Outside the Asylum

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Hope and Change

Part II: Change

We will drive America so far to the right that it will be unrecognizable.
--a Nixon administration staffer, on the way to prison

Last week, I argued that American electoral politics runs on hope. Hope is the reason that Americans, at least Americans who are not members of the elite, participate in the electoral process. But just as hope inspires Americans to take part in the electoral process, electoral politics also functions as one of the main sources of hope for the American people (indeed, for secular Americans, electoral politics is often the only source of hope there is). Hope is, therefore, both the fuel of the electoral engine, and also one of its outputs.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a particular kind of hope that is provided. It’s not just the idea that life could get better. It’s the notion that we could make it so. Another name for this kind of hope is agency. Americans’ fundamental sense of agency is bound up with the ballot box.

Understanding this clarifies the reason Americans have such a difficult time accepting the corruption and irrevocable brokenness of their political system. It also clarifies why Americans are extremely sensitive about the viability and integrity of their chosen candidates. Those candidates represent their supporters’ ability to take action that changes the world for the better. They represent their supporters’ ability to improve their lives. For an American, losing the possibility of electoral change is like falling into an abyss. Questioning the validity of an American’s chosen candidate is taking that American to the edge of the abyss and making them look in.

Change is, of course, deeply intertwined with hope. It’s what the people hope for; it’s the goal and proof of agency. The basic idea of America is that change emerges from election results which emerge from the will of the people. At this stage of the game, it’s pretty obvious that that idea is, at best, seriously flawed. The clear message of the Obama administration to the people of the United States was No matter whom you elect, policy won’t change. People’s attempts to explain away that message for the past ten years have revealed few substantive changes in policy by the Obama Administration, but much about people’s need to believe in the so-called democratic process.

I could spend hundreds of words on the ways in which the Obama administration did not bring about change. I could spend hundreds of words describing the ways in which Obama and his people simply continued or expanded Bush administration policy. But that’s not the kind of change I want to talk about today, because, after ten years, that’s been pretty well covered. We spend a great deal of time talking about the change that hasn’t come because of elections. What about the change that has?

Obviously, electoral politics doesn’t exist simply to sustain itself. It has more outputs than the hope it requires to keep itself going. It is also one of the primary devices for social engineering in this country, not because the people elect representatives who will change policy according to the will of the people, but because the choices of those in authority can set or reset cultural norms. Back during the Bush Administration, we used to track the ways in which we were being changed by Bush’s terrible decisions (including the disastrous manner in which he became President in the first place). We tracked the ways that he and his fellows brutally rewrote American political, moral, and legal norms. Keeping track of these changes kept us connected to our history. It reminded us of who we were and gave us insight into where we were going. It prevented our minds from becoming infinitely malleable in an Orwellian sense.

During the Obama Administrations, most of the left abandoned this effort. Some no longer wanted to know where we were going, because knowing that would require abandoning their hope for change. Others didn’t want to know where we were going because they had created an idealized narrative in which Obama’s victory represented the victory of Black Americans over racism—not a change hoped for, but a change achieved—and to undermine that narrative was intolerably painful. These people, with professional help that they were often unaware of, rode herd on those who were intellectually non-compliant. Many of the non-compliant became exhausted and fell silent; all who continued to speak were continually embroiled in ugly fights and smear campaigns based on nonsense.

This left the keeping of the historical record in the hands of the right wing, who were, for the most part, ill-equipped for the job. Though I admit that they, too, had professional help of which they were often unaware, it’s still unfortunate that so many of them wasted so much time and energy on nonsense like birtherism. Indeed, a great deal of their critique of Obama spun its wheels in the mud of bigotry. When the change you object to is, even in part, the fact that a black man has become president, it impedes your ability to make a rational critique and distorts your relationship with the past. Their attempt to keep in touch with the past was, for the most part, morally and intellectually compromised by racism and xenophobia.

The effect of all this is that we have, for the most part, simply abandoned history and memory (beyond a few oversimplified and misapplied generalizations). We have ceased to remember where we were, and that it was different than where we are. At this point, even the non-compliant often simply accept changes that ten or fifteen years ago would have been considered outrageous. Much of what I’ve been trying to do with my Outside the Asylum series is to continue to track those changes and to hold the ground of the past beneath our feet. I do this not because I believe the past to be ideal, though I do believe that most of the changes that have befallen America in the 21st century are for the worse. I do it because we should at least retain enough independence to be able to see the direction in which we’re being driven, and get an idea of who’s doing it, how, and why.

