FtB Podish-Sortacast on Israel and Palestine (and a life update from me)

Hey everybody, sorry about the long silence! I’m applying to a creative writing master’s program, so I’ve been pushing ahead on my novel in order to submit the first chapter as part of the application. Because of the way I currently write, getting the first chapter just right has required me to be pretty clear about aspects of the worldbuilding, and aspects of the story that don’t take place until a couple books later in the series. It feels as though every thousand words of the novel, I need about five to ten thousand words that either come far later, or that will never make it into the story. It’s going well, but it hasn’t left me with much energy for the blog. Once the current flurry of activity is done, I intend to return for more regular posts once more.

Partly to get my brain back into the groove as I finish up this application, and partly because it’s an important topic, I’ll be participating in today’s FtB podcast-thing on Israel and Palestine. I probably should have done a blog post on it before now, I’ve just found it difficult to think of anything to say that’s not woefully inadequate in the face of such horror and hatred. That said, this and my last half-assed post on the subject are even less adequate, so I’ll give it thought. In the meantime, stop by for our discussion if you’ve got time this evening. Sorry for the short notice!


Fascism’s Amoeba of Hate

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

This is the third of Lawrence Britt’s 14 characteristics of fascism (not to be confused with Eco’s 14 features of fascism), and a common warning given to those who might be sympathetic or apathetic towards a rising fascist movement. They’re going after trans people now, but once they feel they’ve won that battle, they’ll turn to someone else. First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. This may actually be the most famous warning about fascists – that they are so utterly dependent on scapegoating as a unifying force and a way to maintain the pretense of might, that they will find and oppress a scapegoat, even if they have to create a group of people that never existed in order to do it. Working with them will not protect you from them.

When we hear about this, we generally think of cultural and political persecution. What’s being done to the trans community right now is the first genocidal project of a fascist movement, and if they are allowed to succeed, their focus will turn to other groups. I think it’s absolutely correct for that to be the first thing that comes to mind, but I have one complaint about it, and that is the implication that fascists are disciplined enough to go about this in a methodical, systematic manner, and to hide their hand until the time comes to switch groups.

There’s a sequence of focus, maybe, but the actual practice is utter chaos. Rather than inching forward in a line, like a Nazi worm, they move like a Nazi amoeba. They move in every direction at once, and then shift towards whichever pseudopod finds good fodder for their hatred. The predictability in the path they end up taking has everything to do with the environment in which the fascist movement develops – where their hatred can latch on and motivate people. As has been remarked many times, there are similarities between the United States and Weimar Germany, and those similarities play a big role in the way this fascist movement seems to mirror that one. Transphobia was already present and powerful, and so the trans community proved to be a good early scapegoat then, as now.

But it’s not like they’re hiding their racism, or their antisemitism, or their hatred of communists, and the myth of fascist efficiency and competence remains just that – a myth. This is where the amoeba analogy breaks down, because when an amoeba finds a piece of food, it will generally concentrate on that until it’s dealt with before resuming its pseudopodous journey. It is also a single organism, at relative peace with itself. Not so, fascists.

Maybe it’s something about the kinds of people who’re drawn to fascism, or maybe it’s the result of an ideology obsessed with domination and competition, but they also fight each other, constantly. Attacking is their only response to failure, or the perception of weakness. If they fail, the blame must always be put onto someone else, because they are Strong, and the Strong do not fail.

The current example, which sent me down this particular line of thought, is the way the right wing of the Republican Party is blaming its own chaos and incompetence on a succession of Republican leaders. Kevin McCarthy was the big recent example, but since getting rid of him didn’t solve anything, they’ve aimed some blame at McCarthy’s replacement, Mike Johnson, but also at Mitch McConnell. They don’t always get their way – their attacks on Johnson haven’t really gone anywhere, and McConnell seems committed to clinging to power until he rots – but they don’t need to always get their way. All they need is for one attack to work, one pseudopod to find something tasty, and that becomes their new way to show off their power, even if they still can’t get anything done.

It’s possible that this is level of chaos is unique to modern fascism, but I suspect that as with the Autobahn myth, this appearance of competence and efficiency came from a combination of this amoebic approach, the Nazis’ unceasing proclamations of their own superiority, and the degree to which their devout belief in white supremacy was also embraced by the Western societies that opposed them. I’m no scholar of the rise of fascism, but from what little I do know, paranoia, infighting, and a sort of chronic chaos seem to play a big role in fascist movements throughout history.

More that that, however, it highlights the degree to which there should be no excuse, at this stage, for anyone being ignorant of the fact that they will keep coming for different groups for as long as they have the power to do so. They’re making no secret of it, or of their desperate need to blame others for everything they do, all while preaching personal responsibility as a feeble disguise. Any time a new problem arises, they will immediately seek out a new scapegoat, even if it’s someone, like Mitch McConnell, who has dedicated their life to creating that very fascist movement. We don’t actually need to learn from past fascist movements to know where this one is headed – they’re making it perfectly clear with everything they say and do.

Stuck in the 90s again

I recently decided to start dedicating time every day to reading, both fiction and nonfiction. Somewhere along the way, I got out of the habit of reading books, and that’s something I’d like to change, for a number of reasons. My parents gave me Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger for Christmas, and I had already been interested in reading it, so that’s what I’m starting with. All of this is to say, there’s a good chance that this won’t be the last blog post in some way inspired or influenced by that book. Towards the end of the introduction, Klein talks about the ways in which, thanks to things like social media, A.I., and the bizarre propaganda of a powerful fascist movement, we are truly in a different world from the one in which we were born. She writes of the surreal nature of our current moment, where nothing seems real in part because so much is not real.

