Prone as we are to expecting what has happened before to come around again, the shock of the new often causes us to frame outliers with narratives, to assign order to what disturbs us. 

While Brexit and Trump’s election would make for great fictional plot twists in novels sold at airports, they’re so deeply upsetting to many among us and such a threat to global order that these events have been suggested by some as evidence that we exist inside a computer simulation written by future humans testing our mettle, a theory spread widely by Elon Musk in recent years, fueled by his Bostrom bender. Even the recent Oscar snafu was peddled as proof of the same.

None of these occurrences proves anything, of course. Statistically, the unusual and unpleasant is bound to happen sometimes. A “cancer cluster” is occasionally just a natural and random spike, not the result of locals tasting tainted drinking water. A sad-sack sports team on a winning streak can likewise be arbitrary noise. Not everything is a conspiracy, not everything evidence.

Political Theory professor Michael Frazer’s Conversation article “Do Brexit and Trump Show That We’re Living in a Computer Simulation? neatly outlines philosopher Nick Bostrom’s reasons for believing we exist inside a sort of video game controlled by others:

“Either humanity goes extinct before developing the technology to make universe simulations possible. Or advanced civilisations freely choose not to run such simulations. Or we are probably living in a simulation.”

Of course, all of those options rely on us having incredibly distant “descendants,” something those in the simulated-universe camp seem to blithely accept without any proof. Today’s academics may create counterfactuals on historical epochs, but they possess good evidence we have ancestors. Descendants living in a far-flung future building a narrative from us seems more like our own narrative.

Some have argued that superior humans of tomorrow wouldn’t be so unethical as to create a universe of pain and calamity, as if intelligence and morality are always linked. (Just consider a “genius” of today like Peter Thiel as a reference point on that one.) Frazer makes a compelling case, however, that if a future world exists, it’s probably not populated by code-friendly tormentors. As he asserts, great immorality mixing with unimaginable technology would likely be too toxic a combination for these people of tomorrow to have survived.

The opening:

Recent political events have turned the world upside down. The UK voting for Brexit and the US electing Donald Trump as president were unthinkable 18 months ago. In fact, they’re so extraordinary that some have questioned whether they might not be an indication that we’re actually living in some kind of computer simulation or alien experiment.

These unexpected events could be experiments to see how our political systems cope under stress. Or they could be cruel jokes made at our expense by our alien zookeepers. Or maybe they’re just glitches in the system that were never meant to happen. Perhaps the recent mix-up at the Oscars or the unlikely victories of Leicester City in the English Premier League or the New England Patriots in the Superbowl are similar glitches.

The problem with using these difficult political events as evidence that our world is a simulation is how unethical such a scenario would be. If there really were a robot or alien power that was intelligent enough to control all our lives in this way, there’s a good chance they’d have developed the moral sense not to do so.•

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In a Guardian article, Andrew Anthony writes that Yuval Noah Harari is a “historian of the distant past and the near future,” an apt description. The Israeli may be the least likely public figure to come to prominence this decade, a deeply cerebral academic in an age when intellectualism and higher education are often perplexingly scorned.

Of course, in their own moments Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould were also unlikely celebrities. The common bond they all shared: an ability to relate vivid narratives, which is an especially appropriate skill as it refers to Harari, who believes a penchant for storytelling and processing abstract thoughts is what made our species predominant among humans and all other creatures.

Anthony collected questions from notable public figures and readers to pose to Harari. A few of the exchanges follow.


Helen Czerski, physicist

We are living through a fantastically rapid globalisation. Will there be one global culture in the future or will we maintain some sort of deliberate artificial tribal groupings?

Yuval Noah Harari:

I’m not sure if it will be deliberate but I do think we’ll probably have just one system, and in this sense we’ll have just one civilisation. In a way this is already the case. All over the world the political system of the state is roughly identical. All over the world capitalism is the dominant economic system, and all over the world the scientific method or worldview is the basic worldview through which people understand nature, disease, biology, physics and so forth. There are no longer any fundamental civilisational differences.

· · ·

Lucy Prebble, playwright

What is the biggest misconception humanity has about itself?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Maybe it is that by gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesn’t seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age.

· · ·

TheWatchingPlace, posted online:

Is there a real possibility that environmental degradation will halt technological progress?

Yuval Noah Harari:

I think it will be just the opposite – that, as the ecological crisis intensifies, the pressure for technological development will increase, not decrease. I think that the ecological crisis in the 21st century will be analogous to the two world wars in the 20th century in serving to accelerate technological progress.

As long as things are OK, people would be very careful in developing or experimenting in genetic engineering on humans or giving artificial intelligence control of weapon systems. But if you have a serious crisis, caused for example by ecological degradation, then people will be tempted to try all kinds of high-risk, high-gain technologies in the hope of solving the problem, and you’ll have something like the Manhattan Project in the second world war.

· · ·

Andrew Anthony:

You live in a part of the world that has been shaped by religious fictions. Which do you think will happen first – that Homo sapiens leave behind religious fiction or the Israel-Palestine conflict will be resolved?

Yuvan Noah Harari:

As things look at present, it seems that Homo sapiens will disappear before the Israeli political conflict will be resolved. I think that Homo sapiens as we know them will probably disappear within a century or so, not destroyed by killer robots or things like that, but changed and upgraded with biotechnology and artificial intelligence into something else, into something different. The timescale for that kind of change is maybe a century. And it’s quite likely that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be resolved by that time. But it will definitely be influenced by it.•

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There is no honor among thieves, especially kleptocrats.

If memory serves, Ian Frazier in Travels in Siberia shared a theory that the brutality inflicted by the Mongols on the inhabitants of the Kievan Rus’ in the thirteenth century turned Russians into abused children whose deep wounds have caused them to act out in a serial destructive fashion as adults, continually relapsing into aberrant behavior. 

That’s probably not so, neat theory though it is. One way or another, however, Russia is ruled by swaggering, infantile Kremlin machismo, which is now mirrored by the White House, home (at least most weekdays) to America’s own problem child, Donald Trump. Russia may have initially thought it had an ace in the hole aboard Air Force One, especially when Mike Flynn was drinking a cup of кофе as National Security Adviser, but the media, much of it under Vladimir Putin’s thumb, has since turned on Trump. If these two volatile crackpots and their minions end up forming a circular firing squad, we may all be caught in the crossfire.

From Susan B. Glasser’s Politico Magazine interview with veteran Putin reporter Masha Gessen:

Susan B. Glasser:

What should we expect next? What are the scenarios that keep you up at night with your imagination?

Masha Gessen:

Oh, the nuclear holocaust is my primary worry. But—

Susan B. Glasser:

You know, why—cut straight to the big stuff. You know, never mind the littler crises. Any particular nuclear scenario?

Masha Gessen:

I’m worried about Russia. I’m—this is—I mean, we’re already out of the honeymoon phase, and it’s been less than two months. And I think it’s—I mean, the danger of having these two unhinged power-hungry men at their—respective nuclear buttons cannot be overestimated. But—

Susan B. Glasser:

So you would see them as potential enemies as much as potential friends? That this scenario—

Masha Gessen:

Oh, absolutely.

Susan B. Glasser:

—we should worry about is Trump versus Putin, not just Trump and Putin uniting?

Masha Gessen:

Right. I’m actually worried about a collision with them.

Susan B. Glasser:

Yes.

