AFFLICTOR 50

Fifty Great Articles From 2017

 


It’s December, which means it’s time for me to collect my favorite print journalism of the year, which, in 2017, was an especially rich assortment of articles that saw an embattled industry (mostly) rise to meet a raft of dizzying challenges, including democracy itself hanging in the balance. It was a stunning period of reformation, provoked in good part by the likely illicit election to President of a racist, traitorous predator. 

Let’s remember it wasn’t social media or search engines that took down the previously untouchable Harvey Weinstein but rather two very expensive pieces of reportage by legacy news organizations. As Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley behemoths continue to fail, through indifference or incompetence, to support civil society, Sheryl Sandberg summarized the role of our new communications giants in the most tone-deaf manner: “At  our heart we’re a tech company—we don’t hire journalists.” Thankfully, some companies do, and after this year, it’s clearer than ever that characters, 140 or even 280, mean little when divorced from character.

My apologies, as always, to those of you who did great work and aren’t on the list. I’m one person doing this on a shoestring, so plenty of outstanding writing escapes my attention or is gated beyond my sight. Normally I alphabetize the pieces by author surname, but some selections are grouped together by subject this year, so the entries appear in no particular order. Each selection is followed by my thoughts on the article and/or the subject.

Here, then, are 13,000 unedited words. What could possibly go wrong?

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1) “Charles Manson’s Science Fiction Roots” (Jeet Heer, New Republic)

Manson’s long-anticipated dirt nap awakened a variety of disquieting thoughts, but only the febrile, idiosyncratic mind of Heer, the cultural critic and tireless Twitter wit, immediately did a deep dive on the connection between the creepy cultist and another pseudo-religious figure, explaining how the architect of the Tate-LaBianca murders was influenced by L. Ron Hubbard, the Sea Org Ahab who harpooned Hollywood.

Manson, who appropriately learned of Scientology during an early stretch in prison, was conditioned by his abusive childhood, drug use and delusions of grandeur to believe he would ignite a race-based World War III during the Sixties. His logic was absent but his timing exquisite, as California of that era was the rare milieu in which the predatory paterfamilias’ rat-faced rants didn’t initially stand out as exceedingly peculiar.

Manson soon proved himself a pathetic, murderous runt, though a uniquely American one with a Gump-like ability to cross paths during the open-door days of Los Angeles with celebrities from Dennis Wilson to Neil Young to Terry Melcher, the only son of Doris Day, the country’s immaculate mother. Once caged, he still managed to brush up against celebrities, making the acquaintance of Timothy Leary at Folsom in the 1970s. Manson was to some extent one of the last of the Western villains, truly infamous right before that description ceased being an insult.

In telling of Manson’s travels as a stranger in a strange land, Heer writes of perpetual-motion machines, telekinesis, Dianetics, Milton Friedman’s economics and other dubious expressions of the American imagination.•

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2) “The Power of Trump’s Positive Thinking” (Michael Kruse, Politico Magazine)

From to Rev. Ike to Dr. Phil to Pres. Trump, America has embraced mountebanks of many types in religion and medicine and politics, asking only that they be skilled at satisfying our hunger to turn every last thing in the country into entertainment.

Norman Vincent Peale, a pastor and peddler of positivity, fit somewhere into that paradigm, offering a malleable feel-good philosophy that encouraged personal fulfillment over self-sacrifice, creating in the process the prototype for a narcissistic me-first faith that really took root during the 1970s and has never since retreated. It’s no wonder Donald Trump worshiped so devoutly at his altar. In fact, Peale presided over the serial groom’s first nuptials.

Oddly, the pastor spent the pre-WWII era worried that a demagogic faux populist would be elevated to the Oval Office, not realizing, of course, that one of his future parishioners would come closest to filling the bill. Despite his fear of American Fascism, it’s no sure thing that Peale would have been aghast at Trump’s ascent. The religious leader himself was known for some bigoted views and was deeply offended by the New Deal and any social programs aimed at mitigating the suffering of desperate Depression-ites. Was he so pliant that he could have twisted himself into a Trump supporter? No way of knowing, but he certainly played an important role, willingly or not, in the development of the Worst American™.

As Kruse ably demonstrates, Trump’s positivity long ago curdled into something pernicious.•

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3) “Inside the First Church of Artificial Intelligence (Mark Harris, Wired)

The implied religiosity which often attends Artificial Intelligence, a dynamic identified by Jaron Lanier among other technological critics, becomes explicit in the Way of the Future, roboticist Anthony Levandowski’s new Silicon Valley spiritual-belief system in which the Four Horsemen, should they arrive, will do so in driverless cars.

To be perfectly accurate, Levandowski, the pivotal figure in the current legal scrum between Google and Uber over autonomous-vehicle intellectual property, isn’t prophesying End of Days scenarios but is rather preaching that we are in the process of transitioning from a planet ruled by humans (not great guardians, admittedly) to one governed by what he thinks will be superior machines. If we get on our knees at his church today, he believes, we’ll be much more likely to be accepted tomorrow as docile pets by our new masters.

Techno-theocracy is nothing new, of course. During the disco-addled decade of the Seventies, such a religion was promoted by the computer-savvy, self-described messiah Maharaj Ji, a teenage guru from India who briefly came to prominence in America. From a 1974 profile of him by Marjoe Gortner:

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of “modular units adaptable to any desired shape.” The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.

Harris composed a pair of pieces—read also: “God Is a Bot, and Anthony Levandowski Is His Messenger“—on the would-be Silicon Valley spiritualist, who, like many in the Singularity industry, worships at the altar of “intelligence,” a term far more slippery to define than many in the sector are willing to admit. The algorithmic abbot believes heretofore unimaginable machine IQ must equate to God. “If there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human,” he says, “what else are you going to call it?” Well, perhaps the devil?•

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4) “The Strange Pleasure of Seeing Carter Page Set Himself on Fire” (Rick Wilson, Daily Beast)

In his wonderfully Hitchensesque hit job on black-market kidney peddler Carter Page, Wilson also tees off on dissolute Hitlerite Steve Bannon, describing him as “a man better suited to promoting bumfights than grand strategy.” While dunking on dotards won’t save the Republic, respect must still be paid to the most awesomely scathing piece I read all year.•

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5) “The Most Famous ‘Undecided Voter’ Has Big Problems With Trump
    (Luke Mullins, CNN Politics)

Fuck Ken Bone and the culture he rode in on. 

Shame on the Undecided doofus of the 2016 Presidential debates himself for failing to take advantage of the endless educational opportunities in the country, remaining a barely formed adult fetus with the brain power of a bottle cap. Even more shame on those among us who felt it necessary to turn the red-sweatered sluggard into a meme, because Americans need to make every last goddamn thing into entertainment, to manufacture moments to fill the desperately dreary lives we’ve fashioned for ourselves, even if this stupidity can get us all killed.

Fuck the media for its role in the same, not only for making Bone a supporting actor in a national tragedy but for featuring as its star a racist, ignorant game-show host, helping to legitimize someone who should have been too low and louche to cut the ribbon at the opening of a brand-spanking new adult bookstore, let alone be allowed to stain the sheets in the Lincoln Bedroom. And fuck the media again for continuing this dangerous bullshit. Should Mark Cuban run for President? How about Alec Baldwin? Will the Rock enter the race? Why aim so high? This comment is made with all earnestness: Our leadership is presently so dumb and dishonest that even Kim Kardashian would do a better job than our sitting President. Kim Fucking Kardashian.

The Illinois insta-celeb has apparently taken his eyes off of hacked Fappening photos of Jennifer Lawrence long enough to realize that Donald Trump isn’t doing a uniformly stellar job as President. Perhaps the unnecessary suffering of Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders and refugees and immigrants and poor people and non-white folks and even the white dummies who voted for a Simon Cowell-ish strongman has finally reached the slow-on-the-uptake Bone? Who knows and who cares. More likely, he’s just moving his mouth-hole again, making ignorant noises at random, because noise, not news, is what rules in this immature, ill-informed nation.

While Bone deserves to be ushered from the stage in ignominy like a contestant who flubbed the very first question on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, Mullins’ article about the man who knew too little still manages to be an illuminating look at contemporary fame.•

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6) “The Nationalist’s Delusion” (Adam Serwer, Atlantic)

My favorite essay of the year, Serwer’s sharp, surgical take down of the received wisdom that “forgotten Americans” suffering from “economic anxiety” supported an orange supremacist like Donald Trump into the White House to send Washington a message. That plot line was abetted by sloppy reporting that repeatedly said Trump won the working-class vote, which is only true if you eliminate African-Americans from that category. And why, exactly, would you do that?

The writer provides historical context for his arguments, making a compelling case that recent disturbing occurrences like David Duke’s political rise and the bigotry of Birtherism were not isolated events but instead reminders that a wide swath of the nation was still carrying the torch of white supremacy. Sure, there are certainly a scary number of citizens struggling in the country’s extremely polarized financial reality, but Trump enjoyed support among the broad class spectrum of white voters, and interpreting his successful wooing of millions of Caucasians as anything other than cultural warfare is disingenuous. “He says what I’m thinking,” many of his ardent followers on the trail would offer, and considering what he was saying, the nature of the attraction was clear. Serwer methodically obliterates numerous lazy narratives hatched to explain away the obvious, credibly asserting that “had racism been toxic to the American electorate, Trump’s candidacy would not have been viable.”•

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7) RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War” (Jim Rutenberg, New York Times Magazine)

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 platform, but Ventura is more precisely the current President’s political 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 crap 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 of his new show 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.

Rutenberg’s report goes into the guts of the Kremlin propaganda machine, exploring how Putin is using Digital Age tools to reach across borders and into voting booths, rather than employing them to create a better tomorrow for Russia. As Bruce Sterling has written, “Technology is pursued not to accelerate progress but to intensify power.”•

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8) “Blade Runner’s Chillingly Prescient Vision of the Future,” (Marsha Gordon, The Conversation)

Even Disney devotee Ray Bradbury, who more than 50 years ago anxiously anticipated one fine day in the twenty-first century when Caesar would be “reborn” and again address the masses, this time via some sort of hologram, was leery about what might come to pass. “Am I frightened by any of this?” he asked. “Yes, certainly. For these audio-animatronic museums must be placed in hands that will build the truths as well as possible, and lie only through occasional error.” 

Vision and speech recognition, cornerstones of Artificial Intelligence, will be utilized in a further assault on reality via generated media and other methods, should they fall into the wrong hands, which they will, of course, as they’ll be in all hands soon enough. A race for AI dominance among nations and corporations almost demands a boom in this sector. This means the veracity of everything from ancient history to the most recent trending topic will become even more muddled.

In an excellent essay about the meaning of the original Blade Runner prompted by the release of its sequel, Gordon wonders about the withering of memory in the presence of profound AI, as reality receives an “upgrade.”•

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9) On the Milo Bus with the Lost Boys of America’s New Right” (Laurie Penny, Pacific·Standard)

Useful idiots hit the road when the Yiannopoulos yutzes rolled along with their pedophilia-approving British cult leader on an asinine tour of America during the latter stages of Trump’s equally ugly Presidential campaign. Unsurprisingly, these online provocateurs proved to be mice when too far from a mouse pad, cuck-calling cowards who threw tantrums when their taunts were returned. Penny’s compelling work reveals that though these walking dunce caps truly possess odious opinions in regards to race and gender, they weren’t nearly as invested in Trump actually becoming President as you might imagine. They mostly just wanted to break something on the outside because fixing the broken thing on the inside would require introspection, maturity and hard work. The journalist sums up the boys on the bus this way: “These are men, in short, who have founded an entire movement on the basis of refusing to handle their emotions like adults.”•

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10) “You Are the Product” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books)

Prior to dropping out of Harvard to turn Facebook into one of the most populous “states” on Earth, one that rivals even China, Mark Zuckerberg was a double major. One of those areas of study, unsurprisingly, was computer science. As Lanchester reminds in his excellent essay about the social network, the other concentration, psychology, is at least as vital in understanding how the entrepreneur was so successful in realizing the McLuhan nightmare of a Global Village well beyond what anyone else had been able to accomplish.

Zuckerberg didn’t really invent anything, as Friendster was already on the map. But his predecessor quickly faded while he’s developed the fastest growing service in the global history of business. His corporation’s amazing boom was and is driven primarily by three factors: The entrepreneur was at the right age to understand the trajectory of the market, he used his copious venture capital money to attract brilliant engineers and he purposely exploited a hole in our psyches. An Lanchester succinctly puts it: Zuckerberg had a keen understanding of the “social dynamics of popularity and status.”

That comprehension has permitted the company to “hire” a billion people to create free content for the platform each month, which would make Facebook by far the largest sweatshop in the annals of humanity, except even those dodgy operations pay some pittance. All you get for your efforts from Zuckerberg are “friends” and “likes,” which may be an even more lopsided return than receiving some strings of shiny beads in exchange for Manhattan.

The company might not have gone anywhere, however, had it not be for early seed money from Peter Thiel, the immigrant “genius” who was sure there were WMDs in Iraq and that Donald Trump would be a great President. What attracted the investor to the peculiar product was his reading of René Girard’s ideas on “mimesis,” which asserted that all human desires are borrowed from other people and we have an innate need to copy one another. The philosopher viewed this tendency as a human failing with sometimes grave consequences. Thiel, unburdened by a soul, saw it as an opportunity. 

The blinding success of social media enriched Zuckerberg and Thiel, but is it good for individual users and society on a wider scale? This question is one the Facebook founder has probably never even entertained. His offspring can’t be a bad seed because he’s too deeply invested in it. Instead, after Facebook was deluged with criticism for its non-response to those who used the platform as a delivery system for Fake News during the 2016 Presidential election, Zuckerberg proposed a “solution” in his Building Global Community” manifesto, one that essentially doubled down on the elements of his brand (extending connectedness and building “communities”) that are among the very problems. Certainly it benefits the company to downplay rather than neutralize Fake News, since Facebook, an advertising company, profits handsomely from such bullshit content.

Talk of a Zuckerberg run for the White House in 2020 has been all but silenced since the publication of Lanchester’s insightful, searing piece, as it’s clear he’s not even fully capable of running his virtual kingdom let alone a brick and mortar one. What seemed like an impenetrable fortress a year ago may now be stormed by regulators eager to do a job that Facebook (and Google and Twitter) either can’t or won’t do.•

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11) “Year One: My Anger Management” (Katha Pollitt, New York Review of Books)

The writer’s gloriously furious tirade vents about our country’s descent into the depths, which, although aided by the Kremlin machinations and FBI failings, was essentially a self-inflicted wound, one which feels like it could be a coup de grâce delivered to our own temple by nearly 63 million voters. The odious Trump cult, built upon the degeneration in American politics, media, education and finance, will end as sinister systems usually do, in some form of madness and death. Whether liberal governance itself is fatally wounded is still TBD.

