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 Republicans believe Americans want Obamacare repealed (they don’t), Medicare gutted (no, again), Social Security privatized (nope), unions demolished (wait a minute) and tax cuts for the highest earners (um, what?)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.•

Tags: ,

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?•

Tags:

Mentioned Freeman Dyson’s “Astrochicken” idea in the “Afflictor’s 50 Great 2016 Nonfiction Pieces” post and just realized last year was the one the physicist targeted for the realization this tiny spacecraft that would be not built but grown. Well, most futurists are too aggressive with their time frames. Still nothing theoretically impossible about it.

First encountered the thought experiment in Infinite in All Directions, a template of sorts for all Dyson’s great science-fiction-ish essays and lectures that were to follow (though he first proposed this noveau spacecraft in 1979’s Disturbing the Universe). In reviewing Infinite in the New York Times, Roger Penrose wrote: “His centerpiece is a one-kilogram spacecraft ‘astrochicken,’ which will be ready to launch in 2016. It will not be built but grown by the use of genetic engineering, and it will depend on artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion for its operation. Accompanying it will be a ‘Martian potato,’ a ‘comet creeper’ and a ‘space butterfly.'”

An excerpt:

The basic idea of Astrochicken is that the spacecraft will be small and quick. I do not believe that a fruitful future for space science lies along the path we are now following, with space missions growing larger and larger and fewer and fewer and slower and slower as the decades go by. I propose a radical step in the direction of smallness and quickness. Astrochicken will weigh a kilogram instead of Voyager’s ton, and it will travel from Earth into orbit around Uranus in two years instead {197} of Voyager’s nine. The spacecraft must be far more versatile than Voyager. It must land on each of Uranus’ moons, roam around on their surfaces, see where it is going, taste the stuff it is walking on, take off into space again, and navigate around Uranus until it decides to make a landing somewhere else. To do all this with a 1-kilogram spacecraft sounds crazy to people who have to work and plan within the constraints of today’s technology. Perhaps it will still be crazy in 2016. Perhaps not. I am dreaming of the new technologies which might make such a crazy mission possible.

Three kinds of new technology are needed. All three are likely to become available for use by the year 2016. All three are already here in embryonic form and are advanced far enough to have names. Their names are genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion. Genetic engineering is fundamental. It is the essential tool required in order to design a 1-kilogram spacecraft with the capabilities of Voyager. Astrochicken will not be built, it will be grown. It will be organized biologically and its blueprints will be written in the convenient digital language of DNA. It will be a symbiosis of plant and animal and electronic components. The plant component has to provide a basic life-support system using closed-cycle biochemistry with sunlight as the energy source. The animal component has to provide sensors and nerves and muscles with which it can observe and orient itself and navigate to its destination. The electronic component has to receive instructions from Earth and transmit back the results of its observations. During the next thirty years we will be gaining experience in the art of designing biological systems of this sort. We will be learning how to coordinate the three components so that they work smoothly together.

Artificial intelligence is the tool required to integrate the animal and electronic components into a working symbiosis. If the integration is successful, Astrochicken could be as agile as a hummingbird with a brain weighing no more than a gram. The information-handling apparatus is partly neural and partly electronic. An artificial intelligence machine is a computer {198} designed to function like a brain. A computer of this sort will be made compatible with a living nervous system, so that information will flow freely in both directions across the interface between neural and electronic circuits.

The third new technology required for Uranus 2 is solar-electric propulsion. To get from Earth to Uranus in two years requires a speed of 50 kilometers per second, too fast for any reasonable multistage chemical rocket. It is also too fast for solar sails. Nuclear propulsion of any kind is impossible in a 1-kilogram spacecraft. Solar-electric propulsion is the unique system which can economically give a high velocity to a small pay load. In this system, solar energy is collected by a large, thin antenna and converted with modest efficiency into thrust. The spacecraft carries a small ion-jet motor which uses propel-lant sparingly and gives an acceleration of the order of a milligee.

