Edited and with a coda by Sam Thielman
I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S UP with all these flying objects shaped like octagons and such. The U.S. has shot down four of them in a week, starting with the Chinese balloon. Now China is counter-accusing American balloons of their own incursions over Chinese airspace. Believing these to be the work of aliens strikes me as a fun way to cope with renewed imperial "competition," in which the incentives to escalate against a great-power rival are potent and often disproportionate to a perceived provocation, such as a big balloon. The stakes make more sense if we're talking about space invaders.
Last night, in a briefing I admit I did not attend, senior Pentagon official Melissa Dalton offered that the intense uptick in weird-aircraft identifications and shootdowns might be attributable to the military, post-Chinese-balloon "more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar." That would explain the increase in identifications, but not in shootdowns, which is a policy choice.
And it's not an obvious one. "These most recent objects do not pose a kinetic military threat," Dalton continued, but offered the explanation that their "path in proximity to sensitive [Defense Department] sites" and potential hazards to civilian aircraft "raised concerns." I suspect this shootdown, like the prior two, also had something to do with General Glen VanHerck of U.S. Northern Command/NORAD facing questions about why he let the first Chinese balloon transit the continental United States. Which he also said didn't pose a military threat. And that was during a briefing I was on.
VanHerck's statement last night about how he isn't ruling out aliens is getting all the attention here, and it's not like I can rule out aliens. [The burden falls to me: It ain’t aliens.—Sam.] I would observe that in addition to the thrill of discovery and a definitive answer to a question about humanity's role in the cosmos, as well as the weirdness of an Air Force general giving an oblique answer about aliens, the preoccupation with aliens reflects a certain yearning that extraterrestrial contact might compel upon humanity a unity it cannot seem to achieve on our own. Well, what if I were to tell you that's an option for the world without these mysterious aerial incursions; we just have to transform our economy into one in which the workers who produce the world's wealth also own it. The politics and geopolitics—who knows? Interstellar politics?—of the rest will fall into place as resource hoarding becomes outmoded.
On the other hand, we can continue on our present course of resource competition and war, with scholarly-sounding folk like the Center for Security Policy wish-equipping Chinese balloons with EMP weapons that don’t exist.
Balloons and other weird flying shapes are considered matters of national security, despite posing no military threat the Pentagon could assess. Meanwhile, the massive cloud of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, OH, resulting from a preventable freight-rail accident, is not, despite endangering the lives and health of actual people. It's another example of how "national security" is a misguided category that conceals more than it reveals about what does and does not pose a security threat.
I know Sam wants to say more about East Palestine, so I'll turn it over to him in a moment. But first, let's say it's aliens. That yearning you may feel? That the awe-inspiring presence of beings from other worlds would compel a social transformation based on our common humanity? There are lots of people who will follow the opposite impulse.
Some will seek to cut separate arrangements with the aliens to spare themselves at others' expense. It's easy to imagine the hyper-wealthy hoping to have an Elysium situation provided for them as an escape hatch. Others may seek to profit from the aliens, either through posturing as human intermediaries to a planet's worth of labor (or, uh, fuel or food) or by getting the aliens to intervene in preexisting human conflicts. Some hubristic fellows will surely seek to exploit the aliens, despite the obvious asymmetry in technological capability. Whatever—the point is that Independence Day is malignant propaganda that over-focuses on an external danger and blinds us to the very real threat of human betrayal.
To deter it, the would-be collaborators have to be made to understand that they won't be safe from the reprisal of the betrayed. In the wake of an invasion from an unknown species, there ought to be no human provocation. But there can simultaneously be no mercy for those who look at the onset of annihilation and decide, like the cosmic villain Norrin "Silver Surfer" Radd, to make a deal.
"CAPITAL IS COMING." Sunday was final-order-cutoff for WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, my forthcoming comic book debut from DC Comics' Black Label, co-written with Evan Narcisse, illustrated by Jesús Merino and colored by Michael Atiyeh. And DC released a handful of pages for retailers ahead of our March 21 release date for the first of four issues. You can check them out courtesy of Graeme McMillan at PopVerse. Here's our very first page, and I think it gives a flavor of our espionage-with-superheroes thriller:
I've been waiting for so long to share this or any other page from WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, each issue of which contains an oversize 32 pages, more than half again as many as a typical comic-book issue. And I'll leave it here, because I'm fighting the impulse to comment on the book. But as you can see: Lois Lane is a character in this miniseries, and a major one. I wonder why?
If you'd like to hear a bit of an elevator pitch for WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, friend-of-the-newsletter Connor Goldsmith is kindly running an interstitial promo with me on his world-beating podcast, Cerebro, starting with this excellent episode on Sebastian Shaw with another friend of the newsletter, Steven Attewell.
WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1 is out March 21—that's just next month!—from DC Comics' Black Label. Final-order-cutoff might be over and done with, but you should still go to your local comic store before then and ask them to reserve you a copy. I cannot stress enough that this newsletter and that comic book are part of the same project.