Masha Gessen:

The Trump/Putin collision. But, you know, as useful as I think it has been for me to think back to the early Putin days, and the middle Putin days, [LAUGHS] to understand what’s happening here, there are some huge differences, right? And one difference, weirdly, is just how fast Trump is moving, right?•

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Nature is a necessary evil, and humans are a mixed blessing. That’s my credo. Hopeful, huh?

Five years ago, when this blog was something other than what it is today (though I don’t really know what it is now, either), I use to run an occasional post called “5 Things About Us Future People Won’t Believe.” In these short pieces, carnivorism, internal gestation, factory work, invasive surgery and prisons were my suggestions for elements of today’s society that would brand us as “backwards” by tomorrow’s standards. I didn’t mention anything obvious like warfare because the “enlightened” of the future will still participate in such tribalism, even if the nature of the battle changes markedly. 

In a similar vein, Matt Chessen has published “The Future Called: We’re Disgusting And Barbaric,” a Backchannel piece that hits on some of same predictions I made but also has some very interesting topics I didn’t touch at all. One item:

Tolerating homes and bodies infested with critters

Right now, there are hundreds of millions of insects living on your body and in your home. Tiny dust mites inhabit your mattress, your pillow, your carpeting, and your body, regardless of how clean everything is. Microscopic demodex mites live in the follicles of your eyelashes and prowl your face at night. And this doesn’t even consider the trillions of bacteria and parasites that live inside us. Our bodies are like planets, full of life that is not us.

Future folk will be thoroughly disgusted. They will have nanotechnology antibodies — tiny machines that patrol our homes and skin, hoovering up dust mite food (our skin flakes) and exterminating the little suckers. They can’t completely eliminate all the insects and bacteria — human beings have developed a symbiosis with them; we need bacteria to do things like digest food—but the nanobots will police this flora, keeping it within healthy bounds and eliminating any micro-infestations or infections that grow out of control.

And forget about infestations by critters like cockroaches. Nanobots will exterminate larger household pests en masse. The real terminators of the future wont wreck havoc on humanity: They’ll massacre our unwanted insect houseguests.•

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Was reading the New York Times and noticed an obituary for “Mother Divine,” the name bestowed upon Edna Rose Ritchings when, in 1946, she became the second wife of Father Divine, a diminutive, charismatic African-American cult leader five decades her senior, who believed she was reincarnation of his first wife who’d died three years earlier. Many watchers of his International Peace Mission, which was known for promoting racial equality, performing charitable works and the leader’s insistence that he was God, believed the marriage by the preacher to a young white woman in that era would be the ruination of the Northeastern community, but the potentate promised the union would be a platonic one, which it probably was since one of the group’s beliefs was chastity, so the dust settled quickly. “God” died, however, in 1965, and it was up to his spouse to keep the faith. Her most notable moment as leader was probably the six-year gamesmanship she successfully waged against the Reverend Jim Jones, who tried unsuccessfully to steal her followers.

From the NYT obit by William Grimes:

Mother Divine was a mysterious figure. Little is known about her early life. She was born Edna Rose Ritchings on April 4, 1925, in Vancouver, where her father, Charles, ran the Strathcona Floral Company, a nursery and flower shop. Her mother was the former Mabel Farr.

At 15, she became fascinated by Father Divine and his religion, which preached a gospel of self-help, abstinence, economic independence and social equality. By providing cheap meals and social services during the Depression, he attracted a large following in Harlem, where he maintained his headquarters, and through his many missions, known as heavens, elsewhere in the United States.

The revelation came to her, she wrote in Ebony magazine in 1950, “that Father Divine is God Almighty personified in a beautiful, holy body.”

According to Sara Harris, the author of Father Divine: Holy Husband (1953), Edna Rose left home for Montreal, where she moved in with a family of Father Divine’s disciples, took the name Sweet Angel and found work as a stenographer at a costume jewelry business. She then made her way to Philadelphia to meet Father Divine and was hired as his personal stenographer. The marriage quickly followed.

Unknown to the faithful who had assembled on Aug. 7, the marriage had taken place on April 29 in Washington, at the house of the Rev. Albert L. Shadd, a recent convert.

For months, the news remained secret. “We could not have released it,” Sister Mary, a member of Father Divine’s inner circle, told Ms. Harris. “If we had, there would have been no telling what might have happened. The marriage was such a world-shaking event, it might have made followers vibrate strongly enough to destroy themselves.”•

An article in the 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the newlyweds.

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Elon Musk has made the unilateral decision that Mars will be ruled by direct democracy, and considering how dismal his political record is over the last five months with his bewildering bromance with the orange supremacist, it might be great if he blasted from Earth sooner than later.

Another billionaire of dubious governmental wisdom also believed in direct democracy. That was computer-processing magnate Ross Perot who, in 1969, had a McLuhan-ish dream: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. In 1992, he held fast to this goal–one that was perhaps more democratic than any society could survive–when he bankrolled his own populist third-party Presidential campaign. 

The opening of “Perot’s Vision: Consensus By Computer,” a New York Times article from that year by the late Michael Kelly:

WASHINGTON, June 5— Twenty-three years ago, Ross Perot had a simple idea.

The nation was splintered by the great and painful issues of the day. There had been years of disorder and disunity, and lately, terrible riots in Los Angeles and other cities. People talked of an America in crisis. The Government seemed to many to be ineffectual and out of touch.

What this country needed, Mr. Perot thought, was a good, long talk with itself.

The information age was dawning, and Mr. Perot, then building what would become one of the world’s largest computer-processing companies, saw in its glow the answer to everything. One Hour, One Issue

Every week, Mr. Perot proposed, the television networks would broadcast an hourlong program in which one issue would be discussed. Viewers would record their opinions by marking computer cards, which they would mail to regional tabulating centers. Consensus would be reached, and the leaders would know what the people wanted.

Mr. Perot gave his idea a name that draped the old dream of pure democracy with the glossy promise of technology: “the electronic town hall.”

Today, Mr. Perot’s idea, essentially unchanged from 1969, is at the core of his ‘We the People’ drive for the Presidency, and of his theory for governing.

It forms the basis of Mr. Perot’s pitch, in which he presents himself, not as a politician running for President, but as a patriot willing to be drafted ‘as a servant of the people’ to take on the ‘dirty, thankless’ job of rescuing America from “the Establishment,” and running it.

In set speeches and interviews, the Texas billionaire describes the electronic town hall as the principal tool of governance in a Perot Presidency, and he makes grand claims: “If we ever put the people back in charge of this country and make sure they understand the issues, you’ll see the White House and Congress, like a ballet, pirouetting around the stage getting it done in unison.”

Although Mr. Perot has repeatedly said he would not try to use the electronic town hall as a direct decision-making body, he has on other occasions suggested placing a startling degree of power in the hands of the television audience.

He has proposed at least twice — in an interview with David Frost broadcast on April 24 and in a March 18 speech at the National Press Club — passing a constitutional amendment that would strip Congress of its authority to levy taxes, and place that power directly in the hands of the people, in a debate and referendum orchestrated through an electronic town hall.•

In addition to the rampant myopia that would likely blight such a system, most Americans, with jobs and families and TV shows to binge watch, don’t take the time to fully appreciate the nuances of complex policy. The stunning truth is that even in a representative democracy in this information-rich age, we have enough uninformed voters minus critical-thinking abilities to install an obvious con artist into the Oval Office to pick their pockets. 

