Hello you, it’s me.
Happy new year, allegedly. I’m still not convinced that 2021 was technically a “year” distinct from 2020. Meanwhile, I wanted to share something I wrote last week in response to your questions on a range of topics.
Below, I cover how to deal with the intentional amnesia around the January 6 attack on the Capitol and ideas for preserving democracy; positive news on climate coverage; and the very mixed bag that is Web3, cryptocurrencies, and decentralized everything. Oh, and I’ll be going live on my Instagram with my colleague Tina Nguyen today at 5pm ET/2pm PT to reflect on the insurrection and how things feel worse a year later. Fun! Seriously, we’ll have fun.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work at Puck has been engaging with feedback from our community of subscribers. This week, as we close out the year, I’m opening my notebook to address some of the most pressing questions on my mind and in my inbox. If you have critiques, feedback, or further questions, write me back at firstname.lastname@example.org. My inbox is always open.
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack recently released a report presenting evidence that Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, was deeply involved in the failed effort to overturn the 2020 presidential result. Meanwhile, Trump loyalists are winning local elections around the country with the specific aim of changing election laws to ensure that next time, the coup succeeds. What can ordinary people do about the threat of another assault on democracy in 2024?
First, read this piece in The Atlantic, titled “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” Warning: it takes about an hour to read, and it will greatly upset you, or it should. If it does not, then you greatly upset me, and that’s a different problem. We have to start by understanding that the “threat of another assault on democracy” is not some distant threat timed to 2024 but is happening right now. The Republican Party is preparing to systematically disregard the will of the people by blocking, discarding, or otherwise disqualifying the votes of millions of people—and neither the Democratic Party nor President Joe Biden have yet fully grappled with the scale of the danger.
After digesting the horrors within that document, I might recommend joining a bunch of active groups like Indivisible or SwingLeft and making sure you register to vote and writing checks to various civil society groups. But before anything so specific or mundane, I want us all to ask ourselves a few questions:
1. What do you need to feel secure, healthy, free, and generally trusting in your day to day life?
2. Do you feel like you have those things currently?
3. Does the current political system feel responsive to those needs?
4. If not, what changes would make that system feel more responsive to those needs?
5. Are you willing to work to make those changes? If not, are you willing to live in a worse version of a system that’s already broken?
Now I want you to imagine that worse version. In the near future, millions of people have their votes overridden by operatives loyal to Donald Trump. The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress and its governing philosophy is a mix of Trump praise, retribution against his enemies, and QAnon and other conspiracy theories. Never Trumpers are nowhere to be found. The executive branch is also led by Republicans, this time competent ones, who don’t believe in democracy. Period. They believe in power, preserving white dominance, and using women above all as birthing machines. Despite having gained control of most of government, their conspiratorial thinking stokes even more mass armed political violence by people generally opposed to government control. Fox News maintains its grip on the minds of the G.O.P. and makes today’s version look like The Associated Press by comparison.
You can play this game for a while, but the point is to get clear and specific about how you want to be living in society; how you want to feel about your agency and safety; and under what conditions you can trust in information and institutions. It’s important to be clear and specific about the more openly authoritarian future that could await us here, the same as it has in other countries.
I briefly thought a mob assaulting Blue Lives and chanting “Hang Mike Pence” might break the spell. And yet the Republican Party has rewritten Jan. 6 in some fictional universe where the assailants are victims. What would they be saying if the mob had managed to actually hang the vice president? That they had some good points? They cannot be trusted with our democracy because they don’t believe in it. I have no set of prescriptions to prevent our further collective descent into authoritarianism.
We may have to go through more horrors before we change direction. I do, however, think we can practice living a culture of democracy and community that will serve us well, either to slow the decline or to help us build something better on the other side, or both.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been making a podcast called “How To Citizen.” In it, I highlight people and groups that are living, leading, running businesses in ways that embody or fortify the culture of a healthy multi-racial democracy that is America’s promise. They “citizen” as a verb regardless of immigration status. The more of us who live like them, the better chance we have to create a nation where we all have what we need. My wife and I built the show on a set of beliefs, and it’s those four pillars that I offer as the most direct answer to your question.
To citizen is to:
1. Participate. Show up for each other and publicly participate in ways that include and go beyond voting. Ask how you can help, and use your skills to offer it.
2. Invest in relationships. Deepen relationships with ourselves, our community, and our planet and experience how we are all interconnected. How can you deepen existing relationships in your family, neighborhood, or community?
