One of my earliest memories involves being woken before dawn to accompany my mother to the house of a candidate for local office. She was volunteering to stuff envelopes, make phone calls, or otherwise help get this person elected. She didn’t have anywhere else to deposit me so I blearily tagged along. Without really understanding what was going on, I’d spend my mornings watching the adults work in earnest to elect a Democratic woman to a seat in a fairly Republican area. (She lost.)
Another early memory takes place in my family’s garage: a big green sign sat propped up against the wall and though I’d passed the large rectangle many times, there came a moment when I took active interest in it for the first time. It said, “Keep your laws off my body.” It was from my mother’s many trips to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate in favor of women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. I’m not sure I totally understood the explanation I received at the time, but the sign’s message was one of those bricks that formed the foundation of my sense of justice. (The Equal Rights Amendment was never passed.)
Both of my parents, counselors at a junior high school and community college, were very active politically throughout my childhood, from attending demonstrations to volunteering for local (and national) politicians. They were so consistently involved in community leadership, they declined many requests made by friends and local party officials to run for office themselves. They’re still active in retirement, most regularly as members of what may be the very last remaining Occupy Wall Street offshoot in the country.
Elections, protests, organizing, discussing the big issues—politics—were a central part of my childhood. So it made sense that I became chronically interested in political issues when I was around twelve. If anything, it was a surprise it took so long. If I could name the ideology my parents subscribed to—and I therefore absorbed—I think the closest would be New Deal social democracy. With my dad coming from a blue-collar, Rust Belt (inner-city Detroit) background and mom coming from an Appalachian family who moved to Detroit to run a small business, both had values rooted in the Keynesian, New Deal consensus that dominated much of their youth. Their politics were also influenced by the anti-war and women’s liberation movements they participated in as young adults, and by their early careers as social workers, seeing firsthand the plight of people left behind or left out of the economy. Being a politically engaged child of politically active social democratic parents was not very common in my home town of around 15,000 residents in the rural Midwest. Nevertheless, they carefully cultivated my early education as a political activist, which has remained the central focus of my life. I’ve continued that education in the Big Issues even as far as attempting to build a career around better understanding some of them. In the past twenty years, I’ve learned a few important lessons, ones I’ve only recently begun to internalize. They’re lessons that will be essential to learn if we’re going to win victories necessary to building better politics.
Lesson 1: Establishment Politics & the Corporate Media are a Circus of Villains
The first national political episode I recall clearly was Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying under oath about coercing an intern to fellate him. It was the first lesson in my education and it was confusing. On one hand, the hypocrites prosecuting Clinton for his unchristian, impure sexual morals were men who abused women, cheated on their wives, and left their partner who had just been given a serious medical diagnosis. These were morally corrupt men cynically exploiting the abuse of a young woman to construct nihilistic political theater with the sole purpose of marginally boosting their party. On the other hand, Bill Clinton was a slimy, smarmy sleazebag who coerced a vulnerable employee to suck his cock—not to mention actively pursued barbaric welfare reform, racist prison reform, murderous foreign policy, and aggressive redistribution of wealth to the rich. And yet, since it was a Democratic household, it was understood that I should generally take the Democratic sleazebag’s side.
Very early in my political education I learned that there are no heroes—politics is a chaotic circus of villains. But if you want in the tent, you have to bet on one of the performers. And if evil is the only choice, you take the lesser one.
Then came the Y2K scare. There was a real sense, brief and absurd, that due to a programming error, all the world’s computers would malfunction when the clocks struck midnight on January 1st 2000, and with them, all the industries, utilities, and machines dependent on them. In essence, the whole economy would shut down and civilization would collapse, thanks to this minor software bug. I was thirteen, with all the credulity of a child, and found it unsettling to watch the adults talk about Y2K seriously, but not act like they were taking it seriously. When the economic collapse didn’t happen, it became clear that the media, too, had its own vast tent in the circus of villains, and that the major networks would push any narrative, no matter how ridiculous, risky, or false if it could drive viewership. The corporate media world was not the objective arbiter of truth with authoritative reporters earnestly pursuing the facts that they claimed to be. That archetype was long since laid off or relegated to small independent media. They would not use their power to hold elected officials accountable, nor would they use their role as gatekeepers of specialized knowledge for the public good. Instead, the news was another big business pumping out whatever asinine garbage would nudge quarterly profits up. On New Year’s Eve, as the clocks turned to midnight Eastern Time, a friend and I lit up Roman candles and fired them at each other in the snow.
Lesson 2: Inconvenient Votes Are Easily Destroyed
The Y2K collapse scenario was probably preferable to the Actual Year 2000, particularly its disastrous presidential election. Again, the whole thing was confusing for a young adolescent. On one hand, Al Gore was a boring technocrat with no apparent reason to run for president, except that it was the next level of his succession from Vice President to President (but he was the Democrat, so he was my guy). On the other hand, George W. Bush was a coke-addled alcoholic failson who had everything in his life handed to him gift-wrapped, and by all reports was a sadistic, evil little gremlin with no apparent reason to run for president either, other than that it was the next level of his succession from Oil Prince of the Bush Dynasty to Oil King.