That feeling of disorientation we tell one another about? Of not understanding whom we can trust and what to believe? Of friends and loved ones behaving like strangers? It’s because our world has changed, but, like a collective case of jet lag, most of us are still attuned to the rhythms and habits of the place left behind. It’s past time to find our bearings in this new place.

This resonated with me for three reasons. The most obvious is that I’ve gotten that feeling she describes from interacting with our culture. The second reason is that I’ve been arguing for a while now that we are, in a material and practical sense, on a different planet from the one on which humanity built this civilization. I believe that, as scientists have long been warning, we’ve passed the point at which we’ll be able to stop our planet from warming for generations to come. It is currently shifting towards a new equilibrium, much hotter than anything our species has had to deal with, and while I believe it’s possible to reverse that trend, we’re nowhere close to doing so. We are on a different planet, and yet our society acts as though nothing has changed.

Which brings me to the third reason Klein’s words caught my attention: The fact that our leaders appear to be stuck in the past. Specifically, they seem to be stuck in the 90s.

Growing up, the music I listened to was heavily influenced by my older brother’s tastes, and one group to which he introduced me was the Canadian band Moxy Früvous. They’ve got a lot of good songs, but this one – Stuck in the 90’s – has been echoing in my head for years now, like the discordant soundtrack of a dystopian thriller. The song relates the experience of someone named Clem, who has a fantasy of living in a society freed from the shackles of right-wing politics, before coming back to the grim reality of triumphant neoliberalism:

Clem had a daydream, daydream from heaven
Picked up the headline, his country was made up of singers
And no more right-wingers

He wakes up to “Homeless are stupid, welfare is stupid
Private investment efficiency, cool fiscal plannin'”
Sounds like more Pat Buchanan

Back in his day job this afternoon
Unlikely he’ll move down to Cuba soon

Reluctant to find he’s stuck in the 90’s again

Obviously, I relate to Clem here, but the reason this song has made a permanent home in my brain, is my growing awareness that a number of the people running the United States (though not just the United States), are people for whom the 1990s represent the pinnacle of what society had to offer the world. I’m talking about elderly Democratic Party politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, many of whom were born before World War 2, and whose lives and politics were heavily influenced by the Cold War, and particularly the Reagan era. The ones who, from a progressive liberal perspective, seem to mean well, and say they want progressive policies, but somehow never seem to fight for them.

The 1990s saw the United States victorious in its long and bloody campaign to crush and/or isolate left-wing political movements around the world. That campaign didn’t stop, of course, but with the collapse of the USSR, communism was no longer in any danger of “taking over”, the way capitalists had feared. They believed they had reached, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, the End of History. “That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

To wealthy, neoliberal politicians, this was as close to utopia as it was possible to get. What’s more, I think the massive popularity of Bill Clinton, combined with projected demographic trends in the U.S. population, convinced a lot of Democrats that they were never really going to lose power again. All that remained was to achieve the perfect team of technocrats to recreate the TV show The West Wing in perpetuity. The Republican Party, in this view, basically existed to be a curmudgeonly opposition party, forever doomed to minority status, and existing only to keep things from improving “too fast”. The 2000 presidential election, and everything that followed from it, popped that bubble, and from where I’m sitting, it seems like they’ve never stopped trying to re-inflate it. Part of the reason why they refuse to fight for actually progressive policies is that they honestly believe that the perfect form of human civilization was already achieved, and all we need to do is go back to it.

Writing it out like this, I’ve noticed something else, which may be apparent to you as well, Dear Reader. This sounds an awful lot like I’m outlining the ideology of a fascist movement. “Our People were great once, until we were brought low by our enemy, and now we must go back to the old ways and reclaim our rightful glory.” If that raised alarm bells for you, that’s a good thing, but I don’t think I am describing a fascist ideology here. For one thing, there’s not really an “Our People” element to it. If we give them the benefit of the doubt, they want everyone around the world to have a functioning liberal democracy. Their fantasy isn’t for their ethnic group to reign supreme, and their enemy, insofar as you can use the term, isn’t a racial or ethnic group, but rather the far right, and most of the left – anyone who wants real change. Their utopia isn’t about the supremacy of a people, but of a process. They believe that “true” liberal democracy is the perfect system. They believe that it’s self-correcting, and that it will naturally guide society along a gradual path towards greater rights, freedoms, and prosperity for all. Further, they don’t seem to believe in actually fighting for their utopia, because they believe that their perfect process, having already been put in place, will guide society back to where it needs to be, if only they can keep power for long enough to fix what the Republicans broke.

This is, I should say, a charitable interpretation of things. It assumes that the politicians in question are unaware of the harm their “perfect system” caused around the world in the 1990s, and still causes to this day. It assumes a degree of ignorance and naïveté on behalf of rich and powerful politicians that I honestly find hard to believe. The 90s were good for them, but they came along with abysmal working conditions maintained by brutal violence, and the U.S. federal government is at the core of that global system of oppression. A government in which people like Biden and Pelosi have long been active and powerful participants. It must be noted that the beneficiaries of this system are almost entirely white, and its victims almost entirely non-white. If we assume that these powerful people are cynical rather than naïve, then we should also assume that they’re aware of the racial dynamics built into the “utopia” to which they would have us return. The “Our People” element may not be built into their ideology, but it’s not entirely incompatible, either.

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether their intentions matter a whole lot. At the end of the day, whether benevolent or malevolent, they clearly mean to cling to power until they die, and to drag all of us along on their doomed quest to reclaim the glory days. We’re not stuck in the 90s, we’re stuck in a world where the closest thing our rulers have to a positive vision for the future, is the impossible dream of returning to the 90s, at the same time as fascists are trying to return us to an even worse fictional past.

