Politics

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Yesterday’s insane, impromptu press conference by Donald Trump in the lobby of a gold, gaudy building he named for himself, was in TV trope terms “the reveal,” that moment when the Ku Klux Kardashian openly admitted his allegiance to hate groups. He’s never been shy about his bigotry, but this time he fully pulled the death from inside his belly and laid it in an open casket for the whole world to view. That is was all done within earshot of a crumpling John Kelly, a square-jawed man of Apollonian abilities who was somehow supposed to steady the chaos, makes clear that the new Chief of Staff is engaged in an unwinnable war, an Afghanistan of the mind. 

The bizarre scene reminded of the many failings of American society that brought us to this point, in which Trump is merely the ugliest imaginable result of our decay but not its cause. It also brings to mind a passage from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America:

Our age has produced a new kind of eminence. This is as characteristic of our culture and our century as was the divinity of Greek gods in the sixth century B.C. or the chivalry of knights and courtly lovers in the middle ages. It has not yet driven heroism, sainthood, or martyrdom completely out of our consciousness. But with every decade it overshadows them more. All older forms of greatness now survive only in the shadow of this new form. This new kind of eminence is “celebrity.”

The word “celebrity” (from the Latin cekbritas for “multitude” or “fame” and “celeber” meaning “frequented,” “populous,” or “famous”) originally meant not a person but a condition — as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the condition of being much talked about; famousness, notoriety.” In this sense its use dates from at least the early seventeenth century. Even then it had a weaker meaning than “fame” or “renown.” Matthew Arnold, for example, remarked in the nineteenth century that while the philosopher Spinoza’s followers had “celebrity,” Spinoza himself had “fame.” …

His qualities — or rather his lack of qualities — illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event.•

Trump certainly runs afoul of the “neither good or bad” rule, neutral he is not, but Boorstin wrote his book in 1961, long before the Murdoch family spent two decades screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater, not in any way representing a conservative political viewpoint but instead packaging and selling white resentment and fake news. James and Lachlan are supposedly different from their dad, but they’ve shown the willingness to peddle Seth Rich conspiracies and describe Joe Arpaio as “colorful” rather than criminal. There are many other causes of our cultural rot–ceaseless deification of celebrity, Reality TV, the decentralization of media–but without the Murdochs, there would be no Trumps–at least not in the White House.

· · ·

In the Financial Times, Edward Luce asserts that America isn’t likely done administering self-inflicted wounds. The columnist explains why he believes the GOP family has been slow to act on its Nazi-friendly father, and I will offer one more possibility: Trump’s inner circle may not be peculiar in the upper reaches of the party for being dirty with Kremlin money. His ouster may accelerate a broader fall.

From Luce:

With some honourable exceptions, such as John McCain, the Arizona senator, Republicans are not ready to stand up to the president. Even Mr Ryan, whose condemnation of white supremacism was unequivocal, refrained from criticising Mr Trump directly. Others rushed to his defence. “President Trump once again denounced hate today,” tweeted Kayleigh McEnany, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The GOP stands behind his message of love and inclusiveness!” By even-handedly condemning the “alt-right” and the “alt-left”, Mr Trump was upholding American values, you see. In addition to bad apples, the far right included some “very fine people”, said the president.

Republicans are paralysed on two counts. First, the party cannot disown what Mr Trump is doing without repudiating themselves. His victory was the logical outcome of the party’s “southern strategy”, which dates from the late 1960s. The goal has been to siphon off southern whites from the Democratic party. Most Republicans have preferred to keep their tactics genteel. The signal of choice has been the dog whistle rather than the megaphone. Thus, in one form or another, most Republican states are reforming their voter registration systems. The fact that such laws disproportionately shrink the non-white electorate is an accidental byproduct of a colour-blind crackdown. Even without proof of widespread fraud, voter suppression has plausible deniability. Over the years, the same has applied to various wars on crime, drugs and welfare fraud, which were never discriminatory by design. Mr Trump has simply taken that approach into the open. He is the Republican party’s Frankenstein. The age of plausible deniability is over.

The second Republican problem is fear. Because of gerrymandering, most Republicans — and Democrats — are more vulnerable to a challenge from within their ranks than to defeat by the other party. As the saying goes, American politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way round. Unfortunately that gives the swing vote to the most committed elements of each party’s base. Though Mr Trump’s approval ratings are lower than for any president in history, he still has the backing of most Republican voters. Any elected Republican who opposes Mr Trump can be sure of merciless reprisal. It is a rare politician who would invite vilification from their own side.

Where will this end? The realistic answer is that Republicans will hide under a rock until they suffer a stinging defeat in next year’s midterm elections. But a defeat in 2018 is far from assured. Even then, it would have to be on a grand scale to reverse America’s deep forces of polarisation. Mr Trump will probably serve out his term.

The more worrying answer is that US democracy is heading towards a form of civil breakdown.•

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The reason Confederate statues stand in America are twofold.

Those erected in the aftermath of the Civil War were permitted, even endorsed, by Union politicians and periodicals as a means of appeasing the vanquished in a conflict that killed more Americans than any war before or since. It was, of course, bizarre reasoning, as the statuary became more than just participation trophies for traitors but also served as vestiges of slavery, states’ rights and supremacy for the conquered to cling to.

The more recent Confederate monuments in the U.S., even built in some states like Arizona which wasn’t even a state of the time of the war nor participated in it, are clearly meant to communicate white dominance. It’s questionable at best that they would have been allowed to exist at all were it not for the many similar tributes already dotting the nation. The original sin made possible the many even darker ones to follow.

Two excerpts follow.

· · ·

From “Some Thoughts on Public Memory” by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo:

What is little discussed today is that the North and the South made a tacit bargain in the years after the Civil War to valorize Southern generals as a way to salve the sting of Southern defeat and provide a cultural and political basis for uniting the country with more than military force. That meant the abandonment of free blacks in the South after the mid-1870s. It is important to see this not only as the abandonment of the ex-slaves of the South. It is difficult, but necessary, to pull away the subsequent history to realize that it was entirely possible in the aftermath of the Civil War that the US would be condemned to perpetual warfare, insurrection and foreign intervention. But if the opposite, the United States that went on to become a global superpower, is what was gained it was gained at a terrible price and a price paid more or less solely by black citizens.

However one judges that past, knowing its full history leaves no reason or rationale for continue the valorization of Lee. He was a traitor and a traitor in a terrible cause. That is his only mark on American history. Whether he was a personally gentle man, nice to his pets or a good field general hardly matters.

Even this though leaves the full squalidness of Lee’s legacy not quite told. There is the Lee of the Civil War and then the mythic Lee of later decades. Today the battle over Lee’s legacy is mainly played out over the various statues depicting Lee which still stand across the South. The notional focus of this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville was a protest over plans to remove a Lee statue. But those statues don’t date to the Civil War or the years just after the Civil War. In most cases, they date to decades later.•

· · ·

A 1909 Brooklyn Daily Eagle letter to the editor from a Union veteran:

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Rupert Murdoch is receiving plaudits for reportedly urging Donald Trump to dismiss Steve Bannon from his Senior Adviser role. That speaks to how despised the depraved white nationalist is because the Fox News founder deserves no congratulations, not after he and his family have for more than two decades paved the way for Trump, Bannon, Miller and Gorka, continually stoking the fears and resentment of many Caucasians in the country, selling a race war with the same alacrity they use to hawk gold coins. Cliven Bundy and Birthers have been the heroes of this 24/7 cable drama and black Presidents and Santa Clauses the villains.

The Murdochs could successfully trade in hate for the same reason Trump was able to peddle his ugly Make America White Again campaign: Throughout our history, there have always been many receptive ears in the U.S. just waiting to be told that what ails them is a black or brown person. From George Washington to George Wallace to George Zimmerman, we’ve never had a single true system of justice in the nation because most haven’t wanted one.

While the worst among us have always existed and, to some extent, always will, it was Trump’s words that unloosed such demons. While institutional racism was clearly in effect, the militia-level hatemongers usually had to watch their step, cowed somewhat by social shaming that attended such crude and open bigotry. But While President Obama appealed to the best in Americans (even on those occasions when it didn’t seem to be present), Trump encouraged the worst impulses, not only for his own political gain, as is often pointed out, but because he truly shares the views of white nationalists. 

As Edward Luce of the Financial Times began warning in the summer of 2015, even if Trump should fall — and he will, if far too late — the hatred he’s rallied will not so easily recede. Saturday’s violence in Virginia by a rabid welter of hoods, swastikas and torches received a response from the highest office in the land with dog whistles, not a commanding rebuke, which will only further abet their mindset. Charlottesville, I’m afraid, is likely prelude.

Two excerpts follow.

· · ·

From Audie Cornish’s NPR interview with New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb:

Question:

You’ve said that what happened in Virginia was not the culminating battle of this conflict between racial supremacists and civic society, but you call it a tragic preface to more of the same. What do you mean by that?

