10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. edward luce western liberalism
  2. flat earth theories colorado
  3. expansion of the surveillance state
  4. tim berners-lee fixing the internet
  5. masha gessen military coup
  6. trump consummate narcissistic salesman
  7. daniel dennett radical transparency
  8. camels delivering u.s. mail
  9. charlie brooker futurist
  10. peter thiel backup country new zealand

Donald Trump in 2017: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

Donald Trump in 1955: “Get that son of a bitch off the bus right now.”

 

Jesse Ventura is now being paid to deny Russian interference in the American election on Putin’s propaganda channel.

Ian Bogost argues that we’re already living inside a computer.

Jamie Wheal, “Flow State” salesman, is profiled by the New York Times.

• Nicholas Carr analyzes Sandy Pentland’s ideas about social physics.

• Bob Woodruff conducted a Reddit AMA about North Korea.

Nation-states may be a passing fancy—or perhaps not.

• A brief note from 1928 about future foods.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Mark Lilla, woolly mammoths, etc.

Should the machines come for our jobs, not everyone will be able to shift into a rewarding career as a Zumba instructor. Someone will actually have to be in the Zumba class. That Zumba ain’t gonna do itself.

Luckily the Flow Industry is here to provide good jobs. As Casey Schwartz writes in a smart NYT Style piece “How to Hack Your Brain (for $5,000),” some are making a killing selling a “brain-shifting” system that allegedly allows people to “upgrade their nervous systems” and live in the moment. A former Esalen instructor named Jamie Wheal is a leader among the Flow educators, peddling the process with anti-Information Age fervor that ultimately sounds suspiciously like a slick Silicon Valley sales pitch, what with its promises of “hacking” and “optimization.” He hopes to increasingly marry the meditative method to neuroscience and heighten the results.

At present, his shoeless acolytes attend multi-day summits in Utah, listen to lectures in a white dome (“Flow Dojo”), do light exercise, engage in hyperventilation, live temporarily in tents and use centrally located porta-potties, which makes it possible for them to avoid shitting on the ground. It may seem like I’m making fun of those seeking to raise their consciousness—and I am!—but I also have a soft spot for people trying to comprehend the world at an off-center angle, if not for the ones charging thousands a head to “change minds.”

An excerpt:

But what is flow?

First popularized decades ago by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an elusive state cultivated by artists, athletes and others, that of being so absorbed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time and thought, finding themselves guided rather by instinct and intuition. It has also been referred to as the Zone — not to be confused with the diet of the same name — or just “being in the moment.” And for those who have experienced it, there is no denying its magic.
 
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, who turns 83 this month, is a deeply philosophical academic formerly of the University of Chicago (now at Claremont Graduate University) and still publishing. In 2004 he gave a Ted Talk that has been viewed over four million times.

Mr. Wheal has taken a somewhat brisker, more commercial approach. He has advised members of the United States Navy Special Operations, top-ranked athletes and executives of technology companies on “optimizing performance” through flow, receiving six-figure fees for some of his consultations.

His five-day retreat, at a sprawling, privately held property known as Summit and convened the day before the solar eclipse, cost almost $5,000 and was a sort of beta test for spreading his gospel to a larger public audience. (He also offers free assessments and videos on his website.)

Attendees were housed in white tepee-like tents, with portable toilets set up down a dirt path. The camp had been erected quickly by the “glamping” company Aether Camp, to Mr. Wheal’s specifications.

Mr. Wheal, who said his father was a test pilot for the British royal navy, came to the United States from England at age 8 and speaks rapidly in a mash-up accent, dropping idiosyncratic phrases and erudite references to the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, to Cincinnatus and Aldous Huxley. At moments he is given to phrases that are not immediately comprehensible, like “We are broaching the possibility of midwifing humanity into the infinite game.”

But his larger message came through clearly. In our digital age, loud with bottom-feeder commentary, the ping of incoming emails and bleating social media, the pursuit of flow is all the more urgent.

“Honestly, have we abdicated our purpose just because of these insistent micro asks?” Mr. Wheal said. “Have we just completely ceded our center, completely ceded clarity, and it was all just based on 20-something bro-grammers trying to crack our attention spans?”

To fulfill his flow-finding mission, Mr. Wheal wants to bring what he calls his Dojo Domes to locations around the world.•

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As the dissolute dotard and the porcine airport poisoner play a game of nuclear chicken with our hides, it’s clear that going forward there’s no positive military option and several truly awful ones. While both blustery parties may have begun this war as one of of words, matters have now escalated past the danger point. Trump and Kim both regard themselves so highly that you would think that their own greedy self-preservation would safeguard the rest of us, but neither leader seems particularly grounded in reality. You don’t behave the way they do if survival if your first impulse.

Christopher Hitchens dubbed North Korea a “nation of racist dwarfs” in 2010, which doesn’t exactly tell the whole picture. It’s a sick society, no doubt, the body diseased from the head down, but one that clearly possesses advanced technological acumen despite its isolation, poverty and want. The late provocateur summed up the populace this way: “Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult.” That may be how things appear to an outsider, especially a serial sensationalist like Hitchens, but I doubt those living beneath a brutal authoritarian regime are truly expressing how they feel. Nuance, that great mitigator, was lacking in Hitchens’ article and it has been in the dialogue spit between Trump and Kim. Its absence could get millions killed.

Two excerpts follow.

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A few Reddit AMA exchanges about North Korea from ABC’s Bob Woodruff, who’s made eight trips to the isolated country:

Question:

As someone who has been to the country frequently, what do you think the greatest misconception of North Korea is?

Bob Woodruff:

I would have to say that in the country’s capital of Pyongyang they seem to be westernized in many ways. Of course there are many soldiers walking around in their uniforms but for the others they now have american looking clothes and shoes. They now have cell phones although they cannot extend outside the city. What we really don’t see are the countrysides and the prison camps. So I don’t know what our misconceptions would be there.

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Question:

With all the rhetoric flying around, mixed with the stories of almost cartoonish absurdity from the regime all the time, what would you say is the biggest/most common misconception that the average Westerner has about North Korea and the Kim regime these days?

Bob Woodruff:

Their intelligence. The people in the elite class are extremely educated. That is especially with technology. They have developed nuclear bombs, rockets, engines etc faster than ever predicted.

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Question:

Is the average North Korean citizen aware of the propaganda they are being fed and just choose to stay silent for their own well being or do they seem to genuinely believe it?

Bob Woodruff:

I think that they believed it more than now. in the doc you can see that i have been going there for more than 12 years and back then i really felt that they consider the leaders god like. Since then more have studied overseas. More importantly there are radio connections along the borders with both China and South Korea. More social media. Cell phones and conversations with family member who worked in China. Better every year.

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Question:

Aside from the U.S.A, what do north Koreans think about other countries?

Bob Woodruff:

Depends on their history etc. They have just a few allies but even they are starting to dislike NK under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. China is their number one friend but it is starting to lose its faith. Nuclear bombs and tests are frightening even to China. As you could see in our “Inconvenient Border” doc we got out yesterday, China is no longer so connected to NK because of Kim Jong Un. He has never been to China and vice versa for Xi Jingping. Their other strong historical ally is Russia. But they essentially ended their military and economic support of NK in the mid-90s. That led to starvation and mass death in NK so that relationship has descended.•

· · ·

From Ariel Dorfman’s New York Review of Books piece “Nuclear Apocalypse Now?“:

Debating whether Hiroshima was a war crime is, at this moment, anything but an academic exercise. America’s presumed innocence is not benign. It allows an ignorant and bellicose president to open the door not just to the Kim regime’s destruction, but to a possible act of collective suicide on a global scale. If Trump nukes North Korea, what will China do? And Russia?