3. Understand power. Be fluent in power, and the various ways we can use it for our collective benefit. What power might you have, especially beyond voting and with other resources like your money and attention?
4. Value the collective. Work towards outcomes that benefit the many—not just the few.
You wrote a harrowing and enraging column earlier this year about how the television networks, and cable news executives in particular, have ignored the climate crisis. Since then, do you see any indication that media or Hollywood have gotten better at telling these critical stories?
I’m so glad you asked! Yes. In my own small corner of the media I consume, I’ve been really enjoying the reporting of Sammy Roth at my local Los Angeles Times. California is in the middle of a battle over home solar panel incentives, and as we make decisions in my own house, Sammy’s reporting has been really helpful.
Your question also gives me a great excuse to again highlight the work of Covering Climate Now. They gave out 22 awards for journalism that did a great job of covering the climate crisis, and the winners included places like CNN, so all isn’t trash in the cable news world.
Update: Speaking of not-trash. Since I first wrote this response I’ve watched “Don’t Look Up” on Netflix. It’s a sharp satire about an impending extinction-level event in the form of a giant comet headed toward Earth. The climate change parallels are clear. If you’re already motivated to do something about climate, check this out. And here is the best review I’ve found so far that highlights the sophisticated messaging in the film. More interesting, I’ve heard it’s actually breaking through to conservative viewers. My suggestion: let’s not tell them, “hey this movie will change your mind about acting to deal with climate change!” That’s too on the nose. Instead, how about we just share the movie as a good movie, and let people see the connection themselves?
Baratunde, I loved reading about your participation in the ConstitutionDAO experiment and your explanation of Web3, but I’m also concerned about the crypto/DeFI space. Did you agree with the conclusion of Bill Cohan’s recent piece about OlympusDAO, that at least some of these blockchain projects may be Ponzi schemes?
Bill is absolutely right: some of these blockchain projects are Ponzi schemes. South Park’s most recent post-Covid special offers an incredible satirical take on N.F.T.s which could apply to some cryptocurrencies as well. Yet not everything in the blockchain space is a scam. The scene is a very mixed bag.
I’m going to lay out my understanding of the overall space, then tell you a bit about my own experiments, and finally offer my concluding-for-now-but-everything-is-subject-to-change thoughts.
First, I go way back with tech. I was born in 1977 and raised by a single mother who spent most of my childhood working as a computer programmer for the U.S. federal government, so I had early computer access and it powered a lot of my life, creativity, and, ultimately, my earnings. I had avoided most of the cryptocurrency world for years except for a blip in 2013 when someone gave me some bitcoin. Too bad I destroyed it a few years later when I reformatted my hard drive.
I didn’t fully understand bitcoin at the time, but it’s worth taking the time to appreciate how the technology works. Earlier this year, I read the bitcoin whitepaper, and I recommend you read it as well. It’s just a few pages, but it’s the biggest cryptocurrency and, more importantly, it’s the first major blockchain and is pretty clear about its intentions and functionality.
A core goal of bitcoin, at its founding, was to create a decentralized system that doesn’t require trust—to enable a world where, for example, I could send you money, and you could be assured that you’d get it and that I wasn’t secretly using that money at the same time in some other financial promise (known as “the double spending problem”). Banks perform that intermediary function now, and they have all sorts of systems to limit fraud, but they also limit what I can do with my own money. Ultimately, banks control ledgers of financial activity. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, on the other hand, operate on a distributed and much more public ledger which is very difficult (but not impossible) to corrupt.
I love the idea of blockchains, and there are many to choose from that operate with different types of technology. The “proof of work” method, which originated with bitcoin, allows transactions to be verified in distributed ledgers by solving difficult cryptographic puzzles; those computers that solve these puzzles get rewarded with tokens, thus “cryptocurrency.” There is also a competing (and increasingly popular) mechanism to secure blockchains, called “proof of stake,” that doesn’t require the electricity-generating capacity of small nations. Either way, you can also simply buy these coins, which allows you to transact with them but is also a financial bet on the underlying blockchain technology that supports them.