Jelani Cobb:

I think that these forces feel victorious. When we saw them marching in large numbers, and then the following day, in a kind of regimented form, in the city of Charlottesville. What comes out of that is a feeling of invulnerability, and having come out of the woodwork and having seen others of like minds, would they then be content to going back to making racial humor on the Internet? I don’t think that will happen. We are likely to see them want to do bigger things, more spectacular things, things to inject themselves even further into American consciousness, and they now likely feel like they’re in a position to do that.•

· · ·

From Brennan Gilmore’s essay at Politico:

What we witnessed Saturday was the terrifying but logical outcome of our escalating, toxic politics of hate. I’ve seen it happen before. Serving in the Central African Republic in 2012, I saw political leaders use hatred and “othering” as instruments to gain political power. As a result, within months, Christians and Muslims, peaceful neighbors for decades, turned against each other. I saw the same thing happen when I served in Burundi, where Hutus and Tutsis made giant strides toward reconciliation after a horrifying history of mass atrocities, only to be manipulated, divided and turned against one another yet again.

America is not Africa. But watching this past election cycle in the U.S., my stomach churned as I saw some of these themes repeating themselves. Looking back now, I can see it was leading toward a cycle of conflict that, once started, is hard to break.

Many Americans like to think that this kind of thing can’t happen here—that American exceptionalism immunizes us from the virulent racism and tribalism that tear apart other countries far, far away. But we’re more susceptible than we’d like to think. …

Some may say that what happened in Charlottesville was not a big deal because it was a relatively small-scale event. And that’s true: Of all the race-based terrorist attacks in recent history, it was neither the largest nor did it produce the highest casualty count. After witnessing Nazis, self-declared militias and “private security forces” carrying assault rifles alongside state and local police (thanks to Virginia’s permissive gun laws), I can honestly say it could have been tragically worse.

But just because the white supremacists numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands, doesn’t mean the movement can’t quickly spiral out of control.•

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“Elon Musk is a 21st-century genius — you have to listen to what he says,” asserted Richard Dawkins in a recent Scientific American interview, as one brilliant person with often baffling stances paid homage to another. The “21st-century” part is particularly interesting, as it seems to confer upon Musk a new type of knowledge beyond questioning. Musk, however, needs very much to be questioned.

Someone who teach himself rocketry as the SpaceX founder did is certainly very smart in a many ways, but it might really be better for America if we stopped looking to billionaires for the answers to our problems. Perhaps the very existence of billionaires is the problem? 

Musk has many perplexing opinions that run the gamut from politics to existential risks to space travel. Walter Isaacson has lauded him as a new Benjamin Franklin, but there’s no way the Founding Father would have cozied up to a fledgling fascist like Trump, believing he could somehow control a person more combustible than a rocket. Franklin knew that we all have to hang together against tyranny or we would all hang separately.

The plans Musk has for his rockets also are increasingly erratic and questionable as well. As he jumps his timeline for launches from this year to that one, there’s some question of whether humans should be traveling to Mars at all, especially in the near future. Why not use relatively cheap robotics to massively explore and develop the universe over the next several decades rather than rushing humans into an incredibly inhospitable environment?

Musk’s answer is that we are sitting ducks for an existential threat, either of our own making or a natural one. That’s true and always will be. Since going on a Bostrom bender a few years back, the entrepreneur’s main fear seems to be that Artificial Intelligence will be the doom of human beings. This dark future is possible in the longer term but no sure thing, and I sit here typing this today climate change is a far greater threat. There’s no doubt Musk’s work with the Powerwall and EVs may help us avoid some of this human-made scourge — that is his greatest contribution to society, for sure — but his outsize concern about AI is distracting. Threats from machine intelligence should be a priority but not nearly the top priority.

Something very sinister is quietly baked into the Nick Bostrom view of Homo sapiens being extincted which Musk adheres to, which is the idea that climate change and nuclear holocaust, say, would still leave some humans to soldier on, even if hundreds of millions or billions are killed off. That’s why something that could theoretically end the entire species–like AI–is given precedence over more pressing matters. That’s insane and immoral.

The opening of a Samuel Gibbs Guardian article:

Elon Musk has warned again about the dangers of artificial intelligence, saying that it poses “vastly more risk” than the apparent nuclear capabilities of North Korea does.

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive took to Twitter to once again reiterate the need for concern around the development of AI, following the victory of Musk-led AI development over professional players of the Dota 2 online multiplayer battle game.

This is not the first time Musk has stated that AI could potentially be one of the most dangerous international developments. He said in October 2014 that he considered it humanity’s “biggest existential threat”, a view he has repeated several times while making investments in AI startups and organisations, including OpenAI, to “keep an eye on what’s going on”.

Musk again called for regulation, previously doing so directly to US governors at their annual national meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.

Musk’s tweets coincide with the testing of an AI designed by OpenAI to play the multiplayer online battle arena (Moba) game Dota 2, which successfully managed to win all its 1-v-1 games at the International Dota 2 championships against many of the world’s best players competing for a $24.8m (£19m) prize fund.

The AI displayed the ability to predict where human players would deploy forces and improvise on the spot, in a game where sheer speed of operation does not correlate with victory, meaning the AI was simply better, not just faster than the best human players.•

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According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the miscreant who publishes the Daily Stormer, the neo-Nazi website that spent the past day mocking Heather Heyer after she was tragically murdered by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, was known to smack his head on sidewalks and walls during his youth. It shows.

His site’s namesake, Der Stürmer, was published beginning in 1924 by Julius Streicher, a man so repellent that even other Nazis found him embarrassing. The newspaper was used to defame Jewish people in general and many Jews specifically, fanning the flames of intolerance into a full-blown conflagration. 

In the aftermath of the war, Nazis of note were rounded up by American G.I.s. For a few dozen who were brilliant in rocketry (most notably, Wernher von Braun), they had their ugly pasts whitewashed, were relocated to Alabama to begin in earnest the nascent U.S. space program and eventually were lauded as national heroes. Upon von Braun’s death in 1977, President Jimmy Carter called him a “man of bold vision” and said that “we will continue to profit from his example.” Few things can be more maddeningly unfair.

The rest met with a more appropriate end, Streicher included. The hatemonger was an experienced painter, so he decided to try to recreate himself as an artist unfamiliar with this Third Reich thing. He ended up hanging from the business end of a noose after he was captured by Nazi hunter Henry G. Plitt, a Jewish soldier who was among the first Americans to parachute into Normandy. An article about the mission to bring Streicher to justice from the January 11, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 

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Harry S. Conman spent part of his day dangerously baiting Kim Jong-un, a guy who murdered his own half-brother with a nerve agent, saying of his North Korean counterpart that “if he utters one threat, in the form of an overt threat…he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.” Either Trump’s bluffing and will be in a weakened position when his bluff is called, or he means it and lots of people will die horrible deaths and not just in North Korea.

Three notes of hope that we may avoid Armageddon: 1) Trump is a cowardly bullshit artist, 2) The coterie of generals in his midst may overrule him even if that’s not Constitutional, and 3) Kim Jong-un, despite the fratricide, may not be nearly as crazy as he’s made out to be. Evil beyond belief, for sure, but perhaps very calculated and focused on his personal survival. Let’s hope.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything now underway, Washington Post North Korea reporter Anna Fifield is answering questions about the fraught situation. A few early exchanges follow.

________________________________

Question:

How much NK talk is normal saber-rattling? 

Anna Fifield:

A lot of this is normal April/August saber-rattling.

The wild card this time is not North Korea, but Donald Trump. Trump is acting in ways that are different from his predecessors — look at the repeated threats on twitter in the last few days — and the North Koreans are not quite sure what to make of it.

The chances of misinterpretation/accidental conflict are significant — and much more likely than a deliberate start to a war from either side.

One important thing to note: North Korea has said it will retaliate IF the United States strikes it. It’s not threatening to go first. And the U.S. would probably only strike (a pre-emptive strike) if it saw an imminent threat to the nation or its allies.

So deterrence remains the best option for everyone.

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Question:

If North Korea collapses what would happen to there current nuclear arsenal?

Anna Fifield:

That’s a great question and we simply do not know the answer. A lot would depend on how it collapsed. An outside invasion would be very different from, say, a military coup. If there was a coup from within, we could expect the generals to retain control of the nuclear weapons. But imagine if there was a sudden collapse and we saw nuclear scientists taking off over the Chinese border with suitcases full of fissile material. Scary stuff.

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Question:

How likely is Kim Jong Un to accept a deal where he hands over power in North Korea in exchange for exile, a guarantee of no harm or prosecution, and a life of luxury for himself and his generals in China?

Anna Fifield:

Well, no one is offering him that kind of deal — that we know of. I think Kim knows that his life would be much worse if he were not the leader of his own totalitarian state, regardless of whether he’s living in a gated compound in Beijing or if he’s in a worse situation.

Kim’s number one priority — the whole reason for the nuclear weapons, the personality cult, the brutal system — is staying in power. And he’ll do anything to hold onto it, as we saw with the way he got rid of his uncle and half brother.

________________________________

Question:

If KJU goes what will replace the regime?

Anna Fifield:

We have no idea. A military junta like in Myanmar? Gradual economic reform without political change like in China? An American administrator like in Iraq? Re-unification with South Korea? We have no idea how this regime would come to and end and what would come next.

