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Mentioned yesterday there were four questions submitted to Julian Assange’s Reddit Ask Me Anything that I hoped the Wikileaks EIC would address. The layout for the AMAs is sort of a mess, but from what I can quickly ascertain, it seems he responded to just one of them, though a good one. Assange skirts much of the inquiry’s substance, most likely because it speaks uncomfortable truths to his own stated philosophies about privacy, but it’s still worth reading.

The exchange:

Question:

People frequently group you together with Edward Snowden because you’ve both released classified American documents. But your motivations and philospophies couldn’t be more different.

Snowden claims to fight for privacy. He’s called privacy the bedrock of freedom, that one cannot be free without privacy.

You have called privacy obsolete and unsustainable. You’ve said that privacy has no inherent value. You appear to believe privacy and freedom are incompatible, that you cannot be free if others can keep secrets from you. You’ve published the credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical information, and sexual preferences of individuals of zero public interest. Two of your most recent publications are the personal Gmail inboxes of civilians, exactly the sort of thing Snowden has tried to protect.

Can you convince me that you’re right and Snowden’s wrong?

Julian Assange:

Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. He committed an important and brave act, which we supported. I worked with our legal team to get him out of Hong Kong and to a place of asylum. No other media organization did that. Not the Guardian, which had been publishing his material. Nor did Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, not even any institution from a government. It was WikiLeaks that acted. A small, investigative publisher, which understands computer security, cryptography, the National Security Agency, which I have been publishing about for more than ten years, and asylum law, because of my situation.

We couldn’t have a situation where Edward Snowden ends up in a position like Chelsea Manning and is used as a general deterrent to other whistleblowers stepping forward. Edward would have been imprisoned at any moment in Hong Kong and would have then been turned into the propaganda that if you’re trying to do something important as a whistleblower, your voice will stopped and you’ll be placed in prison in very adverse conditions.

We wanted the opposite. We wanted a general incentive for others to step forward. That’s for philosophical reasons, because we understand the threat of mass surveillance, but it’s also understandable for institutional reasons. WikiLeaks specializes in publishing what whistleblowers reveal and if there’s a chill on sources stepping forward, that’s not good for us as an institution. On the other hand, if people see yes, it’s good for sources to step forward, then there will be more of them.

On full publication versus the sadly limited publication of Snowden files–Edward Snowden hasn’t really had a choice. He has had various views that have shifted over time, but he is in a position where we made sure he had given the documents on him to journalists before he left Hong Kong. Both Edward Snowden and I assessed that it would be a dangerous bait for him to be carrying laptops with NSA material on it, as he transited through Russia to Latin America. That might be something that would cause the Russians to hold him. So he and we made sure he had nothing. Since the point of those initial disclosures, Edward Snowden hasn’t been able to control how his publications have been used.

Edward has been a very important voice in talking about the importance of different aspects of them, but he has had no control. The result is that more than 97% of the Snowden documents have been censored. Enormously important material censored and while there have been some good journalists working on them, and I think Glenn Greenwald is one of the best journalists publishing in the United States, you have to have hundreds of people and engineers working on material like this to understand what is going on.

We have a different position to those media organizations that have effectively privatized and limited that material. You can’t say that the initial publications had all the important docs. There have been more publications slowly as time goes by. Even some within the past two months. Those publications, for example, include ways to find interception sites in the United States used by the NSA. There are covert procedures to visiting those sites. Now, if those had been released in 2013, investigative journalists and individuals could have gone to those sites before there was a physical cover-up. That’s true in the United States and it’s true in Europe and elsewhere. I am sad about how the impact of the Snowden archive has been minimized, as a result of privatizing and censoring nearly all of it.•

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  • For his racist trolling of the first African-American President over his birth certificate, which was based on an “extremely credible source,” Donald Trump deserves every Twitter urine joke splashed his way, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t bizarre for BuzzFeed to release unverified, unsubstantiated documents (though WikiLeaks should really leave the criticism to others). The site certainly was right to have reported on the intel briefings Trump and President Obama received on the matter, but things should have been left there until the rest of the information was corroborated. It’s no surprise that didn’t happen since BuzzFeed isn’t a pillar of journalism but what was offered as a cheap substitute once the towers began foundering. That’s where we are now, and BuzzFeed is hardly the worst of what we’ve got. It’s still nowhere near as egregious as Breitbart, Fox, the National Enquirer, etc.
  • Wouldn’t be surprised if the peeing-on-the-Obama-bed detail originated from the same type of mentality that turned out the Rolling Stone faux UVA rape article, a piece seemingly engineered for maximum outrage. Anything is possible–I mean Trump is sick–but if Russia has recordings of deviant behavior by the President-Elect, I would guess the details are different. How much worse can it be, though, than the sexually predatory abuses we already know about?
  • The potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, however, is a huge deal. From the GOP candidate publicly encouraging the Kremlin to hack the election to the close ties he and and his inner circle have to Putin to the Fisa warrant request to Rudy Giuliani’s cryptic comments about a “pretty big surprise” days before James Comey’s shocking (and baseless) reopening of the FBI investigation into HRC emails, there likely were plenty of machinations to subvert a free election. There always are some degree of shenanigans, but this election was extraordinary by normal standards. It wasn’t business as usual. 

In addition to upsetting journalistic traditions by changing the economy of news, the Internet has proven to abet political tribalism, allowing for narrowcasting and encouraging groups to circle wagons. Amanda Taub’s New York Times piece “The Real Story About Fake News Is Partisanship” looks at these phenomena, though I’ll risk being labeled a partisan by saying that I don’t think there’s exact equivalence on the left and right in this matter. The heartbreaking demagogic appeal to racism and anti-Semitism during this cycle has been almost solely the product of a perversion of the modern GOP. An excerpt:

Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether or not they are true.

“If I’m a rabid Trump voter and I don’t know much about public affairs, and I see something about some scandal about Hillary Clinton’s aides being involved in an assassination attempt, or that story about the pope endorsing Trump, then I’d be inclined to believe it,” Mr. Iyengar said. “This is reinforcing my beliefs about the value of a Trump candidacy.”

And Clinton voters, he said, would be similarly drawn to stories that deride Mr. Trump as a demagogue or a sexual predator.

Sharing those stories on social media is a way to show public support for one’s partisan team — roughly the equivalent of painting your face with team colors on game day.

“You want to show that you’re a good member of your tribe,” Mr. Westwood said. “You want to show others that Republicans are bad or Democrats are bad, and your tribe is good. Social media provides a unique opportunity to publicly declare to the world what your beliefs are and how willing you are to denigrate the opposition and reinforce your own political candidates.”

Partisan bias fuels fake news because people of all partisan stripes are generally quite bad at figuring out what news stories to believe. Instead, they use trust as a shortcut. Rather than evaluate a story directly, people look to see if someone credible believes it, and rely on that person’s judgment to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.•

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Walter Winchell died twice, and there was plenty of room at the second funeral.

The first demise was the radio and newspaper gossip’s public persona, which all but vanished in his later years, when he remarkably outlived what had been an outsize fame, unrivaled in thirties and forties American media. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

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

Prior to writing about Frank SerpicoJoseph Valachi and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, journalist Peter Maas profiled the gossip in the early stages of his decline phase for Collier’s with the 1956 article “Prowling the Night Beat with Walter Winchell.” The opening:

In all the kaleidoscopic years from bootleg liquor to the hydrogen bomb, few figures have been more consistently or controversially both creator and chronicler of news than a fifty-nine-year-old former song-and-dance man named Walter Winchell. Winchell, whose schooling terminated in the sixth grade, has seen his contributions to the language (infanticipating, Chicagorilla) duly noted by H. L. Mencken and included in freshman English textbooks. As the originator of the modem gossip column, he upended journalistic technique. His syndicated commentaries built him a huge national audience, later multiplied by his staccato Sunday-night (215 words a minute) newscasts. This fall he has added another dimension to a phenomenal career as the star of his own TV variety show over NBC.