In a Financial Times column, Tim Harford argues in favor of the professional if imperfect class of technocrats, who get the job done, more or less. An excerpt:

For all its merits, democracy has always had a weakness: on any detailed piece of policy, the typical voter — I include myself here — does not understand what is really at stake and does not care to find out. This is not a slight on voters. It is a recognition of our common sense. Why should we devote hours to studying every policy question that arises? We know the vote of any particular citizen is never decisive. It would be a deluded voter indeed who stayed up all night revising for an election, believing that her vote would be the one to make all the difference.

So voters are not paying close attention to the details. That might seem a fatal flaw in democracy but democracy has coped. The workaround for voter ignorance is to delegate the details to expert technocrats. Technocracy is unfashionable these days; that is a shame.

One advantage of a technocracy is that it constrains politicians who are tempted by narrow or fleeting advantages. Multilateral bodies such as the World Trade Organization and the European Commission have been able to head off popular yet self-harming behaviour, such as handing state protection to which ever business has the best lobbyists.

Meanwhile independent central banks have been the grown-ups of economic policymaking. Once the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis had passed, elected politicians sat on their hands. Technocratic central bankers were — to borrow a phrase from Mohamed El-Erian, economic adviser — “the only game in town” in sustaining a recovery.

A second advantage is that technocrats can offer informed, impartial analysis. Consider the Congressional Budget Office in the US, the Office for Budget Responsibility in the UK, and Nice, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Technocrats make mistakes, it’s true — many mistakes. Brain surgeons also make mistakes. That does not mean I’d be better off handing the scalpel to Boris Johnson.•

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Jimmy Breslin was far from perfect, but he was awfully close to great.

The longtime NYC tabloid writer kept an unforgiving pace back in the age of multiple daily print editions, a hard drinker whose columns always made a soft landing, a working-class hero who fought the power, offering up a consistently poetic proletarian prose.

He was a tabloid titan, loud and a braggart, but he could back it up. A larger-than-life character with a big body and a giant ego, his abilities as a tireless journalist provided him with other opportunities that he was almost always ill-suited for: politician, Saturday Night Live host, talk-show host, etc. Well, in addition to his excellent reporting, he was also awfully good as a beer-commercial pitchman. 

Along with Hunter S. Thompson, Breslin was perhaps the most widely imitated journalist in America in the latter half of the twentieth century, often to horrendous results, though he can’t be blamed for that. You could fault him for sometimes talking himself into trouble, making racist remarks to an editor who questioned his work, the David becoming a Goliath when he believed it suited him. In the big picture, he was right most of the time, and he would never let you hear the end of it.

An excerpt from the wonderful New York Times writer Dan Barry’s Breslin obituary is followed by a few related clips.


From Barry:

Poetic and profane, softhearted and unforgiving, Mr. Breslin inspired every emotion but indifference; letters from outraged readers gladdened his heart. He often went after his own, from Irish-Americans with “shopping-center faces” who had forgotten their hardscrabble roots to the Roman Catholic Church, whose sex scandals prompted him to write an angry book called “The Church That Forgot Christ,” published in 2004. It ends with a cheeky vow to start a new church that would demand more low-income housing and better posture.

Love or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. He often explained that he merely applied a sportswriter’s visual sensibility to the news columns. Avoid the scrum of journalists gathered around the winner, he would advise, and go directly to the loser’s locker. This is how you find your gravedigger.

“So you go to a big thing like this presidential assassination,” he said in an extended interview with The New York Times in 2006. “Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all. And I did. I went there automatic.”

Early on, Mr. Breslin developed the persona of the hard-drinking, dark-humored Everyman from Queens, so consumed by life’s injustices and his six children that he barely had time to comb his wild black mane. While this persona shared a beer with the truth, Mr. Breslin also admired Dostoyevsky; swam every day; hadn’t had a drink in more than 30 years; wrote a shelf-full of books; and adhered to a demanding work ethic that required his presence in the moment, from a civil rights march in Alabama to a “perp walk” in Brooklyn — no matter that he never learned to drive.

The real Jimmy Breslin was so elusive that even Mr. Breslin could not find him. “There have been many Jimmy Breslins because of all the people I identified with so much, turning me into them, or them into me, that I can’t explain one Jimmy Breslin,” he once wrote.

Sometimes he presented himself as a regular guy who churned out words for pay; other times he became the megalomaniacal stylist — “J. B. Number One,” he called himself — who was dogged by pale imitators with Irish surnames. On occasion he would wake up other reporters with telephone calls to say, simply, “I’m big.”•


In 1969, Breslin ran for City Council in NYC on a ticket that aimed to deliver Norman Mailer to Gracie Mansion. It was a secessionist platform that sought to make New York City the nation’s 51st state; only 5% approved in the Democratic Primary. Here’s an excerpt from “I Run to Win,” Breslin’s May 5, 1969 cover article for New York magazine, written the month before the people voted nay:

The first phone call on Monday morning was at seven o’clock.

“He’s asleep,” I heard my wife mumble.

“Wake him up?” she mumbled.

She kicked me and I reached over for the phone.

“Somebody named Joe Ferris,” she said. “He needs your correct voting registration for the petitions., What petitions?”

I sat up in bed, with the phone in one hand and my head against the wall and my eyes closed.

“What petitions?” my wife said again.

I knew what petitions Joe Ferris was talking about. I knew about them, but I never thought it would come to the point of an early morning phone call about them. You see, when it started, I was only in this thing for pleasant conversation with nice people. “Hello,” I said to Joe Ferris. I was afraid he would send cold waves through the phone.

“I’ve got to be at the printer with the petitions this morning,” Joe Ferris said. “So what I need is the exact way your name and address appears on the voting rolls. We don’t want to have any petitions thrown out on a technicality. Because they’re going to be looking for mistakes. Particularly when they see how much support you and Norman are going to get. That’s all I’ve been hearing around town. You and Norman. I think you’ve got a tremendous chance.”

“I’ll get the information and call you back,” I said to Joe Ferris. He gave me his phone number and I told him I was writing it down, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I forgot his number and never called him back, he wouldn’t bother to call me anymore.

“What petitions?” my wife said when I hung up.•


The opening of what’s arguably Jimmy Breslin’s most famous column, his 1963 profile of the quiet, sober work of the gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery who attended to President Kennedy’s burial plot:

Washington — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging (Editor Note: At the bottom of the hill in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion).

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it. “That’s nice soil,” Metzler said. “I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”•


“It’s a good drinkin’ beer.”

“It’s the solid cereal.”

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Vlad, it’s Don. The walls are closing in. I need your help or I’m done for.

So sorry, Don. No time. Leaving now for a sexy three-way.

Hello, ladies.

No, I have no idea how I could have gotten dolphin syphilis.

 

The echoes of Mussolini in Trump and the Nazis in the alt-right are blaring sirens to anyone familiar with European history in the two decades leading up to World War II. The differences between yesterday’s madness and today’s, however, are probably just as important to consider, from the tools used to forward a hateful agenda to the shifts in the targets of the animus to the new unholy alliances being forged.

In a Verso interview conducted by Grégory Marin, historian Enzo Traverso examines the appallingly racist, illiberal political movements that have emerged in the U.S. and Europe from what he terms the “fascist matrix.” The principal point he makes is that the new authoritarianism isn’t yet fully defined and where it leads may be the biggest of all threats.