What I would note though is that we are in a historically abnormal situation. Korea was one for thousands of years, so the division of the last seven decades is a blip in history and almost all Koreans, North or South, pine for the day when they’re one again. It constantly amazes me how similar North Koreans and South Koreans remain today, despite more than 70 years of enforced separation.

This is a tragedy. One people divided by an arbitrary line.

________________________________

Question:

Why hasn’t North Korea suffered from the same internal strife that usually plagues regimes like this? Coups, ambitious generals — the Kim dynasty seems to be effectively immune to it. Is the dynasty’s hold over its population so absolute that even during times of mass starvation the military or other political factions will be unable to even attempt to seize power from Kim?

Anna Fifield:

The North Korean regime keeps such a tight grip on the population that people are afraid to question or criticize the regime to anyone except their closest family members — and sometimes not even to them.

If you criticize Kim Jong Un or suggest that he’s unfit for the job in any way, you could be banished to the countryside if you’re an elite in Pyongyang; you could be executed by anti-aircraft gunfire, as Kim had done to several top officials, including his own uncle; or you could be sent to a re-education or labor camp, forced to dig holes or break rocks for hours and hours a day, with nothing more than a bowl of thin soup made from salt and corn for your meals. Sometimes whole families are punished for one person’s actions.

All this has served as a good incentive for people to keep their mouths shut and their heads down. Plus, outside Pyongyang, most people are too busy trying to feed their families to think about political activity.

People who become disillusioned enough with the regime to act usually defect rather than rebel.•

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From the August 6, 1951 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Not familiar enough with the proprietors of Radio Poland to accept at face value its story promising that a government commission is soon to report that “traces of an explosion” were found on the left wing of the country’s presidential plane that crashed and killed all 96 people on board, including Lech Kaczynski, in Russia seven years ago, but it wouldn’t shock me if it were true.

The inference to be taken is that Putin’s Kremlin murdered President Kaczynski as a means of destabilizing Poland, which, belatedly, has occurred, with Andrzej Duda trying to curb democracy as protesters attempt to do the same to him. When the scope of Putin’s crimes are eventually known, the body count won’t, of course, rival Stalin’s, but the depth of his evil will likely stun casual observers.

When working to upend America, the democracy that has done most to thwart him, Putin used vast sums of money stolen through kleptocracy, U.S. social media platforms and a chaos agent named Donald Trump to enact a relatively bloodless coup. 

· · ·

From “Businessman Paints Terrifying And Complex Picture Of Putin’s Russia,” Miles Parks’ NPR story about William Browder, who lobbied for the Magnitsky Act after witnessing Putin’s terror at an unsafe distance:

Browder’s story — how he ended up living in London, after almost a decade of vast success as a businessman in Moscow, is arguably a case study in how Putin’s government works: a system of intermediary influential businessmen who aren’t directly employed by the Russian government, but who benefit financially from Putin’s regime.
 
Browder founded and ran one of the largest investment firms in Russia, Hermitage Capital Management, from 1996-2005. When he and his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky discovered a massive corruption scheme, they went to the authorities.

“And we waited for the good guys to get the bad guys,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It turned out that in Putin’s Russia, there are no good guys.”

After making their complaint, Browder was accused of tax evasion; he alleges the $230 million he thought his business was paying in taxes to the Russian Treasury was misappropriated and funneled to those in power, at once making him a criminal and making Putin’s circle richer.

He was denied access back into the country after an international trip, but Magnitsky wasn’t so lucky. Browder told the senators the Russian lawyer was detained by the authorities, denied medical treatment for pancreatitis while he was jailed, and then allegedly beaten to death in 2009 while chained to a prison cell bed.

Putin has continuously denied the allegations regarding Magnitsky.

“Investigators concluded that there was no malicious intent, or criminal negligence in Magnitsky’s death. It was just a tragedy,” Putin said in 2013, in an interview with a Russian television station. “One might think no deaths occur in U.S. prisons.”

Human rights groups, however, have agreed with Browder’s telling of events.

After advocacy by Browder, in 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act. The law targets Russian human rights abusers by freezing their American assets and banning them from entering the U.S. The bill was named after the deceased Russian lawyer who had fought corruption in the country alongside Browder.•

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Donald Trump will end in disgrace, not primarily because he’s an ignorant con artist wholly unfit to be President, but because he has stashed in his closet a mausoleum full of skeletons pertaining to his personal life, business career and Russia. His family’s laundry is dirty despite all the laundering he’s done. Trump ultimately falls, as do his cohort of disgraceful henchmen, half-wits and horseshitters. This sordid episode doesn’t conclude in book deals all around but in most of the players being booked.

That won’t, however, save America. Our problems run deeper and wider than Trump, who’s the culmination of our social collapse, not the source. Russia’s machinations and James Comey’s boneheaded move may have put the QVC quisling over the top, but there’s really no rationalizing nearly 63 million citizens pulling the lever for a completely unqualified and indecent anti-politician. We’ve been heading for this disaster for generations, our break from reality a long time coming.

In an excellent Atlantic essay, Kurt Andersen, who has a history with Trump, writes that he began to notice our ugly divorce from reality during the Dubya Era “truthiness,” precisely in 2004. It’s interesting the writer chose the year he did, because that was when The Apprentice debuted, and a deeply immoral and largely failed businessman was awarded the role of Manhattan’s greatest builder despite not being able to get a loan of clean money to open a tent in Central Park.

But our fall from grace has more distant origins. Our drift started with Reagan unwinding the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of cable news, the emergence of Reality TV and the decentralization of the media, when the gatekeepers of legacy journalism were obliterated, when anyone could suddenly pose as an expert on vaccinations or trade pacts. The Internet made it possible to legitimize our most dubious fears and worst impulses.

We have more information than ever before, and it’s been put to worrisome use, as “lone gunmen” and multi-billion dollar corporations alike began to commodify conspiracy theories, from Ancient Aliens to Pizzagate to Seth Rich. The sideshow that has always existed in the U.S. was relocated to the center ring, as Chuck Barris’ suspicion about America’s dark side proved truer than even he could have predicted. 

As much as anything, performance became essential to success, convincingly playing a Doctor, Survivor or a populist Presidential candidate was more important than truth. Life became neither quite real nor fake, just a sort of purgatory. It’s a variation of who we actually are–a vulgarization.

· · ·

It’s a new abnormal that’s been creeping over this relatively wealthy though often dissatisfied nation for decades. Here’s the transcript of a scene from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss how performance had become introduced in a significant way into quotidian life, and that was way before Facebook gave the word “friends” scare quotes and prior to Kardashians, online identities and selfies:

Andre Gregory:

That was one of the reasons why Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well, that performing in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way, obscene. Isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? You see a terrorist on television and he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, single people or artists kind of live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father or single person or an artist should look and behave. They all act like that know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment, and they all seem totally self-confident. But privately people are very mixed up about themselves. They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives. They’re reading all these self-help books.

Wallace Shawn:

God, I mean those books are so touching because they show how desperately curious we all are to know how all the others of us are really getting on in life, even though by performing all these roles in life we’re just hiding the reality of ourselves from everybody else. I mean, we live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends. I mean, I mean, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things, but we just don’t dare to ask each other. 

Andre Gregory:

No, it would be like asking your friend to drop his role.

Wallace Shawn:

I mean, we just put no value at all on perceiving reality. On the contrary, this incredible emphasis we now put on our careers automatically makes perceiving reality a very low priority, because if your life is organized around trying to be successful in a career, well, it just doesn’t matter what you perceive or what you experience. You can really sort of shut your mind off for years ahead in a way. You can turn on the automatic pilot.•

· · ·

The opening of Andersen’s article, in which he argues that Sixties individualism and Digital Age fantasy conspired to lay us low:

When did America become untethered from reality?

I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”

Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes. For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.

Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.•

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There’s no doubt Mark Zuckerberg is a top-shelf CEO, even if the product he’s selling is dubious, an advertising scheme that connects hatemongers as surely as old lovers, can aid in toppling democracies as well as autocracies and is willing to quietly conduct “social experiments” on its customers, who are used as an endless source of free content to publish and private information to repurpose. No matter how much the Facebook founder claims to be repairing the ill effects of his company, he’s really just doubling down on its core tenets, which seem as likely as not to be antithetical to healthy societies.

In a Nick Bilton Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer analyzes Zuckerberg’s many recent moves which make it seem like he’s readying himself for a White House run. (My own thoughts on the same can be read here.) As with all Bilton pieces, there’s interesting insight, though I do think one line in his conclusion borders on ludicrous.

Bilton writes that Zuckerberg’s “skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” That would be a fairly ridiculous statement regardless of who we were talking about. Bill Gates is legitimately eradicating diseases and no one believes he can counteract “so much of what ails us.” No one would believe that about a President of the United States, even on those happy occasions when we have a sane and intelligent one who doesn’t believe he can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens.

It can’t be that Bilton believes Zuckerberg is capable of healing the country’s major problems just because he’s a bright and wealthy person because there are many far smarter and some modestly richer. It has to be the CEO’s management abilities and Facebook itself which elicited this judgement, but the former has been used to mixed results at best as far as civic life is concerned and the latter may permanently be more a negative than a positive. 

