Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: Politics & Society
At present this includes posts on history of Zionism and modern Israel and Palestine as well as current events. Continue this setup? What of other histories? Adjust name of category? Currently includes Islamism (distinct from Islam) as an ideology of terrorism. Also currently includes Islamophobia and hostile denunciations of Islam — but see the question on Islam in Religion and Atheism.
They’re recruiting. Superficially relatively innocuous-looking groups like the Lads Society are their first ports of call. But their conversations have been infiltrated so we can be alerted to the threat:
When you press questions on this, I sense a degree of belligerence; the more belligerent people become, the more worried I become.
I know the feeling all too well though in the contexts of other discussions. That quote comes from Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline (the company with the world’s largest fleet of Boeing 777s), responding to the official narrative of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The interview with German journalist Andreas Spaeth was originally published in Der Spiegel but the full transcript is also on The Sydney Morning Herald page.
I have just completed reading The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370 by the French journalist Florence De Changy. The research into every facet of the narratives that have arisen to explain the disappearance of MH370 is refreshingly easy to read but above all thorough. The work is an exemplar of how to do serious research into current and historical events.
The inconsistencies and impossibilities that are bundled into the official narrative that the airliner crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean are made mercilessly transparent. As Clark himself has said:
What do you think happened?
CLARK: My own view is that probably control was taken of that aeroplane, the events that happened during the course of its tracked flight will be anybody’s guess of who did what and when. I think we need to know who was on this aeroplane in the detail that obviously some people do know, we need to know what was in the hold of the aeroplane, in the detail we need to know, in a transparent manner.And we need to continue to press all those stake holders, that were and are involved in the analysis, in the assessment of what happened, for more information. Because heading an airline that operates the largest number of 777s in the world, I have a responsibility of knowing exactly what went on. I do not subscribe to the view that the aircraft, which is one of the most advanced in the world, has the most advanced avionic and communication platforms, needs to be improved so that we can introduce some kind of additional tracking system for an aeroplane that should never have been allowed to enter into a non-trackable situation.
What do you mean by that?
CLARK: The transponders are under the control of the flight deck. These are tracking devices, aircraft identifiers, that work in the secondary radar regime. If you turn off that transponder in a secondary radar regime, it causes a disappearance of that particular aeroplane from the radar screen. That should never be allowed to happen. All secondary and primary radar should be the same. Irrespective of when the pilot decides to disable the transponder, the aircraft should be able to be tracked. So the notion by the Malaysians that the disappearance from the secondary radar and then the ability of the military to use primary radar to track the aeroplane and identify it as ‘friendly’ – I don’t know how they did that – is something we need to look at very carefully.
. . . .
. . . . I’m still struggling to find why a pilot should be able to put the transponder into standby or off. In my view, that should not be an option. Thirdly, the air traffic control systems should not have a situation where a non-transponder aircraft without its squawk identifier should not be allowed to turn off and still not be able to track it. This is absolute stuff of nonsense. Radar is radar, it will pick up metal objects flying at the speed of the size of a 777 without any difficulty. Who took the decision to say: ‘If a transponder is off, we can’t track it in a secondary radar regime’? Which apparently most air traffic control systems are in. We must look at that as well. This aircraft in my opinion was under control, probably until the very end.
But why would they fly down five hours straight towards Antarctica?
If they did! I am saying that every single element of the ‘facts’ of this particular incident must be challenged and examined in full transparency, exhausted to the point that there is no other way that we can think of this other than a complete mystery. We are nowhere near that, there is plenty of information out there, which we need to be far more forthright, transparent and candid about.
There is indeed “far more information out there” and Florence de Changy spills it all out along with clarity about the sources and their reliability or otherwise.
And no, no credence is given to conspiracy theories that have placed the plane in Pakistan, in Somalia, in Kazakhstan, on its way to crash into Diego Garcia. But the origins of those fanciful ideas are included. And if you were assured by the debris washed up on Reunion Island and Madagascar and surrounds you will be surprised to learn how many problems arise with that supposed evidence, how it was found, what it actually is and its condition, and the way the results of studies on it were officially announced. And no, there is no evidence that the captain was suicidal: all the evidence points to anything but.
Just to give you some idea of the scope of the research that has gone into Florence de Changy’s book here is an extract from her acknowledgements:
. . . Piecing this jigsaw together would not have been possible without the hundreds of people – pilots, scientists, academics, diplomats, engineers, politicians, whistle-blowers, fellow journalists, hackers, mercenaries and military personnel – scattered around the globe, all of whom I have either met in person or online in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, India, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, USA, Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Maldives, Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar, Reunion . . . (p. )
If a proposition is going to be taken to be unquestionably true, it is important that no one understand it.