Maybe none of these people should have power.

Capitalism Teamed Up With Global Warming To Increase Rent

Last week, I talked about what “collapse” looks like in something as complex and dynamic as an ecosystem. A change in one part of the system ripples outward as all the connected parts adjust in response, triggering changes in their connected parts. Rather than the system simply falling like a Jenga tower, it changes shape, shrinking to fill vacuums. As far as I can tell, this is a property of any dynamic systems, and that includes our political, economic, and social systems.

For all of the years that I’ve been writing about climate change, one of the most consistent predictions has been that the worst harm will fall disproportionately on the poorest people. Most of the time the examples given have been poor nations, mostly former colonies, with some focus on poor communities within rich nations, like the minority communities hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This makes perfect sense. Poor people and poor nations have fewer material resources with which to prepare for or recover from disasters, or with which to move away from high-risk areas. This has always been the case, which is why you’ll find people living in so-called “sacrifice zones“, where they are routinely poisoned by industrial waste of various sorts. The status quo, absent climate change, already made life more dangerous for poor people, and climate change just adds to the pile. In fact, climate change can multiply those dangers. Flood waters can carry stored chemicals throughout a region, wildfires can fill the air with poison, and poorly stored materials can poison drinking water.

Today, however, I want to talk about a different way that climate change affects people at the lower end of the income range, at least in the United States: access to housing.

While I still hope to own my own home some day, I have to admit that it feels less attainable every year. Having rented since I left college, I’ve seen rent skyrocket, and have had to move several times just because the landlord decided they wanted to charge more, a pattern that’s likely to continue for the rest of my life. Every time I have to move, it requires another big chunk of money beyond rent, and the new place is likely to be charging as much as the old place before long. The whole process might as well be designed to prevent renters from building up enough wealth to buy their own home, without even touching how big landlords use their wealth to buy more homes, driving up prices.

So what happens when we add in the effects of a rapidly warming planet? What happens when a hurricane hits a city? Buildings are damaged, and some homes are rendered uninhabitable, and in need of repair or rebuilding. And the renter? Well, they’re left to find another place if they can, or to live in a hotel. If they’re lucky, federal disaster relief can cover those costs, but that only goes so far, and in the meantime that damage means that rental stock has gone down, and landlords’ expenses have gone up.

So the rent goes up too.

Dr. Kelsea Best of The Ohio State University and her colleagues analyzed how the frequency and intensity of a hurricane correspond to changes in median rent and rental housing affordability over time. They found that median rents rise in the year following more intense hurricanes due to declines in housing availability. Their results also suggest that the occurrence of a hurricane in any given year (or in the previous year) reduces affordable rental housing. This was especially true for counties with a higher percentage of renters and people of color.

More than one-third of the American population (44 million households) live in rental dwellings. Renters have less access to post-disaster government aid programs and to benefits from federal mitigation programs such as home buyouts. In addition, people of renter status are more likely to be underinsured, with only 57% having insurance policies as of 2022 (Insurance Information Institute). “Most federal post-disaster assistance programs are targeted to homeowners,” says Best. “Our study shows that deliberate attention must be given to renters – especially low-income and minority renters – in recovery efforts immediately following a disaster event and in subsequent years.”

She suggests that future local, state, and federal policies should provide explicit protections and support to renters after disasters. These could include eviction moratoria, limiting late fees on rent payments, increasing access to emergency rental assistance, and freezing rent increases. Additionally, efforts that prioritize affordable and stable housing supply with up-to-date market rent price monitoring could provide a critical reference for policymakers to understand and respond to renters’ struggles, especially during post-disaster periods.

“Without such deliberate consideration of rent and renters, disaster recovery risks exacerbate the affordable housing crisis for some of the most vulnerable populations,” says Best.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. See, hurricanes don’t just hurt infrastructure, they hurt businesses. They close for repairs, or they can’t get customers because of infrastructure damage, and so what do they do? Same thing they did during the pandemic – they cut costs by laying people off. Suddenly, because of a disaster beyond their control, there’s a group of people who no longer have the money to pay rent, and so evictions go up.

Another threat that renters may face following a disaster is eviction due to either loss of income or the lack of effective rental assistance when the housing supply tightens during the recovery phase.
Dr. Qian He of Rowan University and her colleagues investigated how disasters and post-disaster federal aid contribute to renters’ eviction risks. They found that hurricanes corresponded to higher eviction filings and eviction threats by inflating market rent the year of and one year after the hurricane. Counties receiving higher amounts of aggregated federal aid (both post-disaster and hazard mitigation aid) were associated with lower eviction filings and eviction threats two years after the disaster.

Because remember – the point of the housing market, in the US at least, is to make money, not to house people. Coming back to the collapse of dynamic systems, the motives involved matter. In an ecosystem, everybody’s just trying to survive, so the system as a whole changes based on what organisms do in pursuit of survival and reproduction. Our system revolves around the desires of a tiny minority of people, whose ability to think clearly has been severely compromised by their own extreme wealth and power.

This is part of the feedback loop I’ve dubbed the Age of Endless Recovery, in which we’re caught spending more and more money trying to recover for disasters that keep getting worse as the planet warms. Those at the top are insulated from the damage, and those further down in the hierarchy are forced to pay even more of their hard-earned money to people wealthier than themselves, thanks to the way those at the very top have fought to prevent any real climate action.

