Voice

And the Moral of the Tweet Is...

How @NatSecWonk shows that D.C. is a wonderful, terrible place.

Like everyone else in Washington's microscopically tiny foreign policy world, I've been watching the unfolding @NatSecWonk mini-scandal with a sort of creeped-out fascination: a mixture of "wow, really?" and "Ewwww."

I'm the most minimalist of tweeters -- I average about two tweets a week -- but even I occasionally found myself on the receiving end of an @NatSecWonk nasty-gram. Perhaps I should be flattered that he thought it worth the bother to go after me, but I admit that my main reaction to his little jibes was irritation and a vague hope that if I just ignored him, he'd go away. And lo, he has gone away! There is justice in the world. Live by the tweet, die by the tweet, and so on.

I would never have imagined that behind all that vitriol lay Jofi Joseph, however. I've met Joseph on a handful of occasions, and he seemed ordinary enough. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I suppose I assumed that @NatSecWonk was some jobless and bitter international affairs master's degree program drop-out tweeting from his parents' basement, not a National Security Staff director with a reasonably bright career future -- until he blew it, of course.

I've been trying to decide if the NatSecStory story has a larger moral -- something beyond "if you act like a jerk anonymously for long enough, someone will eventually out you" -- and I'm not sure yet. But here are some thoughts on possible morals, most of which contradict each other.

1)      Washington is even nastier than you thought. If it's true that @NatSecWonk "unapologetically says what everyone else only thinks," then there are a lot of juvenile, misogynist creeps in the foreign policy world.

2)      Washington is not as nasty as you thought -- because @NatSecWonk didn't generally say what "everyone else" thought. (An arrogant assumption, in any case: did the guy think he could read minds?) The "broken clocks are right twice a day" principle operates in the Twitterverse too, so @NatSecWonk probably did voice unspoken but widely shared sentiments from time to time, but the near-universal real-time response to his tweets seems to have been repulsion. Sure, people in Washington may stick a dagger in your back, but for the most part, Washington insults are strategic, not gratuitous. (It's nothing personal, it's just politics!) For @NatSecWonk, everything was weirdly personal, and even most hardened Washingtonians were, appropriately, grossed out by his disproportionate vitriol.

3)      Big Brother knows all. Everything you tweet, email, Google, download, and watch lives on forever in a server farm somewhere. Your secrets are not safe, and there's no such thing as anonymity. You "anonymously" criticize members of the president's administration and next thing you know, you've been fired and stripped of your security clearance. Citizens, be afraid! Whither goes @NatSecWonk, there goeth democracy.

4)      Big Brother shouldn't scare you. Sure, in some highly abstract sense, all is known by Google, NSA data-collectors, and so on, but actually getting yourself fired for your "anonymous" online comments takes real effort. @NatSecWonk wasn't outed because Big Brother was searching the web for people saying mean things about Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes' hairline; @NatSecWonk was outed because he went out of his way to hurl insults at most of his colleagues and acquaintances, a practice that unsurprisingly made a lot of people determined to find out his identity.

And @NatSecWonk didn't attract attention because he was "critical" of the Obama administration: he attracted attention because his criticisms not only boasted insider knowledge but were rife with obscenities and juvenile insults -- "ugly," "fat," "loser," "douchebag," and "creepy looking old guy" to cite but a few.

Little wonder his targets got fed up and started trying to figure out who was spewing out all this nastiness. And even with all that, it apparently took investigators "months" to figure out that @NatSecWonk was Jofi Joseph, a fact hardly suggestive of an all-powerful surveillance state.

5)      People can be astonishingly, transparently self-destructive (c.f. Anthony Weiner, etc.). Jofi Joseph, you really thought no one would figure out who you were? Really? (Dude, you insulted half the investigative reporters in town!)

6)      The White House tolerates behavior that should be viewed as completely unacceptable. Several books have chronicled the open resentments and rivalries inside Obama's inner circle, relying on former White House officials' descriptions of a workplace culture in which curses, insults, and raised voices were standard fare. Did such an atmosphere give Joseph the impression that misogyny and general obnoxiousness were not a big deal?

It's hard to believe that Joseph -- a guy too arrogant (or too addicted to risk) to cut the anonymous tweeting -- had the iron self-discipline needed to keep his workplace persona completely separate from his Twitter persona. Surely some of @NatSecWonk's hatefulness spilled over at times into Joseph's workplace behavior. But if colleagues caught occasional glimpses of the envy and misogyny so ubiquitous in Joseph's tweets, perhaps they simply considered it par for the course in a White House that's long been accused of being a "testosterone-fueled boy's club."