The election was my first lesson in mass disenfranchisement. With widespread voter suppression affecting mostly Democratic voters and huge proportions of black voters, the electoral college votes were neck and neck. The election came down to Florida, the state ruled by Bush’s brother, Jeb(!). It’s no surprise that the conservative Supreme Court and the officials working for Jeb! would rally to Bush’s aid and secure him an illegitimate victory. An illegal voter purge in the state led to nearly 5,000 black Gore voters’ votes being thrown out. The number of purged Democratic votes reached nine times Bush’s margin of victory. People today handwringing about Trump being elected without winning the popular vote seem to forget that Bush was elected without winning either the popular or electoral vote—and, inexplicably, those very same people also love Bush now. The minor burst of outrage over Bush’s illegitimate election did nothing. Nobody was held accountable. Nothing was reformed. The nation collectively accepted the rule of a completely unelected, illegitimate president who destroyed or suppressed thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of votes for his opponent. And Republicans, finding that illegal disenfranchisement worked wonderfully, began a concerted campaign to expand such voter suppression efforts for future elections.
Lesson 3: Consolidating Power Happens in Steps
(Bonus lesson: Rich People Will Use Any Excuse to Wage Wars & Murder Hundreds of Thousands of Innocent People in Order to Steal Public Money)
The next lesson came with September 11th 2001. I was in class, in middle school, when the towers came down. All day there was a strange tension pervading the school. Nobody told us what was happening, and since this was pre-smartphone, students couldn’t just check the news. Maybe one teacher had mentioned vaguely that there had been a plane crash, or some kind of accident, but nothing more. Just get back to the lesson. Even when I got home, I had no sense that anything out of the ordinary had happened. It wasn’t until later that night, or even the next day, that the full scope of the event began to really hit me.
The saccharine tributes to fallen emergency response heroes were short-lived. The tone rapidly shifted to vengeance. In the mainstream media and national policymaking community, there seemed to be consensus that the nation had to respond to this provocation by dropping bombs on somebody. Anybody.
The invasion of Afghanistan wasn’t questioned, examined, or seriously opposed. It went ahead, immediately, and everybody nodded along. It has now been running for eighteen years and produced exactly zero positive results for anybody (except defense contractors). Alongside this unquestioned, unopposed military foray, the Bush administration—aided by Democrats in Congress—began a methodical campaign to build history’s most advanced surveillance apparatus. In a moment of glorious bipartisan cooperation, the federal government crafted a legal infrastructure that would lay the foundations for extrajudicial murder and imprisonment, and easy abuse of the most basic constitutional rights. This lesson taught me how powerful one can become when pursuing even (especially) a manufactured enemy, and that such abuse of power often happens incrementally, in steps. It also taught me that the ruling class would work together against the interests of people not in the ruling class, illustrating a perverse form of class solidarity.
The Afghanistan experiment successful, the natural next step was to invade an oil-rich Middle Eastern state: preferably one that possessed a cloudy, scary mythology in American minds and could be vaguely connected with 9/11. Saddam Hussein, antagonist in the foggily-remembered prequel, the Gulf War, was perfect. That the protagonist last time was the father of the protagonist this time around was just the delicious making of a perfectly awful MCU installment. This time, there was opposition to invasion, but it was marginal in mainstream media and policymaking circles. Every outlet from the New York Times to Fox News, every pundit and expert taking up prime airtime, was fully in favor of invasion.
Months before the blitz on Baghdad, I wrote an essay for my tenth-grade language arts class about why invading Iraq would be a terrible mistake. It was obvious even to a teenager with a basic capacity for critical thought that invading Iraq would be strategically stupid, counterproductive, and morally wrong. Lots of people knew it. Thirty-six million people around the world marched against it. But it went forward anyway and, guess what: turns out it was strategically stupid, counterproductive, and morally wrong.
The invasion murdered half a million innocent people, burned two trillion dollars (and counting), and tied up years of policymaking in the bloody abyss, all for nothing. It also reinforced the precedent that a president could be proven, without doubt, to have deliberately misled the American public to unilaterally deploy the full force of the military without any repercussions. It was clear long before it happened that its main purpose was to plunder a mostly defenseless country to amass treasure for a few wealthy executives of defense and oil companies who would get lavish no-bid contracts and personally pocket billions of dollars. And that’s exactly what happened. It was another upward distribution of wealth that saw trillions of taxpayer dollars funneled directly into the private bank accounts of a few already-rich men. This, I would learn, was part of a long tradition of smash-and-grab operations of the rich on the public treasury throughout the country’s history. Rich executives would do anything, even launch an illegal war killing hundreds of thousands, for some extra cash.
With so much corruption and controversy in the Bush administration, with such blatant attempts to undermine democracy, with a catastrophic invasion incompetently handled and malevolently initiated, I thought, in a reasonable world, any opponent would easily unseat Bush in the 2004 election. I had a lot of faith in the American voter. But then came my next lesson.
