Archive for January, 2021

A short tale of road rage

January 31, 2021

Surfing sea lions, having fun

January 30, 2021

The freedom of speech dilemma

January 29, 2021

The new documentary movie, “The Social Dilemma,” is about social media companies whose business plan is addiction.   We discussed it in the drop-in discussion group of First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., last Tuesday.

This is a real problem I’ve written about myself, and little of what was presented is new to me.

The Internet itself has inherent addictive aspects, to begin with.  Social media companies use artificial intelligence and behavioral psychology to make their offerings more addictive. 

They combine AI and psychological expertise with surveillance technology to target individuals who are susceptible to certain types of advertising and propaganda.

Since their aim is “engagement,” it is more profitable to generate fear and anger than contentment because the negative emotions have more impact.  For the same reason, it often is more profitable to steer people to sensational fake news than dull but accurate news.

All this is generally understood[Update 1/30/2021. Then again, the movie itself may be an example of what it complains of.]

So why are there so many calls for the social media companies to take on the role of Internet censors?  If Facebook and Google are the sources of the problem, what qualifies their employees to decide which news sites I should see and which I shouldn’t?

It is not as if they have given up on a business model in which profits are made by enabling propaganda by exploiting surveillance and addiction.

What the social media companies seem to be doing is cracking down on everybody—right, left or off the spectrum—who dissents from the official view.

Experts quoted in the film say that, because of the social media companies, there is no agreement on what is true and what isn’t, and they also say the very concept of objective truth is disappearing. 

But these are two very different things.  It is not only possible, but very common, to have agreement based on lies or false beliefs. 

There was an official consensus in 2002, supported by, among others, the New York Times, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

As a result of those lies, thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East lost their lives; millions became homeless refugees. 

Popular journalists who questioned the WMD lies, such as Phil Donahue, were canceled.  They have never been rehabilitated. 

Those who went along with the lies flourished.  They have paid no penalty, even in reputation.

The consequences of the WMD lie were many times greater than the Pizzagate conspiracy theory lie.  Spreading the Pizzagate story endangered innocent lives, I’m not trying to justify it, but, in fact, nobody died as a result.

More recently the so-called mainstream media spread baseless claims that Donald Trump is a secret agent of Vladimir Putin.  Trump is many bad things, but that charge was absurd.  The media also spread baseless claims to smear Julian Assange.

Maybe you doubt the Russiagate and Assange claims were fake news.  Fair enough.  But how can you be sure if you don’t have access to the arguments on the other side?

What most critics of the social media companies, including the producers of the movie, don’t get is that there is one thing worse than producing competing versions of reality that nobody can agree on.

The worse thing is the social media companies working hand-in-hand with government to produce a common propaganda version of reality based on official lies.  This is what is going on right now.

If liberals or progressives think a government and corporate crackdown on “fake news” is going to be limited to actual white supremacists or neo-Nazis, they are very naive.

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Forgiving student debt is not enough

January 28, 2021

Forgiving student debt won’t solve the student debt problem.

Young people today are told they have no future unless they get college degrees, preferably from prestigious universities.

Colleges and universities jack up tuition rates, much of which go to pay for construction projects and administrators’ salaries, not instruction.

Few young people can afford to pay high tuition rates, but they can get student loans. 

The reason they can easily get student loans is because student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy.  Some people are retiring with their student loans unpaid.

Debt relief would be a good thing, but it does not fix the underlying problem.

The first step in breaking this up is to get rid of the idea that a college degree is necessary to obtain a good job.  There should be other ways, such as apprenticeships or demonstrations of skill, to show you are qualified.

Tuition at state universities should be free or affordable to all who are capable of doing college work, as it was when I went to college.  Community colleges should offer remedial education and vocational training at free or affordable rates.

Student loans should be dischargeable in bankruptcy, the same as other loans.  I’ve written about this before, but Matt Taibbi defined the situation very well.

LINK

Forgiving Student Debt Alone Won’t Fix the Crisis by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

‘Economies of fail’ and the vaccine rollout

January 27, 2021

How Monopolists Slowed the Vaccine Rollout, and Small Business Speeded It Up by Matt Stoller for BIG.  “CVS and Walgreens Didn’t Deliver.  Small pharmacies did.”

Militarism, censorship in the name of freedom

January 27, 2021

It does not make sense to destroy freedom and democracy in order to defend it.

Reflecting the Authoritarian Climate, Washington Will Remain Militarized Until At Least March by Glenn Greenwald.  “The idea of troops in U.S. streets for an extended period of time—an extreme measure even when temporary—has now become close to a sacred consensus.”

Meet the Censored: Status Coup by Matt Taibbi for TK News.  “Silicon Valley Is shutting down speech loopholes.  The latest target: live content.”

Winners and losers in the COVID economy

January 25, 2021

A blogger who calls himself Nikolai Vladivostok posted this chart. It shows what people in different segments of the U.S. population say about whether they’re worse off or better off.

People whose income was $100,000 a year were, on average, very happy with their situations. So were those with post-graduate educations.

The unhappiest were people whose income was $50,000 a year or less. Women on average were unhappier than men.

I was a little surprised that city residents were happier than suburbanites. I always thought of U.S. suburbanites as affluent and pleased with themselves. I guess that thinking is out of date.

