A big part of the nature photographer’s job is to find grace and simplicity in the chaotic jumble of the natural world. We visit a bunch of straggly pine trees on a bluff overlooking the ocean. There’s a tangled mess of branches and trunks and needles pointing everywhichaway. Where’s the photo in that? Find a gap in the pines, where the trunks and branches form an elegant frame, and an angle where the sea and beach below make a basic rule-of-thirds composition. Voila!
But, woe of woe, I’m not writing about photography today. That was just a simple analogy. People routinely apply this principle of seeking simplicity to political events and issues where it’s perilous to ignore the complexity. Instead of a pretty picture, they wind up with a naïve and simplistic worldview. They support leaders who are simpletons. And they view issues as stark, high contrast black and white instead of the nuanced shades and hues of the real world. Those unsightly tangled pine branches aren’t blocking the view; they are the real world.
Case in point: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tidy viewpoint of our state media—oops, I meant free, independent media, really.—is that the evil, Hitler-esque Putin (foreign leaders we don’t like are always just like Hitler, that one never gets old) invaded peaceful independent Ukraine for no reason other than that he’s mean. The people and government of Ukraine are noble freedom fighters who need our support to triumph over the bad guys. It’s just like the good ol’ days of the Cold War; the evil Russkies wear the black hats, and anyone who opposes them automagically wears the white hats. Anyone who points out factual and logical flaws in the official narrative gets a black hat, too. The enemy of my enemy is always my friend, and anyone who points out facts which don’t fit the official narrative is one of the bad guys.
Well, Putin really is a butthead. That much really is simple. But every other element of this high-stakes tale is fraught with complications, contradictions, hypocrisy, and a smattering of plain ol’ lies.
First off, representatives of the US government are delivering stern lectures to another government on respecting national sovereignty and human rights. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant case of screaming hypocrisy and an absurd lack of self awareness. Just ask the Iraqis. Or the Syrians. Or the Somalis. Or the people throughout Latin America. Or the citizens of dozens of nations all over the globe. If it’s not US personnel bombing, invading, undermining, sanctioning, torturing… all for Freedom™, then it’s US proxies or US allies, spending US taxpayers’ money and using US-made munitions. So perhaps we should set a better example before we get all self-righteous, and perhaps we should take some of our limited supply of outrage and direct it at ourselves, rather than using it all up on this faraway conflict.
Second, Ukrainian Nazis. Lovers of the simple narrative prefer to ignore the fact that much of the Ukrainian military is openly sympathetic to the legacy of Adolph Hitler; that’s really inconvenient. Or, they’ll point out that Zelenskyy is Jewish, as if that makes the Azov Battalion dissappear in a puff of smoke. But ignoring/denying reality doesn’t make it go away. Military aid to Ukraine makes the neo-Nazis stronger.
Third, regional geopolitical complications. There are many regional complications which muddy the waters which we so dearly want to be crystal clear. Ukraine has been part of Russia for much of human history. Much of the population of Ukraine is ethnically Russian; many of these people would prefer to be part of Russia. In some regions, ethnic Russians are the majority. The EU and NATO really have been provocatively expanding into former Soviet Republics; of course that’s going to make the Russians nervous.
Fourth, manipulated much? Have you noticed how the folks who are banging the war drums the loudest, such as the military contractor-owned “news” media, are the ones who stand to profit from exacerbated tensions and armed conflict? Do you suppose those tales of noble courageous Zelenskyy, brave grandmas fighting Russian tanks, senseless brutality by Russian troops, courageous anti-war protests in Russia, etc., might be fudged a bit? Perhaps cherry-picked? Doesn’t this look exactly, precisely the same as the marketing campaigns for dozens of other foolish and bloody wars? Will we the people ever learn?
Fifth, World War III is a really really really really bad idea. Are sanctions and finger-wagging going to get the Russians out of Ukraine? Is the Ukrainian military going to defeat the Russians? I doubt it. Is it worth amping up the tension and threatening to start WWIII over this tangled regional mess? No.
I don’t have a nice tidy solution to this complicated problem. But let’s not start WWIII over it.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
The quest for simplicity dumbs-down our domestic politics as well. Just look at our two party system. Yuck. I know it’s ugly, but look at it anyway. We get two choices: Republicans and Democrats. The path to electoral viability for any other group is essentially impossible.