Lesson 4: Outlandish Lies Defeat Reasonable Truths
Like Gore, John Kerry was another uninspiring, uncharismatic technocrat with no apparent convictions and no real reason to run, other than to continue building his own resume. Who cares? Someone had to defeat that war criminal oil thug. It was my first time voting and I was proud to cast it for anyone who opposed Bush—even a long, desiccated corncob.
Kerry, of course, was not an ideal candidate. For one thing, his victory in the Democratic primary had come out of nowhere, raising some suspicions that the process had been manipulated. A medical doctor and one of the few voices in national politics calling for single-payer healthcare, Howard Dean had been a popular contender. When he got a little over enthusiastic at a rally, the media destroyed his campaign. Kerry was more indigenous to America’s political establishment. He and Bush were both members of Yale’s elite secret society, Skull & Bones, and Kerry was married to a billionaire ketchup heiress. What’s more American Ruling Class than a Skull & Bones ketchup billionaire? The race was perverse from the get-go, with both candidates raising a third of a billion dollars, mostly from big donors and elite bundlers.
During the election season, a man came to our front door. After a few moments talking with my dad, it became clear he was one of the “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth” propagandists who sought to undermine Kerry’s status as a Vietnam veteran. My dad reproached the man for spreading lies, who then got angry, so my dad slammed the door on him, and the man continued on his door-to-door quest to elevate the fortunes of distant millionaires. The Swiftboat campaign was such clearly fabricated misinformation, almost breathtaking in the audacity of its blatant untruth, and so successful that it has become a verb. And it worked: Kerry lost. He got swiftboated. Of course voter suppression ran rampant again: 350,000 Democratic voters in Ohio had their votes tossed out or were illegitimately prevented from voting, a number that would have won Kerry the election. There’s a whole Wikipedia article on the “voting controversies” in the election.
But there’s no doubt that the big outlandish lies that permeated the whole election contributed to the results being so narrow to begin with. I was baffled. I felt like I lived in some other country, some reality different from a majority of voters. Kerry may have sucked, I thought, but Jesus, look at Bush. You didn’t have to like Kerry, could even deeply resent him, while still acknowledging the clear and reasonable truth that Bush was setting the country on a course toward tyranny. Did the truth really matter so little? (Yes.)
Lesson 5: Police Love to Beat the Shit Out of People Who Want Things to be Better
In January 2005, my dad and I went to Washington D.C. to demonstrate at Bush’s second inauguration: finally a chance to yell toward the president. We found no irony in staying at the house of a CIA-employed cartographer (and acquaintance of my uncle’s) in the D.C. suburbs—it was cheaper than a hotel. We took the Metro into town for the big day, and emerging from the underground station, we heard pounding and chanting rock the air. We emerged at the edge of a gathering of protesters. We added our voices to the noise for a moment, but soon realized that it wasn’t the main demonstration so we continued on looking for a way to the parade route or the viewing grounds. The feeling was strange, like someone had left the gas on and a spark would blow the whole town apart. Mingled with the many average Americans, thick Boomer men in suits and big ten-gallon hats strolled around pompously with their wives in fur coats on their arms. Their caricature was so complete it felt like a live action version of some anti-oil baron political cartoon. I felt like beating the smirk off their pouchy red faces with their own shitty bolo ties, and could tell many others felt the same. There was a heavy police presence, so, instead, we wandered around trying to find the main group, but kept running into smaller demonstrations. All the entrances to the parade route and main inauguration grounds had been bottlenecked with security tents that protesters weren’t being allowed through. The demonstration had been effectively fractured.
Walking through a dusting of snow downtown, we heard drums beating from around the corner of a building nearby. A tight bloc of black-clad demonstrators waving red, orange, and black banners emerged. Pounding their drums and chanting, they slowly crawled down the street. A wall of police on motorbikes blocked their path, so the black bloc turned down another street and we followed them. Again, a phalanx of police blocked one direction, sending the group to the left. The police were very clearly corralling them. We followed the group, but kept a bit of distance, watching them playfully throw snowballs into the air. Suddenly, the black bloc stopped and was still for a moment. Then three police cars, one unmarked, sped around a corner and plowed into the back of the group, sending protesters tumbling. With ruthless speed, the officers opened their trunks, pulled out batons, and started beating demonstrators. The bloc quickly scattered and I saw several young men and women being carried away, streams of blood pouring down their faces and onto their chests.
We left the site and found a bar where a television was playing the local news. We watched for a while and were surprised to see what appeared to be the black bloc we had just left. At the front of it was apparently the thing that had made it stop on that street: a line of heavily armored riot police savagely battering protesters. The reporter described the scene as one in which protesters had been the aggressors, starting the conflict by throwing bottles and rocks at police. We saw only snowballs.
The failed demonstration felt like a brief, interrupted catharsis and we went back home to await the next four years. We watched the Bush administration illegally lease public land to oil and gas companies, lie with impunity about essentially everything, censor global warming research in official documents, channel wealth into the pockets of a few elites, roll back decades of environmental regulations, bomb innocent civilians, and lock up “suspects” without trial. We watched it all on the news stations of a national media that supported it unconditionally.