Rent keeps going up for a lot of reasons, but if you actually trace them, it all comes back to rich people putting their own misguided interests ahead of the entire species. As the study’s authors say, the problems they outline can be addressed with things like better government support for renters, when disaster strikes, but fundamentally, the problem will not go away until the point of our housing system is to house people, rather than making money off of people’s need for housing.

Documenting Collapse, and the Importance of Research Collections

I’ve written a little about evolution in response to climate change, but it’s important to remember that life responds to our other ecological impacts as well. Thanks to habitat destruction, pesticide use, and various other forms of pollution, there has been a well-established decline in insect populations, all around the world, including pollinators. Most of the focus has been on how that will affect human food production, but it’s also a major concern for broader ecological collapse. Given how important insects are to ecosystems, not just as pollinators but also as predators, as prey, as scavengers, and as detritivores, their decline is a problem for the world. The thing about this sort of collapse is that, as with global warming, it’s a dynamic process. It’s not like a Jenga tower, where pieces are removed one at a time until the inevitable downfall – the “pieces” of an ecosystem respond to what’s happening around them.

What happens when there are fewer pollinators? Well those that can, make do without:

Scientists at the CNRS and the University of Montpellier1 have discovered that flowering plants growing in farmland are increasingly doing without insect pollinators. As reproduction becomes more difficult for them in an environment depleted in pollinating insects, the plants are evolving towards self-fertilisation. These findings are published in a paper in the journal New Phytologist dated December 20, 2023.

The first thing to note is that the flowering plant in question is a particular species of pansy, Viola arvensis, which is already known to have the ability to reproduce via self-pollination, or “selfing”. I think that’s important to state clearly, because the completely new development of this ability would, in my view, be a much more dramatic discovery.

In previous posts, there was some question as to whether changes observed were truly “evolution”, as opposed to something smaller. Selfing is already a known trait of V. arvensis, so how do we know this isn’t just the plants taking care of business with the traits at hand? Well, it clearly is that, of course, but in this case, the research team used a version of “resurrection ecology” to test whether the change was actually a genetic shift in the population. They took seeds that had been collected decades ago, between 1992 and 2001, and used them to make a genetic comparison. Not only is there movement towards more selfing, but also towards smaller, less attractive flowers, and less of a reward for pollinators(PDF):

  • We used resurrection ecology methodology to contrast ancestors and contemporary des-
    cendants in four natural populations of the field pansy (Viola arvensis) in the Paris region
    (France), a depauperate pollinator environment. We combine population genetics analysis,
    phenotypic measurements and behavioural tests on a common garden experiment.
  • Population genetics analysis reveals 27% increase in realized selfing rates in the field during
    this period. We documented trait evolution towards smaller and less conspicuous corollas,
    reduced nectar production and reduced attractiveness to bumblebees, with these trait shifts
    convergent across the four studied populations

This makes a great deal of sense. Big, showy flowers take energy to produce and maintain, and the same is true of nectar. If you’re not getting any benefit in exchange for that investment, then most of the flower becomes little more than a liability. Those selfing plants that have smaller flowers will have more resources to invest in seeds than their showier counterparts.

On the surface, this could be seen as a good thing. Yes, we’re messing up ecosystems, but the plants are adapting! They’re finding a way! The problem is that, as the authors mention, this is likely to be one part of a feedback loop. The decline in flower size, attractiveness, and reward will make it that much harder for those pollinators who are still alive to get the food they need, putting further pressure on them. This will exacerbate the pollinator decline, which in turn will maintain the pressure towards smaller flowers, and so on, with effects that resonate throughout the ecosystem.

There is, however, one thing I want to stress beyond the ever-present need for systemic change and further research, and that is the importance of research collections. This study was possible because someone, decades ago, collected seeds and stored them in the right conditions. When science is discussed in the general population, a lot of attention is paid to the results. New discoveries and dramatic news make the best headlines, but all of that stuff is supported by the unsung work of generations who came before. Often, that’s the data collected and the papers written – the official records of research that can be copied, shared, and used. There are also contributions from more “hobbyist” sources, like the journals of birders and botanists who write down when the flowers appear in the spring, or when the birds start migrating in the fall.

And then there’s the physical record. During my brief stint as a working ecologist, we gathered lots of data, including DNA samples, but I don’t think those were preserved. Earlier, when I worked at a natural history museum in college, my main job was to create museum specimens out of dead animals. It was mostly window-killed birds, with a few mammals picked up on the side of the road. I and my fellow student workers skinned them, preserved the skins, and added them to the museum’s research collection. These weren’t made for display, or for any particular research project, but rather to create a databank of sorts, that can be used in the future when new questions and new techniques arise.

The seeds used in the pansy study were part of a similar collection, and I think that’s an aspect of science that should get more attention than it does. It’s also a part of science that, like the hobbyist journals I mentioned earlier, can be done by those of us who are not trained scientists. Even in the midst of ecosystem collapse, it’s important for this archival work to continue, both to understand what’s happening, and to answer questions that – currently – we don’t know enough to ask.

Beyond the actual acquisition of specimens, these collections also require active maintenance. Organisms, as you may be aware, tend to fall apart when they die, and even things as hardy as seeds need to be kept in the right conditions.  That means paying people to do that work, and paying for the materials those people need. Without that investment, neglect is inevitable, and entire collections are put at risk, and these specimens, as biological snapshots from particular moments of time, cannot be replaced.