Winchell’s waking hours, once merely frantic, now approach final chaos. His nightly prowlings about Manhattan are punctuated by the conversational delivery of an animated typewriter. Shortly after seven one recent evening, he strode briskly up Broadway (“the Sappian Way”) to Lindy’s Restaurant, fortified himself against the hours ahead with a chocolate soda, poetically signed a little girl’s menu (“Bread is food / Water is drink / An autograph is just some ink”), described to early dinner arrivals a five-alarm fire (“Oh, did you miss the action!”), acknowledged (“Hello”) the greeting of a former member of Murder, Inc., and an hour later abruptly left with a dozen people yet vying for his ear.

Backstage at a nearby theater, he asked Sammy Davis, Jr., to appear on his TV show, commented on his recent split with Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley (“I think I’ll open Winchell’s Bar and Grill across the street”), dropped into a Broadway music shop as he regularly does to listen to both sides of a Roberta Sherwood record (“She doesn’t want to open an engagement without me”), paused outside to talk to an elderly lady (“1 know you, you’re Mrs. America!”) and then said, as he invariably does at some point in the night, “Let’s go chase the burglars.”

Thus, at ten o’clock, he rolled forth in his car (complete with short-wave receiver) to answer all police and fire calls within striking distance. Along with the mambo, this is his principal mode of relaxation. Most police officers know him by sight now and, if not, his standard introduction, “My name’s Winchell; I’m a reporter,” usually suffices.

At a Signal 30 (crime of violence) this night he arrived simultaneously with the police and pistol in hand (“What am I doing this for? I’m fiftynine years old”) gave chase to a hoodlum—who eventually escaped. Soon thereafter, he attended a political reception where he lectured Tammany bigwig Carmine De Sapio on the shortcomings of the Truman administration. He then left to go to a night club, El Morocco, hastily munched a steak sandwich, whirled through several mambos with Elizabeth Taylor (when she said it was her first dance in five years, he told her, “That’s why marriages break up” ) and invited Deborah Kerr and a 20th Century-Fox executive to ride in the car. Upon depositing Miss Kerr at her hotel at 4:00 A.M., he invited her to appear on his TV show. When 20th Century demurred on the grounds of conflicting films, he later noted, “Now I’ll have to give raves to her next three pictures, good or bad. Because they’ll be saying, watch him pan us.”

Winchell resumed the chase of further police calls until, at dawn, he found himself present at an emergency birth in a tenement house. It was the first he had ever seen and he was moved to report it as a society item: “A bundle of Boy (her 2d) for Mrs. Arcario Otero of W. 22d St. Happy Baby!”

Afterward, he stopped for a cup of cafeteria hot chocolate (“It gives me energy”) and returned to his St. Morilz Hotel duplex apartment. He went directly to his offlce on the second floor, equipped with a bed, an ancient table-model typewriter and heavy beige curtains, ever drawn against the sun. There, he began his next day’s column. He finished the column at 9:0 0 A.M. Then he fell asleep.

WINCHELL APPLIES HIMSELF with equal vehemence to the fate of a Broadway play or the state of the nation. Following a recent newscast, he pointed to a soapbox orator on the street and cracked, “I’m just like him. I’m a rabble rouser too. But I’ve got syndication and a mike.” 

He sees himself first as a reporter. His critics insist that he is irresponsible, and refer to him as “Little Boy Peep.” When he hears such charges. he usually reacts with the disdain of a man who has just heard the cry, “Break up the Yankees!” Although Winchell’s temper flares easily and he is continually on edge, rival columnists, except Ed Sullivan, leave him relatively unruffled and he says of them, “They print it; / make it public.”

He has no leg men as such but a number of contacts supply material they know is of specific interest to him. Otherwise, he collects his items in person or culls them from his immense daily mail. His column is currently carried by 165 papers with an audience estimated at 25,000,000. When the editors of a news weekly asked Winchell how he arrived at this figure, he told them, “I read it in your magazine.” 

Winchell first got the idea for his column when, still a vaudevillian. he produced a gossipy mimeographed sheet about backstage goings on and pinned it to bulletin boards under the heading, “Daily Newsense.” Several years later on the New York Evening Graphic (a tabloid which on a dull day would have a reporter shoot up the editor’s office, call the cops and headline: “Gangland Tries to Intimidate Graphic”), he included a series of his tips, turned down by the city desk, in his regular drama column. By morning, he was the talk of the town. In 1929, Winchell was hired by Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror and immediately syndicated. The first of his regular Sunday-night newscasts began in 1932. They continue today over Mutual and are still preceded by tremendous personal tension. Winchell constantly, although futilely, admonishes himself: “Calm down!”

He is acutely conscious of his power. He is also privy to the enormous draw of gossip and often uses it as a lure to advance his own highly opinionated views on affairs of state and the world. In the 19.30s he shelved his previous disinterest in politics to, as he says, “help a man named F.D.R. win.” Soon after, he plunged with equal force into the international arena “because of two guys named Hitler and Mussolini.” Winchell currently regards himself in the forefront of the fight against Communism and, after a break in diplomatic relations with President Truman, is again a favored White House visitor. Politically, he regards himself as an Independent. “There aren’t any liberals left,” he says. “If there are, I’m one.” Scoffers deny this and charge Winchell is in over his head. They single out his violent defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy as a case in point. He angrily answers, “Who else was fighting the Commies? Name me one!”

Winchell’s volatile nature demands outlets. His cops-and-robbers exploits serve this end as well as giving him some notable scoops. His first such coup took place in 1932 when nightclub hostess Texas Guinan tipped him off that Vincent Coll, the then infamous Mad Dog Killer, was about to get his from rival mobsters. Winchell printed the item forthwith. Per prediction, Coll was mowed down some five hours later.

His most sensational exploit unfolded in 1939 after he had become a friend of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, gangland’s high executioner, had been hunted for two years. He was America’s most wanted criminal and carried a $50,000 tag dead or alive. After a decision to surrender to the FBI, Buchalter’s problem was to get to Hoover alive. Winchell was chosen as go-between. For 20 frustrating days during August, he carried on blind negotiations that apparently led nowhere. Finally, Hoover taunted Winchell to his face (“Here he is, the biggest hotair artist in town”). But the next Sunday night on a deserted Fifth Avenue, Winchell was able to make a memorable introduction: “Mr. Hoover, Mr. Buchalter; Mr. Buchalter, Mr. Hoover.” As it turned out, Winchell lost his scoop; when he breathlessly telephoned his city desk he was brushed off with, “So what, Hitler’s just invaded Danzig.”

Winchell is a man of intense personal loyalties. His association with police and firemen during his nocturnal prowling led him to discover the inadequate death benefits provided their dependents. He promptly crusaded for the Bravest and Finest Fund to provide financial assistance (“The check gets there before the undertaker”). His closest friend was the late Damon Runyon, who rode with him nightly. Just before Runyon died from cancer of the throat, he told Winchell he hoped that one friend would remember him “once a year.” Four nights later, on Winchell’s newscast, he announced the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. “I didn’t know what we’d get,” Winchell recalls. “Maybe fifty thousand, seventy-five tops.” To date, largely through his efforts, $11,500,000 has been raised, with no deducted expenses.

His feuds are equally violent. Although he once championed the Stork Club, he has soured on owner Sherman Billingsley (“I built the place up and III tear it down”). Winchell and Ed Sullivan are long-time foes. The bitterness was renewed when Sullivan publicly announced that Winchell was a “dead duck” after he lost his TV and radio newscasts with the American Broadcasting Company. One of Winchell’s prize possessions is an early letter from Sullivan expressing the hope he could return a Winchell favor with “something equally nice.” “I put it with all my other thank-you notes,” Winchell snaps, “in the ingrate file.”