— Roy Rappaport, Ritual, Sanctity, and Cybernetics
The context of that assertion is a discussion about how religious beliefs function to keep a community of diverse populations together. The fundamental belief that binds must at its root be cryptic, at least unfalsifiable, and hence susceptible to different interpretations so that all groups can find it satisfying and changing circumstances will be less likely to shatter the community. Here is the context of the quote:
In some cases the ultimate sacred statements are themselves cryptic; in others they may seem clear, but they are abstracted from cryptic contexts such as myths or the reports of revelations, and an apocryphal quality is often characteristic of the discourse which sanctifies sentences concerning particular social forms or containing specific directives by connecting them to ultimate sacred propositions. The importance of reducing ambiguity and vagueness in messages of social import was earlier noted. In contrast, it is perhaps necessary that considerable ambiguity and vagueness cloak the discourse from which sanctification flows. If a proposition is going to be taken to be unquestionably true, it is important that no one understand it. Lack of understanding insures frequent reinterpretation. (p. 71)
Anthropologist Roy Rappaport found that technologically simple communities like the Maring in New Guinea have “no chiefs or other political authorities capable of commanding the support of a body of followers”. It is up to each individual male, for example, to decide whether he will assist those of another group in warfare. What typically brings the members of a community together, as well as members of other communities to join and share company with them, are religious ceremonies and their related rituals held to honour their deceased ancestors.
These sacred occasions where diverse persons got together to celebrate would not be mere fun times. These occasions signalled among the attendees who were likely friends and allies in future endeavours. Family ties might be extended through betrothals. Excess livestock that had been disrupting space for crops and leading to local quarrels would be sacrificed and feasted upon so that the economic and social balance thus restored. So the religious occasions are regulators of society and its ecosystem. The beliefs provide the rationale for the believers to become actively involved in changing and improving their conditions of well-being.
Technology and power
It is different in technologically more advanced societies. In its simplest terms, Rappaport’s argument is that where chiefs do exist in similarly low-technology societies they are bestowed with great religious awe but in fact have little real political power; but where chiefs or other authorities do acquire access to more technology they thereby acquire the means to coerce submission to their authority. They no longer have the same need for being deemed “sanctified” by the community to maintain their status. They don’t need to submit to the controls that come with the religious belief systems and its personal representatives.
As a result, the political power of the authorities, strengthened by technology, replaces religious beliefs and customs as the controlling and unifying force.
Community beliefs in the sacred do not disappear, of course. But they are relegated to “a subsystem”, e.g. “the church”. The beliefs will continue to ratify the authorities as “chosen by God” but they no longer govern all aspects of society and the ecosystem in the way they used to. Instead, the benefits they offer are rewards in the future life after death. Control is maintained by a stress on ethical teaching as the price to be paid for heavenly gifts. They help reduce personal anxieties when the faithful are faced with conditions and experiences over which they have little or no control.
To the extent that the discourse of religion, religious ritual and religious experience contribute to the maintenance of orderliness and the reduction of anxiety without contributing to the correction of the factors producing the anxiety and disorder they are not adaptive but pathological. Indeed, their operation seems to resemble that of neuroses (see, for example, Freud 1907). (p. 73 Link is to PDF of Freud’s article)
Not that religious groups in technologically advanced society are always content to remain a form of pathological adjuncts to society.
But although sanctity may become degraded in the churches of technologically developed societies, “true sanctity,” that uniting the organism through its affective life to processes which may correct social and ecological malfunctions [as we saw above is the function of “sanctity” in societies such as those of the Maring], remains a continuing possibility. Throughout history revitalistic movements have emerged in streets, in universities, in fields among men sensing, and perhaps suffering from, the malfunction of control hierarchies that cannot reform themselves. In the early stages of such movements, at least, the unquestionable status of ultimate propositions rests upon affirmation through the religious experiences of the participants who believe that they are participating in corrective action. Sometimes they are mistaken. Although such movements have not infrequently been more disruptive than that to which they are a response, they may nevertheless be regarded as one of the processes through which cybernetic systems including men, and sometimes other living things as well, rid themselves of the pathology of unresponsiveness. (p. 73)
I wish I had begun my student life in anthropology.
How is your boycott of Amazon going? I didn’t realize I viewed Amazon so much until I made a conscious effort to avoid it and always use the alternatives I listed in Boycott Amazon Week. If you are looking for a tad more incentive to keep this side of the picket line read this:
It’s by Paris Marx and published on the Jacobinmag site. What a combo of names. The names alone inspire action — or inaction to avoid Amazon in solidarity with Amazon’s workers.
In May, Jeff Bezos unveiled his long-term vision for humanity’s future. During an hour-long presentation in Washington, DC, the Amazon billionaire described how humans will need to leave Earth if we’re to maintain “growth and dynamism” in the future.
For Bezos, our future is a series of free-floating space colonies called O’Neill cylinders in close proximity to Earth. This proximity, he argues, will help the planet to avoid exceeding its capacity as the population swells into the trillions. Such a development, argues Bezos, will allow us to produce thousands of “Mozarts and Einsteins.” But what about everyone else?
The richest man in the world with an intent to “save the Earth,” Bezos has claimed that space travel is “the only way” he can see to effectively deploy his enormous wealth — a statement he saw fit to make while simultaneously working to defeat a small tax increase in Seattle that would have bolstered programs to help the city’s soaring homeless population.