I can’t help but tie one pattern of neglect to another. Research collections are imperiled for the same reason our biosphere is in peril – the system in which we live does not value investment in our collective future. There is no arrangement whereby shareholders can reap ever-increasing profits from building and maintaining these collections, just as there’s no short-term profit in protecting the world for future generations, and so destruction and neglect seem to be the default. Obviously, I think we need to do systemic change about this, but at a smaller level, if you want to get involved, I suggest getting in touch with local universities and natural history museums. They’re likely to know what sort of help is needed where you are, even if it’s just donating a little to help keep things running.

The Transphobes are Losing at the Voting Booth

Conservatives, as a rule, lie to win elections. This isn’t some unique observation I’ve just made, it’s a pretty well-established fact. Their policies are almost always bad for a majority of people, and so they can’t run on what they actually want to do. They have to distract people. At their most honest, they lie about the effects of the laws they want to pass, like when they insist that cutting taxes for the rich will cause that wealth to “trickle down” to everyone else. They make similar claims about keeping wages low, and deregulating businesses, but they’ve been saying that stuff for so long that most people can see the lie for themselves.

Their preference, at least right now, is to focus on what we’ve come to know as “the culture war”. This narrative relies on the much more vague overarching lie that the reason everything’s getting worse (whether or not it actually is) is all those cultural evils and bad people they’ve been warning against. Immigrants, secularism, homosexuality, anti-racism, and – their current favorite – the terrifying existence of trans people. They’re playing on nostalgia – the idea that things used to be better in “the good old days”, and drawing a spurious correlation: All this stuff that seems new and makes us uncomfortable has been increasing at the same time as things have been “getting worse”, therefor the new and uncomfortable stuff must be the cause of things getting worse. If we can just make the bad people and bad stuff go away, things will go back to the way they used to be, and everything will be good (for us) again.

It’s an old lie, but an enduring one. I think part of its tenacity, at least in the United States, comes from the ubiquity of certain kinds of Christianity. We grow up hearing about how God causes societal calamities as a way to punish people who’ve “gone astray” and do evil things. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because the people there just wouldn’t stop sinning, and so God killed them all. The entire planet was flooded, and every terrestrial life extinguished (except for a handful on a boat), because they were all just so evil that God didn’t have any other choice. All those evil, evil babies just had to go!

I think if you directly challenged them on this connection, many conservatives would say they don’t actually believe that there’s a direct link, but rather that it’s all coming from the same people. Maybe some would say that God is “allowing” bad people into government as punishment for tolerance, or something like that, but there seems to be this general belief that all this “decadence” and acceptance is somehow making everything worse, so we need to return to the Old Ways.

This has had varying levels of success. A majority of people don’t seem to think this way, but our laws are built so that you don’t need an actual majority of people to gain power. You need a majority of voters in key locations, which can be a clear minority of the overall population. That means that there’s power to be gained from collecting a small number of dedicated people, and keeping them enraged at all times.

The go-to over the last few years has been attacking trans people, and lying about them to scare gullible bigots. It’s been observed by others that they tend to make the perfect target. They’re a small enough minority that a lot of folks can go through life never (knowingly) meeting a trans person, which makes it easy to lie about them without getting caught by the target audience. They’ve also shown that their sense of self is strong enough that they won’t just go away in the face of an oppressive society. The fact that trans people are who they say they are means that they will keep fighting to live as themselves, as anyone would, and so there’s a movement for conservatives to push against, and lie about. When you break it down, it seems like a reliable strategy, and the Republican Party has certainly made it central to their efforts.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to work quite like they want it to.

Youtuber Three Arrows did a video about this about a year ago, pointing out that the vicious campaign against trans people was failing, as an electoral strategy. The blog Ettingermentum has been making a similar case, and recently went on The Majority Report to elaborate:

It’s just not working. People at large aren’t buying the bullshit the way the hardcore Republican base are, and all the hateful rhetoric isn’t translating to electoral success. In some cases, it’s even hurting them, and it’s wonderful to see.

That does not mean that the problem is going to go away by itself. Bigotry does still motivate a lot of people, and the US is set up to heavily favor a conservative minority in a number of ways, meaning that they’re fully able to pass laws and foment violence against trans people (and any perceived as such), and that means that the fight for trans rights is as important as it’s ever been. Transphobia is still widespread in the general population.

The thing is, it’s not something that’s actually motivating new people to go vote for the oppression of trans people. Those who do vote for it were already reliably going to vote Republican, and most other people – even if they’re transphobic – view the focus on trans people as some great existential threat as the bizarre obsession that it is. At times, it can feel as though we’ll be stuck fighting the same battles forever, but in many ways, that feeling itself is a lie told by the bigots themselves – that they will never go away, never stop hating, and that they never lose. The truth is that they are losing on this issue, because humanity as a whole is simply better than them. Keep fighting and keep loving, because it is making a difference!

Bezos Aims to Divide the Working Class with New Real Estate Scheme

Shortly before Tegan and I decided to leave the United States, hopefully never to return, we considered buying a house. Mortgage payments are generally less than rent, and we’d both had a succession of rich and/or corporate landlords who did as little as humanly possible to keep their properties habitable, so we wanted to try for something better. Additionally, home ownership has long been presented as a pathway to financial security, and some sense of stability. Because rents will keep rising, year after year after year, renters tend to have to keep moving, which is a huge expense and a huge disruption all by itself. We wanted out of that trap. We didn’t have a lot of money, but thanks to intergenerational wealth, we did have enough for a down payment on something small. The problem was, for every place we looked at, There was some big landlord or house-flipper who was willing to offer more than the asking price, with cash on hand. Our landlord at the time owned dozens of homes in the area, and so we were competing with him and his ilk, while he used the money that we gave him every month to outbid us. For that and other reasons, we ended up deciding to gamble on being able to escape the US and find a way to make it work in a country where, if nothing else, we’d have access to a real healthcare system.