Of show business, Winchell says, “I never left it.” He is almost universally regarded in the trade as a man whose nod of approbation will lift a hitherto obscure entertainer to stardom. Winchell’s willingness to do battle for a favored cause has produced some spectacular results. Several years ago, he took a unanimous critical flop, Hellzapoppin, under his wing and it wound up one of the eight musicals in Broadway history to run more than 1,000 performances. More recently, he has been plugging forty-three-year-old singer Roberta Sherwood, lifting her from $50 to $5,000 a week in six months.•


Winchell in 1953, mocking that Hollywood elite Dorothy Parker, among others.

Complete assholes can sometimes be useful to society, but Julian Assange is the kind who isn’t.

If the Wikileaks EIC had stated he was openly in favor of a Trump Presidency, his involvement in disseminating stolen emails and apparent Russian ties would still be problems, but at least he would have been coming from an honest place. As someone who’s lectured ad nauseam about transparency and fairness, however, it’s particularly gross to see him do his damndest to tilt a democratic election while claiming impartiality. Bullshit.

Still for some reason being harbored from multiple rape accusations by the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange has just conducted a Reddit AMA. The four submitted questions below are ones I would like to see him address, though, in an larger sense, we already have all the answers we need.


Question:

In 2010, you tweeted about a massive Russian Cache. Within a year, you never mentioned it again, got a Russian Visa and were hired by the Russian Government for their “RT” State Media. What happened to the Russian Cache? Where’s the Russia Leaks?•


Question:

People frequently group you together with Edward Snowden because you’ve both released classified American documents. But your motivations and philospophies couldn’t be more different.

Snowden claims to fight for privacy. He’s called privacy the bedrock of freedom, that one cannot be free without privacy.

You have called privacy obsolete and unsustainable. You’ve said that privacy has noinherent value. You appear to believe privacy and freedom are incompatible, that you cannot be free if others can keep secrets from you. You’ve published the credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical information, and sexual preferences of individuals of zero public interest. Two of your most recent publications are the personal Gmail inboxes of civilians, exactly the sort of thing Snowden has tried to protect.

Can you convince me that you’re right and Snowden’s wrong?•


Question:

I find it hard to believe that you and your organization have no ties to the Russian government and that you were not part of a disinformation campaign to attempt to get Donald Trump elected.

During your staff’s AMA two months ago, one of your staff members stated the following:

We were not publishing with a goal to get any specific candidate elected. We were publishing with the one goal of making the elections as transparent as possible. We published what we received. I know that many media, including the New York Times, did editorially back one candidate over another. We didnt and havent. We would have published on any candidate. We still will if we get the submissions.

If you truly weren’t being objective or had no horse in the race, then why would the Wikileaks Twitter account have a “poll” about Hillary’s health? Or why would your site be selling T-shirts about Bill Clinton “dicking bimbos”. Or maybe you’d like to comment on the Pizza Gate fiasco and the “Spirit Cooking” garbage? This sort of stuff is hardly objective and it’s journalistic hackery at its finest.•


Question:

Your organization has said in their mission statement that “publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people.”

Your organization published personal email exchanges between democratic operatives. Why doesn’t you organization, in the interest of creating a better society for all people, publish all of the personal emails of people who work for your organization?•

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Don’t know if Forbes is correct in reporting that loathsome pisshole Chuck Johnson is consulting with the Trump transition team, but it’s a sign of have far we’ve fallen from grace that such a thing even seems plausible. Any other President-Elect would want to immediately deny it’s so, but the next Administration is every bit the fringe element that Johnson is. The sideshow has been relocated to the center ring.

An excerpt from the late David Carr’s final New York Times column from 2014, a nuanced excoriation–and appreciation, for lack of a better term–of a venomous, irresponsible troll who fancies himself a “citizen journalist” and is, sort of, in our age of destabilized media:

The Internet has given us many glorious things: streaming movies, multiplayer games, real-time information and videos of cats playing the piano. It has also offered up some less edifying creations: web-borne viruses, cybercrime and Charles C. Johnson.

His name came out of nowhere and now seems to be everywhere. When the consumer Internet first unfolded, there was much talk about millions of new voices blooming. Mr. Johnson is one of those flowers. His tactics may have as much in common with ultimate fighting as journalism, but that doesn’t mean he is not part of the conversation.

Mr. Johnson, a 26-year-old blogger based in California, has worked his way to the white-hot center of the controversy over a Rolling Stone article about rape accusations made by a student at the University of Virginia. His instinct that the report was deeply flawed was correct, but he proceeded to threaten on Twitter to expose the student and then later named her. And he serially printed her photo while going after her in personal and public ways.

In the frenzy to discredit her, he published a Facebook photo of someone he said was the same woman at a rally protesting an earlier rape. Oops. Different person. He did correct himself, but the damage, now to two different women, was done. …

After watching him set off a series of small mushroom clouds, it struck me that he might be the ultimate expression of a certain kind of citizen journalism — one far more toxic than we’re accustomed to seeing. Once a promising young conservative voice who wrote for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Caller and The Blaze, Mr. Johnson has a loose-cannon approach that alienated many of his editors. There was a time when that would have been the end of it, but with Twitter as a promotional platform, he has been able to build his own site called GotNews.•

American schoolchildren are taught that Dutch settlers purchased Manhattan island for roughly $24 in costume jewelry. That isn’t exactly so, but even if it were, the Native people would have struck a better bargain than Internet Age denizens have, as we’ve traded content and privacy for a piffling amount of flattery, convenience and connectivity.

Data Capitalism has commodified us in myriad ways, and soon with the Internet of Things, with Alexa listening and toothbrushes and refrigerators “smartened up,” the process will be ambient, almost undetectable. “We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands,” Yuval Noah Harari wrote last year, and we’ve only just begun the process. This is prelude.

It’s possible as we grow more aware of what’s happening we could turn away from this Faustian bargain, as John Thornhill suggests in a Financial Times column, but that would take wisdom and collective will, and it’s not clear we’re in possession of those things.

An excerpt about the underlying importance of “smart” products:

The primary effect of these consumer tech products seems limited — but we will need to pay increasing attention to the secondary consequences of these connected devices. They are just the most visible manifestation of a fundamental transformation that is likely to shape our societies far more than Brexit, Donald Trump or squabbles over the South China Sea. It concerns who collects, owns and uses data.

The subject of data is so antiseptic that it seldom generates excitement. To make it sound sexy, some have described data as the “new oil,” fuelling our digital economies. In reality, it is likely to prove far more significant than that. Data are increasingly determining economic value, reshaping the practice of power and intruding into the innermost areas of our lives.

Some commentators have suggested that this transformation is so profound that we are moving from an era of financial capitalism into one of data capitalism. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari even argues that Dataism, as he calls it, can be compared with the birth of a religion, given the claims of its most fervent disciples to provide universal solutions. 

The speed and scale at which this data revolution is unfolding is certainly striking.•

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The supreme jazz critic and contrarian political commentator Nat Hentoff died on Saturday.

Many aspiring journalists who grew up reading Hentoff wanted to be like him, but the problem was he came of age at a rare time when the stars aligned just so, and the culture and economy supported a smart-as-hell writer who aimed to make a living doing cerebral work that often pissed off fans and detractors alike. It was about pursuing truth, containing multitudes, not playing a role in a noisy, narrowcasted play.

The era of crowded newsrooms and political nuance met its end before Hentoff did, as his longtime venue, The Village Voice, an erstwhile colossus ground down to size by the zeros and ones, laid him off in 2008. The paper birthed by Mailer et al. will never again be what it once was because, let’s face it, the weekly was born of a literary culture now much diminished. There’s great utility in our more democratic media, but it’s okay to mourn what’s been lost. 

Two excerpts follow, a piece from Hentoff’s Associated Press obituary by Hillel Italie and the opening of his great 1980 Voice profile of Merle Haggard.