The opening two exchanges:

Question:

Are Europe’s far-Right movements (the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary…) adopting the same codes as fascism or Nazism?

Enzo Traverso:

First of all, these movements do share common traits, including their rejection of the European Union, their xenophobia and their racism, in particular in its Islamophobic dimension. Beyond these markers, we can see notable differences. There are clearly neo-fascist or neo-Nazi movements, like Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, etc., whose radicalism is often linked to the extent of the crisis, even if in Greece the rise of Syriza did put a lid on this dynamic. As for France, the Front National does have a fascist matrix, and there are certainly neo-fascists in the party, but its discourse is no longer fascist. After all, it has made a considerable effort at ideological mutation, and that is one of the keys to its success. If it still advanced neo-fascist arguments it would not get a hearing, and could certainly not hope to reach the second round of the presidential election.

Question:

Why call these parties “from the fascist matrix” post-fascists and not-neo-fascists? How do you characterise this post-fascism?

Enzo Traverso:

It is a transitional category. Post-fascism is a concept that attempts to grasp a mutation process that is still underway; the FN is no longer a fascist movement, but it is still far-Right and xenophobic, and it has still not broken the umbilical cord that links it to its fascist matrix. We do not know what that will produce. This could end up — if the European Union were to break apart and the economic crisis were to deepen — transforming into a clearly fascist alternative. That has happened in the past. Or it could take on new characteristics and integrate into the system, like the Movimento Sociale Italiano did in the 1990s, becoming a component of the traditional Right. This is an open process, for within the tendency I call “post-fascist” there are also political movements born in recent years that are not fascist in origin, for instance UKIP in England or the Lega Nord in Italy, which are converging together with this current; indeed, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage have good relations with the Front National. This notion does not seek either to play down the danger or to make it more acceptable, but to understand it, the better to combat it more effectively.•

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An unqualified sociopath was elected President of the United States with the aid of the FBI, fake news, Russian spies, white supremacists and an accused rapist who’s holed up inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid arrest. Writing that sentence a million times can’t make it any less chilling.

WikiLeaks’ modus operandi over the last couple of years probably wouldn’t be markedly different if it were in the hands of Steve Bannon rather than Julian Assange, so it’s not surprising the organization leaked a trove of (apparently overhyped) documents about CIA surveillance just as Trump was being lambasted from both sides of the aisle for baselessly accusing his predecessor for “wiretapping.” The timing is familiar if you recall that WikiLeaks began releasing Clinton campaign emails directly after the surfacing of a video that recorded Trump’s boasts of sexual assault. With all this recent history, is it any surprise Assange mockingly described himself as a “deplorable” when chiding Twitter for refusing verify his account?

The decentralization of media, with powerful tools in potentially every hand, has changed the game, no doubt. We’re now in a permanent Spy vs. Spy cartoon, though one that isn’t funny, with feds and hackers permanently at loggerheads. Which side can do the most damage? Voters have some recourse in regards to government snooping but not so with private-sector enterprises. In the rush to privatize and outsource long-established areas of critical services, from prisons to the military to intelligence work, we’ve also dispersed dangers.

From Sue Halpern’s New York Review of Books pieceThe Assange Distraction“:

In his press conference, Assange observed that no cyber weapons are safe from hacking because they live on the Internet, and once deployed are themselves at risk of being stolen. When that happens, he said, “there’s a very easy cover for any gray market operator, contractor, rogue intelligence agent to take that material and start a company with it. Start a consulting company, a hacker for hire company.” Indeed, the conversation we almost never have when we’re talking about cyber-security and hacking is the one where we acknowledge just how privatized intelligence gathering has become, and what the consequences of this have been. According to the reporters Dana Priest, Marjorie Censer and Robert O’Harrow, Jr., at least 70 percent of the intelligence community’s “secret” budget now goes to private contractors. And, they write, “Never before have so many US intelligence workers been hired so quickly, or been given access to secret government information through networked computers. …But in the rush to fill jobs, the government has relied on faulty procedures to vet intelligence workers, documents and interviews show.” Much of this expansion occurred in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when the American government sought to dramatically expand its intelligence-gathering apparatus.

Edward Snowden was a government contractor; he had a high security clearance while working for both Dell and for Booz, Allen, Hamilton. Vault 7’s source, from what one can discern from Assange’s remarks, was most likely a contractor, too. The real connection between Snowden’s NSA revelations and an anonymous leaker handing off CIA malware to WikiLeaks, however, is this: both remind us, in different ways, that the expansion of the surveillance state has made us fundamentally less secure, not more.

Julian Assange, if he is to be believed, now possesses the entire cyber-weaponry of the CIA. He claims that they are safe with him while explaining that nothing is safe on the Internet. He says that the malware he’s published so far is only part of the CIA arsenal, and that he’ll reveal more at a later date. If that is not a veiled threat, then this is: Assange has not destroyed the source codes that came to him with Vault 7, the algorithms that run these programs, and he hasn’t categorically ruled out releasing them into the wild, where they would be available to any cyber-criminal, state actor, or random hacker. This means that Julian Assange is not just a fugitive, he is a fugitive who is armed and dangerous.•

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Malcolm Gladwell has a great many talents, but analyzing comedy and satire is apparently not among them. Unfortunately, he held forth on these topics in a recent conversation with economist Tyler Cowen.

The writer once derided satire for not being significant enough to prevent the rise of Nazism, failing to acknowledge that diplomacy, protest, church and media also failed to thwart this mass tragedy. All those institutions and activities have great value, even if they were depressingly unable to avert this particular horror.

Speaking to Cowen, Gladwell forwards the bizarre theory that Tine Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was great for the comedian’s career but made the politician “more acceptable and likable.” This is an absurd contention. If Katie Couric’s interview with Palin was a mortal wound, Fey’s imitation was the coup de grâce.

Gladwell’s judgment that the impersonation stemmed from Fey’s self-interest is peculiar. Certainly he writes his articles and books to improve his career, and he also does corporate speaking engagements, a very dicey move for a journalist, which I don’t believe Fey does. (Perhaps Gladwell donates all this money to charity, but it remains a potential conflict of interest.)

In the direct aftermath of the Presidential election, when New Yorker EIC David Remnick appeared on TV to warn against the normalization of Trump, he commented that although he believed Hillary Clinton would have been a great President, he thought it was wrong that she accepted huge fees for speaking engagements from investment banks. He probably should hold his staff to the same standard.

Gladwell’s criticism of Alec Baldwin is almost is as wrong-minded. SNL certainly deserves brickbats for allowing the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to host the show during his disgracefully racist campaign, but Baldwin’s characterization isn’t a superficial performance Gladwell describes. Well, at least it’s clear to him that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impersonation is greatness.

As for Cowen’s question to Gladwell about Baldwin’s Trump–Is it not sufficiently negative?–he should be asking himself that same query in response to his tepid comments about Peter Thiel, a former interview subject who aggressively enabled a sociopath into the White House. This Administration isn’t merely “flawed” as the economist labeled it in a recent Ask Me Anything. It’s utterly shameful and highly dangerous.