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12) “The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future” (Leslie Jamison, Atlantic)

Ghost towns and other such abandoned plots are not only physical anymore but virtual as well, and soon enough the number of deceased will outnumber the living on Facebook and other social sites. In a fascinating, heady piece about the online virtual world Second Life a decade after most people left town, novelist and journalist Jamison looks at how another unintentional digital graveyard keeps its gates open, despite the once-popular hobby now mostly serving as a punchline. As the writer astutely notes, the derided and largely forgotten world of avatars is actually having the last laugh. That’s not only because plenty of people still find meaning in SL, often those hampered by disabilities and discrimination and dissatisfaction in the offline world, but because in a broader sense, the ideas of Philip Rosedale, the game’s creator, have conquered almost all of us. “If Second Life promised a future in which people would spend hours each day inhabiting their online identity,” she writes, “haven’t we found ourselves inside it? Only it’s come to pass on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter instead.”•

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13) “The First White President” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic)

When my ancestors first arrived in America from Italy in the early decades of the twentieth century, they were not considered white. Even though each generation before me has been Italian-Americans married to other Italian-Americans, I am, in 2017, accepted as Caucasian. What changed?

It wasn’t skin color. I was welcomed into the race as a wedge against African-Americans securing a deserved place in the mainstream of U.S. life. Presently, in this nasty natavist period, Mexican-Americans are being rag-dolled by the Right, but is it impossible that in a few decades they too will have been awarded whiteness to further deny descendants of slaves? You can’t rule it out.

In an excerpt from We Were Eight Years in PowerCoates comments on a candidate who won the White House with not only the help of a murderous capo in the Kremlin but from a killer within, an angry mob that would surrender money, security, even democracy, to Make America Great White Again. In Trump they found an avenger with the zeal of a Klansman who believed it his mission to ensure the erasure from history of the first African-American President.

Am I as hopeless as Coates is about the U.S. getting race right someday? No, not usually, but let’s remember that I’m considered white, that nebulous and valued thing, at his expense.•

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14) “Oriana Fallaci, Right or Wrong” (Nina Burleigh, New York Times Book Review)

Fallaci was a merciless interrogator, though not a perfect one. Her hunter’s skills were used to perfection when cornering and toying with Henry Kissinger, who was beaten about the head by her paws until he acknowledged the complete uselessness of the Vietnam War. No, the former Nixon Secretary of State didn’t spend the bulk of his life in leg irons as he deserved, but there was this one deeply humiliating moment of comeuppance, which Kissinger later called “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.” 

Fallaci was also prescient in her writing. During a 1960s interview with Hugh Hefner, she focused on his early adopting of isolating home technologies. He said to her: “I am in the center of the world, and I don’t need to go out looking for the world. The rational use that I make of progress and technology brings me the world at home. What distinguishes men from other animals? Is it not perhaps their capacity to control the environment and to change it according to their necessities and tastes? Many people will soon live as I do.”

Fallaci could sometimes be wide of the mark, like when she dubbed Alfred Hitchcock “Mr. Chastity” (Tippi Hedren begs to differ), or when she, in 1972, imagined Indira Gandhi a champion of justice. Three years later, Gandhi, rather than resign as Prime Minister after being convicted of election fraud, declared martial law, had her political opponents imprisoned and repealed many of the citizens’ freedoms. She had, in effect, become a dictator. Fallaci expressed bitter disappointment in her fallen idol. “I didn’t hide my regret and shame at having portrayed her in the past as a woman to love and respect,” she acknowledged. You could hardly blame Fallaci’s own devotees if they felt similarly jilted by the journalist’s own late-life fervency for Islamophobia, when the indefatigable stubbornness that had buoyed her for so long ultimately buried her in hatred.

In a review Christina de Stefano’s new Fallaci bio, Burleigh somehow manages in a little more than 1200 perfectly chosen words to capture the complexity and conflicts of a combustible career.•

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15) “
The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice(John Leland, New York Times)

Liz Smith was at the center of the culture, when the culture still had a center. Then the long tail of the Internet snapped her from the spotlight, as almost everyone became a celebrity and countless outlets allowed gossip to achieve ubiquity. The louche location of a newspaper no longer needed a name reporter any more than most blockbusters required a particular star. The pictures didn’t get smaller, but the people in them did. Like Walter Winchell, she outlived her fame.

No one deserved a steep decline more than Winchell, who Smith grew up listening to on radio when she was a girl in Texas in the Thirties. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

By the time journalism matured in the 1960s and college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” Winchell had no power left, and people were finally able to turn away from him—and turn they did. The former media massacrist was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalls seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he died in 1972, he was all but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.

Smith was of a later generation, and unlike Winchell or Hedda Hopper, she usually served her information with a spoon rather than a knife—the scribe loved celebrity and access and privilege so much—though she occasionally eviscerated someone who behaved badly. Frank Sinatra was her most famous foe, and you had to respect her for not pulling punches based on the size of her opponent. In the 1980s, she was a major player. A decade later, as we entered the Internet Age and Reality TV era, her empire began to crumble. In 2017, at age 94, she wondered where it all went.

In one sense, Smith was like a lot of retirees pushed from a powerful perch. In another, because she worked in the media in a disruptive age, she had embedded in her the scars of a technological revolution that turned the page with no regard for the boldness of the bylines.

Leland expertly profiled the former power broker just four months before her death.•

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16) “The Painful Truth About Teeth” (Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post)

17) “A Death in Alabama Exposes the American Factory Dream” (Gary Silverman, Financial Times)

18) “To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now” (Neil Irwin, New York Times)

Radical abundance, we’re told by Silicon Valley stalwarts, will soon be the product of 3D printers and other cool tools, making it possible for everyone to share in material wealth. That would be wonderful, except that we already have radical abundance, with more than enough resources to shelter, feed and educate everyone in the world. A fair distribution is what’s lacking, and the same may be true tomorrow since the problem with creating a more level playing field isn’t just ineptitude but also an active campaign by some to maintain the imbalance. 

It’s long been said that Americans who were poor weren’t really poor, not like people in other less fortunate countries. Is that so? Wealth inequality has become a national crisis, and there are some fully employed citizens in 2017 who make ends meet by regularly selling their plasma. Few think twice about this situation, which is, of course, part of the problem. 

Jordan and Sullivan provide a devastating account of rural Maryland denizens living off well water and unable to care for their tooth decay because of our societal rot. Silverman does his usual excellent reporting and analysis in explaining why factory jobs recently reshored aren’t what they used to be. Irwin illustrates exactly how U.S.-based corporations, which used to take some civic responsibility to raise all boats, now leaves those in the most tenuous circumstances to sink.• 

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19) “Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear” (Ted Chiang, BuzzFeed)

There are dual, deep-seated reasons, I think, for the modern preoccupation with apocalypse, which has never been more prevalent than it is currently in literature and art. Part of the fascination has to do with a fear that we’re placing ourselves in a watery grave in the Anthropocene, a completely understandable reaction to what we’ve wrought with climate change. We may, however, be just as worried that everything we’ve created won’t disappear, that we’ll never be free of our dissatisfaction with the techno-capitalistic surveillance society we’re increasingly engineering. Is there no way out?

Deep Learning is making strong, often mysterious moves, leading many to wonder whether our cleverness, once it’s beyond our control, will be the death of us. It would be a scene like one late in the original 1973 version of Westworld, in which one dejected scientist says resignedly about the robots run amok: “They’ve been designed by other computers…we don’t know exactly how they work.” 

Perhaps, but the more realistic and pressing concern may be a hopelessly corrupt corporate state driven by powerful new tools that mine and sell our previously private data. This predicament is analyzed by fiction writer Chiang, who wonders if technologists fear remorseless AI with no concern for our well-being because it’s a “devil in their own image.” 

It certainly does seem that as the computers have gotten smaller, so have our dreams. Technology isn’t nearly the only issue plaguing us, but it also isn’t the magical answer to our ills so many thought it would be. It more accurately seems to be exacerbating them, perhaps driving us to system failure.•

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20) “America’s Future Is Texas” (Lawrence Wright, New Yorker

Former Governor Rick Perry may be the most perfect living embodiment of the dumb-as-dirt side of Texas, the kind of supremely confident stumblefuck you could imagine firing a corn dog and sucking on a pistol. Inexplicably appointed Secretary of Energy by an even more inexplicable President, the king of brain cramps made this bold statement at a West Virginia coal plant this year: “Here’s a little economics lesson—supply and demand. You put the supply out there and the demand will follow.”

That is definitely not how that thing works.

Perry is, of course, far from the looniest Longhorn to hold office, and it would all be fantastically colorful to outsiders were it not for the outsize influence the state’s ballooning population has on everything from textbooks to temperatures. 

In a 2013 Time cover storyWhy Texas is Our Future,” economist Tyler Cowen, whose Mercatus Center is bankrolled by the Koch brothers and who has shown himself to be “weak on crime” while this Administration attempts to steal our democracy, wondered if the Libertarian impulse of the state would spread throughout the country. I argued that California might be a more likely template, that Texas may not even be the future of Texas given its brisk population growth and changing demographics, though we won’t know for sure for awhile.

In making his argument, the economist hadn’t addressed numerous potential threats to his theory:

• Growing Mexican-American voting power goes unmentioned. It likely won’t help Republicans in that state or nationally in the near future.

• The politicians who favor the type of policies Cowen thinks are the future (little or no social safety net) are usually rejected at the ballot box. Trump won by running against his true intentions.

• You can’t assume that the influx of new citizens from disparate places to Texas won’t alter its political landscape. New arrivals may initially be attracted by no state income taxes, but they may grow weary of some of its less-appealing side effects.

• It’s hard to see how Texas’ seemingly endless cheap land could apply to most smaller American states. The supply just isn’t there. Zoning-law changes can help somewhat, but you can do just so much with so little.

• Vast stretches of Texas may be uninhabitable or, at the very least, far less inviting in a few decades, those oil wells doing their damage despite what the state’s elected climate-change deniers believe.

• It’s certainly not Cowen’s responsibility in predicting the future to skew his opinions to the more humanistic path, but I think he’s way too fatalistic about Americans accepting greater and greater income inequality. His view of the future is pretty chilling and it needn’t be realized. Sure, automation will become more prominent, but we do not have to politically allow our country to become an even more extreme version of haves and have-nots, adopting the policies of the state with the nation’s highest uninsured rate and an appalling poverty rate for women and girls. 

Even beyond these obvious reasons that Texas today will likely not be America tomorrow is the simple fact that the state has been wildly gerrymandered by Republicans to distort the reality of its actual character, a process that has been duplicated across the country. Texas is purpler than it used to be, though still red, but much of its population runs up against its more backwards Jesus-rode-dinosaurs daffiness. Redistricting is a trick both parties have historically employed, and one that needs to end. The U.S. not truly and accurately represented is a Republic headed for disaster.

Wright, who spent most of his life living in the state and wrote for Texas Monthly, considers, as Cowen did, that the state may be a bellwether nationally—but does so from a very different perspective. The journalist’s headline implies Texas’ volatile, fractious politics, an “irrepressible conflict” writ even larger than we understand, may await us all.

While covering this year’s 140-day state-legislative session that played out like a dynamite factory visited by a wildfire, Wright provides an excellent tour through many of the historical and contemporary characters, policies and processes that make up the extreme politics of a state where it’s legal to shoot wild pigs from helicopters with machine guns. It’s more or less wartime reportage.

The combustible session often saw average conservatives trying to restrain the fringe-right ones, a group of white men aiming to build a wall around the future, which seems successful in the state at the moment, though it may actually be a death rattle from a population that’s been eclipsed.•

· · ·

21) “Tiny House Hunters and the Shrinking American Dream” (Roxane Gay, Curbed)

There’s nothing wrong with refusing to buy into our consumerist society, because for some, less truly is more. “Downsizing,” however, has always been a euphemistic cover for darker forces at play. The term was first coined in the 1970s to convince empty nesters they would die of loneliness if they continued residing in homes where they raised their children, as if having quiet time to contemplate inside of familiar walls was somehow strange and inappropriate. What’s more, it was considered almost selfish for older folks to continue taking up so much space. Make room for productive people.

The word’s been repurposed during this time of yawning wealth inequality to put a smiley emoji on the new normal of citizens being unable to afford reasonably sized homes (and hopes). The country can now be divided into those with millions and billions and the majority surviving paycheck to paycheck, flying by the seat of its pants with no landing strip in sight.

In her insightful essay about the Reality TV show in which Americans seem a little too gleeful about having to stuff their aspirations into a shoe box, brilliant author and cultural critic Gay considers the eye-popping price tag of what’s commonly considered the American Dream, which may be a bill of goods as well as unaffordable to most.•

· · ·

22) A Likely Story,” (Mimi Kramer, Medium

When Tina Brown was the Editor-in-Chief of the New Yorker, she would comment that “cuteness” was a factor in hiring writers. It seemed like more than a flippant remark. That was the world she wanted to inhabit, one in which appearance, in a number of ways, was preeminent. It’s a mindset that’s added little to the culture.

There were many changes the New Yorker needed to be make in 1992 when Brown was brought in to perform as a wrecking ball for the then-staid institution. Many of her reinventions weren’t the right ones, however. David Remnick often gives his predecessor credit for doing the heavy lifting in recreating the title, but female writers and editors (besides herself) were often pushed from the foreground on her watch. It’s only deep into Remnick’s reign that this egregious shift has been largely remedied. Hollywood and celebrity became central to the publication under Brown, and I will never forgive her for allowing Roseanne to guest edit an edition, the cheapest ploy in magazine’s history. (That’s no offense to Roseanne, an excellent comic, but to the Editor-in-Chief who put her in that ridiculous position.) In addition to paring down the staff of scribes who’d ceased being useful, Brown also drove out many great and productive writers. 

It’s no shock Brown ended up in business with Harvey Weinstein—they were always on the same team. Funny, in retrospect, that Brown’s first cover featured a punk. Her punk phase was as genuine as Ivanka Trump’s

In Kramer’s essay, the former New Yorker theater critic not only crafts one of the most intelligent pieces on shitty men in media and elsewhere but also excoriates Brown, her former boss, with unsparing precision.•

· · ·

23) “Your Animal Life Is Over. Machine Life Has Begun.” (Mark O’Connell, Guardian)

If we don’t kill ourselves first and we probably will, the Posthuman Industrial Complex will ultimately become a going concern. I can’t say I’m sorry I’ll miss out on it. Certainly establishing human colonies in space would change life or perhaps we’ll do so through engineering as a precursor to settling the final frontier. As Freeman Dyson wrote:

Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth. I give the name Noah’s Ark culture to this style of space operation. A Noah’s Ark spacecraft is an object about the size and weight of an ostrich egg, containing living seeds with the genetic instructions for growing millions of species of microbes and plants and animals, including males and females of sexual species, adapted to live together and support one another in an alien environment.

There are also computational scientists among the techno-progressivists who are endeavoring, with the financial aid of their deep-pocketed Silicon Valley investors, to radically alter life down here, believing biology itself a design flaw. To such people, there are many questions and technology is the default answer.

In an excellent excerpt from To Be a Machine, author Mark O’Connell explores the Transhumanisitic trend and its “profound metaphysical weirdness,” profiling the figures forging ahead with reverse brain engineering, neuroprostheses and emulations, who wish to reduce human beings to data.•

· · ·

24) “Growing Up in the Shadow of the Confederacy” (Vann R. Newkirk II, Atlantic)

Stone Mountain may as well have been Ground Zero for the Lost Cause, the systematic plan of the vanquished of the Civil War, led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to win the postbellum information war via a variety of revisionist media—statuary, textbooks, etc. In a break from the universal truism, the losers were allowed to write history, which is how Robert E. Lee was reinvented as an “honorable man” and violent treason perplexingly came to be known as a “noble effort.” This propaganda’s reverberations continue to this day, with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly recently giving voice to this dangerous distortion. 