From the Associated Press:

As a columnist, Hentoff focused tirelessly on the Constitution and what he saw as a bipartisan mission to undermine it. He tallied the crimes of Richard Nixon and labeled President Clinton’s anti-terrorism legislation “an all-out assault on the Bill of Rights.” He even parted from other First Amendment advocates, quitting the American Civil Liberties Union because of the ACLU’s support for speech codes in schools and workplaces.

Left-wing enough to merit an FBI file, an activist from age 15 when he organized a union at a Boston candy chain, Hentoff was deeply opposed to abortion, angering many of his colleagues at the Village Voice and elsewhere. In 2008, he turned against the campaign of Barack Obama over what he regarded as the candidate’s extreme views, including rejection of legislation that would have banned partial birth abortions.

Hentoff was born in 1925, the son of a Russian-Jewish haberdasher. Thrown out of Hebrew school, he flaunted his unbelief, even eating a salami sandwich in front of his house on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of fasting and atonement. In 1982, his opposition to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon led to a trio of rabbis declaring he had been excommunicated.

“I only wished the three rabbis really had the authority to hold that court,” Hentoff later wrote. “I would have told them about my life as a heretic, a tradition I keep precisely because I am a Jew.”•


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Merle Haggard had a rebellious streak.

The deceased musician’s son-of-an-Okie orneriness drove him to shuck off respectability piece by piece: family, school, law and even the Lord Himself. Those outlaw impulses also helped him birth the mutinous Bakersfield sound, which gave a lift to country’s dog-beat blues and later made him breathe fire when slick production forced too much sunlight into the genre. 

From Hentoff’s portrait:

The story is that he has a spider web tattooed on his back. “He did it when he was young and felt trapped,” Bonnie Owens once told the Southern writer and good listener, Paul Hemphill.

Merle Haggard was the child of Okies who had been farmers near Checotah, Oklahoma, not far from the Muskogee. After a disastrous fire, there came a drought, and so Merle’s folks (he hadn’t come on the scene yet) went off to California where, as Jimmie Rodgers sang, “they sleep out every night.”

James Haggard had been a pretty fair fiddler and picker back in Oklahoma; but his wife, Flossie, once her soul took fire in the Church of Christ, banned him from playing the devil’s music. All the more so since another child, Merle, had been born to be reared in a straight line to the Saviour. The Haggards were living in a converted refrigerator car near Bakersfield, California, by then; and James, now a carpenter with the railroad, taught the boy fishing and hunting. But when Merle was nine, his father, as Merle later put it, abandoned him. The interviewer asked if he’d be a little more specific.

“He died,” said Merle.

“Mama Tried,” as Haggard later titled a song, but she failed. She could not control the boy. He ran away a lot; cut school (finally dropping out in the eighth grade); and became quite familiar to the Bakersfield police. When Merle was 14, Flossie put him in a juvenile home, and he escaped the next day. Merle’s police record grew like Pinocchio’s nose–bum checks, petty thievery, a stolen car, armed robbery. Reform schools couldn’t hold him. Seven times he slid out of them. But when he and some of the boys messed up the burglary of a Bakersfield bar (they got drunk waiting for the bar to close), he got sent to a place that could hold him. San Quentin.•

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Much of Sven Hedin’s life was lived in public, but the truth about him is somewhat buried nonetheless, strange for a Swedish explorer who spent his life unearthing the hidden. His expeditions to Central Asia just before and after beginning of the twentieth century introduced the world to invaluable art and artifacts and folkways and cities that had been lost to time.

Hedin was admired for these efforts in all corners of the world, including the one occupied by Adolf Hitler. The geographer perplexingly returned the Führer’s admiration, believing in the Nazi leader’s nationalistic and traditionalist tendencies, which was obviously a catastrophic misjudgement. He was highly critical, however, of the Party’s anti-Semitism. 

These protests brought trouble. Hitler seems to have blackmailed the famed explorer into publishing pro-Nazi tracts by imperiling some of Hedin’s Jewish friends still inside Germany. But it’s difficult to accept that Hedin encouraged Sweden to ally with Germany during WWII to save a few friends or even that he truly believed he could somehow compartmentalize various aspects of the uniformly deviant Third Reich. He just apparently didn’t want to recognize the evil. A disease of the eye caused Hedin to become partially blind in 1940, an apt metaphor for this period of his life.

Long before his political descent, Hedin penned an article for Harper’s about an unusual Tibetan custom in which monks passed their lives in subterranean isolation, a piece reprinted in the September 17, 1908 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The policies favored by the President-Elect and the GOP-controlled Congress will likely cause many Americans to needlessly face harassment, discrimination, financial distress, health problems and, potentially, early death.

That, I fear, is the glass-half-full option.

My darker concern is that we’re headed for some 1930s-style “excitement,” an undermining of liberal governance, a rise of fascism and the simultaneous destabilization of numerous militarized, nativistic countries. That’s when the gloves come off. 

Hopefully we won’t see the realization of such mass chaos, but Peter Turchin, the father of cliodynamics who’s been warning for awhile about the dangers of wealth inequality and other contemporary ills, isn’t sanguine about the immediate future, though he believes with great effort we can keep our “roller coaster” from a steep fall. The opening of his recent Phys.org article:

Cliodynamics is a new “transdisciplinary discipline” that treats history as just another science. Ten years ago I started applying its tools to the society I live in: the United States. What I discovered alarmed me. 

My research showed that about 40 seemingly disparate (but, according to cliodynamics, related) social indicators experienced turning points during the 1970s. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of political turmoil. My model indicated that social instability and political violence would peak in the 2020s (see Political Instability May be a Contributor in the Coming Decade).

The presidential election which we have experienced, unfortunately, confirms this forecast. We seem to be well on track for the 2020s instability peak. And although the election is over, the deep structural forces that brought us the current political crisis have not gone away. If anything, the negative trends seem to be accelerating.

My model tracks a number of factors. Some reflect the developments that have been noticed and extensively discussed: growing income and wealth inequality, stagnating and even declining well-being of most Americans, growing political fragmentation and governmental dysfunction.•

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Questioning expertise is important, but denying its existence suicidal.

The backlash against intellectualism in America began in earnest in the 1980s, and the rise of the Internet provided it with a remarkably powerful engine. Trained sitcom stars being supplanted by talent-free Youtube personalities is one type of a shock to the culture but that same rise-of-the-fan mentality moving into the Oval Office is an existential threat. Like the assault on facts and truth, it undercuts a civilization’s foundation. It’s a revenge of the mediocre, a self-loathing directed outward and one that harms us all.

From “The Death of Expertise,” Tom Nichols’ smart and spirited essay at the Federalist:

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself. Yes, I said “Western civilization”: that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations.

This isn’t just about politics, which would be bad enough. No, it’s worse than that: the perverse effect of the death of expertise is that without real experts, everyone is an expert on everything. To take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine. (Yes, I mean people like Jenny McCarthy..)

In politics, too, the problem has reached ridiculous proportions.•

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Truth can be elusive and facts imprecise, but an earnest pursuit of both is fundamental for the establishment and maintenance of civil society. The assault on enlightenment during the election cycle and since has been a wanton act of nihilism by the latest wave of neo-Nazis and the President-Elect himself.

Just one tool in their kit is to preemptively accuse others of things they are guilty of–an especially easy task for damaged souls given to repressing and projecting–which allows for a wall of confusion to be erected. Once nothing seems sure, anything becomes possible.

One example would be a hatemonger pointing out a mistake in the New York Times, in an attempt to create a false equivalency with Breitbart or some of other white-nationalist propaganda. Except, of course, while the Times or any reasonable publication can be mistaken, the act of being wrong isn’t their mission. It’s an exception, not the rule.

Beyond voting and calling and emailing and marching, something American citizens can do if they fear liberal democracy is now in jeopardy would be to hold every political and public figure accountable if they fail to support noble attempts at truth, if they feed the fog, whether it’s Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker refusing to call out Trump on his plethora of lies or the POETUS trying to obfuscate in regards to Russia’s interference in our free elections.