Considering Bilton acknowledges elsewhere in the article that Zuckerberg is clueless about his fellow citizens, his “remedy” line just sounds like more Silicon Valley idol worship, something best approached lightly in this moment of Theranos, Juicero, Kalanick, Damore and Thiel.

From Bilton:

I have my own theory as to what’s going on here. Over the years, I’ve spent some time with Zuckerberg, and I always got the feeling that he truly believed there wasn’t a problem that technology couldn’t solve. He felt deeply, and likely still does, that he was using Facebook to connect people, and that those connections were making the world a better place.

Lately, however, it appears that he has realized that there is another darker side to all of this technology. That the opioid epidemic has grown because of the Internet, that sites like Twitter enable people to spew hatred and lie without repercussions, and—most importantly—that his very own Web site was used by Russian hackers and idiot bros in the Midwest to share fake news stories that helped give us President Trump.

Zuckerberg may have ascended to prominence as a brilliant technologist, but he has turned Facebook into a behemoth because he is also a generationally gifted chief executive, someone who tends to think 20 steps ahead. In fact, I’ve never met a C.E.O. who can do this with such adroitness. I’m sure that the possibility of public office has crossed Zuckerberg’s mind, but probably for a reason that none of us have thought of, and it may also be 19 steps down the line. I don’t think he’s going to be on the ballot for 2020, but I do think he has left the option open to run for office one day. Maybe it won’t be the highest office in the land, too, but rather mayor of Palo Alto, or governor of California. Or maybe Zuckerberg just wants to join the local community board near his house. But, nevertheless, I think he’s got a larger plan in mind that we mere mortals just don’t understand: there isn’t a world in which Zuckerberg would amend the S-1 with that update, fully aware that his every move is scrutinized by investors, with zero intention of ever using an ounce of latitude afforded by the amendment.

But there’s something else I’ve come to believe about Zuckerberg over the past several months. As his surrogates have said to me, he partially wants to do this tour of America to show he’s just like us, and in touch with how Facebook (and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) can affect people. Unfortunately, though, I think his expedition has had the opposite effect, and highlighted just how out of touch Zuckerberg really is with the rest of the country. While he can plan 20 moves ahead, he can’t seem to understand that cavorting around the country with a professional photographer, snapping disingenuous images of him milking cows, touring shrimp boats in the Bayou, and having dinner with a lovely family in Ohio, seems aloof or, worse, patronizing. I have some advice for Zuckerberg: fire your photographer. If you want to post a picture of yourself at dinner in Ohio, take a selfie like everyone else on the planet.•

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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.

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The opening of Hannah Dreier’s harrowing AP report of her last days covering Venezuela’s fresh hell:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The first thing the muscled-up men did was take my cellphone. They had stopped me on the street as I left an interview in the hometown of the late President Hugo Chavez and wrangled me into a black SUV.

Heart pounding in the back seat with the men and two women, I watched the low cinderblock homes zoom by and tried to remember the anti-kidnapping class I’d taken in preparation for moving to Venezuela. The advice had been to try to humanize yourself.

“What should we do with her?” the driver asked. The man next to me pulled his own head up by the hair and made a slitting gesture across his throat.

What might a humanizing reaction to that be?

I had thought that being a foreign reporter protected me from the growing chaos in Venezuela. But with the country unraveling so fast, I was about to learn there was no way to remain insulated.

I came to Caracas as a correspondent for The Associated Press in 2014, just in time to witness the country’s accelerating descent into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Venezuela had been a rising nation, buoyed by the world’s largest oil reserves, but by the time I arrived, even high global oil prices couldn’t keep shortages and rapid inflation at bay.

Life in Caracas was still often marked by optimism and ambition. My friends were buying apartments and cars and making lofty plans for their careers. On weekends, we’d go to pristine Caribbean beaches and drink imported whiskey at nightclubs that stayed open until dawn. There was still so much affordable food that one of my first stories was about a growing obesity epidemic.

Over the course of three years, I said good-bye to most of those friends, as well as regular long-distance phone service and six international airline carriers. I got used to carrying bricks of rapidly devaluing cash in tote bags to pay for meals. We still drove to the beach, but began hurrying back early to get off the highway before bandits came out. Stoplights became purely ornamental because of the risk of carjackings.

There was no war or natural disaster. Just ruinous mismanagement that turned the collapse of prices for the country’s oil in 2015 into a national catastrophe.

As things got worse, the socialist administration leaned on anti-imperialist rhetoric. The day I was put into the black SUV in Chavez’s hometown of Barinas coincided with a government-stoked wave of anti-American sentiment. The Drug Enforcement Administration had just jailed the first lady’s nephews in New York on drug trafficking charges, and graffiti saying “Gringo, go home” went up around the country overnight. An image of then-President Barack Obama with Mickey Mouse ears appeared on the AP office building.

I was trying to make small talk with the men who had grabbed me when we pulled past a high, barbed wire-topped wall, and I glimpsed the logo of the secret police. Flooded with relief, I realized I hadn’t been kidnapped, just detained.

Inside, the men trained a camera on me for an interrogation. One said that I would end up like the American journalist who had recently been beheaded in Syria. Another said if I gave him a kiss I could go free.

The man who had been driving said they would be keeping me until the DEA agreed on a swap for the first lady’s nephews. He accused me of helping sabotage the economy. “How much does the U.S. pay you to be their spy?” he asked.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro blames the U.S. and right-wing business interests for the economic collapse, but most economists say it actually stems from government-imposed price and currency distortions. There often seemed to be a direct line between economic policy and daily hardship. One week, the administration declared that eggs would now be sold for no more than 30 cents a carton. The next week, eggs had disappeared from supermarkets, and still have not come back.•

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Yesterday was the 72nd anniversary of the United States dropping the “Little Boy” atom bomb on Hiroshima, and Wednesday will be the same for “Fat Man” razing Nagasaki, a horrifying turn of events that was best captured by John Hersey in a feat of journalism that might still rank as the greatest non-fiction writing ever.

Just imagine standing in Harry S. Truman’s shoes and being told a million people will die if the war continues but these newly developed bolts of Thor, which could abbreviate the fighting, would unleash destruction heretofore unknown to humankind.

At the time, so much about the weapon was a mystery to all but a few involved in its creation. The day after Hiroshima, rumors printed in newspapers suggested the bomb was the size of a golf ball or weighed 25 pounds (actual weight: 9,700 lbs.). You would think these questions and the devastation itself would be enough to occupy writers for years, but by September of the same year, some scribes were speculating about what else the Atomic Age would bring. Synthetic weather and interplanetary trade were named as potential upsides, with the latter potentially leading to fresh warfare with the inhabitants of Saturn.

An article from the September 17, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

According to a new BuzzFeed News article by Ryan Mac, Peter Thiel is now privately concerned that the Trump Administration is inept and may end in disaster. What was your first hint, Dr. IQ?

What’s most worrisome about the Silicon Valley “genius” who staunchly supported both Iraq invasion and the Trump campaign, isn’t that he didn’t notice how incompetent his candidate was, but that he truly believed this President and Bannon and Miller would successfully carry out a deeply bigoted, sociopathic agenda. That says as much about Thiel as it does about Trump.

When, oh when, will Americans stop equating those with wealth with those with wisdom?

Mac’s opening:

Donald Trump’s most prominent Silicon Valley supporter has distanced himself from the president in multiple private conversations, describing at different points this year an “incompetent” administration, and one that may well end in “disaster.”

Peter Thiel’s unguarded remarks have surprised associates, some of whom are still reeling from his full-throated endorsement of Trump at the Republican National Convention. And while the investor stands by the president in public — “I support President Trump in his ongoing fight,” he said in a statement to BuzzFeed News — his private doubts underscore the fragility of the president’s backing from even his most public allies. Thiel’s comments may sting in particular in the White House as they come amid a series of hasty and embarrassed departures from the Trump train, as conservative voices from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to the floor of the US Senate have begun to distance themselves from the administration.

Thiel’s views remain private — but various disparaging comments were recounted to BuzzFeed News by three separate sources, and others who subsequently confirmed those accounts. These people requested anonymity for fear of damaging personal relationships and possible retribution.

While Thiel told Trump that he is off to a “terrific start” at a White House event in June, his previous statements to friends and associates did not reflect that sentiment. In half a dozen private conversations with friends that were described to BuzzFeed News dating from spring 2016 to as recently as May, Thiel, who served on the Presidential Transition Team Executive Committee, has criticized Trump and his administration and developed increasingly pessimistic feelings about the president.

The sources who talked with BuzzFeed News spent time with Thiel in private group settings before and after the election at his homes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii, engaging in candid discussions on the PayPal cofounder’s politics and his backing of Trump. At one event with friends in January 2017, Thiel said of Trump’s presidency that “there is a 50% chance this whole thing ends in disaster,” according to two people who were in attendance. In other conversations, he questioned the president’s ability to be reelected.

Thiel, through a spokesperson, did not deny any of the quotes attributed to him by his friends and associates when approached by BuzzFeed News.

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I wrote the following in November 2015 as an introduction to a report about Donald Trump’s bizarre attacks on Ben Carson, who was then his closest competitor and now is his HUD Secretary:

Considering the poll numbers of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, we all owe Sarah Palin an apology, don’t you think? 