In 1888, the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche predicted the coming of “wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.” It seems unlikely that Trump was recalling Ecce Homo when he echoed Nietzsche’s phrase with his promise of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” but he should consider the warning of Albert Einstein, four years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

If this president is seriously considering the first nuclear attack in more than seven decades of uneasy atomic peace, it won’t matter this time whether we call it a war crime. It would be an apocalypse that might leave no one to claim they were innocent.•

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Jesse Ventura has decried how stupid Americans are, but without so many dummies, would he even have a career?

Pat Buchanan has been called the precursor to Trump because of their shared white nationalist platforms, but Ventura is more precisely the orange supremacist’s spiritual forefather despite being five years his junior. Like Trump, Ventura crawled from the wreckage of U.S. trash culture, pro wrestling and talk radio, to win a major public office (Minnesota governor) by utilizing off-center media tactics to portray himself as some sort of vague “outlaw truth-teller” while running against the “establishment.” He was an “anti-candidate” who made politics itself and the mainstream media his enemies and the public got swept up in the rebellious facade of it all. His great joy in the process seemed to be that his upset victory, to borrow a phrase from Muhammad Ali, “shocked the world,” as if surprise and entertainment were the goals of politics and not actual good governance.

After a dismal term in office, Ventura bowed out of politics and fashioned some sort of career from Reality TV (just like Trump), peddling asinine conspiracy theories (another thing he shares with Trump) and making appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show (yet one more similarity with Trump.) He did these things in part to make money but also because he’s an exhibitionist in need of a surfeit of attention. Sound familiar?

Now both men seem to have the same boss—an often-shirtless guy named Vladimir—as Trump suspiciously refuses to say a bad word about the adversarial nation that greatly helped his candidacy, and Ventura has decided to marry his egotistical horseshit to anti-Americanism on RT, Putin’s propaganda channel. The checks must be clearing because the fake wrestler announced on the inaugural episode that Russian interference in our election is fake news. “Where’s the proof?” Ventura asks. He’ll no doubt remain in a state of disbelief even should Robert Mueller provide copious documents and recordings. The murderous dictator that employs him will demand it.

· · ·

An excellent Daily Beast report by Ben Collins, Gideon Resnick, Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman uncovered another aspect of the Kemlin’s extraordinary influence on the U.S. election, in the form of the Facebook group “Being Patriotic,” which promoted pro-Trump rallies in numerous U.S. cities. The opening:

Suspected Russia propagandists on Facebook tried to organize more than a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida during last year’s election, The Daily Beast has learned.

The demonstrations—at least one of which was promoted online by local pro-Trump activists— brought dozens of supporters together in real life. They appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook in direct support of Donald Trump.

The Aug. 20, 2016, events were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump!” and they were billed as a “patriotic state-wide flash mob,” unfolding simultaneously in 17 different cities and towns in the battleground state. It’s difficult to determine how many of those locations actually witnessed any turnout, in part because Facebook’s recent deletion of hundreds of Russian accounts hid much of the evidence. But videos and photos from two of the locations—Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs—were reposted to a Facebook page run by the local Trump campaign chair, where they remain to this day.

“On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the streets of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump!” read the Facebook event page for the demonstrations. “Our flash mob will occur in several places at the same time; more details about locations will be added later. Go Donald!”

The Florida flash mob was one of at least four pro-Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton demonstrations conceived and organized over a Facebook page called “Being Patriotic,” and a related Twitter account called “march_for_trump.”  (The Daily Beast identified the accounts in a software-assisted review of politically themed social-media profiles.)

Being Patriotic had 200,000 followers and the strongest activist bent of any of the suspected Russian Facebook election pages that have so far emerged. Events promoted by the page last year included a July “Down With Hillary!” protest outside Clinton’s New York campaign headquarters, a September 11 pro-Trump demonstration in Manhattan, simultaneous “Miners for Trump” demonstrations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in October, and a pro-Trump rally outside Trump Tower last November, after his election victory.•

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Haven’t yet gotten my stinking paws on Sandy Pentland’s new book, Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter, but the Nicholas Carr critique in Technology Review is instructive even if you possess no prior knowledge of the computer scientist’s vision for the future. 

A society all watched over by machines of loving grace seems implausible to me, whether we’re talking about totalitarian states or democratic ones. The former will use sensors and chips to monitor and manipulate behavior—and so will the latter, actually. And the distance from a nudge to a shove is shorter than we may accept.

The supposed virtue of Big Data is that it can possibly view behavior and justice without prejudice, except that it’s programmed by humans who possess those preconceived notions. As Carr explains, a further failing is that skimming the surface of society for information to engineer the populace pays no mind to historical context, so it can be a feedback loop rather than a corrective. To be succinct: It lacks the depth of the past and an understanding of the very nature of being human.

An excerpt:

Ultimately, Pentland argues, looking at people’s interactions through a mathematical lens will free us of time-worn notions about class and class struggle. Political and economic classes, he contends, are “oversimplified stereotypes of a fluid and overlapping matrix of peer groups.” Peer groups, unlike classes, are defined by “shared norms” rather than just “standard features such as income” or “their relationship to the means of production.” Armed with exhaustive information about individuals’ habits and associations, civic planners will be able to trace the full flow of influences that shape personal behavior. Abandoning general categories like “rich” and “poor” or “haves” and “have-nots,” we’ll be able to understand people as individuals—even if those individuals are no more than the sums of all the peer pressures and other social influences that affect them.

Replacing politics with programming might sound appealing, particularly given Washington’s paralysis. But there are good reasons to be nervous about this sort of social engineering. Most obvious are the privacy concerns raised by collecting ever more intimate personal information. Pentland anticipates such criticisms by arguing for a “New Deal on Data” that gives people direct control over the information collected about them. It’s hard, though, to imagine Internet companies agreeing to give up ownership of the behavioral information that is crucial to their competitive advantage.

Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a “data-driven society” remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor in McLuhan’s day, and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice. People don’t have complete freedom in choosing their peer groups. Their choices are constrained by where they live, where they come from, how much money they have, and what they look like. A statistical model of society that ignores issues of class, that takes patterns of influence as givens rather than as historical contingencies, will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.

Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around.•

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Anthony Fiala, right, with Theodore Roosevelt in Brazil in 1914.


Long before astronauts were chowing down of pilled and tubed food and Silicon Valley was taken with the idea of Soylent, Anthony Fiala, an American chemist and explorer who’d made his way to the Arctic and the Amazon, believed that beef-juice chewing gum and other odd deliveries of nutrition were the wave of the future, especially for wanderers like himself who didn’t have time to be foragers. From the July 8, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and for not quite 200 years we’ve been investing heavily in the narrative of nation-states, discrete bodies with closed borders, certified citizens and localized laws. The World Federalist movement in the U.S. in the middle of last century was just one of the challenges to this orthodoxy, and like the rest, it didn’t go very far. Is the nation-state simply the natural order of things even if it was only recently invented, or is it a passing fancy?

· · ·

In the first few days of 2015, Jamie Bartlett published “Cover of Darkness,” an Aeon article which takes a counterintuitive approach to government surveillance in the Internet Age, believing that online anonymity will increase, the mouse outrunning the cat. My response:

I think he’s right to an extent. No legislation is going to stop corporations and governments from trying to track and commodify us, but media becomes more decentralized over time, and the number of info hacks, leaks and countermeasures will continue to proliferate. “While that’s broadly good for liberty, it may be more a boon to terrorists and trolls than you and I.”