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An excerpt of Wallace Shawn’s centerpiece speech from 1981’s My Dinner With Andre that presently seems particularly pertinent:

WALLY:

Even if I were to accept the idea that there’s just no way for anybody to have personal happiness now, well, you know, I still couldn’t accept the idea that the way to make life wonderful would be to just totally, you know, reject western civilization and fall back into some kind of belief in some kind of weird something. I mean…I mean, I don’t even know how to begin talking about this, but, do you know…? In the Middle Ages, before the arrival of scientific thinking as we know it today, well, people could believe anything. Anything could be true: the statue of the Virgin Mary could speak, or bleed, or whatever it was. But the wonderful thing that happened was that then in the development of science in the western world, well, certain things did come slowly to be known, and understood. I mean, you know, obviously all ideas in science are constantly being revised; I mean, that’s the whole point. But we do at least know that the universe has some shape, and order, and that, you know, trees do not turn into people, or goddesses. And they’re very good reasons why they don’t, and you can’t just believe absolutely anything!•

Often overlooked in the outrage over the scourge of fake news that proliferated online during the Presidential election is that Fox News has been in basically the same business for 20 years, normalizing bigoted, dangerous, faux reporting long before neo-Nazi trolls took to Twitter and Facebook. Rupert Murdoch’s perversion of journalism is far better positioned than any other American outlet to lend a corporate respectability to such irresponsibility. When you examine the voting numbers, there was a significant bloc of older Caucasians positioned to have a real impact. Do you think they were more influenced by a toad like Bill O’Reilly or by Pepe the Frog?

From “How to Counter Fake News,” Martin J. O’Malley and Peter L. Levin’s Foreign Affairs article:

The scourge of misinformation is as old as language itself, but Internet-fast global manipulation is relatively new. The good news is that there are methods and systems that can help ordinary users discern what’s reliable from what’s invented. Major distribution platforms—from network and cable news to web-based platforms that service billions of users—should move quickly toward sensible solutions that do not censor, but that do provide citizen consumers with a qualitative indication of reliability. Software applications will learn how to do this, much like they already, if imperfectly, catch spam in email.

“Trust but verify” is a serviceable policy framework when there’s plausible reason to trust, and ready means to verify. The erosion of these traditional norms on the Internet scuttles authentic debate on the rocks of superstition, impulse, emotion, and bias. With new public-sector investment and private-sector innovation, we are optimistic that the United States can fight back against fake news and foreign influence in U.S. elections.•

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Politics is a fluid business but never have more Americans learned to swim in unfamiliar waters than over the last year when, for instance, evangelicals accommodated their faith to the white-supremacist stylings of a debauched casino dealer and serial groom.

Sean Hannity likewise had an opportunistic apostasy. Judging by his past remarks about Bill Clinton, the Fox opinion-giver hated accused sexual predators until, that is, he met Donald Trump and Julian Assange, and now it is love sweet love.

Hannity, who previously called for Assange’s arrest, just interviewed the leaker, who’s become a darling of the far-right wing of the GOP, currently the overwhelmingly dominant faction. That he conducted the conversation in support of a President-Elect who trashed our POWs and encouraged Russia to hack our campaign is the U.S.A. reaching a degree of next-level nuttiness. 

Trump has only doubled down on his Putin-pumping comments since the election, trashing the D.C. intelligence community and discouraging hearings on the Kremlin’s machinations in regard to our democracy. Someone with a degree of sense must have cornered him, as the soon-to-be Commander-in-Chief has backed off his troubling statements for the moment, but his stance is established, the damage done and the future clear: The President-Elect will continue to attack truth and facts of all kind because nihilism, not clarity, favors him.

The opening of a well-written Politico piece by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz:

We are through the looking glass now.

The next president of the United States is siding with Julian Assange, a man who wears his anti-Americanism proudly and acts like the textbook definition of a Russian asset, over the U.S. intelligence community – thousands of smart, patriotic people who work long hours for middling pay, some risking their lives to keep the rest of us safe.

I was once one of them, and I can only imagine how my former colleagues are feeling now. Never in our history has a U.S. president openly chosen to trust the word of a foreign adversary ahead of his own analysts.

Never, that is, until Donald Trump—who last night began a series of astonishing tweets expressing skepticism about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia had hacked into Democratic Party institutions.

“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday,” Trump began, “perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” He followed up this morning with some positive vibes about Fox News’ Sean Hannity puff interview with Assange, including this gem: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”

And he’s gotten support or silence from far too many Republican members of Congress, including New York Rep. Peter King, who suggested last month that “some rogue person behind a desk somewhere” had leaked the CIA’s conclusions to influence the Electoral College.

As Trump himself might say, something’s going on here.•

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“Humans are destructive in proportion to their supposition of abundance; if they are faced with an infinite abundance, they will become infinitely destructive,” wrote the poet Wendell Berry. It’s worth wondering if the radical abundance our new tools may permit will be so unevenly distributed that it could be our undoing.

Any jobs that can be handled by humans and machines will be taken over by the latter as soon as they can do the work almost as well and a little more cheaply. Some people will still be required (at least in the short- and medium-term), but anyone who can be replaced will be. That’s how corporations, which are not people, increase production and profits. So, when Amazon quickly grows its force of cutting-edge Kiva robots to 45,000 (only a beginning) and opens cashier-less supermarkets, that’s just progress, in a sense.

You can make an argument that new jobs will be created and we’ll all be upskilled to meet the requirements–no sure thing–but promising there’s a future in, say, manufacturing, which was the case in the U.S. Presidential election, is hugely dishonest. Bigly, even.

In a companion post to the earlier one about San Diego aiming to become “Robot Alley,” I offer an excerpt from Natalie Kitroeff’s smart Los Angeles Times article about Skechers utilizing robotics in California to greatly reduce its reliance on sweat equity. Just one passage: “This entire process used to take 10 workers and several hours to complete. Now, it requires three people and takes less than an hour.” For those toiling in warehouses, that sounds like the other shoe dropping.

The opening:

When Skechers started building a colossal distribution center in Moreno Valley six years ago, backers promised a wave of new jobs.

Instead, by the time the company moved to the Moreno Valley, it had closed five facilities in Ontario that employed 1,200 people and cut its workforce by more than half. Today, spotting a human on the premises can feel like an accomplishment.

There are now only about 550 people working at one cavernous warehouse, which is about as big as two Staples Centers combined. Many of them sit behind computer screens, monitoring the activities of the facility’s true workhorses: robotic machines.

It’s a sign of things to come.

In the last five years, online shopping has produced tens of thousands of new warehouse jobs in California, many of them in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The bulk of them paid blue collar people decent wages to do menial tasks – putting things in boxes and sending them out to the world.

But automated machines and software have been taking up more and more space in the region’s warehouses, and taking over jobs that were once done by humans. Today, fewer jobs are being added, though some of them pay more.•

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San Diego wants to be “Robot Alley,” or at least that’s the ambitious goal of Henrik Christensen, leader of UCSD’s Contextual Robotics Institute. In an excellent San Diego Union-Tribune Q&A conducted by Gary Robbins, the engineer comments on the impact of autonomous vehicles (which he believes are “10, 15 years out”), technological unemployment (“we’ll see significant displacement of taxi drivers, truck drivers”), Universal Basic Income (“in the U.S., that would be a really hard thing”) and robots that learn (“they’re going to use potentially all of the data that’s available about you.”)

On the last topic, Christensen believes machines that know every last detail about us will be especially useful in the care of our graying population, though he realizes this elaborate stream of info can be abused–and it certainly will be, especially in societies that value markets above all else, where people are often thought of as consumers rather than citizens. Are such invasions of privacy more driven by political and economic systems than the technology itself? Will robots be kinder in Sweden?

The opening:

Question:

Automation and robotics are advancing quickly. What impact will this have on employment in the United States?