I’m going to end this essay with one example of these changes. I have about four more that I was going to write about, but I’m already at nearly 1500 words, so I guess I will need to write separate essays on the others. I’d like you all to think about how often we simply accept these changes as part of the political landscape, impersonal and inevitable as the weather.

Primary Elections Are Run Like the NFL Playoffs

I wonder sometimes if anybody else has noticed that this campaign season has introduced an entirely new system of ranking candidates. In fact, before this campaign season we had NO formal system for ranking candidates. We had a general idea of which candidates were entirely out of the running and which ones were likely to really challenge for the nomination, but this idea was not formalized and had no immediate effect on anything. For this reason, Kamala Harris’ “top-tier candidate” comment probably would not have happened in 2016 or before. Harris’ comment seems much more appropriate to the world of sports than the world of primary politics. Even the neatly even number of 24 candidates resembles the number of teams in a professional sports league (the NFL, after its merger with the AFL, began with 26).

I might have shrugged Kamala's comment off as an odd fluke except that one day, I chose to click on The Washington Post’s website for their Democratic debate coverage. I don’t remember why I did that, because whatever I was looking for was wiped from my mind by the spectacle of the Post’s Democratic debate front page. Across the top was emblazoned the words “WHERE YOU SEE THE CONTENDERS.” Beneath were the pictures of the candidates, though not, as I almost expected, entered into a bracket. Look, up on the TV! Is it a boxing match? A playoff game? No, it’s the Democratic debates!

The expanded debates have been used to create, in essence, a playoffs for the Presidency. Candidates now have to “qualify” for successive “rounds.” Since invisibility is, as someone once said in a different context, death, not qualifying for the debate pretty much disqualifies you from the Presidency—or at least, so it seems. But how do we know whether someone has qualified? How does the candidate achieve their win/loss record? Why, through the polls. The polls are like games in the playoffs—if you don’t do well enough in enough of them, you are eliminated. But not all games, or polls, count. Who decides what counts? Who decides what constitutes a win?

Why, CNN does.

So where once, a politician might have no obstacles apart from their own or their campaign’s incompetence or lack of appeal, now the primary season is divided into “heats” and the media corporation hosting the debates gets to decide who wins and who loses, who is a “contender” and who isn’t. An unelected, arbitrary corporate authority gets to determine which candidates deserve serious consideration by the American people and which don’t—and they determine this, not just by talking respectfully of one candidate while disrespecting another, but through a formal procedure. Afterwards, they award TV time to the meritorious as a prize for leaping the hurdles.

Given that what they are awarding—and restricting—is not only the candidate’s ability to be seen but the people’s ability to see, the entire process is morally questionable and anti-democratic. I’m certain CNN would defend it as democratic because it’s based on polls. But even if polls were unquestionably reliable as a measure of public opinion, not all polls are allowed in the reckoning of a candidate’s merit. CNN gets to decide which polls count. Based on what? Well, we don’t know. CNN won’t say.

Further, is it really democratic to curtail the public’s ability to see a candidate because the candidate is polling in single digits? Might that not mean that the public has not seen much of that candidate? Wouldn’t it be the democratic thing to do to provide equal time to ALL candidates so that the public could make an informed choice? Would it not be better for the Republic if the public were able to see all the candidates? At one time, the demands of an all-inclusive political debate might have been too onerous for media companies to manage. But with a 24/7 news cycle and constant digital access, such an excuse has worn so thin as to be threadbare.

What is most disturbing, however, is not the change itself, but how easily we accept it. As if things had always been thus. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace's 2007 essay "Just Asking,"

Where and when was the public debate on whether we should allow CNN to restrict the visibility of some candidates while expanding the visibility of others? When and where did we debate whether or not CNN should use the debate schedule to effectively eliminate candidates before the first vote was cast or the first caucus was held? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not?

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lotlizard's picture

Trumpenstein must be destroyed

2020 is for all the marbles. The global capitalist ruling classes either crush this ongoing populist insurgency or … God knows where we go from here. . . .

… What they are going to do is use all their power to destroy the monster … not Trump the man, but Trump the symbol. They are going to drown us in impeachment minutiae, drip, drip, drip, for the next twelve months. The liberal corporate media are going to go full-Goebbels. They are going to whip up so much mass hysteria that people won’t be able to think. They are going to pit us one against the other, and force us onto one or the other side of a simulated conflict (Democracy versus the Putin-Nazis) to keep us from perceiving the actual conflict (Global Capitalism versus Populism). They are going to bring us to the brink of civil war in order to prevent civil war. And, if that doesn’t work, and Trump gets reelected (or if it looks like he’s going to get reelected), they’ll probably have to just go ahead and kill him.