Lesson 6: Politics is Based on Competing Fabricated Myths, Not Reality
Throughout the entirety of the administration, with a corporate media that mostly enabled or covered for it, it was hard not to feel a sense of unreality. The Bush administration, or its de facto communications surrogate, Fox News, would say something demonstrably false (“the world is not warming,” “we’ve brought democracy to Iraq,” “we have to fight the war on Christmas”) and the rest of the media establishment, from the New York Times to CNN, would mostly treat it with respect, gloss over it, ignore it, or reaffirm the very blatant lie. There was a sense that we were watching the collective construction of an alternate reality. It felt like the kind of absurd mythology fabricated at the foundation of all cohesive cults. A few leaks of truth seeped out the vast tank of surreality that was our political aquarium. Perversely, one had to rely on comedy shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, and some corners of the internet, to find a lingering commitment to the idea that there is truth in the world, that it can be discovered by fair observation, and that it’s worth trying to assemble verifiable facts and evidence to arrive at the truth. These reminders that swaths of the population were not enamored with this opposite, bizarro-world nonreality, and were still clinging to something real, helped keep one from going insane. It was small comfort, but better than none. After a while, though, even Jon Stewart calling Fox News “bullshit mountain” started to feel less like subversion, less like a challenge to this dominant cult-mythology, and more like an integral part of the whole myth construction. They started to seem like court jesters, their own elite spectacle meant to placate viewers, to defuse the intolerable situation rather than change it.
One day, Bush came to my small home town. The long line of people there to see him ran right along an equally long line of people there to protest his rally. I held a sign as I watched one of my favorite elementary schoolteachers slowly approach in the line to see Bush, each of us occupying separate sides of a seemingly uncrossable divide. Nevertheless, she was gracious and it was a pleasant exchange. I didn’t say anything to an old friend who also passed, and seemed not to notice me, either.
After the rally, Bush’s supporters and protesters were mingling outside the heavily guarded event. On a quiet residential street with few others around, I came upon one man screaming at a woman and her young daughter. Among his incomprehensible sputtering and spittle, I could make out only “you’re a socialist.” I stepped between them and he pointed his very loud “socialist” chant at me and I could think of nothing to do but laugh, and he stormed away, still yelling. The man reminded me of the Swiftboater who had come to our door in 2004. He was clearly occupying some other world in his mind, waging a righteous crusade against whatever monster he saw when he looked at a vulnerable woman and her daughter, or a scrawny teenager.
The thing that rooted me in a concrete reality has always been the natural world. It made sense, then, that it was around the beginning of Bush’s second term that environmentalism, and more specifically the climate crisis, started to become my central focus. Having spent much of my childhood outdoors playing in my region’s beautiful countryside, and seeing that beauty plowed over with “development,” and fearing the possibility of all such beautiful places being ripped up in the ongoing frenzy of concrete, no other issues seemed quite so important. After a couple of years studying at a community college, I transferred to an environmental college and started getting more involved in activism and policy.
Lesson 7: Political Allies Who Pursue Murderous Policies Are More Dangerous Than Enemies Who Pursue Murderous Policies
The next major lesson in my political education was Barack Obama’s campaign. Being disgusted with celebrity culture, averse to cults of personality, and temperamentally unfit to defer to popular authority, I wasn’t as excited about Obama the Celebrity as many people around me, but I certainly understood his appeal. He said good things, and said them well (at least in direct contrast to the bumbling oratory of Bush). I had already participated in another campaign and had done some political activism, so knew enough to be impressed with the campaign’s ground game, and wrote my undergraduate dissertation on applying their electoral strategy to issue campaigns. There was a brief moment when he was inaugurated that I wanted to believe his rhetoric, and held a small bit of hope in my heart that his would be an administration to lift the shadow of Bush’s, to help usher in a politics more aligned with truth and reality, more interested in solving problems and helping the vulnerable than amassing power and concentrating wealth.
Then the Great Recession hit. I graduated from college in the second quarter of 2009, the one in which U.S. gross domestic product hit its lowest point of the Recession and a couple months before the Recession’s unemployment rate peaked. The time following my graduation was dark. For nearly a year, I couldn’t find a job, any job, and by the next spring, was lucky to get only a temporary position selling outdoor sports gear, ugly t-shirts, and ice cream to seasonal tourists. On top of my low-wage, precarious job, I lived with friends in a shitty house beset with several serious code violations—at least one of which was, according to a contractor, a mortality risk—paying inflated rent to an absent slumlord who didn’t respond to concerns, and ended up stealing our security deposit after blaming us for the problems she refused to fix. But by this point, having security deposits stolen by landlords and paying exorbitant rents for unsafe living conditions was already a familiar, banal experience.