Nobody has yet done the careful engineering development to demonstrate that the energy of sunlight can be converted into thrust with a power-to-weight ratio of 1 kilowatt per kilogram. That is what Uranus 2 needs. But solar-electric propulsion is probably an easier technology to develop than genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Since I am talking science fiction, I shall assume that all three technologies will be available for our use in 2016. I can then give a rough sketch of the Uranus 2 mission.

The mission begins with a conventional launch taking the spacecraft from Earth into orbit. Since the spacecraft weighs only 1 kilogram, it can easily ride on any convenient launcher. During the launch, the spacecraft is packaged into a compact shape, and the biological components are busy reorganizing themselves for life in space. During this phase the spacecraft is a fertilized egg, externally inert but internally alive, waiting for the right moment to emerge in the shape of an Astro-chicken. After it is in a low Earth orbit, it will emerge from its package and deploy the life-support apparatus needed for survival in space. It will deploy, or grow, a thin-film solar collector. The collector weighs 100 grams and collects {199} sunlight from an area of 100 square meters. It feeds a kilowatt of power into the little ion-drive engine which sends the spacecraft on its way with a milligee acceleration sustained for several months. This is enough to escape from Earth’s gravity and arrive at Uranus within two years. The same 100-square-meter collector serves as a radio antenna for two-way communication with Earth. This is ten times the area of the Voyager high-gain antenna. For the same rate of information transmitted, the transmitter power of Astrochicken can be ten times smaller than Voyager, 2 watts instead of 20 watts.

The spacecraft arrives at Uranus at 50 kilometers per second and grazes the outer fringe of the Uranus atmosphere. The 100-square-meter solar collector now acts as an efficient atmospheric brake. Because the collector is so light, it is not heated to extreme temperatures as it decelerates. The peak temperature turns out to be about 800 Celsius or 1500 Fahrenheit. The atmospheric braking lasts for about half a minute and produces a peak deceleration of 100 gees. The spacecraft leaves Uranus with speed reduced to 20 kilometers per second and passes near enough to one of the moons to avoid hitting Uranus again. It is then free to navigate around at leisure among the moons and rings. The solar-electric propulsion system, using the feeble sunlight at Uranus, is still able to give the spacecraft an acceleration of a tenth of a milligee, enough to explore the whole Uranus system over a period of a few years.

The spacecraft must now make use of its biological functions to refuel itself. First it navigates to one of the rings and browses there, eating ice and hydrocarbons and replenishing its supply of propellant. If one ring tastes bad it can try another, moving around until it finds a supply of nutrients with the right chemistry for its needs. After eating its fill, it will use its internal metabolic processes with the input of energy from sunlight to convert the food into chemical fuels. Chemical fuels are needed for jumping onto moons and off again. Solar-electric propulsion gives too small a thrust for jumping. The spacecraft carries a small auxiliary chemical rocket system for {200} this purpose. We know that a chemical rocket system is biologically possible, because there exists on the Earth a creature called the Bombardier beetle which uses a chemical rocket to bombard its enemies with a scalding jet of hot liquid. It manufactures chemical fuels within its body and combines them in its rocket chamber to produce the scalding jet. Astrochicken will borrow its chemical rocket system from the Bombardier beetle. The Bombardier beetle system will give it the ability to accelerate with short bursts of high thrust to escape from the feeble gravity of the Uranus moons. The spacecraft may also prefer to use the Bombardier beetle system for jumping quickly from one place to another on a moon rather than walking laboriously over the surface. While living on the surface of a moon, the Astrochicken will continue to eat and to keep the Bombardier beetle fuel tanks filled. From time to time it will transmit messages to Earth informing us about its adventures and discoveries.

That is not the end of my dream, but it is the end of my chapter. I have told enough about the Uranus 2 mission to give the flavor of it. The underlying idea of Uranus 2 is that we should apply to the development of technology the lessons which nature teaches us in the history of the evolution of life. Birds and dinosaurs were cousins, but birds were small and agile while dinosaurs were big and clumsy. Big main-frame computers, nuclear power stations and Space Shuttle are dinosaurs. Microcomputers, STIG gas turbines, Voyager and Astrochicken are birds. The future belongs to the birds. The JPL engineers now have their dreams on board the Voyager speeding on its way to Neptune. I hope the next generation of engineers will have their dreams riding on Uranus 2 in 2016.•

Tags: ,

I read Sean Penn’s “El Chapo Speaksat the beginning of 2016, and spent the rest of the year trying to absorb as many great articles as I could to erase from my mind the awful reporting and prose. “Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons,” wrote the actor-director-poetaster. Yes, Sean, okay, but go fuck yourself.