The quest for space habitats is essential, Bezos argues, because we’re destroying the planet. He says this as he nonetheless courts the oil and gas industry. Amazon workers have demanded their boss take stronger measures to address the company’s environmental footprint, but even his renewed pledge doesn’t go far enough. Its inaction is of course motivated by the logic of profit maximization — at the expense of planetary destruction. This is the same imperative that has driven Bezos to look to the stars.
Bezos is convinced that humanity will fall prey to “stasis and rationing” if we remain on Earth. The Jeff Bezos brand of never-ending growth will require constant population gains, increased energy use, and more resources than our planet can provide — so, into the stars we must go.
As is so often the case with the analyses of billionaires, a lot gets left out of the picture. The utopian future put forward by Bezos has blind spots so big you could pilot a starship through them. When they’re filled in, Bezos looks a lot more like Niander Wallace, the replicant manufacturer in Blade Runner 2049, than the savior he thinks himself to be. . . .
The article is studded with sub-headings like Hero Complex, Sci-Fi Glimpses of an Unequal Future, Disposable Humans in a Billionaire’s World.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a billionaire who’s read science fiction your whole life. Your mind, deluded by your immense wealth, thinks that the only way to “deploy this much financial resource” is to invest in space instead of paying taxes so we can collectively solve the problems on Earth. When a fictional television show about space colonization is canceled in its third season, you swoop in to save the day because not only do you fund a space company, but you also own a massive streaming platform — and it needs content. After chatting with some of the cast, you email your team asking to announce the show’s renewal, and — ten minutes after they reply — you take the stage and are lauded by sci-fi fans across the internet for saving the day.
This is exactly what happened when The Expanse was canceled by Syfy and quickly scooped up by Amazon Prime Video for a fourth season after a personal intervention by CEO Jeff Bezos. It’s hard to imagine having so much money that you could both fund a space race and the media that could inspire it all at the same time, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Amazon is even working with local officials to change the time that lights outside the warehouse stay red so that organizers can’t speak to the workers while they wait at red lights.
To support Amazon workers and let the company know that we do not approve of their union-busting tactics, a one-week boycott of the company has been planned. From Sunday, March 7th to Saturday, March 13th, everyone is being asked to not use Amazon or Amazon Prime and do not stream videos using the Amazon Prime video service.
Interestingly, from Yanis Varoufakis’s novel of an alternative to capitalism, Another Now ….
The Bladerunners organized mass consumer strikes, targeting one big tech company at a time. Their first successful mobilization was aimed at Amazon. Akwesi issued a global call to boycott Amazon for a day in support of doubling hourly pay in its warehouses around the world. That Day of Inaction, as the Bladerunners called it, caused less than a 10 per cent drop in Amazon’s usual revenues. But that was enough for Amazon immediately to concede a 50 per cent pay rise. Encouraged by their success, the Bladerunners embarked on many more campaigns of widening scope.
Rallying support via social media, the Bladerunners’ Days of Inaction became worldwide events, enjoying mass participation, especially by the young . . . .
Prescient, one would like to hope.
Personally I have no struggle boycotting Amazon. I have been doing so for quite some time now. There are even cheaper alternatives when it comes to books: bookfinder.com, archive.org, Scribd, bookzz.org, and of course interlibrary loans. Also pdfdrive.com, en.booksee.org
I once read a thick biography of John Maynard Keynes and a less thick book by John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, that expressed a very high regard for Keynesian ideas, and over the years have often found myself thinking back on ideas and turns of phrase in both of those works. I suppose that’s a sign that both Keynes and Galbraith have had an ongoing influence on my understanding of economics. (An engaging high school economics teacher led me towards top marks for the subject in my senior year so maybe the influence goes back to him.) So I was not able to resist reading what looked like a promising refresher and update on the nature of economics by that same Galbraith’s son, James K. Galbraith, on the Brave New Europe website:
The end of that article asked the question, What about global Capitalism: can it survive in its current form? and his answer is a neat outline of the history of capitalism since its inception through to today:
Pure global capitalism, such as it was, developed from around 1500 to the end of the 19th century.
It was undermined by the Great War and collapsed in North America, Europe and the British Empire at the end of the 1920s.
It was replaced over the course of the succeeding decades by a mixed economy, rooted in the pragmatic reforms of the American New Deal, the exigencies of the Second World War, and in reactions and adaptations to the competing systems of fascism and state socialism.
The attempt to reconstruct a system of pseudo-unregulated global capitalism began only in the late 1970s, with waves of privatization, deregulation and austerity. That system never fully matured and it has already collapsed, first in the financial crisis [of 2008], and now in the pandemic. So the question of its survival does not arise.
The question now is, what should be built in its place?Answers to that question are already emerging, most prominently in China but perhaps also in Russia and in parts of Latin America. Europe, the UK and North America, where neoliberal ideologues prevailed for decades, must now come to grips with the urgent need for fresh thinking suited to free and democratic societies.
Now that last paragraph set me off on a quest to find what JKG has in mind, exactly, about those countries, especially China.