This idea of decentralization doesn’t just apply to financial activity. It can apply to data, web services, social networks, and more. We all use Facebook (sorry, “Meta”) as a centralized database for our friends, public postings, and photos, but we don’t have to. We could host that trusted service on a blockchain and distribute the burden and opportunity more widely, for example. It can also apply to political and civil organizations. The ability to participate in a non-centralized (aka distributed) system is meaningful and significant. That core philosophy underpins our own democracy with separated governmental branches, checks and balances, and power ultimately in the hands of the people. Now we have the technological tools to enable democratic structures across all sorts of functions and activities in life.
It’s no wonder, then, that Web3 has attracted a fair share of political dreamers in addition to venture capitalists, financial engineers, and yes, a few scammers. We all know that the concentration of economic and political power is at historic, revolution-sparking levels. Yet our political system appears incapable of addressing this, so massive tax cuts go to the already-wealthy, and the rest are left to build back… whenever Joe Manchin decides he feels OK about it.
We are living in a time when every form of incumbent institution is losing the trust of the people. Technology is accelerating our ability to opt out of those old systems and try something new. That paradigm shift dates back to Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing, if not earlier. But all institutions, not just the old record labels, are now facing this loss of trust: banks, churches, political parties, public health institutions.
I’m going on a bit long here, so let me bring it back to Bill’s piece about the Olympus DAO and the probability of fraud in the decentralized finance (DeFi) and related crypto/blockchain worlds.
There’s a spectrum that runs from scammers and bullshit artists to small-d democratic infrastructure building in this crypto world. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got people talking a big game about innovation and taking back power, but they are really engaged in an ancient exploitation game of resource hoarding, pyramid schemes and hyper growth. Even the language they use sounds like colonial era conquest thinking: minting, mining, staking. You burn a lot of resources to create fake scarcity for a resource which should be widely available, then create layers of complexity to hide the fact that what you’re really doing is selling snake oil and hoping to get paid while the price is climbing. It sounds like Olympus DAO leans in that direction, but as long as participants know they are playing with a combination of money and fire, have fun!
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the birth of new economic models that feel open for the first time to so many people who were systematically excluded from the allegedly “safe” and “sound” world of fiat finance. I’m talking about Black people who didn’t have family homes to leverage for college financing because the government made sure we couldn’t buy homes, or if we did that they wouldn’t generate as much equity as the homes of white people. At this end of the spectrum I see folks (and include myself among them) continuing the experimental part of our democratic experiment to try to include those who were written out of the older version.
In the middle of the spectrum are art projects and experiments, especially around N.F.T.s. Some folks are in them for the promise of future value, others to try and compensate artists more directly and sustainably.
Finally, some transparency around my own investing and activities in this world: I’m holding moderate amounts of bitcoin and Ethereum, and I’m playing with a few other coins as I learn more. I minted N.F.T.s to join the Constitution DAO and the Dream DAO, which is led by a network of Gen Z folks at CivicsUnplugged who are funding and distributing grants to young leaders building up our civic muscle. And I spend time on Discord servers, Clubhouse rooms, and Twitter spaces soaking up as much as I can because I’m fascinated by this new world, what it can mean for my own financial and creative life, and what it means for how we get things done together.
OK, so the earth is on fire, democracy is under attack, and the Pentagon is equipping those cute robot-dogs with ten-shot sniper rifles. But enough doom and gloom. What are you most hopeful about, in the world of politics or technology, for 2022?
This mailbag was quite a journey for me: from the ongoing G.O.P. coup to inspiring climate stories to the possibility of regenerative democratic experimentation—or just fraud… or both! I am, however, most hopeful about reconnecting with nature. I had the privilege this past year to film a PBS series (America Outdoors, releasing summer 2022), I just returned from Kaua’i on a family vacation, and I’ve been hanging out on the @melaninbasecamp Instagram account, and there’s something so restorative about time in the outdoors. It’s a different type of technology, and letting ourselves feel the rhythms of nature allows for a different type of politics. I’m hopeful that I can deepen that connection next year, and from what I’ve seen, many others are set to do the same.
If you have critiques, additions, or further questions, write me back at email@example.com.
FOUR STORIES WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
Part II of my year-end list of the 22 boldest, totally bankable, 100 percent probable predictions from true industry insiders.
What I witnessed that day wasn’t a surprise, after years of reporting on the far-right. It’s everything that came next that shocked me.
Ben Smith and Justin Smith had been quietly discussing their new media ambitions, on and off, for years. Here’s what they had to say.
The Gates-Kristof complex, tech power on the Prairie, and other notes on the long shadow of Silicon Valley.
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