I couldn’t have known at the time how soon that comment would detonate.

· · ·

Returning in part to that theme, Bartlett has now written “Return of the City-State” for the same publication, another smart essay which wonders whether mass migration to the Internet has made it plausible that the nation will vanish. While I agree that online “nations” like Facebook and Google and Twitter have posed serious challenges to borders—just look at Brexit and our Presidential election—and weakened central governance, I think in the foreseeable future we will probably have the best and worst of both systems, actual nation-states and virtual ones, as people look for myriad ways to safeguard themselves in an increasingly anarchic society. Also factor in the immense resources it will take to combat climate change and remodel and rebuild an increasingly wide swath of areas that will become weather danger zones, something smaller governmental models can’t readily manage.

· · ·

Seasteaders, for instance, may find the waters rough. Especially when one of the main backers of this nouveau city-state concept is Peter Thiel, a “genius” who was sure there WMDs in Iraq and that Donald Trump would be a wonderful President. The problem isn’t always the world as it has already been built, but that human beings inhabit that world and our flaws can negatively impact a large nation or a small island and anything in between. 

· · ·

I doubt nation-states are endangered—though they will be challenged and forced to adapt.

From Bartlett:

There were only tens of millions of people online in 1995 when the nation-state was last declared dead. In 2015, that number had grown to around 3 billion; by 2020, it will be more than 4 billion. (And more than 20 billion internet-connected devices.) Digital technology doesn’t really like the nation-state. John Perry Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ (1996) sums it up well: the internet is a technology built on libertarian principles. Censorship-free, decentralised and borderless. And now ubiquitous.

This is an enormous pain for the nation-state in all sorts of ways. It’s now possible for the British National Health Service to be targeted by ransomware launched in North Korea, and there are few ways to stop it or bring perpetrators to justice. App technology such as Uber and Deliveroo has helped to produce a sudden surge in the gig economy, which is reckoned to cost the government £3.5 billion a year by 2020-1. There are already millions of people using bitcoin and blockchain technologies, explicitly designed to wrestle control of the money supply from central banks and governments, and their number will continue to grow. It’s also infusing us with new values, ones that are not always national in nature: a growing number of people see themselves as ‘global’ citizens.

That’s not even the worst of it. On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century. If the EU struggles to control its borders when 1.2 million people move, what would happen if 200 million do? The lesson of history – real, long-lens human history – is that people move, and when they do, it’s hard to stop.

This is the crux of the problem: nation-states rely on control. If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others.•

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There are numerous financial and practical reasons for turning society into a giant, tentacled computer that connect us all, but even if mass surveillance and other elements of governmental and corporate fascism aren’t the chief driving forces of the transition, their danger is no less real. My main issue with the febrile fear of Strong AI—computers surpassing our brains and turning us into zoo animals or some such thing—is that this outcome is likely not happening today or tomorrow or perhaps ever, even if it isn’t theoretically impossible.

The bigger issue is that no such superintelligence need develop for humans to be diminished or doomed. Weak AI can do us in with a thousand cuts. The process of computerizing absolutely everything has already begun in earnest, and it hasn’t thus far made us better or wiser or happier. That may be because our best intentions have failed, but more likely is that this new system of digital capitalism has its own agenda and human well-being isn’t job one.

From Ian Bogost’s Atlantic article “You Are Already Living Inside a Computer“:

Newer dreams of what’s to come predict that humans and machines might meld, either through biohacking or simulated consciousness. That future also feels very far away—and perhaps impossible. Its remoteness might lessen the fear of an AI apocalypse, but it also obscures a certain truth about machines’ role in humankind’s destiny: Computers already are predominant, human life already plays out mostly within them, and people are satisfied with the results. …

Think about the computing systems you use every day. All of them represent attempts to simulate something else. Like how Turing’s original thinking machine strived to pass as a man or woman, a computer tries to pass, in a way, as another thing. As a calculator, for example, or a ledger, or a typewriter, or a telephone, or a camera, or a storefront, or a café.

After a while, successful simulated machines displace and overtake the machines they originally imitated. The word processor is no longer just a simulated typewriter or secretary, but a first-order tool for producing written materials of all kinds. Eventually, if they thrive, simulated machines become just machines.

Today, computation overall is doing this. There’s not much work and play left that computers don’t handle. And so, the computer is splitting from its origins as a means of symbol manipulation for productive and creative ends, and becoming an activity in its own right. Today, people don’t seek out computers in order to get things done; they do the things that let them use computers.

* * *

When the use of computers decouples from its ends and becomes a way of life, goals and problems only seem valid when they can be addressed and solved by computational systems. Internet-of-things gadgets offer one example of that new ideal. Another can be found in how Silicon Valley technology companies conceive of their products and services in the first place.•

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10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. philiogist murderer edward h. rulloff
  2. mark lilla identity politics
  3. toscanini living under fascism
  4. genetic enhancement in china
  5. kodak george eastman death
  6. spritz speed reading app
  7. why might we want to bring a mammoth back to life?
  8. millionaires don’t hire astrologers. billionaires do.
  9. people who have already been born could live for ten centuries
  10. trump has learned how to function in a world in which people now live in very separate realities

Hey, Bieber, get your ass over here. I’ve got another job for you.

I don’t have time to manscape, so I’ll drop trou and you flip that mower over and buzz my ballsac. But be careful!

Good job, Harry Pothead. Now my boys are smooth. You’re way better than that nun in Florida. She nicked my nutbag.

Okay, enough of you, midget loser, now I’m going to go be deeply intimate with the First Lady.

 

Some notes from me and excerpts from Jeet Heer and Jeffrey Goldberg on Trump and his aftermath.

• The effect 60 Minutes had on American journalism was a mixed blessing.

Some thoughts on Chelsea Manning’s smart NYT op-ed about the “eerily banal dystopian novel” we’ve written ourselves into.

Spiegel interviewed Edward Snowden, another dubious character in a dubious age.

• Perspectives on the political and personal complications of social media by Nick Bilton and Matt Haig.

• Nicholas Carr believes our warm welcome of nascent ambient technologies speaks to our narcissism.

• In 1957, Henry Miller predicted the emergence of a tyranny of technology.

• Old Print Articles: Mussolini manhandles the media. (1933/37)

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Daniel Boorstin, dictator chic, etc.

I was critical last month of a line in a Nick Bilton article I otherwise liked. The Vanity Fair “Hive” writer offered this assessment of Mark Zuckerberg: “His skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” I don’t think that’s so, and even if it were, the Facebook co-founder, multi-billionaire and perhaps Presidential aspirant wouldn’t likely be suited for the role. Despite his stated goal to divest himself of nearly his entire fortune to causes bettering humanity, Zuck has been from the start a morally dubious person who knowingly rose to prominence on the back of a company dedicated to mass surveillance, surreptitious “social experiments” and profiting from neo-Nazi social networking. The dishonest narrative about Facebook being a means of improving the world makes the reality worse. The company has always been about the accumulation of money and power.

It’s not that there’s no hope for Zuckerberg. There have been few bigger assholes than Bill Gates during his Microsoft heyday, and now the sweater-clad 2.0 version is actually eradicating diseases. (Truth be told, however, several people I’ve met who work for the Gates Foundation still don’t have great things to say about him as a boss.) But the social network CEO’s nation-wide “listening tour” and photo-ops in cow pastures and on shrimp boats aren’t convincing evidence he’s learned from mistakes, nor was his recent “Building Global Community” manifesto, which essentially just promised more of the same. Like many Facebook users, Zuckerberg seems to be presenting an image of what he’d like people to see rather than what’s really there. 