Meanwhile, I continued to follow national politics, and watched the small bundle of hope that had been weakly kindled with Obama’s election evaporate as he bailed out bankers—the people who caused the crisis I and many others were suffering through—allowing them to continue to lavish each other with tens of millions of dollars in bonuses with public money (yet another smash-and-grab on the public treasury), to illegally foreclose on peoples’ homes, to continue running “too-big-to-fail” banks, to continue charging usurious interest rates, and refusing to prosecute or investigate a single one. We didn’t even get a pity prosecution.
Obama was supposed to end the neoliberal consensus that had dominated politics since Carter’s administration and usher in some new consensus built on fairness and compassion. Instead, he rescued the neoliberal order from the jaws of its biggest crisis. I watched his administration not only refuse to prosecute the torturers and liars in the Bush administration who so damaged the country—and, you know, the people they tortured—but also to launder their crimes and rehabilitate their legacies, all the while continuing their murderous foreign policy.
Obama, it quickly became clear, had just been a slick con-artist, his national gaslighting perhaps the most sophisticated of all, as he committed the same sorts of crimes as Bush while basking in a constant glare of glowing, thoughtless adulation. He further embedded Bush’s inegalitarian and racist economic policies, continued to expand the surveillance state and prosecute whistleblowers, intensified oil and gas drilling dramatically, deported refugees with equal callousness, overthrew a sovereign nation with casual carelessness—a result of which there are now open slave markets in the defeated territory—and committed extrajudicial assassinations on American citizens (one being only sixteen years old). Afterward, Obama didn’t even need someone to rehabilitate his image.
Lesson 8: Egalitarian Economies Within Capitalist Space Will Be Destroyed by Armed Brutes
(Bonus lesson: Your Landlord & Employer Would be Happy if You Died)
There were months at the depth of the Recession when I felt extreme indignity, a deep meaninglessness, and a sense of alienation. I felt absolutely useless, to everybody. I felt bereft of a community, felt alien to my own society. I felt like I was contributing nothing to the world, and there were all these huge problems—climate the most existential and dire of them all—that I remained fixated on, but helpless to contribute something to. I considered joining the military to feel a sense of belonging, to feel the dignity of status that was so absent from my life, to feel some basic material security, or even just a sense of camaraderie. I was a fair shot but couldn’t run a mile to save my life. More importantly, I couldn’t reconcile the idea of contributing directly to the ongoing imperialist expansion, and its requisite murder of civilians in mineral-rich de facto colonies, with the life and principles I wanted to live (not to mention the extreme carbon emissions). So over the next few years, I continued working temporary jobs and tried to launch a venture, all paths leading toward the same dead end.
With the charming, woke President Obama now leasing public land to oil and gas companies, murdering civilians abroad, ignoring mass incarceration and police brutality, and continuing to widen the wealth gap, privileged liberals in prestige coastal jobs went back to brunch. But those of us without such elite networks had nowhere to go. Those who could handle more education debt could either go back to school or else continue to languish in dead-end, precarious, low-paid gigs with no healthcare.
The frustration of those of us in the latter categories finally burst forth in a private park called Zuccotti, near Wall Street. I was at that park on the first night of Occupy Wall Street. It was just a few young people huddled together against the cold. We met up with a friend’s sister, who was attending that activist environmental college I too had attended, traveling all the way from Maine to be part of the initial group that started OWS. I didn’t really have a grasp of what it was at the time, couldn’t really articulate why they were there (nor did they). That first night, it looked like a few intrepid college students organizing yet another vague protest, so my friend and I went back to our overpriced, ill-managed apartment building, where dealing with a gas leak and eradicating our cockroaches seemed more pressing.
We watched with some amazement over the next few weeks as OWS grew into a huge, sprawling egalitarian community, with an ad hoc infrastructure set up to distribute books, food, and medicine. Decisions were made democratically with a consensus process and the group was bringing attention to the insufferable conditions of neoliberal America. We’d return each time to see more and more news cameras focused on the park. Maybe we really can change things for the better, if we all band together!
I was also at Zuccotti on the last night of OWS. Or rather, I could only get near it. Heavily-armed police had barricaded the streets, and I watched bulking, military-style police vans speeding to and from the park, heard the commotion of cries, sirens, and metal scraping on pavement a block or two away. Helpless, disempowered, and weak. Pictures would show fire engulf the community and bloodied people being dragged away by police, a scene repeated at the dozens of other OWS offshoots around the country. I thought of the young black-clad people covered in blood at Bush’s inauguration six years before.
There have been plenty of explanations as to why OWS didn’t really succeed in changing anything for the better, from a lack of a coherent political agenda or strategy, to the burdensome consensus process in making rapid decisions, to simply having too few supporters to reach a critical mass movement capable of nudging the political agenda. It seemed pretty simple to me: anyone trying to carve out space for a more egalitarian economy in a capitalist country would be brutally beaten into submission by armed thugs.
With no escape from the capitalist hellworld looking imminent, I figured that if I was to have any chance of building a comfortable life within the rapidly diminishing “middle-class” like my activist parents, or have any material impact on the issues I cared about, the only thing I could think to do, in the narrow confines of this economy, playing by the rules, was go back to university. Like the other middle- or working-class members of my generation, I had long been coerced into adhering strictly to The Rules, and this seemed like the only other option within those rules. I thought I could claw back some of my long chipped away dignity by getting a master’s degree in environmental management at Yale.