An excerpt:

On Tina Fey, Melisa McCarthy, and good satire

COWEN: It’s been said that satire sometimes reaffirms power, while poetry affirms only its own power. You have a podcast where you express a worry that Tina Fey, by mimicking and satirizing Sarah Palin, actually made her more acceptable and more likeable in doing so. So fast-forward to the current moment: we have Saturday Night Live.

[laughter]

COWEN: Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump. Is that useful satire? Is it not sufficiently negative? Should we be deploying poetry or is that the effective medium for social commentary?

GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .

[laughter]

GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.

With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”

[laughter] 

GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.

GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .

[laughter]

GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump. There are many directions you can go with Trump, the extraordinary insecurity of the man. Like I said, there are many things you could pluck out, but that for one, the idea of doing an impersonation where you really thought deeply about what it would mean in a comic way to represent this man’s almost tragic level of insecurity. Alec Baldwin is not . . . he’s a little too glib . . .

That’s the problem with Saturday Night Live, the larger problem — I was trying to get at it in that podcast episode on satire — the problem with doing satire through the vehicle of a show like Saturday Night Live is, they’re not incentivized to do that kind of deep thinking. The Melissa McCarthy thing is an exception; it’s not the rule.

Really what they’re incentivized to do is, for the actor — who is in many cases as famous or more famous than the person they are impersonating — the actor is using the character to further their own ends. Tina Fey is infinitely more popular, more accomplished, more whatever than Sarah Palin will ever be. And so she’s using Sarah Palin to further her own ends. That’s backwards. She’s not inhabiting the character of Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Sarah Palin, she is inhabiting Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Tina Fey.

I feel, so long as satire is done by a television show which has such a lofty position in the cultural hierarchy, it’s always going to be the case that that’s what’s going to drive their impersonations. They’re always going to be sitting on their hands. Remember they’re making fun of Trump six months after they had him on the show, right? After they were complicit in his rise, and after Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on camera. Maybe that’s fine. My point is you can’t be an effective satirist if you are so deeply complicit in the object of your satire.•

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As I write this post, smart money would be on the American Health Care Act failing to win the necessary votes, oddly because it’s too draconian for some Republican lawmakers and not enough for others, with Trump and Congress then settling for doing all in their power to undermine Obamacare into collapse.

The latter has already begun in earnest with tweaks made to weaken the ACA and the pulling of advertising campaigns aimed at increasing enrollment. The GOP’s gambit is that citizens will blame the previous Administration as the healthcare law implodes, but it could ultimately be pinned on the actual culprits, costing them control of one or more branches of the government. The only sure thing is that citizens will be hurt.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything, John McDonough, professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, answered questions about the AHCA, which even Trump doesn’t want to attach his for-sale surname to. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

If you had carte blanche to write health care policy for the US, what would be the key points?

John McDonough:

Honestly, even though I think it won’t happen anytime soon, a single payer type system with protections and guarantees makes the most sense. Shorter term — it’s nuts that we have 3 gigantic federal health programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and ACA. Makes sense to me to move toward a consolidated federal health system/approach.


Question:

If you were a benevolent dictator, what would you do to control health care costs?

John McDonough:

Here are some options: 1. A single payer is an effective way to control costs because the government sets a strict limit. It can also lead to significant limitations in funding the system adequately. EG: Canada has a great system, but it has been suffering considerably over recent years because of strict funding limits put in place back in the 1970s, and it is falling behind. 2. Government price regulation is another approach that is less strict than single payer, and also marginally less effective — though it provides space for more give and take between the system providers and the payers. 3. Leave it to the market — that’s been the main approach since the Reagan era in the 1980s (interrupted by Obama in the past 8 years) and it has led to the largest explosion of costs ever.

So I pick #2, though not bursting with enthusiasm.


Question:

Why is the U.S. so against a single payer system when it works in so many other developed nations?

John McDonough:

Lots of reasons. A few: 1. so much of what we pay for healthcare right now is hidden — in employer contributions, in tax deductions, in government payments, so very few see the real cost. When people see the real cost in a single payer plan, many get scared and freak out. 2. Conservatives really fear giving that much power to the federal government — it runs heavily against the deep seeded grain of libertarianism in our culture. 3. Path dependence — if we were starting from scratch (say when Harry Truman tried it in 1948), it was easier. Now there is so much that gets replaced and it gets so — as DT says — “complicated.” 4. Large wealthy interests will spend lots of $ to confuse people.


Question:

Do you think that Obamacare and the ACA were a good or bad foot forward to having more affordable Healthcare, and if so, why?

John McDonough:

I believe that the ACA, overall, was a strong net positive for the US, recognizing that many elements could be improved/strengthened.

  • More than 20 million formerly uninsured got coverage

  • Medicaid got improved enormously in helping people get on and stay on

  • Medicare costs, on a per enrollee basis, since the ACA and because of it, have risen since 2009 as the lowest rate of increase since the program was created in 1965

  • The US medical system, significantly because of the ACA, is embracing a new improvement agenda to fix costs, quality, and efficiency — and the health system is embracing that changeLots more — those are the biggies.


Question:

It appears right now that the AHCA is “DOA” in the Senate, in Ted Cruz’s words. What are the GOP’s next steps? A new, different, more conservative bill? One that uproots the structures created by the ACA? Accept the ACA and just fix some of the deficiencies? Throw in the towel?

John McDonough:

Here is my fear, not hypothetical, and repeatedly mentioned by Trump.

ACA needs work and repair — totally doable and 100% necessary. Can be done, but Rs don’t want it fixed, they want it dead.

So Rs refuse to do any repairs, and let it devolve into chaos and just say the law is fatally flawed and it’s the D’s fault.

Could happen, and hard to game out the result. That seems to me to be the most likely piece.

Remember, this is about tax policy as much as about health policy. The key reason Rs are so fixed on getting this done is the tax cuts/repeals which play a big part in the tax reform agenda they want to do right after this.•

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Most who identify as religious in America voted for Donald Trump in the last election, with only Hispanic Catholics, Jewish people and the vaguely categorized “Other Faiths” favoring Hillary Clinton. But not all among the devout behave similarly: Some keep the Sabbath and others don’t.

In an Atlantic article, Peter Beinart theorizes that falling church attendance in America, a trend of the last several decades (even among believers), has helped reconfigure the culture war, which used to be mainly about so-called values issues and now is drawn along racial and ethnic lines. There are many other factors involved, so it’s not easy to establish causality, but there seems to be some validity to the argument, especially if considering the primary season, when Trump’s most reliable voters where evangelicals who skip Sundays.

This shift has probably been both boon and bane. Support has softened for some prejudiced church beliefs that run afoul of civil rights (as with gay marriage), but those advances have coincided with a surprising number of citizens choosing to ignore the communal good with respect to non-white Americans and immigrants. It does seem like an awful lot of self-described Christians have ceased asking themselves “What would Jesus do?” on a regular basis. 

Perhaps Beinart’s thesis might partly explain why so many among us were willing to make a deal with the devil?

The opening:

Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.

Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”

That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.•

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At least Eva Braun never tied the knot. 

Nadezhda Alliluyeva Stalin was not so fortunate. The second wife of the Soviet Union’s murderous leader, one of history’s greatest villains, was said to have died from appendicitis after thirteen years of marriage, but she actually shot herself to escape her tyrannical husband’s browbeating and humiliations.

Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, recently wrote a Quartz article arguing that Melania Trump is an ideal autocrat’s wife. In the piece, she recalled Nadezhda’s demise:

In an autocracy, institutions such as the FLOTUS position—not fully formal, yet relevant—are the easiest to undermine. In Russia—first a monarchy and then a communist dictatorship—where “unsharable” power of the leader has been personalized and centralized to an extreme, there was barely ever a true “first lady,” her very fate providing a symbolic commentary on the regime.

Joseph Stalin’s Gulags—mass incarceration and prosecution of everyone suspected of opposing his personal power—were foreshadowed by the death of his wife, Nadezhda. Lacking a role to perform in the Kremlin’s politics, she committed suicide in 1932. According to a 1988 report in the New York Times, a Stalin biographer wrote that she killed herself ” after she spoke her mind about Communist Party purges and the famine and was met by a flood of vulgar abuse from Stalin.”•

As you can imagine, the mother of the communist country committing suicide was not a topic open for discussion in the Soviet Union of that era. A November 20, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article reported on the shocking-though-shrouded turn of events. 

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Trump poses many existential threats but let’s focus on two in particular that are linked: His autocratic impulses are a threat to liberal governance and America’s ethos of an immigrant nation, and his cultivation of a culture of complaint is a bankrupt brand of populism, a nauseating nostalgia for yesterday which places us in risk today and tomorrow.

The upshot is a federal government contemptible of the Constitution, one that’s willfully trying to block the steady flow of genius into the country and one that’s more enthusiastic for steel and coal than semiconductors. The Trump promise to America is that we can live like the 1950s and win the 21st century, that we don’t have to compete with the whole world because we can build a wall to keep out the future. He’s a new manner of aspiring autocrat concerned not with ideology by with its destruction. In Holly Case’s Aeon essay about contemporary strongmen who are divorced from governing principles beyond promising to make difficult challenges vanish, she concluded this way:

The new authoritarian does not pretend to make you better, only to make you feel better about not wanting to change. In this respect, he has tapped a gusher in the Zeitgeist that reaches well beyond the domain of state socialism, an attitude that the writer Marilynne Robinson disparages as ‘nonfailure’, and that the writer Walter Mosley elevates to a virtue: ‘We need to raise our imperfections to a political platform that says: “My flaws need attention too.” This is what I call the “untopia”.’ Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

In 2017, China is a notable exception to this definition, an autocracy aiming to win the race in supercomputers, semiconductors and solar, which is particularly perilous when paired with America’s retreat. We picked an awful time to stop looking forward, and the ramifications will be felt long after Trump is gone.

From Michael Schuman in Bloomberg View:

China is marshaling massive resources to march into high-tech industries, from robotics to medical devices. In the case of semiconductors alone, the state has amassed $150 billion to build a homegrown industry. In a report in March, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China pressed the point that the Chinese government is employing a wide range of tools to pursue these ambitions, from lavishing subsidies on favored sectors to squeezing technology out of foreign firms.

The only way for the U.S. to compete with those efforts is to “run faster.” Yet Trump’s ideas to boost competitiveness mainly amount to cutting taxes and regulation. Although reduced taxes might leave companies with more money to spend on research and development, that’s not enough. The U.S. needs to do much more to help businesses achieve bigger and better breakthroughs.

Trump is doing the opposite. One reason U.S. companies are so innovative is that they attract talented workers from everywhere else. But Trump’s recent suspension of fast-track H-1B visas could curtail this infusion of scientists and researchers. If his intention is to ensure jobs go to Americans first, he need not bother. The unemployment rate for Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher — the skilled workers that H-1B holders would compete with — is a mere 2.5 percent. 

This policy isn’t just a threat to Silicon Valley, but across industries. Michael McGarry, the chief executive officer of PPG Industries Inc., worries about the effect visa restrictions would have on his paint-making business. “We create a lot of innovation because of the diversity that we have,” he recently told CNBC. “We think people with PhDs that are educated here should stay here and work for us and not work for the competition.”

China will likely try to capitalize on this mistake. Robin Li, CEO of the internet giant Baidu Inc., recently advocated that China ease its visa requirements to attract talented workers to help develop new technologies for Chinese industry, just the opposite of Trump’s approach.

Trump’s budget proposals are similarly a setback. He wants to boost defense spending by slashing funding for just about everything else, notably education. By one estimate, some $20 billion would have to get cut from the departments of education, labor, and health and human services to accommodate his plan. If Trump wants to contend with Chinese power, he’d be better off reversing those priorities — to create more graduates and fewer guns. He could offer proposals to make higher education more affordable for the poor, for instance, or to bolster vocational training. So far, there’s little evidence he’s making such spending a priority.

China, by contrast, is expanding access to education on a huge scale.

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

The new millennia has continued with much of the same, though more zeros have been added at the end of the number with the rampant kleptocracies in Russia and Dubai, among other tyrannical regions of the globe. With the election of Trump, a tin-pot dictator painted gold, the White House now has a figure given to ridiculous gaudiness, and his use of the Oval Office as a cash register for himself and his family is an unsurprising extension of this greed motif. It’s the prosperity gospel of a President who doesn’t like to read.

From “Trump’s Dictator Chic,” Peter York’s excellent Politico article:

Then, in late 2015, I came across a set of pictures with no identifying text. They appeared to show a gigantic apartment in what looked, from the windows, very much like New York. But I know Manhattan and its sophisticated style pretty well, and at first glance, you would think the place didn’t belong to an American but to a Russian oligarch, or possibly a Saudi prince with a second home in the United States. There were overscaled rooms, and obviously incorrect-looking historical detailing and proportions. The home had lots of gilded French furniture and the strange impersonal look of a hotel lobby, with chairs and sofas placed uncomfortably far from one another. There were masses of gold; there were the usual huge chandeliers, branded relics of famous sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, and mushroom-colored marble floors. There was relatively little in the way of paintings, but otherwise, the place reeked of dictator chic.

As it turned out, this familiar yet unfamiliar apartment—a familiar style to me by then, but in an unlikely location—belonged to Donald Trump, who by then was running for president. This was the penthouse of the potential leader of the free world. The design work, I have since learned, was started by the late Angelo Donghia, a decorator better known for a chic Manhattan look. But the substantive current design had been done by one Henry Conversano, who designed extensively—and perhaps unsurprisingly—for casinos. No matter how you looked at it, the main thing this apartment said was, “I am tremendously rich and unthinkably powerful.” This was the visual language of public, not private, space. It was the language of the Eastern European and Middle Eastern nouveau riche.

Why does all of this matter? Domestic interiors reveal how people want to be seen. But they also reveal something about the owners’ inner lives, their cultural reference points and how they relate to other people. With its marble-inlaid dining table, painted ceilings and gold flourishes quite literally everywhere, Trump’s aesthetic puts him more in the visual tradition of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, who erected a massive rotating golden statue of himself in Ashgabat, than the self-effacing gray-suited conventions of Western democratic leaders. Atop Trump Tower, Trump’s apartment projects a kind of power that bypasses all the boring checks and balances of collaboration and mutual responsibility and first-among-equals. It is about a single dominant personality.

This, of course, is a startlingly un-American idea.

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It would be great if all of us could grow smarter, but smart isn’t everything. Being wise and ethical are important, too.

PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have had access to elite educations, started successful businesses and amassed vast fortunes, but in this time of Trump they don’t seem particularly enlightened. Thiel ardently supported the bigoted, unqualified sociopath to the White House, while Musk’s situational ethics in dealing with the new abnormal are particularly amoral.

At SXSW, Ray Kurzweil said he believes technology has already made us much smarter and will improve us exponentially in that manner by 2029 when the Singularity arrives. While his views of the future are too aggressive, Kurzweil’s view of today seems oddly rose-colored. Why if we’re so much brighter do we have unintelligent reality TV host in the White House? Why is there ever-deepening wealth inequality? Why are we ravaged by an opioid epidemic? 

If we’re smarter now–a big if–and it’s divorced from basic morality and decency, are we any better off?

From Dyani Sabin’s Inverse piece about Kurzweil’s appearance in Austin:

The future isn’t going to look like a science fiction story with a few super intelligent A.I.s that attack us.

“That’s not realistic. We don’t have one or two A.I.s in the world. Today we have billions,” he says. And unlike Musk who imagines the rise of the A.I. as something that threatens human existence, Kurzweil says that doesn’t hold with how we interact with A.I.s today.

“What’s actually happening is they are powering all of us. They’re making us smarter. They may not yet be inside our bodies but by the 2030s we will connect our neocortex, the part of our brain where we do our thinking, to the cloud.”

This isn’t just a pipe dream to Kurzweil, who’s had reasonable luck predicting where the future is going to go. “There are people with computers in their brains today — Parkinson’s patients,” he points out. “That’s how these things start.” Following the path of steps from the technology we have now, to what will happen twenty years from now, Kurzweil says, “in the 2030’s there will be something you can take that will go inside your brain and help your memory.” And that’s just the beginning.

Uploading our brains into the cloud will allow humanity to waste less time on lower-level types of mental tasks, Kurzweil says. He’s very interested in the idea of uploading the neocortex because it’s responsible for things like art, music, and humor. By allowing our brains to connect more on that level, by melding with artificial intelligence, we will expand our ability to do these things and be better people. “Ultimately it will affect everything,” he says. “We’re going to be able to meet the physical needs of all humans. We’re going to expand our minds and exemplify these artistic qualities that we value.”•

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  • Don’t blame Tim Berners-Lee, not for cat memes, spam or even the way his gift connected and emboldened the absolute worst among us. A hammer is a weapon or a tool depending on how you swing it, and like almost any invention, the World Wide Web is as good as people utilizing it. A lot of us aren’t very good right now.
  • Marshall McLuhan feared the Global Village even as he was heralding its arrival 50 years ago. He believed all this closeness, these worlds colliding, could explode. He encouraged us to study the new arrangement–“why not devote your powers to discerning patterns?”–lest we’d be overrun by them. Plenty among us know the issues at hand, but they’re not easy to address.
  • There’s no doubt the Internet does a lot of good and some of its worst excesses can be curbed, but the trouble with this tool isn’t that we’re not yet familiar enough with decentralized media and soon enough we’ll have a handle on the situation. The problems seem inherent to the medium, which is a large-scale experiment in anarchy, and just as sure as we correct some of bugs, others will take flight.
  • During the Arab Spring there was much debate over whether the Internet aas actually useful in toppling states. I think it is, regardless of whether the nation or usurpers happen to be good or bad.

In a Guardian essay, Berners-Lee offers biting criticism of his pet project, suggesting fixes. I wonder though, as with Facebook promising to address its shortcomings, if the system isn’t built for mayhem. That may be especially true since most citizens don’t seem very bothered by handing over their personal information in exchange for sating some psychological needs, offering their own Manhattan for some shiny beads.

An excerpt:

1) We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, such as sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.•

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If Moby-Dick were the only Herman Melville book I’d ever read, I would have assumed that he was a mediocre writer with great ideas. Having gone through all of his shorter works, however, I know he could be a precise and cogent talent. He seemed to have reached for everything with his most famous novel–aiming to fashion a sort of Shakespearean Old Testament story of good and evil–and buckled under the weight of his ambitions.

The far better Moby-Dick is Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, a horse opera of Biblical proportions, a medicine show peddling poison, which takes an unsparing look at our black hearts and leaves the reader with a purple bruise. Twenty-five years on, it remains as profound and disturbing as any American novel.

The British writer David Vann reveals he’s similarly admiring of this McCarthy work in a “Twenty Questions” interview in the Times Literary Supplement. He’s also despairing of what he believes is the bleak future of literature. I believe as long as humans are largely human, we’ll always enamored by narratives. My fear is mainly that sometimes we choose the wrong ones.

An excerpt:

Question:

Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?

David Vann:

There are hundreds, but the foremost from this time is Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian, which I think is the greatest novel ever written in English.  He’s not a dramatist, and I write Greek tragedy, so I never could have imagined skipping the dramatic plane and going straight to vision.  I do write in the same American landscape tradition, extending literal landscapes into figurative ones, but I’ll never do it as powerfully as he does.

Question:

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

David Vann:

Less money for sure. We’ve already lost so much to piracy and shrinking readerships and economic downturns. Publishers will be less brave, editors will edit less, more books will be published online for nothing, we’ll continue to lose experts and have to put up with even more reviews from unqualified idiots, and as entire generations learn to read without subtext about what someone had for lunch, we can expect literature to look more like an account of what someone had for lunch. There is absolutely no way in which the technology or literary theory of the past decades will enrich literature.  We should be honest about what is crap. …

Question:

What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?

David Vann:

I should never answer this kind of question, because I’m only shooting myself in the foot, but when Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time as the Great American Novelist, who could not have thought of McCarthy, Proulx, Robinson, Morrison, Oates, Roth, DeLillo and at least a hundred others far better than Franzen?  And to call The Corrections the best book in ten years?  Really?•

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From the October 4, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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Much has been made of the Trump campaign overwhelmingly winning America’s rural counties ravaged by opioid abuse, the narrative being that economic hardship begat drug addiction which in turn led lost souls into the arms of an American Mussolini.

Inconvenient truths intrude, however. 

Not all of these small towns are doing badly economically, and some are thriving, having rebounded remarkably since the Great Recession. Nor did the drug abuse begin with a wayward scrip meant to soothe back pain. 

One illuminating example can be found in Jack Healy’s New York Times article about the Winemiller farming family in Ohio’s Clermont County, which boasts a low 4.1% unemployment rate, who have already lost two of three adult children to heroin overdoses, with the third one battling to beat the same poison. The younger members of the clan began using alcohol and narcotics when they were teens, years before an Obama Presidency or the sharp financial downturn of 2008, eventually graduating to the drug that would undo their home.

The paterfamilias, who has suffered greatly, voted Republican in the recent Presidential election. “My view on Donald Trump, he’s what this country needed years ago: someone that’s hard-core,” he tells the Times. The woebegone man wants someone to arrest reality, to force sense on a chaotic situation, to slap handcuffs on these strange demons.

But the problem starts with our own demons, and we’re not going to be able to bluster and batter them out of existence. We have to go deeper inside and further back to get to the root of the problem. To figure things out, we need to look in the mirror rather than to a monster.

An excerpt:

The Winemillers live on the eastern edge of Clermont County, about an hour east of Cincinnati, where a suburban quilt of bedroom towns, office parks and small industry thins into woods and farmland, mostly for corn and soybeans. Apple orchards and pumpkin farms — now closed for the season — are tucked among clusters of small churches, small businesses and even smaller ranch-style brick houses. Every so often, the roads wind past the gates of a big new mansion or high-end subdivision being built in the woods.