RIP DAVE FROM DE LA SOUL. I was a 13-year old whose summer-camp friends had the cassette version of Buhloone Mindstate, an album destined to be overlooked by virtue of being the record De La Soul made between De La Soul Is Dead and Stakes Is High. I'm not going to argue that Buhloone Mindstate is a better album than either of those, but it was my De La Soul album, the first of theirs I heard and the one that defined them for me. My friends and I would play "Ego Trippin'" constantly, particularly when we were tasked with making pizza, prompting us to yell out things out like I'm the greatest pizzari' in the wooooooorld to crack each other up. Ever since, my sense-memory of De La Soul—truly one of the greatest, most unique and artistically ambitious hip-hop groups of all time—has been the haze of summer afternoon heat spent with people determined to make each other laugh. It's awful that Dave won't see next month's long awaited release of his catalog on streaming.
HI, IT’S SAM. WITHOUT ANSWERING the as-yet-unanswerable question of what exactly caused the Norfolk Southern train derailment that spewed toxic chemicals into the air and forced the evacuation of the entire town of East Palestine, Ohio last week, let’s just run down the facts.
About a decade ago, an excellent report in The Lever explains, railroad companies including Norfolk Southern demanded that some dangerous loads, including the one that emptied East Palestine, no longer be designated “high-hazard.” The railroads also lobbied against and ultimately defeated rules proposed by federal regulators that would have required them to install better, faster braking systems.
The railroads have run longer and longer trains with fewer and fewer staff. An unbylined Railroad Workers United (RWU) newsletter says:
This particular train had 40% of its weight on the rear 1/3 of the train. Most of this tonnage was made up of loaded tank cars which are very heavy and slosh back and forth when coming to a sudden stop. This sloshing after a stop can continue the pushing of more cars off a track in a jackknifing situation which is what occurred in this Ohio wreck.
Laying out the train this way, the RWU writer says, is “akin to placing two bowling balls on the ends of a rubber band and praying the rubber band doesn’t break.” The piece in The Lever points out that the average length of a train is now 1.3 miles.
This is part of “precision scheduled railroading,” in which, the Washington Post explains,
Instead of running trains that carried just one type of product—which left trains waiting for long stretches before they had enough load to depart—rail companies now have more trains carrying a mix of goods on a set schedule. Fixed scheduling allows them to use the same crew more often than they could have under the old system.
Almost exactly a year ago, the railroad workers union SMART-TD asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate railroad attendance policies, which were crucial to the maintenance of these extremely long trains carrying a wide variety of goods on very tight schedules. These policies, they said, were dangerous, and required workers to accept penalties if they didn’t take shifts on no notice, whether or not they had planned, for example, to sleep in preparation for a morning shift and found themselves suddenly assigned an evening shift. The policies were especially dangerous in light of the pandemic. Railroad workers who had Covid or had recovered partially from it might simply be too tired to do their jobs effectively and afraid to turn down a shift.
Throughout 2022, railroad workers agitated for better treatment. They pointed out that railroad executives and shareholders had raked in enormous profits, primarily because their staffing overhead was so low. They cited the dangers to life and limb that low overhead entailed—the railroads' understaffed trains weighing dozens of tons and passing at high speeds through towns and cities. And in December, when the possibility of a strike became an inevitability, the House, the Senate, and President Biden forced them to accept a contract without sick days.
At 8:12 on February 3, the Norfolk Southern train passed through Butech Bliss, Ohio, about 19 miles west of East Palestine and 45 minutes before the derailment. Video footage from a closed-circuit camera shows that the underside of one of the train’s cars is on fire. "A minute later and a mile down the track, a camera at a meat processing plant called Fresh Mark captured the same fiery axle," wrote Anya Litvak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There’s a detector in front of the Fresh Mark plant that is designed to detect heat from undue stress on the trains’ axles. If its alarm went off, it went unheard.
When the train derailed, it blasted a toxic fireball made of incinerated vinyl chloride ten stories into the air. Norfolk Southern has been going around offering East Palestinians unsolicited “inconvenience fee” payments as those residents attempt to determine whether or not it’s safe to live in their houses. Given their reticence to part with a single nickel under anything but the most extreme duress, this ought to give you an idea of the depth of the shit in which the railroad company finds itself. [Similarly, arresting reporters like NewsNation's Evan Lambert for reporting on the disaster is another shit-index.—Spencer]
I don’t know what effect, if any, the release of these chemicals will have on the water table, or whether it will affect the health of Ohioans and others in the years to come. I don’t know exactly what caused the crash; or why the axle on that train car was on fire; or whether the heat alarm failed; or if the workers didn’t see it; or if they’d fallen asleep or were simply trying to do too much. I do know that I shouldn’t have to ask several of those questions. There’s been some discussion of what to call the derailment—“accident” sounds too trivial, “wreck” sounds vaguely nautical, “catastrophe” and “disaster” sound like we’ve already decided the worst must be true.
I’d say it’s a tragedy, in the classical sense of the word. A terminus toward which we have always been moving from the very beginning, unable to turn left or right, along a path we built for ourselves.