You remember Sarah Palin, right? She was a bear-meat peddler who briefly governed the petro-socialist state of Alaska. I think she once hired a hit man to kill a rival cheerleader. Okay, I’m not sure about that part. That might have been the plot of a Lifetime movie I watched once in an airport lounge. But it still brings her to mind, doesn’t it?

I can still recall those halcyon days of 2008 when a Sarah Palin took the stage at the Republican National Convention and won the hearts and minds of those Caucasian Americans who were waiting for a spiteful poseur to express their grievances in a pre-Duck Dynasty version of a Maoist “Speak Bitterness” meeting. Scrutiny did not become her, however, and Palin was eventually voted off the island due to her sheer idiocy and meanness, exiled to Elba or Arizona or somewhere. Now she’s merely a hologram of hate, activated occasionally in her camera-filled basement.

Those incredibly unfair standards of basic competency, decency and honesty are no longer with us less than a decade later, so on behalf of everyone, I’ll offer a mea culpa: Sorry, you horrible person, that you aren’t the dangerously unprepared nutbag to capture the imagination of white nationalist half-wits this time around. Take solace in knowing that this year’s models and their overt bigotry have served to redeem you from the absolute worst to almost the absolute worst, the way you once managed to make Dan Quayle seem interchangeable with Thomas Jefferson. You wore your simple mind on your sleeve but at least not on your hat.•

More on the Palin-Trump continuum from Ana Marie Cox’s smart NYT Magazine Q&A with Nicole Wallace:

Question:

What do you think it’s like working at the White House right now? 

Nicole Wallace:

There’s a pretty high level of alarm based on how easy it is to get people to talk about what’s actually happening inside the White House, and you never know the whole story. As chaotic and dysfunctional as it looks from the outside, from my experience with Sarah Palin, I know what’s known and discussed publicly is usually just the tip of the iceberg.

Question:

Do you think we still know only the tip of the iceberg with Palin? 

Nicole Wallace:

Well, what I think was unknown was the degree of her rejection of us asking her to do anything that wasn’t her own idea. We were dealing with someone who was maybe ahead of her time. Her irreverence and disdain for the establishment of her own party and her embrace of the ‘‘isms’’ — nativism, isolationism, you know — she blew the walls out on the political norms before Donald Trump did. She was obviously onto something. She had crowds five times the size of McCain’s. We think it was all about her political skills, but it was also about her message. She railed against the mainstream media, she attacked all of us, her own advisers. That her audiences were so enthusiastic about that was the early signal that the party had changed.•

Trump should fear cases being built against him by Robert Mueller and state Attorney Generals, but perhaps what should horrify him most is a case of buyer’s remorse on the part of the Kremlin.

The Putin-Trump bromance was never about any personal respect–at least not on the part of the Russian dictator. Sanctions by America and European nations stemming from the aggression against Ukraine have done serious damage to the country’s banking sector. Strong, often-illicit support for Trump by the Kremlin was supposed to harm the U.S. at the minimum and potentially elect a friendly and compromised figure–which, amazingly, is what happened. The more successful outcome was supposed to result in the removal of all sanctions.

As has happened so often with Trump in his business career, his payments have thus far not yet materialized. Even worse for his budding relationship with the murderous dictator, the President was cowed into signing a fresh sanctions bill that had overwhelming bilateral support. In addition to Dmitry Medvedev lashing out at the Trump’s “total impotence,” Putin’s propaganda outlet RT also struck back.

Here’s RT strongly supporting Trump’s Youngstown yuckfest on July 26, prior to his reluctantly signing a bill enacting new sanctions against Russia.

Today, just after the bill signing, RT published a strikingly critical opinion piece by John Lee that would have been right at home in Mother Jones. 

Whether this essay is a stern warning to Trump or a “Dear John” letter, time will tell, but any revenge on Trump by the Kremlin will be executed in such a way as to most injure America, not just its President.

Two excerpts from Lee’s op-ed:

When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States we clung to fragile hope. We hoped he could morph from the wild, aggressive and boorish candidate into a moderately good president.

After he vanquished Hillary Clinton, I was one of those who hoped that he might bring a fresh approach to politics in a stagnant, divided and risk-averse Washington. He couldn’t really be that bad, could he?

Millions of American voters and I were wrong. He really is that bad.

It seems an eon ago if we cast our thoughts back to the turn of the year, but there was actually some optimism about the Trump presidency.

When Bill Clinton’s Democratic presidency was engulfed in controversy almost 20 years ago, the Republicans unsuccessfully tried to have him impeached. The savage battles that raged over Clinton – a president who embarrassed the nation – poisoned Washington. DC became rabidly bipartisan and never recovered its moderation. Democrats opposed Republicans and vice versa for the sake of it. And nothing could be done, business ground to a halt. President Barack Obama, though in comparison to Trump a credit to his country, never fulfilled his promise. The Republicans blocked his projects. He failed in his promise to fix broken politics.

Trump capitalized on this paralysis. In the post-crash recovery, the forgotten white working man turned to Trump and voted for him, to expel the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton and her like from Washington. Many minority groups backed Trump too.

Last year Republicans secured majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Trump had everything going for him.

Perhaps he could drain the Washington swamp.

Perhaps he could bring a businessman’s efficiency to getting Washington working again. Most of all he promised to drain the swamp. Perhaps Trump, outsider with no political experience, could finally fix American politics in a way that Obama couldn’t.

This week, barely eight months after Trump’s inauguration, the poll ratings of the reality TV star turned president hit rock bottom. Trump isn’t great on detail, but the former TV personality will understand ratings.

Now 61 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing. The national poll was conducted by the highly regarded Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and is fascinating when you drill down into the numbers. It is an appalling indictment of the US Commander in Chief that 62 percent believe Trump is not honest.

And, most damagingly, 50 percent of white voters with no college degree disapprove of the president. Since seven percent didn’t express an opinion in this section just 43 percent approve of him.

Not only is America as a whole resoundingly turning on Trump, his key support base the blue collar worker of the Rust Belt is turning on him too.

America, that brash nation, is embarrassed. A majority of respondents said they were embarrassed by their president.

Now in the latest round of leaks, it appears he can’t even observe decorum in what are supposed to be routine phone calls with world leaders.

The broken politics of Washington’s near past is now being shattered under Trump.

· · ·

One is tempted to call Sean Spicer Trump’s “long serving” Communications Director such is the impact he has made. Spicer only lasted 183 days. I met him at the White House during the St Patrick’s Day Irish American event, and even then he looked haunted. He got off to a rocky start when he tried to defend Trump’s strange claims about the crowd at his inauguration and didn’t recover. He had become a feature of the Saturday Night Live comedy TV program in that short time. Quite something for a press officer.

Spicer opposed the appointment of Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramucci as another Communications Director.

Scaracmucci, a New York financier who is friends with Trump, opposed Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus was fired. Former Homeland Security chief John Kelly was brought in to replace Preibus. He demanded Scaramucci be got rid of so the Mooch was fired after ten days.

In those ten days, Scaramucci had brought further shame and dishonor to the White House with an expletive filled interview with a journalist.

As I watch this ludicrous, juvenile farce play out it occurred to me that all these people have become household names.

I asked myself a question. Had any of Barack Obama’s communications directors made any impact on US national consciousness or the global media landscape? Do you recall Obama’s communications directors Ellen Moran, Anita Dunn, Dan Pfeiffer, Jennifer Palmieri or Jen Psaki with any great alacrity? But the world knows Spicer and the Mooch.

Similarly Preibus and John Kelly are now well known. Obama’s three chiefs of staff – Bill Daley, Jack Lew and Denis McDonough were, well, hardly known outside political circles.

It is because the White House has become a grotesque, excruciating freak show that these people and their infighting and tit for tat leaking are receiving any notice. The circus and its clowns are important for two reasons. Firstly, because they represent the president, leak on his behalf and defend his behavior and twitter rants. And secondly, they represent the type of management style he favors.•

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The received wisdom so far has been that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the GOP rank-and-file have refused to turn on Donald Trump, even keeping a wrap as best they could on Russian interference during the election, because they want the incompetent, kleptocratic sociopath to deliver to them steep tax cuts on corporations and the highest earners.

That theory isn’t completely convincing, however. Why couldn’t a President Pence accomplish the same thing? As I suggested two months ago, it’s possible if thus far unproven, that the Kremlin tentacles reached further than just Trump’s inner circle, with money filling the coffers of other Republicans. Perhaps Ryan and McConnell are trying to prevent the entire party from collapse? It wouldn’t surprise me if Trump’s inevitable fall takes down numerous Republicans and maybe some Democrats, too.

In fact, some of this unsavory business doesn’t require a Special Prosecutor to untangle. From Ruth May’s op-ed at the Dallas Morning News:

Party loyalty is often cited as the reason that GOP leaders have not been more outspoken in their criticism of President Donald Trump and his refusal to condemn Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Yet there may be another reason that top Republicans have not been more vocal in their condemnation. Perhaps it’s because they have their own links to the Russian oligarchy that they would prefer go unnoticed.

Donald Trump and the political action committees for Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and John McCain accepted $7.35 million in contributions from a Ukrainian-born oligarch who is the business partner of two of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s favorite oligarchs and a Russian government bank.