The mammoth Confederate monument carved into Georgia rock was originally begun by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was approached in 1915 by the OD of the C to fashion an unprecedented, larger-than-life tribute to the half-slave side of America. Make no mistake about what drove the endeavor: The initial model included a Ku Klux Klan altar, no surprise since the terrorist group was among the main financial backers of the vast artwork. Borglum was no doubt hired in part because of his great skill, but his deep nativist streak and KKK sympathies were also reasons for the offer and his acceptance of it. (He ultimately dropped out of the project due to disputes with his bosses, and a succession of replacements saw it to conclusion over five decades. Borglum, of course, eventually created Mount Rushmore.)

What was writ large on Stone Mountain proliferated throughout the country, with more than 700 Confederate statues dotting small towns and big cities, even in Union states like Ohio. The Ku Klux Khakis descended on Charlottesville this past August to protest the removal of one such memorial, committing murder before the weekend was done.

Newkirk, a North Carolina native, recounts his experience growing up in an “occupied territory” in the shadows of one such monument, which loomed above him as a reminder and a threat. As he explains in his powerful article, disputing those who claim these are homages to heritage and not enduring symbols of supremacy, “stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose.”• 

· · ·


25)
The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination” (Doug Bock Clark, GQ)

The Kardashians have, against all odds, stretched their 15 minutes of fame into a decade-long residency in a Warholian vomitorium, making a mint from their less-than-brilliant careers. Kris Jenner is a monstrous person who was happy to shamelessly sell her soul as well as her daughters to the highest bidder in exchange for some recognition and a string of shiny baubles. Even if she hadn’t been so good at her disgraceful line of work and they’d never managed to attract an unblinking spotlight to their famous-for-nothing act, they would have been a damaged brood drowning in their own tears. With that mother, they were doomed from the start.

The only important questions are what enabled the Kardashians to be famous, and why do so many people all over the globe wish for the kind of notoriety they possess? The first question is easier to answer. Two technological changes made the brand possible: A decentralized media allowed for an explosion of channels on TV and the Internet which created an overwhelming need for cheap content and new stars, and the advent of computer-based non-linear editing systems for video made such Reality fare technologically simple to piece together. The second query is more knotty. There is currently a hole inside us that makes many crave for attention beyond all satisfaction. The Kardashians may best represent that dynamic, but they are far from alone.

In Clark’s excellent exegesis of Kim Jong-nam’s Malaysian airport murder, he writes of how simple it was for North Korean agents to dupe fame-hungry young women into unwittingly committing murder with a nerve agent by convincing them they were merely participating in a hidden-camera Reality TV show. As shocking as the wetwork was—and it was deliberately so bizarre to send a chilling message to the world—you could hardly blame the clueless culprits for failing to recognize the ruse, not in a world of endless cameras and emotional cruelty, in which reality and fiction have become so blurred.•

· · ·

26) What Happens If China Makes First Contact?” (Ross Andersen, The Atlantic)

Despite the millions poured into Harry Reid’s phantom UFO-detection program, citizens with their suspect saucer “sightings” have long given the search for extraterrestrial intelligence a bad name in America as assuredly as Timothy Leary made the potential medical benefits of LSD long unspeakable. But considering how much is out there—including stars like our sun and planets like our own—the odds are that we’re not alone.

China is set up to hear first if extraterrestrials make contact with humans any time in the foreseeable future, since that nation has invested most heavily in the technology necessary to enable such a meeting of the minds. Does it matter if a totalitarian regime is at the head of the line to greet the otherworldly? (That’s supposing, of course, that China remains autocratic.) Probably not, considering the Earth-shaking enormity of the event, one that would likely render any political designations meaningless. Of course, some probably felt the same about the original Space Race, and that didn’t turn out to be true, with numerous practical advantages subsequently enjoyed by America. But the realization of a close encounter with alien life would dwarf even boots on the moon.

Its realization of a village-clearing SETI telescope makes clear, however, that China is committed to science as America has taken a sharp turn from it, at least at our highest levels of government. If the autocratic state surpasses the U.S. and the rest of the planet in not only alien detection but also in solar panels, supercomputers, physics, etc., China would possess a soft power to go along with superior hardware, which would have a profound effect on world order. China’s dominance isn’t fait accompli, of course, as its poisonous dictatorial politics is a serious impediment to scientific growth. The valuable messiness of democracy may ultimately be a natural outgrowth of its continued development.

Andersen, a uniquely interesting writer and thinker, traces his trek to China’s premier SETI setup, home of the “world’s most sensitive telescope,” which looks like a caved-in Apple campus dotted with oil rigs, visiting along the way the novelist Liu Cixin and revisiting the populous state’s scientific history.•

· · ·

27) “Conservatism Can’t Survive Donald Trump Intact” (David Frum Atlantic)

Erstwhile patriot and so-called Sensible Republican Lindsey Graham has thrown in with the traitorous Trump, so if he isn’t secretly working for the Mueller investigation, temporarily sacrificing his good name for the greater cause—not likely—either one of two possibilities is likely true: He’s being blackmailed over something personal, or he now realizes that the wide-ranging probe will also ensnare him, not an impossible outcome since he gladly pocketed Blavatnik money

From the start, I’ve argued the GOP establishment probably wasn’t bolstering Trump because of tax cuts or Supreme Court seats (items more easily delivered by Mike Pence) but more likely due to the Kremlin’s tentacles reaching deeply into the party’s apparatus. The increasing attacks on Mueller by elected Republican officials and Fox News talkers suggest the same. Many aren’t endeavoring to save Trump but themselves.

If not only Trump is a turncoat but the entire party becomes identified as such, how will it recover should this inside job of a coup be put down? Frum, who’s done resolutely outstanding work during these troubled times, believes there’s no path back. The writer isn’t suggesting any party-wide wrongdoing as I have but is instead addressing how conservative thinkers have bent to the will of their putative leader and his most ardent adherents. The writer ultimately feels this ideology as it has been recently defined will not stay afloat in America after the crew’s pledge of allegiance to Trump, who’s both captain and mutineer.•

· · ·

28) “Chronicler of Islamic State ‘Killing Machine’ Goes Public” (Lori Hinnant and Maggie Michael, Associated Press)

Engrossing feature about Iraqi historian and blogger Omar Mohammed going undercover in Mosul to bear witness to IS atrocities, risking his own life to catalog an awful moment in time and give a name to both perpetrators and victims of monstrosity, even as he’d left his own identity behind. “Trust no one, document everything,” was the mantra of the “Mosul Eye,” as his readership—and the threat to his life—grew. Viewing beheadings and behandings eventually caused him to crack, but soon he was back on the beat, filling his spreadsheets and posts with accounts of torture and murder. Eventually, he bribed his way out of the country so that his documents wouldn’t disappear along with his life, continuing his journo-activism abroad from Turkey. A stunning act of bravery related brilliantly by Hinnant and Michael.•

· · ·

29) “Creating the Honest Man” (Kai Strittmatter, Süddeutsche Zeitung

A terrifying report about the Chinese government’s attempt to build a ubiquitous surveillance state to quantify, judge and “guide” its citizens, using algorithms and facial recognition software to monitor everything from bill payments to bicycle rentals to blood donations, in order to “civilize people.” It’s an ungodly mix of behavioral science, technological overreach and totalitarianism. Right now this “Social Credit System” is just a voluntary app, but in a couple of years it will no longer be optional, and the process won’t just measure what nationals have done but will predict what they’ll next do. The measured will be divided into “good” and “bad” and rewarded and punished by an Office of Honesty’s computer calculations. As Strittmatter explains in his cogent article, it’s a “dictatorship that is reinventing itself digitally.”•

· · ·


30) “From Louis Armstrong to the N.F.L.: Ungrateful Is the New Uppity” (Jelani Cobb, New Yorker)

Certainly I wish Colin Kaepernick had voted in the Presidential election and encouraged others to do so, because no matter how disenfranchised you may feel in a system, you still live within it, as do many others who are more vulnerable than you, too young or old to fend for themselves. But there’s not much else this generous, civic-minded athlete hasn’t done right since he began sitting out the national anthem in 2016 to protest race-based police brutality, soon thereafter taking a knee to show respect to the flag even while refusing it his salute. From paying for business suits for recently released inmates to providing financial support to lower-income students, he’s a son of America of whom we should all be proud, even if he’s been called a “son of a bitch” by our most overtly racist President since Woodrow Wilson.

Cobb delves into the lexicon of oppression, recalling a time not so many decades ago when black Americans were deemed “uppity” if they didn’t go along with a program that defined them as less and questioned a system that favored their white counterparts. It was a term of admonishment but also a threat. Jack Johnson, who pulled no punches, was ruined because of his refusal to “know his role.” Even Louis Armstrong, who didn’t deliver knuckles to the nose but music to the ears, was castigated for his infrequent expressions of anger over the country’s unequal dynamic.

Kaepernick and other well-paid African-American athletes and entertainers who’ve made the stand for greater justice have recently begun being labeled “ungrateful,” which, of course, implies they should be thankful for all that they have because it’s only the largesse of white Americans that allows for such a thing. Trump, a Bull Connor of a condo salesman who made it to the White House on white-supremacist signalling, has unsurprisingly tried to turn a plea for fairness into a wedge issue. As Cobb eloquently explains, he is a “small man with a fetish for the symbols of democracy and a bottomless hostility for the actual practice of it.”•

· · ·

31) “Self-Taught Rocket Scientist Plans to Launch Over Ghost Town” (Pat Graham, Associated Press)

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, sure, but what if we tell the wrong ones?

Yes, there’s always been a strain of madness in American society, but the sideshow was ushered into the center ring in recent decades. The zealots, cranks and crooks have become the norm, or at least enough of the norm to tip the balance. Not that our country wasn’t sick before the Digital Age. Donald Trump’s rise, which began before Russian bots and Reality TV, perfectly traces our decline into system-crushing corruption. Now numerous erstwhile pillars of our nation shake and probably will fall. That will be messy, but it’s actually the best-case scenario: It’s still possible things remain standing and the fraudulent consume whatever justice remains.

Graham’s profile of a self-taught U.S. rocket scientist who believes the Earth is flat is a perfect metaphor for American exceptionalism run aground.•

· · ·

32) “Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting The Origins of Totalitarianism(Roger Berkowitz, Los Angeles Review of Books)

What’s good for book publishers is not necessarily healthy for a society, which has been proven recently by Hannah Arendt’s work returning to fashion with a fury. According to her teachings on totalitarianism, Trump, despite his authoritarian aspirations, wouldn’t yet qualify as a despot, but as Berkowitz advises in his sobering essay, liberal governance can die by degrees. 

Trump has relentlessly attacked institutions and mores as he continues to reinvent himself as something of an American Mussolini. Beyond besieging traditions, the system of checks and balances and the Fourth Estate, he has “shown a willingness to assert his personal control over reality,” as the writer asserts, offering to his faithful an alternative world that won’t, and can’t, be made manifest, but can serve as a safe haven from the truth. 

When Berkowitz composed this piece in March, he wondered whether Trump would have to learn to exist within the Republican Party machinery in order to succeed. Instead, the GOP has shrunk itself to fit inside his pocket. The author suggests a return to the “Jeffersonian project of local self-government” to ward off the death of liberty, but such a shift won’t protect us in the present tense. Totalitarianism may be spoiled by Mueller or the masses or by the perpetrators’ sheer sloppiness, but it remains on the table. Nothing can truly shock anymore, a clear indicator of our deeply troubled situation.•

· · ·

33) “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ)

American concerts, schools and even churches are no longer safe from terrorists, usually white men with guns. Ghansah brought a well-honed analytical eye, gorgeous writing skills and a profound psychological insight to one such horrifying case, turning out a remarkable account of a lone-wolf lynching bee, a strangely quiet 21-year-old man who entered a South Carolina church intending to kill as many black people as possible.

The writer digs beneath the easy narrative sold by monolithic media reports which depicted a congregation of endlessly forgiving African-Americans, revealing in the trial-coverage portion of her piece the deep well of rage against the unrepentant defendant, who appeared as a “young, demented monk with a tonsure.” Interviewing dozens of the defiant mass murderer’s relatives, teachers, classmates and coworkers, Ghansah succeeds in the challenging task of creating a portrait of a cipher of a man who committed an unspeakable crime—and the culture that produced him.•

· · ·

34) “What Putin Really Wants” (Julia Ioffe, Atlantic)

Vladimir Putin is stuck in the twentieth century, a dinosaur subsisting on old oil wells, guiding his nation toward existential risk as he settles for being a global troll rather than trying to remake his state to meet the challenges of a new millennium. That’s because he’s tremendously corrupt and not especially bright.

That his gambits aimed at destabilizing Western democracies have worked thus far is a clear indicator of societal decline in nations that embraced grifters selling Brexit and MAGA. Putin hasn’t pulled himself up as much as we’ve allowed ourselves to be lowered into his grave. He will ultimately be remembered, when he is dead or arrested, as anathema to sound governance, and one whose trail of personal evil likely extends much further than currently known.

Ioffe has steadily turned out outstanding work monitoring Kremlin intrigue, and in her best article of the year, she visits Russia to probe the computer culture that’s enabled Putin to seem omnipotent rather than the poseur he actually is, while analyzing the meaning of his attempts to hack history. It’s a complex tangle, and as the reporter writes: “Both Putin and his country are aging, declining—but the insecurities of decline present their own risks to America.”•

· · ·


35) “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency” (Jane Mayer, New Yorker)

36) “Robert Mercer, the Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media” (Carole Cadwalladr, Guardian)

There’s been an argument made by some economists (Libertarians, mostly) that if all Americans are growing richer it doesn’t matter if wealth inequality is ballooning. Two big problems: The all-boats-rising dynamic has been largely absent in recent decades, and even if money did move in such a manner, the vast resources held by a relative few would still allow them to exert undue influence on media, law and politics.

We witnessed such forces at work prior to the 2016 Presidential campaign when Peter Thiel shuttered Gawker by bankrolling the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, arguing it was righteous to do so because the blog was a “sociopathic bully.” That he soon thereafter began supporting a racist troll into the White House revealed a shocking level of hypocrisy. Thiel claimed that his attack on the media was a singular event, but Charles Harder, the lawyer who helped him kill Nick Denton’s company, began work on similar lawsuits.

In the political realm, the Kochs and the Mercers, who had long desired to force their .001% worldview on the country, became unfettered and largely inscrutable after the democracy-cracking Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Robert Mercer, along with the help of his daughter Rebekah, invested tens of millions in abetting fringe politics, conspiracy theories, Breitbart racism, Milo madness, Cambridge Analytica gaming and climate change denialism, when not busy playing with his $3 million Nile-sized toy train set. Mercer may be brilliant with computers, but he’s also a cuckoo with a choo-choo who believes nuclear war may be healthy and that the Civil Rights Act was a mistake. He will spend what it takes to miniaturize the government, reinvent it as an oligarchy or run the whole thing off the tracks, whichever comes first. His money is dark in more ways than one.