One way or another, this is it. This is the part where the global capitalist ruling classes teach us all a lesson. The lesson they intend to teach us is the same old lesson that masters have been teaching slaves since the dawn of slavery. The lesson is, “abandon hope.” The lesson is, “resistance is futile.” The lesson is, “shut up, eat your tofu, get back to work at your three gig jobs, service your school loans and your credit card debt, vote for who and what we tell you, and be grateful we don’t fucking kill you. Oh, yeah … and if you want to rebel against something, feel free to take up identity politics, or to march around town with posters of Saint Greta demanding that we stop destroying the planet. We’ll get right on that, don’t you worry.”

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8 users have voted.

The gradual change we are living, when it comes to the electoral circus, seems to have melded into an infotainment show. The polls are a tool of the hawkers to encourage belief in a system that is so out of touch with the mass opinion, it has become a bad joke. All the hoopla is a diversion to justify the erasure of the undesirables. Money motivated ratings.

Tracking the changes requires not accepting the historical revisions being fed us. Clearly remembering how we were incrementally led here is sanity.

Good essay CStMS

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7 users have voted.

May we be united and strong -- laurel

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@QMS

On the infotainment issue--remind me to put up an essay on something Niko House reported on a few weeks ago. If I haven't put one up by Tuesday. And if you remember to remind me, of course. Smile

Too sick now to make a good job of it.

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3 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Lookout's picture

...but I don't see it. The system is propped up with a misleading media that keeps telling folks we live in a free demockrazy....and sadly for the many reasons you write about today, they buy it.

I been using the line..."You know we don't live in a democracy. Eighty plus percent of US citizens don't want the time to change twice a year, but it continues to do so. Primarily to make sure there's plenty of light in the afternoons to go shopping after work." That line works with left and right cause everyone hates changing time.

I hope you and yours are doing well. All the best!

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Lookout

I'm hoping someday I might be able to come by your neck of the woods. Maybe introduce you to my family.

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3 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

enhydra lutris's picture

allowing CNN or any other media outlet (or collection of outlets) to manipulate presidential primaries or other elections. We have, however, seemingly acquiesced in that process. A lot of strands are woven into the net that captured us. One started with the Kennedy - Nixon debates when the fact and narrative that performance on a live televised confrontation could have a serious impact upon voters' thought processes and choices was established. Beyond that, the need for debates, and for participation therein became rapidly established as a necessity and a determiner of merit and sincerity. Another was the insidious process whereby people were trained to follow the reported results and interpretations of polls as guidance as to what and/or whom to choose, what and whom to follow and support and what and whom to ignore and dismiss. Consider that California, for example, was essentially held in thrall to Mass and Ia. As this evolved, we, at every step, went along with the joke. Candidates polling poorly would see their support start to evaporate and would bail. People came to expect this and go with it. Between them polls and debates, as reported and interpreted have propped up empty suite Pete, for example because the debate results and polls say empty Pete blah blah blah and those with no stomach for risk jump on that bandwagon because he is "competitive" and not waaay far out there like crazy Warren, commie Bernie, russkie Tulsi, etc.

Along the way, we acquiesced in letting the DNC run things and call the shots in myriad little ways and myriad little contests. We, in a sense, also voted for this state of affairs when we elected William Jefferson (Ronald Reagan) Clinton. The New Democrats would create a new era, a new order and play by new rules. The fairness doctrine vanished and the media became more openly a tool of the elites to set the rules and control the narratives. The HRC - DNC 2016 shenanigans were presaged by a great many events and went unpunished and became part of the largely forgotten history that said "yes, this can easily be done" and every step of the way, there was general broad acceptance.

Have a good one.

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

enhydra lutris's picture

@enhydra lutris
1) Whereas, if you suck at the debates, then, most assuredly you will fail and Nixon out.
2) Whereas this makes the debates a key determiner of electability, and nobody wants to waste their votes on some unelectable loser
3) Therefore the post debate analysis and determinations of the pundits and pollsters should be controlling as to your voting decisions and primary ballot inclusions; and

Furthermore, the process cannot be infinite, but must draw to a speedy conclusion (subject to a desire to have enough debates to sell sufficient advertising).
Ergo:
1) The field must be periodically narrowed, as in a double elimination sports tourney (Thank you CSTMS for that great insight and analogy) or a reality show of the "American Idol" or "Survivor" ilk.
2) Because the purpose is to eliminate unelectables, the criteria for elimination must be based on a) fundraising (to buy support and exposure and campaign costs) and b) polls
3) Because, when all is said and done, it is a contest to pick the Party's candidate, then the Party needs to pick the polls to be used for this purpose ( thereby acting as pre-emptive super delegates)