[John Galbraith] . . . in the 1930s, worked on the New Deal, was charged with price control in World War II, and was a close advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson while becoming Harvard University’s longest-serving professor. But it was in the 1950s and 1960s that he became the world’s most famous economist and the first ever to reach a mass audience without the backing of any state. (foreignpolicy.com)
Here is an excerpt from a piece written in April 2020. If America in the 1950s and early 60s was Galbraithian (see the insert box), then today China comes closer to that description:
And there is China. We need not be detained by squabbles over whether the Chinese system is capitalist or socialist, whether the most influential economist over modern China is Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, or Henry George. Elements of both systems, and inspiration from all three thinkers, can be found in the way China’s economy works today. But the large Chinese state-owned corporations and China’s presence on the world stage are unquestionably Galbraithian, focused on market share, learning, new technologies, and improvement of the national capital stock. And so, in important respects, has been the Chinese state, which prizes above all autonomy, predictability, and social stability, and if not always firm control of its banking sector, the willingness to override that sector’s autonomy whenever necessary. China is no democracy, and modern China was built on many epic disasters, including the famine and Cultural Revolution, none of which appeal as models. But that it is a functioning society capable of mobilizing to meet vast challenges has never been clearer than in recent days.
That’s quite generalized. Here is a more detailed explanation. It is a clearer focus on what our author means by “Galbraithian”:
In America’s heyday, the dominant economic formation was the large industrial corporation. Giants like General Electric, General Motors, Ford, Bethlehem Steel, International Harvester, and IBM provided the backbone of U.S. military power and technological dominance on world markets. These firms grew up on American soil, survived the Depression, and were buttressed by the New Deal and the mobilization for World War II. In the postwar years, their power was balanced by strong trade unions, the organized voices of consumers and independent scientists, and an engaged government that weighed those voices against those of big business. This was the reality described and endorsed by my father, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. That reality still exists out there—but America’s industrial firms are no longer the world’s leaders, and those that are, are not in the United States.
Enter Covid-19 to make for the rise of some and the decline of others:
The pandemic has now put Galbraith’s global legacy into stark relief. One can now map out the rise and decline of nations simply by distinguishing between those that have continued along the lines that once defined U.S. economic success as Galbraith saw it and those that fell under the spell of illusions about free, competitive, and self-regulating markets and under the dominating power of finance. The United States today finds itself sadly in the latter group, alongside the United Kingdom. . . .
JKG explains again what the “Galbraithian” world was like before Reaganism and Thatcher when the shareholders, the investors, have become the decisive force. In “Galbraithian” times/nations . . .
The corporation, not the mythical sovereign consumer, set the terms of economic change. It designed, engineered, produced, and marketed to the masses. It was at the same time the architect of novelty and the stabilizing factor. Government helped by keeping predatory finance under strict controls and by vanquishing mass unemployment through public spending and tax reductions, in line with the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Progress, in a certain sense, was therefore ongoing, steady, and confidently expected to continue. . . .
Then there is China! . . .
Then there is China. In her forthcoming book, How China Escaped Shock Therapy, Isabella Weber demonstrates that China made an explicit choice in the 1980s to shun Friedman’s free market radicalism in favor of Galbraith’s pragmatism and gradualism. China’s post-Mao-era planners made a detailed study of American wartime price controls under my father’s direction at the U.S. Office of Price Administration in 1942-1943 and maintained a central role for large state-owned but autonomously managed corporations in their development strategy. Today, these firms and privately owned newcomers like Huawei are among the world’s leading Galbraithian firms . . . .
Heresy against NATO has apparently joined the ever-expanding list of sins that will get one erased from Twitter, as Big Tech mounts a crusade against infidels at home and abroad on behalf of values of Our Democracy.
Twitter announced bans on 373 accounts it connected to “state-linked information operations” on Tuesday. Some of them, the company said, “amplified narratives that were aligned with the Russian government” or “focused on undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability.”
Now their bots could roam with impunity all over cyberspace, tagging, tallying—and potentially trespassing over the copyrights of anyone and everyone who had created the content they were linking to in the process, something that Google would eventually do at industrial scale when it purchased YouTube years later.
All perfectly innocent, right? And all for the greater good, naturally.
To Page and Brin, there was nothing nefarious about this. They simply sought to capture the knowledge tucked away in computer archives across the country to benefit humanity. If it benefited them, too, so much the better. It was the first instance of what later might be classified as lawful theft. If anyone complained, Page expressed mystification. Why would anyone be bothered by an activity of theirs that was so obviously benign? They didn’t see the need to ask permission; they’d just do it. “Larry and Sergey believe that if you try to get everyone on board it will prevent things from happening,” said Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford and Page’s former thesis adviser, in an article in 2008. “If you just do it, others will come around to realize they were attached to old ways that were not as good….No one has proven them wrong—yet.”
In earlier pages, Foroohar opened the door to the educational and cultural background (from Montessori to Stanford) of Page and Brin that fostered this attitude.