I turned 18 in 1980. So my whole adult life has been characterized by the Republican Party sliding deeper and deeper into the pit of rightwing madness and the Democratic Party cleverly(?) paralleling the Republicans’ rightward march, staying just ever-so-slightly on the relatively sane side. The genius in this strategy is that anyone not-quite-as-insane as whatever batshit twaddle the Republicans are barfing up this week has no other choice but to support the Democrats. So, we get the beautiful, simple picture of Democrats as good guys, Republicans as bad guys. But, surprise-surprise, the real world isn’t so simple.
Well, today’s Republicans really are buttheads. That much is simple. But the rest of our political system is complicated and FUBAR. Pretending that the leadership of of today’s Democratic Party are the good guys doesn’t help.
The first complication/problem which desperately needs to fixed is the two party system. It’s possible to imagine a nation with a two party system which is more or less functional, but it’s predicated on both parties, and nearly all of the individuals in them, putting the best interests of the people ahead of petty partisanship. But today’s Republicans are quite open about their partisanship über alles strategy. In stark contrast, Democrats frequently put their stated policy priorities second to their attempts to “reach out across the aisle” and compromise with the Republicans. Of course, the Republicans are always always always opposed to anything proposed or supported by Democrats, and everybody knows this. So, attempts at bipartisanship are just a sham excuse by Democrats for not doing stuff that polls well, so they claim to support it, but they don’t really want it to pass.
Meanwhile the two party system is propped up by three things: a web of state-by-state laws controlling ballot access; a belligerent, self-supporting corporate media mindfuck machine — oops, I meant state media…no, no no I meant our free and fair mass media, really — which keeps the Overton window open just the teensy-tinsiest crack, preventing any discussion of policy ideas, candidates, or parties which might possibly substantively address real issues; and the rules of the houses of Congress and the state legislatures, so on the rare occasion an independent or minor party candidate somehow wins a seat, they must kowtow to one of the major parties in order to have seats on committees or otherwise actually do any legislating.
So, we have a system where the range of issues and policies which are allowed to be meaningfully discussed range from the rightwing blather of Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer to the stark raving loony nutso mad ravings of today’s Republicans. The moderate voices of Sanders, AOC, et al are only mentioned in the context of mockery, and there is no real left wing in this country, at least not on the airwaves or prominent sites online. Just one example of how rightward-skewered our politics are: every developed nation in the world has some form of single payer healthcare, except the USA. Here, any politician who suggests we adopt such a system is classified as radical and far left. Everywhere else, even the rightwing nutjobs want to keep single payer healthcare for all.
OK, I lost the thread here…what am I supposed to be blathering about? Dangerously simplistic narratives. Yes. About that…
So, Earth is on fire, we have endless war which is threatening to get unimaginably worse, and the nation is hurling downwards in a handbasket. The solution? Vote blue no matter who! Great, a congress full of Manchins and Sinemas. That’s the ticket. But, if Manchin and Sinema did not exist, party leadership would invent them. Because they need excuses for doing nothing.
Remember the early days of the Obama administration? The Democrats had big majorities in both houses of Congress and an allegedly progressive President. They could have steamrollered through a bold progressive agenda. But what did they actually accomplish? Nearly nothing. They could have passed single payer healthcare; instead, they passed big fat hairy subsidies for the insurance companies, and they made excuses. Obamacare was their signature achievement, and the best argument in favor of the ACA is that it’s maybe a little bit less bad than the system which preceded it.
“Less Bad” might as well be the slogan of today’s Democratic Party, but less bad is nowhere near good enough. Democratic party leaders are every bit as adamantly opposed to Medicare for All as Republicans. Democratic party leaders are every bit as warmongering as Republicans. While Republicans deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change, Democratic party leaders accept it, but propose timid half-assed mitigations, and back down from those at the first whiff of opposition from their corporate overlords. That’s a distinction, but is it a difference? Nothing gets done either way. Yes, it’s nice that the corporate Democrats have some female office holders and some gay office holders and the party is less bad on a bunch of social issues, and they pretend to respect science a little, but on the issues which threaten our civilization, war and climate change, the two parties are nearly indistinguishable.
Time is running out, and solutions are not even visible on the horizon. The solutions will not be implemented in a system driven by the myopic profit motivations of the military contractors, insurance companies, and fossil fuel companies, and the solutions will not fit tidily into anybody’s simplistic narrative.