NB: Initial qualifications, of course, need to limit the field to "real" Democrats willing to take a loyalty oath and those not inherently frivolous or clearly unelectable making the use of fundraising and polling to eliminate outliers and infidels ab initio a necessity

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3 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

@enhydra lutris
consider the "reverse" perspective on it. The conventional wisdom is that Nixon actually outperformed Kennedy, because people who listened on the radio thought so. Thus, the conclusion was that Kennedy's youth, tan and general good looks swayed the viewing audience, when contrasted with Nixon's pale (he didn't use makeup, they were such amateurs back then) sweaty jowly shifty-eyed overall physical horribleness.

But here's the thing: Maybe people listening to the radio were unfairly biased towards Nixon, because his voice was "preferable" to Kennedy's higher pitch and weird New England accent. So maybe, the whole "Kennedy won because he was prettier" thing is more of a, "TV helped rebalance audience perception by offsetting Kennedy's elocutionary shortcomings."

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4 users have voted.

The earth is a multibillion-year-old sphere.
The Nazis killed millions of Jews.
On 9/11/01 a Boeing 757 (AA77) flew into the Pentagon.
AGCC is happening.
If you cannot accept these facts, I cannot fake an interest in any of your opinions.

@UntimelyRippd canard -- as if radio didn't also allow people to judge on superficial terms, such as deepness of voice and accent. A usually overlooked point.

Also rarely noted is that Kennedy's performance in the first debate (the one most watched of the 4) was plenty substantive, by the standards then or of today. It was hardly just a young handsome guy trying to get by for an hour on looks and charm alone. Had this been the case, Nixon would have pointed it out early on. Opening statements were allowed up to 8 minutes each -- eight!! Difficult to pull that off with just fluffy soundbite superficiality.

Finally, there is no statistically valid survey taken of radio listeners that points to a conclusion that Nixon did better among this group. The only one I've seen referenced is from a sample of 282 listeners, and only 180 of those offered an opinion of who won and lost.

Their debates were televised b/c it was the new mass communications medium of the time and so it was bound to be used sooner or later. It was in a format that is rather better than the one used today. Unfortunately, the panel of a cross-section of tough media questioners has gone, thanks to the parties colluding with the media outlets.

Returning to the original format would greatly improve the situation. So would requiring the major party nominees to debate, and several times. Note there were no debates in 1964, 68, 72 as LBJ then Nixon declined the offer. In 1980 Reagan's team managed to out-negotiate Carter's to restrict it to one debate, unless Carter allowed indy John Anderson to participate, which Carter refused.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@UntimelyRippd
success in the TeeVee debates, regardless of whether the basis for that success is debating skill or simple good looks. And you're right as to Kennedy's accent too, and, for some, his polish and wealth as well.

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2 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

@enhydra lutris voters being able to see and hear candidates in situations that require them to think on their feet, be able to answer tough questions?

I think voters might find it useful to know if a candidate seems able to handle the pressure. And when they appear nervous, shifty-eyed and sweaty, is that not something they might want to know and take into consideration?

These aren't exactly Oxford-style debates anyway, more of a joint press conference with the ability to respond to the other candidate's answer. Useful, and far better than no debates, especially if they are conducted in something closer to the original 1960 format.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

And thank you for recording all the previous incremental steps.

I do think this recent set of steps is particularly brazen. But my real point is that anybody who wants to maintain an independent judgement needs to resist the seamless normalization of whatever the powerful choose to put on the menu on a given day.

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6 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

enhydra lutris's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal
given up on the whole can of crap, I would be concerned for what new excesses and outrage the future has laying in wait for us around the next corner. For example, we already see the networks calling election results well before there is any possibility of certainty.

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4 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

MsDidi's picture

Reading these has been both sad and joyful -- at least we can still critique and understand. They bring light and clarity to our deepest attachments to the hope of democracy, even though our debased electoral process provides clear evidence of the damning perversion of democracy that now confronts us.

You are working at the marrow of essential -- not bourgeois -- roots of democracy. In itself these insights provide a seed of a resistance which may yet flower. Perhaps the determination for truth-telling is still some basis for breaking through the wall.

We want so much to believe that voting is a way that we can change things.

I feel guilty when I don't vote, even though I no longer believe it really makes a difference. My father told me it was my duty and to treasure it as a right that many people throughout the world don't have. Our white-knuckle grip on voting (as our most deeply felt source of agency) runs deep. I tell my friends that I vote just in case I'm wrong. But you are correct. Despite what I know, I vote because I want to believe that we count -- and are counted.