This became the Google way. As Jonathan Taplin wrote in his book, Move Fast and Break Things, when Google released the first version of Gmail, Page refused to allow engineers to include a delete button “because Google’s ability to profile you by preserving your correspondence was more important than your ability to eliminate embarrassing parts of your past.” Likewise, customers were never asked if Google Street View cameras could take pictures of their front yards and match them to addresses in order to sell more ads. They adhered strictly to the maxim that says it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission—though in truth they weren’t really doing either.
Oh, to have the freedom to create that only China can provide. . .
It’s an attitude of entitlement that still exists today, even after all the events of the past few years. In 2018, while attending a major economics conference, I was stuck in a cab with a Google data scientist, who expressed envy at the amount of surveillance that Chinese companies are allowed to conduct on citizens, and the vast amount of data it produces. She seemed genuinely outraged about the fact that the university where she was conducting AI research had apparently allowed her to put just a handful of data-recording sensors around campus to collect information that could then be used in her research. “And it took me five years to get them!” she told me, indignantly.
Like innocent children who believe they can create the brave new world . . .
Such incredulity is widespread among Valley denizens, who tend to believe that their priorities should override the privacy, civil liberties, and security of others. They simply can’t imagine that anyone would question their motives, given that they know best. Big Tech should be free to disrupt government, politics, civic society, and law, if those things should prove to be inconvenient. This is the logic held by the band of tech titans who would like to see the Valley secede not just from America, but from California itself, since, according to them, the other regions aren’t pulling their economic weight.
History and the humanities? Never bothered with them, but they do make a rich source of hyperlinks . . .
The kings (and handful of queens) of Silicon Valley see themselves as prophets of sorts, given that tech is, after all, the future. The problem is that creators of the future often feel they have little to learn from the past. As lauded venture capitalist Bill Janeway once put it to me, “Zuck and many of the rest [of the tech titans] have an amazing naïveté about context. They really believe that because they are inventing the new economy, they can’t really learn anything from the old one. The result is that you get these cultural and political frictions that are offsetting many of the benefits of the technology itself.”
Law? Ethics? We can’t code for those!
Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor and noted Big Tech critic whose bookThe Black Box Societyis a must-read for those who want to understand the effects of technology on politics and the economy, provided a telling example of this attitude. “I once had a conversation with a Silicon Valley consultant about search neutrality [the idea that search engine titans should not be able to favor their own content], and he said, ‘We can’t code for that.’ I said this was a legal matter, not a technical one. But he just repeated, with a touch of condescension: ‘Yes, but we can’t code for it, so it can’t be done.’ ” The message was that the debate would be held on the technologist’s terms, or not at all.
Initially, Eva had considered the harvesting of data by Facebook, Google and others for the purposes of advertising a pretty innocuous way for consenting adults to trade a little bit of privacy for some rather desirable free leisure services. But as Costa would point out whenever given half a chance, Facebook and Google, Twitter and Instagram, Amazon and the rest were not mere service providers. Nor were their profits rewards for services rendered. No, they were gigantic behaviour modification machines, addicting and provoking, teasing and enraging their users in order to maximize engagement and the profiling data – and profits – that came with it.
‘Big tech only enables two people to communicate if it can manipulate their behaviour,’ Costa would insist on the rare occasions that he and Eva had argued the matter.
This was what he meant when he said that social media was proletarianizing us all. Facebook’s users provided both the labour that went into the machine and the product that was sold by it.
‘Even Walmart, a company renowned for its capacity to squeeze every drop of value out of its workers, pays out 40 per cent of its total revenue in wages,’ Costa would complain. ‘But Facebook pays only 1 per cent of its revenues to its employees and precisely nothing to its users!’
That was back in 2019. By 2025, Eva had become convinced that no self-respecting liberal could condone big tech’s mass manipulation techniques nor defend its gains as a fair reward for entrepreneurship. Its returns were only made possible by a species of techno-feudalism that made billions of people work for it for free.
Varoufakis, Yanis. Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present. London: The Bodley Head, 2020. p.144 (my emphasis)
At the end of 2020, I began to see the requisite social media posts asking what we’re tired of hearing or seeing in the news, and which words or terms we hope never to hear again. Not surprisingly, several people cited “systemic racism” (or, for that matter, systemic anything).
Throughout the previous year, pundits on the left (i.e., centrist liberals) and the right posted responses to what they see as the overuse of the term systemic racism. Disingenuous conservatives warned that blaming the system for generating racist ideas and exclusionary behavior would tend to absolve individuals for moral failings.
On the surface, they may seem to have a point. If the system causes people to behave the way they do, then how can we blame anyone? You may recognize this sort of argument when, for example, centrists and conservatives reflexively point toward the sin of greed rather than the underlying system that rewards or even requires it. They redirect our attention to failing people so that we don’t look too closely at the failing structure that nurtures and supports them. By focusing our attention on the actions of individuals they hope to prevent meaningful change.