While studying energy politics and how to influence them, I watched Obama base his entire environmental and climate platform around passing weak executive orders while expanding oil and gas development and advocating for an “all of the above” energy strategy, even while seas rose, forests burned, and climate wars raged. I saw him allow water-protectors to be brutalized while he drew, again, widespread adulation from the people around me, even the people studying these issues, the people who should have known better. Obama was the savior again, despite his policies’ weak durability and the ease with which a successor administration could overturn them (for the record, one did). I sat around a table with former presidential candidate and current Big Pharma lobbyist Howard Dean, watching him tell the dozen or so of us assembled not to pursue a public career—after all, you might accidentally scream and see it go up in flame—but instead to focus on creating apps. During the graduation ceremony, I watched Elon Musk awkwardly accept an honorary degree for LARPing an eccentric 19th century robber baron inventor. I watched Joe Biden give a meandering, brain-worm-and-platitude-laden speech wearing his classic aviators. I got a little glimpse of one of the circles in which the country’s elite are cultivated. Then I finished the program, spent months applying to dozens of positions in climate advocacy, and got no job offers. So much for the Yale brand. My dignity, I figured, would need a degree from an even older, stodgier institution. So I went to get a PhD at Oxford, and wallow in education debt.
By this point I had been explicitly, and often illegally, exploited by at least half a dozen landlords (not counting those who were slightly too scrupulous to directly steal from me), had toiled in as many precarious, low-paid positions, dumped what little money I had into predatory corporations—like the $200 per month I spent on utterly useless catastrophic care health insurance, which paid out for absolutely nothing—and accumulated education debt with usurious interest rates. I had been playing by the rules and getting fucked for doing so.
Even so, I didn’t have it nearly as bad as many Americans. I didn’t have medical debt or chronic illnesses caused by some corporations’ pollution or government neglect, I had supportive parents who could feed me between jobs and house me between programs, I had an education base that allowed me to rack up degrees, I had five figures of debt instead of six, I had a 6% interest rate instead of a higher one, I wasn’t permanently locked into having my time and wages stolen by an employer, and I didn’t suffer from the racial prejudice embedded in so many of the country’s institutions. If I was this angry and disenchanted, what about my fellow millennials who had a much harder time? The immensity of rage, the depth of indignity, that had built up in my generation still sought outlet and resolution.
Lesson 9: If You Try to Change an Institution From Within, Its Members Will Cheat & Betray You
The same frustration that sparked OWS fueled the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America and Senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election. Now I could show that Bush supporter screaming “socialist” my DSA card. But this time, the primary hostility seemed to be coming not from spittle-drenched Republicans, but establishment Democrats. Again, my generation was gaslit, lied to, thwarted, and cheated by an older, richer, more powerful population, this time calling themselves liberals—while simultaneously telling us that their ideology of exploitation, “neoliberalism,” was not a real thing. We watched the only candidate who represented our interests cheated by a political and media establishment that sought to continue extracting as much wealth from us as possible, even unto our untimely deaths, even to the edge of civilization-wide catastrophe. These were supposed to be our allies and mentors. Again, we lost, but we weren’t the only ones.
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign hand-picked its opponent. Thinking they could beat him, they elevated Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries. Donald Trump, known rapist, child abuser, and perennial cheat—and also, incidentally, an old friend of the Clintons’. With his rosie round cheeks, ridiculous hair, and abusive carelessness, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the husband of the woman he was opposing, the smarmy, greasy president who had coerced an intern to suck him off. The chaotic circus of villains that I learned about on my first glimpse of this world was no different nearly twenty years later. It was literally the same individual people!
And then the serial rapist won. (It was clear to some of us during the primary that only Sanders would be capable of beating Trump.) Hillary Clinton, the ultimate embodiment of affluent entitlement and professional class elitism, wasn’t even competent. She didn’t even have the basic quality of effective Machiavellianism going for her sufficient to prevent a television show host with no political experience from handily winning the electoral college. She was too lazy to campaign for herself, and then blamed the man who worked harder than she did for her own campaign. In addition to reluctantly voting for the ridiculous blond psychopathic Baby Boomer on “my side,” I participated in the election how I thought I best could. I volunteered to write an ambitious twenty-two-policy platform for a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, representing my home district. With regard to equitable decarbonization policy, and several other policies too, at that time it was probably one of the most aggressive platforms of any race in the country. (He lost.)
Trump, the perfect distillation of the bloated, sagging, petulant rich Boomer, not only began to dismantle the few meager positive parts of Obama’s impotent legacy, but has enjoyed Congressional Democrats handing him everything he has asked for. He won and kept winning. The liberal dipshit meme of a Sassy Resistance Nancy Pelosi notwithstanding, Trump found easy allies in the very people who were meant to be standing as a democratic check on his power. This includes the melting grandmaster strategist Pelosi herself and her small, empty counterpart in the Senate, Chuck something-or-other. The Democrats and Republicans were barely hiding their good-cop-bad-cop routine now.