Henrik Christensen:

We see two trends. We will use robots and automation to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas, primarily from Southeast Asia. At the same time, we will see some jobs get displaced by automation. There will be fully automated, driverless transportation in this country by 2020, and that will eliminate some jobs now held by workers like truck drivers and taxi drivers. 

Question:

Will there be a net increase or decrease in jobs?

Henrik Christensen:

To be honest with you, we don’t know. There was a recent study on this by the National Academies, but there wasn’t enough good data to make it clear what the outcome will be. We do see a lot of change occurring. Amazon is printing books at its local distribution centers, then sending them on to customers. They print the book, put a cover on it, and off it goes. That cuts down on transportation jobs and costs. 

Question:

Are you saying that Amazon is just beginning to do this?

Henrik Christensen:

It’s happening today. This program has been in existence for more than a year. The last estimate I heard was that 65 percent of the books Amazon delivers are printed in its local distribution centers. Amazon wants to do (widespread) deliveries of groceries, too.

Question:

But doesn’t this assume that the technology of driverless vehicles is much further along than it actually is?

Henrik Christensen:

My own prediction is that kids born today will never get to drive a car. Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15 years out. All the automotive companies — Daimler, GM, Ford — are saying that within five years they will have autonomous, driverless cars on the road.•

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Jared Kushner’s role in the political rise of his Ku Klux Kardashian father-in-law is as puzzling as it is frightening.

Can he truly be oblivious of the neo-Nazi demons he’s helped unloose? THEY do not really like him and his family. Is he cognizant but believes these hatemongers can be used and controlled the way “family values” folks were by Newt and Rove during the nineties and aughts? What’s been activated, mainstreamed and normalized during this disgraceful campaign season won’t be easily managed.  

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The impending Presidency of a tweeting, vainglorious incompetent is so unsettling that many Americans are now wistful for the good old days of a gentlemanly war criminal like George W. Bush and the relatively liberal Richard Nixon (though we were just reminded of the blood he had on his hands). The next Administration won’t be pretty, there will be no moderating and the most hopeful outcome is that a kleptocrat bleeds dry citizens who were already running a quart low. The more upsetting possibilities include 240 years of U.S. liberal governance being flushed down the vortex or this latter-day Bishop Coughlin deciding to nuke a nation he sees as a pawn. “Unspeakable things,” will happen, he promised. Believe him.

From John Cassidy at the New Yorker

To be sure, other men who were ill-qualified, ethically challenged, or potentially unhinged have occupied the Oval Office during the Republic’s long history. John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, two mid-nineteenth-century Whigs, are often cited in the first category. During the nineteen-twenties, Warren G. Harding brought the stench of corruption right into the West Wing, where he played poker with his cronies from Ohio, some of whom were busy enriching themselves at federal expense. And, when it comes to addled Presidents, we have the accounts that have been handed down of Richard Nixon as the Watergate scandal reached its climax—brooding, cursing, drinking heavily, driven to the edge of madness.

But historical comparisons to Trump only go so far. Tyler and Fillmore, the tenth and thirteenth Presidents, were both experienced politicians who were serving as Vice-Presidents when their bosses died. (Tyler had been the governor of Virginia and also represented the state in the U.S. Senate. Fillmore was a former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.) Although Harding’s name will forever be associated with the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved the secret leasing out of federal oil reserves, he wasn’t accused of lining his own pockets. Nixon, a Shakespearian figure racked by personal insecurities, was also an intelligent man blessed with great powers of concentration. According to Arthur Burns, the economist he appointed to head the Federal Reserve, Nixon could have “held down a chair in political science or law in any of our major universities.”

Trump, then, is sui generisHe has no experience in elected office—in these demented times, that was part of his popular appeal. His reputation as a hugely successful businessman has little basis in fact, as does his claim of being worth ten billion dollars. Until he launched his Presidential campaign, in which he showed some genuine skill as a rabble-rouser, his talents had lain in attracting other people’s money, promoting himself in the media, and playing a role on reality television—the role of Donald Trump, the great dealmaker.•

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I am the whitest white boy imaginable. A really pasty fuck. My head is like a gigantic ball of cotton. When I hiccup, tiny marshmallows fall out of my mouth. And I’m male and straight and check off every other mainstream box America’s got.

That doesn’t stop Twitter Nazis from sometimes assailing me with hate speech, throwing the n-word in my direction to bait me. I block and report them, but even if they lose their account, they can instantly and anonymously start a hundred more.

Why would I want to spend time batting away evil sociopaths when I can be speaking to nice people or reading a book or exercising? And if my Caucasian, male self is on the receiving end of such nastiness, imagine how those who identify differently are pursued by these bigoted trolls.

That’s sad because I’ve also used Twitter to communicate with lots of bright folks I never would have met and to recommend really smart pieces of journalism. Still, like most non-insane people who use the social-media service, I think every day about deactivating my account. I’m sure I eventually will.

In an excellent Guardian piece, Lindy West explains she didn’t deactivate because of “trolls, robots and dictators” but due to Twitter’s negligence in countering them. It’s an oversight, the writer believes, that allowed for the “perfecting” of mass hatred. An excerpt:

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

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In 1987, Omni invited Robert Heilbroner to speculate on the U.S. and global economy in 2007. Ten years after his target date, many of his predictions still ring true.

The economist was prescient about income inequality, the creative disruption of technology and the threats to American exceptionalism. He was also aware that a new superpower might emerge, though he believed it would be Japan, not China.

Heilbroner also foresaw the race to the bottom that was the McJob before Douglas Coupland coined that term, writing, “These industries [steel and automotive] have been seriously imperiled, and their place as employers has been replaced by what I call the McDonald’s employers. More people work for McDonald’s than work for U.S. Steel, but McDonald’s has no ladders. The problem is serious.”

His forecast:

There is an alarming possibility that our economy is moving in the direction of what some people call a two-tier society — a large population of people with middle-class or higher incomes and values, with a considerable bulge at the top. and a large number of people who have been economically and culturally uncoupled from the main society.

What’s most alarming is that the ladder that has connected the bottom to the top is now missing some important rungs. There were certain industries, like the steel and auto industries, that provided more or less continuous ladders of jobs from the bottom to the top. You could enter as an unskilled person, acquire new skills, and move up the ladder to secure, unionized, better-paying jobs. But now these industries have been seriously imperiled, and their place as employers has been replaced by what I call the McDonald’s employers. More people work for McDonald’s than work for U.S. Steel, but McDonald’s has no ladders. The problem is serious.

A great many economists, myself included, feel uneasy about the fact that 70 percent ol the economy does what is called service work and only 30 percent does what is called goods-related work. New technology keeps entering the economy and disrupting employment. When you look back at how the American economy developed, you see a migration off the farm into the factory and out of the factory into the office. The main push has come from technology. There has been relatively little new machinery to push people out of the office, but that’s changing now. If the computer creates jobs in the office, the service sector will increase and there will be no squeezing of employment. But if technology bumps service people out of work, I don’t know where they are going to go.

Personally. I think American optimism is in for a very severe challenge. We have always considered ourselves virtually to have a right to be number one in the world. But of course we don’t have any such right or assurance. And we have to resign ourselves to the unsettling fact that we are number two, or three, or four in many ways. In terms of health, for instance, we have fallen seriously behind, and that’s a big blow to our self-image.

In the next 20 years the government will have to take active steps in providing work and income tor the bottom one third of the population. The government grudgingly provides some sort of income, but it doesn’t provide work. And work is essential for people’s self-esteem and also for the building of many kinds of infrastructures that are needed in the country.

It is quite possible, it seems to me, that America will emerge from its present, wholly unaccustomed struggle for world position very worse off than it is today; that we will not find the right combination of talents and the right distribution of workforce in various occupations; that we will not develop the right technologies and will end up with a seriously disadvantaged economy. Not so long ago England was still regarded as one of Ihe most remarkable economies in the world, but it is now slightly less productive than Portugal. I think it is quite possible that the day of unquestioned American preeminence may be finished.