Mayer does her usual amazingly lucid work in breaking down how we arrived at this ignominious moment and explaining where it all may be heading. Cadwalladr continues to be invaluable for her effort to follow the money and make sense of the documents as she uncovers links connecting Mercer, Assange, Farage, Trump, Bannon and other suspect characters aiming to upend democracy.•

· · ·

37) “The Way Ahead” (Stephen Fry, stephenfry.com)

I’m given pause when someone compares the Internet to the printing press because the difference in degree between the inventions is astounding. For all the liberty Gutenberg’s machine brought to the printed word, you couldn’t slide one into your pocket, nor was it connected to billions of other such devices. It overwhelmingly put power into the hands of professionals, and while the eventual advent of copiers and other devices meant anyone could print anything, the vast majority of reading material produced was still overseen by gatekeepers (publishers, editors, etc.) who, on average, did the bidding of enlightenment.

By 1969, Glenn Gould believed the new technologies would allow for the sampling, remixing and democratization of creativity, that erstwhile members of the audience would ultimately ascend and become creators themselves. He hated the hierarchy of live performance and was sure its dominance would end. “The audiences [will] become the performer to a large extent,” he predicted. He couldn’t have known how right he was.

The Web has indeed brought us a greater degree of egalitarianism than we’ve ever possessed, as the centralization of media dissipated and the “fans” rushed the stage to put on a show of their own. Now here we all are crowded into the spotlight, a turn of events that’s been both blessing and curse. The utter democratization and the filter bubbles that have attended this phenomenon of endless channels have proven paradoxically (thus far) a threat to democracy. It’s acknowledged even by those who’ve been made billionaires by these new tools that “the Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” though they never mention when some semblance of order might return.

In Fry’s excellent Hay Festival lecture, the writer and actor spoke on these same topics and other aspects of the Digital Age that are approaching with scary velocity. Like a lot of us, he was an instant convert to Web 1.0, charmed by what it delivered and awed by its staggering potential. Older, wiser and sadder for his knowledge of what’s come to pass, Fry tries to foresee what is next in a world in which social media cannot only help topple tyrants but can create them as well, knowing that the Internet of Things will only further complicate matters. Odds are life may be both greater and graver. He offers one word of advice: Prepare.•

· · ·

38) Too Many Americans Live in a Mental Fog” (Noah Smith, Bloomberg View)

I’ve never felt nostalgic about “Mean Streets” New York, even if I don’t particularly like what’s replaced it, with runaway gentrification and a tourist-trap Times Square. When I was a child growing up in Queens during a rougher time in NYC history, incinerators spewed “black snow” over us when we played outside. The grade school I went to and apartment building we lived in were coated in asbestos until the city forced its removal. Usually really nice neighbors would stagger down the street completely drunk a couple times of week or get into fights when they were high, when they weren’t busy working or trying to care for their families.

These things come back to me sometimes. Like when I learned that fellow Queens native Stephen Jay Gould suffered from mesothelioma or when the news first broke that Flint children were essentially being raised on lead water or when the opioid crisis took hold. 

In one of his best columns, Smith wonders about the silent costs of environmental problems, drug use and poverty. It’s a topic that’s discussed infrequently in the public realm since it’s easier (though costlier) to react to effects than causes. Occasionally someone will write an article about the far higher percentage of past traumatic brain injuries among convicts and wonder about causality, but that’s the exception. I’d love to read a study that traces the outcomes of those who play several years of tackle football in childhood against those who don’t. 

Smith looks at the situation mostly from the economic costs of a brain-addled populace in the time when America has become chiefly an information culture, but successfully treating the foundational issues would relieve personal pain as well as better us broadly in a globally competitive business world.•

· · ·

39) Departing AP Reporter Looks Back at Venezuela’s Slide” (Hannah Dreier, Associated Press)

Julian Assange was always a dubious character, but he probably didn’t begin his Wikileaks career as a Putin puppet. That’s what he’s become during this decade, however, helping the Kremlin tilt the 2016 U.S. Presidential election with coordinated leaks and serving in the post-election period as a defender of Donald Trump, as the Commander-in-Chief attempts to gradually degrade liberty and instill authoritarianism in America. 

Assange’s most recent gambit was to warn of mass violence in the U.S.—encourage it, actually—by promising that the disaster unfolding in Venezuela would be replicated here should Trump be ousted from office for any number of nefarious acts that may be uncovered by Robert Mueller or other investigative officials. The analogy is dishonest since Venezuela’s decline is the result of gross mismanagement, not any political conflict. But large-scale civil unrest in America would be an ideal outcome for the Kremlin, which longs to destabilize the most powerful democracies.

Venezuela is going through a crazy-dangerous moment, for sure, and while the U.S. has a markedly different history and traditions, we could certainly will slide further toward such a nightmare if Trump and Assange get their way. 

Dreier’s harrowing report reflects on her last days covering Venezuela’s fresh hell.•

· · ·


40) “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades” (Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, New York Times)

41) “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories” (Ronan Farrow, New Yorker)

Several of America’s most prominent institutions are simultaneously threatening collapse. That’s likely for the good, ultimately.

The gravest danger is in Washington, of course, where a Manchurian Russian candidate made his way to the White House with a Putin push and is sick enough to be willing to destroy democracy to save himself. A complicit, corrupt Republican Congress seems intent on allowing the Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini to do just that. Only Robert Mueller’s team and tens of millions of citizens may be able to prevent such an outcome. One way or another, the whole thing is coming down and Trump will be covered in disgrace. The shape the rest of us will be in is TBD.

Janice Min is correct, I think, when she says it was a sexual predator like Donald Trump and his anti-women agenda landing in the Oval Office that caused Harvey Weinstein to finally be defenestrated from the penthouse. While that may have been the original impetus, the movement now has a life of its own. It was long overdue, and hopefully it’s only prelude.

As I wrote in the introduction, let’s remember it wasn’t an app hatched in Palo Alto that ended Weinstein’s monstrous behavior but rather the costly journalism turned out by a pair of legacy news organizations. Without this challenging reporting, all that’s become known in the aftermath would still remain undetected, undiagnosed, untreated.

In addition to the two articles listed above, also recommended are the follow-up pieces (“Weinstein’s Complicity Machine” by Kantor and Twohey again, along with Susan Dominus, Jim Rutenberg and Steve Eder; and Farrow’s chilling “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies“). Stellar reporting and analysis were also done in this area by many others. To name just a few: Yashar Ali of Huffington Post, Rebecca Traister, Susan Fowler, Jia Tolentino and Emily Steel (the latter of whom documented some of the gross behavior at Vice, the American Apparel of journalism).

Most important of all, however, may have been Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn’s NYT report on the harassment of women at Ford Motors. Most Americans don’t work in the so-called glamour industries, and it’s not as easy getting attention focused on abuses in blue-collar industries. No victory will be complete if reform fails to make its way from the opening credits to the end of the assembly line.•

· · ·

42) “The Secretive Family Making Billions From the Opioid Crisis” (Christopher Glazek, Esquire)

43) “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” (Patrick Radden Keefe, New Yorker)

44) “Seven Days of Heroin” (Dan Horn and Terry DeMio, Cincinnati Enquirer

The War on Drugs did not extend to the Sackler family, the dynastic dealers of opioids who’ve paid handsomely for the naming rights to galleries and gardens at A-list museums and universities, with billions they collected from poisoning the American well. It’s essentially blood money, the collection of which was enabled by a corrupt and sometimes naive medical industry, curious FDA decisions and a legal system that sent no one to prison despite felony convictions earned by numerous executives of the clan’s Purdue Pharma.

The pain-management business transformed the Sacklers in just over two decades from millionaires to billionaires, as they promoted OxyContin as less addictive than older-generation opioids. Always supremely careful with their reputation, the family has steadfastly kept their distance from the carnage they abetted, all but erasing their name from their outsize part in the pillification of America. The family has instead enjoyed admiration as it funneled some of its Oxy profits to Oxford University and other top-drawer institutions.

That cloak of invisibility has recently begun to be lifted by journalism, including a pair of stellar pieces of reporting this year by Glazek and Keefe, each of whom details the process behind the profits and lives lost to the scourge. “We were directed to lie,” one former Purdue sales rep tells Glazek. “Why mince words about it? Greed took hold and overruled everything.” As a recovering Long Island addict tells Keefe of his behavior after getting hooked: “I just created a hurricane of destruction.” The Sackler family has yet to be so honest about their role in the violent storm. 

Focusing exclusively on the consumer side of the epidemic, Horn and DeMio and dozens of reporters, photographers and videographers combined to create a multimedia account of one week’s death and turmoil wrought by their region’s single greatest health crisis, putting a human face—many of them, actually—on a needless American tragedy.•

· · ·


45)
 Trump’s Dictator Chic” (Peter York, Politico)

Fidel Castro attempted to hide his extravagant lifestyle, but he was an outlier among despots of recent vintage, most of whom have taken pains to cultivate conspicuous displays of wealth, which they believe projects unassailable power. It’s a sort of autocratic architecture, a weaponized interior design. Big, shiny hotel-esque hideousness was the preference of Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, all of whom seemed to have uniformly possessed a child’s comprehension of what affluence should look like: a Vegas casino in which the house always wins.

The new millennia has continued with much of the same, though zeros have been added at the end of the number with rampant kleptocracies like the one in Russia, among other tyrannical regions of the globe. With the election of Donald Trump, a dictator whose tin pot is painted gold, the White House now has a figure given to ridiculous gaudiness, and his use of the Oval Office as a cash register for himself and his family is an unsurprising extension of this vulgar motif. It’s the prosperity gospel of mansionaires like the Osteens, adopted by a President who prays only for his own fortune.•

· · ·

46) “Woman Says Roy Moore Initiated Sexual Encounter When She Was 14, He Was 32” (Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites, Washington Post)

Bold, dogged work by a trio of reporters and brave testimony by victims helped bring to heel, if just barely, the morally repugnant Alabama politician. Journalism can only do so much, however, even when its operating at its best as in this case. The rest depends on the citizenry. That a bigoted, theocratic, alleged child rapist came within a whisper of the Senate says something awful about the state we’re in. (That someone with many of these same terrible traits became President says the rest.) Those who voted for Moore knowing exactly what he is are heinous, but perhaps more dangerous are the supporters who didn’t accept what was obvious, choosing instead to live within a convenient delusion. A society that’s given up on objective reality in a large-scale way is doomed.•

· · ·

47) “The Hollywood Exec and the Hand Transplant That Changed His Life” (Amy Wallace, Los Angeles Magazine)

A gripping tale about a hale Hollywood exec who mysteriously suffers septic shock, somehow survives what should have killed him, loses at least part of all his limbs in the aftermath and undergoes a remarkably complicated and seldom attempted surgery. A nerve-wracking medical drama and inspirational story that Wallace expertly relates with the touch of a sportswriter.•

· · ·

48) “John Boehner Unchained” (Tim Alberta, Politico)

It’s an American tradition to rehabilitate political crooks, clods and liars of years gone by who are no longer in possession of power to do grave damage, which can make them seem harmless in retrospect. Kissinger is identified by many as wise statesman rather than mass murderer; Goldwater, the architect of society-busting Reagonomics, was the kindly man who shared anecdotes with Jay Leno in the 1990s; and George W. Bush is now an interesting outsider artist, not the guy who broke the world through incompetence and dishonesty. Forgiving is one thing, forgetting another.

The same tendency is currently at play with John Boehner, the weepy and often destructive former Speaker, who in his retirement is willing to say shitty things about shitty Republicans in between Marlboro drags and coughing fits. Some in the media and populace applaud because he was never as bad as Trump, but let’s recall that he was one of the agents who led to our current calamity.

Alberta’s fascinating piece is a portrait of Boehner at rest (or as close to it as he can manage).•

· · ·

49) “A History of the Future: How Writers Envisioned Tomorrow’s World” (John Gray, New Statesmen)

The Austrian physiologist Eugen Steinbach began researching “reactivation,” his term for the process of making the aged young all over again, in the 1890s. He promoted the use of “brain extracts” for all and developed for men a type of vasectomy that would allegedly repurpose semen into an internal youth serum. It was bollocks, but the procedure still helped the doctor gain fame—if not the approval of his medical peers—because people rightfully fear death, a hideous and permanent condition. A 1941 report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle marveled at how the octogenarian, yet seemingly ageless, Steinbach was to go horseback riding on his birthday. What a remarkable specimen he’d turned himself into! He croaked three years later, however, like a mere commoner who’d been unenlightened about the bold ideas of educated men.

Today Alphabet aims to “cure death,” Libertarian putz Peter Thiel has vowed that HGH injections and other high-priced treatments will allow him to live to 140 (god help us all if so) and Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil pursues immortality by downing handfuls of supplements daily and trying to upload his brain into computers. Let’s hope for his sake it doesn’t wind up housed in Google Docs.

Don DeLillo’s 2016 novel, Zero K, takes on this fervor among the super-rich for an endless tomorrow: “We are born without choosing to be,” a character says. “Should we have to die in the same manner?” Well, we should search for better cures and longer lives, but there’s something creepy about the over-promising and narcissism of contemporary Silicon Valley immortalists who hope to escape societal collapse by fleeing to New Zealand and to outrun the Reaper through a combination of chemistry and computers. They talk about wanting to rescue the world, but they mostly want to save their own asses and stock options. 

In Gray’s mixed review of Peter J. Bowler’s book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the philosopher examines the longstanding anti-death movement through Steinbach, Serge Voronoff and other historical crackpots, and interprets more technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.•

· · ·

50) “Will We Have a Civil War?” (Keith Mines, Foreign Policy)

Parallel to the Trump crisis is the only slightly quieter one currently playing out. With the GOP controlling all three branches of the government, the fraying social safety net barely keeping struggling Americans from dropping dead has begun to be sliced to bits.

While the House and Senate Republicans are either too craven, complicit or worse to neutralize Trump’s threat to democracy, the GOP is willfully attempting to exacerbate wealth inequality. Even in a deeply dysfunctional party, Paul Ryan’s monstrous Ayn Rand fantasy of cruelly punishing the poor appears to be coming to fruition. This could be the moment when the gloves come off, the shit hits the fan, the games begin. 

How do we peacefully extricate ourselves from this disaster that’s been decades in the making? It won’t be easy. A raft of indictments bringing the moneyed interests of D.C. to its knees is possible but no sure thing. Perhaps protests and marches can save the day, though not if they’re ignored. 

At some point the people will tire of bread and Kardashians and decide to cancel the show. 

The thing is, such a lashing out would likely be factional and confused, an awful tragedy. Some terrible things are likely to happen and the worst outcome is still possible. As Mines writes in his harrowing opinion piece: “It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.”•

· · ·

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Note From The Editor

I’m going to take a week or two away from posting on this blog to put together Afflictor’s “Best Articles of the Year” list for 2017, which will be bigger and not better than ever before. See you then.∼Darren

Meghan McCain, the dimwitted daughter of American plutocracy, is outraged by a mean tweet from Ashley Feinberg, which will not shorten her father’s life by one second. Meanwhile, the unspeakably cruel tax bill the Senator just supported will literally abbreviate the lives of many citizens. The Republican National Committee is pressuring the Huffington Post to fire the journalist, even though the large majority of its members voted for Donald Trump even though he mocked McCain for being a POW and subsequently refused to apologize. A sign of a civilization suffering from moral rot is when actual marauders feel emboldened to scold critics for their manners.

· · ·

Of course, Trump and the band of robber barons that comprise today’s GOP didn’t get here alone. There’s been no more pernicious influence in modern America than the Murdoch family, which has poisoned the well with Fake News long before such a term even existed.

