My memories of the long national nightmare that was the Bush era have not faded, nor of my own experiences wandering the internet looking for some hope in a political environment that seemed like Orwell's "boot stamping on a human face forever." It seemed like every day Republicans found some new way to shove a knife into the belly of humanity and gleefully turn it with a smirking, curl-lipped sneer on their faces. Every day the media found some new way to not report it, or even to actively promote it with alternate-universe propaganda so brazenly partisan and false I sometimes had to do a double-take to make sure I was actually reading the New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine, etc. and not some edition of Pravda from 1950. Every day "Democratic" officials plumbed new depths of cowardice and comical understatement to avoid even criticizing, let alone confronting the lying, murdering traitors in the other Party whom they allegedly opposed. So I drifted around political web forums in search of reason and courage, and for years found none.
What I found instead were roughly two groups of people, one of whom invariably "owned" and completely dominated the discussion on liberal, Democratic, and/or left-wing websites:
- DLC homunculi who lived in the same Stockholm Syndrome alternate universe as the limp, willing hostages and taxidermy opposition of the Party leadership, and who advertised with every word that they fully believed America to be a conservative country solidly on board with Herr Bush's agenda. And...
- Vestigial Naderites who were happy to passive-aggressively run through laundry lists of everything wrong with the country, but could only ever reach the conclusion that "both Parties" were to blame for it (an article of faith whose acceptance was Shibboleth #1 among them), and that society and politics were so fundamentally corrupt that there was nothing we could possibly do about it short of some vaguely-defined revolution they had no intention of waging but would carelessly predict was imminent every now and then. I.e., that they were totally free of any moral obligation to do anything other than whine and indulge in woe-is-me emo porn while waiting for the left-wing Rapture.
The former would say things like "I realize that we have to support the troops, and I don't disagree with President Bush about everything, but I really think his policies in Iraq are misguided and that he is mismanaging our efforts there." Talking to these people about the hard reality of what was happening in this country was like dealing with someone in a dissociative fugue.
They could not comprehend that this was not a continuation of ordinary American politics - that we were in the grips of a set of psychotic criminals who had seized power and were operating totally outside the Constitution on a daily basis, issuing dictatorial rulings from their undisclosed bunkers and rural Texas compounds while totally ignoring Congress. There was no recognition that the people they were so politely addressing were the biggest internal threats to the very survival of the nation since the Confederacy, and that an average week of their crimes made Watergate look like a parking violation. No recognition that they were dealing with lapel-pin-wearing versions of serial killers, and WASP equivalents of the Arab dictators with whom the regime was so chummy in stark contrast to its stormy relationships with democratic governments.
You could patiently, politely explain it to them, but the fact that accepting the simple, immediate, and basically undisputed truth would impose obligations on them beyond cavalier opinionating meant they just wouldn't deal with it. And that ironically seemed to be the same problem as the left-wing places I visited - they just didn't want the obligation of doing anything more substantive, harder, or riskier than ideological navel-gazing and narcissistic self-vindication.
Another similarity is that both would act as though trivial or purely symbolic actions they had taken were massively courageous: The general attitude would be like "I overheard my neighbor saying he supported the war, and I went right over to him and you know what I said? I said, 'You know, some folks disagree with that. I have some questions about the war, personally. And if you disagree, I respect your opinion.' Man, I was in the zone!" Or like "I handed out leaflets at the coffee bar I frequent educating people about the plight of indigenous Bolivian farmers, and the owner told me I should only do it in the parking lot. It was really shocking to be confronted with real Censorship, and I understand now what Chinese dissidents must go through. But the fight goes on." And these were the really active people who the others applauded in admiration.
I could just barely tolerate these two groups if I went back and forth between them, but neither of them gave me hope, or encouragement, or ideas, or even entertainment. They were boring and demoralizing. The only thing that made them worth being around was that they were at least theoretically in the same moral frame as me, so I'd float around to them between angry revenge-trollings of Republican sites until their weakness would become too much to tolerate and I'd go a-hunting for wingnut commentary I could tear apart.
I once had this idea that I proposed, and if I'd done it could have been hilarious: I was going to invite conservative college students to a fake pro-Iraq War event and then get their reactions on video when I would announce to them that there were buses waiting outside to take them all to the Marine recruiting station to sign them up. Then I would sort of harangue any of them who tried to make excuses to not go, and impugn their patriotism or something. I'd be wearing some kind of cornball getup, like an American flag tie and an Uncle Sam hat, and totally pretend to be one of them who was just really, sincerely passionate about enlisting soldiers to go fight the Glorious War for Freedom over in Eye-Rack. I remember I was laughing hysterically as I was coming up with it and imagining the scene playing out.
There were a few who did encourage it, although sort of in an indifferent way - yeah, sure, go for it, (yawn) - but the consensus was that it would be a mean, counterproductive prank that would be "divisive at a time when we need to be building bridges," that it would tarnish the image of other liberals and Democrats in my area, that it would alienate people in the military or with family in the military (although in retrospect, I think it would have actually been supported by them), etc. etc. The savage humor of it was totally lost on the self-indulgently grim, weepy emos - like it would be foolish and trivial compared to reciting a rap about injustice at a coffeehouse poetry jam - and the angry motive for it was alien to the Potemkin People, who thought the snuff-porn-watching chickenhawk garbage who were cheerleading a war of aggression from a safe distance were just misinformed.
But I actually got a sense that the relative boldness of it compared to anything else going on (this was before Fahrenheit 9/11) made some people afraid - they were concerned I could be violently attacked when the targets of the charade realized what was going on, that I'd be hauled away by police on some trumped-up charge, that the people involved would have grounds to sue me and suppress the video, and I kept wondering "How would any of that be a bad thing for the objectives of the stunt?" If they physically assaulted me after refusing to enlist to fight a war they vehemently endorse, not only would that would be the most pungent exclamation point on their hypocrisy and cowardice, but I could both have them prosecuted and sue them. Attempts to suppress the video would also backfire, and any move by authorities against me would have just been a selling point for it.
I knew all this intellectually, but a lot of people telling you something is a Bad Idea have a way of eroding your commitment. And that's all those people ever did: Erode commitment. Leech passion. Dissuade and discourage people from anything that was both significantly meaningful and pursued with determination. Ooze fear, self-doubt, and insignificance all over everything they touched. They were in aggregate perfect representations of the zeitgeist of the era on our side of politics. And so I thought they were our side of politics, and I was some kind of refugee from another time period with completely different mores even though I was in my early 20s and many of them were supposedly the folks who had been around for all these titanic 20th century struggles.
They didn't seem like anyone who had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement. They both seemed to be made of different flavors of jelly, with the one diligently protecting a completely fictitious view of American politics and living in utter fear of themselves, and the other so emotionally fragile and easily distracted by left-wing aesthetics that they found even the most benign forms of strategic logic to be too "aggressive" and "constricting." Separately they were annoying, and together they added up to zero. The one voted and believed in nothing; the other believed in just about everything, but couldn't be bothered to do anything about it.
And always was the swamp of The Enemy beckoning when I couldn't take my own side's weak bullshit anymore, and needed to assert myself against the evil bastards who were making such a hash of this country. I'd make sport of trolling the cons until my anger faded into bitterness, but ultimately none of it appealed to me and I finally just abandoned internet discussion for years. There was simply no point in it. What I thought was my own side was weak, demoralizing, and idea-less, and the Republicans I tormented were robotic and predictable. Every once in a while I might check in just to verify that they all still bored me, and Yep, they did.
But through a circuitous sequence of events that aren't really important to this discussion, I was introduced to Daily Kos...and There Was Light. We were still in the midst of His Petulancy's tyrannical regime, but a number of external events had changed things up a bit. The carelessness and corrupt incompetence following Hurricane Katrina had punctured the illusion of an omnipotent and authoritative state that some folks had bizarrely believed to characterize the regime. It revealed itself as a useless parasite that gave nothing whatsoever - not even security - in return for what it stole. And so we got a Democratic House of Representatives, although it remained a useless jelly-blob as far as standing up for this country against the elements destroying it. Still, the jelly was slightly more congealed than before, and tasted slightly more like America than the Stepford Democrats of the preceding period.
Had the same events transpired while I was still hanging around the old crowds, the milquetoasts would have been debating the mild criticisms that were coming out of Nancy Pelosi's mouth as if they were some revolutionary proposition, while the Naderites would have defensively doubled down on their complacent contempt for Democrats in response to every movement toward relevance on the part of the Party. But what did I find on Daily Kos? Confidence, determination, blindingly brilliant snark, intelligent plans, substantive actions, thoughtful ideas, people fomenting change and exhibiting it in their own words and attitudes. Clear-eyed understanding that what House Democrats were doing was piffle, but also recognition that it was a beginning we could build on. I saw that rare, knife's-edge balance of patience and urgency that levels mountains and bridges canyons.
I saw people who Got It. And to the extent there were a minority who didn't, those who did were not distracted by them. Thought proceeded rapidly over, under, around, and through them without been slowed - a gestalten cascade of recursive feedback loops generating powerful, fascinating new ideas and forms with every iteration. At times the interplay was both so complex and yet so organically orderly on such a high level that it was almost symphonic. Other times there were crashes and conflicts, though they often produced interesting results and resolutions. From dizzying new heights of political revelation, I looked down at the smallness of the world I used to inhabit and pitied my past self and the people still living in that tiny, sad, 2-dimensional little place where people are convinced of their own impotence and the futility of trying to make the world better.
Since then, though, I've come to realize that maybe those forums I'd participated in and loathed weren't always the useless asshat seminars I'd known them as. Maybe they had once been full of energy and ideas, but then just faded until all that were left were the two end-stage viewpoints that can never change anything and wouldn't want to even if you gave them the opportunity: The Last Man politics-as-social-club ciphers who can only handle comity, quietude, and comfort, and will surrender everything rather than accept the danger of believing anything; and the perpetual victims of the ground-state Left who are only at home in despair, and always focus the bulk of their anger on Democrats to guarantee the self-inflicted isolation that makes them feel so special without actually doing anything.
But every one of our side's political forums I visited back then in my wanderings was invariably controlled by one or the other. Some tipping point decided on one or the other ground-state. And now, as I see the exact same self-absorbed emo attitude, the passive-aggressive apocalypticism, the same vehement - almost moralistic - insistence that we cannot change anything as the old Nader crowd had exhibited; the belief in things just because they look a certain way and engender these masochistic emotions rather than being true or rational; as I see these thoroughly meritless and fruitless attitudes creeping into influence and narrative-dominance here on Daily Kos, it's obvious which side of the clown coin came up on the toss.
And that's sad, because what made this place stunning when I first came here was that it was nothing like the kinds of sites controlled by those people. It was nothing like those forums where everything the natives said was meaningless, and intelligent thoughts backed up by facts that didn't suit the prevailing aesthetics or emotions were treated as trollish disruptions rather than much-needed substantive contributions. It was a place where being reality-based rather than narrative-based was a lauded objective. Now, less so. Certain narratives are passionately promoted simply because they foster a given set of emotions rather than being true or intelligent, and trying to inject reality into the discussions of those narratives results in a violent backlash of bitter resentment and personal demonization as if you'd just shat on someone's religion. That's not Daily Kos, as far as I'm concerned. That's rot creeping into the cracks.
It's not okay to promote fact-free, ideological narratives that are built on nothing but rationalizing an emotional state, and certainly not okay to defend such content by retaliating against people who question it. Nobody who considers reality to be irrelevant or hostile to their values belongs here. The truth is not a lump of clay to be molded into a shape that suits your beliefs - if you're an intelligent person with open eyes and a curious, perceptive mind, the reverse is supposed to happen. This place was a breath of fresh air because it stood up for reality in the midst of a regime that told a thousand different self-contradictory, Orwellian lies before breakfast and derided "reality-based" perspectives as weak and obsolete.
I'll do my part to make sure reality is defended, and I'll do it regardless of what I think the response will be, but I'd rather not be doing it alone. So if you've been silent because of all the Crazy floating around, please don't - you can shatter the deafening silence by speaking up when you see an assault on reason racing up the charts. Don't wait for someone else to prove that it's socially acceptable to tell the truth. That's your job too if it's anyone's.