That future is still uncertain, but given that the pandemic would have robbed both of us of our incomes had we stayed, we would have burned through that “nest egg” anyway. Add in the far lower cost of health coverage and treatment, and I’m still comfortable with the choice we made. The thing is, the problem of landlords is not unique to the US. We’re still forced to send huge amounts of money, every month, to someone who we’ve never met, who lives on the other side of the country, and who views us as a source of passive income, nothing more. The role of the landlord, in our society, is a parasitic one, and those of us playing “host” often have no real option other than to find ways to provide for ourselves and our landlords, lest we be violently forced into homelessness.

Considering all of that, it makes perfect sense that Jeff Bezos, perhaps the biggest parasite on the planet, is getting into the business.

In this wonderful capitalist society, homes aren’t actually places for people to live. They serve that purpose, of course, but that’s secondary to their real function, which is making money for whoever owns them. That’s why having a housing shortage is beneficial to those at the top – it helps keep rents high, and for all they like to insist that they prefer having tenants and the income they bring, they’re known the world over for keeping homes empty rather than lowering rents to fill them.

The innovation in parasitism that Bezos is backing now, is a fantasy of getting in on the landlord grift even if you don’t have the money to buy a home. He’s offering to let people buy shares of homes, so that they can get a share of the rent:

About Arrived Homes

Arrived is the first SEC-qualified real estate investing platform that allows virtually anyone to buy shares in single-family rental properties with investment amounts ranging from $100 to $10,000 per property.

The company acquires rental homes and allows individual investors to become owners of the properties by purchasing shares through the platform. Arrived Homes manages the assets, while investors collect passive income through quarterly dividends in addition to earning a return through appreciation.

The company quickly gained the attention of several high-profile investors during its seed round in 2021, getting investments from Jeff Bezos, through Bezos Expeditions, Salesforce.com Inc founder Marc Benioff through Time Ventures, former Zillow Group Inc CEO Spencer Rascoff and Uber Technologies Inc CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

I’m not surprised that this is getting attention from “high-profile investors”. Our entire economic system revolves around finding ways to funnel money from working people to those at the top, from the conventional exploitation of the workplace, to straight-up wage theft, to price-gouging, to finding ways to get money from the government, to using the government to erect barriers for normal people, then charging to have those barriers temporarily removed. The greed of those at the top has been making it more and more difficult for people to actually own their own homes, and so they’ve “innovated” a way to make people feel like they’re owners, without actually being owners, or having any of the rights that come with ownership.

It reminds me of how a great many people own stocks, at a very small level, either through personal investment or through retirement. Whenever I see people talking about laws to reign in the stock market, someone will inevitably pop up to insist that that would be bad because a majority of Americans own stocks. Stocks, they say, are how everyday working folk can get ahead in life (since just working clearly isn’t enough anymore). There are even people who will oppose regulation, because they’re worried about their tiny portfolios, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of shares in the US – 81% as of 2021 – are owned by the richest 10% of the population. As with white supremacy, it’s a way to trick people in the middle and towards to bottom into identifying with those at the top.

The result is that now, in addition to competing with mini-Trump figures like my former landlord, anyone looking to buy a home just to use as a home is also now competing with the richest people on the entire planet, who can spend hundreds of millions buying homes for no purpose other than to get richer, and in this case, to siphon even more money from poorer people, by getting them to invest, so they can hang out in the dining room, and get a few scraps from the table.

And the profits they make from this will be used to oppose any efforts to actually make housing (and life in general) affordable.

As I’ve said with many other issues, this won’t end until it’s forced to end. Wealth and power will keep accumulating at the top, leaving less and less for everyone else, until something is done to deliberately reverse that process. It’s also worth noting that any effort to solve this problem will be treated as the end of the world. Throughout history, every time anything is done to improve life for those at the bottom, those at the top will insist that what’s being proposed is the worst sort of crime against humanity. Weekends? They’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die. Minimum wage? It’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die. Workplace safety? It’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die. Affordable housing? Limits on Wall Street? Taxes for the rich? Universal healthcare or even a public option? It’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die.

We need to make a change, and we need to understand that no matter what change is being made, if it gets in the way of the all-consuming greed of the elite, they will respond as though we’re coming to torture them to death in front of their families. A similar argument is often made against doing anything to dismantle white supremacy – whatever it is, it’ll cause “hordes” of Black people to come out of the cities, and start ravaging the countryside, and you know that’s true, because Fox News and similar organizations spend a huge amount of time and money saying so.

We’re surrounded by messaging – not just from bullshit factories like Fox – that constantly tells us that things can’t get better, and that any effort to make things better will inevitably fail and make them worse. We’re going through a version of that now with the effort to force people who’re currently working at home to get back to the office. We get people like Lauren Boebert using a congressional hearing to whine about how lazy workers are, and how they have to be forced to work every second of the day, and so telecommuting must be stopped. At the same time, we get articles about how working from home threatens the investments of landlords who rent out offices, as though we ought to be shaping our laws and our lives around what guarantees the best return on investment for the rich.

I suppose at its most over-simplified, that’s what capitalism is – a system in which laws, customs and human lives are shaped and distorted around the wants and whims of the rich. Governments are overthrown, wars are waged, and lives are destroyed, all in service of supporting the capitalist class that has been granted ownership of most of the world, and feels it’s owed ownership of all of the world.

