The Audacity of Accountability

Somebody should do something to make people more responsible

Copying the most important link from this blog post to the top, to make sure it gets noticed: if you can, donate to causes like the World Central Kitchen, an organization that’s actually helping people instead of just complaining. If you can afford it, an especially cool way to donate is to bid on the artwork that Mike Mignola has been making to support the WCK.

Three times now, I’ve started writing a post about how two reporters from The Washington Post revealed proof of a cover-up over the White House’s catastrophically failed lack-of-response to COVID-19, how remarkable it is that it’s Bob Woodward who’s the one with inside information, and how it’s inexcusable that he chose not to reveal the information until it would spur sales of his book.

The whole thing just seems like a perfect illustration of the decline and increasing selfishness and apathy of American society over the course of my lifetime. Casting Bob Woodward promoting a book release in the role of Deep Throat just feels too poignant, in the same way that so much of 2020 has seemed to be plotted by an amateur author who doesn’t yet understand why it’s bad to be too “on the nose.”

But I keep deleting it, because I keep feeling like my time would be better spent elsewhere. I’m sure that I have gifts to provide to society that will be revealed at some point, but being able to give insightful commentary about the goings-on of rich people in Washington, DC is not one of them. I don’t really give a rat’s ass one way or the other about Bob Woodward. I was still in diapers when Watergate happened, and every detail I remember about it is from the MAD Magazine parody of All the President’s Men. Until last week, I thought that Woodward was the one Heartburn was about. (Turns out it was Carl Bernstein). I have a B- history student’s grasp of the 20th century, is what I’m saying, so it’s unlikely that the definitive record of this entire incident will be revealed on a blog by an intermittent game developer with an audience of about 15 people on an active day.

Besides, nobody’s talking about how much Bob Woodward has suffered here. If he weren’t such a patient and diligent reporter, there might now be 200,000 more surviving Americans who could’ve bought a copy of his book!

That’s the problem, the thing that keeps making me pulling me back into pointless, un-constructive anger at people who don’t care and will remain completely unaffected. Obviously, waiting to reveal information isn’t as bad as willfully deceiving people about it for political gain (even the Post describes what Trump did as “downplaying” the virus, as if he were just incompetent, instead of what he actually did, which was actively engage in a disinformation campaign about it). But when the end result is the same and the motivation is the same, does it make a tangible difference?

The Trolley Problem

Woodward’s defense for waiting to reveal the information — and calling it a “defense” is inaccurate, since he talks as if he has nothing to justify — was that he wanted to give the full story, and his deadline was the election:

Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.

Woodward’s effort, he said, was to deliver in book form “the best obtainable version of the truth,” not to rush individual revelations into publication.

And always with a particular deadline in mind, so that people could read, absorb and make their judgments well before Nov. 3. “The demarcation is the election.”

from Margaret Sullivan’s article in The Washington Post

The most charitable interpretation of this is that he sees himself as something like the Watchers of the Marvel universe — spending an eternity overseeing the day-to-day activities of ordinary humans, forbidden to ever intervene. But there’s no shortage of tell-all books about the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration. Hell, Woodward has already written one. This book is coming out at around the same time as the criminal Michael Cohen’s, who’s more blatantly doing a press circuit — and starting his own podcast, because of course — to promote it. What’s the difference, apart from the obvious assumption that Woodward’s book will be better researched and infinitely better written?

The key difference is that Woodward had recordings of Trump lying on record. Again, not rare on their own. But we’ve seen how Trump and his enablers short-circuit when confronted with incontrovertible proof against their firehose of lies, and a recording from someone with Woodward’s reputation would’ve given even the most timid and obsequious journalist the stones to press them on it. It wouldn’t have stopped the lies, but I think it’s entirely likely it would’ve put a stop to the administration and their propaganda team’s campaign of bullshit calling the virus a Democratic hoax and saying that mask-wearing was for liberal pussies. You’d still have anti-mask dipshits all over the country, but at least they wouldn’t be aided and abetted by the White House.