You might wonder how much of this is due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and how much would be true in any year. Nikolai Vladivostok found some other charts illustrating how hard the pandemic has been on different income groups.  Having a low-income job is a risk factor.

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It’s time for something soothing

January 24, 2021

The Biden governing coalition emerges

January 23, 2021

The Joe Biden administration represents a coming together of most of the power centers in American society.

Biden and the Democratic National Committee have the support of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the national press, the intelligence agencies, the Black Lives Matter movement, the liberal churches, academia and most self-described liberals and progressives.

[Added 1/24/2021]  I forget to mention key elements of the governing coalition—Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and Facebook, Google and Amazon.]

[Update 1/25/2021]  President Biden is really down on Mark Zuckerberg.  Maybe Facebook isn’t part of the governing coalition after all.

This is the culmination of what neoliberal Democrats such as Bill Clinton sought for decades, the displacement of the Repubican Party by the Democratic Party as the party of the establishment and the monied elite.

Last night I watched a good discussion of this by Thomas Frank with Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper on the Useful Idiots program.  It’s well worth watching.

If the Biden administration can actually bring the coronavirus pandemic under control, and if it can bring the economic crisis under control, Biden could become the most beloved American leader since Eisenhower and the Democrats would make themselves a majority party for a long time to come.

In principle, there’s nothing in the nature of the Biden governing coalition to prevent this.  It is not to the interest of owners and managers of large corporations to see large numbers of their customers broke or dying.

But I don’t see any signs this will actually happen. We’ll see. 

I do see signs that the new governing coalition intends to crack down on dissent, both right-wing and left-wing.  To me, this is more alarming than the threat of any fanatic mass movement from below.

Where does this leave the Republicans? Their only choice is to combine opposition to what’s called political correctness and Woke-ness with a populist appeal to working people.

I think the populism of Republicans such as Senator Josh Hawley or Fox news commentator Tucker Carlson is mostly fake, like Donald Trump’s.

A political movement combining cultural conservatism with genuine populism would be powerful, but I don’t think it is likely. Again, we’ll see.

LINKS

Can President Joe Biden mend a torn America? by Thomas Frank for Le Monde diplomatique.  [Added 1/28/2021]  He says what I said, but much more eloquently and to the point.

The Next Neoliberal President by Thomas Neuberger for Down With Tyranny!

As Death Toll Tops 410,000, Biden Pursues “Wartime Effort” to Fight COVID, But Could More Be Done? an interview of Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, on Democracy Now!  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon is paid $31.5 million after decrying income inequality by Dominic Rushe for The Guardian.  (Hat tip to O).

US Companies Cut Off Donations to Republicans Who Rejected Biden Certification by Gregory Korte and Bill Allison for BLoomberg News.

We Need to Stabilize’: BIg Business Breaks With Republicans by David Gelles for The New York Times [Added 1/25/2021]

Zuckerberg’s Biden Problem by James Clayton for BBC News.  Maybe not a member of the governing coalition after all.  [Added 1/25/2021]

The Class Composition of the Capitol Rioters (First Cut) by Lambert Strether for Naked Capitalism.

The Organizational Capacity and Behavioral Characteristics of the Capitol Rioters (First Cut) by Lambert Strether for Naked Capitalism.  This article and the preceding one are the most objective reports I’ve seen so far about who the Capitol rioters where and what they were up to.  Conclusion: They were paper tigers.

The Echo Chamber Era by Matt Taibbi for TK News.

The Moronic Firing of Will Wilkerson Illustrates Why Fear and Bad Faith Mob Demands Reign Supreme by Glenn Greenwald.

True believers in the USA of 2021

January 22, 2021

I recently finished Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER, a 1951 book about fanatical mass movements.  I think most Americans see that the USA of 2021 is ripe for such movements.

Fanatics invaded municipal buildings and burned police stations in some U.S. cities during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.  Fanatics invaded the Capitol a couple of weeks ago.

Some self-described conservatives see Donald Trump as a messianic figure sent by guide.  Some self-described progressives embrace an “anti-racism” ideology that considers “all lives matter” a racist statement.  People can become pariahs or lose their for a thoughtless comment on social media.

If you are an American, you probably think some of the things I mentioned are serious problems while others are blown out of proportion.  Whatever the case, something is going on.  What is it?

Eric Hoffer said fanatical mass movements arise when there are large numbers of people who are frustrated and lonely.

People don’t become fanatics when they are embedded in family, community and religion that give them security and meaning.  Neither do they become fanatics when they enjoy the satisfactions of creativity and achievement.

But in times when fewer and fewer are able to enjoy the security of a stable family, community and religious life, while the opportunities for individual achievement and self-determination narrow—that’s when you have to watch out.

That’s how things are in the USA today.  We live in a very unforgiving society, compared to the one I grew up in.

Economic inequality is increasing, but I think that what really worries people is the growth of economic insecurity. 

More and more workers are being pushed out of full-time work and into the gig economy, where they don’t know from week-to-week how many hours they’ll work or what they’ll earn.  Millions lack the resources to meet even a small emergency.