7)      The White House is intolerant of behavior that should be viewed as acceptable. The Obama White House has also gained a reputation for being intolerant of disagreement and dissent. Its enforcers come down hard on those whose public statements deviate from the party line, and even those who reserve their dissenting views for internal discussions are reportedly apt to find themselves marginalized in one way or another: they're no longer on the invitation list for important meetings, for instance, or their memos never seem to make it up to the president. But workplace cultures that squelch open dissent incentivize anonymous sniping. Nothing excuses Joseph's infantile and ad hominem attacks on the personal appearance, intelligence, and character of those he targeted, but it's nonetheless worth asking: Would a White House more respectful of internal differences of opinion be less likely to produce leakers and anonymous snipers?

So, pick your favorite moral, folks. The @NatSecWonk saga has everything: ambition, gossip, resentment, insults, secrets, and lies. It's easy to see the ugly story as an allegory: about Washington, about the surveillance state, about the arrogance of power, about a White House that has disappointed many early Obama supporters.

But maybe it's not an allegory at all. As Sigmund Freud reminded us, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar -- and sometimes a story that seems to be about an unpleasant, insecure guy determined to cut everyone else down to size is just that, and nothing more.

Goodbye, @NatSecWonk. Can't say I'll miss you.

KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images

By Other Means

It Was Nice While It Lasted

Reflections on the end of America.

Despite the measly stop-gap measure presented on Wednesday in Congress, will we someday look back on the government shutdown of 2013 as the moment that America's grand democratic experiment began irreversibly to disintegrate? Here's a look into one possible future, from the perspective of the year 2060....

It was nice while it lasted. Having a government, I mean. You grandkids don't remember the government, of course: We got rid of it long before you were born. I don't remember why, exactly. Some people got angry because they thought the government was going to force them to get health insurance, which they didn't want because -- well, I'm not sure why they didn't want it.

No, no -- the government wasn't going to send them to prison or anything if they didn't get health insurance. It was just a tax: The people who could afford to get health insurance but refused to buy it were going to be taxed a little more than people who bought health insurance. The tax was to pay for giving health care to people who couldn't afford to to buy their own insurance. But the same people who didn't want to be told to get health insurance didn't want to be taxed to pay for something that would help someone else.

Yes, those were the people who called themselves the Tea Party, after the Boston rabble-rousers who threw several boatloads of British tea into Boston Harbor in 1773. Though there was a big difference between the two groups: The Tea Party of 1773 was protesting the imposition of taxes by the British Parliament, in which the American colonies had no elected representatives. The Tea Party of 2013 was protesting taxes voted on by the American Congress. Our own government.

You didn't know that? Well, no reason you would. Somehow the Tea Party managed to make it sound like the law requiring people to get health insurance or pay a tax had been foisted on them by an undemocratic, alien entity, but that's not how it was. I'm not saying President Obama -- you've heard of that guy -- was perfect, but the American people voted for him twice, and Congress voted to pass the health care legislation Obama wanted, and the Supreme Court said it was constitutional. The Tea Party people in Congress kept trying to get everyone else to vote to overturn that law, but they kept on losing, vote after vote after vote.

And you know what happened? They shut the government down.

In 1773, the Tea Party fought for the right to have a democratically elected government in which hard decisions would be made by voting. I guess the Tea Party of 2013 decided they only liked democracy when the voting went their way.

I know, it all seems a little crazy today, when you can't get decent medical care for love or money. Now that the government's gone, and along with it the subsidies that enabled pharmaceutical companies to do research on new medications, and the rules that ensured drugs were actually safe, and the scholarship and loan funds that sent students through medical school-well, now almost no one has health care. Who can afford it? The few who still have money go to Canada for their health care, though of course it's getting harder and harder to get to Canada. With no government around to fund highway maintenance, the roads got worse and worse, and with no money for policing, the bandits got out of control. By 2030, long-distance travel wasn't really safe anymore for ordinary people, unless you traveled in heavily armed convoys.

And then the Canadian government built that wall along the border and stopped allowing commercial planes to fly in from the United States. I can't say I blame them: Why would they want millions of desperate, hungry people flooding into their country every year? Sad to say, it's not like we can offer them much of anything. Once the federal funds that supported public schools stopped flowing, the whole education system, which was weak to start with, collapsed in pretty short order. The teachers weren't getting paid. At the top, the wealthy kept sending their kids to private schools for a while, but, pretty soon, most of them opted for private schools in other countries. And once those kids got a taste of life in places where they still had governments, they didn't want to come back here. By the time the Canadian border closed in 2041, most of the educated people were already long gone.