Of course it’s all conjecture how much impact that would’ve actually had. But I would hope that everyone understood that public safety is a much more pressing concern than even, say, election interference. You get the sense that if Woodward were presented with the Trolley problem, he’d insist that the most ethical response was to interview the man on the other track to find out why he was standing there alone, do an exhaustive interview with the designers of the track switch and the lack of guard rails keeping people off of the track, and then six months later, present the American people with a New York Times best-selling expose of the light rail system.

But I imagine he’d also insist that that’s the role of the journalist, and that he was doing the right thing. Which is why this keeps overriding my urge to just say “no comment” and go back to being inordinately interested in video games and Disney parks. Those quotes just make it clear that Bob Woodward is convinced he’s one of the people who gets to choose his own duty to society and his own place in history. Which might be understandable, since he’s one of the significant characters in a narrative of American history that I’ve been sold for almost entire life.

That version says that Watergate was both The Death of American Innocence and the Victory of the Free Press. A corrupt administration was brought down by two diligent journalists. Even throughout the tumult of the Red Scare, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, Americans still had a faith in the federal government and a respect for the presidency, all of which had been betrayed by the Nixon administration. And the past four years have tacked a sardonic coda onto that: Nixon could be taken down by the threat of being exposed for election interference, while Trump has been brazenly corrupt not just with the GOP but with the assistance of foreign powers, and he’s still in office. Times were so much simpler then!

What I hadn’t really appreciated until recently was how quickly (at least by 1970s standards) the book and then movie of All the President’s Men were released after the actual incident. LBJ had barely had time to find pants to fit his bunghole before they were already coming out with the Hollywood Version of events. I also wasn’t aware just how much the release of the book was encouraged by Robert Redford, who was already planning the film adaptation. Or in other words: how quickly a wealthy white man got to work defining what would be the version of events that most people remember.

The Room Where it Happens

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that the Hollywood version was false or even inaccurate, or that it was motivated by profit. Redford was already pretty well off by that point. Same with the new book; Woodward definitely doesn’t need the sales from his second Trump exposé, so much as the buzz around it. I’m not even suggesting that they had bad intentions. I’m only realizing that — much like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton, now that I think about it — they wanted to be in control of the story. All the President’s Men wasn’t inaccurate, by any account I’ve ever seen, but it was undeniably dramatized. That’s had all kinds of repercussions.

To start with, it’s undoubtedly why Woodward was able to get one-on-one access to Trump in the first place. People have been spending the past four years insisting that Trump is some kind of preternaturally media-savvy master manipulator playing fourth-dimensional chess with carefully-timed distractions, despite all evidence suggesting that he’s simply a moron. So I’ve seen several people just baffled at the thought process behind giving full access of the White House and Trump to The Reporter Who Helped Take Down Corrupt Republican President Richard Nixon. It doesn’t make any sense until you realize that Trump is just an idiot who was thrilled at the idea that somebody famous wanted to write a whole book about him. Especially since, again, he already wrote an expose of the administration that was, apparently, “explosive” and “devastating” and which also barely made a dent in the polls or Trump’s approval ratings.

Considering how every day since November of 2016 has seemed to last a week, it’s difficult to remember all the way back to last September. But as I recall, the last book was met with more or less a shrug, because it was mostly just repeating damnable and contemptible stuff about the Trump administration that we all already knew, or could guess. Which leads to another point about comparing the Nixon years to our current nightmare: it’s tempting for people to say 1) the Watergate scandal was the most significant aspect of Nixon’s administration, and 2) Nixon’s corruption pales in comparison to Trump’s. I’m highly skeptical that’s the case. I feel like one of the only things saving us is that Trump and all his enablers have all the subtlety of a Captain Planet villain — if this is the kind of nightmare they can create with everyone watching, it’s horrifying to think of what they’d be capable of if they were actually competent at being evil.

That kind of over-simplification of the past is evident when you see liberals and progressives actually praising the group of Republicans calling itself The Lincoln Project. People are so delighted to see Republicans “crossing the aisle” to join them in trash-talking Trump, when in reality, people who are able to recognize Trump as a lying piece of shit are in a group almost as exclusive as people who are able to convert oxygen to carbon dioxide. Not only did some of these rich assholes pave the way for Trump to steal the White House in the first place, they would gladly see the country go back to the peaceful, fair, and just government of the Reagan administration.