Jobs have returned to the area since the recession, and manufacturing businesses are popping up along the freeway that circles Cincinnati. The county’s unemployment rate is only 4.1 percent, and every morning, the city-bound lanes of skinny country roads are packed with people heading to work.

But the economic resilience has done little to insulate the area from a cascade of cheap heroin and synthetic opiates like fentanyl and carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, which have sent overdose rates soaring across much of the country, but especially in rural areas like this one.

Drug overdoses here have nearly tripled since 1999, and the state as a whole has been ravaged. In Ohio, 2,106 people died of opioid overdoses in 2014, more than in any other state, according to an analysis of the most recent federal data by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In rural Wayne Township, where the Winemillers and about 4,900 other people live, the local fire department answered 18 overdose calls last year. Firefighters answered three in one week this winter, and said the spikes and lulls in their overdose calls gave them a feel for when particularly noxious batches of drugs were brought out to the countryside from Cincinnati or Dayton.

They get overdose calls for people living inside the Edenton Rural School, a shuttered brick schoolhouse where officers have cleared away signs of meth production and found the flotsam of drug use on the floors.

“I don’t think we’re winning the battle,” said David Moulden, the fire chief. “It gives you a hopelessness.”•

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

  1. moral authority seems to be encased in a frail body
  2. trump dossier
  3. this is a new fascism
  4. oswald mosley
  5. kevin baker on giuliani and trump
  6. what happened to lenin’s brain?
  7. the financial cost of climate change
  8. forest fenn treasure hunt
  9. driverless cars in oahu
  10. luna 9 soviet spacecraft to the moon

This week, Donald Trump donned a military flight jacket and an admiral’s cap, recalling his years of brave service in bunkers.

 

Thomas E. Ricks of Foreign Policy asked one of the most horrifying questions about America you can pose: Will we have another civil war in the next ten to fifteen years? Keith Mines of the United States Institute of Peace and a career foreign service officer provided a sobering reply, estimating the chance for large-scale internecine violence at 60%. 

Things can change unexpectedly, sometimes for the better, but it sure does feel like we’re headed down a road to ruin, with the anti-democratic, incompetent Trump and company provoking us to a tipping point. The Simon Cowell-ish strongman may seem a fluke because of his sizable loss in the popular vote, but in many ways his political ascent is the culmination of the past four decades of dubious U.S. cultural, civic, economic, technological and political decisions. We’re not here by accident. 

· · ·

One of the criteria on which Mines bases his diagnosis: “Press and information flow is more and more deliberately divisive, and its increasingly easy to put out bad info and incitement.” That triggered in me a memory of a 2012 internal Facebook study, which, unsurprisingly, found that Facebook was an enemy of the echo chamber rather than one of its chief enablers. I’m not saying the scholars involved were purposely deceitful, but I don’t think even Mark Zuckerberg would stand by those results five years later. We’re worlds apart in America, and social media, and the widespread decentralization of all media, has hastened and heightened those divisions.

· · ·

An excerpt from Farhad Manjoo’s 2012 Slate piece “The End of the Echo Chamber,” about the supposed salubrious effects of social networks, is followed by Mines’ opening.


From Manjoo:

Today, Facebook is publishing a study that disproves some hoary conventional wisdom about the Web. According to this new research, the online echo chamber doesn’t exist.
 
This is of particular interest to me. In 2008, I wrote True Enough, a book that argued that digital technology is splitting society into discrete, ideologically like-minded tribes that read, watch, or listen only to news that confirms their own beliefs. I’m not the only one who’s worried about this. Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, argued in his recent book The Filter Bubble that Web personalization algorithms like Facebook’s News Feed force us to consume a dangerously narrow range of news. The echo chamber was also central to Cass Sunstein’s thesis, in his book Republic.com, that the Web may be incompatible with democracy itself. If we’re all just echoing our friends’ ideas about the world, is society doomed to become ever more polarized and solipsistic?

It turns out we’re not doomed. The new Facebook study is one of the largest and most rigorous investigations into how people receive and react to news. It was led by Eytan Bakshy, who began the work in 2010 when he was finishing his Ph.D. in information studies at the University of Michigan. He is now a researcher on Facebook’s data team, which conducts academic-type studies into how users behave on the teeming network.

Bakshy’s study involves a simple experiment. Normally, when one of your friends shares a link on Facebook, the site uses an algorithm known as EdgeRank to determine whether or not the link is displayed in your feed. In Bakshy’s experiment, conducted over seven weeks in the late summer of 2010, a small fraction of such shared links were randomly censored—that is, if a friend shared a link that EdgeRank determined you should see, it was sometimes not displayed in your feed. Randomly blocking links allowed Bakshy to create two different populations on Facebook. In one group, someone would see a link posted by a friend and decide to either share or ignore it. People in the second group would not receive the link—but if they’d seen it somewhere else beyond Facebook, these people might decide to share that same link of their own accord.

By comparing the two groups, Bakshy could answer some important questions about how we navigate news online. Are people more likely to share information because their friends pass it along? And if we are more likely to share stories we see others post, what kinds of friends get us to reshare more often—close friends, or people we don’t interact with very often? Finally, the experiment allowed Bakshy to see how “novel information”—that is, information that you wouldn’t have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook—travels through the network. This is important to our understanding of echo chambers. If an algorithm like EdgeRank favors information that you’d have seen anyway, it would make Facebook an echo chamber of your own beliefs. But if EdgeRank pushes novel information through the network, Facebook becomes a beneficial source of news rather than just a reflection of your own small world.

That’s exactly what Bakshy found. His paper is heavy on math and network theory, but here’s a short summary of his results. First, he found that the closer you are with a friend on Facebook—the more times you comment on one another’s posts, the more times you appear in photos together, etc.—the greater your likelihood of sharing that person’s links. At first blush, that sounds like a confirmation of the echo chamber: We’re more likely to echo our closest friends.

But here’s Bakshy’s most crucial finding: Although we’re more likely to share information from our close friends, we still share stuff from our weak ties—and the links from those weak ties are the most novel links on the network. Those links from our weak ties, that is, are most likely to point to information that you would not have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook.•


From Mines:

What a great but disturbing question (the fact that you can even ask it). Weird question for me as for most of my career I have been traveling the world observing other countries in various states of dysfunction and answering this same question. In this case if the standard is largescale violence that requires the National Guard to deal with in the timeline you lay out, I would say about 60 percent.

I base that on the following factors:

— Entrenched national polarization of our citizenry with no obvious meeting place. (Not true locally, however, which could be our salvation; but the national issues are pretty fierce and will only get worse).

— Press and information flow is more and more deliberately divisive, and its increasingly easy to put out bad info and incitement.

— Violence is “in” as a method to solve disputes and get one’s way. The president modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign.  Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this, although it has been going on for several years with them as well — consider the university events where professors or speakers are shouted down and harassed, the physically aggressive anti-Israeli events, and the anarchists during globalization events. It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.

— Weak institutions — press and judiciary, that are being further weakened. (Still fairly strong and many of my colleagues believe they will survive, but you can do a lot of damage in four years, and your timeline gives them even more time).

— Total sellout of the Republican leadership, validating and in some cases supporting all of the above.•

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