Everyone else just had to make do with Bible schools or homeschooling, and, as things got worse, the Bible schools started being less and less about schooling in any traditional sense and more and more about the Bible.

Again, I can't say I blame anyone. When you're going hungry and just trying to keep your kids safe from the roving gangs, I guess maybe religion's more comfort than math and science for a lot of people. But the fact is, the Canadians and the Chinese and the Europeans want immigrants who can do calculus, fix 3-D printers, and program nanosurgery robots. They don't really need people who can quote the Bible but not much else.

Why couldn't we just force the Canadians to let us in? Well, that's a good question. We used to have the best military in the world, you know. Really, we did. But, starting even before we shut down the government, we were piling more and more onto the military. We had our soldiers doing everything from fighting wars to listening in on people's phone conversations, can you believe it? I guess they just got tired. Then, when we shut down the government, the military was the only part of the government that the Tea Party was willing to keep going. They didn't want to pay for teachers or roads or hospitals or anything like that, but they wanted to pay the soldiers.

You ever see a chicken with its head cut off, still running around because its body hasn't figured out yet that it lost it's brain, and it's dying? That's what we were like for more years than I can remember. The country kind of staggered along for some years after the shutdown. Congress kept coming up with short-term fix after short-term fix, each time buying a few weeks or months, but it wasn't enough. Even after the United States defaulted on its debts, things somehow kept going for a while. But, eventually, things started coming to a stop, and naturally the Tea Party people wanted the military to just pick up all the tasks the rest of the government used to do.

But, after a while, the military just kind of fell apart, too. I suppose the Tea Party people forgot that the military isn't something completely separate from the whole rest of society: All those soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines had mothers and siblings and children and spouses. They couldn't -- wouldn't -- keep on just as if nothing had changed when their kids' schools closed down and their parents lost their life savings in the crash of 2015 or the crash of 2021 or the crash of 2029. A lot of servicemembers left to try to take care of their families.

Also, crime was terribly high. People with military skills were in demand everywhere. For a long time, the wealthy were trying to lure them to provide private security, and a lot of servicemembers figured that was a better way to keep their families afloat than staying in the service. And then, after a while, the military couldn't find any decent new recruits, what with the schools failing and the gangs and the resurgence of polio and drug-resistant tuberculosis in the 2030s. So that reduced the military's strength, too.

Anyway, even though soldiers could still get paychecks, the money for training them and maintaining their equipment was mostly gone. Fighter planes were rusting in hangers, and companies stopped developing expensive new high-tech weapons systems, because their buyer was gone. So, to answer your question, by the time the Canadians closed the border we weren't in much position to do anything about it. Wars take money, you know, and we didn't have any left.

Somewhere out there I guess we still have nuclear weapons. But I don't know if anyone really knows where, or if they're still even usable. I remember back in 2035 or thereabouts there was some worry that gangs or terrorists or what have you would get hold of them.

Truth is, if it weren't for the Chinese, I don't know where we'd be today. When the Chinese sent troops in to safeguard the nuclear weapons in 2039, I honestly think everyone was pretty relieved. By then things were already pretty bad, and what was left of our military was happy to cooperate with anyone they could rely on not to do anything crazy.

And never forget that it was the Chinese who tried to bail us out back in the teens, when we first defaulted on our debts after a series of stop-gap temporary deals fell apart. Oh, I know it wasn't exactly charity: They had bought up so many U.S. government bonds that they couldn't afford to let us go belly up too fast.

I still remember how shocked my parents were when they saw the editorial published by China's state news agency back in October 2013: It accused the United States of having introduced "chaos into the world" and said, "Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place."

Well, that's what they did in the end.

Still, I'm certain we'd have fallen even harder and faster without the Chinese. And bad as things are today, think how much worse they'd be without the Chinese troops garrisoned in most major cities. They keep the gangs from getting completely out of control, and thousands of Americans have been able to find honest work cooking and cleaning on the Chinese bases. Even more important, having all those Chinese soldiers here makes the Russians and the Iranians keep a respectful distance.

It's pretty ironic when you think about it. In 1773, the Tea Party protesters were trying to free America from what they saw as rule by unelected foreigners. In 2013, the new Tea Party wanted to put a stop to a government run by their own fellow citizens. Well, they got what they wanted: Now it's the Chinese who make the rules for Americans.

Funny how things turn out, isn’t it? 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images