When I talk about climate change, much of my motivation revolves around how the rising temperature is making it increasingly difficult to survive on this planet. That’s also why I talk a lot about capitalism. Even without its numerous and horrific environmental impacts, it is making live increasingly difficult for growing portions of the population, and looking at history, there is no point at which that will naturally end or reverse itself. They’re bringing back black lung in Appalachia. They’re trying to bring back company towns. The idea that we somehow “learned” from the horrors that led to the labor movements a century ago is an absurd lie. The only reason capitalists pay anyone at all, or spend any money on workplace safety, or allow people to have any free time, is because they are forced to do so.

In that regard, it’s encouraging to see a rise in unionization and union successes. Unions, by themselves, won’t fix everything, but they can take us a long way in the right direction, especially when they coordinate with each other, and work together for the common good. I expect that the primary reason big investors are so excited by Bezos’ real estate scheme is because it looks like a new way to make money while also complicating and obscuring ownership, and therefor responsibility.

But I think another reason is that, as with the decision to move retirement funds into the stock market, it’s a way to trick people into identifying with their rulers, rather than with each other. Efforts to lower rents will suddenly have new opposition from folks who bought a share in a few rental homes, and see that as an attack on the pittance of extra income they get from that. People who survive by working for a paycheck will see themselves as capitalists because they get a little rent money from “their” rental properties, and so they’ll fight to keep that money flowing, even if it hurts them more in the long run.

Solidarity is, I believe, something that naturally forms between people. I think those at the top share my belief, which is why they put so much effort into building and maintaining systems designed to undermine and suppress that part of human nature. Unfortunately, that means that however much cooperation comes naturally to us, we need to actually put in time and energy to build and maintain solidarity in the face of that ongoing assault. Right now, labor unions seem to be our best tool for that job, and the uplifting end to the point is that a growing number of people seem to be recognizing that.

Sorry for skipping a week, things have just been feeling a bit overwhelming, and for some reason I find fiction writing to require more effort and energy per word.  I’m still aiming for one post here per week, but that depends a bit on how much progress I make with other things that currently feel more important than this blog.

Déjà Vu Isn’t a Glitch, It’s the Matrix Working as Designed

So, in pursuit of posting something weekly, I started writing about a recently published study on Greenland’s glaciers. The main take-away is that over the last twenty years, they’ve doubled their rate of retreat, with a couple possible exceptions in the far north. This was expected. Greenhouse gas emissions have not meaningfully decreased, and so their concentration in the atmosphere has continued to rise. The mechanism by which the planet is heating has increased, so of course the rate of warming has increased. The temperature has increased, so of course the rate of ice melt has increased. That’s all there really is to say about it, and it’s not really news to anyone reading this blog.

It’s the same sort of thing that’s been written countless times by countless people all around the world, and still, nothing meaningful is being done. There’s widespread support around the world for doing something about it and there has been for ages, and still, nothing meaningful is being done.

The politicians that claim to be the ones who accept the seriousness of the problem very clearly do not, as they continue supporting new fossil fuel extraction, and they keep increasing the budget of the US military, one of the biggest polluters on the planet. It seems pretty clear, from their actions, that the goal of the rich and powerful is to stay the course, and use violence to suppress any effort to steer us away from the cliff. They seem to actively want to make the world as uninhabitable and chaotic as they can, while holding on to their wealth and power. Looking at their actions, it’s hard to see anything other than murderous intent.

Elon Musk is increasingly displaying his own white supremacist beliefs, for example, even supporting the message of the Illinois Nazis from the Blues Brothers, and it’s increasingly clear that he’s far from alone in that belief, within his class. Wherever there’s a change that would benefit most of humanity, you will find billionaires spending their obscene wealth to create opposition to it, and to demonize those supporting it. If you want a cease-fire in Palestine, that means you’re antisemitic, even if you’re Jewish. If you want to end fossil fuel use, that clearly means that you want to keep the world’s poor in their poverty by denying them coal-generated electricity, even though those at the bottom are the hardest-hit by the warming climate, and the least able to withstand those blows.

It’s probably pretty easy to develop bigoted views about those “beneath” you, when you’re part of a class that’s wholly detached from human concerns. Many of them have never worried about having enough to survive in their lives, and it’s far easier to blame those who do struggle, than to actually face the injustice built into their luxurious and destructive lifestyles.

So, in pursuit of posting every week, I started writing about the growing gap in wealth, power, and life experience between the rich, and everyone else, and how wealth and privilege twist the human mind in ways that virtually guarantee this outcome. It’s the same sort of thing that’s been written countless times, by countless people, and yet the problem keeps getting worse. Rents keep rising, along with other expenses, even though there’s plenty of everything to go around.

So, I started writing about organizing – a topic on which I’m still fairly ignorant, because its the one area where I can find at least a little hope. Interest in unions has risen dramatically in the last three years, and major strike actions have proven successful, as workers and bosses both realize the power that the workers have, when united.

This hasn’t resulted in real climate action, or real change to the political/economic system that has brought us to this point, but in a capitalist society, where money is power, the ability for workers to claw back even a little of the wealth that they generate with their labor is far from nothing. Less material desperation means more time and energy for living life, and for further collective action. These wins also act as a proof of concept – nonviolent collective action, aimed at the flow of money, can get real results.

The question is, how far does that go? How much are unions able to do to repair systemic harm? How much can we claw back before the powerful turn to violence to keep the rabble in their place? I don’t see a way around finding out, because as I’ve said many times, those at the top are clearly willing to let the world burn, if they get to rule the ashes. Hell, I think some of them want the world to burn, because they know that increased desperation at the bottom makes their exploitation much easier. If you look at the edges, like the effort to stop Atlanta’s “cop city”, you begin see the violence inherent in the system. Look past the borders, at the bottom of the global economic system, and you will find a level of violence that we in the rich nations of the world were taught had been left behind. You’ll discover that that violence has always been an integral part of the system. From there, it’s not exactly hard to believe that those whose billions stem from that violence would be willing to turn it on their subjects in wealthy nations, if that’s what it took to protect their power.