“There is a special place in hell for Roger Ailes and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly,” Thomas E. Ricks recently said, “I think they introduced a feeling of thuggishness into American discourse. And ultimately, I blame that on Rupert Murdoch, who I think has done more to poison American political life than any single person since Jefferson Davis.” In the United States, that probably means we’ll soon erect statues to honor Rupert, James and Lachlan.

· · ·

There are likely only two paths forward, a cleansing or a collapse. Perhaps Robert Mueller and a woke #Resist movement will be able to dismantle the evil system built by traitors, grifters, bigots and crackpots, or maybe we’re ineluctably headed for decline, dotage and death. Those who attempt the former will be attacked vociferously by those leading us toward the latter.

· · ·

In a New Yorker piece about new developments in Swedish politics, Masha Gessen takes time to meditate on a more hopeful future for us all. Let’s hope. The opening:

Michael Wernstedt lives in the future, in the center of Stockholm. It is a “co-living space,” a former hotel now inhabited by fifty people who share five kitchens and a variety of common spaces on four floors; each tenant also has a bedroom with a private bathroom. All of it is breathtakingly well-designed and meticulously clean. While Wernstedt and I talked, sitting on one of several giant gray couches in one of the common spaces, about a dozen people of different genders and skin colors (though all roughly in their mid-thirties) shared a casual meal in another. During a recent house meeting, Wernstedt told me, someone asked those present to recall the happiest time of their lives—and they all said that they were happiest right now. Wernstedt’s vision for the future of Sweden, and democratic politics in general, resembles this house: it is happy, healthy, sustainable, and co-created.

Last week, the co-living space hosted a press conference, during which Wernstedt and two co-organizers announced the formation of a new political party, the Initiative. Few people in Sweden have heard of the new party yet, though its older sister, Denmark’s the Alternative, has assembled an impressive constituency in just four years. To register as a party in Stockholm, the Initiative had to collect fifty physical, pen-and-ink signatures; it will take another fifteen hundred to get on the national ballot. The Initiative plans to meet the national threshold by August, the deadline for next September’s parliamentary election. Getting into parliament would require winning at least four per cent of the vote. There are about three dozen nationwide political parties in Sweden, but only eight are represented in parliament. The youngest party to break the four-per-cent barrier is the Sweden Democrats, an ultranationalist, anti-immigrant party that was founded in 1988 and has been seated in parliament since 2010.

Wernstedt interprets the rise of the Sweden Democrats, like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, as an opportunity of sorts: “This is scary, but it shows that people want something new. And we have to take responsibility for democracy.” Better yet, Wernstedt wants to reinvent politics. The Initiative’s most important innovation is launching a party without a program but with two lists. One is a list of six values that the Party espouses: courage, openness, compassion, optimism, co-creation, and actionability. The other is a list of three crises that the Party must address: the crisis of faith in democracy, the environmental crisis, and the crisis of mental health. Last year, according to Wernstedt, Swedes missed more workdays for being mentally unwell than they did for being physically unwell; the leading cause of death among people under thirty-five is suicide. Starting next week, the Initiative plans to begin holding workshops around Sweden to develop a political program to address the three crises in ways consistent with the six values.•

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Mass media was supposed to use facts to shine a cleansing light, but that supposes a uniform noble impulse on the part of those sending out the signals. In this way, humans and communications technology are a mismatch.

· · ·

In 1923, “Professor” Joseph Dunninger, the mesmerist, demonstrated the art of “radio hypnotism,” boasting that his disembodied voice could influence the behavior of those remote to him.

It was soon hailed that hypnotists would be able to simultaneously cure chronic alcoholics and other troubled citizens by the thousands thanks to the growing popularity of the medium.

It was ridiculous, of course, if you considered the scenario literally.

· · ·

D.W. Griffith, another sort of mesmerist, had Dunninger beaten by eight years. His deeply racist 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, was a staple of American theaters for a decade and spent the pre-Talkie period as the standard by which all other films were measured, while also igniting a vast revival of the Ku Klux Klan. From Adam Hochschild in the New York Review of Books:

The KKK’s rebirth was spurred by D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. The most expensive and widely seen motion picture that had yet been made, it featured rampaging mobs of newly freed slaves in the post–Civil War South colluding with rapacious northern carpetbaggers. To the rescue comes the Ku Klux Klan, whose armed and mounted heroes lynch a black villain, save the honor of southern womanhood, and prevent the ominous prospect of blacks at the ballot box. “It is like teaching history with lightning,” said an admiring President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, who saw the film in the White House.•

Make no mistake: As surely as the Lost Cause, this movie meant to inculcate. As one newspaper wrote in the year of the moving picture’s release: “That parents regard the picture as educating and one their children see is evidenced by hundreds of parents who go with their young people to performances, especially in the afternoon.” That would ultimately prove an underestimation by millions, as no movie in the early part of the 20th century would be attended so rabidly and “educate” so many Americans.

· · ·

Social networks today use their lightning to not only teach history but also current events, a topic that’s become riddled with “alternate facts,” a process pushed on purpose by Trump and his minions and buttressed by online Russian interlopers, actual and virtual. It’s a distortion machine on a massive scale and thus far it’s worked well enough to tip the balance. This new connectedness that midwifed the Arab Spring has also given birth to a Russian winter, and the chill is being felt all over the world.

· · ·

Facebook has made a few public-relation concessions and a few hires in the aftermath of the angry blowback for its big role in allowing our Presidential election to be stolen by the Kemlin, but the company clearly lacks the will if not the ability to stem the bleeding. There’s a financial reason for its failing to reject Fake News: According to Sam Levin’s Guardian piece, “a Facebook spokesperson said that once an article had been labeled as false, its future ‘impressions’ dropped by 80%.”

The opening:

Journalists working for Facebook say the social media site’s fact-checking tools have largely failed and that the company has exploited their labor for a PR campaign.

Several fact checkers who work for independent news organizations and partner with Facebook told the Guardian that they feared their relationships with the technology corporation, some of which are paid, have created a conflict of interest, making it harder for the news outlets to scrutinize and criticize Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation.

The reporters also lamented that Facebook had refused to disclose data on its efforts to stop the dissemination of fake news. The journalists are speaking out one year after the company launched the collaboration in response to outrage over revelations that social media platforms had widely promoted fake news and propaganda during the US presidential election.

Facebook has since revealed that it facilitated Russia’s efforts to interfere with US politics, allowing divisive political ads and propaganda that reached 126 million Americans.

“I don’t feel like it’s working at all. The fake information is still going viral and spreading rapidly,” said one journalist who does fact-checks for Facebook and, like others interviewed for this piece, was not authorized to speak publicly due to the continuing partnership with the company. “It’s really difficult to hold [Facebook] accountable. They think of us as doing their work for them. They have a big problem, and they are leaning on other organizations to clean up after them.”

Facebook announced to much hype last December that it was partnering with third-party factcheckers – including the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org – to publicly flag fake news so that a “disputed” tag would warn users about sharing debunked content. A Guardian review this year found that the fact-checks seemed to be mostly ineffective and that “disputed” tags weren’t working as intended.

Now, some of the factcheckers are raising concerns, saying the lack of internal statistics on their work has hindered the project and that it is unclear if the corporation is taking the spread of propaganda seriously.

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Not even counting Matt Lauer’s ween, there’s so much institutional rot in America and abroad, as stark wealth inequality has created a tax-dodging, power-abusing class that’s out of control and beyond the law. I suppose you could argue that it’s always existed and our moment is an enlightened one that has risen to name this evil, but that seems a particularly rosy interpretation.

You could blame the system, but the people deserve a fair share of the criticism. The numbers are in on the Obama years, and for the first time in decades poverty decreased, health-care access was vastly expanded and wealth inequality began to shrink. It appears those gains and far more are going to be handed back to the 1% since nearly 63 million among us decided to vote for a deeply dishonest, deeply disturbed conman. A passage of anything close to the currently proposed tax bill will see to that in the aggregate even if some states and cities continue to adopt more progressive policies (e.g., $15 minimum wage). As Karl Rove warned: Elections have consequences.

There are no national boundaries or state allegiances among the current cabal of bilkers and billionaires, as is demonstrated by Murad Ahmed’s Financial Times profile of octogenarian jagoff Bernie Eccelstone, the former Formula One chief executive who’s thrown decency under the bus by supporting Russia’s evil dictator Vladimir Putin as well as Trump’s hateful campaign. That’s no surprise since he’s a longtime nativist misogynist who dislikes democracy and has “Hitler controversy,” “Bribery accusation” and “Tax avoidance” categories in his Wikipedia listing. 

An excerpt:

In the 1990s, Ecclestone was nominated for a knighthood, with character references from Nelson Mandela and Silvio Berlusconi. His stewardship of F1 has helped to create “motorsport valley” in the south of England where many F1 teams are based, employing thousands. Other British business­people have been recognised for less, but civil servants balked at ennobling him. A man who still shocks his country’s political establishment — he voted Leave in last year’s Brexit referendum and believes that US president Donald Trump has “done a lot of good things for the world” — has been rejected by it.

“Honestly, I think the guy who should be running Europe, impressed me more than anything, is Mr Putin because he’s a guy that says he’s going to do something and does it . . . [He’s] a first-class person.”

Does Ecclestone approve of Putin’s autocratic tendencies, his lack of tolerance for political dissent, his government’s homophobic policies? “When I was at school, if you did something wrong, the teacher used to say, go and get the punishment book and the cane,” he explains. “Go to your headmistress and get a few whacks or something. That’s what he does.”

Ecclestone has got into trouble for views like this before. He once expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler as a man who “was able to get things done,” a remark for which he later apologised.

I suggest that Ecclestone is condoning repression. What if the Russians on the receiving end of “a few whacks” have done nothing wrong and just want the right to freely criticise their leader? “I was with [Putin] after the [2014 Sochi Winter] Olympics on top of the bloody mountain . . . we had a meeting, just the two of us, and we came out and we were walking along and people were coming up to him asking for an autograph . . . that’s what people think of him.”

This is Ecclestone’s experience of the world, atop a secluded mountain with other men of unquestioned power, bound by their ability to “get things done.”•

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Far worse than Pee Tapes are coming, I would wager.

Many who were friends with Jeffrey Epstein, as our sitting President and a past one were, likely engaged in a relationship with him to share in his depraved acts. The convicted child predator/science patron was known to hide cameras and microphones in all corners of his dens of inequity, just in case he should ever need a Get Out Of Jail Free card. That’s not Trump’s only problem. His Russian comrades may have also been shining a light on his private behaviors, which, if the stories of his 16 alleged victims and his first wife’s court testimony are any indication, may have been incredibly far beyond the pale.

In advance of what may soon be coming to a screen near you, the orange supremacist has begun amping up his nihilistic obliteration of objective truth, casually mentioning that the Access Hollywood tape, which would have been the coup de grâce for his disgraceful campaign in any decent country, is somehow fake news. It’s the assertion of an evil dictator or a mentally ill madman or a jacked-up drug addict or all three, but that isn’t the chief problem. The main heartbreak is that we’re now a country in which tens of millions will believe his obvious bullshit, as surely as many in Alabama believe Roy Moore’s. We’ve become estranged from reality on a mass scale.

The novelist and scientist’s daughter Ursula K. Le Guin has become worried over the increasingly blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction. “You’re encouraged to follow the ‘truth’ instead of the facts,” she’s said, but I think it’s worse than that: You’re encouraged to believe the lies that suit you, regardless of the consequences.

From David A. Graham’s Atlantic article “Trump’s Rejection of Observable Reality“:

The White House’s stance is that all 16 women who have accused Trump of sexual improprieties, harassment, or assault are lying. Trump’s old position on the Access Hollywood tape was that he was lying. The view he now apparently holds privately is that the tape itself is lying.

But the tape is authentic. Trump acknowledged as much when it was revealed, and apologized for his words (though not to the women upon whom he boasted about preying) while claiming that he had not actually done the things he bragged about having done. Billy Bush, the television host with whom he was speaking on the tape (and who, unlike Trump, lost his job simply for not reacting with disgust to the comments) also acknowledged it was real.

In short, the suggestion that it was not Trump on the tape is either deeply dishonest or unhinged from reality, or both. While Trump lies with abandon, and has done so throughout his career, this is a particularly curious case, one where not only is there no real dispute about reality, but in fact documentary evidence in the form of a recording of Trump discussing the acts himself.•

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Is the human species more or less likely to become extinct since the development of civilization? 

Not easy to answer. We didn’t have nukes to blow ourselves to bits when foragers, nor were there illnesses like smallpox pre-livestock. A disconnected slew of tribes also meant that disease was less likely to spread on a mass level. There are, of course, advantages to modern society beyond creature comforts and the ability to easily disseminate photographs of our genitals. Response to large-scale calamities are far better today, except in cases of willful neglect as with the performance of the racist game-show host in the White House in regards to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Information-sharing on a global scale has proved to have its negatives, but it’s also made tracking disease and sharing genuine progress more possible. And the scientific tilt that made those nukes that can kill millions will also likely be able in time to safeguard us from natural “bombs” like meteorites and manipulate genes to eliminate illnesses. Of course, bioengineering will also be a bane. You get the point—things are better but they have the potential to be worse.

Of course, there are numerous considerations beyond existential threats. In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale anthropologist James Scott takes a revisionist look at why humans transitioned from foragers to farmers. He believes modern civilization did not have to be, life among the foragers was not as benighted as its made out to be, and that early farming life was terrible for humans. In a smart Vox Q&A conducted by Sean Illing, Scott also acknowledges that (most) people are better off now then they were then but only after a long, painful gestation period.

An excerpt about what may be humanity’s great inflection point:

Sean Illing:

You’re not arguing — and I’m certainly not arguing — that we would be better off if we all returned to this pre-modern world. No one wants to swap lives with someone from 10,000 years ago.

James Scott:

Of course. From our perspective today, it’s inconceivable that we would want to go back like that. But I think it’s still important to understand that this was not a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and the Danish welfare state on the other.

At this point in history, this was a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and an agrarian state in which all of the first epidemic diseases developed due to the concentration of animals and human beings in a concentrated space. This was not as clear-cut a choice as a lot of people suppose.

Yes, things are better now, but it’s really only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve enjoyed the health and longevity that we do today. But this initial period when we think civilization was created was, in fact, a really dark period for humanity.

Sean Illing:

What have the demands of modern civilization done to the individual? We enjoy more abundance and greater comfort, but at the same time many of us are less happy, less free, and more cut off from our natural environment. Isn’t this the real price of civilization?

James Scott:

It’s an important question. Modern industrial life has forced almost all of us to specialize in something, often in mundane, repetitive tasks. This is good for economic productivity but not so good for individual self-fulfillment. I think this has created a narrowing of attention to the larger world. Moving from hunting and gathering to working on an assembly line has made us more machine-like and less attuned to the world around us because we only have to be skilled at one thing.

Sean Illing:

I want to press you a bit on this question of whether we’re any happier now. We live mostly isolated lives in a culture that prizes growth over sustainability. We’re encouraged to own more things, to buy more things, to define and measure ourselves against others on the basis of status and wealth. I think this has made us less happy and more self-conscious. How do you see it?

James Scott:

I’d say two things. The first is that once we had sedentary agriculture, we then had investment in land and therefore property that could be taxed. We then had the basis for inherited property and thus the basis for passing wealth from one generation to another.

