certainly were not nurtured by a loving family driven to exonerate them. In fact, if they were street-peddlers, their stories simply gain no traction at all, and cannot, on an individual basis, ever be the face of a grassroots political movement. That Ross Ulbricht, the incarcerated founder of darknet website Silk Road, gets to enjoy all of these things, and more, is a story far more interesting than Alex Winter’s Deep Web allows it to be. Indeed, one ought to ask why Ross Ulbricht is a cult figure for so many libertarians, if only because the answer sheds light on how awful the parsing of more important questions has become. The war on drugs, I’m afraid, attracts dupes and hypocrites on both sides, and by stripping his film of all artistic appeal, Alex Winter gives an inadvertent glimpse into how both sides conduct themselves.

But, even more than these glimpses, I am interested in their framing- what makes it in, what is omitted, and the order in which each element gets polemicized. The story proper opens with the shuttering of Silk Road and an explanation of the deep web, which the narrator (voiced by Keanu Reeves) makes sure to differentiate from illegal activities on the darknet. We learn of the website’s sophistication and massive sales: over $1 billion at its peak, with additional details provided by journalist Andy Greenberg, the trope ‘voice of reason’ made more sympathetic to Ross Ulbricht than it perhaps is. He discusses Silk Road’s community of anarchists, while another expert opines that the website was not really about selling drugs, but “a political statement”. A former Silk Road dealer is brought in to corroborate this, as the over-voice primes the viewer for the film’s main argument- that there is insufficient proof tying Ross Ulbricht to the site’s admin, the Dread Pirate Roberts, or, failing that, at least insufficient proof that … Continue reading →

Review Of “Donald Trump’s THE WALL” (2016)

Donald Trump's The Wall splashed across Pink Floyd album cover.Having now watched the anonymous pseudo-documentary Donald Trump’s THE WALL a few times since its 2016 release, I am even more convinced of the future of multidisciplinary art and the slow asphyxiation of the written word. This is not because one is better than the other- there will be no greater art than writing for centuries to come- but because of how easily these art forms tap into sensory experience, and how naturally they cohere into small, digestible narratives brandishing just one or two core ideas. No, they are not ‘serious’ in the way that- say- John Banville’s trite, overmodified prose is serious, but what of that? One of the worst elements of contemporary art is how self-aware it tends to be, yet how little it feeds off of this awareness: how little, for example, it wants to work with its own constraints and re-define the ‘how’ of how good stories are told. I mean, just compare the tired cultural commentary of The West Wingdown to quoting Leviticus against the religious– to a three-minute video from Vic Berger which similarly attacks religious hucksters, but does so with humor and fresh narrative tricks. Or consider this interpretation of Ted Cruz, which- while polemical- does more than critique a politician: it offers up a startling image of American zealotry, and even manages to invert familiar tropes. The real question, however, is if such pieces can sustain themselves for any appreciable length, which Donald Trump’s THE WALL tests across an hour-plus of historical footage set to Pink Floyd’s album of the same name- a clue as to why it’s been removed so many times from video platforms, even as the film itself is a boon to an otherwise forgettable record.

The first few minutes are a summary of Donald Trump’s public persona- his business ventures, media appearances, and personal wealth- cleverly synchronized with Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh?”, as the album morphs into Trump’s own biography. Not all of this is explicitly political: a lot of time is spent building Trump by other means, such as photographs from youth, newspaper clippings of his rise and fall, and Trump’s implied dependence on his father’s wealth (set to “Daddy, what did you leave behind for me?”) with politics serving as just one extension of a damaged character. Now, the film does get more declamatory as it goes on, with extended footage of migrants and of war played against Trump’s infamous reading of Al Wilson’s “The Snake”, which is itself inverted as Trump becomes the subject of his own recitation. Yet the film remembers to give characters their own little arcs, as well, with shots of the ridiculous post-Trump Ivana (set to “Vera”: “what has become of you?”), and even offers some emotional reprieve by making Trump a pitiful figure (“Nobody Home”) rather than a merely evil one. It is no coincidence that- although released before the 2016 election- Donald Trump’s THE WALL is still able to project … Continue reading →