Although you are careful to avoid particular candidates, the complete erasure by the mass media of Bernie's candidacy is there for all to see. The Democratic party -- the superdelegates -- will never let him be their candidate. They'd shoot him first -- but they won't have to, because they've set up this horse race so that the whole thing will go to the 2d ballot and the superdelegates. And they made clear in the lawsuit from the last primary that they have no obligation -- nor interest -- to follow the will of the people.

Yet we all want so much to believe in the electoral charade we are observing. (I suspect that's part of what moves you to write.) I know people who are true Progressives who refuse to acknowledge that the Democratic party is responsible for Trump -- and they are out signing people up for the Democratic party.

I believe that if Trump is not elected, civil strife and open warfare are likely to break out.
Trump is already obliterating the Republican Party -- canceling primaries and talking about not honoring electoral results if they go against him. He's turned them all into dancing monkeys.
And if the Democratic party blocks all Progressive candidates talking about real change, then the Democratic party will also cease to exist.

So your brilliant insights into the nature of the current electoral system are timely and important to help all of us foresee what the next steps in the erosion of democracy will be.
Like you, I am not sure what people can do if the State violently suppresses all dissent. And yet I cling to the deeper mantra of hope and change - which precedes Obama -- and which, perhaps now, is a filter that proves both deceptive and risky.

Also to the teachings of Marx and Buddha -- that in the dialectic of history, due to the operation of contradictions, all phenomena eventually turn into their opposites. Perhaps that is actually already what happening to the 2-party system. And to the certainty that nothing lasts forever -- all is impermanent.

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Anja Geitz's picture

I'll go you one further. You know how the average citizens can play online fantasy football? Our electoral politics is a version of that. It gives the public the illusion they've participated, but it is after all, a fantasy.

Take away thought:

So where once, a politician might have no obstacles apart from their own or their campaign’s incompetence or lack of appeal, now the primary season is divided into “heats” and the media corporation hosting the debates gets to decide who wins and who loses, who is a “contender” and who isn’t. An unelected, arbitrary corporate authority gets to determine which candidates deserve serious consideration by the American people and which don’t—and they determine this, not just by talking respectfully of one candidate while disrespecting another, but through a formal procedure. Afterwards, they award TV time to the meritorious as a prize for leaping the hurdles.

Great essay, CStMS.

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10 users have voted.

There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

I woke up feeling so crappy that I only just remembered that I needed to be here.

I'm sorry. I hope you guys are having a better Sunday than I am!

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6 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

Sorry guys, but I think a low-grade fever just started up. (Or maybe it's a hot flash--being a middle-aged woman is fun).

Your comments are awesome and I want to respond to all of them, but I'm afraid it'll have to wait till tomorrow. My head is not together at the moment.

Hope y'all have a good rest of your Sunday!

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7 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

I appreciate your essay.
I want to believe that voting is an important signal and function of change.
But I don't. Seems we have a constant slate of people running for office for reasons other than to help me and mine. And if I point out a flaw in a candidate, I get schooled on purity tests.
Well, it is Sunday. I can go to the office, work without interruption. I discovered an attorney and presiding judge have discussed the merits of the case privately, outside my presence. I will file motions to have the judge recused and the attorney disqualified. I want peace and quiet before the roof gets blown off the courthouse!

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Anja Geitz's picture

Sorry to hear you're feeling crappy. Thank you for such a wonderful "Outside the Asylum" essay. Such a relief to be able to spend time with like minded people in a sea of delusion...

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4 users have voted.

There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

snoopydawg's picture

@lotlizard

Obama should be sharing a cell with every living president for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But of course congress will never prosecute anyone for them because they are complicit.

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4 users have voted.

America is a pathetic nation; a fascist state fueled by the greed, malice, and stupidity of her own people.
- strife delivery

lotlizard's picture

@snoopydawg  
It’s simply a fact that the globalist elite currently running things is always and everywhere beholden to Saudi and Israeli interests.

The Saudis can murder and behead their subjects and wage genocidal war in Yemen to their hearts’ content, yet the prostitution of Western media is such that the hideous nature of the regime, let alone their role as the literal kings of fossil fuel, has no effect on their public image.

The Saudi tyrants’ oil company Aramco bends its little finger — selling off a mere pittance, 0.5 percent of itself — and the entire capitalist world comes running.

The same figures who nod sagely and indulgently when Greta Thunberg says “How dare you!” one week, can be found jetting off to Riyadh for Davos in the desert the next.

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