Before continuing, we need to be absolutely clear about what we mean by “systemic.” In the mainstream press, we frequently see references to ideas, policies, and behavior that pervade the system. However, they focus our attention on the people who hold those ideas, promote those policies, and engage in that behavior. And where the right sees only bad actors, centrist liberals see bad actors working in a system that needs to be reformed. Neither view is particularly helpful; however, the notion that the politico-economic framework is a neutral playing field that just needs a fairer rulebook and better referees is comforting, but seriously wrongheaded. Continue reading “What the Left Means by “Systemic””
He stresses the importance of recognizing that conspiracies do in fact exist. Don’t come across like a condescending know-it-all and lazily resort to appeals to authority (the mainstream media sources, for example). Acknowledge that the conspiracy theorist may be motivated by a genuine concern for real injustices, so by laughing in the face of a QAnon believer in a vast pedophile ring led by the Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden, you can come across as not caring about child abuse. Colin Dickey proposes better ways to approach that kind of conspiracy theorist.
Here I would like to focus on his explanation of the differences between real and hoax conspiracies:
How Real Conspiracies Become Known
Conspiracies are real. Think of Watergate, the Iran-Contra episode, (I would add COINTELPRO and the conspiracy to lead the U.S. into the invasion of Iraq), the tobacco lobby, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. The more widespread a conspiracy the more effort is required into keeping more people quiet.
When comparing conspiracy theories to their real-world counterparts, what becomes clear is how conspiracists tend to see the world on a fairly abstract level. There is a purposeful lack of detail and specificity since such detail will reveal inherent problems and contradictions with the theory. The more you press for these details, the harder the conspiratorial mind will have to work to reconcile the theory with reality. . . . What are the mechanics of this conspiracy, and what is preventing the normal mechanisms of investigative journalism and law enforcement from kicking in here?
After all, even highly organized conspiracies with limitless government backing and resources can’t stay hidden forever.
Successful conspiracies take hard work to keep them secret. The bigger the conspiracy, the more people involved. Watergate became known through a bookkeeper for the Committee for the Reelection of the President, Judy Hoback Miller, who “felt frustrated” that the “truth was not coming out”.
People like Miller [are] the “so-called ‘minor people’” — the secretaries, security guards, and other low-level employees who worked behind the scenes for the big players who were often the first to talk. Such people are rarely ideologues nor are they being paid enough. The complexities of QAnon likewise would require a massive number of such minor people; people who, it stands to reason, have no ideological commitment to such horrors but are nonetheless employed in carrying them out. Such people ought to be easy to get to talk. When no such whistleblowers emerge, it speaks to the thinness of the story.
Compare the exposure of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program in the early days of the war on terror. This was
documented by none other than hobbyist plane spotters, who noted the tail numbers of flights taking off and landing.
The more wide-reaching a conspiracy — the more victims it has, the more perpetrators involved, the wider geographical distance covered, etc. — the more traces it will leave. A conspiracy theory that is widely hypothesized and yet unproven, in other words, requires a level of human infallibility that we have never heretofore seen.
Hiding 35,000 children
QAnon alleges thousands of victims yet has produced none. Timothy Charles Holmseth, a conspiracist who claims to be part of a (nonexistent) Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, alleged in May that this same task force rescued some 35,000 children from an underground network of prisons beneath New York’s Central Park.. . . . Who are these victims, and where are their families? Where are the obituaries, the memorials, the tearful mothers on the steps of the Capitol holding press conferences, demanding justice? “There’s not one of them out there who said, ‘Yeah, we’re glad our child was rescued from this giant underground war,’” Craig Sawyer, an anti-sex-trafficking activist and critic of Holmseth, told the Daily Beast.
Colin Dickey’s article is worth reading for his insights into the psychology of the conspiracy theorist and for becoming aware of smart ways to approach discussions with those who may be part of something like QAnon. I mentioned above one possible concern: that people really are concerned for some injustice or crime or abuse. Another point he elaborates on is the possibility that for some of us, the idea of a vast and highly successful perfect crime is in one sense reassuring: the world is not so subject to the chaos, the randomness, the lack of controls, – the world is thereby, most ironically, made a more tolerable, safer, place.
Dickey, Colin. “How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.” GEN, October 8, 2020. https://gen.medium.com/how-to-talk-to-a-conspiracy-theorist-20122a39ac8a.
Thank Clio that Biden withdrew the report on his first day but I still feel some dismay after having read it right through last night. It is the American counterpart of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, a treatise of holy writ as sacred and unquestionable Pat Robertson’s Holy Bible. My initial curiosity was stirred by having read only a few days earlier on page one of Rupert Murdoch’s leading newspaper in Australia a news item about a report by right wing “think tank”, The Institute of Public Affairs, for the incumbent Liberal Party, deeply critical of the way humanities courses are being taught in Australian universities. (The report can be found here.) The 1776 Report is more of the same, in particular more of the same of an earlier IPA report focusing on the teaching of history, or to be even more exact, many pages more of the same type sweeping bromides and absence of substance, ignorance about the nature of history, outright falsehoods about how it is taught and inability to comprehend the outcomes of history teaching today.