During the 2015-2016 election season, Ukrainian-born billionaire Leonid “Len” Blavatnik contributed $6.35 million to leading Republican candidates and incumbent senators. Mitch McConnell was the top recipient of Blavatnik’s donations, collecting $2.5 million for his GOP Senate Leadership Fund under the names of two of Blavatnik’s holding companies, Access Industries and AI Altep Holdings, according to Federal Election Commission documents and OpenSecrets.org.

Marco Rubio’s Conservative Solutions PAC and his Florida First Project received $1.5 million through Blavatnik’s two holding companies. Other high dollar recipients of funding from Blavatnik were PACS representing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at $1.1 million, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham at $800,000, Ohio Governor John Kasich at $250,000 and Arizona Senator John McCain at $200,000.

In January, Quartz reported that Blavatnik donated another $1 million to Trump’s Inaugural Committee. Ironically, the shared address of Blavatnik’s companies is directly across the street from Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in New York.

Len Blavatnik, considered to be one of the richest men in Great Britain, holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and the U.K. He is known for his business savvy and generous philanthropy, but not without controversy.

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You could ask why the Murdoch family would doing something as crazy as allowing Fox News to become the de facto state-sponsored propaganda outlet for Trump, akin to what RT is for Putin, but this is the same clan that kept Roger Ailes in control of the cable channel as he continually attempted to use its green rooms as his own personal Plato’s Retreat. Much like the President himself, the Murdochs have been operating so dishonestly for so long, the pointer on their moral compass may be permanently broken.

In a legal sense, however, these recent machinations are a step beyond other predations they’ve enabled and lies they’ve aired in the past. If Robert Mueller’s investigation proves that not only did Sean Hannity and others at Fox collaborate with the White House on the ugly Seth Rich fan fiction but the company also coordinated stories with Russian agents to benefit Trump and the Kremlin, there will be hell to pay and no out-of-court settlements will do.

One way or another, the Trump gambit will end ruinously for Robert, James and Lachlan, unless the orange supremacist manages to end U.S. democracy and become the nation’s first authoritarian ruler. Seriously, that’s the best-case scenario for them! 

· · ·

From a John R. Schindler Observer column:

The Trump administration has started employing Chekist-style disinformation to protect itself from the increasingly serious KremlinGate investigation. An unpleasantly illustrative case that has just come to light is that of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer who was murdered in Washington, D.C. in July 2016. His killing remains unsolved; there has never been any reason to think it was anything more than a tragic, random late-night shooting of the kind that happens in our nation’s capital more often than it should.

Nevertheless, for nearly a year, pro-Trump mouthpieces have parroted a fact-free conspiracy theory that Rich—not Russia’s intelligence services—was the “real” source of the purloined DNC emails that were disseminated in the summer of 2016 by Wikileaks, to Hillary Clinton’s detriment. Julian Assange has repeatedly hinted that Rich was his source and that the young man was assassinated by a vengeful Clintonian hit-team, without offering any evidence.

Which he can’t, because there isn’t any. This is just another absurd lie broadcast by a well-known Kremlin front, albeit a particularly nasty one that has tortured the grieving young man’s family. The story doesn’t end there, however. Fox News, too, gleefully parroted Assange’s lie. Here a preeminent role was played by Sean Hannity, a Fox News star plus a friend of Assange’s, who in mid-May broadcast fact-free assertions about Seth Rich and his alleged role in leaking DNC emails.

Rich’s enraged family denounced Hannity and threatened legal action, leading Fox News to take the rare step of retracting Hannity’s fabricated “bombshell” story. Yet the damage was done, and this became yet another case of Kremlin-backed disinformation transforming into a pro-Trump trope on the right-wing, despite there being zero evidence for its veracity. It should be noted that Moscow played a direct role in creating and spreading this noxious Rich mythology. Sputnik, the Kremlin propaganda website, actually cashiered one of its American reporters when he refused to go along with an obvious lie about the murdered young man.

It now turns out that Fox News, too, was complicit in spreading lies about Seth Rich to aid the White House. As reported by NPR, a lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, a former cop and sometime Fox News contributor, against the right-wing media giant, alleges that the network consciously spread lies about Seth Rich to help the president deflect attention from the Russia scandal—and that the White House was directly involved in this conspiracy to deceive the public.•

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It makes sense that new tools that have potentially life-extending properties–CRISPR, for instance–will become affordable enough in rapidly so that their gifts can reach the masses. That should hold true for whatever next-level treatments that follow. In a time of radical abundance, there will be enough for all, we’re promised. 

Of course, we already live in a time of relative radical abundance, with adequate wealth to feed, clothe, house, inoculate and educate every last person. Distribution, however, often depends on geography, race, gender, politics, etc. Even when the stars align, a regression into myths and conspiracies can do damage (e.g., unfounded fears about immunizations). What I’m saying is humans are awfully good at mucking up something great, and that may be a permanent part of who we are.

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In an Aeon essay, ethicist Christopher Wareham wonders how we can prevent a new type of wealth inequality centered on life expectancy without banning breathtaking technologies, which would be a foolhardy step. An excerpt:

Even if life-extending drugs were relatively cheap, it is reasonable to assume that the poor, with less disposable income, are likely to spend money on more immediate and pressing needs. An intervention whose benefits, though substantial, are long-term and preventive is more likely to be marketable to wealthier groups who already have longer, healthier lifespans. The ‘healthspan rich’ would get richer, and the ‘healthspan poor’ would remain poor. This could entrench a two-tier society in which poorer groups suffer not only from poverty, but also from comparatively shorter youth and greater susceptibility to age-related disease.

The bioethicist John Harris at the University of Manchester claims that this unjust outcome is ‘the major ethical problem with life-extending technologies’.

Some bioethicists argue that this justifies a ban on life-prolonging technologies, or at the very least deprioritising research and treatments aimed at substantially extending human healthspans. But this move is too harsh. Besides the practical problems with policing bans and preventing the emergence of unregulated products, banning has some obvious ethical drawbacks.

First, banning longevity medications would be an instance of ethically questionable ‘levelling down’. While other bans, such as the prohibition of drugs, arguably ‘level up’ by reducing the harms of banned substances, a ban on extending healthy lifespans explicitly aims at preventing some people from getting too well-off. As Harris points out, this is like refusing to cure one person’s cancer because it would be unfair on those who are incurable.

A second ethical problem with banning is that life-extending interventions could be used as treatments for a range of health effects. Humans and other primates that show signs of slowed ageing tend to have lower incidences of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. This complicates a ban even further: denying the opportunity to receive treatments because they might result in too much healthspan increase appears deeply objectionable.

Banning is a bad option, but if avoiding radically unequal healthspans is a priority, what type of policies would best achieve it? Is there a way to increase welfare without creating drastic imbalances in healthspan?•

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Laurie Penny, who’s written some of my favorite articles this year, has published a piece at Wired in which she wonders about automation devastating traditionally male employment. The three key questions about robotic hands taking control of our work remain the same: 1) How many positions will be automated out of existence, 2) Will said transition, if it occurs, happen quickly or gradually?, and 3) Will many automation-proof positions be created to offset the losses? Numerous studies, including one that author quotes, claim to know how many jobs will disappear over the next several decades, though it seems fairly impossible to predict with any accuracy.

I do feel optimistic about men’s capacity to change from labor to nurture because of a trend I’ve noticed: Many retired police officers and firefighters have kept busy by beginning second careers in nursing and home healthcare. I don’t know how widespread this phenomenon is, but I’ve seen it repeatedly in the last decade while visiting relatives in hospitals and senior centers. Some of this work won’t pay the bills for those who go directly into the sector, but if technology forces us to reinvent masculinity, it would be a very welcome and long overdue turn of events.

An excerpt:

ROBOTS ARE COMING for our jobs—but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men.

This is why automation is so much more than an economic problem. It is a cultural problem, an identity problem, and—critically—a gender problem. Millions of men around the world are staring into the lacquered teeth of obsolescence, terrified of losing not only their security but also their source of meaning and dignity in a world that tells them that if they’re not rich, they’d better be doing something quintessentially manly for money. Otherwise they’re about as much use as a wooden coach-and-four on the freeway.

There’s hope for mankind, but it’ll be a hard sell. The way we respond to automation will depend very much on what we decide it means to be a man, or a woman, in the awkward adolescence of the 21st century.

Some political rhetoric blames outsourcing and immigration for the decline in “men’s work,” but automation is a greater threat to these kinds of jobs—and technological progress cannot be stopped at any border. A recent Oxford study predicted that 70 percent of US construction jobs will disappear in the coming decades; 97 percent of those jobs are held by men, and so are 95 percent of the 3.5 million transport and trucking jobs that robots are presently eyeing. That’s scary, and it’s one reason so many men are expressing their anger and anxiety at home, in the streets, and at the polls. 

While all of this is going on, though, there’s a counter­phenomenon playing out. As society panics about bricklaying worker droids and self-driving 18-wheelers, jobs traditionally performed by women—in the so-called pink-collar industries, as well as unpaid labor—are still relatively safe, and some are even on the rise. These include childcare. And service. And nursing, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will need a million­-plus more workers in the next decade.•

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“A lot of things around us happen almost by magic now,” Death of Expertise author Tom Schindler tells Chauncey DeVega in the initial exchange of a really interesting Salon Q&A, arguing that Americans sometimes cry poverty when they’re really relatively rich. I agree to a point, though the problem may be that the wonder happens around us rather than to us. Everyone has a supercomputer or two in their pockets now, but Main Street is still divorced from the wealth-building of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Many of my friends and relatives went into debt and foreclosure after the financial meltdown in 2008, and they mostly haven’t been able to completely recover. Even the growing U.S. job sectors, like healthcare, know real limitations. From “The Future of Work Is the Low-Wage Health Care Job,” a Vox piece by Soo Oh:

In interviews, home care aides told Vox about the drawbacks of a booming field: aching backs, unstable schedules, second jobs, salaries low enough to qualify for Medicaid, and emotional burnout. Health care jobs might be a beacon of the new economy. But that doesn’t mean they’re good news for the workers who do them.•

The same goes for the new manufacturing jobs, which provide a far-less-stable situation than similar positions from decades past. The fear of falling and wealth inequality are very real.

Nichols does make a good point, however. Social media and Reality TV have created such an unrealistic aura of luxury and lavishness that you couldn’t create a greater unhappiness-making machine if you tried. Even the people supposedly experiencing these charmed lives are often accursed. Many Real Housewives and their ilk actually go into hock to present a lifestyle well beyond their means. Something is being sold, but almost no one can afford it.

An excerpt:

Question:

How did the American people arrive at this moment where an ignoramus such as Donald Trump has become president?

Tom Nichols:

Narcissism. Actually, for all of our talk about how people are “suffering” and these are “tough” economic times, and the so-called economic anxiety of the white working class — which, again, as an old-school conservative I’ll be the first to admit is a nice way of saying “racism” — I think we actually are a very affluent society where a lot of things around us happen almost by magic now.

People look around and they say, “Well, sure, flying an airplane — how hard can that be? How hard can negotiating a nuclear arms treaty be? The world works. We’re at peace. Terrorism is awful, but the U.S. is highly competent.” For most people 9/11 is a distant memory. I think that they just look around and they see that things pretty much work even though their lives don’t seem to. The second thing I would add is how the internet helps to create a sense of relative deprivation.

I didn’t coin this, and I wish I had. One of my friends calls it the “HGTV Effect.” Where you’re living in Ohio in maybe a one-floor or two-bedroom, three-bedroom, one-bath, 1950s kind of house, and you’re watching your 40-inch television and you’re saying, “How come I don’t have granite counter tops? Those mooks do. These are just working people on some TV show, and they’ve got a brand new granite and steel kitchen. I’m deprived, I’m poor.” It’s amazing to me what people now consider deprived.

Donald Trump surfed that. He exploited that feeling. He said, “There are people out there that are screwing you out of having the golden toilets that I have. And I’m going to get even with those people, because I know what they’re up to, and I’m going to screw them over and get yours for you.” People are dumb enough to believe it because they don’t understand how the economy works, they don’t understand how society works, they don’t understand the basics about the relationship between education and jobs, none of it. It’s basically they look up from the television, or their phone, and they say “Where’s my money?” And that’s how we got here.•

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When I referred to Donald Trump as a “QVC quisling” the other day, I was making reference to a famous historical traitor, one so bad he joined Benedict Arnold in having his name become the most disgraceful sort of noun. I’m speaking, of course, of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist who served, beginning in 1940, as Hitler’s pliant Prime Minister in Oslo. During his horrible reign, Quisling spoke in favor of the Final Solution, supported the German war effort in any way he could and tried to force Norway’s families to enroll their children in a Hitler Youth type of organization. These were just a few of the crimes against his country and humanity by the man who was said by some to have had a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

By the beginning of 1945, however, the Nazis were shit out of luck and could no longer supply Quisling with troops or support, and neither his government nor the turncoat himself would survive the year. An article about the “mini-Hitler” receiving his just desserts in an article in the October 24, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


“For willfully betraying his country…”

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It’s not that China doesn’t hold military parades in any given calendar year, but the one that was led over the weekend by the fatigue-clad, pot-bellied President Xi Jinping rattled swords to an eye-popping degree. 

It makes sense the the financial capital and soft power China has amassed over the last few decades would eventually find its way into a more ambitious, state-of-the-art military. That was going to happen, Trump or not. But the vacuum created by the absence of a sane White House and the nativist language of our leadership seems to be causing a greater aggression in verbiage–for now, it’s just talk–in Asia and Europe.

From a Reuters report by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard:

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping told the military on Sunday to transform itself into an elite force, as he oversaw a parade with flybys of advanced jets and a mass rally of troops to mark 90 years since the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.

China’s armed forces, the world’s largest, are in the midst of an ambitious modernization program, which includes investment in technology and new equipment such as stealth fighters and aircraft carriers, as well as cuts to troop numbers.

Xi presided over the large-scale military parade at the remote Zhurihe training base in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region, where he inspected troops from the back of a jeep, an event carried live on state television.

Traveling down a long strip lined with tanks, missile launchers and other military vehicles, Xi, wearing military fatigues and a field cap, greeted thousands of troops.

Xi, who oversees the PLA in his role as head of the powerful Central Military Commission, repeatedly shouted, “Hello comrades!” and “Comrades, you are working hard!” into four microphones fixed atop his motorcade as martial music blared in the background.

The troops bellowed back: “Serve the people!”, “Follow the Party!”, “Fight to win!” and “Forge exemplary conduct!”.

Tanks, vehicle-mounted nuclear-capable missiles and other equipment rolled by, as military aircraft flew above, including H-6K bombers, which have been patrolling near Taiwan and Japan recently, the J-15 carrier-based fighters and new generation J-20 stealth fighter.

“Today, we are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation than any other time in history, and we need to build a strong people’s military more than any other time in history,” Xi told the assembled troops in a short speech that did not yield any new policy announcements.

Xi said that the military must “unswervingly” back the ruling Communist Party.

“Always listen to and follow the party’s orders, and march to wherever the party points,” he said.

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Had a bizarre exchange on Twitter with writer Elizabeth Bruenig last night after the fellatio-friendly interview that the perfectly sane and sober White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci gave to Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker in which he went on the record to profanely deride and threaten his colleagues–superiors, even–in the cabinet. I mean, Steve Bannon may be a white nationalist with a particularly pliable neck, but usually these things are kept in-house.

Bruenig’s tweet:

When you assert that a disgraceful person who happens to be Italian-American is the most authentically “Italian-American dude” on the planet, you’ve revealed you embody some truly ugly stereotypes. I don’t think someone is a hardcore bigot just because they make a dumb comment–we’re all flawed–but when I pointed out the wrongness of her statement, Bruenig told me that she was “not going to play my game” and blocked me, as if I was trolling her when she was actually the one trolling an entire ethnicity. Too bad she didn’t pause for a moment and think about what she’d written. It may have helped her become a better and fuller person. As someone who’s heard way too many times from supposedly educated people that they’re surprised I read a lot of books because I’m Italian-American, it would have been greatly appreciated.

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In the more widely important matters of the day, the clown show in the White House got worse, with much of the nation now feeling like the small children of a mentally ill parent who controls the fortunes of the family though he most definitely should not. The only thing that threatens to turn the GOP on Trump is if he would dare fire the Confederate statue known as Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. That’s the gutter where the party now rests.

I’ve gone on record as saying that Trump and his creepy cabal will gone down in flames, even if democracy may already be a pile of ashes when that occurs. Mike Bloomberg, however, believes the orange supremacist’s chances of lasting eight years in the Oval Office are actually quite good. At least, that’s what he’s saying for public consumption. Perhaps, but Trump has a mausoleum worth of skeletons in his closet.

From a Spiegel interview conducted by Juliane von Mittelstaedt:

Spiegel: 

One main driver for people to vote for Trump was their resentment of the establishment, the elites. Where is that coming from in your opinion?

Michael Bloomberg: 

A lot of the Trump voters thought: “The current stuff has not helped me. I want a change.” Trump got elected partly because he had a message: “Vote for America.” “Make America Great.” “America” is a good word. “Great” is a good word. Hillary never came up with a message other than “Vote for me because I’m a woman.” I make no secret of the fact that I was not a big Hillary Clinton supporter, but I thought in the two-way race between her and Donald Trump, that she should have been the president. But Trump promised a lot of things. And now he’s six months in and hasn’t passed a piece of legislation yet. Now, I personally have said we should help him. I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t think he was the right person. But once we have an election and he gets elected, then we have a responsibility as citizens to help him.

Spiegel: 

To help him? I thought you would have a very different opinion on basically everything?

Michael Bloomberg: 

Absolutely, I still don’t agree with him on most things. I disagree violently with a lot of things, for example regarding the elimination of Obamacare or cutting taxes. We need to have more taxes, not less, and we need the taxes we have, certainly, to provide services — for defense and education and health care. We should not cut money here in order to cut taxes.

Spiegel: 

So why wouldn’t you be happy if he fails with his agenda?

Michael Bloomberg: 

Because in the end, the message will be: Oh, Trump tried to do what he promised. It was the “liberals” who wouldn’t let him. Forget about the fact that it’s in the Republican Party that he can’t get through the votes. And for sure I’d like to change his views — for sure I hate a lot of things he does. But I live here. My kids, my grandkids live here. I don’t want him to fail. That’s sick and not good for my kids. I want Trump to be successful. I don’t think he will be, and when he does things that I believe are harmful, I will certainly try hard to stop that. But I don’t think that we should do what (the Republican Senator) Mitch McConnell said. When Obama was elected, he said: “We’re going to make him a one-term president.”

Spiegel: 

Do you think Trump is going to be elected for another term?

Michael Bloomberg:

First of all, I believe the probability of him finishing at least four years is very high. Impeachment is a political, not a legal process. And even in Nixon’s case, most of the Republicans didn’t vote to impeach him. It was the Democrats who were in power and impeached Nixon. He could have a heart attack, or he could do something that the public really gets up in arms about. If not, he’s likely to finish four years. And then I would say he has a 55 percent chance of getting re-elected. Why? Because incumbents always have an advantage. Plus, in 2020, the economy couldn’t be that bad, and there’s got to be 14 Democrats that have already said they’re going to run for office. So, you can see his opponents being very fractured.•

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Terrorism developed as a way for weak factions to disrupt war, to hack what had been a very centralized activity since the formation of discrete states. The thing is, such ad hoc chicanery hardly ever works, at least ultimately. Eventually the element of surprise is identified, neutralized.

Our new tech tools, however, have begun to level the playing field. Sure, ISIS still can’t hack its way to heaven in 2017, but a fully formed terror state like Russia managed for a very reasonable sum to successfully wage “memetic warfare” against America, a much wealthier and militarily superior nation, albeit, with what would appear to be aid and comfort from a cabal of traitors. As the world grows ever more computerized, perhaps eventually we’ll all have an army to do our bidding and every target, real and virtual, will be made vulnerable.

From John Thornhill of the Financial Times:

Most defense spending in NATO countries still goes on crazily expensive metal boxes that you can drive, steer, or fly. But, as in so many other areas of our digital world, military capability is rapidly shifting from the visible to the invisible, from hardware to software, from atoms to bits. And that shift is drastically changing the equation when it comes to the costs, possibilities and vulnerabilities of deploying force. Compare the expense of a B-2 bomber with the negligible costs of a terrorist hijacker or a state-sponsored hacker, capable of causing periodic havoc to another country’s banks or transport infrastructure — or even democratic elections.

The US has partly recognized this changing reality and in 2014 outlined a third offset strategy, declaring that it must retain supremacy in next-generation technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. The only other country that might rival the US in these fields is China, which has been pouring money into such technologies too.

But the third offset strategy only counters part of the threat in the age of asymmetrical conflict. In the virtual world, there are few rules of the game, little way of assessing your opponent’s intentions and capabilities, and no real clues about whether you are winning or losing. Related article Donald Trump is the odd man out with Putin and Xi China and Russia co-operate in areas posing a challenge to western interests Such murkiness is perfect for those keen to subvert the west’s military strength.

China and Russia appear to understand this new world disorder far better than others — and are adept at turning the west’s own vulnerabilities against it. Chinese strategists were among the first to map out this new terrain. In 1999 two officers in the People’s Liberation Army wrote Unrestricted Warfare in which they argued that the three indispensable “hardware elements of any war” — namely soldiers, weapons and a battlefield — had changed beyond recognition. Soldiers included hackers, financiers and terrorists. Their weapons could range from civilian aeroplanes to net browsers to computer viruses, while the battlefield would be “everywhere.”

Russian strategic thinkers have also widened their conception of force.•

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In the future, you will never be alone again. Never.

Prelude to the Internet of Things, when nearly every last object will be a computer and society a machine with no OFF switch, is today’s proliferation of sensors and cameras, making their way into private homes as well as public spaces. You may barely notice them, which is the idea.

I doubt, though, most would care even if aware that the Roomba is doing a constant sweep for information and the TV may also be watching them. So many have willingly surrendered the most intimate details in exchange for a “friend” or a “like.” We essentially gleefully gave away what was always feared would be taken from us. We’ve acquiesced to a “soft” totalitarianism. 

What the Internet Era of Silicon Valley has perhaps done best of all is locating and massaging the psychological weak spots of their customers who crave not only convenience and “free” services but also attention. That they’ve divined unobtrusive ways to simultaneously follow and search us is a big part of the bargain. It’s out of sight, out of mind.

Three excerpts follow.

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From Maggie Astor at the New York Times:

Your Roomba may be vacuuming up more than you think.

High-end models of Roomba, iRobot’s robotic vacuum, collect data as they clean, identifying the locations of your walls and furniture. This helps them avoid crashing into your couch, but it also creates a map of your home that iRobot is considering selling to Amazon, Apple or Google.

Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, told Reuters that a deal could come in the next two years, though iRobot said in a statement on Tuesday: “We have not formed any plans to sell data.”

In the hands of a company like Amazon, Apple or Google, that data could fuel new “smart” home products.

“When we think about ‘what is supposed to happen’ when I enter a room, everything depends on the room at a foundational level knowing what is in it,” an iRobot spokesman said in a written response to questions. “In order to ‘do the right thing’ when you say ‘turn on the lights,’ the room must know what lights it has to turn on. Same thing for music, TV, heat, blinds, the stove, coffee machines, fans, gaming consoles, smart picture frames or robot pets.”

But the data, if sold, could also be a windfall for marketers, and the implications are easy to imagine. No armchair in your living room? You might see ads for armchairs next time you open Facebook. Did your Roomba detect signs of a baby? Advertisers might target you accordingly. …

Albert Gidari, director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said that if iRobot did sell the data, it would raise a variety of legal questions.

What happens if a Roomba user consents to the data collection and later sells his or her home — especially furnished — and now the buyers of the data have a map of a home that belongs to someone who didn’t consent, Mr. Gidari asked. How long is the data kept? If the house burns down, can the insurance company obtain the data and use it to identify possible causes? Can the police use it after a robbery?•

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From Devin Coldewey at Techcrunch:

As moviemaking becomes as much a science as an art, the moviemakers need to ever-better ways to gauge audience reactions. Did they enjoy it? How much… exactly? At minute 42? A system from Caltech and Disney Research uses a facial expression tracking neural network to learn and predict how members of the audience react, perhaps setting the stage for a new generation of Nielsen ratings.

The research project, just presented at IEEE’s Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference in Hawaii, demonstrates a new method by which facial expressions in a theater can be reliably and relatively simply tracked in real time.

It uses what’s called a factorized variational autoencoder — the math of it I am not even going to try to explain, but it’s better than existing methods at capturing the essence of complex things like faces in motion. …

Of course, this is just one application of a technology like this — it could be applied in other situations like monitoring crowds, or elsewhere interpreting complex visual data in real time.•

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The opening of David Pierce’s Wired piece “Inside Andy Rubin’s Quest To Create an OS For Everything“:

Here’s some free advice: Don’t try to break into Andy Rubin’s house. As soon as your car turns into the driveway at his sprawling pad in the Silicon Valley hills, a camera will snap a photo of your vehicle, run it through computer-vision software to extract the plate number, and file it into a database. Rubin’s system can be set to text him every time a certain car shows up or to let specific vehicles through the gate. Thirty-odd other cameras survey almost every corner of the property, and Rubin can pull them up in a web browser, watching the real-time grid like Lucius Fox surveying Gotham from the Batcave. If by some miracle you were to make it all the way to the front door, you’d never get past the retinal scanner.

Rubin doesn’t employ human security guards. He doesn’t think he needs them. The 54-year-old tech visionary (who, among other things, coinvented Android) is pretty sure he has the world’s smartest house. The homebrew security net is only the beginning: There’s also a heating and ventilating system that takes excess heat from various rooms and automatically routes it into cooler areas. He has a wireless music system, a Crestron custom-­install home automation system, and an automatic cleaner for his pool.

Getting the whole place up and running took Rubin a decade. And don’t even ask him what it cost. There’s an entire room full of things he bought, tried, and shelved, but the part that really drove him crazy was that it didn’t seem like automating his home ought to be this hard. Take the license-plate camera, for instance: Computer-vision software that can read a tag is readily available. Outdoor cameras are cheap and easy to find, as are infrared illuminators that let those cameras see in the dark. Self-opening gates are everywhere. All the pieces were available, but “they were all by different companies,” Rubin says. “And there was no UI. It’s not turnkey.”

At some point during his renovations, Rubin realized he was experiencing more than just rich-guy gadget problems. He was too far ahead of the curve. If anything, the problem is about to get much worse: The price and size of a Wi-Fi radio and microprocessor are both falling toward zero; wireless bandwidth is more plentiful and reliable; batteries last longer; sensors are more accurate; software is more reliable and more easily updated. As many as 200 billion new internet-connected devices are predicted to be online in just the next few years. Phones and tablets, certainly. But also light bulbs and doorknobs, shoes and sofa cushions, washing machines and showerheads.
 
In many cases, the effects of these connected devices will be invisible: better temperature optimization in warehouses or super-­efficient routes for UPS drivers. But at the same time, all those freshly awake devices will present an entirely new way to interact with the world around you.•

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