The one thread tying all of this together is that for at least 50 years — and probably more like 250 years, but I wasn’t alive then — we’ve had a bunch of rich and well-connected people, almost always white men, who want to drive the course of history. That in itself isn’t necessarily negative; Americans are supposed to favor ambition, after all. The problem is when the goal of driving history overrides the goal of actually helping people. When you campaign to win elections instead of to be a public servant. When you pledge to help only the people who vote for you. When you insist that being moderate is a betrayal of the marginalized, instead of acknowledging that governments have a responsibility to help everyone. Or when you insist that it’s your role to comment on, or spread “awareness” of an issue instead of actually doing anything about it.

Back in middle school, I was taught that we had this elegantly simple and effective system of checks and balances that was designed to keep the government responsible to the people, instead of any party or any individual. Now we’ve got a “President” whose name was until 4 years ago most often associated with the words “Resort and Casino” (or, more accurately, “thrice-married, foul-mouthed tit judge”), committing one inexcusable offense after the next, and everyone just says “Somebody should do something about it!”

When the Speaker of the House is going on Twitter saying that the President lied about the severity of the virus causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, and ends it with “Pass it on!” I can finally understand why so many people have such deep-seated apathy about the government. I realize that that’s Pelosi’s campaign account, by the way, which is designed to generate buzz and memes instead of actual policy, because apparently devastating owns is how you get to be on “The Squad” or whatever vacuous bullshit is taking the place of federal government these days. But it shows how little faith anyone genuinely has in the political process when a Democratic representative is praised for mocking the Republicans’ “thoughts and prayers,” and then goes on to accomplish just as much nothing. After months and months of outcry, we can finally get Congress to impeach the president, we hear Senators acknowledge that impeachable offenses were committed, and people like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins get to briefly pretend that they have integrity and show concern about Trump’s actions. James Comey and Robert Mueller got to decide their places in the story and got to decide for themselves exactly how much they owed the American people. And then nothing happens.

But hey, Pelosi sure did get in her sarcastic clap. Ha ha owned!

Putting it Back Together Again

If I were just leaving it there, there’d be no point in writing this. It’d be just another dismal take on American Dysfunction. But the reason I keep wanting to say something is because, perversely, this whole realization gives me the tiniest bit of optimism.

For one thing, it’s kind of nice to be reminded that people in America have always been kind of shitty, because it reassures us that we weren’t the first generation to break it. “It was like that when we got here.” Seriously, reporters spend so much time calling this clusterfuck of a presidency “unprecedented” that it’s almost as if they wanted to convince us that everything is terrible forever and nobody knows what to do about it. After all, books that talk about the Fall of Western Democracy probably sell better than books that acknowledge we’ve got a long history of idiocy and corruption and we’ve managed to keep forging ahead with at least the aspiration to do better.

And when people try to suggest that American society is more divided than it’s ever been, and that we used to behave with more decorum and just plain mutual respect, I remember Amber Ruffin on Drunk History telling the story of The Little Rock Nine. And I think of a bunch of white fuckwits who formed a mob to scream at children trying to go to school. And I think about how, yes, that shit still keeps happening, but at least now, a Twitter mob will form to make life miserable for at least one of the harassers along with the four or five innocent bystanders it destroys in the process. And it’s oddly calming, in a the-world-just-keeps-on-turning kind of way.

And when I realize that my whole life, I’ve been sold a version of history that’s been constructed by mostly white, mostly male, almost entirely wealthy people, it makes it clearer that the divisions between us aren’t where we’re supposed to think they are. Hearing Ellen Degeneres scolding her audience for criticizing her “friendship” with George W Bush, and seeing the Obamas being friendly with Bush at state events, are supposed to be a lesson about how familiar bonds can be stronger than politics, but are actually a reminder that rich people have more in common with each other than they’ll ever have with us. Seeing Kimberly Guilfoyle screaming like a Nazi maniac at the RNC, and remembering that her previous life partner was the only slightly less sebaceous Gavin Newsom, is a reminder that California’s notoriously liberal politics are actually more about power and celebrity than genuine ideology. And like a college sophomore who’s just found out about Marxism and now suddenly understands how all of society is a class struggle, I feel like I understand why so many Bernie Sanders supporters were such insufferable shitheads. While it’s still stubbornly stupid to insist that their candidate could’ve been an effective President when he couldn’t even get the Democratic Party on his side, I can at least understand their frustration at seeing the Democrats crank out one version of “largely inoffensive centrist” after another while claiming to speak to the disenfranchised.