The 1776 Report opens by declaring that the United States was founded in “fundamental truths” that must never be abandoned. All political concerns of different sectors of society can be addressed harmoniously by a “proper understanding” of the words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Whether you belong to the richest 1% or are one of the long-term unemployed in a slum area, you are a part of a same nation, one people, and are part of a system that is set up to “promote your happiness” that all “the nations of the world” will envy and want to emulate. The purpose of teaching history is to create a people united in their beliefs about themselves as Americans, who feel “inspired and ennobled” by what they learn about America’s past. The opening sentence points to the spirit of fundamentalism through which it enjoins readers to believe in their history. Despite mistakes and wrongs from time to time, the American people have always been fundamentally good and righteous:
. . . . Americans will never falter in defending the fundamental truths of human liberty proclaimed on July 4, 1776. We will—we must—always hold these truths. [Later, seven times, the documents speaks of America’s “self-evident and eternal truths” — implying their ultimately divine origin.]
. . . the principles of the American founding . . . have shaped our country. . . . [The founders] sought to build America as a shining “city on a hill”—an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world that wish to steer their government toward greater liberty and justice. The record of our founders’ striving and the nation they built is our shared inheritance and remains a beacon, as Abraham Lincoln said, “not for one people or one time, but for all people for all time.”
. . . .
The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history. Controversies about the meaning of the founding can begin to be resolved by looking at the facts of our nation’s founding. Properly understood, these facts address the concerns and aspirations of Americans of all social classes, income levels, races and religions, regions and walks of life. As well, these facts provide necessary—and wise—cautions against unrealistic hopes and checks against pressing partisan claims or utopian agendas too hard or too far.
. . . the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice, which are the political conditions for living well. To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.
. . . America’s principlesare named at the outset to be both universal—applying to everyone—and eternal: existing for all time.
No nation, we further read, has “strived harder, or done more, to achieve” “equality, liberty, justice and government by consent” than America.
It is like reading a holy book, a promise that to “truly” understand American history is to enter a sacred experience and progress towards becoming an ideal citizen, one who is part of showing the world the epitome of universal truths, becoming part of the nation that is the envy of the world.
It does not replace religion, though. At least not directly. It lays claim, in effect, to being the one sacred place where one can find the true fulfilment of one’s religion. Religion is given meaning insofar as religion allows itself to become a prophet of the American experience. “God” and “Providence” are mentioned 26 times and Providence in the Project. “Religion” and “religious” 18 and 51 times respectively. “Faith” 29 times. “Christian” and “Christianity” 12 times. “Sacred” 7 times and “divine” 6. Two Bible verses are quoted. Even “miracles” and “miraculous” make mentions — each time to describe the creation of the United States of America.
the belief that they are part of an elect, a chosen;
the narcissistic self-perspective that they are part of something unique, special;
the conviction that there is only one true and correct way of life and there is no middle ground: you are either with us or against us;
there is a sacred founding book, a bible, (or sacred writings of the fathers,) to which literal obedience is mandatory;
the belief that law and authority come from God (or the worlds of nature and reason that God explicitly created as means of revelation of himself);
a spirit of nationalism.
I have adapted some points where I believe they apply to the perspective expressed in The 1776 Report but they all apply and so also, I suspect, do the others that I have not listed here.
The idea of fundamentalism is not that one thinks oneself is perfect but that one is “fundamentally good”, and because one is fundamentally good, one’s failures can be minimized, swept aside, excused. So when slavery is discussed it is pointed out very quickly that “slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout history” and that the Western world only began to repudiate slavery “at the time of the American Revolution.” The same discussion takes a curious byway into a discussion of how the pro-slavery senator John Calhoun promoted a “new theory” of “group rights” (those of the slave-owners) that opposed the “unifying” “self-evident and eternal truths” of the Declaration of Independence. It is only when one reads further on and into the section on Racism and Identity Politics and one learns the purpose of this digression:
The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders. The ideas that drove this change had been growing in America for decades, and they distorted many areas of policy in the half century that followed. Among the distortions was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of “group rights” not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers. The justification for reversing the promise of color-blind civil rights was that past discrimination requires present effort, or affirmative action in the form of preferential treatment, to overcome long-accrued inequalities.
It takes some chutzpah to find a way to compare advocates for affirmative action to Calhoun-type racism. (For a discussion on racism today see Racism (without the hatred).
Other noble movements in the course of American history that have been part of making the United States the “most free” and the “envy of the world” have been
abolition, women’s suffrage, anti-Communism, and the Pro-Life Movement.
Did you also find yourself catching your breath for a moment when you read some of those programs on a list of “great reforms” that have “come forward [to] improve our dedication to the principles of the Declaration of Independence under the Constitution”? I don’t think I need to elaborate here. Movements that oppose these, indeed, even today’s generation born from the Civil Rights movement, are condemned as being “fundamentally” anti-American:
More problematic have been movements that reject the fundamental truths of the Declaration of Independence and seek to destroy our constitutional order. The arguments, tactics, and names of these movements have changed, and the magnitude of the challenge has varied, yet they are all united by adherence to the same falsehood—that people do not have equal worth and equal rights.
Stick that, you Black Lives Matters protesters.