In the two excerpts below, Bilton takes a more skeptical look at Facebook in wake of this week’s anti-Semitic advertising scandal, and Matt Haig of the Guardian argues that social media is an unhappiness-making machine.

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From Bilton:

Since the election (and even leading up to it), it’s become abundantly clear that social media presented itself as a profoundly useful tool for the Russians, extremists, and possiblyeven people within the Trump campaign, to potentially disfigure our electoral process. Before Trump co-opted the term “fake news” to describe entirely accurate, if unfavorable, stories about him, real fake news was being created and proliferated at scale. Algorithms on Facebook didn’t work to try to stop this from happening, but rather to ensure that these fake stories landed right on the digital doorsteps of the people who might find them most interesting, and who might change their votes as a result of that content. Twitter’s problem with political bots has existed for as long as I can remember. Earlier this year,a data researcher noticedthat there were hundreds of Twitter accounts ending with a string of eight numbers (like @DavidJo52951945) that only tweeted about hot-button political topics, all of which followed each other. This might seem harmless on some level, but these accounts had been disseminating incredibly divisive (and oftentimes fake) stories about Brexit, Ukraine, and Syria, plus anti-immigration articles from outlets like Breitbart and excessively schismatic articles from the Daily Mail. The researcher also found that these accounts only tweetedbetween 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Moscow time, and only during the week—almost as if it were someone’s job in Russia to do so. The accounts have tens of thousands of followers, and the suspected propagandists behind themstoked the flames of dissentby creating far-left bots which would go after Trump and his supporters.

I don’t actually see these issues as massive problems within themselves. Of course people are going to try to manipulate these technologies. The larger issue, however, is that these enormous, profoundly wealthy companies aren’t doing enough to stop them, and are not being held accountable. (Twitter andFacebookhave attempted to crackdown on trolls in some ways since the election.) Curiously, Wall Street, which still remains oddly buoyant in the Trump era (it’s amazing what the rich will sacrifice for tax reform) is not chastising Silicon Valley for the extensive role it played in the mess we find ourselves in today. Facebook is worth $491 billion, despite months’ worth of news stories indicating it allowed Russian accounts to buy and target pages and adson its network during the election, which estimates say could have reached 70 million Americans. Twitter’s stock, while bumpy, has barely moved since news definitively broke about all of the“fake Americans”that Russia created and operated on the social network during the election. (Here’s a fun game: go look at Donald Trump’s latest followers on Twitter and see how long it takes you to find a real human being who has recently joined and followed him. Most accounts have names like @N4wapWLVHmeYKAq and @Aiana37481266.)

Earlier this week, Sam Biddle argued on The Intercept that Mark Zuckerberg should be forced to go before Congress about the role Facebook played in Russia’s propaganda efforts. “Zuckerberg should publicly testify under oath before Congress on his company’s capabilities to influence the political process, be it Russian meddling or anything else,” Biddle wrote. “If the company is as powerful as it promises advertisers, it should be held accountable.” There are also reports that there is now a “red-hot” focus on social media by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. But in both of these instances, there needs to be real consequences. It doesn’t take 20,000 employees to see the apathy and neglect these platforms have played, and continue to play, in the attacks against democracy by the people who want to see it fall.•

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From Haig:

Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.

And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.

The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.

Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed.•

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Benito Mussolini originally appeared to be a vulgar cartoon too outlandish to be feared, until it was too late, his entire country perverted into something awful before his murderous gaze. 

I thought particularly of his assault on the press when Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke on behalf of the White House in urging ESPN to fire broadcaster Jemele Hill, for calling Trump, a white supremacist, a white supremacist. It’s clear by now that while Trump can degrade the office of the President, distort ideals and do serious harm to our democracy, he has zero chance of squashing the free press. That’s true for several reasons: his gross incompetence, the traditions and independence of our media (for all its many failings) and the decentralization of news, which, oddly, also abetted his rise.

Italy of the Thirties was a different place and time, however. In 1933, Mussolini ordered all Italian newspapers to push aside current events and dedicate their front pages to articles about Julius Caesar. The message was clear, that Mussolini was a latter-day Caesar and would rule with absolute authority. The odd decree was covered in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in September of that year. Another piece from the same publication, this one from 1937, spoke to the moribund state of the press 15 years after the Fascist’s rise. Tragically, that’s how things went, until the madman found himself, in 1945, hanging upside down from the business end of a meat hook attached to the roof of an Esso gas station.

From 1933:

From 1937:

“Perhaps it’s the case that in order to live, we must process our experience first rationally and then irrationally,” Wallace Shawn has written. We still have a long way to go in 2017 with the Step One of that process in regard to our priorities and politics, but the playwright has, in his last two works, tried to “irrationally” address the rise of technology and authoritarianism. Despite promising premises, however, neither Grasses of a Thousand Colors nor Evening at the Talk House develop in profound ways.

Another dramatist, Jordan Harrison, has come much closer to processing these issues potently in a couple of his plays: Marjorie Prime, which thinks about the enhanced near-future of Virtual Reality, and Maple & Vine, which imagines a retreat from our connected technological society to a village that recreates the 1950s, a quaint place marked by repression and racism. Taken together, these works remind that we must go forward into a fraught tomorrow, can’t go back to a yesterday not nearly as bright as it might seem from a distance, but our tools will be powerful and we need to try our best to limit the damage they can do. One challenge will be that while the future arrives more quickly now than it once did, the process of getting there has fewer bumps and seams. It looks benign.

As Chelsea Manning writes in a New York Times op-ed: “The world has become like an eerily banal dystopian novel. Things look the same on the surface, but they are not.” Every now and then, with the Russian invasion during the election and today’s news that Facebook has been selling ads to people interested in the phrases “Jew hater” and “How to Burn Jews,” it becomes obvious that things have gone seriously awry, but we hardly noticed as we were building this Trojan horse inside our own gates. What to do now?

From Manning:

The real power of mass data collection lies in the hand-tailored algorithms capable of sifting, sorting and identifying patterns within the data itself. When enough information is collected over time, governments and corporations can use or abuse those patterns to predict future human behavior. Our data establishes a “pattern of life” from seemingly harmless digital residue like cellphone tower pings, credit card transactions and web browsing histories.

The consequences of our being subjected to constant algorithmic scrutiny are often unclear. For instance, artificial intelligence — Silicon Valley’s catchall term for deepthinking and deep-learning algorithms — is touted by tech companies as a path to the high-tech conveniences of the so-called internet of things. This includes digital home assistants, connected appliances and self-driving cars.

Simultaneously, algorithms are already analyzing social media habits, determining creditworthiness, deciding which job candidates get called in for an interview and judging whether criminal defendants should be released on bail. Other machine-learning systems use automated facial analysis to detect and track emotions, or claim the ability to predict whether someone will become a criminal based only on their facial features.

These systems leave no room for humanity, yet they define our daily lives. When I began rebuilding my life this summer, I painfully discovered that they have no time for people who have fallen off the grid — such nuance eludes them. I came out publicly as transgender and began hormone replacement therapy while in prison. When I was released, however, there was no quantifiable history of me existing as a transwoman. Credit and background checks automatically assumed I was committing fraud. My bank accounts were still under my old name, which legally no longer existed. For months I had to carry around a large folder containing my old ID and a copy of the court order declaring my name change. Even then, human clerks and bank tellers would sometimes see the discrepancy, shrug and say “the computer says no” while denying me access to my accounts.

Such programmatic, machine-driven thinking has become especially dangerous in the hands of governments and the police.

In recent years our military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have merged in unexpected ways. They harvest more data than they can possibly manage, and wade through the quantifiable world side by side in vast, usually windowless buildings called fusion centers.