Now, all that matters because it led to these embedded inequalities that were enforced by the state protection of property. This wasn’t true for hunter and gatherer societies, which regarded all property as common property to which everyone in the tribe had equal access. So the early agricultural societies created the basis for systematic class distinctions that could be perpetuated between generations, and that’s how you get the kinds of massive hierarchies and inequalities we see today.•

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Fuck Ken Bone and the culture he rode in on. 

Shame on the Undecided doofus of the 2016 Presidential debates himself for failing to take advantage of the endless educational opportunities in the country, remaining a barely formed adult fetus with the brain power of a bottle cap. Even more shame on those among us who felt it necessary to turn the red-sweatered sluggard into a meme, because Americans need to make every last goddamn thing into entertainment, to manufacture moments to fill the desperately dreary lives we’ve fashioned for ourselves, even if this stupidity can get us all killed.

Fuck the media for its role in the same, not only for making Bone a supporting actor in a national tragedy but for featuring as its star a racist, ignorant game-show host, helping to legitimize someone who should have been too low and louche to cut the ribbon at the opening of a brand-spanking new adult bookstore, let alone be allowed to stain the sheets in the Lincoln Bedroom. And fuck the media again for continuing this dangerous bullshit. Should Mark Cuban run for President? How about Alec Baldwin? Will the Rock enter the race? Why aim so high? This comment is made with all earnestness: Our leadership is presently so dumb and dishonest that even Kim Kardashian would do a better job than our sitting President. Kim Fucking Kardashian.

The Illinois insta-celeb has apparently taken his eyes off of hacked Fappening photos of Jennifer Lawrence long enough to realize that Donald Trump isn’t doing a stellar job as President. Perhaps the unnecessary suffering of Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders and refugees and immigrants and poor people and non-white folks and even the white dummies who voted for a Simon Cowell-ish strongman has finally reached the slow-on-the-uptake Bone? Who knows and who cares. More likely, he’s just moving his mouth-hole again, making ignorant noises at random, because noise, not news, is what rules in this immature, ill-informed nation.

From Luke Mullins’ CNN article about the man who knew too little:

No one is more perplexed by his fame than Bone himself. “It’s almost over,” he says, “and I still don’t get it.”

Bone has experienced the rush and perils of instant celebrity over the past year. He served as a special correspondent for ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and walked the red carpet at a Hollywood movie premier. But he’s also witnessed police in bulletproof vests sweep his house for explosives and endured withering criticism for comments he made prior to his time in the spotlight.

“Parts of it were a real bummer,” Bone told me. “Parts of it were the most fun I ever had.”

It all started last fall, when Bone, a married father of one living in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois, received a call from a Gallup poll researcher asking if he was committed to voting for either Clinton or Trump. He said he wasn’t and agreed to have his name added to the pool of undecided voters under consideration to appear on stage during the upcoming town hall-style debate at nearby Washington University in St. Louis.

Bone, who works at a coal fired power plant, was eventually selected to participate. After CNN’s Anderson Cooper, one of the debate moderators, gave him the floor, nearly 67 million television viewers watched an ordinary 34-year-old man ask a thoughtful question of two deeply-flawed candidates: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”

Right away, Bone’s red sweater lit up social media, with memes including one with a photograph of his chubby, mustached face above the question: “How will you protect my job as a card on Guess Who?” receiving tens of thousands of retweets. His name soon began trending online, and popularity increased further when video footage circulated of Bone taking photographs of the stage with a disposable camera. Less than an hour after the debate, New York Magazine declared that Bone’s “vibrant red sweater, pure and earnest face, and enthusiastically delivered question about energy sources have boosted him to internet-celebrity status.”•

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Are friends electric?” inquired Gary Numan in 1981, but it was roughly seven decades earlier that Dr. Albert Abrams began trying to convince the world that electricity was indeed its friend. His credentials were in doubt, however, and his methods were surely batshit.

Abrams’ treatments were based on a fuzzy principle he dubbed “Electronic Reactions of Abrams,” which he claimed to embed in numerous expensive medical devices he rented and sold. Now rightly recognized as one of the foremost medical mountebanks of the 20th century, the quack knowingly fooled enough of the pubic and his colleagues, newly enamored as they were with radio and other electronic devices proliferating throughout the country, to be taken seriously in some quarters, even “playing” Carnegie Hall in 1922.

A March 31, 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article heralded a supposedly superior new blood test developed by Abrams, in which the pseudo-pill bag used his “Dynomizer” to diagnose and treat by sending out “electronic vibrations” from blood droplets to patients thousands of miles away wearing electrodes on their foreheads. It was every bit as lunatic as it sounds.

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One final post about the strange behavior in regards to convicted child predator Jeffrey Epstein by the Edge Foundation and some of the scientists who are members of the organization. Why did Steven Pinker, in 2015, tweet Alan Dershowitz’s affidavit denying guilt of alleged sex crimes against children that were linked to his friendship and business relationship with Epstein? You could surmise that perhaps Pinker and the lawyer were friends from Harvard and the former wanted to help the latter distance himself from the his client’s criminal activity. Except that Pinker has apparently continued to socialize with Epstein, helping to legitimize someone who is most definitely not innocent of such illegal behavior. Very bizarre.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, sure, but what if we tell the wrong ones?

Yes, there’s always been a strain of madness in American society—in pretty much every society—but the sideshow was moved from the margins to the center ring in recent decades. The zealots, cranks and crooks have become the norm, or at least enough of the norm to tip the balance. Not that our country wasn’t sick before the Internet decentralized media. Donald Trump’s rise, which began before Reality TV and Russian bots, perfectly traces our descent into system-crushing corruption. Now numerous erstwhile pillars of our nation shudder and probably will fall. That will be messy, but it’s actually the best-case scenario: It’s still possible the fraudulent may consume whatever justice remains.

· · ·

In a Times Literary Supplement Q&A, fiction writer M. John Harrison argues that narratives, which are fast gaining a horrible reputation, will be extinct in a quarter of a century:

Question:

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

M. John Harrison:

Smaller. A generation will have grown up repelled by the urge to fantasy that lies behind fake news, corporate branding, political misdirection, sports reporting before the event, the constant fictionalization of everything. “Story” will be a dirty word, even at the BBC and in science journalism. Realism will have set in a long way upstream of the idea of fiction itself and people will be consuming their own lives, as lived, rather than images of life designed to persuade them of something. As part of the arms race between consumer and producer, they’ll have grown out of the idea that one kind of make-believe can be an antidote to another, and be trying to reduce their vulnerability to all of this stuff. A utopian picture, certainly: but utopianism and its ironical sister are traditional features of my field.

I’m sure that’s not so, nor do I think it should be. Democracy was a pretty good narrative and so was the Civil Rights Movement. Stories will always be with us, from the cave drawings of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc until the extinction of our species, but we better choose them more carefully or that endgame will arrive sooner than we’d like. 

· · ·

Pat Graham’s AP piece provides a portrait of a self-taught U.S. rocket scientist who believes the Earth is flat, which is a perfect metaphor for American exceptionalism run amok. The opening:

The countdown to launch creeps closer and there’s still plenty for self-taught rocket scientist “Mad” Mike Hughes to do: Last-second modifications to his vessel. Pick up his flight suit. Leave enough food for his four cats — just in case anything happens.

Hughes is a 61-year-old limo driver who’s spent the last few years building a steam-powered rocket out of salvage parts in his garage. His project has cost him $20,000, which includes Rust-Oleum paint to fancy it up and a motor home he bought on Craigslist that he converted into a ramp.

His first test of the rocket will also be the launch date — Saturday , when he straps into his homemade contraption and attempts to hurtle over the ghost town of Amboy, California. He will travel about a mile at a speed of roughly 500 mph.

“If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot,” Hughes said . “It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive. I like to do extraordinary things that no one else can do, and no one in the history of mankind has designed, built and launched himself in his own rocket.

“I’m a walking reality show.”

The daredevil/limo driver has been called a little bit of everything over his career — eccentric, quirky, foolhardy. Doesn’t bother him. He believes what he believes, including that the Earth is flat. He knows this thought is a conundrum, given that he’s about to launch himself into the atmosphere.

Down the road, he’s intending to build a rocket that takes him to space, so he can snap a picture and see with his own eyes.

“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”•

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“We’ll be living in machines next!” exclaimed the headline in a 1935 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which ended up being more correct than the editor who composed it could have known. 

Society in 2017 is well on its way to becoming a quantified surveillance machine, our brains glued to our phones and consciousnesses stored in the cloud, but eight decades ago, the newspaper used the line to tout the pre-fab, fully furnished wonder known as the American Motohome, a modernist abode that could be built in six days. It was all very high-tech at the time, aimed at providing comfort and diminishing toil, delivered replete with built-in air “refrigeration,” heating, electric refrigerator, and a radio, with rooms that were “buttoned” together and could be rearranged as the owners desired. The kitchen was even stocked with food prior to move-in date. The Motohome didn’t, however, have wheels since it wasn’t actually a motor home.

The model’s christening was such a big deal that the Wanamaker department store in Manhattan invited President Roosevelt’s mother to tear the cellophane from the showroom example it constructed inside its auditorium. “I dedicate this home to the women of America,” she said. 

Despite the hoopla, the house was a flop, the Edsel of edifices, as cookie-cutter homes didn’t appeal to American tastes, especially since the future was not cheap with a $5,500 price tag for the larger version, not exactly affordable for most Depression Era families. Even after World War II, when the country’s economy was humming again, pre-fab only found pockets of success in the U.S., while the vanquished in Japan embraced the idea, needing to quickly shelter the survivors of a devastating defeat.•

I wondered yesterday how many members of Edge.org know about Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent continued participation in the ideas think tank, assuming many of them would be uncomfortable about keeping such company. Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker would seemingly not be among the troubled.

The photo above of the two scientists with Epstein was posted in 2014 and appears to be of that vintage. In a 2015 Guardian article, Krauss refused to distance himself from the registered sex offender, feigning ignorance about his patron’s criminal behavior with children:

Well before Epstein went to jail, he saw philanthropy as a way to bring together people from different walks of life in settings ranging from his own mansions to academic conferences, friends said.

“His interest is in interesting people and interesting ideas,” said Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, who directs a program on the origins of life that Epstein has supported. He said he would feel cowardly if he turned away from Epstein because of accusations Krauss knew nothing about.•

For more than a decade, Donald Trump appeared on NBC playing a master builder of New York City, a family man and exacting authority figure who nonetheless had empathy for the workers he fired. It was utter bullshit, of course, but in that odd alternative universe of Reality TV, it was presented as real.

By the time Mark Burnett figured out he could make some cash on Trump’s elephantine ego, the blowhard’s career was in disrepair, his garbage reputation and business practices making it all but impossible for him to open any structure in Manhattan bigger than a tent in Central Park. No respectable person with funds wanted to float Bull Connor as a condo salesman, but fortunately for him money often finds its way into disreputable hands.

Despite his idiot-box persona, Trump was, more accurately, the capo of a crime family, one who’d been fined $10 million dollars for money laundering, stiffed contractors, bilked classes full of desperate people who’d attended his ludicrous Trump University, regularly conducted business with the shadiest types, and whose children had been spared arrest for fraud for strange and mysterious reasons.

You could say that anyone with half a brain would have known Trump was merely playing a role on television, but that’s not how things currently work in America. Trump in the White House never could have happened with the rot of our system in many areas—law, politics, media, education, etc.—but there’s no doubt he would not currently be appearing on Fox, CNN, and every other channel as a Simon Cowell-ish strongman without our damaging real-unreal television culture.

· · ·

Kris Jenner is is very good at a certain type of business, despite being a hideous person. (Or, more accurately, because she is a hideous person.) Truth be told, she’s not as awful as Joe Jackson whose main saving grace is the accident of genetics that allowed him to have children with traditional entertainment talent, but she is still awful. She will never be President, but she is like a terrible congressperson who serves endless terms, never going away. She is ours, for good, and that’s not a mistake. That’s the system we’ve built—that’s who we are.

· · ·

The opening of James Walcott’s New York Times review of books about the Trump and Kardashian clans:

There are those who have fame thrust upon them, and those who thrust themselves upon fame like an invasion force. It is the latter troupe of shameless, relentless thrusters that occupies us here, the Trump and Kardashian clanships. Until fairly recently, family dynasties — whatever skeletons they may have had in their closets — thrived on a mantle of achievement handed down from generation to generation, whether we’re talking about the Adamses, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes or Flying Wallendas. Such a quaint ideal and needless effort this service obligation seems now, when exhibitionism in the pseudoraw is what gets rewarded, thanks in large measure to the phony theatrics of reality TV, which turned the social theorist Daniel Boorstin’s notion of a celebrity — someone famous for being famous — into a terrarium thronged with dance moms, mob wives and Honey Boo Boos. It has elevated into omnipresence those who would have otherwise played out a normal cycle in public awareness and then disappeared to pester us no more. Without “The Apprentice” and its successor, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Donald Trump would have remained an egregious real estate self-promoter and gossip-column fixture, and his children minor adjuncts and boardroom props; without “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the brood bearing that name would have been living footnotes to the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Instead, one family wields incalculable political power, the other pervades pop culture and fashion like an incurable virus. The two books under review offer peep-show views of preening lives and impostures before they went panoramic.

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Don’t pay as much attention to the bells and whistles as the engines that barely make a hum.

The algorithms and sensors that work quietly and efficiently without pause are a different sort of threat than drones and bombs and humanoid robots that can stick a landing, but give them time and they can do a far more pervasive job. 

Similarly, it’s a good idea to dismiss the public posturing of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as he treks around the country for his American “listening tour,” milking cows and drinking coffee in truck-stop diners the way an actual human might, and focus instead on the company’s attempts to distance itself from the disaster of the 2016 election. Sheryl Sandberg promises Facebook will take responsibility for its failings in the same breath that she asserts that “at our heart we’re a tech company—we don’t hire journalists.” 

Talk of a Zuckerberg run for the White House in 2020 has been all but silenced since it’s clear he’s not even fully capable of running his virtual kingdom. What seemed like an impenetrable fortress a year ago may now be stormed by regulators eager to do a job that Facebook (and Google and Twitter) either can’t or won’t do.

The opening of Edward Luce’s FT column “The Zuckerberg Delusion“:

Here is what Mark Zuckerberg learned from his 30-state tour of the US: polarisation is rife and the country is suffering from an opioid crisis. Forgive me if I have to lie down for a moment. Yet it would be facile to tease Mr Zuckerberg for his self-evident observations. Some people are geniuses at one thing and bad at others. Mr Zuckerberg is a digital superstar with poor human skills. 

Facebook’s co-founder is not the first Silicon Valley figure to show signs of political inadequacy — nor will he be the last. But he may be the most influential. He personifies the myopia of America’s coastal elites: they wish to do well by doing good. 

When it comes to a choice, the “doing good” bit tends to be forgotten. 

There is nothing wrong with doing well, especially if you are changing the world. Innovators are rightly celebrated. But there is a problem with presenting your prime motive as philanthropic when it is not. Mr Zuckerberg is one of the most successful monetisers of our age. Yet he talks as though he were an Episcopalian pastor. 

“Protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits,” Mr Zuckerberg said this month after Facebook posted its first ever $10bn quarterly earnings result — an almost 50 per cent year-on-year jump. When a leader goes on a “listening tour” it means they are marketing something. In the case of Hillary Clinton, it was herself. In the case of Mr Zuckerberg, it is also himself. Making a surprise announcement that Mr Zuckerberg would be having dinner with an ordinary family is the kind of thing a Soviet dictator would do — down to the phalanx of personal aides he brought with him. 

