Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The CA virus

Over on the Blue Satan (uh, I mean Facebook), Jason Antrosio links to a blog post by Greg Laden, suggesting that people not rush headlong off of Facebook. Laden talks about the work he does trying to sustain civilization, and how Facebook is a key organizing platform for it that can’t easily be replaced.

I see the point, so I’ll notch down the enthusiasm for leaving that I expressed in an earlier post (not that I’ve made any actual moves toward the door myself).

But if we’re not getting off Facebook, we still have to think through what we are going to do about it.

Increasingly, I tend to think about social questions in evolutionary terms, and what keeps coming to mind here is the race between an infectious agent and the antibodies to it, or an antibiotic and the germs’ ability to resist its effects.

Many people—myself included—are vulnerable to a notion of an Edenic past which at some point became corrupted. For Americans, a natural repository of this vision is the early Republic, with wise, far-sighted men, leading the nation with an inner nobility that didn’t need fancy titles to make itself felt. Or even the colonial era with its direct democracy (for White, male landowners).

But when you read the history of the era, you find it had its own portion of venality, pettiness, jealousy, etc. With people like Steve Bannon egging on the White nationalists, it can feel like we’re in a uniquely dark place, wrestling with particularly frightening demons. But the Founders included people who owned other humans as slaves, and who at best felt bad about that. The whole constitutional structure under which we live arose out of compromises necessary to keep the slaveholders IN.

That tension wound its way through the country’s history for the next decades, simmering over in Bloody Kansas before fully erupting in the Civil War.

The North won and slavery was abolished, but of course the issue still didn’t go away. White society quite broadly assumed that Blacks were inferior, but there were meaningful differences in this bigotry, and political leaders continued to view it as necessary to make compromises with the most virulent, violent forms of racism, in order to advance other policy goals. FDR’s coalition behind the New Deal included the political arm of the KKK.

And it continues to this day.

Cambridge Analytica and its use of Facebook data may a new tool, but one of the places that tool was applied to the oldest fissure in American politics.

On one side of that fissure there’s a civic nationalism which sees us as a nation of immigrants, defined by our institutions and our allegiance to them.

The other side is a blood-and-soil nationalism in which “real” Americans are White Protestant Christians, with some room for Catholics who are sufficiently conservative.

The new tool is like a new virus, or a new vector for an old virus.

Either it will kill us, or we will develop antibodies to it. We probably won’t wipe the virus out. Our solution to it won’t be perfect. We won’t be going back to Eden, because we were never there, and Eden itself never existed.

We’ll find some imperfect way to live with it, like we live with the common cold.

I don’t know what that looks like, but maybe the virus metaphor helps, both in looking for a solution, and in setting our expectations in terms of durable improvement rather than complete victory.
Phoebus87 at English Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. And now that I think about your "oldest fissure in American politics" it is interesting that it is Civic Nationalism + Nation of Immigrants VERSUS Blood-and-Soil Nationalism. Of course, where does this leave the indigenous inhabitants, the real Blood-and-Soil?

    It seems this fissure rests upon a common premise that original inhabitants were all wiped away (partly by those viruses, but also in a bloody ongoing occupation). Perhaps attention to indigenous or native voices would provide some perspective on the issues.

    1. You make a good point: my framing completely omits the indigenous inhabitants.

      I wasn't doing so consciously, but perhaps the fact that I did is a reflection of how little our society is divided on questions of indigenous inhabitants.

      When you're talking about civic nationalists vs. White nationalists, there are not only different views of reality and "the good," but very different prescriptions for what the government should do.

      On indigenous issues, there are sharp differences in views of *history* and how blameworthy the dominant culture is. On one side, people see what happened to indigenous societies as some combination of tragedy and crime, a stain on our history. On the other side, might makes right, the natives weren't really making good use of the land anyway, so justice was served by the Euro-American takeover.

      But I don't see deep differences in terms of what people say the government should *do*.

      Does that make sense?

    2. It makes sense, but I am thinking of contemporary issues and peoples, in the now. For example, the NoDAPL movement & Standing Rock; in Canada the recognition of First Nations & the Idle No More movement. In other words, what will be critical is if the "civic nationalists" can actually consider indigenous issues, in-the-now, and embrace that as part of a larger coalition. If not, then in some ways they become part of a longer history of settler colonialism, and for parts of our present-day population not much different from White supremacists (I refuse to call what they do nationalism).