All this is in the name of a philosophy I and others call neoliberalism, which exalts economic efficiency above all else.  Neoliberals run the economy without any slack in the system, with all the risk off-loaded onto wage-earners, sub-contractors and the public. 

It’s not just wage workers who suffer.  Small-business owners with six-figure incomes worry about being able to compete with giant mega-corporation.  A number of billionaires are planning ahead for economic collapse, so they can retreat to secret strongholds in New Zealand or other remote place.

Unfortunately the USA is exporting instability through its economic and war policies, and through its cultural influence as well.

President Donald Trump made things worse.  He had a genius for keeping affairs in a constant state of turmoil.  Just having Trump in the news day after day was a strain.  I think some people voted for Joe Biden just because they were sick of seeing Trump on TV.

The partisan news companies keep Americans on edge.  Fox News was a pioneer in making money out of peddling fear to elderly white people.  Now, as Matt Taibbi has shown, the self-described progressives have adopted the same model.

Then there are Facebook and the other social media companies.  They have algorithms designed to feed people links to material designed to hold attention by appealing to fear and indignation. 

COVID-related lockdowns have destabilized society.  It is not just the economic impact on workers’ wages and small-business profits.  It is that people have been cut off from religious services and family gatherings, two of the main sources of consolation in times of uncertainty.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is real and deadly, and doesn’t care about anybody’s spiritual or psychological needs.  I’m an introvert who lives alone, and can afford to have groceries delivered, so I can tolerate the lockdowns better than most. 

But I can see how someone might be devastated by separation from loved ones and normal life and be willing to risk their lives rather than endure the separation.  A good many of the protests, including the invasion of the Michigan state capitol, were in opposition to the lockdown.

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Recalling Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer

January 21, 2021

I first read Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements shortly after it was published in 1951.

It was a big influence on me as a teenager.  Later on I thought it explained a lot about the 9/11 attacks.  I think it is very relevant today.

A number of writers in the early Cold War era tried to understand the psychology of totalitarianism—what it was that made Nazis and Communists willing to commit mass slaughter and also sacrifice their own lives.

Eric Hoffer went further than most.  He described the similarities not only between fanatic Bolshevism and fascism, but also fanatic Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Jacobinism and nationalisms of all kinds, including Zionism.

His book is highly readable, full of quotable aphorisms.  A lot of his statements are overly sweeping and forceful, but he said his intention was to provide food for thought, not to be the last word on anything.

Eric Hoffer

Hoffer himself was an interesting character.  The son of Alsatian immigrants to the United States, he was born in New York City in 1902.  Orphaned at the age of five, he went blind at seven.  Mysteriously, his sight was restored at the age of 15, and he became a lifelong voracious reader.

He traveled across the country working at odd jobs, and spent 25 years as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront, retiring at age 65.  He was completely self-taught.  He died in 1983.

He did not regard mass movements as necessarily bad.  Sometimes, he thought, they were the only means of bringing about necessary change.

Nor did he think that religious believers, patriots and political activists are necessarily fanatics.  But he did think a fanatic minority is a more powerful driving force than a reasonable, moderate majority.

The fanatic John Brown did more to end U.S. slavery than all the moderates who drew up reasonable plans for compensated gradual emancipation.

People do not join mass movements because they are poor and oppressed, but because they are frustrated, Hoffer wrote.  Joining a movement satisfies what Abraham Maslow was to call higher-level needs—the need for self-esteem, the need for inclusion, the need for hope and the need for meaning.

If you have no pride in yourself, you can take pride being part of a holy cause.  If you are lonely, you can lose your sense of separateness by uniting with others in a mass movement.

If your future seems hopeless, you can accept the promise of a golden future, either in this lie or the next.  If your life seems boring and meaningless, you can become part of a dramatic struggle for righteousness.

One category of people who never become fanatics are those who are completely embodied in a traditional way of life, Hoffer wrote.  Thinking of themselves are part of family, a community and an unquestioned way of life, they see no need for change. 

Fanatic religious zealots either want something they don’t have, or want to regain something they think they have lost.

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The Biden administration begins

January 20, 2021

Joe BIden is sworn in as President

Joe Biden would be a reasonably good President for a nation enjoying peace and prosperity.

He is a nice person who doesn’t want to upset anybody’s apple cart. Like Warren G. Harding a century ago, he represents the human desire for “a return to normalcy.”

His predecessor’s administration was one long series of self-created crises, until last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

I don’t know how well a Biden administration will deal with the pandemic, but, unlike Donald Trump, Biden won’t be actively against doing reasonable things (like masking) to deal with the crisis. 

He has said he’ll bring the United States back into the World Health Organization, mandate masks on federal property and interstate travel and push for a huge $1.9 trillion COVID relief package (which may or may not get through Congress).  He’ll extend restrictions on evictions and foreclosures and continue the pause in student loan payments.

This could be good.  But he is not going to push for any overhaul of the U.S. health insurance or public health systems.  And the restrictions on evictions, foreclosures and student loan payments are not sustainable long term.  BIden assumes a quick return to normal, which may not happen.

Biden, unlike Trump, is not actively opposed to action on climate change.  He will rejoin the Paris climate accords, push for a “climate world summit” and order the drawing-up of a plan for 100 percent clean energy and zero net emissions by the year 2050—that is, 30 years from now.

We Americans have made progress in reducing emissions.  But to accomplish the goals that Biden has set forth would require shutting down the coal, oil and natural gas industries, and the industries that burn these fossil fuels, and replacing them with new industries that provide just as many jobs and, hopefully, just as much business profit.

There is a name for such a transition.  It is called a Green New Deal.  It would be a big change, bigger than the original New Deal.  I don’t know if Biden would be up for so big a change or not.

Biden promised to end the “Muslim ban,” which restricts travel and immigration to the U.S. from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, plus five non-Muslim countries added in 2020.  But he has not to my knowledge said anything about ending military intervention in those countries, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions being made refugees.

The USA needs to end our forever wars if we are to regain our self-respect and the respect of the world.  But it would be no easy task.  A peace economy would mean shutting down a big part of the U.S. economy.  I don’t know whether Biden has even thought about this.

Lastly a large part of the U.S. population regards the present administration as illegitimate.  Biden has to deal with rioters and insurrectionists, while trying to unite the American people as a whole.

The new President faces challenges that would task the ability of an Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt.  I don’t expect greatness of Joe Biden.  I expect him to be better than Donald Trump, which is a low bar.

LINKS

Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address.

What Joe Biden has promised to do on Day One and his first 100 days as president by Ed Erickson for CBS News.

Hard Times: Will America recover under Biden? by Andrew Cockburn for Harper’s magazine.

Biden’s American Rescue Plan and Its Opponents by Jack Rasmus.

The CDC’s Mission Impossible by “Yves Smith” for Naked Capitalism.  The pandemic crisis.

The New Domestic War on Terror Is Coming by Glenn Greenwald on Substack.

Image via Chicago Tribune.

Who were the Capitol Hill rioters?

January 19, 2021

Video of pro-Trump protesters rally on Jan. 6. Source: ProPublica

There is going to be a big push to give the government new powers to prevent something like the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots from ever happening again.

For this reason it is important to get a picture of what happened that is as accurate as possible as soon as possible.

“Lambert Strether” of Naked Capitalism looked into the backgrounds of 125 people who’ve been charged with crimes in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots.

He concluded they represent a cross-section of middle-class white America.

More of them came from the largest states—California, Texas and New York—rather than nearby Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. They were evenly distributed among all age groups.

The most common occupations of those arrested were business owner, police officer and real estate broker.

Strether thinks the events of Jan. 6 can be more accurately described as a riot than as an insurrection or an attempted coup. Most of the rioters appeared to be surprised that they actually penetrated the Capitol and to have no clear goal as to what to do next.

In fact, many of the rioters took videos of the events on social media, and selfies of themselves.  Many of these videos were posted on the Parler social media site. 

Any organized white supremacist group or, for that matter, “antifa” group, would have been careful to mask their faces and destroy surveillance cameras. 

No doubt they were in Washington, and maybe some of them were in the Capitol building, but if this had been a planned coup, it would have been more effective.

Parler has been taken down, but the ProPublica investigative team has collected a lot of them, sifted through them and published them in chronological order.  They provide a picture of the pro-Trump protests and Capitol Hill riot as seen by the protesters and rioters themselves.

It is a disturbing thing that the functioning of Congress and the safety of its members was threatened by a mob. 

But the riot was something that didn’t have to happen.  If there had been the same police presence as during the Black Lives Matter marches last year, the pro-Trump protests would have been as harmless as the anti-Trump protests four years ago.

I do think there is a real possibility that the USA is in for a period of low-intensity conflict, as in northern Ireland from 1968 t0 1998.  I also think there is a danger that over-reaction can make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Pausing to reflect on the facts is never time wasted.  I’m not sure I know all the relevant facts.  I’m not sure anybody else does, either.

LINKS

The Class Composition of the Capitol Rioters (First Cut) by Lambert Strether for Naked Capitalism.

Inside the Capitol Riot: What the Parler Videos Revealed by Alec MacGillis for ProPublica.

What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol by the staff of ProPublica.  The collection of videos.  (Hat tip to Steve from Texas)

Why We Published More than 500 Videos Taken by Parler Users of the Capitol Riot by Scott Klein and Jeff Kao for ProPublica.

Members of Several Well-Known Hate Groups Identified at Capitol Hill Riot by A.C. Thompson and Ford Fischer for ProPublica.

Capitol Mob Has Roots in Anti-Lockdown Protests by Mara Hvistendahl for The Intercept.

Lessons from the 6 January insurrection by Albena Azmanova and Marshall Auerbach for Counterpunch.

The storming of the Capitol

January 18, 2021

Nearly half of all registered Republicans and roughly one-fifth of registered U.S. voters think the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was justified.

Max Blumenthal, who was one of the few reporters to mingle with the protestors, found that they were disproportionately former military, former police or current police.

This is bad news.  Coups and revolutions succeed when police and troops turn against the government.

I do not predict or fear a coup or revolution anytime soon.  What I do fear is a low-intensity insurgency that will provide an excuse for a crackdown like that following the 9/11 attacks, except that hard-core MAGA Republicans rather than Muslims will be the targets.

The equal or possibly greater danger is the alliance of progressives and WOKE Democrats with the FBI, CIA and the rest of the national security establishment and with Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media companies to set limits on freedom of expression.  Only the naive will think that the crackdown will be limited to the extreme right.

I confess that I underestimated the threat posed by Donald Trump.  I always thought he was too lazy and disorganized to become any kind of dictator.  I thought the danger of Trump was that he would be a kind of John the Baptist who would pave the way for a real dictator to come—someone with Trump’s demagogic talents, but without his self-destructiveness.

What I failed to see were his ability to stir up rage, both among his supporters and his enemies, and the strength of the Trump cult, which may well live on after Trump the man passes from the political scene.

All of this could have been averted if there had been sufficient security at the Capitol on Jan. 6.  The Capitol police were too few in number to block the invasion, and some of them were sympathetic to the invaders. 

I generally believe in Heinlein’s Rule, which is to never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.  But if somebody did make a decision to allow the invasion to happen, what was their purpose?  Did they sympathize with MAGA Republicans?  Or did they want to create an excuse for a crackdown?

LINKS

The Storming of the Capitol by Peter Moskos for Cop in the Hood.  [Added 1/25/2021]

Breach of Capitol Was a Military Operation, an interview of Max Blumenthal, founder of the Grayzone, for Black Agenda Report.

After the Capitol Riots, the Last Thing We Need Is Another War on Terror by Spencer Ackerman for The Daily Beast.

Some good rules for living

January 16, 2021

The USA’s coming perfect storm of crises

January 14, 2021

New York’s Times Square during lockdown

It is said that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”

I don’t know whether that is literally true or not.  I do believe that the USA faces a historical turning point—a perfect storm of crises out of which something better just possibly may come.

The crisis is economic, political and cultural.

The economic crisis is the high rates of unemployment, bankruptcies and evictions.

Revolutions are typically led by unemployed intellectuals.  Nationalist rebellions are typically led by unemployed war veterans.  The USA has plenty of both.

Many of us Americans hate each other based on our political affiiation.

Neither party is trying to win over members of the other side.  Partisan Democrats regard Republicans as bigots; partisan Republicans regard Democrats as immoral.  These are character judgements, not policy judgments.

Both sides have factions willing to resort to armed force.

In some of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, factions invaded municipal and federal government buildings and burned police stations.

In the recent pro-Trump election protests, an armed faction invaded the Capitol and tried to prevent the certification of the winner in the 2020 elections.

I don’t make light of any of this, but the actual number of deaths—an estimated 25 in protests during 2020 and five in the Capitol invasion—could have been a lot higher than they were.  There is potential for things to get a lot worse.

Ammunition and firearms sales are at record levels.  I don’t think these sales are limited to hunters, sportsmen and people who want guns for home protection, nor do I think they are limited to right-wing Republicans.

Only a small number of Americans are actually ready to engage in organized armed violence.  But there are millions who think that violence by one side is excusable and violence by the other side is inexcusable. 

It is interesting that all the armed factions, with few if any exceptions, consist of white men.  That includes those who embed themselves in the Black Lives Matter protests. There is a certain number of individual hoodlums and looters, including whites as well as blacks, but there is as yet no armed black organization equivalent to the Black Panthers of the late 1960s.

The stage is set for a continuing low-level war.  I don’t predict such a conflict will happen.  I do say there is nothing in place that guarantees it won’t happen.

President-elect Biden, who has taken credit for the USA Patriot Act, is talking about new laws against “domestic terrorism.”  Silicon Valley is moving to silence Trump supporters

The result of this will be to convince the hard-core MAGA Republicans that the political system is so stacked against them that they cannot work within it.  The populist radical left is also being squeezed out of the political system and may come to the same conclusion.

There’s long been a vast repressive apparatus in place to deal with any uprising. It is almost as if the powers that be have long expected an uprising and have made advance preparations to prevent it from succeeding.

We also have a crisis of governmental administration, revealed by the ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic and climate-related weather disasters.

All these crises are coming together and reinforcing each other.

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The fallacy of the single evil

January 13, 2021

C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that the devil always sends his temptations in twos, so that in backing away from one, you are liable to stumble into the other.

That’s very true of political temptations.

The cult-like behavior of hard-core Donald Trump loyalists, and of Q-Anon followers in particular, is a great danger to functioning of American democracy.

How can I engage in democratic discourse with people who are disconnected from reality as I see it?

But the drive to censor MAGA Republicans, including Q-Anon, is an equal danger.

How can I engage in democratic discourse with people and at the same time deny them a voice?

People who are silenced do not think they are refuted.

And I would be naive if I thought that censorship will be limited to persons and causes I disapprove of.

LINKS

Q-Anon and the Fragility of Truth by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs.

The Man Who Saw the Coup Coming Is Surprised It Wasn’t Much Worse by Cam Wolf for GQ.

QAnon Woke Up the Real Deep State by Nicolas Grossman for Arcdigital Media.

The Terror of Liberals in a Time of Insurrection by Ian Welsh.

The Boot Is Coming Down Hard and Fast by Caitlin Johnstone.

Images via vitaliketh on Twitter.

Why flawed election results should be accepted

January 12, 2021
Click to enlarge.

A new poll shows that a majority of American voters believe that fraud determined the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election. This is astonishing.

For this to have happened, there had to have been a vast conspiracy, implicating, at a minimum, election officials in half a dozen states, state and local legislatures and governments, judges up to the Supreme Court, and the national press, news networks and social media.

They would all have to be complicit in stealing the presidential election while nonetheless allowing the Republican Party to gain House seats and state legislatures. The entire apparatus of the American government would be implicated in such a belief.

As improbable as all these seems, millions of hard-core Trump supporters believe it.

Of course it’s not as if Democrats would have accepted the results if Donald Trump had been re-elected.  After the 2016 election, some Hillary Clinton supporters tried to influence Electors pledged to Trump to vote for Clinton

I think that there are some voting irregularities in almost every election, and also some attempts by foreigners to influence the outcome of the election.  But the time to deal with these issues is before the election is held. 

Once votes are cast, it is too late because there is no way to know how the outcome would have been if the irregularities hadn’t taken place.  It is like asking the results of the baseball World Series be changed on the grounds that an umpire made bad calls.

The time to deal with voter suppression, voting fraud or election fraud is before the election.  The time to start fixing the system is the day after the previous election.

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How to fix the Electoral College

January 11, 2021

One of the most undemocratic features of the U.S. presidential elections is the Electoral College.

Americans vote not for candidates, but for electors.  The split in the electoral vote is often very different from the popular vote.  In 2000 and 2016, the winner of the popular vote lost in the Electoral College.

Each state chooses a number of electors equal to the number of its senators and representatives.  Representatives are apportioned according to population, but each state gets two senators.  A lot of small states with only one representative still have two senators, which means small states are over-represented.

A Constitutional amendment to fix the Electoral College is unlikely because it would require the votes of small states that benefit from the present setup.  So is a proposed interstate compact, in which states agree to cast their electoral votes for whoever won the popular vote.

But there is an alternate plan that would go a long way toward fixing the disparities in the electoral vote.

We can repeal the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, which fixed the number of Representatives at 435, and then institute the Wyoming Rule (the smallest state population – Wyoming – gets one representative and all other states get a number of representatives equal to the number of “Wyomings” that their population contains).

The total number of reps in the US House increases from 435 to 573, which also affects the Electoral College. Wyoming still stays at one rep while the California delegation increase from 53 to 68. Blue states in general do much better.

By matching the number of reps to actual population a lot of the unfairness of the Electoral College is mitigated. The number of EC votes needed to win the White House increases from 270 to 339 and the new EC votes are mostly in Blue States.

An analysis of the Wyoming Rule on Wikipedia indicates that, if the Wyoming Rule had been in effect in 2000 and 2016, the outcome might have been the same.  It wouldn’t fix everything, but it would be a big improvement.

It also would make it easier for the Democrats to control the House of Representatives.  The one-state, one-representative rule, combined with a cap on total representatives, does create disparities in the number of people in each congressional district.

The new Congress could also grant statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

And it could tie all federal aid to states to an elimination of gerrymandering practices.  It could require congressional and statehouse districts to be apportioned by bi-partisan commissions.  The courts might overrule this one, but it’s worth a try.

LINKS

The Wyoming Rule on Wikipedia.

The Reapportionment Act of 1929 Explained on Everything Explained.

Fix the Electoral College by Increasing the House of Representatives by Kevin Baker for The Street.

What Happens Now? by Charles Stross on Charlie’s Diary.

“Kids these days”: can things really be this bad?

January 10, 2021

I’m 84 years old.  I have few friends younger than 45.  I have virtually no contact with the current younger generation.  Can things really be as bad as these authors say?

No Families, No Kids, No Future by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

The Kids Are Not Alright: A Response to Rod Dreher’s Article Concerning Generation Z Sexuality by a blogger called The Flaming Eyeball.  (Hat tip to “Nikolai Vladivostok“)

A 25-year-old bet that tech would wreck society

January 9, 2021

Some 25 years ago, Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future, a book in praise of the 19th century anti-machinery Luddite movement, bet Kevin Kelly, a top editor of the techno-utopian magazine Wired, that technology would wreck society by 2020.

The bet was for $1,000.  They agreed that William Patrick, a book editor who’d worked with both of them, would judge who’d won.

Sale predicted an economic disaster that would render the dollar worthless, causing a depression worse than the one in 1930; a rebellion of the poor against the rich; and a series of environmental disasters.

Patrick’s verdict was as follows:

Global Environmental Disaster. Environmental problems have far more to do with old school, industrial technology (slowly being retired) than with information technology (which may well be the only hope for a solution). Even so, with fires, floods, and rising seas displacing populations; bugs and diseases heading north, ice caps melting and polar bears with no place to go; as well as the worst hurricane season and the warmest year on record, it’s hard to dispute that we are at least “close to” global environmental disaster. Round goes to Kirk.

Economic Collapse. Not much contest here. Even with a pandemic, unemployment is a problem, but nowhere near a crisis—at least not in the closing days of 2020. (Stay tuned.) The Dow recently hit 30,000, and the leading currencies are cruising along. (Bitcoin, an entirely new form of currency unimaginable in 1995, is soaring—nearing $20,000 when I last checked.) So, Kirk’s dire prediction was way off. Round goes to Kevin.

War between rich and poor, both within and among nations. This is a toughie. Kirk’s apocalyptic forecast is especially problematic when you factor in huge economic gains in China and India, driven in large part by tech. On the other hand, how heavily do you weigh economic unrest as a factor in spawning the terrorism that triggered “forever wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia? And the economic dislocation among blue collar workers that allowed Trump’s faux populism to win them over? Meanwhile, anger at police abuses has led to massive protests from the left and bloody riots in the U.S. and Europe. It’s hard to say that “the poor rising up in rebellion” accurately characterizes the current state of the world (especially with that rising middle class in Asia) but it’s also hard to say, when you consider the unrest in the Islamic world and Trump supporters waving automatic weapons, that we’re “nowhere close.” Round is a toss-up, with an edge to Kirk.

Source: The Technium

However, the bet was not a draw.  Sale’s bet was that all three predictions would happen, and so he lost.

Sale doesn’t accept that he lost.  He thinks all three of his predictions will yet come true.  I think there’s a good chance they might.

LINK

A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society? by Steven Levy for Wired.  Hat tip to Steve from Texas.

Concluding Our 25-Year Bet by Kevin Kelly for The Technium.

Is Society Collapsing? by Kirkpatrick Sale for Counterpunch.

Some thoughts on democracy and insurrection

January 7, 2021

Protesters in Senate chamber. Source: ABC News

The basis of democratic government is a peaceful transition of power to the victor in an election.

If you think the result was wrong, you get a chance to try again the next election. If you think the voting process is corrupt or otherwise flawed, you have to fix it before the vote is held. 

Once you participate in an election, you commit to accept the result.  Otherwise the only appeal is to force.

The mob who stormed the Capitol yesterday did not accept the rules of democracy.

They may have done relatively little harm to life and property, compared to rioters in protests earlier this year and also compared to post-election rioters in other countries.

They only delayed the certification of the Electoral College vote for a few hours.  It wasn’t as if Congress was driven out and had to meet in a hotel somewhere.

And it is not clear to me at this point whether they really thought they could prevent the Electoral College vote from being certified, or whether they saw their action as a purely symbolic protest.  But whatever they thought they were doing, they were wrong.

The mob assembled in Washington in response to President Trump’s appeal to “stop the steal.”  It’s not clear to me that he intended what happened.  His record shows he does not think about the consequences of his actions.  He is like a vicious child playing with matches in a dynamite factory.

The Capitol Police were restrained and passive in dealing with the insurrectionists, compared with the way police often deal with peaceful environmental, anti-war or Black Lives Matter protestors.  I think that, under the circumstances, this probably was the right call.  A bloodbath would have been worse than anything that actually happened.

Still, many right-wing protestors in the United States think of themselves as supporters of the police, and many police appreciate this support.  Historically, revolution occurs when the police and military go over to the insurgents.  I think the events in Washington show there is potential for a more skillful demagogue than Trump to bring about a coup.

I don’t think that Republicans, self-described conservatives or even Trump supporters as a group are necessarily anti-democratic.  I don’t think that Democrats, self-described progressives or Trump haters are necessarily pro-democratic. 

I think yesterday’s insurrection was mild compared to the violence that would have been unleashed if Trump had won again by a narrow margin as he did in 2016.  Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’m glad my thought wasn’t put to the test.

The various federal judges did not see evidence of voter fraud on a scale large enough to have changed the results of the Presidential election.  Indeed, based on the reporting of Greg Palast, I think Republican voter suppression is a bigger factor than anything Democrats have done.

But there are millions of devoted Trump supporters who think the election was stolen and the government illegitimate.  They constitute a threat to democratic government. 

The mainstream news media and the social media companies will respond to them by stronger measures to silence those who “sow discord.”  This, too, is a threat—possibly a greater one.

LINKS

It’s official.  Congress has formally recognized Joe Biden’s victory by Andrew Prokop for Vox.

MAGA Cosplayers Seize Capitol While Cops Flounder by Yves Smith for Naked Capitalism.

Capitol riots: Who broke into the building? by the BBC Reality Check Team and BBC Monitoring.  [Added Later]

Trump’s Wiemar America by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Religious Meaning of MAGA Riot by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Trump Has Proven the Country Is Ripe for a Right-Wing Coup by Ian Welsh.

MSM Media Already Using Capitol Hill Riot to Call for More Internet Censorship by Caitlin Johnstone.

Violence in the Capitol, Dangers in the Aftermath by Glenn Greenwald on Substack. [Added Later]

Assange’s martyrdom for truth continues

January 7, 2021

I should have seen this coming.

After ruling against extraditing Julian Assange to the United States to be tried for espionage and computer hacking, British Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that he must stay in prison.

One technique of the old Soviet Union for tormenting imprisoned political dissidents was to give them hope that they would be released by a certain date and then, when the date came due, tell them their sentences would be extended.

This is what has happened to Assange.

Julian Assange faces an array of charges in the United States, mostly related to his publication of secret U.S. documents that reveal war crimes. He accepted political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid possible extradition to the United states.

In 2019, Ecuador withdrew its protection and Assange was confined to Belmarsh prison, which is reserved for the most dangerous and violent criminals. He has been in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, and cut off from contact with family, friends and lawyers. A United States expert on torture has said that his conditions amount to torture.

Judge Baraitser ruled that the United States has a legal right to extradite Assange, but denied the extradition request on the grounds that his mental and physical health would be threatened if he were sentenced, as would likely happen, to the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. But conditions are nearly as bad, or maybe just as bad, in Belmarsh.

She possibly had a point when she declared Assange a flight risk. He did skip bail in 2012 when he took refuge in the embassy.

But there is no need or justification for subjecting him to the conditions in which he is being confined in Belmarsh. He could be confined without solitary confinement, lack of exercise, and lack of contact with visitors.

It was unrealistic to expect Judge Baraitser to refuse to extradite Assange on freedom of the press grounds. The British Official Secrets Act is even more far reaching than the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917.

There has been an informal policy in the United States of prosecuting whistleblowers, while refraining from prosecuting journalists and news organizations that publish the secrets the whistleblowers reveal. But this, too, has little foundation in logic or law.

The basic issue is that if a government can commit crimes in secret, and punish those who reveal the crimes, there is no limit to its tyrannical power.

The only way to address this issue for once and for all is to pay laws limiting secrecy. One way to do this would be allow accused whistle-blowers and journalists to go free if they can convince a judge or jury that the information they revealed was kept secret only to conceal crime, wrongdoing or incompetence.

LINK

British Judge Keeps Assange in Prison, Despite Ruling Against Extradition by Kevin Gotsztola for Shadowproof.

Wednesday’s Other Story: On the case of Julian Assange, and fearing empire more than Trump by Matt Taibbi on TX News. [Added 1/8/2021]

For Julian Assange, truth really is a weapon

January 5, 2021

The U.S. government spent 10 years trying to capture Julian Assange, exerting pressure on the governments of Britain, Sweden, Ecuador and other countries in humiliating ways.

A British judge’s decision Monday, denying a U.S. request for extradition, may be the beginning of the end of Assange’s ordeal.  Let’s hope so.

What made Julian Assange such a theat?

It was his insight that truth can literally be a weapon, and a dangerous one.  He explained his philosophy in a blog post in 2007, shortly he and friends launched Wikileaks.

His insight was that conspiracies—whether criminal, terrorist, corporate or governmental—require the ability to communicate in secret.  A conspiracy, in his definition, is any action that requires secrecy in order to succeed.

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie.  This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems.  Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on.

Source: IQ.ORG.

Criminal and terrorist conspiracies fall apart when conspirators fear that anyone they talk to may be an informer.  Corporate and governmental conspiracies fall apart when conspirators fear that anyone they talk to may be a whistle-blower.

The result of fear of leaks is that the conspirators either stop doing anything they fear being made public (unlikely) or that they become so concerned with not incriminating themselves that they stop communicating effectively.

Later on, in an interview, he presented a more hopeful view.  He said the fact that governments and powerful institutions persecute whistle-blowers is an indication that they are reform-able or at least vulnerable.  If they weren’t reform-able or vulnerable, they wouldn’t care what the public knows or thinks.

I have said before that censorship is always an opportunity. The signal that censorship sends off reveals the fear of reform, and therefore the possibility of reform. In this case, what we see is a clear signal that those structures are not merely hypocritical, but rather that they are threatened in a way that they have not been previously.

From this, we can see, on one hand, extraordinary hypocrisy from the entire White House with regard to the importance of the freedom of speech, and, on the other hand, a betrayal of those statements—an awful betrayal of the values of the US Revolution.

In spite of this, when such a quantity of quality information is released, we have the opportunity to rattle this structure enough that we have a chance of achieving some significant reforms. Some of those, perhaps, are just being felt, while others will take a while, because of the cascade of cause and effect.

Source: In Conversation with Julian Assange Part II

The third aim of Wikileaks was to create a unofficial historical record so journalists and historians would not have to rely on official sources.

Orwell’s dictum, “He who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future,” was never truer than it is now. With digital archives, with these digital repositories of our intellectual record, control over the present allows one to perform an absolutely untraceable removal of the past.

Source: In Conversation with Julian Assange Part I

When people like U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designate Wikileaks as a “hostile non-state intelligence service,” there’s something to it.  Assange and his friends really did try to disrupt the existing power structure, alone.  What was distinctive is that Wikileaks was facilitating spying not for a government or a political movement, but for we the people.

(more…)

British judge denies extradition of Assange

January 4, 2021

British Judge Vanessa Baraitser has denied the U.S. government’s request to extradite Julian Assange, on the grounds that his life and health would be at risk.

Wow! I did not see this coming.  The U.S. government will appeal, of course.  I hope Assange is released on bail as soon as possible.  His release is not a certainty.

LINKS

Wikileaks founder extradition to US blocked by UK Judge by BBC News.

Julian Assange cannot be extradited to US, British judge rules by Ben Quinn for The Guardian.

The Assange Extradition Ruling Is a Relief, But It Isn’t Justice by Caitlin Johnstone.

Terrible Assange Extradition Ruling for Press Freedom by Ian Welsh.  [Added 1/5/2021]

Assange Wins – The Cost: The Crushing of Press Freedom by Jonathan Cook for Counterpunch. [Added 1/6/2021]