This is not how scholars find out what ordinary families are thinking. Nor is it a good way to launch a political campaign. 

Ten months after Mr Zuckerberg began his tour, speculation of a presidential bid has been shelved. Say what you like about Donald Trump but he knows how to give the appearance of understanding ordinary people. More to the point, Facebook has turned into a toxic commodity since Mr Trump was elected. Big Tech is the new big tobacco in Washington. It is not a question of whether the regulatory backlash will come, but when and how.•

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Came across “3 Days in the Future,” a 2002 New York Times article about the then-12-year-old TED Conference, and it led me down a very disquieting Google black hole. Jeffrey Epstein, friend of Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Woody Allen, was mentioned in the piece, which isn’t surprising since at that point he was mostly recognized as a billionaire supporter of cutting-edge science. A few years later, the public knew him better than that and much of what was revealed was terrible.

Epstein’s public generosity was at least partially a cover for his evil deeds, as he was investigated beginning in 2005 for sex crimes involving children. He ultimately plead guilty to soliciting underage girls for prostitution and spent 13 months in prison, which seemed like an incredibly fortunate outcome for him and one that didn’t come close to justice. It’s been further reported that he reached settlements with some of his accusers for an amount over $5 million, and in one of these cases he was accused of operating an underage sex-abuse ring. Another of his alleged victims is currently suing in regards to sex-trafficking.

What I discovered when I did some simple search-engine work is that the Edge Foundation, according to its own site, continues to this day to maintain the registered sex offender as a full member. His Edge bio declares that Epstein enjoys conducting “philanthropy in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” without mentioning what else he’s been accused of conducting there.

Certainly, Edge.org does lots of interesting work in science and technology under founder John Brockman’s editorial guidance, but I wonder how many members of the think tank, lots of them truly good and brilliant people, know about Epstein’s continued participation.

It’s possible that this is an old page that’s simply never been removed from the Internet—one would hope so—though Epstein’s personal site also lists him as an active member.•

 

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

  1. harvey weinstein’s brother bob
  2. jim rutenberg russia information war
  3. is adolf hitler still alive?
  4. article about modern city-states
  5. garry kasparov deep thinking book
  6. victims of grenfell tower
  7. henry miller’s take on technology
  8. facebook anti-semitic advertising
  9. snowden putin assange
  10. robert redford comments on trump

This week, with Robert Mugabe deposed and Vladimir Putin reportedly eyeing retirement, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were left to have a pissing match for the title of world’s worst leader.

A pissing match, huh? I better load up on fluids.

My bladder’s ready to burst. Bring it on, Little Rocket Man.

I don’t have time to explain, guys, but I need you to use North Korea’s finest technology to fill these two bottles with water ASAP.

 

• The implied religiosity which often attends Artificial Intelligence, a dynamic identified by Jaron Lanier among other technological critics, is made explicit in the Way of the Future, roboticist Anthony Levandowski’s new Silicon Valley spiritual-belief system in which the Four Horsemen, should they arrive, will do so in driverless cars.

•  Digital Leninism is not the only possible future in our increasingly algorithmic world, but determinism is probably embedded to some degree in technology. Yuval Noah Harari dissents from that view in a recent Guardian review of Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, asserting that technology is what we make it. Even if that is true, take one good look at us and worry.

• In John Gray’s mixed New Statesman review of Peter J. Bowler’s forthcoming book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the critic examines the technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.

Pre-Internet gossip powerhouse Liz Smith passed away. Can’t say that her focus on celebrity made our society better, and in some ways she helped enable a corrupt system that needed to be torn down rather than propped up, but the water she swam in was always more shallow than dirty.

• Gilbert Rogin, the gifted fiction writer and legendary Time Inc. magazine reporter and editor, just died. In 1968, Rogin turned out a sharp Sports Illustrated profile of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, a Houdini whose trick was getting hurt, when he was dreaming of blowing up his career by flying a rocket over the Grand Canyon.

• In Cathy O’Neil’s concerned Bloomberg View opinion piece, the editorialist worries about the wisdom of uploading book contents directly to our brains, should that technology become possible.

• A note from 1938 about U.S. Nazi youth camps, an export of European fascism which began to dot the American landscape in the run-up to World War II.

The Austrian physiologist Eugen Steinbach began researching “reactivation,” his term for the process of making the aged young all over again, in the 1890s. He promoted the use of “brain extracts” for all and developed for men a type of vasectomy that would allegedly repurpose semen into an internal youth serum. It was bollocks, but the procedure still helped the doctor gain fame—if not the approval of his medical peers—because people rightfully fear death, a hideous and permanent condition. A 1941 report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle marveled at how the 81-year-old, yet seemingly ageless, Steinbach was to go horseback riding on his birthday. What a remarkable specimen he’d turned himself into! He croaked three years later, however, like a mere commoner who’d been unenlightened about the bold ideas of educated men.

Today Alphabet aims to “cure death,” Libertarian putz Peter Thiel has vowed that HGH injections and other high-priced treatments will allow him to live to 140 (god help us all if so) and Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil pursues immortality by downing handfuls of supplements daily and working on a system to upload his brain into computers. Let’s hope for his sake it doesn’t wind up housed in Google Docs

Don DeLillo’s 2016 novel, Zero K, takes on this fervor among the super-rich for an endless tomorrow: “We are born without choosing to be,” a character says. “Should we have to die in the same manner?” Well, we should search for better cures and longer lives, but there’s something creepy about the over-promising and narcissism of contemporary Silicon Valley immortalists who hope to escape societal collapse by fleeing to New Zealand and to outrun the Reaper through a combination of chemistry and computers. They talk about wanting to rescue the world, but they mostly want to save their own asses and stock options. 

In “The History of the Future,” John Gray’s mixed New Statesman review of Peter J. Bowler’s forthcoming book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the critic examines the longstanding anti-death movement through Steinbach, Serge Voronoff and other historical crackpots, and interprets more technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.

An excerpt about “enlightened” thought:

Many who have been optimistic about the possibilities opened up by technology have wanted to use it for purposes that would now be recognised as highly regressive; some of the most widely influential among these people have been renowned progressive thinkers. When a cult of technology is joined with fashionable ideas of human improvement, the upshot is very often gruesome inhumanity.

Consider eugenics. Writing of the interwar enthusiasm for policies that would “improve the human stock”, Bowler reminds us that exhibitions promoting Nazi eugenics and “racial hygiene” toured the US freely in the Thirties, while many American states enacted legislation for the compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be feeble-minded. For many progressives, eugenics was as quintessentially modern as town planning. Eugenic policies attracted the support of William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and progressive luminaries throughout the world. In Sweden, the architect of the Scandinavian welfare state, Gunnar Myrdal, argued that a programme of mandatory sterilisation was necessary for social progress, with tens of thousands being subjected to the procedure up to the mid-Seventies.

Some in interwar Europe went so far as proposing the compulsory euthanasia of people classified as socially obstructive or useless. Bowler cites the French surgeon Alexis Carrell (1873-1944) as recommending that habitual criminals “should be humanely and economically disposed of in some euthanasia institutions supplied with proper gases”. Carrel was attacked for links with the Nazis, but policies of this kind were not confined to Nazis and their sympathisers. Carrell’s views were anticipated by George Bernard Shaw, whose long-time enthusiasm for involuntary euthanasia Bowler does not discuss.

In a speech to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910, Shaw declared: “A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time looking after them.” Here Shaw was not speculating about a hypothetical future society. In his introduction to Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s English Prisons Under Local Government (1921), he explicitly advocated large-scale use of the lethal chamber as an alternative to imprisonment. In The Crime of Imprisonment(1946), he reiterated his view of how anti-social elements should be treated: “If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way.”

Shaw’s belief that many human beings were “not fit to live” was a recurring theme among early-20th-century progressive thinkers. As Bowler notes, Wells looked forward to a future in which “The unfit would be painlessly eliminated, the mentally ill encouraged to suicide out of a sense of duty and the inferior races of the world would face extinction.” When in his non-fiction study Anticipations, first published in 1901, he considered the future of the “swarms of black and yellow and brown people who do not come into the needs of efficiency” in a scientifically ordered World State, Wells concluded that these and other “inefficient” human groups would have to disappear: “The world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go”. Here Wells was expressing a view of human progress that he never renounced.•

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A hammer is a tool or a weapon depending on how you swing it, and the more powerful the tool, the more powerful the weapon.

Technology that excels at data-collection and surveillance will be used to those ends in the best of times and will be employed in a harsh, even tyrannical, manner in the worst of times. The competing agendas among individuals, corporations and states almost demand it. I’m not suggesting Digital Leninism is the only possible future in our increasingly algorithmic world, but I do think determinism is embedded to some degree in technology, which can lead as well as follow. And there will be no plugs to pull if things to don’t go as planned, and even if there were, yanking them from the wall would be the end of us as surely as it would our machines. 

Yuval Noah Harari dissents from that view in a recent Guardian review of Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, asserting that technology is what we make it. Even if that is true, take one good look at us and worry. The opening:

Artificial intelligence will probably be the most important agent of change in the 21st century. It will transform our economy, our culture, our politics and even our own bodies and minds in ways most people can hardly imagine. If you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably wrong; but if you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it does not sound like science fiction, it is certainly wrong.

Technology is never deterministic: it can be used to create very different kinds of society. In the 20th century, trains, electricity and radio were used to fashion Nazi and communist dictatorships, but also to foster liberal democracies and free markets. In the 21st century, AI will open up an even wider spectrum of possibilities. Deciding which of these to realise may well be the most important choice humankind will have to make in the coming decades.

This choice is not a matter of engineering or science. It is a matter of politics. Hence it is not something we can leave to Silicon Valley – it should be among the most important items on our political agenda. Unfortunately, AI has so far hardly registered on our political radar. It has not been a major subject in any election campaign, and most parties, politicians and voters seem to have no opinion about it. This is largely because most people have only a very dim and limited understanding of machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence. (Most generally held ideas about AI come from SF movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix.) Without a better understanding of the field, we cannot comprehend the dilemmas we are facing: when science becomes politics, scientific ignorance becomes a recipe for political disaster.

Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0 tries to rectify the situation. Written in an accessible and engaging style, and aimed at the general public, the book offers a political and philosophical map of the promises and perils of the AI revolution. Instead of pushing any one agenda or prediction, Tegmark seeks to cover as much ground as possible, reviewing a wide variety of scenarios concerning the impact of AI on the job market, warfare and political  systems.

Life 3.0 does a good job of clarifying basic terms and key debates, and in dispelling common myths. While science fiction has caused many people to worry about evil robots, for instance, Tegmark rightly emphasises that the real problem is with the unforeseen consequences of developing highly competent AI. Artificial intelligence need not be evil and need not be encased in a robotic frame in order to wreak havoc. In Tegmark’s words, “the real risk with artificial general intelligence isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”•

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The implied religiosity which often attends Artificial Intelligence, a dynamic identified by Jaron Lanier among other technological critics, becomes explicit in the Way of the Future, roboticist Anthony Levandowski’s new Silicon Valley spiritual-belief system in which the Four Horsemen, should they arrive, will do so in driverless cars.

To be perfectly accurate, Levandowski, the pivotal figure in the current legal scrum between Google and Uber over autonomous-vehicle intellectual property, isn’t prophesying End of Days scenarios but is rather preaching that we are in the process of transitioning from a planet ruled by humans (not great guardians, admittedly) to one governed by what he thinks will be superior machines. If we get on our knees and pray at his church today, he believes, we’ll be more likely to be accepted tomorrow as pets who sit at the feet of our masters.

His techno-theocracy sounds even less inviting than the religion promoted by the computer-savvy, self-described messiah Maharaj Ji, a teenage guru from India who briefly came to prominence in America during the disco-addled decade of the 1970s. From a 1974 profile of him by Marjoe Gortner:

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of “modular units adaptable to any desired shape.” The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•

Following up on his recent WTF Wired feature about Levandowski, Mark Harris offers a further interview with the Silicon Valley spiritualist, who, like many in the Singularity industry, worships at the altar of “intelligence,” a term that’s far more slippery to define than many in the sector are willing to admit. The algorithmic abbot believes unimaginable machine intelligence must equate to God. “If there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” Well, perhaps the devil?

An excerpt:

Levandowski has been working with computers, robots, and AI for decades. He started with robotic Lego kits at the University of California at Berkeley, went on to build a self-driving motorbike for a DARPA competition, and then worked on autonomous cars, trucks, and taxis for Google, Otto, and Uber. As time went on, he saw software tools built with machine learning techniques surpassing less sophisticated systems—and sometimes even humans.

“Seeing tools that performed better than experts in a variety of fields was a trigger [for me],” he says. “That progress is happening because there’s an economic advantage to having machines work for you and solve problems for you. If you could make something one percent smarter than a human, your artificial attorney or accountant would be better than all the attorneys or accountants out there. You would be the richest person in the world. People are chasing that.”

Not only is there a financial incentive to develop increasingly powerful AIs, he believes, but science is also on their side. Though human brains have biological limitations to their size and the amount of energy they can devote to thinking, AI systems can scale arbitrarily, housed in massive data centers and powered by solar and wind farms. Eventually, some people think that computers could become better and faster at planning and solving problems than the humans who built them, with implications we can’t even imagine today—a scenario that is usually called the Singularity.

Levandowski prefers a softer word: the Transition. “Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals and are able to build tools and apply rules,” he tells me. “In the future, if something is much, much smarter, there’s going to be a transition as to who is actually in charge. What we want is the peaceful, serene transition of control of the planet from humans to whatever. And to ensure that the ‘whatever’ knows who helped it get along.”

With the internet as its nervous system, the world’s connected cell phones and sensors as its sense organs, and data centers as its brain, the ‘whatever’ will hear everything, see everything, and be everywhere at all times. The only rational word to describe that ‘whatever’, thinks Levandowski, is ‘god’—and the only way to influence a deity is through prayer and worship.

“Part of it being smarter than us means it will decide how it evolves, but at least we can decide how we act around it,” he says. “I would love for the machine to see us as its beloved elders that it respects and takes care of. We would want this intelligence to say, ‘Humans should still have rights, even though I’m in charge.’”

Levandowski expects that a super-intelligence would do a better job of looking after the planet than humans are doing, and that it would favor individuals who had facilitated its path to power. Although he cautions against taking the analogy too far, Levandowski sees a hint of how a superhuman intelligence might treat humanity in our current relationships with animals. “Do you want to be a pet or livestock?” he asks. “We give pets medical attention, food, grooming, and entertainment. But an animal that’s biting you, attacking you, barking and being annoying? I don’t want to go there.” 

Enter Way of the Future. The church’s role is to smooth the inevitable ascension of our machine deity, both technologically and culturally. In its bylaws, WOTF states that it will undertake programs of research, including the study of how machines perceive their environment and exhibit cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.

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Slavery was the ultimate expression of fascism in America, but the nation has flirted with totalitarian political and racial oppression numerous times since, with U.S. businessmen of the 1930s wistfully admiring the “discipline” of the workforces in German and Italy and heated Hitler-friendly rallies being conducted at Madison Square Garden before and even after World War II.