Such powerful new relationships have created a foundation for, and have breathed life into, a vast police and surveillance state. Advanced algorithms have made this possible on an unprecedented level. Relatively minor infractions, or “microcrimes,” can now be policed aggressively. And with national databases shared among governments and corporations, these minor incidents can follow you forever, even if the information is incorrect or lacking context.•

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The alleged QVC quisling Donald Trump didn’t single-handedly make himself into the American nightmare nor is he haunting our sleep primarily because of the Kremlin, though both parties must be held accountable for any lawless acts committed. The larger and more confounding problem is the many failings that allowed the country to slide down a mud-covered slope decades in the making. 

Robert Redford speaks to this point in a new Esquire Q&A with Michael Hainey:

Esquire:

Trump is a businessman, but he is such a creature of the entertainment world. It feels that the entertainment industry is more entwined with politics than ever before.

Robert Redford:

I just think he is who he is. You can’t blame him for being who he is. He’s always been like that. He’s our fault—that’s how I see it. We let him come to where he is. I’m not so interested in blaming him; that’s being done enough by others. I’m more interested in: How did this happen? We’ve lost our moral foundation, which allows us to go this far over. So I don’t blame him. I just think he is what he is. We’re the ones who let that happen. We should be looking at ourselves.•

Three tests face us now in preserving democracy and repairing the country, and each task is more difficult than the last. First, the potential crimes (domestic and foreign) that helped enable our fall from basic decency must be sorted and analyzed. Thanks to a series of accidents and incidents, we have Robert Mueller and his Murderers’ Row managing that job, which is a best-case scenario. The extreme dysfunction and ineptitude of the Administration made Mueller possible. When I’m asked how things could be worse in the U.S. than they are currently, I say that next time the Mussolini won’t be so mediocre.

Secondly, as Edward Luce warned in the Financial Times in 2015 and Jeet Heer reminds us now in the New Republic post-Charlottesville, Trump may be caged or slither away, but the white nationalism he was uniquely positioned to activate isn’t following him out the door. We must restore the DHS focus on domestic terrorism and white supremacist organizations, which has been severely weakened by Katherine Gorka, and there needs to be a strengthening of norms that inhibit those who carry inside them burning crosses and swastikas. Societal pressure can limit the reach of the hatemongers, even if it can’t make them disappear.

Finally, the welter of media and religion and politics and money and bigotry and entertainment and technology and education that brought us to the brink must be untangled and addressed. A country subsisting on bread and Kardashians was headed for a crash, and it’s not clear that one so deeply partisan and besotted with billionaires, gadgets and celebrity is prepared to do the hard work before us.

Two excerpts follow, one from Heer’s piece and another from Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.

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From Heer’s “#AlwaysTrump“:

It’s understandable, and perhaps even necessary, that we have devoted ourselves so thoroughly to the question of how to remove Trump from office as quickly as possible. He poses, after all, an existential threat to—well, existence itself. But the dream of bringing about an end to Trump’s era in Washington is tinged with something darker and more worrisome. If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that we don’t just want Trump gone from the White House—we want to return to a time when Trump did not dominate our every waking moment. We want it all to go away: the endless Twitter rants; the bellicose threats against perceived enemies, foreign and domestic; the toxic brew of narcissism and incompetence and greed that has come to permeate the national discourse. The desire to oust Trump, at a deeper level, represents a liberal fantasy in which we can somehow magically, instantly turn back the clock and live once more in the comforting world of our pre-Trump assumptions. In this fetching version of harmony restored, not only will Trump no longer be president, he’ll no longer have been president. He will vanish from public life, and the hobgoblins he has unleashed in our national psyche will disappear along with him.
 
Yet even as the prospect of his removal becomes ever more palpable, we must awaken from this blue-state reverie we have constructed for ourselves. The truth is, no matter how he winds up leaving office, Donald Trump will always be with us. We may, unless there is nuclear Armageddon, outlast his presidency. Robert Mueller’s investigation may even shorten it. But we can’t repeal or replace it. Long after his presidency ends—indeed, long after he has departed this vale of tweets for that gloriously appointed Mar-a-Lago in the sky—Trump will continue to dominate and disrupt our lives at every turn. Because he’s Trump, being a former president will do nothing to diminish his desperate need for attention or his willingness to hurt whomever it takes to get it. He’ll still have his gifts as a showman, his wealth, his mastery of social media, and the unshakable devotion of his followers. And the media will remain just as eager to report and dissect and amplify his every untruth and slander. Indeed, freed from the shackles of the Constitution, Trump could end up provoking even more havoc out of office than he has as president.

There will never be, in short, a world without Trump. As we work to remove him from office, we must also grapple with a harsh truth: that his influence, and the broader forces he represents, will not end with his presidency. When Trump leaves the Oval Office, our long national nightmare will not be over. It will have just begun.•

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From Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Autocratic Element“:

On matters concerning the possible disintegration of democratic norms, I turn to the most urgent and acute text on the subject, “How to Build an Autocracy,” an Atlantic cover story by David Frum published earlier this year. Frum, a senior writer for the magazine (and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush), made the argument in this groundbreaking article that if autocracy came to America, it would be not in the form of a coup but in the steady, gradual erosion of democratic norms. Frum’s eloquent writing and ruthlessly sharp analysis for The Atlantic has made him an indispensably important—perhaps even the leading—conservative critic of President Trump.

I recently asked Frum about the attempt by many Republicans to pursue criminal charges against the losing candidate in last year’s presidential contest. He called this pursuit “sinister,” but then pointed me to something he considered even more pernicious: the quest to punish former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice for “unmasking” people associated with Trump’s campaign whose communications with foreign officials were captured during U.S. intelligence collection.

“Rice was protecting the country from possible subversion, and they’re pursuing her for this,” Frum said. “It is not merely that they are trying to use the mechanisms of the law to attack political opponents; it is that they are trying to use the power of the state to conceal through diversion an attempt by an autocratic government to steal an American election.

“The autocratic element here is the abuse of power, but not only the abuse of power. This represents the reversal of truth.”

I asked Frum to analyze his March cover story. Did he overplay or understate any of the threats? “The thing I got most wrong is that I did not anticipate the sheer chaos and dysfunction and slovenliness of the Trump operation,” he said. “I didn’t sufficiently anticipate how distracted Trump could be by things that are not essential. My model was that he was greedy first and authoritarian second. What I did not see is that he is needy first, greedy second, and authoritarian third. We’d be in a lot worse shape if he were a more meticulous, serious-minded person.”•

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It’s been clear for some time that Julian Assange is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, gleefully enabling a nation that murders the political opponents and journalistic critics of the sitting dictator and hacks foreign elections in numerous ways. The Wikileaks founder is an evil man working in the service of an autocracy, not a champion of rights.

But what of Edward Snowden, whom Assange helped shepherd to Russia after his NSA theft? Is he a righteous whistleblower, as Daniel Ellsberg and Freeman Dyson, among other big thinkers, believe he is? Is he a foolish pawn playing in a game far beyond his capabilities? Is he actually deep into Kremlin espionage? Considering his support for Assange and his equivocations regarding Russia’s nefarious role in the U.S. Presidential election, the latter possibility must at least be pondered.

My initial impression four years ago when Snowden first came to global prominence was that his efforts toward safeguarding privacy, whatever his motivations, were going to meet with failure. These technologies were far beyond taming, were becoming permanent parts of society. Retreat from them was unlikely even if the will was there–and I don’t think it was then or is now. 