We could suddenly find that the way Americans live, their chances for life expectancy, their amenities of life are not as. good as, let’s just say, the Germans’ or the Swedes’. We might fail to produce the necessary output to bring our living standards and quality of life up to an acceptable level.

In the old days we tended to think about political possibilities in terms of left and right. Since Iran we’ve realized there is another dimension “up and down.” There is potential for a great deal of political mischief and sabotage in “underdeveloped” countries, and anyone who tries to think about the future has to consider that. There is going to be lots of trouble.

It is clear which countries are emerging as economic powers. It is entirely possible that Japan is going to be the England of the future — I mean the 1850’s England. Japan may be the organizer for a “Pacific Rim” economy — as England was for Europe a century ago. Japan may combine its leadership and technology with the inexpensive manpower and the intelligence of the Chinese, the Malaysians, the Taiwanese, the Indians, the Koreans. It is quite possible that there will be a new world economic “empire” out there, which will severely challenge the formerly undisputed hegemony of the West. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, as far as I can see, will continue to be very bureaucratic and will be very unlikely to make any economic changes.

Sooner or later this terrific debt problem has to be resolved, and there is only one possible way to resolve it, and that is to “forget” it. The debt is unrepayable, and it is going to be swallowed by a number of people taking their lumps— banks, corporations, and governments. And some of the borrowers will have to swallow bitter pills. The decks have to be cleared. I suspect that under international agreements the old debts are going to be washed away, forgiven, or rephased — such wonderful jargon words!

I think everyone recognizes now that the achievement of a better world is more complicated and difficult than some of us thought 20 years ago.•

The French doctor-cum-novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline was always among the most troubling of artists, a brilliant writer and ardent anti-Semite. During the second half of the twentieth century, after the Nazis had been ground into dust, it was less a problem to embrace his brilliance. “Celine was my Proust!” exclaimed Philip Roth. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller agreed.

The author’s thorns have sadly again grown as pointy as daggers in this neo-Nazi 2.0 moment, with his old interviews being re-run on viciously bigoted websites with Hitler-appropriate names. His greatness shouldn’t be denied, but his awfulness shouldn’t be forgotten.

In the 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle review of Journey to the End of the Night, his bruising, misanthropic war novel, George Currie writes of the rare level of fascination and controversy the book provoked in France.


A spectral, dissipated Céline cries during a 1957 TV interview. The following year, desperate for money as he always seemed to be, the author reluctantly allowed a re-issue of Journey, penning a preface in which he suggested the book’s graphic nature was the sole reason for the enmity he encountered, not at all acknowledging the role his numerous anti-Semitic tracts played.

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No one won the 2016 American Presidential election. Not really.

I don’t mean in a figurative sense that we all lose because a fascist kleptocrat will soon be in the Oval Office, though, yes, of course, there’s that. I’m saying that not only did most of the people vote for the losing candidate, but even those who chose Trump aren’t in favor of GOP policies.

Apart from his most blindly enthusiastic supporters, few Americans are deluded about Trump, even those who pulled the pin with his name. They do not like him. He was used as a blunt instrument, a brick to toss through the window, a way to send a message that a corrupt and broken system must immediately be repaired. The Republicans now seem to have forgotten that they’re inside that building and that the approval ratings of this congress are at historic lows. Because they are avaricious opportunists, they likely will not notice that the whole thing is apt to be burned down if the cries are ignored. Trump, as miscast as may have been as a messenger for the disgruntled, working-class masses, was the final warning.

It’s a message that will almost definitely go unheeded. Republicans believe Americans want Obamacare repealed (they don’t), Medicare gutted (no, again), Social Security privatized (nope), unions demolished (wait a minute) and tax cuts for the highest earners (um, what?). Mitch McConnell, a creature from the black lagoon, is convinced citizens don’t really want the swamp drained, blithely unaware there may be a meat hook with his name on it.

Those who most feel like they’re bleeding are about to be bled dry. I’m not suggesting supporters of the orange supremacist deserve a whole lot of pity. I mean, I would play the world’s smallest violin for them, but the GOP just cut the school music program.

I’m really not joking, though. The GOP’s complete misunderstanding of the moment may provoke very bad things, “unspeakable things” in the President-Elect’s reckless lingo. People have tired of bread and Kardashians, and some sort of breaking point feels near. Even a good agnostic like myself can say “God help us all.”

The opening of “House GOP Guts Ethics Panel,” Deirdre Walsh and Daniella Diaz’s CNN report:

Washington (CNN) — House Republicans voted 119-74 Monday night in favor of a proposal that would gut Congress’ outside ethics watchdog and remove its independence.

Republican Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s proposal would place the independent Office of Congressional Ethics — an initial watchdog for House members but without power to punish members — under oversight of those very lawmakers.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and other top GOP leaders opposed the change to ethics rules, but rank-and-file members disregarded their views and voted to approve the new structure for ethics reviews going forward, according to a senior House GOP leadership source familiar with the closed door discussion.

The proposal would bar the panel from reviewing any violation of criminal law by members of Congress, requiring that it turn over any complaint to the House Ethics Committee or refer the matter to an appropriate federal law enforcement agency. The House Ethics Committee would also have the power to stop an investigation at any point and bars the ethics office from making any public statements about any matters or hiring any communications staff.

And the ethics office would no longer be able to accept or investigate any anonymous reports of alleged wrongdoing by members of Congress.•

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Had time during the New Year’s break to read eight books. That always makes me feel happy. Included among the titles were Annie Baker’s 2013 play, The Flick, which is about the million tiny muggings that occur among otherwise decent people when technology shifts, money grows scarce and lines are drawn; Zero K, an interesting if not top-shelf DeLillo, though it’s awfully difficult for a prophet in these breakneck days; and Henry Miller’s 1940s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, in which the expat author returns to his native land to occasionally admire the beauty but to mostly spit on the dirt. 

I really enjoyed the latter title, except for the author’s boneheaded appreciation for great things that a slave culture can produce. Nightmare, a bookend to his later nonfiction tour de force Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, is perhaps best known for its piece about Weeks Hall’s New Iberia mansion, Shadows-on-the-Teche, but I’m partial to “A Desert Rat,” “With Edgard Varèse in the Gobi Desert” and “Hiler and His Murals.” 

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 Varèse chapter:

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?•

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Apart from nearly 63 million American voters, everyone knows manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. 

Our President-Elect has threatened to repatriate industries outsourced in the last few decades, particularly those lost to China, seemingly blissfully unaware that reshoring during a time of increasing automation will make for diminishing returns. 

As John Lyons of the Wall Street Journal reports, manufacturers in Shenzhen can barely muster a collective shrug over Trump’s threats to tariff the U.S. back to greatness. They don’t think the work is going anywhere, except perhaps to neighboring provinces with cheaper labor or, eventually, into the robotic arms of machines.

An excerpt:

Mr. Trump is using coercion and enticement to get firms to manufacture in the U.S. During the campaign, he vowed to get Apple to “build their damn computers and things” in America. This month, Apple supplier Foxconn said it may expand operations in the U.S.

But it remains unclear what operations or how many jobs such a move would generate. The other trend under way at Foxconn is a shift to more-automated factories using cost-saving robots. Foxconn declined to comment on its specific customers and plans.

“If these jobs come back to the U.S. they are going to be for people who manage 1,000 robots in an automated factory,” said Christopher Balding, a finance professor at Peking University in Shenzhen. “It will be jobs for computer nerds, not the people who voted for Trump.”•

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Angus Deaton is cognizant that it’s absurd for a Princeton economist who’s been knighted by the Queen of England to lecture the “elites,” but he can’t help himself. Hardly anyone can these days.

Over several courses of fine food, he tells Shawn Donnan of the Financial Times about spending his summers trout fishing in Montana, retiring on Nobel Prize money and, oh, about those damned elites!