The Long Island hamlet of Yaphank became a hotbed of the German-American Bund in the pre-war period, with a “Siegfried Special” railroad train regularly delivering New Yorkers with Nazi sympathies to the town’s “Camp Siegfried.” It was allegedly a pilgrimage of ethnic pride, but the truth was far darker. Even worse than the sight of Nazi salutes and streets named for Hitler and Goebbels was the summer youth camp that existed to indoctrinate German-American children into anti-Semitism. Unsurprisingly, since evil begets only more of the same, it was later learned that the camp was rife with sexual abuse, with children being routinely raped by counselors, who hoped to “breed more Aryans.”

It was, however, far from a unique phenomenon in America of that time. From the March 27, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Considering the best-case scenario of how many days I might possibly have left in my life and how many books I want to read—not even counting the ones yet to be published that will lengthen that list—there’s no doubt I’ll fall well short of crossing off every title. That could be viewed as a blessing: At least I’ll never run out of reading material. It’s also a curse. What if there was another way?

In Cathy O’Neil’s concerned Bloomberg View opinion piece “What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?” the editorialist pivots off of a podcast discussion between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ray Kurzweil, two guys who just won’t give it a rest. The excerpt:

‎Ray Kurzweil:

Computers are getting smaller and smaller. We’ll have nano-robots the size of blood cells that have computers in them. They’ll go into the brain through the capillaries and communicate with our neurons. We already know how to do that. People with Parkinson’s disease already have computer connections into their brain. My view is that we’re going to become a hybrid, partly biological, partly non-biological. However, the non-biological part is subject to what I call the Law of Accelerating Returns. It’s going to expand exponentially. The cloud is expanding exponentially. It’s getting about twice as powerful every year. Our biological thinking is relatively fixed. I mean, there’ve been a few genetic changes in the last few thousand years, but for the most part it hasn’t changed much, and it’s not going to expand because we have this fixed skull that constrains it and it actually runs on a very slow substrate that’s a million times slower than electronic circuits.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Then why invoke the brain-machine connection at that point? You’ve got the machine.

Ray Kurzweil:

Because it’s a much faster interface. Our fingers are very slow.

‎Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The world is going too slow for you. You want to speed it up.

Ray Kurzweil:

I mean, it is. How long does it take you to read The Brothers Karamozov? It takes months.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

So you’re suggesting that you can get these nanobots the size of your neurosynapses and one that will be pre-loaded with War and Peace and will somehow inject it into your neurosynaptic memory banks and then you’re done, you’ve got it. Just like in the Matrix, they would load memory programs into you.

Ray Kurzweil:

We will connect into neocortical hierarchies in the cloud. Some of that could have preloaded knowledge.•

A couple things: 1) Even if your lips move, it should not take months to read the Brothers Karamozov. 2) Feel free to toss Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” onto a pile of e-waste, as he’s often wildly optimistic in these matters.

That means we likely won’t be the ones making decisions about this brave new world, if humans get to make them at all. I assume Kurzweil means the result of volumes being uploaded into our descendants’ wetware would be different than if they were fed into a computer, that these future people wouldn’t just absorb this information as data but would be capable of analysis and criticism as if they’d actually sat and read them.

It would be akin to swallowing a pill dinner instead of eating food. Of course, that way of taking nourishment would cause jaws, mouths, teeth, throats and stomachs to change, likely for the worst. You’d have to think parts of our brains might go slack if we were plugging them into a library, painlessly absorbing shelves at a time. 

When futurists talk about carbon-silicon hybrids as necessary to evolve and save the species, they’re actually talking about perpetuating some form of life, more than specifically “human life.”

From O’Neil:

What if humans could upload all the great classics of literature to their brains, without having to go through the arduous process of reading? Wonderful and leveling as that may seem, it’s a prospect that I’m not sure we should readily embrace.

A while ago, I listened to an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk. Kurzweil described (starting at 10:30) how our brains might someday interface directly with non-biological forms of intelligence, possibly with the help of nano-bots that travel through our capillaries.
 
Given how much faster this interface would be than regular reading, he went on, we’d be able to consume novels like “The Brothers Karamazov” in moments, rather than the current rather clumsy form of ingestion known as reading, which, he said, “could take months.”
 
At this point Tyson interjected: Are you saying we could just upload War and Peace? Yes, Kurzweil answered: “We will connect to neocortical hierarchies in cloud with pre-loaded knowledge.”

This snippet of conversation has baffled and fascinated me ever since.•

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Gilbert Rogin, the gifted fiction writer and legendary Time Inc. magazine reporter and editor, just died. What didn’t make it into Neil Genzlinger’s well-written New York Times obituary: the scribe’s often, um, colorful personal life, nor his true feelings about Vibe, the successful periodical he helped midwife (he was not a fan). 

In 1968, Rogin turned out a sharp Sports Illustrated profile of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, a Houdini whose trick was getting hurt, when he was dreaming of blowing up his career by flying a rocket over the Grand Canyon. Never allowed to make the leap at that locale, the Norman Vincent Peale devotee instead staged the pseudo-event six years later at Snake River Canyon, a feat shown live in movie theaters that was unsurprisingly marketed by wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Jr. Everyone heard about it, but few actually paid to see it, and all involved lost a mint. It succeeded, however, in making Knievel an even bigger household name. In his line of work—selling titillating trash to bored Americans—that was all that mattered. 

Among other tales, Rogin matter-of-factly relates the quasi-athlete’s horrifying story of his violent kidnapping of a 17-year-old girl who would later become his wife. An excerpt:

Evel Knievel, who says he is going to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle next Labor Day, is having a glass of orange juice with John Herring, a songwriter, in the coffee shop of the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills at 3 a.m. Herring, who has composed such hits as “What Have I Got of My Own?” and “What Do You Do with an Old, Old Song?” has agreed to write a song about Evel Knievel—a name, by the way, that rhymes, being pronounced Evil Kahneevil. Herring tells Knievel he shouldn’t publicize their relationship. “It’s more admirable that someone was inspired by your jump and went and wrote the song,” he says.

In fact, someone was inspired—another songwriter named Arlin Harmon. Herring has already heard Harmon’s lyrics a couple of times, but Knievel, who is deeply affected by them, insists on reciting them once more:

“I want to tell you a story about a fella I know
That can make your hands sweat, your blood run cold….
He stands tall and straight, looks like a man you’d want to kiss.
To see him flirt with death is something you can’t afford to miss.
Because he’s evil. Because he’s Evel Knievel.
He’s going to jump the Grand Canyon in ’68.
Thousands of people will be there for that long-awaited date.
When he sits on that ramp and his engines start to roar,
He’s going to know how a hawk feels before he starts to soar.
It’s 3,000 feet to the bottom of that gorge.
His life will be hanging from a small ripcord.
And whether or not he heeds the devil’s longing call,
Everyone will know that Evel Knievel’s the greatest of them all.”

“Y’don’t want to put him in a ‘Big Bad John’ bag,” Herring says. “Y’got to bring it up to a higher plane of thought where everybody can feel it, y’dig? He could be in business. He’s legitimate. What’s he want to jump that thing for? Some say he wants to make a lot of money. The more sensitive say he’s looking for something. He says, ‘Shove that noise. I’m going to jump this scooter.’ Y’got to get closer to an elevated message, like:

“When the roar of thunder fills the air,
And your heart begins to pound,
When 10,000 people rise to their feet [y’ understand?],
Then you’ll know he’s leaving the ground [or Evel Knievel’s in town].
“You give the effects. What you taste, hear, feel—dig?
“No use to worry about your tomato.
He didn’t come to town for tomatoes.

“He’s seeking something else. You got to give it a broad philosophical base. I never wrote a song that didn’t make money. I never will.”

Why is Knievel jumping the Canyon?

“To get to the other side,” he says.

If it can be said that anyone has the background to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle, it is Evel Knievel. For the past two years he has earned his living jumping a motorcycle from one ramp to another, and he claims to have made $100,000 in 1967. “You might say I have a pretty comfortable living,” he says, “but it’s pretty uncomfortable.”

Among other things, he has cleared 16 cars parked side by side, and a crate containing 50 live rattlesnakes, with two mountain lions staked at the near end. Originally the lions were to be situated at both ends, but their owner was afraid Knievel would fall short and kill one of them. As it happened, he did not jump far enough. “I took the end right out of the box,” he says. “A couple of snakes wiggled free. I hit the dirt and sprained my ankle. I don’t jump rattlesnakes no more.” …

At various times in his life Knievel has been a motorcycle racer but he gave it up because there is no money in it. “I can’t eat handlebars, tires and batteries,” is one of his favorite sayings. Knievel also built a motorcycle racetrack and promoted races in Moses Lake, Wash., where he was a Honda dealer for two years. In that capacity, he offered $100 off the price of a motorcycle to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling. When nobody was able to, he offered a free motorcycle to anyone who could bend his arm, with the provision that if the customer lost he would buy a motorcycle. “This farmer tied me,” Knievel recalls. “I beat him right-handed and he beat me left-handed, but I talked him into buying a 150 cc anyway. I’ve only been beat twice in my life—a little pig rancher from Idaho and a big guy from Spokane.”

In 1961 Knievel was a private policeman in Butte. This is somewhat ironic in view of the fact that, according to his own account, he had been for some years a card thief, safecracker and swindler. “I don’t like to play cards unless I can cheat,” says Knievel. “And if I had a $20 bill for every safe I peeled, I’d have a new Cadillac—and some of them didn’t have any money in them. I can blow them, peel them, beat them. Floor safe, round door, square door, vault. I can crack a safe with one hand tied behind my back. I always got a hell of a feeling out of drilling a hole in a roof. There’s no thrill like drilling a hole in the roof of some institution and dropping down a rope and looking around.” 

Knievel says he was perhaps even more accomplished at swindling. “I traveled with a man who was known as the greatest swindler of all time,” he says. “A judge in one of the biggest cities in the world made the statement and was quoted in the newspapers, ‘This man is one of the most brilliant criminals ever brought before me.’ I always thought there was one more brilliant. That was me sitting in the courtroom who was never caught. We swindled institutions out of $25,000 or $30,000 within a 30-day period. I brought forth some schemes that were really brilliant, that no one in this world will ever be able to solve. I can show you a scheme that can beat any bank in this country out of any amount of money.”

Knievel says he took part in an armed robbery only once. “It bothered me so much,” he says. “The guy wanted to be brave. Consequently he got the hell beat out of him by me. I felt bad to have to hurt an individual to take money, even though I was doing it for a living. His blood was all over me. I did it and I got away with it, but it’s not the right way of life. Why do it? Why beat someone out of money that they worked hard for, and not contribute anything to this country and what it stands for?

“There was only one time in my life I lost my sense of being able to cope with any situation. I was crossroading at the time. I was in Sacramento with a fella who had been on the 10 Most Wanted list and another safecracker who was on the verge of getting on the list. I thought of shooting myself. The pressure broke me. That was really the turning point. Either live the rest of my life with these people or…. A kid will never become a man until he looks in a mirror and tells himself he wants to become a man. I want kids and teachers to look up to me and the things I stand for. I got a letter the other day from a teacher in the John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Redwood City, California. She said the children took an interest in me and followed my jumps, that it made them more intent on learning to read. I love people. I want to be good to people. That’s why I changed my whole way of life. I felt if I really loved my wife and children, I’d try to make a contribution to mankind and society as they should be contributed to.”

Evel and Linda Knievel have three children—two boys, Kelly, 7, and Robbie, 5, and a girl, Tracy, 4. (Recently, the three of them were jumping off a bed. “I’m Batman,” said Kelly. “I’m Superman,” said Robbie. “I’m Evel Knievel,” said Tracy.) When Knievel was 20 and Linda 17 he convinced her of his love by Kidnaping her. Along with a friend named Marco, Knievel went to an ice-skating rink in Butte where he knew Linda was skating. “I hid behind a garage, put on my skates and went out on the rink,” he recalls. “She couldn’t get away from me. I drug her by the hair and threw her in the back of the truck. ‘Go, Marco, go,’ I shouted. Then we got her into my car and I took off. I was driving with my ice skates on. Try it some time. We went and hid in a church. I knew they’d never look for me there. The cops and sheriffs were after me. My dad’s friends took the cars off his lot and were looking for me. The Triple A basketball tournament was being played in Butte, and Linda was the head cheerleader, and she wasn’t there. We started driving. It started snowing. It snowed two or three feet. We got stuck in the snow and stayed there all night. As soon as it got daylight I called a wrecker from a farmhouse. When the wrecker came, I had Linda lay down and hide in the back. There was a warrant out for my arrest. The guy in the wrecker heard the all-points bulletin. When he got us out, he radioed to the police, I just pulled that kid out of the snow, but that girl wasn’t with him.’ Her mother was saying, ‘Oh, my God, he killed her and stuck her in a snowbank.’ The cops were out probing in the snow. I tried to get to Coeur d’Alene, but I didn’t have any snow tires and couldn’t get over the hills. I figured I better go home and face the music. I was stopped at a roadblock. They threw me in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. My dad put up the $500 to get me out.”•

Sad to hear the news that onetime gossip powerhouse Liz Smith passed away. Can’t say that her focus on celebrity made our society better, and in some ways she helped enable a corrupt system that needed to be torn down rather than propped up, but the water she swam in was always more shallow than dirty. The following is a repost of an entry about her from last summer.

Liz Smith was at the center of the culture, when the culture still had a center. Then the long tail of the Internet snapped her from the spotlight, as almost everyone became a celebrity and countless outlets allowed gossip to achieve ubiquity. The louche location of a newspaper no longer needed a name reporter any more than most blockbusters required a particular star. The pictures didn’t get smaller, but the people in them did. Like Walter Winchell, she outlived her fame.

No one deserved a steep decline more than Winchell, who Smith grew up listening to on radio when she was a girl in Texas in the Thirties. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

By the time journalism matured in the 1960s and college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” Winchell had no power left, and people were finally able to turn away from him–and turn they did. The former media massacrist was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalled seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he died in 1972, he was all but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.

Smith was of a later generation, and unlike Winchell or Hedda Hopper, she usually served her information with a spoon rather than a knife—the scribe loved celebrity and access and privilege so much—though she occasionally eviscerated someone who behaved badly. Frank Sinatra was her most famous foe, and you had to respect her for not pulling punches based on the size of her opponent. In the 1980s, she was a major player. A decade later, as we entered the Internet Age and Reality TV era, her empire began to crumble. Now, at 94, she wonders where it all went.

In one sense, Smith is like a lot of retirees pushed from a powerful perch. In another, because she worked in the media in a disruptive age, she has embedded in her the slings and arrows of a technological revolution that turned the page with no regard for the boldness of the bylines.

· · · 

From John Leland’s excellent NYT feature “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice“:

So when J-Lo sneezes, it is now up to someone else to make sure the public gets sick.

Facebook, maybe?

“I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” Ms. Smith said in the apartment where she moved after her stroke in January, from her longtime digs above a Tex-Mex restaurant in Murray Hill. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and bright orange lipstick.

“It used to mean — bylines used to mean something in journalism,” she said, her Texas accent still unbowed. But with the internet and social media, she said, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”

Which put Ms. Smith at an existential crossroads: If a gossip columnist dishes in the forest and no one repeats it, does it make a sound? In a celebrity landscape that considers contestants on “The Bachelorette” to be celebrities, how does a star-chaser regain her star?

“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, musing at the thought. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.

“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”•

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