In 2013, I wrote:

I haven’t really looked at Edward Snowden as hero or villain from the beginning of the NSA leak controversy. Just a cog in a new machine that American media and citizenry can’t seem to fully comprehend–the machine we’re all living in now. Privacy as we knew it–for individuals, corporations and government–has been permanently left in the past. Everybody’s watching everybody, and it will only get easier to spy. And to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases, this would be a really good time for a teachable moment, for a frank discussion about the way our society is now, how some things have disappeared into the cloud.

But when you take temporary refuge in Russia, as Snowden has, with that country’s brutal and murderous recent history of oppression of journalists and surveillance of its own citizens, you’ve pretty much permanently ceded the moral high ground.•

Snowden still stews in exile in Moscow as Putin’s murderous reign continues, even accelerates, and as our world becomes ever more connected and intrusive. The opening of a Spiegel interview with him conducted by Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler:

Spiegel: 

Mr. Snowden, four years ago, you appeared in a video from a hotel room in Hong Kong. It was the beginning of the biggest leak of intelligence data in history. Today, we are sitting in a hotel room in Moscow. You are not able to leave Russia because the United States government has issued a warrant for your arrest. Meanwhile, the intelligence services’ global surveillance machine is still running, probably faster than ever. Was it all really worth it?

Edward Snowden: 

The answer is yes. Look at what my goals were. I wasn’t trying to change the laws or slow down the machine. Maybe I should have. My critics say that I was not revolutionary enough. But they forget that I am a product of the system. I worked those desks, I know those people and I still have some faith in them, that the services can be reformed

Spiegel: 

But those people see you as their biggest enemy today.

Edward Snowden: 

My personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA. I even think they actually do have a useful role in society when they limit themselves to the truly important threats that we face and when they use their least intrusive means. We don’t drop atomic bombs on flies that land on the dinner table. Everybody gets this except intelligence agencies.

Spiegel: 

What did you achieve?

 

Edward Snowden: 

Since summer 2013, the public has known what was until then forbidden knowledge. That the U.S. government can get everything out of your Gmail account and they don’t even need a warrant to do it if you are not an American but, say, a German. You are not allowed to discriminate between your citizens and other peoples’ citizens when we are talking about the balance of basic rights. But increasingly more countries, not only the U.S., are doing this. I wanted to give the public a chance to decide where the line should be.•

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The tick-tick-ticking at the beginning of 60 Minutes is the sound of a stopwatch, but it may as well be a time bomb. It’s not that television news in America wouldn’t have become entertainment without Don Hewitt’s brainchild, this season marking its fiftieth year on the air, but the show played an outsize role in that transformation, proving that the news division could be a prime-time ratings winner and a money maker, even if it needed to create pseudo-events on a regular basis to do so. You could say it was one of the three factors that most enabled where we are now, along with the Reagan Administration dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine and the Murdoch-Ailes establishment of Fox, the proto-Fake News. 

That Hewitt dreamed of a career in show biz and Mike Wallace essentially had his start in that world doesn’t seem incidental to what they created on Sunday nights, with the journalist often battering a patsy opponent and villain in a way that was reminiscent of professional wrestling, while his boss edited the piece for maximum impact. It was so much fun, but should it have been? Fred Friendly, Hewitt’s original boss at CBS, didn’t think so, and he was probably right. The program has turned out plenty of good content and isn’t directly responsible for the Glenn Becks, Ann Coulters and Alex Joneses, but the slope it was built upon was surely a slippery one.

The opening of a piece from the show’s current Executive Producer Jeff Fager’s book, Fifty Years of 60 Minutes, which was adapted for Vanity Fair:

Fifty years is an eternity in the television world. The average show lasts about two and a half. But this fall 60 Minutes kicks off a half-century on-air. Many factors have helped sustain the broadcast over five decades, but a lot of them can be traced all the way back to the program’s conception. It’s an unlikely story because there never would have been a 60 Minutes if its creator, Don Hewitt, hadn’t been fired back in 1965.

In 1948 when Hewitt joined CBS, then largely a radio network, he was in awe of the people around him, particularly “the Murrow Boys”—the gentlemen correspondents who filed World War II dispatches under the watchful eye of Edward R. Murrow, the man who would become the dean of broadcast news and the paragon of journalistic integrity. The Murrow Boys were elegant and battle-tested and knew how to write a story and deliver it on the radio.

Don wasn’t one of them, and he knew it. He was a feisty kid from New Rochelle, New York, who never got a college degree. Growing up, he had always wanted to be in show business. His two childhood heroes were fictional characters from Broadway: Julian Marsh, the theater director in the musical 42nd Street,and Hildy Johnson, the star police-beat reporter in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper comedy, The Front Page.

Even so, Don joined CBS with some journalistic cred. During the war, he’d written for Stars and Stripes, the daily paper of the U.S. military. But it wasn’t reporting that got him most excited; it was lights and action.•

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Most men (and women) lead lives of quite desperation, but from Brooklyn to Big Sur Henry Miller hollered. That resulted in some genius writing and some considerably lesser material. Yes, he was often thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way.

The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!

The problem with America worrying about the existential risks of AI is that losing the race to AI is also an existential risk. If we invest correctly in the future (not just Artificial Intelligence but also solar and supercomputers) while providing enough infrastructure projects and social safety nets to keep afloat those displaced (hopefully temporarily) by our transition into the Digital Age, the country shouldn’t fall behind China or any other state. Of course, we’re so politically confused and toxic right now that such a scenario seems possible though not plausible. If China should win this arms race and Space Race rolled into one, the authoritarian nation will have the military heft and soft power to shape the world.

Daniel Kliman and Harry Krejsa worry about this dark potential in “Is China Leaping Past Us?” a Politico piece about this Sputnik Moment 2.0:

Its companies are attempting to acquire U.S. firms in key advanced technology sectors like semiconductor development and manufacturing. Chinese corporations have also opened research centers in the United States to tap American talent, and made early-stage investments in American startups focused on cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics. A small Silicon Valley venture might find access to their intellectual property a minor price to pay for a game-changing capital infusion.

Failing to address China’s efforts to acquire U.S. technology will have far-reaching consequences. The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property estimates that piracy, theft, and counterfeiting by China costs the U.S. economy between $225 billion and $600 billion a year, or up to 3 percent of the entire U.S. GDP. In the long term, the costs only grow more daunting. If scientific advances in quantum communications, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, energy, and battery technology increasingly move to China, so will the future industries – and jobs – that will accompany them. Moreover, future U.S. military advantage depends on America’s continued technological leadership. If China outpaces the United States in innovation, loss of America’s military edge in the Asia-Pacific, if not globally, could follow.•

No matter who is the victor, or if several nations are, the future we’re creating is a machine that will swallow up our privacy and attempt to quantify, surveil and commodify us ceaselessly. And no one will be able to hop over the sensors or hit an OFF switch. In a smart New York Times op-ed “These Are Not the Robots We Were Promised,” Nicholas Carr believes our warm welcome of these nascent ambient technologies, as the robots become shapeless and ubiquitous, speaks to our narcissism, which is certainly so. But I think it may be more than that. Religion may have declined, but our fear of being alone on a spinning, jagged rock remains as strong as ever.

An excerpt:

Although they may not look like the robots we envisioned, smart speakers do have antecedents in our cultural fantasy life. The robot they most recall at the moment is HAL, the chattering eyeball in Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. But their current form — that of a stand-alone gadget — is not likely to be their ultimate form. They seem fated to shed their physical housing and turn into a sort of ambient digital companion. Alexa will come to resemble Samantha, the “artificially intelligent operating system” that beguiles the Joaquin Phoenix character in the movie “Her.” Through a network of speakers, microphones and sensors scattered around our homes, we’ll be able to converse with our solicitous A.I. assistants wherever and whenever we like.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook C.E.O., spent much of last year programming a prototype of such a virtual agent. In a video released in December, he gave a demo of the system. Walking around his Silicon Valley home, he conducted a running dialogue with his omnipresent chatbot, calling on it to supply him with a clean T-shirt and toast bread for his breakfast, play movies and music, and entertain his infant daughter. Hooked up to cameras with facial-recognition software, the digitized Jeeves also acted as a sentry for the Zuckerberg compound, screening visitors and unlocking the gate.

Whether real or fictional, robots hold a mirror up to society. If Rosie and her kin embodied a 20th-century yearning for domestic order and familial bliss, smart speakers symbolize our own, more self-absorbed time.

It seems apt that as we come to live more of our lives virtually, through social networks and other simulations, our robots should take the form of disembodied avatars dedicated to keeping us comfortable in our media cocoons. Even as they spy on us, the devices offer sanctuary from the unruliness of reality, with all its frictions and strains.•

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10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. daniel boorstin pseudo-events donald trump
  2. peter thiel and the trump administration
  3. putin propaganda network RT
  4. russian oligarch money dallas morning news
  5. the place reeked of dictator chic
  6. exorcists in france
  7. rare jerry lewis films
  8. laurie penny article on robots
  9. the hgtv effect
  10. esalen institute of big sur

This week, the President was ready to teach Americans about the art of the deal.

Mitch, you chinless sack of shit, we’ve got the Democrats right where we want them on the debt ceiling. Just wait till I get that Chuck Schumer in a room.

I have absolutely no leverage, Mr. President, but I need you to do exactly what I want.

Now that business is taken care of, let me tell you all about the time I had sex in the toilet at Studio 54.

 

• One Republican pollster is beginning to think the GOP may be racist. Really???

• When not busy toying with Trump like a cornered rat, Vladimir Putin claims to be concerned about AI.

• Germany isn’t positioned to elect a Trump, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of xenophobic panic.

Some notes on Identity Politics, Bernie, Peggy Noonan and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new essay.

• Despite what Libertarians believe, Burning Man is a vast bureaucracy.

• Several new pieces explore unobtrusive technologies that may soon alter our lives.

• The Los Angeles Review of Books focuses on the future of genetic engineering.

• A brief note from 1910 about the death of President Taft’s White House cow.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Max Valier, Robert Redford.

Penny Lane, or some place like it, used to be in our ears and in our eyes. Not so much in the twenty-first century. Now your head is supposed to be inside your phone, while sensors, cameras and computers aim to unobtrusively extract information from you.

These robots do not resemble us at all, so there’s no uncanny valley—you’re not meant to detect any dips. As cars become driverless and the Internet of Things proliferates, there will be no opting out, no covering up. As Leonard Cohen groaned in 1992, just three years after Tim Berners-Lee unwittingly gifted us with a Trojan Horse, which we gleefully wheeled inside the gates: “There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code / Your private life will suddenly explode.” 

Three excerpts follow.

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The opening of the Economist article “What Machines Can Tell From Your Face“:

The human face is a remarkable piece of work. The astonishing variety of facial features helps people recognise each other and is crucial to the formation of complex societies. So is the face’s ability to send emotional signals, whether through an involuntary blush or the artifice of a false smile. People spend much of their waking lives, in the office and the courtroom as well as the bar and the bedroom, reading faces, for signs of attraction, hostility, trust and deceit. They also spend plenty of time trying to dissimulate.

Technology is rapidly catching up with the human ability to read faces. In America facial recognition is used by churches to track worshippers’ attendance; in Britain, by retailers to spot past shoplifters. This year Welsh police used it to arrest a suspect outside a football game. In China it verifies the identities of ride-hailing drivers, permits tourists to enter attractions and lets people pay for things with a smile. Apple’s new iPhone is expected to use it to unlock the homescreen (see article).

Set against human skills, such applications might seem incremental. Some breakthroughs, such as flight or the internet, obviously transform human abilities; facial recognition seems merely to encode them. Although faces are peculiar to individuals, they are also public, so technology does not, at first sight, intrude on something that is private. And yet the ability to record, store and analyse images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of privacy, fairness and trust.

The final frontier

Start with privacy.•

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From “The Next Challenge for Facial Recognition Is Identifying People Whose Faces Are Covered,” a James Vincent Verge piece:

The challenge of recognizing people when their faces are covered is one that plenty of teams are working on — and making quick progress.

Facebook, for example, has trained neural networks that can recognize people based on characteristics like hair, body shape, and posture. Facial recognition systems that work on portions of the face have also been developed (although, again; not ready for commercial use). And there are other, more exotic methods to identify people. AI-powered gait analysis, for example, can recognize individuals with a high degree of accuracy, and even works with low-resolution footage — the sort you might get from a CCTV camera.

One system for identifying masked individuals developed at the University of Basel in Switzerland recreates a 3D model of the target’s face based on what it can see. Bernhard Egger, one of the scientists behind the work, told The Verge that he expected “lots of development” in this area in the near future, but thought that there would always be ways to fool the machine. “Maybe machines will outperform humans on very specific tasks with partial occlusions,” said Egger. “But, I believe, it will still be possible to not be recognized if you want to avoid this.”

Wearing a rigid mask that covers the whole face, for example, would give current facial recognition systems nothing to go on. And other researchers have developed patterned glasses that are specially designed to trick and confuse AI facial recognition systems. Getting clear pictures is also difficult. Egger points out that we’re used to facial recognition performing quickly and accurately, but that’s in situations where the subject is compliant — scanning their face with a phone, for example, or at a border checkpoint.

Privacy advocates, though, say even if these systems have flaws, they’re still likely to be embraced by law enforcement.•

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From “How Apple Is Putting Voices in Users’ Heads—Literally,” a Steven Levy Wired story about Apple technology that could be a boon for the hearing impaired—and, potentially, a bane for all of us:

Merging medical technology like Apple’s is a clear benefit to those needing hearing help. But I’m intrigued by some observations that Dr. Biever, the audiologist who’s worked with hearing loss patients for two decades, shared with me. She says that with this system, patients have the ability to control their sound environment in a way that those with good hearing do not—so much so that she is sometimes envious. How cool would it be to listen to a song without anyone in the room hearing it? “When I’m in the noisiest of rooms and take a call on my iPhone, I can’t hold my phone to ear and do a call,” she says. “But my recipient can do this.”

This paradox reminds me of the approach I’m seeing in the early commercial efforts to develop a brain-machine interface: an initial focus on those with cognitive challenges with a long-term goal of supercharging everyone’s brain. We’re already sort of cyborgs, working in a partnership of dependency with those palm-size slabs of glass and silicon that we carry in our pockets and purses. The next few decades may well see them integrated subcutaneously.

I’m not suggesting that we all might undergo surgery to make use of the tools that Apple has developed. But I do see a future where our senses are augmented less invasively. Pulling out a smartphone to fine-tune one’s aural environment (or even sending vibes to a brain-controlled successor to the iPhone) might one day be as common as tweaking bass and treble on a stereo system.•

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Silicon Valley powerhouses would like to have it both ways: More surveillance of you and less transparency for them. You will be tagged, monitored and commodified, and they will be free from regulations. That’s what technology wants—or at least what technologists want.

Whether it’s Larry Page dreaming of a partitioned parcel where he can conduct dangerous experiments or Peter Thiel actually bankrolling unauthorized herpes vaccine tests on humans in St. Kitts, these billionaires believe laws created to protect us from people just like them are a hindrance.

Because Americans so reflexively worship success and money, such people have already had an outsize impact on how we live. Time will tell how much further their sway is amplified, as our biggest tech corporations try to blur lines and bend wills. Mark Zuckerberg even appears to have his eyes on the leadership of America, a country with a much smaller population than Facebook. How kind that he would accept such a demotion.

· · ·

Libertarians, a political class that has wet dreams about seasteading and abhors zoning regulations, also would like to see government (mostly) disappear. As the sinking of Houston’s runaway sprawl just reminded us, rules and regulations are needed. They can always be done better, but they need to be done.

Libertarian overlord Grover Norquist, whose policies, if ever enacted fully, would lead to worse lifestyles and shorter lifespans for the majority of Americans, made his maiden voyage in 2014 to the purported government-less wonderland known as Burning Man. Norquist’s belief that the short-term settlement in the Nevada desert is representative of what the world could be every day is no less silly than considering Spring Break a template for successful marriage. The Beltway “Burner” wrote of his experiences for the Guardian. Maileresque, it was not. An excerpt:

You hear that Burning Man is full of less-than-fully-clad folks and off-label pharmaceuticals. But that’s like saying Bohemian Grove is about peeing on trees or that Chicago is Al Capone territory. Burning Man is cleaner and greener than a rally for solar power. It has more camaraderie and sense of community than a church social. And for a week in the desert, I witnessed more individual expression, alternative lifestyles and imaginative fashion than …. anywhere.

The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers. People give of themselves – small gifts like lip balm or tiny flashlights. I brought Cuban cigars. Edgy, but not as exciting as some “gifts” that would have interested the federal authorities.

I’m hoping to bring the kids next year.

On my last day of my first Burning Man, at the Reno airport, a shoeless man (he had lost his shoes in the desert) was accosted by another dust-covered Burner carrying sneakers: “Take these,” he said. “They are my Burning Man shoes.” The shoeless man accepted the gift with dignity.•

What a putz, on many levels. Perhaps silliest of all is Norquist’s idea that Burning Man is a far freer society, which is dubious at best. It’s highly regulated and for good reason. Go and create some art in the desert if you like, peep at the nudity on display at this self-aware pseudo-Woodstock, but you’ll need to deal with a bureaucracy. That’s largely a positive development, since rules and sound infrastructure are often what protects us from disaster.

· · ·

From “The Endless Rules of Burning Man,” a CityLab piece by Christine Grillo:

The festival has been held on the shadeless alkali flats of Black Rock Desert, a national conservation area, since 1990. To call the environment inhospitable is an understatement. Every year, the temporary Black Rock City—home to 70,000 souls last year—is built with almost a conquistadorial glee by men and women hell-bent on imposing a form of civilization upon the lifeless playa, hauling in generators and propane and water and lumber and porta-potties. (And art, of course.)

As with permanent cities, the construction and maintenance of this municipal infrastructure requires an elaborate regulatory apparatus—and for the greater good, the regs must be enforced. When you imagine Burning Man, you might picture naked people riding bikes and making out and setting things on fire—and, indeed, that’s exactly what you’ll see if you attend. But, for a psychedelic, safety-third debauch, Burning Man has an awful lot of rules. …

As the event has grown, Black Rock City has become more like a real-world municipality, albeit one that’s whiter, wealthier, and more circular than most American cities of its size. Its lawmaking body is the Burning Man Organization—often referred to as the Org, or more jokingly as the Borg. Like many municipal entities or large corporations, the Org has a fondness for bloodless bureaucratese. Witness sentences like this, one of many similar ones to be found on the official Burning Man website: “As part of the organization restructuring efforts, several subcommittees were formed to decentralize management and to include more key stakeholders in decision-making.”•

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When Mark Lilla, Bernie Sanders and others on the Left decry identity politics, they’re not really being honest (or at least not very observant). If they were to say that the Democrats can’t win right now by stressing how our history of racism continues to play out in heartbreaking ways today because it will turn off too many white voters, that’s an argument to make. (It’s obviously a lot easier for Lilla to make because he isn’t running for office.) But to say that identity politics are, in general, doomed is to ignore that Donald Trump just won the Presidency with a shockingly overt white nationalist campaign. Since the end of Woodrow Wilson’s second term, no one has put the white in White House more than Trump. Somehow when struggling Caucasians are appealed to, that’s fine, but if the same is done with African-Americans who have been left behind, there’s something sinister about it.

That has more to do with than just winning and losing, and it’s embedded deeply in the very nature of America.

· · ·

On Twitter, Reagan whisperer Peggy Noonan derided people in favor social justice who peacefully tap out 140 characters and lauded those who died fighting to defend a system of legal enslavement, rape, torture, maiming and murder. Nothing says white privilege more than Noonan possessing a Pulitzer.

· · ·

In “The First White President,” a great Atlantic essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author speaks to these points and others in explaining how Trump’s ascendance was an attempt at Obama erasure, and how those who supported him if not all white supremacists were at least racist-friendly. To deny so is to perpetuate a society in which we are separate and unequal. Two short excerpts below, but the whole piece should be read from start to finish.

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The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

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When David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, shocked the country in 1990 by almost winning one of Louisiana’s seats in the U.S. Senate, the apologists came out once again. They elided the obvious—that Duke had appealed to the racist instincts of a state whose schools are, at this very moment, still desegregating—and instead decided that something else was afoot. “There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn,” a researcher told the Los Angeles Times. “These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them.” By this logic, postwar America—with its booming economy and low unemployment—should have been an egalitarian utopia and not the violently segregated country it actually was.

But this was the past made present. It was not important to the apologists that a large swath of Louisiana’s white population thought it was a good idea to send a white supremacist who once fronted a terrorist organization to the nation’s capital. Nor was it important that blacks in Louisiana had long felt left out. What was important was the fraying of an ancient bargain, and the potential degradation of white workers to the level of “negers.” “A viable left must find a way to differentiate itself strongly from such analysis,” David Roediger, the University of Kansas professor, has written.•

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A recent Spiegel essay argued that the contemporary dynamics of Germany’s political-party machinery makes it impossible for that country to elect a Trump-ish figure. That’s likely true, but what if a significant segment of the citizenry would like to elect someone with his nativist mindset (though not his benighted mind)? Could the gaskets eventually blow in a different and more dangerous way? Not that Germany has a history of horrible political outcomes. Oh, wait!

In “I’ve Never Seen So Much Hate,” a new piece in the same publication, Nils Minkmar interviews psychologist Stephan Grünewald, who’s conducted studies on a cross-section of the electorate. An excerpt:

Spiegel: 

What did you discover?

Stephan Grünewald: 

In the in-depth interviews, all people wanted to talk about was the refugee crisis, refugee crisis, refugee crisis. Despite being so elegantly left out of the campaign, it is still a sore spot that hasn’t been treated by politicians.

Spiegel:

What exactly is the problem?

Stephan Grünewald: 

The crisis two years ago plunged voters into a dilemma for which they still haven’t found a clear response. Do I open the door, or do I close it? On one hand, they want to be part of the welcoming culture, but they are also afraid of being overwhelmed by foreigners and of no longer being able to recognize their own country. As a result, they want policymakers to develop a plan, to establish a compromise position. But they haven’t, and now voters feel abandoned.

Spiegel:

What is the consequence of this?

Stephan Grünewald: 

Voters are disoriented, full of uncertainties. They describe Germany either as an ailing, run-down country or as a secure island of affluence in a sea of risk. It’s all very fragile and leads to emotional outbursts. I have never before seen so much anger and hatred among test subjects.•

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