The 1776 Report informs Americans that
All the good things we see around us—from the physical infrastructure, to our high standards of living, to our exceptional freedoms—are direct results of America’s unity, stability, and justice, all of which in turn rest on the bedrock of our founding principles.
Clearly, the authors are all well-to-do, live in very nice surroundings and with high standards of living. What of the others? Well, the Project does happily say that Americans who are “down on their luck” (it’s luck that is to blame) are rescued by good religious folks:
Local religious leaders have been a key buttress supporting our communities. Neighborhood and parish churches, temples, and mosques still are the strongest organized centers of help for the local poor, jobless, homeless, and families down on their luck. For generations, neighbors have assisted neighbors through church networks, helping the needy avoid the dehumanization of prolonged dependency on government welfare. Today, countless men and women actively feed and care for the poor, house and speak for immigrants and the disadvantaged, minister to jailed and released criminals, and advocate powerfully for a better society and a more peaceful world, supported by the charitable funding of Americans of all faiths.
Interesting wording. Other more “socialist-inclined” nations consider it society’s responsibility to care for those who have been victims of an economic system that has penalized them through no fault of their own. That society would through the state care for these people is considered by the authors of The 1776 Report to be an act of “dehumanization”.
I could write much more but enough is enough. The 1776 Report is an odious document that would use a particular historical narrative to justify the present power structures in the United States and condemn those who would seek serious change and justice.
History as properly taught is not a single narrative designed to promote tingly feelings of being “the most exceptional people on earth”. There is no justice in promoting “unifying, inspiring and ennobliing” feelings if they hide one from the past injustices that have produced the divisions and inequities we see all around us today. I am not suggesting that one must hate one’s nation. Remember that one of the traps of fundamentalism listed above is black and white thinking. To critically understand and explore the truth, very often too long lost from view, of the past does not have to be an act of hatred but one of determination to make things better. That sort of determination is an act of love, not hatred.
There is much more to address, especially with respect to the emphasis in both the American and Australian reports on “Liberal education” (as in the sense of Classical Liberal). Maybe over time I can post more on why this kind of education is not necessarily the way to “human understanding and liberation” that it is cracked up to be, but why an education in the humanities is indeed an essential part of a just society.
The lie outlasts the liar. The idea that Germany lost the First World War in 1918 because of a Jewish “stab in the back” was 15 years old when Hitler came to power. How will Trump’s myth of victimhood function in American life 15 years from now? And to whose benefit? — Timothy Snyder
Like historical fascist leaders, Trump has presented himself as the single source of truth. His use of the term “fake news” echoed the Nazi smear Lügenpresse (“lying press”); like the Nazis, he referred to reporters as “enemies of the people.” Like Adolf Hitler, he came to power at a moment when the conventional press had taken a beating; the financial crisis of 2008 did to American newspapers what the Great Depression did to German ones. The Nazis thought that they could use radio to replace the old pluralism of the newspaper; Trump tried to do the same with Twitter.
Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.
Some of his lies were, admittedly, medium-size: that he was a successful businessman; that Russia did not support him in 2016; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Such medium-size lies were the standard fare of aspiring authoritarians in the 21st century. In Poland the right-wing party built a martyrdom cult around assigning blame to political rivals for an airplane crash that killed the nation’s president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban blames a vanishingly small number of Muslim refugees for his country’s problems. But such claims were not quite big lies; they stretched but did not rend what Hannah Arendt called “the fabric of factuality.”
One historical big lie discussed by Arendt is Joseph Stalin’s explanation of starvation in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33. The state had collectivized agriculture, then applied a series of punitive measures to Ukraine that ensured millions would die. Yet the official line was that the starving were provocateurs, agents of Western powers who hated socialism so much they were killing themselves. A still grander fiction, in Arendt’s account, is Hitlerian anti-Semitism: the claims that Jews ran the world, Jews were responsible for ideas that poisoned German minds, Jews stabbed Germany in the back during the First World War. Intriguingly, Arendt thought big lies work only in lonely minds; their coherence substitutes for experience and companionship.
In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures. The level of mendacity was profound. The claim was not only wrong, but it was also made in bad faith, amid unreliable sources. It challenged not just evidence but logic: Just how could (and why would) an election have been rigged against a Republican president but not against Republican senators and representatives? Trump had to speak, absurdly, of a “Rigged (for President) Election.”
The force of a big lie resides in its demand that many other things must be believed or disbelieved. To make sense of a world in which the 2020 presidential election was stolen requires distrust not only of reporters and of experts but also of local, state and federal government institutions, from poll workers to elected officials, Homeland Security and all the way to the Supreme Court. It brings with it, of necessity, a conspiracy theory: Imagine all the people who must have been in on such a plot and all the people who would have had to work on the cover-up.
The remainder of Timothy Snyder’s article is most disturbing reading. Trump can disappear but in the present context of disillusionment and loss of confidence in the political system that will open the door to a worse outcome. The potential for national fracturing violence and intimidation in 2024 is real. As per David Cay Johnston of DCReport.org: