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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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Pretty much all credible studies show the crime rate among illegal immigrants in the United States to be lower than that of natural-born citizens, but people tend to fear what they don’t know most, so a QVC quisling like Donald Trump was able to successfully peddle his gutter-level demagoguery as if it were just another crate of mediocre steaks.

The leader of our country threw this same red meat to his base once again in a Youngstown rally a few hours ago, just a day after he managed to turn the Boy Scout Jamboree into something akin to an auto-da-fé. But if you’re a guy who spent the last two years projecting every last creepy desire of your own onto others, from accusing your opponent of rigging the election to calling undocumented immigrants sexual predators to decrying the “swamp” before causing it to overflow, the most unsettling thing you could possibly do would be to specifically detail bizarre child torture and murder scenarios that you believe are overrunning the country. An excerpt:

Donald Trump:

One by one, we are finding the illegal gang members, drug dealers, thieves, robbers, criminals, and killers. And we are sending them the hell back home where they came from. And once they are gone, we will never let them back in, believe me. 

The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people — these beautiful, beautiful, innocent young people — will find no safe haven anywhere in our country. And you’ve seen the stories about some of these animals. They don’t want to use guns, because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife, because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long. Well, they’re not being protected any longer, folks.•

I will never sleep again. 

Any working-class Republican hoping for more from Trump than talk of torches and pitchforks should be prepared to be disappointed. That’s all he has. Should he actually impact healthcare or tax reform in a meaningful way, it will be in a manner devastating to his most devout supporters–those who can least afford it. I’ve joked that I would play the world’s smallest violin for these folks if the GOP hadn’t just slashed the school music program, but this may be the first time in the history of American politics that a major political party has actively tried to kill off its base.

From Dake Kang’s Associated Press piece about struggling Youngstowners:

Judy Martin, 72, of McDonald, Ohio, “tosses and turns” in bed at night, wracked with leg pain and worried about her medical bills. 

Martin, a factory worker for 51 years, said she burned through her $20,000 in life savings on medical expenses a year after her retirement. She now relies on a monthly $1,500 social security check and Medicare subsidies, but still has to pay roughly $400 a month for medication and supplemental insurance.

“It feels like we’re getting punished as we’re getting older,” Martin said. “I earned my time out there. Here we are, stuck.”

Martin, who voted for Trump, “has faith” that Trump will make things more affordable for her, and is excited to hear what Trump has to say about health care when he comes to Youngstown, a 15 minute drive from her home. Though she won’t be there in person, she plans to watch his speech online and hear about it from her son who plans to attend.

“I believe that Trump can do it, and that he will take care of the little people,” Martin said.•

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The Arab Spring demonstrated how the new technological tools could help bring down tyranny, but the dictators were also early adopters. If the anarchy could be redirected, it could be a virtual chaos agent–an army of them, in fact–or even a tireless oppressor. It’s a new way to wage war and quell revolution. China, becoming the new center of the world as America abdicates its authority, is leading the way in cyber-oppression, but the playing field knows many states.

Two excerpts follow.


From Bloomberg Technology:

Governments around the world are enlisting “cyber troops” who manipulate Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to steer public opinion, spread misinformation and undermine critics, according to a new report from the University of Oxford.

Adding to growing evidence of government-sponsored efforts to use online tools to influence politics, researchers found 29 countries using social media to shape opinion domestically or with foreign audiences. The tactics are deployed by authoritarian regimes, but also democratically-elected governments, the authors said. 

“Social media makes propaganda campaigns much stronger and potentially more effective than in the past,” said Samantha Bradshaw, the report’s lead author and a researcher at Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project. “I don’t think people realize how much governments are using these tools to reach them. It’s a lot more hidden.”

Online behavior of the government-backed groups varies widely, from commenting on Facebook and Twitter posts, to targeting people individually. Journalists are harassed by government groups in Mexico and Russia, while cyber troops in Saudi Arabia flood negative Twitter posts about the regime with unrelated content and hashtags to make it harder for people to find the offending post. In the Czech Republic, the government is more likely to post a fact-check response to something they see as inaccurate, said the report.

Governments also use fake accounts to mask where the material is coming from. In Serbia, fake accounts are used to promote the government’s agenda, and bloggers in Vietnam spread favorable information. Meanwhile, government actors in Argentina, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and elsewhere use automation software — known as “bots” — to spread social media posts in ways that mimics human users.

“Cyber troops are a pervasive and global phenomenon,” said the report published by the group that is studying how digital tools are being used to manipulate public opinion.•


The opening of “Creating the Honest Man,” Kai Strittmatter’s Süddeutsche Zeitung article:

It is actually very simple, the professor in Beijing says. “There are two kinds of people in the world: good people and bad people. Now imagine a world in which the good ones are rewarded and the bad ones punished”. A world in which those who respect their parents, avoid jaywalking, and pay all their bills on time are rewarded for good behavior. A world where such people enjoy special privileges, where they are allowed to buy “soft sleeper” tickets on a train or get easy access to bank loans. In contrast, the poorly behaved – the ones who cheat on university admissions tests, download films illegally, or have more children than the state allows – are denied this extra comfort. It is a world in which an omnipresent, all-knowing digital mechanism knows more about you than you do. This mechanism can help you improve yourself because it can tell you, in real time, where you failed and what you can do to become a more honest and trustworthy person. And who doesn’t want a world full of fairness and harmony?

Honesty. In Shanghai, there is an app for that: it’s called “Honest Shanghai”. You just download it and register. The app uses facial recognition software to recognize you and gain access to troves of your personal data, which is drawn from different government entities. According to the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Informatization, where the data converge, the app can currently access exactly 5,198 pieces of information from a total of 97 public authorities. It knows whether you’ve paid your electricity bill, donated blood, or travelled on the subway without paying for a ticket. The software then processes the information and lets you know whether your recorded behavior is considered “good”, “bad” or “neutral”. Good Shanghaiers are currently allowed, for instance, to borrow books from the public library without paying the mandatory 100-yuan deposit.

While the app appears to be little more than a gimmick that people can sign up to voluntarily, the system behind it has far-reaching implications. Officially, it is called the “Social Credit System”; the Chinese title also translates as “System for Social Trustworthiness”. The digital mechanism it is based on is set to be gathering data on every single person in China by 2020. It already collects data on all residents of Shanghai. Shao Zhiqing of the Municipal Commission of Economy and Informatization emphatically points out that his office doesn’t evaluate people. In Shanghai, he says, this job is done by third-party service providers that get access to the government data. It is their algorithms that evaluate the data and rate behavior accordingly. Without doubt though, Shao says, the Social Credit System that collects and provides the data will change China. “First of all, it will allow us to answer the question: are you a trustworthy person?” says Shao. “It’s all about bringing order to the market. And ultimately, it’s also about social order.”

Later, in the city of Rongcheng, a civil servant tells us: “We want to civilize people”. Once again, China is looking to create the new man.

Something big is happening in China. Something that has never happened before in the country, or anywhere else for that matter.•

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The 1970s: Watergate, malaise, gas lines, etc. 

Ah, the good old days.

Elizabeth Drew, the great Nixon Era reporter has written also of this moment’s bookend scandal–likely the biggest political misconduct in our nation’s history–arguing that a consensus must slowly be built among both parties before an impeachment possible–or even desirable. 

In a vacuum, that’s right. Except we live in far more fractious times, with the country riven pretty strictly among party lines, apart from some resolute Never Trumpers on the right. The Mueller firing will likely come and so may pardons, with Republicans still unmoved to act, the retention of power more important than even nation. Just consider Newt Gingrich, who once compared Ronald Reagan to Neville Chamberlain for merely meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev but now serves as an enthusiastic apologist for an actual Kremlin stooge. 

That’s why authoritarianism is a real threat. Not due to soft spots in the Constitution or the great power of the office of the President, but because normal governance has already ceased. In one fashion or another, Trump will go down. Will America as well? That depends. This era isn’t the 1970s nor the 1930s despite resembling at moments an unholy amalgam of the two. An X factor is present that represents the response of the populace to a White House run amok.

Two excerpts follow.


From Timothy Snyder’s Guardian piece “Trump Is Ushering In a Dark New Conservatism“:

Thus the nostalgic moment for this White House is not the 1950s, usually recalled warmly by American conservatives, but the dreadful 1930s, when fascists of the new right defeated conservatives of the old right in Europe. Whatever one might think of conservative nostalgia for the 1950s, it is notable for what it includes: American participation in the second world war and the beginnings of the American welfare state. For conservatives, it all went wrong in the 1960s. 

For the Trump administration, it all went wrong rather earlier: in the 1940s, with the fight against fascism and the New Deal. Stephen Bannon, who promises us new policies “as exciting as the 1930s”, seems to want to return to that decade in order to undo those legacies.

He seems to have in mind a kleptocratic authoritarianism (hastened by deregulation and the dismantlement of the welfare state) that generates inequality, which can be channeled into a culture war (prepared for by Muslim bans and immigrant denunciation hotlines). Like fascists, Bannon imagines that history is a cycle in which national virtue must be defended from permanent enemies. He refers to fascist authors in defense of this understanding of the past.•


From “We’re On the Brink Of an Authoritarian Crisis by Brian Beutler of the New Republic:

Should Trump fire Mueller, with the tacit assent of Republicans in Congress and the DOJ leadership, there will be little recourse. It is feasible (though difficult) to imagine a GOP House and Senate passing an independent counsel statute to restore Mueller to his job; it is nearly impossible to imagine them doing so by veto-proof margins. And should Trump pardon himself and his inner circle, it is dispiritingly easy to imagine Republicans reprising their familiar refrain: The president’s power to pardon is beyond question.

If this crisis unfolds as depicted here, the country’s final hope for avoiding a terminal slide into authoritarianism would be the midterm election, contesting control of a historically gerrymandered House of Representatives. That election is 16 months away. Between now and then, Trump’s DOJ and his sham election-integrity commission will seek to disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible, while the president himself beseeches further foreign interference aimed at Democratic candidates. Absent the necessary sweep, everything Trump will have done to degrade our system for his own enrichment and protection will have been ratified, and a point of no return will have been crossed.•

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Was recently reading something about the Icarians, the French Utopian socialist sect based on the teachings of Étienne Cabet, which left small footprints on U.S. soil during the “stammering century.” The members first immigrated to America in 1848, purchasing small parcels in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, California and, very disastrously, in Texas, on which to build their communities based on “technological innovation.”

In a 2016 New Republic article by Chris Jennings about the Lone Star State debacle, he describes the tenets of the group put forth in the Cabet novel Voyage en Icarie:

In Icaria, there is no private property or money. Food, shelter, clothing, and all of life’s comforts are produced and distributed by the state. Men and women are considered equal and receive the same comprehensive public education, although women do not vote. When an Icarian family runs low on food, they place a specially designed container into a specially designed niche outside of their specially designed apartment. When they return home after a day working in collective workshops, they find their bin topped off with healthful victuals. The sources of Icarian abundance are technological innovation and the fact that everyone works for the wealth of the republic. There are no idle rich or landed aristocracy to draw off the wealth of the nation. As a result of these reforms, many old occupations have been rendered obsolete. In Icaria there are no domestic servants, cops, informants, middlemen, soldiers, gunsmiths, or bankers.

Even if the Icarians had be experienced homesteaders rather than urban ideologues, it wasn’t perhaps the most propitious moment to establish an alternative colony in America, with Mormons, for instance, on numerous occasions having their towns razed to the ground. In fact, the first permanent Icarian settlement was founded in Nauvoo, Illinois, on the literal ruins of a Mormon community.

Despite sometimes unwittingly purchasing unfortunate tracts and meeting with withering stares, the Icarians were particularly persistent, with the group often splintering, but surviving in some form, until nearly the fin de siècle era. 

From the July 30, 1853 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

On the 48th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, here’s a repost of some writing on the topic by Norman Mailer, who viewed the mind-blowing mission in terms of Icarus, believing it doomed, in an elemental way, our species. That belief seems less paranoid in retrospect.

Norman Mailer pursued immortality through subjects as grand as his ego, and it was the Apollo 11 mission that was Moby Dick to his Ahab. He knew the beginning of space voyage was the end, in a sense, of humans, or, at least, of humans believing they were in the driver’s seat. In If The Sun Dies, he addresses the disorienting moment when technology, that barbarian, truly stormed the gates.

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“It Was Not A Despair He Felt, Or Fear–It Was Anesthesia”

When he wrote about the coming computer revolution of the 1970s at the outset of the decade in Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer couldn’t have known that the dropouts and the rebels would be leading the charge. An excerpt of his somewhat nightmarish view of our technological future, some parts of which came true and some still in the offing:

Now they asked him what he thought of the Seventies. He did not know. He thought of the Seventies and a blank like the windowless walls of the computer city came over his vision. When he conducted interviews with himself on the subject it was not a despair he felt, or fear–it was anesthesia. He had no intimations of what was to come, and that was conceivably worse than any sentiment of dread, for a sense of the future, no matter how melancholy, was preferable to none–it spoke of some sense of the continuation in the projects of one’s life. He was adrift. If he tried to conceive of a likely perspective in the decade before him, he saw not one structure to society but two: if the social world did not break down into revolutions and counterrevolutions, into police and military rules of order with sabotage, guerrilla war and enclaves of resistance, if none of this occurred, then there certainly would be a society of reason, but its reason would be the logic of the computer. In that society, legally accepted drugs would become necessary for accelerated cerebration, there would be inchings toward nuclear installation, a monotony of architectures, a pollution of nature which would arouse technologies of decontamination odious as deodorants, and transplanted hearts monitored like spaceships–the patients might be obliged to live in a compound reminiscent of a Mission Control Center where technicians could monitor on consoles the beatings of a thousand transplanted hearts. But in the society of computer-logic, the atmosphere would obviously be plastic, air-conditioned, sealed in bubble-domes below the smog, a prelude to living on space stations. People would die in such societies like fish expiring on a vinyl floor. So of course there would be another society, an irrational society of dropouts, the saintly, the mad, the militant and the young. There the art of the absurd would reign in defiance against the computer.

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“Doubtless, Everybody Would Be Easier To Monitor”

Some more predictions from Norman Mailer’s 1970 Space Age reportage, Of a Fire on the Moon, which have come to fruition even without the aid of moon crystals:

Thus the perspective of space factories returning the new imperialists of space a profit was now near to the reach of technology. Forget about diamonds! The value of crystals grown in space was incalculable: gravity would not be pulling on the crystal structure as it grew, so the molecule would line up in lattices free of  shift or sheer. Such a perfect latticework would serve to carry messages for a perfect computer. Computers the size of a package of cigarettes would then be able to do the work of present computers the size of a trunk. So the mind could race ahead to see computers programming go-to-school routes in the nose of every kiddie car–the paranoid mind could see crystal transmitters sewn into the rump of ever juvenile delinquent–doubtless, everybody would be easier to monitor. Big Brother could get superseded by Moon Brother–the major monitor of them all might yet be sunk in a shaft on the back face of the lunar sphere.

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“A Robot That Is Designed To Play Chess Might Also Want To Build A Spaceship”

In his 1970 Apollo 11 account, Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer realized that his rocket wasn’t the biggest after all, that the mission was a passing of the torch, that technology, an expression of the human mind, had diminished its creators. “Space travel proposed a future world of brains attached to wires,” Mailer wrote, his ego having suffered a TKO. And just as the Space Race ended the greater race began, the one between carbon and silicon, and it’s really just a matter of time before the pace grows too brisk for humans.

Supercomputers will ultimately be a threat to us, but we’re certainly doomed without them, so we have to navigate the future the best we can, even if it’s one not of our control. Gary Marcus addresses this and other issues in his latest New Yorker blog piece, “Why We Should Think About the Threat of Artificial Intelligence.” An excerpt:

It’s likely that machines will be smarter than us before the end of the century—not just at chess or trivia questions but at just about everything, from mathematics and engineering to science and medicine. There might be a few jobs left for entertainers, writers, and other creative types, but computers will eventually be able to program themselves, absorb vast quantities of new information, and reason in ways that we carbon-based units can only dimly imagine. And they will be able to do it every second of every day, without sleep or coffee breaks.

For some people, that future is a wonderful thing. [Ray] Kurzweil has written about a rapturous singularity in which we merge with machines and upload our souls for immortality; Peter Diamandis has argued that advances in A.I. will be one key to ushering in a new era of “abundance,” with enough food, water, and consumer gadgets for all. Skeptics like Eric Brynjolfsson and I have worried about the consequences of A.I. and robotics for employment. But even if you put aside the sort of worries about what super-advanced A.I. might do to the labor market, there’s another concern, too: that powerful A.I. might threaten us more directly, by battling us for resources.

Most people see that sort of fear as silly science-fiction drivel—the stuff of The Terminator and The Matrix. To the extent that we plan for our medium-term future, we worry about asteroids, the decline of fossil fuels, and global warming, not robots. But a dark new book by James Barrat, Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, lays out a strong case for why we should be at least a little worried.

Barrat’s core argument, which he borrows from the A.I. researcher Steve Omohundro, is that the drive for self-preservation and resource acquisition may be inherent in all goal-driven systems of a certain degree of intelligence. In Omohundro’s words, “if it is smart enough, a robot that is designed to play chess might also want to build a spaceship,” in order to obtain more resources for whatever goals it might have.

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“Hippies Will Be Refused Tourist Cards To Enter Mexico Unless They Take A Bath And Get Haircuts”

While Apollo 11 traveled to the moon and back in 1969, the astronauts were treated each day to a six-minute newscast from Mission Control about the happenings on Earth. Here’s one that was transcribed in Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon, which made space travel seem quaint by comparison:

Washington UPI: Vice President Spiro T. Agnew has called for putting a man on Mars by the year 2000, but Democratic leaders replied that priority must go to needs on earth…Immigration officials in Nuevo Laredo announced Wednesday that hippies will be refused tourist cards to enter Mexico unless they take a bath and get haircuts…”The greatest adventure in the history of humanity has started,” declared the French newspaper Le Figaro, which devoted four pages to reports from Cape Kennedy and diagrams of the mission…Hempstead, New York: Joe Namath officially reported to the New York Jets training camp at Hofstra University Wednesday following a closed-door meeting with his teammates over his differences with Pro Football Commissioner Pete Rozelle…London UPI: The House of Lords was assured Wednesday that a major American submarine would not “damage or assault” the Loch Ness monster.

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“There Was An Uneasy Silence, An Embarrassed Pall At The Unmentioned Word Of Nazi”

Norman Mailer’s book Of a Fire on the Moon, about American space exploration during the 1960s, was originally published as three long and personal articles for Life magazine in 1969: “A Fire on the Moon,” “The Psychology of Astronauts,” and A Dream of the Future’s Face.” Mailer used space travel to examine America’s conflicted and tattered existence–and his own as well. In one segment, he reports on a banquet in which Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi rocket engineer who became a guiding light at NASA, meets with American businessmen on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch. An excerpt:

Therefore, the audience was not to be at ease during his introduction, for the new speaker, who described himself as a “backup publisher,” went into a little too much historical detail. “During the Thirties he was employed by the Ordinance Department of the German government developing liquid fuel rockets. During World War II he made very significant developments in rocketry for his government.”

A tension spread in this audience of corporation presidents and high executives, of astronauts, a few at any rate, and their families. There was an uneasy silence, an embarrassed pall at the unmentioned word of Nazi–it was the shoe which did not drop to the floor. So no more than a pitter-patter of clapping was aroused when the speaker went quickly on to say: “In 1955 he became an American citizen himself.” It was only when Von Braun stood up at the end that the mood felt secure enough to shift. A particularly hearty and enthusiastic hand of applause swelled into a standing ovation. Nearly everybody stood up. Aquarius, who finally cast his vote by remaining seated, felt pressure not unrelated to refusing to stand up for The Star-Spangled Banner. It was as if the crowd with true American enthusiasm had finally declared, “Ah don’ care if he is some kind of ex-Nazi, he’s a good loyal patriotic American.”

Von Braun was. If patriotism is the ability to improve a nation’s morale, then Von Braun was a patriot. It was plain that some of these corporate executives loved him. In fact, they revered him. He was the high priest of their precise art–manufacture. If many too many an American product was accelerating into shoddy these years since the war, if planned obsolescence had all too often become a euphemism for sloppy workmanship, cynical cost-cutting, swollen advertising budgets, inefficiency and general indifference, then in one place at least, and for certain, America could be proud of a product. It was high as a castle and tooled more finely than the most exquisite watch.

Now the real and true tasty beef of capitalism got up to speak, the grease and guts of it, the veritable brawn, and spoke with fulsome language in his small and well-considered voice. He was with friends on this occasion, and so a savory and gravy of redolence came into his tone, his voice was not unmusical, it had overtones which hinted of angelic super-possibilities one could not otherwise lay on the line. He was when all was said like the head waiter of the largest hofbrau in heaven. “Honored guests, ladies and gentlemen,” Von Braun began, “it is with a great deal of respect tonight that I meet you, the leaders, and the captains in the mainstream of American industry and life. Without your success in building and maintaining the economic foundations of this nation, the resources for mounting tomorrow’s expedition to the moon would never have been committed…. Tomorrow’s historic launch belongs to you and to the men and women who sit behind the desks and administer your companies’ activities, to the men who sweep the floor in your office buildings and to every American who walks the street of this productive land. It is an American triumph. Many times I have thanked God for allowing me to be a part of the history that will be made here today and tomorrow and in the next few days. Tonight I want to offer my gratitude to you and all Americans who have created the most fantastically progressive nation yet conceived and developed,” He went on to talk of space as ‘the key to our future on earth,’ and echoes of his vision drifted through the stale tropical air of a banquet room after coffee–perhaps he was hinting at the discords and nihilism traveling in bands and brigands across the earth. “The key to our future on earth. I think we should see clearly from this statement that the Apollo 11 moon trip even from its inception was not intended as a one-time trip that would rest alone on the merits of a single journey. If our intention had been merely to bring back a handful of soil and rocks from the lunar gravel pit and then forget the whole thing”–he spoke almost with contempt of the meager resources of the moon–“we would certainly be history’s biggest fools. But that is not our intention now–it never will be. What we are seeking in tomorrow’s trip is indeed that key to our future on earth. We are expanding the mind of man. We are extending this God-given brain and these God-given hands to their outermost limits and in so doing all mankind will benefit. All mankind will reap the harvest…. What we will have attained when Neil Armstrong steps down upon the moon is a completely new step in the evolution of man.”•

I’m not entirely convinced Elon Musk doesn’t have more in common with Donald Trump in regard to politics than we know. Not saying that he is a raging Libertarian monster like his pal Peter Thiel, but it’s not likely he’s the lovable billionaire that Iron Man cameos would have us believe.

Now that his harebrained attempt to “stage manage” the orange supremacist is happily over, the entrepreneur has fully returned to his normal chores, which are, of course, abnormal. There are two different Musks at work.

Good Elon creates gigafactories and gives people the opportunity to power their homes with solar. As these tools spread, through his efforts and those of his competitors, the Silicon Valley magnate will have made a major contribution to potentially saving our species from the existential threat of climate change. 

Bad Elon is a sort of lower-case Nikola Tesla, whose name he borrowed, of course, for his EV company. And it’s the worst of the Serbian-American inventor that he emulates: grandiose, egotistical, desperate to awe with brilliance even when the logic doesn’t quite cohere. Like Tesla’s final patented invention, the Flivver Plane, which would never have been able to fly even if it was built, Musk often concentrates his attention where it’s not most needed on things that won’t happen.

Much of this baffling overconfidence can be seen in his near-term plan to become a Martian. Some of it is also on view in his deathly fear of killer robots, a stance he developed after going on a Bostrom bender. Intelligent machines are a very-long-term risk for our species (if we’re not first done in by our own dimness or perhaps a solar flare), but they shouldn’t be a primary concern to anyone presently. Not when children even in a wealthy country like America still drink lead-contaminated water, relatively dumb AI can cause employment within industries to collapse and new technological tools are exacerbating wealth inequality.

In a Wired piece, Tom Simonite contextualizes Musk’s foolhardy sci-fi AI fears as well as anyone has. The opening:

IMAGINE YOU HAD a chance to tell 50 of the most powerful politicians in America what urgent problem you think needs prompt government action. Elon Musk had that chance this past weekend at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Rhode Island. He chose to recommend the gubernatorial assembly get serious about preventing artificial intelligence from wiping out humanity.

“AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” Musk said. He asked the governors to consider a hypothetical scenario in which a stock-trading program orchestrated the 2014 missile strike that downed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine—just to boost its portfolio. And he called for the establishment of a new government regulator that would force companies building artificial intelligence technology to slow down. “When the regulator’s convinced it’s safe to proceed then you can go, but otherwise slow down,” he said.

Musk’s remarks made for an enlivening few minutes on a day otherwise concerned with more quotidian matters such as healthcare and education. But Musk’s call to action was something of a missed opportunity. People who spend more time working on artificial intelligence than the car, space, and solar entrepreneur say his eschatological scenarios risk distracting from more pressing concerns as artificial intelligence technology percolates into every industry.

Pedro Domingos, a professor who works on machine learning at the University of Washington, summed up his response to Musk’s talk on Twitter with a single word: Sigh. “Many of us have tried to educate him and others like him about real vs. imaginary dangers of AI, but apparently none of it has made a dent,” Domingos says. America’s governmental chief executives would be better advised to consider the negative effects of today’s limited AI, such as how it is giving disproportionate market power to a few large tech companies, he says. Iyad Rahwan, who works on matters of AI and society at MIT, agrees. Rather than worrying about trading bots eventually becoming smart enough to start wars as an investment strategy, we should consider how humans might today use dumb bots to spread misinformation online, he says.

Rahwan doesn’t deny that Musk’s nightmare scenarios could eventually happen, but says attending to today’s AI challenges is the most pragmatic way to prepare. “By focusing on the short-term questions, we can scaffold a regulatory architecture that might help with the more unpredictable, super-intelligent AI scenarios.”•

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

In the 21st century, rich countries’ economies depend more and more on knowledge industries like technology, finance and business services. Even outside of those industries, almost every worker now has to know how to use office-productivity software, interact with websites or perform other complex tasks. In this new world, humans are being asked to think all the time.

That means U.S. policy makers need to be looking at better ways to upgrade the mental capabilities of the labor force. Unfortunately, a number of things interfere with Americans’ ability to think clearly.

The biggest threat to clear-headedness comes from drugs. The twin epidemics of opioid-painkiller dependence and heroin abuse destroy people’s lives and harm productivity. There is a strong correlation between opioid use and unemployment, and it’s no great stretch to assume that the former helps cause the latter. A recent Goldman Sachs report concluded that drug abuse resulted in large productivity losses throughout the economy. Even when opioid and opiate users stay at their jobs, they probably become less productive.

A second, much-discussed problem is lead pollution. A flood of research is finding that even small amounts of lead exposure in childhood can lead both to worse academic performance later in life, and to more criminal behavior. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that American children are far more exposed to lead than most people realize. Lead paint contaminates soil, lead pipes contaminate drinking water, and a variety of commercial products from cosmetics to electronics contain bits of lead. The U.S. is allowing its people to be poisoned with heavy metals, and both their intelligence and their self-control is being degraded as a result.

But drugs and lead aren’t the only forces preventing Americans from being able to think clearly. Poverty is another.•

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If you ever find yourself in a wistful, David Brooks kind of mood, believing America a meritocracy in which the best and brightest strive and thrive just remember that Lou Dobbs attended Harvard, Chris Cillizza is a millionaire and Donald Trump is the President of the United Fucking States.

Perhaps Jesse Ventura put it more aptly when he said, “The scum always rises to the top of the water.” And he should know since he became governor of a fairly significant state despite his busy career of pretending to wrestle, peddling idiotic conspiracy theories and hosting a show for RT, Vladimir Putin’s TV propaganda channel.

On Cillizza: This brainiac was employed by the Washington Post initially during its winter of discontent and somehow survived during a sunny revival fostered by Marty Baron’s editorial chops and Jezz Bezos’ considerable couch-cushion change. The quasi-journalist treats politics as if it were all just a game, which might be useful if he were an astute critic of the rules of engagement. He is not. An upchucker of hot takes and clickbait who seems to not care at all that lives are saved or lost depending on policies chosen, Cillizza is in the media merely to give opinions, regardless of their rightness or wrongness, slobber over Ivanka Trump, and get paid. 

In December 2016, he wrote in the Post that he was puzzled that Trump received so much flak for his cabinet picks since, as he stated, all Presidents appoint a few loyalists. Cillizza conveniently overlooked that Bannon, Flynn and Sessions were extraordinarily atypical when compared to appointees of previous Presidents. It’s not the quantity of the loyalists that was disturbing but their qualities.

It’s amazing it took so long for Jeff Zucker to pluck Cillizza from the stupid tree, but he ultimately made sure the commentator was a jewel in CNN’s jester cap. It’s the finest marriage since the von Bulows, except this time both parties are holding a bulging syringe of insulin and America is Sunny. Even though the network is now considered an EoT (Enemy of Trump), it did as much as any entity to normalize the bigot, ignoramus and traitor during the campaign, all for some free content and a ratings boost; and Cillizza’s type of vapid punditry and dumbing down of the news qualifies him as complicit in the odious rise of Trump.

Cillizza, being three times as dense as the planet Neptune, thought it a good idea to conduct a Reddit AMA, in which he was gleefully excoriated by questioners. Below are a dozen inquiries he didn’t answer.

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Question:

Hi, I’m Libby Watson, I’m a staff writer at Fusion. Why do you think so many other journalists think you suck?

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Question:

You, Wolf Blitzer and S. E. Cupp play Jeopardy. Do any of you end with a positive amount of money?

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Question:

You did an emoji analysis of the Republican health care bill. How can you even justify that?

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Question:

Chris, have you considered the fact that your reporting style of repeated and absurd focus on completely inane subjects, like “an analysis of the Trump-Macron handshake” not only makes us all collectively stupider, but fundamentally devalues the role politics has in shaping our lives in favor of absurd horse race coverage that focuses on inside baseball to the exclusion of real working families?

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Question:

I’d like to present to you some of your headlines from last year during the election.

I’m wondering if you think that your relentless hammering of Hillary Clinton over a bunch of supposed “scandals” that went nowhere (along with your obvious Bernie-bias) helped turn people against Clinton, and put Trump in the White House?

Some of your articles:

  • Hillary Clinton’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad answer on whether she’s ever lied
  • Hillary Clinton can’t make you love her if you don’t
  • Hillary Clinton’s week just went from bad to worse Drip, Drip, Drip.
  • Hillary Clinton’s campaign needs a slogan. Here’s your chance to help. It’s time to think up a message for Hillary!
  • Hillary Clinton’s biggest campaign problem may be, well, Hillary Clinton Sometimes the problem is you.
  • Why ignoring Hillary Clinton’s emails might cost Bernie Sanders Iowa An opportunity, missed.
  • Why we shouldn’t give Hillary Clinton a pass for losing New Hampshire
  • Why Hillary Clinton should be worried about Nevada
  • Why Hillary Clinton won’t release transcripts of her paid Goldman Sachs speeches She has her reasons.
  • Hillary Clinton’s email defense just hit a major bump in the road Cue Democratic worry.
  • Note to Bernie Sanders: Negative ads are good. Negative ads work.
  • Hillary Clinton STILL doesn’t have a good answer for questions about her emails
  • Why Bernie Sanders should talk A LOT more about Hillary Clinton and Goldman Sachs
  • What a tuxedo tells you about the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton Authenticity.
  • Hillary Clinton says she’s ‘not nervous at all’ about Bernie Sanders. She should be. Danger, Hillary Clinton. Danger!
  • Here’s exactly how Bernie Sanders can beat Hillary Clinton
  • Why aren’t Hillary Clinton’s exaggerations of her life story bigger news?
  • Bill de Blasio’s ‘Okay fine, I will endorse her’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton
  • Why Joe Biden must destroy Hillary Clinton
  • Just when you thought the e-mail story couldn’t get worse for Hillary Clinton … Drip. Drip. Drip.
  • Hillary Clinton’s e-mail issues have become a massive political problem It’s not getting better.
  • It might be time for Hillary Clinton to start panicking
  • Hillary Clinton finally apologizes for her private e-mail server. What took so long?
  • The reinvention of Hillary Clinton almost certainly won’t work
  • Hillary Clinton’s new approach to her e-mail controversy? It’s complicated.
  • Hillary Clinton’s e-mail problem isn’t going away FBI!
  • Hillary Clinton’s Worst Week in Washington
  • Hillary Clinton’s honesty problem just keeps getting worse
  • Maybe Hillary Clinton just isn’t a very good candidate
  • Hillary Clinton is trying to make the e-mail controversy political. But, really, it isn’t.
  • This isn’t a good trend line for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 prospects The more people see, the less they like.
  • These 9 words prove that Bill Clinton still doesn’t get it on the Clinton Foundation

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Question:

Why does CNN insist on bringing on some partisan stooge who would defend Trump for killing and eating said stooge’s own child? What good does having such a person do, especially when you treat their ludicrous opinion as a valid counterpoint to the truth? I would say, “You wouldn’t run a story about Flat Earthers and treat their opinion as the equal and opposite counterpoint to every available piece of scientific evidence for the past 1000 years,” but you probably would and that’s a real problem.

Is it all about the ratings? Is that why, in 2016, you became the Trump News Network and aired almost every single one of his rallies? Are you afraid of being called biased? Are CNN anchors just incapable of spotting bullshit in real time? I don’t get it.

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Question:

You said “My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be.”

Do you seriously believe that neither you nor any other media figure have any impact on the perceptions of voters? Does the observer effect not exist in political media?

____________________________________

Question:

Are you aware that real, actual horse races exist? I ask this because you seem desperate to cover a horse race, to the point that you take life-and-death political struggles that affect a nation of 300 million people and a planet of billions and treat them like they’re a horse race.

Why not just “cut out the middle man”, so to speak, and cover an actual horse race?

____________________________________

Question:

Do you regret your monomaniacal focus on the emails story in 2015-16, a focus with a clickbait orientation that both leaned heavily on emerging stories with insufficient information at hand and arguably gave other stories (ones equally or more important) short shrift?

____________________________________

Question:

Why is it that journalists and pundits who habitually get things wrong are rewarded with higher paying, more prestigious jobs rather than being forced out of the national conversation?

____________________________________

Question:

What is your obsession with Ivanka Trump and do you think it affects your reporting?

____________________________________

Question:

Hi Chris, it’s Ashley Feinberg. My question is how could you have possibly thought that this would be a good idea?•

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James Surowiecki, a very bright guy, asked on Twitter which jobs have been completely automated out of existence in the last 50 years. I think the final tally included just elevator and telephone operators, though you could probably add anyone who worked a dictaphone or in a typing pool. The bowling-alley pin boy just exceeds the time frame he uses. 

The thing is, if we’re talking about automation as a threat to human employment, this question is the wrong one, even if it’s an amusing intellectual exercise. Factories that have been reshored to America in the past decade still employ workers in many of the same positions as when they left, but the numbers needed are far fewer thanks to improved machinery and systems. It’s a thinning of the herd, not it’s utter elimination, that’s most troubling. The argument that a lack of productivity increase proves that automation isn’t killing jobs doesn’t really make sense because manufacturing positions in America certainly have seriously diminished and that’s not all due to globalization.

The right question to ask is this: Will AI and automation cause enough jobs to disappear and rapidly shift to the point that trying to get by becomes too chaotic for most? That’s really all that’s required for things to go haywire. It’s not a an all-or-nothing type of situation. Not every position has to go the way of the pin boy for all of us to wind up toppled.

Two excerpts follow from new Guardian pieces, one about the impact on small American towns of Walmart’s decline in the face of Amazon’s algorithmic might and the second a Paul Mason essay about robots and Brexit that’s interesting if probably too dire.


From “What Happened When Walmart Left,” an Ed Pilkington article:

Much has been written about what happens when the corporate giant opens up in an area, with numerous studies recording how it sucks the energy out of a locality, overpowering the competition through sheer scale and forcing the closure of mom-and-pop stores for up to 20 miles around. A more pressing, and much less-well-understood, question is what are the consequences when Walmart screeches into reverse: when it ups and quits, leaving behind a trail of lost jobs and broken promises.

The subject is gathering increasing urgency as the megacorporation rethinks its business strategy. Rural areas like McDowell County, where Walmart focused its expansion plans in the 1990s, are experiencing accelerating depopulation that is putting a strain on the firm’s boundless ambitions.

Hit hard by the longterm decline in coal mining that is the mainstay of the area, McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today. That depleted population is today scattered widely across small towns and in mountain hollows (pronounced “hollers”), accentuating the sense of sparseness and emptiness.

The Walmart supercenter is located about five miles from the county seat, Welch, which still boasts imposing brick buildings as a memory of better times. But the glow of coal’s legacy has cooled, as the boarding up of many of the town’s shops and restaurants attests.

When you combine the county’s economic malaise with Walmart’s increasingly ferocious battle against Amazon for dominance over online retailing, you can see why outsized physical presences could seem surplus to requirements. “There has been a wave of closings across the US, most acutely in small towns and rural communities that have had heavy population loss,” said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University who is an authority on Walmart’s local impact.

On 15 January 2016, those winds of change swept across the country with a fury.•


The opening of Mason’s “Brexit Won’t Help Britain Survive the Rise Of the Robots“:

What do a Japanese robot and the world’s first tidal turbine have in common? They are not in Britain. While the British government destroys itself over Brexit, the parts for a third industrial revolution are being assembled elsewhere. This is an industrial revolution where you don’t “catch up” – you catch the economic backwash. This is what would keep ministers awake at night – if they were serious.

In the past 12 months, Japan has started to produce a lot of robots. Its production index for industrial robots stood at 25 in 2009, achieved 175 last year and rocketed to 225 in June this year. Three-quarters of the units made were exported, helping Japan boost its total exports by 11% in the past year. In turn, the industrial surge of robots has stimulated a surge in semiconductor production in Japan and South Korea. This is big and real.

Japan is ahead in robotics not only because it has a decades-old semiconductor industry and an ageing population, but because it has an industrial strategy. Its government demanded a new industrial revolution in 2014. In 2015, its Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry issued aNew Robot Strategy,” stipulating sales targets for robotics in various sectors and urgent measures to train and retain technologists.

In robots for nursing care, for example, the strategy spells out a detailed five-year plan – from supporting manufacturers and changing International Organization for Standardization regulations to new health regulations and the creation of a marketplace between healthcare providers and robotics firms. The policy was not made in a vacuum. Japan’s industrial strategists were worried about big US spending commitments on robot research and development and a €2.8bn (£2.5bn) robotics project, funded by the European commission, called Sparc.

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As I’ve stated before, it seems clear how it ends for Trump, his family and his minions–in utter disgrace–but I don’t know how it turns out for America. There are just too many variables at play to prognosticate.

It may depend on how far and wide the sweep of justice extends. I have the same dream scenario that many do: The cynical players in government and outside will be washed away in a wave of justice, returning some semblance of sanity to our society. That’s not likely to be the result, however.

You can’t impeach, indict or arrest away what ails us, even if it’s a necessary start. Nearly 63 million citizens went into a voting booth and chose a bigoted, ignorant, kleptocratic sociopath. We’re deeply divided, armed to the teeth and living in a time where profiteers and ideologues alike are using our new media tools to obliterate truth. We’d better divine some solutions for our moral and political rot because eventually the crooks, trying to steal democracy as well as currency, aren’t going to be so stunningly incompetent.

In an excellent interview Susan B. Glasser of Politico Magazine conducted with Elizabeth Drew, the Watergate chronicler still doing excellent work in this time of Trump, speaks of her prescience when Nixon’s ouster still seemed unthinkable: “I may be a witch. I just had this instinct. I said, ‘I think that we might change vice presidents and presidents within a year.’ Now, this was a wild thought in the fall of 1973. I just smelled it.”

In one exchange, Drew, who asserts that the Nixon and Trump scandals are different despite their similarities, speaks to a common point they share: The lawlessness and abuses of both Administrations go far beyond one break-in or a single meeting with Russians connected to the Kremlin. It was and is a pervasive evil. An excerpt:

I want to explain something. There is one very strong similarity between the two periods. Because this gets down to, “Well, what was Watergate?” And I felt throughout it was a very unfashionable thought. A lot of people just treat it as a detective story and a lot of people still think it was a detective story that these odd people broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They got caught because of a night watchman, caught the tape on the door. They were indicted. The cover up began. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, they did incredible reporting.

They were just dogged and they kept at it and they broke the case of the cover up, but Watergate was much bigger than just that invasion of the DNC headquarters. To me, the worst thing that the so-called burglars—plumbers, rather. They were called plumbers because they were plumbing leaks. [LAUGHS] But they have the name “Plumbers” on their door in the Executive Office Building. They had an office there. They broke into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. In some ways, Watergate was as much about the Pentagon Papers as anything else. Now, just think about it: these bums breaking into somebody’s psychiatrist’s office to try to get his files, fortunately, were so incompetent. They messed up everything they did. They were real stumblebums. There were no files in that office although they supposedly cased it.

But that was really more troubling than the break-in to the Watergate, and it was a whole array of abuse of power, where they used the instruments of government against Nixon’s perceived enemies — and he was very good at perceiving enemies. We don’t have that now but Watergate was not a simple detective story. I always thought it was a constitutional crisis. And we still have that element of it. It’s: Can you hold a president accountable for the acts of his subordinates? We’re going to get to that question at some point in this. I don’t know when. I’m getting ahead of the story but the most important article of impeachment against Nixon was Article II, which held that a president could be held accountable for the acts of his subordinates, even if he really didn’t know anything about it.

That they created an atmosphere where these things can happen and if it ever got to impeachment and I don’t know if it will or won’t. People insist it won’t. I don’t know. It could under certain circumstances. This is a very important question. We were scared then in a way that we aren’t now. So it was quite different.•

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Not much of a horror fan but sad to hear of the passing of George A. Romero. A re-post of a short piece I wrote in 2011 about Night of the Living Dead which reads the film as a commentary on the tumultuous era in which it was made.

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Released the year after the Summer of Love, when the counterculture lost its warmth, George A. Romero’s low-budget landmark, a genre-definer about the undead feasting on the living, can be read as a parable of a culture run amok, feared by those with no desire to join it.

Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) are young adult siblings headed to a desolate Pennsylvania graveyard to place flowers on their father’s resting place, the way good middle-class children do. Conservative Barbra has no problem with the pilgrimage, but Johnny grumbles about such customs not being his scene. Suddenly he has an out, but not one he’d hoped for: A boneyard zombie seizes and murders him. Barbra escapes to a nearby house, empty except for a bloody corpse, but how long will she be able to stay in one piece since more and more of the undead surround the home? Misery loves company and the terrified woman gets some when a few other members of the living, including resourceful Ben (Duane Jones), also take shelter from the marauders in the humble abode.

Trying to find out what’s turned the formerly sensible world upside down, Ben gets a radio working and listens for information. Did a recent space probe emit radiation that is making the dead rise? Is it something else? The answer isn’t clear, but one thing is certain: A meat-loving legion is cannibalizing the uninitiated and is still plenty hungry. The radio announcer reports that “frightened people are seeking refuge in churches, schools and government buildings.” But none of these traditional bastions of respectability can provide much comfort in a society gone insane.

In one chilling scene, a small child, possessed by the zombie madness, approaches her cowering, pleading mother with a sharp object in hand and demonstrates precocious butchering skills. The following year this scene would be repeated with scary precision for real by sons and daughters of the middle class answering to a zombie named Manson. The dead would rise and the culture would change forever, and no one could ever truly feel safe again.•

In Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, first published in America in 1945, the expat author returns to his native land to occasionally admire the beauty but to mostly spit on the dirt. You could say that the writer was great at finding ugliness anywhere he roamed in the U.S., much the same way that Joan Didion always recognized looming collapse no matter where she landed–both were good at projecting the disquiet within onto any landscape–except that Miller took deep appreciation in many things, often hidden pieces of culture and art and history that delighted him. The book is largely a success, apart for the author’s boneheaded appreciation for the great things that a slave culture can produce.

Here are three passages of Miller’s darkest, most apocalyptic thoughts about humanity as it moved into a modern, technological age, the first two from the books’ preface and the third from the chapter “With Edgard Varèse in the Gobi Desert”:

As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned…The answer is yes, I suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans–the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress–but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist as escapist, the man of vision a criminal. …

Disney works fast–like greased lightning. That’s how we’ll all operate soon. What we dream we become. We’ll get the knack of it soon. We’ll learn how to annihilate the whole planet in the wink of an eye–just wait and see. ..

To-morrow all that we take for granted may wear a new face. New York may come to resemble Petra, the cursed city of Arabia. The corn fields may look like a desert. The inhabitants of our cities may be obliged to take to the woods and grub for food on all fours, like animals. It is not impossible. It is even quite probable. No part of this planet is immune once the spirit of self-destruction takes hold. The great organism called Society may break down into molecules and atoms; there may not be a vestige of any social form which could be called a body. What we call “society” may become one interrupted dissonance for which no resolving chord will ever be found. That too is possible.

We know only a small fraction of the history of man on this earth. It is a long, tedious painful record of catastrophic changes involving the disappearance of whole continents sometimes. We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth to-day is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything–except of his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, to-day he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction is now deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. To-morrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make the choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. 

What is the magic word for this moment?•

It’s crazy out there in America right now. I mean, it’s always been crazy out there in America, but there’s never been a time, not even during the Civil War, when we’ve had so many ways to blow the whole thing up, the virtual means now joining the physical ones. It’s a mad mix of traitors, colluders, enablers, conspiracists, cranks, bots, anti-government zealots and guns, guns, guns. For a few in possession of weapons, even Timothy McVeigh has reached hero status.

Trump’s ultimate tumble into utter disgrace may rip the seams off the whole ball, or the unpleasantness may proceed in that direction regardless. Perhaps there’s no Civil War 2.0, but there will be repercussions, large-scale shocks, especially since the Trump Administration has turned Homeland Security away from domestic threats posed by militias. That storm will only gather more easily.

Two excerpts follow, the first about a left-wing, gun-loving militia and the second about the Nevada town where it’s illegal to not own a firearm.


From Cecilia Saixue Watt’s Guardian article “Redneck Revolt“:

A 31-year-old activist with long hair and a full bushy beard, [Max] Neely had a full day of political activism ahead of him: Donald Trump was in Harrisburg to mark his 100th day in office with a speech at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. In other parts of the city, the liberal opposition were also readying themselves: organizations such as Keystone Progress, Dauphin County Democrats and the local Indivisible group planned to march in protest.

Neely’s group were not among them. Instead, they had set up a picnic site in a small park, offering a barbecue and leftist pamphlets. Someone had planted a bright red hammer-and-sickle flag in the grass. On a nearby table hung a black banner that bore the words “Redneck Revolt: anti-racist, pro-gun, pro-labor”.

“If you haven’t noticed, we aren’t liberals,” said Jeremy Beck, one of Neely’s cookout friends. “You know, if you keep going further left, eventually, you go left enough to get your guns back.”

Wooly liberals, they’re not. Redneck Revolt is a nationwide organization of armed political activists from rural, working-class backgrounds who strive to reclaim the term “redneck” and promote active anti-racism. It is not an exclusively white group, though it does take a special interest in the particular travails of the white poor. The organization’s principles are distinctly left-wing: against white supremacy, against capitalism and the nation-state, in support of the marginalized.

Pennsylvania is an open-carry state, where gun owners can legally carry firearms in public without concealment. Redneck Revolt members often see the practice of openly carrying a gun as a political statement: the presence of a visible weapon serves to intimidate opponents and affirm gun rights. Many of the cookout attendees owned guns, and had considered bringing them today – but ultimately they had decided to come unarmed, in the interest of keeping the event family-friendly.•


From “Under Siege by Liberals,” Lois Beckett’s Guardian reportage about a Nevada town with a name that sounds post-apocalyptic:

Nucla became nationally famous when it passed an ordinance requiring every household to own a gun five years ago – a move that is still wildly popular among residents. But past Nucla’s one minute of fame, locals worry about their beloved home becoming a ghost town.

In September, in the wake of a lawsuit from an environmental group, Nucla’s major employer, the local coal-fired power plant, announced that it would be shutting down in 2022. The coal mine that supplied the plant would be shutting down as well. In total, about 80 jobs were at risk – a huge number in a town whose population boasted, according to the 2010 census, only 711 people.

For locals, this decision was a death knell brought on by liberals who live in big cities. Nucla residents bristle at the warnings about the risk of exposure to radiation, and roll their eyes at A-listers like Darryl Hannah, the Hollywood actress known for Splash and Kill Bill, who joined the activism against the local uranium industry.

Liberals fighting against the mining industry are good at telling them no, residents say, but don’t present them with any alternatives – not ones that come with real salaries. Richard Craig, a former Nucla town board member, recalled a comment by a member of an environmental group saying during one of the contentious hearings: “Well, I don’t see why they don’t want to go live in the city.”

“It’s almost like – I hate using this word, it’s being used so often – it’s almost like a conspiracy: ‘We need to move everybody out of rural areas and go live in the cities and suburbs,’” Craig said.•

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Pundits on Twitter and in the opinion pages are of two vastly different minds about the future of the Democrats: After Trump’s election–no matter how crooked it may have been–the party either needs to become far more centrist or must move way to the left. Either it focuses on the white working class and rurals or goes all in on minorities and urbans. Both stances would have a large impact on the type of policy we have, but when it comes to winning, the two camps may be overthinking things.

Identity politics are so important in our media-saturated society that having a candidate who speaks to key issues with authenticity (or at least projects that quality) is probably the most vital ingredient. I’m not saying it should be that way but just that it is.

The most successful Democratic Party is likely one that makes an effort to appeal to working-class people across the borders of race and religion, not an impossible feat. Focus on healthcare and the issues that face us all, and follow up in those areas if elected.

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Naomi Klein has her positives and negatives, but I think she makes a salient point in a Spiegel interview conducted by Christoph Scheuermann which coincided with the just-completed G-20 summit. In an America which has spent decades assailing regulations (Jimmy Carter was just as enthusiastic in this area as Ronald Reagan), has had candidates from both sides of the aisle attacking government (though Republicans with a religious zeal) and has failed to deliver on big promises thanks to fractiousness and dysfunction, billionaires are often viewed as private-sector saviors to make up for all that we lack. That goes for the sweater-clad, avuncular 2.0 version of Bill Gates, who was a raging asshole during his Microsoft reign, or Donald Trump, a make-believe businessman who screams like Gordon Ramsey and wants to bake the world.

An excerpt:

Spiegel:

Twenty years ago, you helped launch anti-globalization with your book, No Logo. Today it has become almost fashionable to campaign against the consequences of unrestrained capital flows. Has your criticism become part of the mainstream?

Naomi Klein:

I’ve never liked the term “globalization,” it sounds like you’re against the world. What we’re really talking about is the globalization of a specific economic model. The political right is hijacking legitimate frustration about people’s jobs, living standards, the ability to change the direction of the country you’re living in. This is the feeling that Trump, the Brexiters and Marine Le Pen are all tapping into, and they’re mixing it with xenophobic hatred of anything international, with hypernationalism and a toxic anti-immigrant, anti-United Nations, anti-everything global sentiment. The right has been able to do this because centrist political parties abandoned their traditional opposition to these types of policies. They ended up pushing the agenda even further, creating a vacuum for the right to go in. It’s very dangerous. …

Spiegel: 

You describe Trump’s rise as an almost inevitable consequence of the neoliberal project. Aren’t you fighting the same old enemy again?

Naomi Klein: 

Many liberals treat Trump like a martian who fell from the sky, who has nothing to do with the rest of us. I don’t think that’s true. The mainstream American culture was creating a context that Trump was uniquely qualified to exploit. The coverage of elections has come to resemble a reality show. It’s all about ratings, less about policy and content. That had started long before Trump ran for president. But if elections are nothing more than infotainment, then a reality TV show star is going to be much better at it than a traditional politician because they have those skills. There’s also this billionaire savior complex that has been building up around figures like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, all liberal heroes. We’ve increasingly been outsourcing our big problems to foundations run by billionaires — pandemics, a failing education system — rather than treating these as collective problems for democracies to solve. …

Spiegel: 

What must happen for Americans to not vote for Trump again?

Naomi Klein: 

It has to be a two-fold argument. First, he lied to you when he said he’d protect your Social Security and your health care. Secondly, we have to have candidates who are going to bring universal public health care, make sure that your kids can afford to go to university and are going to create huge numbers of jobs by investing in public infrastructure.

Spiegel:

Many Trump voters lost their jobs because of globalization. Is that a cynical consequence of your own criticism?

Naomi Klein: 

The only person talking about working-class voters was Donald Trump. That is the tragedy, not that they voted for him. It’s an absurdity that Trump could pose as a savior of the working class, from his golden tower and his golden throne, but it shows how people have been abandoned by the Democrats. A lot of people just wanted to raise the middle finger to Washington. I do believe that there’s a portion of Trump’s working class base that is reachable. The terrain is fertile.•

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Just after Y2K fears subsided, America was struck by another disaster that shook the nation to its core, the Fox TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? The program was a gross two-hour spectacle in which a woman was chosen by a supposedly rich man to become his insta-wife even though they barely knew one another. The broadcast provoked outrage for making a mockery of marriage, a traditional value (and financial arrangement) that had long been credited for holding together the fabric of our society. Despite a gigantic audience, the rerun was cancelled, apologies offered and an annulment hastily arranged.

In 2016, U.S. television is littered with thirsty aspiring brides and bachelors with no body hair nor brain cells. Nobody worries about such things anymore, the flood of programs washing away any resistance to a sideshow of emotionally destroyed civilians and celebrities providing cheap content for endless channels, a perhaps inevitable shift after a decentralized media had devastated legacy broadcasters. The platforms without any gatekeepers went even further, with flesh-and-blood chaos agents and Nazi bots roaming the landscape like so many Joy Divisions. 

In some ways, the loosening of traditional mores is good. Back in 2000, when the Fox pseudo-nuptials took place, no state in the country was close to allowing gay people to marry, and now those unions are legal across the land. How amazing. The flip side is that the constant shocks of our culture have numbed us to any sense of civility, even in a Presidential race. It was acceptable to a surprising number of citizens that the country be in the hands of a Reality TV star who’s a vicious racist and xenophobe and likely a traitor, an insomniac tweeter who knows nothing more than simple catchphrases and how to reflexively point fingers. 

That’s our strange, new abnormal. It’s unreal.

In “America’s First Postmodern President,” a New Republic piece by Jeet Heer, the journalist writes of society in a time of simulacra, citing the work of philosopher Jean Baudrillard. An excerpt:

For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.

In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him. This propagation of fictions makes it difficult to build a convincing case against him.•

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Masha Gessen’s veteran Putin-watcher status and fierce intelligence have made her invaluable in this time of the Kremlin annexation of the White House, though I disagreed with her in March when she argued that Russiagate should be back-burnered in favor of the more mundane outrages emanating from the Oval Office on an almost daily basis:

Gessen has made it clear she doesn’t believe Russia is responsible for America electing an autocratic sociopath, and in the big picture she’s right.

I don’t doubt Kremlin interference one bit, nor that it was likely committed in concert with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign if not the President himself, but there’s no real excuse for nearly 63 million citizens voting for a candidate who was clearly a habitual liar, vicious demagogue and utter incompetent. That’s on us.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aggressively strive for the truth in this gravely serious matter, and that arrests shouldn’t be made and impeachment be pursued if illegal activities can be proven. Certainly Congress would be investigating the matter at full throttle if a Democratic President had behaved in a similar manner, but partisan hackery has become a hallmark of the legislative branch.

In a Gessen piece published at the New York Review of Books, the reporter wonders why lies about Russian espionage are a more important to many in the media and the Intelligence Community than the avalanche of dishonesty Trump and his cabinet regularly send down the mountain. On this point, I’ll disagree with her.

She’s right that it would be foolish to focus on the Putin connection to the exclusion of the many other assaults on liberal governance we’re enduring nearly daily, but an American President conspiring with an adversarial foreign power to gain office–whether the machinations actually helped him win votes or not–would be a singular shock to the system. Destroying health care and lowering taxes on the highest earners would be awful policy, but it wouldn’t be treason. The suspicious activity proceeding the election may very well be.•

Mountains of information have been moved in the four months since, with Gessen altering her thinking somewhat after this week’s revelation that Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to potentially collect dirt on Hillary Clinton, which was, as the Gladstone “invite” stated, part of the Russian effort to install the senior Trump into the White House. I’m not sure if we’ve passed the preface of this scandal, perhaps the biggest political transgression in American history, but we’re still at least in the early chapters with far bigger shocks yet to arrive.

The opening of Gessen’s latest piece for the NYRB:

Some revelations aren’t very revealing. Following the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s email correspondence with publicist Rob Goldstone, we have learned that the Trump campaign would have been happy to receive from the Russian government damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Indeed they loved the idea. But we already knew that. In July 2016—six weeks after the Goldstone exchange—Donald Trump Sr. addressed the Putin government directly, in a news conference: “I tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you can find the thirty thousand emails that are missing.” In effect, he openly invited the Russian government to hack Hillary Clinton’s email—which is far more than Donald Jr. welcomed in secret.

And still, the revelation is shocking. Indeed, it feels like it changes everything. After months of talk about what it would take to get Trump impeached, analysts are calling this the “smoking gun” that could actually bring his downfall. Why does the occasion feel so momentous (other than because we want it to be)? After all, we learned only that Don Jr. said in confidence roughly the same thing that his father said for all the world to hear. But the news has been as shocking as it has because, after all this time, we still have not learned to take Trump’s public utterances seriously.

Trump’s public statements and tweets pose an obvious challenge to conventional interpretation because he lies so often and so blatantly. (A recent New York Times analysis found that he had said “something untrue” on at least 75 percent of his days in office. “On days without an untrue statement, he is often absent from Twitter…”) But that is not all. His speech exposes us to a view of the world that is so strange, so antithetical to the norms of American political culture, that many Americans find it basically unbelievable. Through Trump’s statements, especially when they concern Russia—whether Trump is calling on Putin to hack Hillary or expressing his admiration for Putin’s gift for power, or promising to cooperate with Russia on securing America against cyber attacks—we get a glimpse of a world run by a fellowship of rich powerful men bound by no principles, beliefs, or understanding of history. This is indeed the world in which both Trump and Putin live.

There is, in other words, an underlying truth to all of Trump’s lies (and occasional non-lies). His statements reveal his understanding of the world.•

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A phrase I began using (overusing) in 2015 is “the American people won’t forever settle for bread and Kardashians.” That played out in a shockingly horrible fashion when Donald Trump, a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, was elected to the highest office of the land (with, it would appear very likely, the cooperation of the Kremlin).

The non-treasonous means he employed to win were to move the GOP far to the right on some issues and to the left on others. In the latter category, his promises were more than just the usual election-year exaggerations–they were the cruelest lies. Trump has no interest in extending and improving healthcare or preserving Medicare or Social Security. He’s the iceman cometh, intent on policies that would literally kill off swaths of his base.

In a Vox Q&A, David Frum questions Edward Luce about his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. The interviewer wonders if the economic problems in the U.S. and UK can be cured in the short run by three measures: thicker social insurance, less dynamic labor markets and less immigration. The first would be helpful, the second unrealistic and the third a very bad idea. Unskilled immigrants do the jobs Americans will not do. Entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists from abroad create jobs and propel progress. International students welcomed into our universities often pay full tuition so that less-privileged U.S. students don’t have to. Refusing this bounty from beyond our borders would be a self-inflicted wound, a brain-drain that would make us poorer and less secure.

One exchange:

David Frum:

We talked earlier about the role of elite demophobia as you called it, oikophobia as you called it. The book bears on its cover an endorsement from Larry Summers, and on its back are others of the great and good. This is not written for the talk radio audience. It is written for the Davos inhabitants whom you scorn on the inside of the book.

What is the summons to the people who are doing well in the present dispensation here? What do you think are their responsibilities? How do you persuade them to think in a larger, longer-term way than they seem to be doing right now?

Edward Luce:

I totally agree with the supposition of your question, and I’ve thought about this. I’ve thought about the fact, well who’s my book going to be read by? Who’s the Financial Times read by? It’s not typically read by the left-behinds. The same goes for Vox and the Atlantic.

But actually, this is the relevant market, and my book is written for what I think are still — in spite of everything that has happened — the complacent elites in our society. One of the pieces of evidence of their complacency is this tendency to talk about the other half as deplorable, and to mark them off. This is not a sign of thinking. It is not a sign of addressing what I think are addressable problems.

So what would I recommend for converting elites to the point of view I’m trying to argue?

To recognize that if you live, as we increasingly do, in a sort of modern-day Versailles, eventually that palace gets burnt down. You cannot wall yourself off from the people in society. There’s no Hunger Games that ends well.

And to recognize that your wealth comes from society. It has a social basis, however individually talented you are. You would not be wealthy if it weren’t for society. You can fantasize about living in gated communities that have robots as security guards, and drones delivering your goods, and, you know, no humans actually employed. But they’re still there, and they’re going to make life difficult for you. You’re not going to be sleeping well at night.

That’s the scare-the-kids version. The better way of putting that is to appeal to people’s enlightened self-interest. I continue to believe America is a country that can lead the world in enlightened self-interest. Take the Marshall Plan: America is the country that coined the term pragmatism. That’s an American philosophy. I don’t think it’s dead, but I think it’s not something the elites are as familiar with as they should be, and must be.•

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“Progress isn’t always a straight line,” exclaimed President Obama in the wake of our stunning 2016 Presidential election, clinging as best he could to the audacious hope that always floated him in the past. He probably could have safely gone a step further and said that it never moves in a straight line, progress and regress always coexisting, even in the brightest and darkest moments.

· · ·

Giant leaps in technology provoke some to the extremes, with one group embracing the future too tightly and another balling up into a fetal position.

Case in point: In the same decade humans set foot on the moon, the most soaring technological achievement of our species, Sir Edmund Hillary went on an expedition to the Himalayas to search for the Abominable Snowman. There are still some among us all these years later who believe Yeti roams the Earth and the moonwalk was faked.

· · ·

As long as the Earth is around, they’ll be those who wrongly argue that it’s flat.

Few did so more vehemently than evangelist Wilbur Glenn Voliva, one of the most famous advocates of Flat Earth theories in America during the first half of the 20th century. In 1906, the preacher gained power over the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois. He turned the community of 6,000 into a multi-pronged industrial concern, taking advantage of the very low wages he paid members of his flock. By the 1920s, Voliva owned one of the most powerful radio stations in the nation from which to preach his anti-science views, a forerunner of the many dicey religious figures to come who would mix mass and media.

While Voliva despised globes, it was the advent of aerial photography that dimmed but did not end his career. After all, despite any proof, some still see what they want to see.

· · · 

Many government jobs will likely be automated out of existence in the coming decades, but President?!

During the last American Presidential election, Transhumanist candidate Zoltan Istvan enthusiastically anticipated an age of techno-fascism, the complete removal of humans from politics in favor of an Artificial Intelligence dictator. He said this to BBC Future

“I’ve advocated for an artificial intelligence to become president one day. If we had a truly altruistic entity that was after the best interests of society maybe giving up at least some freedoms would be beneficial if that was truly in our best interests. What’s happened in the past is we’ve had dictators who are selfish, and they’ve done an absolutely terrible job of running countries. But what if you actually had somebody who really was after your best interests, wouldn’t you want him on your team?”

Istvan envisions regular elections, in which “voters would decide on the robot’s priorities,” which isn’t very comforting in a country that saw nearly 63 million turn the lever for Donald Trump.

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Two excerpts follow about this Digital Age divide, one about some recoiling from even common sense and a second piece about those rushing headlong into an algorithmic embrace.


The opening of Graham Ambrose’s Denver Post article “These Coloradans say Earth is flat. And gravity’s a hoax. Now, they’re being persecuted“:

Every Tuesday at 6 p.m., three dozen Coloradans from every corner of the state assemble in the windowless back room of a small Fort Collins coffee shop. They have met 16 times since March, most nights talking through the ins and outs of their shared faith until the owners kick them out at closing.

They have no leaders, no formal hierarchy and no enforced ideology, save a common quest for answers to questions about the stars. Their membership has slowly swelled in the past three years, though persecution and widespread public derision keep them mostly underground. Many use pseudonyms, or only give first names.

“They just do not want to talk about it for fear of reprisals or ridicule from co-workers,” says John Vnuk, the group’s founder who lives in Fort Collins.

He is at the epicenter of a budding movement, one that’s coming for your books, movies, God and mind. They’re thousands strong — perhaps one in every 500 — and have proponents at the highest levels of science, sports, journalism and arts.

They call themselves Flat Earthers. Because they believe Earth — the blue, majestic, spinning orb of life — is as flat as a table.

And they want you to know. Because it’s 2017.

“This is a new awakening,” Vnuk says with a spark in his earth-blue eyes. “Some will accept it, some won’t. But love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Flat Earth.”•


From Michael Linhorst’s Politico Magazine piece “Could a Robot Be President?“:

A small group of scientists and thinkers believes there could be an alternative, a way to save the president—and the rest of us—from him- or herself. As soon as technology advances far enough, they think we should put a computer in charge of the country. Yes, it sounds nuts. But the idea is that artificial intelligence could make America’s big, complicated decisions better than any person could, without the drama or shortsightedness that we grudgingly accept from our human presidents.

If you’re imagining a Terminator-style machine sitting behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, think again. The president would more likely be a computer in a closet somewhere, chugging away at solving our country’s toughest problems. Unlike a human, a robot could take into account vast amounts of data about the possible outcomes of a particular policy. It could foresee pitfalls that would escape a human mind and weigh the options more reliably than any person could—without individual impulses or biases coming into play. We could wind up with an executive branch that works harder, is more efficient and responds better to our needs than any we’ve ever seen.

There’s not yet a well-defined or cohesive group pushing for a robot in the Oval Office—just a ragtag bunch of experts and theorists who think that futuristic technology will make for better leadership, and ultimately a better country. Mark Waser, for instance, a longtime artificial intelligence researcher who works for a think tank called the Digital Wisdom Institute, says that once we fix some key kinks in artificial intelligence, robots will make much better decisions than humans can. Natasha Vita-More, chairwoman of Humanity+, a nonprofit that “advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities,” expects we’ll have a “posthuman” president someday—a leader who does not have a human body but exists in some other way, such as a human mind uploaded to a computer. Zoltan Istvan, who made a quixotic bid for the presidency last year as a “transhumanist,” with a platform based on a quest for human immortality, is another proponent of the robot presidency—and he really thinks it will happen.

“An A.I. president cannot be bought off by lobbyists,” he says. “It won’t be influenced by money or personal incentives or family incentives. It won’t be able to have the nepotism that we have right now in the White House. These are things that a machine wouldn’t do.”

The idea of a robot ruler has been floating around in science fiction for decades. In 1950, Isaac Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot envisioned a world in which machines appeared to have consciousness and human-level intelligence. They were controlled by the “Three Laws of Robotics.” (First: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”) Super-advanced A.I. machines in Iain Banks’ Culture series act as the government, figuring out how best to organize society and distribute resources. Pop culture—like, more recently, the movie Her—has been hoping for human-like machines for a long time.

But so far, anything close to a robot president was limited to those kinds of stories. Maybe not for much longer. In fact, true believers like Istvan say our computer leader could be here in less than 30 years.•

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Oriana Fallaci and Norman Mailer, the Electra and Oedipus of the Apollo space program, were two writers with egos massive enough to observe humankind’s mission to the Moon as not only material for New Journalism reportage of an historical quest but also as backdrop to investigations of their own psyches. In 1967, the year after Fallaci published If the Sun Dies… and two years before Mailer stormed through a series of long-form articles for Life magazine that became Of a Fire on the Moonthe pair sat down for an interview with Fallaci serving as the inquisitor. In Mailer’s face–“noble and vulgar,” she called it–Fallaci claimed to be searching for America. It actually wasn’t a bad place to look: Like his country, Mailer could be at turns soaringly brilliant and shockingly brutal–and completely delusional about his behavior in regards to the latter. His remarks about domestic violence, for instance, were beyond horrifying, and they unfortunately weren’t merely macho showboating. The discussion opened Fallaci’s collection of (mostly) non-political interrogations, The Egotists. Three excerpts follow.

Oriana Fallaci:

The problem I want to talk about is a difficult one, but we have to deal with it. The fact is we Europeans used to love you Americans. When you came to liberate us twenty years ago, we used to look up to you as if you were angels. And now many of us don’t love you anymore; indeed some hate you. Today the United States might be the most hated country in the world.

Norman Mailer:

You used to love us because love is hope, and we Americans were your hope. And also, perhaps, because twenty years ago we were a better people, although not as good as you believed then–the seeds of the present ugliness were already there. The soldiers with whom I fought in the Pacific, for example, were a little better than the ones who are fighting now in Vietnam, but not by much. We were quite brutal even then. One could write a novel about Vietnam along the lines of The Naked and the Dead, and the characters would not need to be worse than they are in the book.The fact is that you have lost the hope you have vested in us, and so you have lost your love; therefore you see us in a much worse light than you did before, and you don’t understand that the roots of our ugliness are the old ones. It is true that the evil forces in America have triumphed only after the war–with the enormous growth of corporations and the transformation of man into mass-man, the alienation of men from their own existence–but these forces were already there in Roosevelt’s time. Roosevelt, you see, was a great President, but he wasn’t a great thinker. Indeed, he was a very superficial one. When he took power, America stood at a crossroad; either a proletarian revolution would take place or capitalism would enter a new phase. What happened was that capitalism took a new turn, transforming itself into a subtle elaboration of state capitalism–it is not by chance that the large corporations in effect belong to the government. They belong to the right. And just as the Stalinists have murdered Marxism, so these bastards of the right are now destroying what is good in American life. They are the same people who build the expressways, who cut the trees, who pollute the air and the water, who transform life into a huge commodity.

Oriana Fallaci:

We Europeans are also very good at this. I mean this is not done by only right-wing Americans.

Norman Mailer:

Of course. It is a worldwide process. But its leader is America, and this is why we are hated. We are the leaders of the technological revolution that is taking over the twentieth century, the electronic revolution that is dehumanizing mankind.•

Norman Mailer:

I still have hope you seem to have lost. Because of the youth. Some of them are subhuman, but most of them are intelligent.

Oriana Fallaci:

That is true. But they are also stuffed with drugs, violence, LSD. Does that help your hoping?

Norman Mailer:

Theirs is an extraordinary complex generation to live in. The best thing I can say about them is that I can’t understand them. The previous generation, the one fifteen years ago, was so predictable, without surprises. This one is a continuing surprise. I watch the young people of today, I listen to them, and l realize that I’m not twenty years older than they are but a hundred. Perhaps because in five years they went through changes that usually take half a century to complete, their intelligence has been speeded up so incredibly that there is no contact between them and the generation around thirty. Not to speak of those around forty or fifty. Yes, I know that this does not happen only in America; this too is a global process. But the psychology of American youth is more modern than that of any other group in the world; it belongs not to 1967 but to 2027. If God could see what would happen in the future–as he perhaps does–he would see people everywhere acting and thinking in 2027 as American youth do now. It’s true they take drugs. But they don’t take the old drugs such as heroin and cocaine that produce only physical reactions and sensations and dull you at the same time. They take LSD, a drug that can help you explore your mind. Now let’s get this straight: I can’t justify the use of LSD. I know too well that you don’t get something for nothing, and it may well be that we’ll pay a tragic price for LSD: it seems that it can break the membrane of the chromosomes in the cells and produce who knows what damage in future children. But LSD is part of a search, a desperate search, as if all these young people felt at the same time the need to explore as soon as possible their minds so as to avoid a catastrophe. Technology has stripped our minds until we have become like pygmies driving chariots drawn by dinosaurs. Now, if we want to keep the dinosaurs in harness, our minds will have to develop at a forced pace, which will require a frightening effort. The young have felt the need to harness the dinosaurs, and if they have found the wrong means, it’s still better than nothing. My fear had been that America was slowly freezing and hardening herself in a pygmy’s sleep. But no, she’s awake.•

Norman Mailer:

Damn it, I don’t like violence. But there’s something I like even less, and that’s a need for security. It smells of the grave and forces you to react with blood. 

Oriana Fallaci:

You dislike violence? You who knifed a wife and can’t miss a boxing match?

Norman Mailer:

The knife in my wife’s belly was a crime. It was a grave crime, but it had nothing to do with violence. And as for the fights, well, boxing is not violence. It’s a conversation, an exchange between two men who talk to each other with their hands instead of their voices: hitting at the ear, the nose, the mouth, the belly, instead of hitting at each other’s minds. Boxing is a noble art. When a man fights in a ring, he is not expressing brutality. He expresses a complex, subtle nature like that of a true intellectual, a real aristocrat. A pugilist is less brutal, or not at all brutal after a fight, because with his fists he transforms violence into something beautiful, noble and disciplined. It’s a real triumph of the spirit. No, I’m not violent. To be violent means to pick fights, and I can’t remember ever having started a fight. Nor can I remember ever having hit a woman–a strange woman, I mean. I may have hit a wife, but that’s different. If you are married you have two choices: either you beat your wife, or you don’t. Some people live their whole life without ever beating her, others maybe beat her once and thereon are labeled “violent.” I like to marry women whom I can beat once in a while, and who fight back. All my wives have been very good fighters. Perhaps I need women who are capable of violence, to offset my own. Am I not American, after all? But the act of hitting is hateful because it implies a judgement, and judgement itself is hateful. Not that I think of myself as being a good man in the Christian sense. But at certain times I have a clear consciousness of what is good and what is evil, and then my concept of the good resembles that of the Christian.•

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

That is definitely not how that thing works.

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

In a 2013 Time cover story “Why Texas is Our Future,” economist Tyler Cowen wondered if what he viewed as the Libertarian impulse of the state would spread throughout the country. I argued that California (or perhaps Massachusetts) might be a more likely template, that Texas may not even be the future of Texas given its brisk population growth and changing demographics, though we won’t know for sure for awhile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his New Yorker piece “America’s Future Is Texas,” Lawrence Wright, whose spent most of his life living in the state and wrote for Texas Monthly, considers, as Cowen did, that the state may be a bellwether nationally–but does so from a very different perspective. The journalist’s headline implies Texas’ volatile, fractious politics, an “irrepressible conflict” writ even larger than what we now know, may await us all.

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

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

An excerpt:

In session after session, the Texas legislature has sought to impose strict rules on voter identification, with the putative goal of preventing election fraud. A 2011 law required voters to present a U.S. passport, a military identification card, a state driver’s license, a concealed-weapon permit, or a Texas election identification certificate. The same law excluded federal and state government I.D.s, as well as student I.D.s, from being used at polling stations. In 2014, a federal judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, in the Southern District of Texas, struck down the law, calling it “an unconstitutional poll tax.” Texas appealed, but the appeal was rejected, in part because there was no actual evidence of voter fraud. (The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.) The appeals court sent the case back to Judge Ramos, asking her to determine if the law was intentionally discriminatory. If Ramos said yes, it could trigger federal monitoring of the state’s election laws under the Voting Rights Act.

The question of voter fraud became a national issue after the 2016 Presidential election. Gregg Phillips, a former official of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, gave Trump the false idea that he would have won the popular vote if illegal votes were discounted. Phillips, the founder of a group called VoteStand, tweeted that three million unqualified voters had cast ballots in the election. He refused to provide proof, though he told CNN that he had developed “algorithms” that could determine citizenship status. Trump soon demanded a widespread investigation into voter fraud.

In February, 2017, while Judge Ramos was still considering the Texas voter-I.D. law, a resident of a Fort Worth suburb was found to have voted illegally: Rosa Maria Ortega, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of four with a seventh-grade education. She had lived in the U.S. since she was an infant, and was a legal resident, entitled to serve in the military and required to pay taxes. She assumed that she could also vote, and had done so previously, in 2012 and 2014. The local prosecutor decided to make an example of her, and she was sentenced to eight years in prison. When she gets out, she may be deported to Mexico. I suppose it’s an irony that she is a Republican, and voted for Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, who has made voter fraud a signature issue.

In April, Judge Ramos issued her opinion: the Texas voter-I.D. law was intentionally designed to discriminate against minorities. Almost simultaneously, a panel of federal judges in San Antonio ruled that three of the state’s thirty-six U.S. congressional districts were illegally drawn in order to disempower minorities.

Evan Smith, of the Texas Tribune, has closely followed thirteen legislative sessions. He noted that, even as Dan Patrick and his Republican allies slashed government services, they allocated eight hundred million dollars for border security. “White people are scared of change, believing that what they have is being taken away from them by people they consider unworthy,” he told me. “But all they’re doing is poking a bear with a stick. In 2004, the Anglo population in Texas became a minority. The last majority-Anglo high-school class in Texas graduated in 2014. There will never be another. The reality is, it’s all over for the Anglos.”

Texas leads the nation in Latino population growth. Latinos account for more than half the 2.7 million new Texans since 2010. Every Democrat in Texas believes that, if Latinos voted at the same rate in Texas as they do in California, the state would already be blue. “The difference between Texas and California is the labor movement,” Garnet Coleman, a Houston member of the Texas House, told me. In the nineteen-sixties, Cesar Chavez began organizing the California farmworkers into a union; that kind of movement didn’t happen in Texas, a right-to-work state. “Labor unions create a culture of voting and political participation,” Coleman observed. In Texas politics, he says, “everything is about race—it’s veiled as public policy, but it encourages people to believe that their tax dollars are going to support lazy black and brown people.” Political views have become more entrenched because of redistricting, and yet the demographic majority in Texas is far more progressive than its representatives. Coleman predicts a showdown: “This is a battle about the future of the country, based on a new majority, and we have to have this out.”•

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