Belmont Club

The vague yet imminent malaise

Talking it out at Gettysburg (Sipa via AP Images)

News that another major surface combatant has collided with a merchant ship recalls David Beatty’s famous remark as he watched one after another of his battlecruisers blow up at Jutland.  “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Today it’s not just the ships that seem wrong but a whole lot more.

The USS McCain’s mishap though perhaps entirely accidental, naturally raised speculation on social media that infrastructure decay, lowered standards of education, loss of trust in institutions and incompetence were all part of a general decline.  But the confluence of events can be deceiving. Perhaps they’re just coincidental.  Or perhaps the system has been collapsing for a long time and the “unexpected” and “sudden” character of the clusters is explained by facts long suppressed are escaping the mask of the filter.

If leaders have been kicking the can down the road the palliative benefits of altering the database, fudging the reports, cooking the books, cheating the tests and cultivating the Narrative only guarantee that the dam when it bursts will release a flood, not a trickle. Eventually the self deception fails and fails big time. Sooner or later the filter clogs up and Narrative is propelled face first into the 100 million ton iceberg of reality.

David Weigel of the Washington Post grumbled about the track record of  “extremely smart pundits” lately. They were missing the mark too often. “Extremely smart pundits: Ha ha, Trump is finished! RNC: We are getting so many donations we don’t know what to do with them.”  The failure of “extreme smart pundits” may be a function the failure of the standard model. The pundits knew the model, which was what made them pundits and when it stopped working it misled them. They were betrayed by their own faith in conventional wisdom.  The “stupid pundits” being unacquainted by the model were not similarly deceived.

They naively saw the oncoming train for what it was: an oncoming train. The 2016 election appears to have functioned like the cue ball in a billiard break. It has scattered both the Republican and Democratic party structures.  The DNC is raising less money than RNC in part because donors would rather give straight to specific causes and candidates rather than a party they perceive as too far to the right.  The Republican establishment for its part is not entirely happy with Donald Trump.

Both the Democratic and Republican party structures were scattered by 2016.  The formerly predictable has become hard to forecast. The Resistance has been trying to coax the balls back into the rack by rewinding the video but the odds of succeeding are slim. One can’t go back to Oct 2016 to make Hillary president they way “it should have been” but they’ll try.

The task at hand is to construct a new predictive model based on changed conditions because only with a new model can pundits predict again. But that means understanding what happened. So far the pundits haven’t a clue. If there is a general decline underway recognizing the problem is the first step to reversing it.  Conventional wisdom is that Climate Change, identity issues and white supremacists are the root problems of the world.  But some disagree and feel that the OPM data theft, the Snowden defection and the State Department classified cable hacks point to failures different from and much more dangerous than an imminent attack by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; that we’re looking the wrong way.

It’s the uncertain diagnosis of the malaise that is fueling talk of a Second American Civil War. The difference of opinion is real.  Is that an oncoming train again or is it light at the end of the tunnel?  The correct answer is important.  The most dangerous change in the situation is the Democratic Party is currently down on the canvas: up for grabs by a gaggle of contenders on the Left.  Whatever else it may have been,the Democratic party was the center of gravity of American politics, the entity with the strongest hold on public sector unions, on the State.  If you wanted to decapitate the American political system it was the most vulnerable point. In its condition there are now two, not just one leg of the Washington stool that are wobbling.

David Blight, writing in the Guardian about the possibility of a second Civil War tantalizingly suggests that Americans do not yet understand what they are fighting about.  Some want to strike, yet have not decided exactly why.  Currently they are using the terminology of the original to describe what are substantially different issues of the sequel. But they are beginning to comprehend the choices now that the raucous debate has burst into the open.  Perhaps soon they will develop a new language suited to the task.  But for now it’s new wine in old bottles. How the issues come to be understood may determine in large part whether the differences can be threshed out or lead to conflict.

The greatest risk is that events will be hijacked by rancor, because in “heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.”  The decline of civility itself may be the chief danger. Naseem Taleb recently learned a dangerous thing: that it is better to give than to receive.  “Lesson I leared from UK thoughtnazis. Appease/correct them w/”I am not saying… they destroy you Be aggressive, disrespect: they freakout.”

The tragic fact is that in the By All Means Necessary world a snarl goes further than a smile.

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The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency , by Chris Whipple. The book offers an essential portrait of the toughest job in Washington. Through extensive, intimate interviews with all seventeen living chiefs and two former presidents, Whipple pulls back the curtain on this unique fraternity and revises our understanding of presidential history.

The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President, by David Aaron Miller. The book explores the concept of greatness in the presidency and the ways in which it has become both essential and detrimental to America and its politics. Miller argues that greatness in presidents is a much overrated virtue, too rare to be relevant in the country’s current politics and, driven as it is by nation-encumbering crisis, too dangerous to be desirable. The preoccupation with greatness consistently inflates people’s expectations, skews the debate over presidential performance, and drives presidents to misjudge their own times and capacity. The book helps readers understand how greatness in the presidency was achieved, why it’s gone, and how they can better come to appreciate the presidents they have, rather than being consumed with the ones they want.

The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East, by Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon. Foreign policy experts Takeyh and Simon reframe the legacy of US involvement in the Arab world from 1945 to 1991 and shed new light on the makings of the contemporary Middle East. Cutting against conventional wisdom, they argue that, when an inexperienced Washington entered the turbulent world of Middle Eastern politics, it succeeded through hardheaded pragmatism, and secured its place as a global superpower. Amid the chaotic conditions of the twenty-first century, they believe that there is an urgent need to look back to a period when the US got it right.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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