Even more remarkable, it gives me a glimmer of understanding of why decent people would vote for somebody as objectively awful as Trump. Not the MAGA types — as Hilary Clinton clumsily tried to explain, they are irredeemably awful, and while it’s essential to speak to as many people as you can, it’s worse than unproductive to sacrifice your integrity in an attempt to win over racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and anti-science conspiracy theorists. And again, I’m firmly in the camp that says we shouldn’t be trying to “win over” Trump voters, since he didn’t even win the election last time, and he doesn’t have the mandate of the people; we need more people to get engaged in the process and vote. But while it’s not necessary to figure them out, it sure would be nice to. A lot of us have spent the last four years trying to figure out how the 2016 election could even be close, much less result in Clinton not taking the White House. The media has been desperately trying to spin up new excuses and justifications, but none of them have been satisfying or really even made sense.

I know there are people who aren’t irredeemably racist bigots, and who actually have good hearts, but they still chose to vote for a blatantly obvious bigot and horrible person. They spent so much time touting these bullshit false equivalencies, as if there were no ideological difference between the human personification of incompetent white male supremacy, and a former secretary of state.

The only thing that makes sense is if you’ve concluded that there’s nothing genuinely ideological about it. That the whole system has been rigged for our entire lives to ignore us for three years and spend every fourth year desperately telling us that choosing this rich white person over this other rich white person will mean the difference between life and death. These are the people that Pete Buttigieg kept talking about during his campaign — they weren’t “tricked” into voting for Trump; they knew exactly who and what he was, and they just wanted to burn down a system that has never cared about them.

Of course, the tragedy that most of us were reminded of in 2020 is that the system has been entirely designed to work for them (and as a middle class white guy, by “them” I mean “us”), to keep us just comfortable enough to shut up for years and then come out to vote for the Party’s Choice and feel like we’ve made an ideological decision instead of a branding one. And the people the system actually doesn’t care about, well, they’ve been telling us for over a century, and we’ll buy “911 is a Joke” or “This is America” and then go back to ignoring the problem, and then when a bigot who was just supposed to shake up the system shows white supremacists that they have a sympathetic ear in the White House, things explode. And then our white suburban wannabe revolutionaries suddenly freak out and wave their guns around and whine about political correctness and “cancel culture” making them out to be bad guys.

Maybe the message of unity got away from me there. But it’s still new, give it time to sink in. The idea is the same: concentrate on what we have in common instead of what separates us. And also: eat the rich; all billionaires are bastards.

I think everything sucks now, but ultimately there’s a glimmer of positivity at the core. I could regret these words in a couple years, but right now I do genuinely believe that Biden wants to make a positive difference. For what it’s worth, I thought Clinton wanted to make a difference for Americans as well, but in the same detached way that you want a happy ending for characters in a TV show you’re not particularly interested in. Simply acknowledging that the President is a public servant is a great start. Knowing there’s a coalition of Democrats who I have genuine faith in — like Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker, and Katie Porter, and Stacey Abrams — makes me confident we have people who know how to grandstand and genuinely want to make things better.

And I’m looking forward to not having to spend every moment of every day perpetually worried about what’s happening with the federal government. Having a vacuum of leadership (and competence, and common decency) in the White House is somehow even more stressful than having competent evildoers, since we’re constantly having to worry about exactly what atrocity Trump and his team of racist fuckwits are going to stumble into next. I love the idea of going back to a representative government, where we can let the people who have the temperament for politics deal with politics, and the rest of us can concentrate on stuff that we’re good at.

And can reward people who are actually constructive instead of the performative posturing on Twitter, talking a lot but never seeming to accomplish much of anything. For example: donating to the World Central Kitchen, which seems better able to respond to natural disasters than the United States government has in decades.

And finally, we should remember to go back to the Trolley Problem. Instead of wondering whether it’s more ethical for us to pull the switch or not, we should probably remember that most of us are never going to be anywhere near the switch. Most of us are the ones who are tied to the track.