There’s no easy way out of this, from what I can tell. There’s no point at which those in power will say, “Ok, we’ve clearly messed up, let’s try actual democracy for a change”. They’re convinced that the only reason things are bad anywhere, is that they don’t have enough power. They’re a class of would-be dictators or oligarchs, who all think that they would be the kind of ruler the world needs, and any effort to empower those at the bottom just proves that the rabble need to be ruled.

I think that things like unions, strikes, and direct action are our best path forward, and I think that the world as a whole urgently needs these things to happen in rich and powerful nations. Time and time again, efforts at systemic change in the former colonies have been met with genocidal violence, backed by wealthy nations that know they’re safe from any retaliation. There’s no reason for the rulers of those nations to stop doing that, unless the people of those nations take action to make them stop. We are inside the fortress, in a manner of speaking, which means that we have the ability to change things here, without having to get past the walls and armaments. I sometimes wonder if that is why there’s so much effort to demonize immigrants, and to create and maintain societal segregation between groups. It keeps people from working together, and it keeps the citizenry of wealthy nations from understanding how the world works, and how their own problems are part of the same system that’s causing so much death and misery “over there”.

This isn’t a guaranteed victory. The people, united, can still fuck up. We can still perpetuate bigotry, and maintain injustice. There’s no guarantee of victory, but I think it’s fair to say, at this point, that without revolutionary change, there is a guarantee of defeat, for humanity as a whole.

In Praise of Universal Healthcare

So funny story – Two Sundays ago, I managed to cut my hand badly enough to need stitches, and to force me to not do any writing while the cut did its initial healing.

Since most of my readership is from the US, I thought it might be useful to give a snapshot of my experience in a universal system. There’s a flat fee of €100 for visiting Accident and Emergency, and the triage nurse, after bandaging my hand, told me to go home to sleep, and come back in the morning. It was when most of the city was celebrating Halloween, so my little cut was pretty low on the priority list. I went back in the morning, got the cut properly cleaned and stitched up, got a tetanus booster, and was sent on my way with instructions to return if I started showing signs of infection. Having grown up in the US, I checked whether I should brace for another bill for another trip to A&E, but I did not. That initial fee, plus the tiny amount I pay monthly for private insurance as an immigrant, covers everything to do with this injury. It’s a small disincentive – enough that I’m not gonna be cavalier about using such a service, but the arrangement is such that there’s no incentive for me to delay treatment for fear of the cost. The hundreds or thousands I’d have to pay for the same service in the US would, at minimum, have made me seriously consider cleaning and binding my wound myself, and trusting in my body’s ability to fight infection.

A week and a couple days out from the injury, and everything’s healing up fine. The stitches should finish dissolving before too long, and I’ll back to normal. It was a clean cut, and it didn’t hit any nerves or tendons, but if it had, I would have gotten that treatment based on what was needed, not on what I could afford. No surprise bills, no extra paperwork, no negotiating with a middle-man insurance company for the right to anesthetic, or three stitches instead of two, or whatever else they and the for-profit hospitals would think up to siphon off more of my money.

Universal healthcare systems are not perfect, and they absolutely do let people down, but the sheer scale of callousness, greed, and exploitation that’s built into the US healthcare system can scarcely be exaggerated. Supporters of that system like to rant about government bureaucracy, but nothing in any government system I’ve encountered comes close to the bureaucratic nightmare of navigating the labyrinth of arbitrary rules, barriers, costs, and paperwork that has been forced upon every patient in the United States. If you have a universal healthcare system, fight hard against any who would seek to take that away (looking at you, UK). If you don’t have such a system, do what you can to get one, and fight against the lies told to justify the cruel parasitism of for-profit healthcare.

So that’s why there wasn’t a post last week, and why I’m not sure there will be anything more substantial this week. I’ve got other work that I’m behind on, thanks to losing the use of a hand for a few days. Even so, I’m grateful to live somewhere that has a real healthcare system, and I’m actually feeling good about the progress of this novel. If you’re reading this, I hope life is treating you decently, despite the chaos and horror flooding that’s been flooding the airwaves.

Caturday: A Study in Incompetence

Gentle readers, I must caution you to have a care for misleading images! In this image, we see a lush garden, with ferns, flowers, and an ivy-covered wall. Atop the wall, there is a small, black and white cat, looking intently downwards. The object of his gaze, on the ground, is a larger, fatter tabby cat, who appears to be looking up at his fellow feline.

Two cunning hunters have spotted each other, and are frozen, watching. This, I regret to say, is utter fiction. The little black and white cat did, in fact, see my chonky dude, but MY cat is… decidedly less competent.

In this picture, the tabby has his head pointed straight up at the sky, very awkwardly, while he sniffs, trying to locate the other cat, a few feet away.

And now the truth becomes clear. The tabby, His Holiness, Saint Ray the Cat, was not actually looking at the cat on the wall. He could SMELL another cat nearby, but he never actually SAW it. Instead, he sniffed the air like a weirdo for a good three or four minutes, before giving up, and wandering off to investigate a bush. In his defense, the wall is actually pretty wide, so from the perspective of His Holiness, only a little of the other cat’s head may have been visible. Even so, I’m glad he’s only outside under supervision, because I don’t think he’d survive very long in the wild. A cunning hunter, he is not.