Meanwhile, the media establishment and Democratic political establishment that undermined the Sanders campaign and elevated Trump and Clinton not only failed to own up to the real humanitarian consequences of their cynical decisions, not only failed to spend even a moment of self-reflection, but instead immediately began to build a fanciful alternate reality populated with Russian spies and an army of Reddit bots to absolve them of responsibility. The ascension of MSNBC as the new Fox, the most effective nightly dismantler of truth, would be complete in the following years of red scare hysteria.
Lesson 10: Many People, Much of the Time, Will Happily Choose Evil Over Good
(Bonus lesson: Your Elders Want You Dead)
In the U.K., I felt a strange sense of exile. I wanted to leave and return to the U.S. to do something, anything, to participate in building an alternative politics that could realistically combat Republican authoritarianism and the Democratic nihilism enabling it. Seeing few alternatives to finishing my PhD, not knowing how else to contribute, not having the resources to return without a job, and with all the voices in my life urging me to stay the course, I forged ahead with scholarship that only occasionally seemed relevant. I’d have to nurse the stupid hope of having some nebulous, indirect impact in the form of writing articles and books.
Here in the midst of Brexit—the headline act in Britain’s own chaotic circus of villains—one voice of reason and compassion emerged in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Here was a demonstrably, objectively gentle man who, like Sanders, had spent a career genuinely engaged in doing his best to help marginalized and vulnerable populations. Here was someone finally fighting for real fairness in the midst of hyper-inequality and a fatal austerity that has claimed 130,000 lives. His opponent, the Prime Minister, was a man who embodied the worst of humanity. A man who was born into immense wealth and privilege and has used that power to torment the most vulnerable, to abuse women, to spread complete fabrications in national newspapers, and to manipulate institutions to satisfy his base impulses. A cruel, racist, silly attempt at a human, this grotesque, pasty spectacle was Britain’s answer to Trump’s petulant child of wealth, and the most vicious, rabid entitlement of their whole generation.
Corbyn’s campaign, meanwhile, crafted what may be the most just and humane political platform of the 21st century, maybe of any century. For this, the British media almost unanimously libeled him and committed a concerted campaign to undermine his agenda, with 75% of coverage misrepresenting him and his positions. Once again, I watched establishment media institutions lie to my face. The BBC photoshopped photos of Corbyn to make him resemble a Russian operative—I saw with my own eyes the BBC version and the original undoctored photo side by side—and then watched a BBC representative say, actually, it was not doctored. I watched the BBC edit a video of a Boris Johnson speech, removing the audience laughter and replacing it with cheers, and claim it was an accident. Once again, an entire media establishment was banding together to build an alternate reality to destroy the possibility of fair and humane reforms, to prop up an extractive oligarchy that continued to extort me and my generation for even the scant remaining wealth we controlled. And just a glance at votes by age reveals what a generational election this really was.
It was one of those once-in-a-generation, last-chance crossroads, and a majority of people chose the path to authoritarianism, nativist racism, austerity homicide, and, ultimately, inevitably, ecological collapse and the war and chaos that always accompany it. It was the clearest delineation yet between good and evil—it wasn’t just a circus of villains this time, there was a genuinely benevolent one—it was the clearest choice between a hopeful future and a horrific future. The results were not close. The People, led by those too old to have a future, definitively chose horror.
Even despite the stakes, I didn’t think I was so emotionally invested in Corbyn’s victory. I thought I was detached. I’m an American, this isn’t my country, I can’t even vote here. But I was. I was very invested. For the first time in my life, for a brief moment, we all got a glimpse of what a humane world might look like. There was a flickering second that felt like we might finally win something good and real, just a little relief. We were so close, and it was snatched away, again. And his loss was somehow more than yet another lash in two decades of constant political punishment. It was an undeniable rebuke of leftist naivete, of my own persistent credulity. It was mocking laughter at my—at our—stubbornly lingering innocence.
Lesson 11: We Cannot Build a Healthy Society Playing by the Rules of a Sick One
Finally, after twenty years of ignoring my own hard education, blindly obsessing over elections and issues, participating in dozens of protests and campaigns, personally lobbying my representatives, organizing and giving my life over to issues, after two decades willing myself not to learn this lesson, I am finally fully convinced. Deceit wins. Violence wins. Intimidation wins. Cheating wins. And it will never be otherwise. Being earnest and truthful does not win. Playing by the rules gets you to defeat. Being kind and understanding loses every time. Being nonviolent gets you killed; the meek will never inherit the earth. There’s a persistent idea that if we’re just devoted enough to the truth, that if we faithfully maintain our very good principles, that if we remain upstanding citizens, if we pretend to be Gandhi for long enough, we will someday finally win both some cosmic moral battle, and also political power. This idea has to die, or we all will. It is a foolish, childish illusion that has no place in a political movement invested in winning. It doesn’t matter that Corbyn played a clean game. His opponents didn’t, and he lost, and now people will die. When good people keep their hands clean, good people die. If our goal is to tear down the tyranny of the rich and protect the entire future of life on earth, then we have to win at any cost.