Okay, I’ll now stop being a smart ass. Deaton seems like a lovely, concerned person as does his wife and fellow economist, Anne Case. The couple famously collaborated on 2015 paper which revealed a shocking spike in the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans. In my original post about the findings, I wondered how significant a role the opioid epidemic played in this stunning development. During his interview with Donnan, Deaton considers the same question.

An excerpt:

Deaton retired from his position at Princeton in the spring but he and Case are continuing to dig into the data. Since the election others have seized on the correlation between places with high white mortality rates and votes for Trump. But the link to those who report suffering from physical pain is even greater, Deaton says. He sees an epidemic of pain and a related flood of opioids into communities over the past decade as being, more than globalisation or economic dislocation, the real cause of rising mortality among middle-aged white Americans.

With Gallup’s help he has been collecting data on how many people report having felt physical pain in the past 24 hours and says the numbers are staggering in the US. What is causing that epidemic — and its links to Trump’s rise — remains unclear, he says. He seems more willing to blame pharmaceutical companies and doctors for overprescribing opioids. A surge in addiction (drug overdoses caused more deaths in the US last year than auto accidents) has, he argues, proved far more fatal than globalisation.

***

Deaton’s 2013 book The Great Escape argued that the world we live in today is healthier and wealthier than it would otherwise have been, thanks to centuries of economic integration. He sees efforts to blame globalisation for woes in the US Rust Belt or Britain’s beleaguered industrial areas as a mistake.

“Globalisation for me seems to be not first-order harm and I find it very hard not to think about the billion people who have been dragged out of poverty as a result,” he says. “I don’t think that globalisation is anywhere near the threat that robots are.” …

In his book, Deaton argues there is an inextricable link between progress and inequality and his views on wealth and innovation are complicated by that. “It’s hard to think that Mark Zuckerberg is actually impoverishing anyone by getting rich with Facebook,” he tells me. “But driverless cars are another matter entirely,” with millions of truck and other drivers likely to lose jobs.•

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“Progress isn’t always a straight line,” exclaimed President Obama in the wake of our stunning election, clinging as best he could to the audacious hope that’s always floated him in the past. 

True enough, but two things: 1) Progress isn’t at all guaranteed, not in a jagged course or in any other manner, and 2) During periods of regress, awful things can occur. We seem to be in one of those backwards times now.

From the conclusion of World War II to the day of the 9/11 attacks, Americans had the luxury of exporting violence abroad and controlling and commodifying it at home, with video games and big-screen blockbusters providing blood-soaked entertainment to go with the overpriced popcorn. With the nuclear codes and the Constitution now in the pocket of a man who’s promised to do “unspeakable things,” the gloves might come off and the “games” may begin.

Following up on the Guardian essay Ece Temelkuran penned about the post-truth threat to Europe and America, here’s a piece from a recent Culture Trip Q&A that Simon Leser conducted with the Turkish author:

Question:

Years of repression, an attempted coup, and now an unprecedented crackdown… and all this time the main opposition party (the social-democratic CHP) seems very silent. Two of its most prominent members, Gürsel Tekin and Sezgin Tanrıkulu, came to London last January, and they seemed particularly defeated… to say the least.

Ece Temelkuran:

Yes, this is what they do. I mean, they politely ask the Turkish government to release all those detainees (laughs)… Erdoğan is a brilliant politician, and I mean it, he paralyzed every section of the opposition in just a few years, so I wouldn’t blame the CHP really for not doing enough. The CHP have their own difficult experiences.

For the past 10 years the same thing has been happening to the Turkish intelligentsia and the opposition: They go on TV, say, talking about something, criticizing something — doesn’t matter what — and all of a sudden this AKP guy brings up a completely different subject. For instance: ‘so what are you going to say about your support for the previous coup?’ The answer, of course, is that the conversation isn’t about that. But then the AKP guy goes again: ‘because you don’t want to’. And at some point the presenters turn around, and you have to ask: so are we going to talk about that, change the whole conversation for it? This is extremely ruffling. The opposition has to be on the defensive. This is how they manipulate, and all you’re left with is to ask yourself… what’s happening?

Question:

This sounds similar to the political rhetoric many Western countries have started to see — ’post-truth politics’, as it’s called here. In your book you talk a lot about history being forgotten, is that how you think it got started?

Ece Temelkuran:

I should say that I really think neo-liberalism, at the end of the day, stupefied the whole planet — and this is what you get if you worry about free-market democracy, and only free-market democracy. If the Turkish story goes back to the 1970s, the whole mess for the world started in the 1950s, I think, when they thought it was a brilliant idea to kill all the progressives in the Middle East and Africa. We ended up with all these conservative, right-wing, ignorant masses… You see, progressives weren’t only there to promote socialism, as everybody feared, but they were also the seculars and, as it turns out, the pro-reason faction! Now we’re left with post-truth and post-reason.

Progressives are on the retreat everywhere; intellect is pretty much a failing narrative, and has itself been disappointing. I read this article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about Voltaire and Rousseau, and it was saying that Voltaire has been defeated by history, whereas Rousseau, who was in a way against elites, is now on the rise. The world is going to be witnessing this anti-elite political discourse much more. And we are seeing the consequences: a gigantic sweeping motion going from south to north, and the European Union countries — Britain as well — experiencing the consequences of the Syrian and refugee crisis; the idea of a uniform world, unipolar world, is not working. But I think it’s kind of too late — I am famous for my pessimism, by the way. I do think that we’re going to be living in a Mad Max kind of world with less, you know, style (laughs).•

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Gillian Tett of the Financial Times wonders whether the perplexing elevation of an unqualified orange supremacist to the Oval Office could accelerate the loss of jobs to machines in our technological age, a mass outsourcing not beyond borders but beyond species. A fair concern, though not my main one.

First there’s the possible end of 240 years of American democracy to fascism, not an impossible outcome. Also there’s potential for nuclear war, worsening climate change, shredding of the Constitution, establishment of Muslim registries, harassment of undocumented workers, and an assault on women’s health from a seeming sociopath whose early moves suggest he wants to leave them bleeding from the wherever.

But Tett makes good points in the area she investigates, suggesting that perhaps automation will lead to a freestyle-chess-tandem arrangement between humans and computers, creating more and better jobs–unless policy disturbs that process. Certainly that was the result of the Industrial Age, though I’m not convinced past is prologue in this case. The cooperation between carbon and silicon workers may be provisional, with computers ultimately relieving us of too many of our duties in too brief a period of time.

Then again, I just spent 15 frustrating minutes navigating an automated customer-service phone system which was dumb as a rock. Maybe there’s hope for us yet?

An excerpt:

Consider the findings of Benjamin Shestakofsky, an anthropologist who spent 19 months inside a California company that uses digital technologies to connect buyers and sellers of domestic services. Mr Shestakovsky initially assumed that his research would show how machines were replacing human workers. When he did grassroots analysis he realised that the company was growing so fast, with such big and complex computing systems, that it was constantly drafting more humans — not robots — to monitor, manage and interpret the data. “Software automation can substitute for labour but it also creates new human-machine complementaries,” he told an American Anthropological Association meeting recently, noting that companies “are creating new types of jobs”.

Shreeharsh Kelkar, another anthropologist, saw the same pattern in the education world. Until recently it was presumed that the rise of digital teaching tools would make human teachers less important. But watching educators in action, Mr Kelkar found that human teachers are working with these digital tools to be more efficient. The issue is not that computers are automating jobs away, he says, but that “assemblages of humans and computers are emerging”.

An obvious response is that it is far from clear whether these anecdotes are typical, nor does anyone know whether these new “assemblages” of human and machine will create enough jobs to offset those lost to automation. In addition, new digitised jobs may seem less attractive than the old roles since they are often structured as “contingent work”, with self-employed workers who provide services on demand.

Still, the findings of the anthropologists should not be ignored.•

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