And I hate that I have no other option but to face the ugly truth that cannot be otherwise in an ugly civilization. How could it be any other way than that the most ruthless, brutal, and fortunate always win in such social Darwinian nations? How could I have, even for a moment, imagined some other scenario, given the absolute brutality of this nation’s history? This place and its bastard anglophone colonies carry the legacy of slavery, genocide, and nuclear devastation. Of course a kind and compassionate leader can never win here.
In the wake of yet another loss, after dozens of losses and decades of losing, I am again seeing people who are supposed to be allies telling me to just forge on, just keep going. Just keep doing the same ineffectual things over and over. Our allies are telling us to persist in actions that haven’t won in twenty years and absolutely never will. In doing so they are committing their own form of gaslighting, their own form of denial, building their own bullshit alternate reality.
Opponents of Bernie Sanders are beginning to use the “antisemtic” smear against him, seeing how effective it was against Corbyn. If you think it won’t work against Sanders because he’s Jewish, wake the fuck up. A smear doesn’t have to be remotely true for it to work, it doesn’t have to be logically coherent, it doesn’t have to make any sense whatsoever. Corbyn spent his whole life fighting social evils like antisemitism, and it still worked like a charm against him. In fact, the less sense it makes, the better. They’ll use it anyway, over and over and over again, and it will work.
It doesn’t matter for victory that Sanders has spent his whole life saying the same good things and fighting for justice. His popularity is already down from where it had been during the last campaign, and there’s plenty of time for it to drop more. It is ludicrously naive to believe that Sanders won’t be cheated again during this Democratic primary. If somehow he wins it, we should take the possibility very seriously that he will be assassinated before he is able to implement any systemic reforms—and if you think that’s a fanciful possibility, reflect for a moment on the many reformers who have been murdered through our history, how many reformers are killed all around the world all the time, think of the tens of millions of guns in the hands of violent maniacs who think Sanders is some sort of Stalin clone coming to enslave the country. And if somehow he survives, we cannot assume that Trump will concede power even in a landslide defeat, as his surrogates are seriously floating the idea of a third term. Bush already flouted the electoral college to seize power, why wouldn’t Trump?
We can’t build a healthy society playing by the rules of a sick one. But I am not saying we should give up and keep playing by the rules of our sick society. What I take from these lessons isn’t that we need to reconcile ourselves to the whims of the powerful. Just the opposite.
Lesson 12: There’s Only One Way to Deal With the Violent Psychopaths Who Rule the World
Our enemies, the enemies of what is good and reasonable and just in the world, are worse than anyone wants to admit. They’re more powerful than anyone wants to believe. They will not be bent by strikes, they will not be moved by nonviolent protests, they will not be defeated in elections, votes won’t stop them, and they will not be impeached or sued or shamed into submission. This isn’t the 1890s, or the 1910s, the 1930s, or the 1960s. We must not assume that we can simply replicate the labor and civil rights movements of those eras and pretend they’ll have equivalent impacts today. Our rulers now have tools of oppression they never had then, both military and psychological. They have decades, centuries, of social engineering on their side, and more money and technology than has ever existed before. And now they have climate chaos and ecological collapse to both justify and spark their most tyrannical ambitions. They will happily murder us, cage us, warp our sense of reality, they will gleefully torture us whenever they get the chance, and they will watch the whole world burned to literal ash before they consent to one cent being taken from their hoards, one unit of power pulled from their hands.
They will condemn our whole future to nothing, damn most life on earth to extinction if it means they get to rape an underage girl on demand, add one more storey to their mansion, or get one more sycophantic bootlicking underling to elevate their damaged egos, for one moment of feeling like “world king.” This is not hyperbole or vulgarity. We recently got a glimpse of an entire global infrastructure of hidden off-shore wealth that pays for an entire global infrastructure of human trafficking of underage sex slaves who serve our presidents, prime ministers, royals, and business leaders. We see $4.8 billion yachts side by side with people dying because they can’t afford insulin or homeless people freezing to death on the streets. It doesn’t seem to me that most people have internalized the fact that we are ruled by the darkest of psychopaths. And we shy away from perhaps the more horrific truth that many, many of our fellow citizens will happily continue to elevate those evil men and women, will protect them, even while our whole future is at stake. We’re ruled by the intrinsically wicked and there’s only one way to defeat them.
When we are ready to learn these lessons, then maybe we’ll win for the first time in our lives. Until we internalize these lessons, we’ll continue to lose, and we’ll take the future down with us.
Will Jahn says
This is a wonderful essay. I will share it with everyone I can.
Lori Kline says
Thank you. Your words echo my thoughts for the past 20 years. I am terrified and have been since before the war criminals of the Bush Administration. The idea that we should continue along our collective insanity of not doing and not winning has to perish. Winning will come at a cost but perhaps less than the atrocious cost now being paid.
I understand the lessons.
What is the solution?