The following 50 articles made me feel pretty good again. In time, I myself once more began to fly among the falcons.

Congratulations to all the wonderful writers who made the list. My apologies for not reading more small journals and sites, but the time and money of any one person, myself included, is limited.


1) “Latina Hotel Workers Harness Force of Labor and of Politics in Las Vegas” and 2) “A Fighter’s Hour of Need(Dan Barry, New York Times).

As good as any newspaper writer–or whatever you call such people now–Barry reports and composes like a dream. The first piece has as good a kicker as anyone could come up with–even if life subsequently kicked back in a shocking way–and the second is a heartbreaker about the immediate aftermath of a 2013 boxing match in which Magomed Abdusalamov suffered severe brain damage.

Even when Barry shares a byline, I still feel sure I can pick out his sentences, so flawless and inviting they are. One example of that would be…

3) “An Alt-Right Makeover Shrouds the Swastikas by Barry, Serge F. Kovaleski, Julie Turkewitz and Joseph Goldstein.

An angle used to dismiss the idea that the Make America Great White Again message resonated with a surprising, depressing number of citizens has been to point out that some Trump supporters also voted for Obama. That argument seems simplistic. Some bigots aren’t so far gone that they can’t vote for a person of a race they dislike if they feel it’s in their best interests financially or otherwise. That is to say, some racially prejudiced whites voted for President Obama. Trump appealed to them to find their worst selves. Many did.

Likewise the Trump campaign emboldened far worse elements, including white nationalists and separatists and anti-Semites. Thinking they’d been perhaps permanently marginalized, these hate groups are now updating their “brand,” hiding yesterday’s swastikas and burning crosses and other “bad optics,” and referring to themselves not as neo-Nazis but by more vaguely appealing monikers like “European-American advocates.” It’s the same monster wrapped in a different robe, the mainstreaming of malevolence, and they won’t again be easily relegated to the fringe regardless of Trump’s fate.

This group of NYT journalists explores a beast awakened and energized by Trump’s ugly campaign. It’s a great piece, though we should all probably stop calling these groups by their preferred KKK 2.0 alias of “alt-right.”

4) “No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along” (Charles Blow, New York Times)

In the hours after America elected, if barely, a Ku Klux Kardashian, most pundits and talk-show hosts encouraged all to support this demagogue, as if we could readily forget that he was a racist troll who demanded the first African-American President show his birth certificate, a deadbeat billionaire who didn’t pay taxes or many of his contracted workers, a draft-dodger who mocked our POWs while praising Putin, a sexual predator who boasted about his assaults, a xenophobe who blamed Mexicans and Muslims, a bigot who had a long history of targeting African-Americans with the zeal of a one-man lynching bee. In a most passionate and lucid shot across the bow, Blow said “no way,” penning an instant classic, speaking for many among the disenfranchised majority. 

5) “Lunch with the FT: Burning Man’s Larry Harvey (Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times)

If self-appointed Libertarian overlord Grover Norquist, a Harvard graduate with a 13-year-old’s understanding of government and economics, ever had his policy preferences enacted fully, it would lead to worse lifestyles and shorter lifespans for the majority of Americans. In fact, we now get to see many of his idiotic ideas played out in real-life experiments. He’s so eager to Brownback the whole country he’s convinced himself, despite being married to a Muslim woman, there’s conservative bona fides in Trump’s Mussolini-esque stylings and suspicious math.

In 2014, Norquist made his way to the government-less wonderland known as Burning Man, free finally from those bullying U.S. regulations, the absence of which allows Chinese business titans to breathe more freely, if not literally. Norquist’s belief that the short-term settlement in the Nevada desert is representative of what the nation could be every day is no less silly than considering Spring Break a template for successful marriage. He was quote as saying: “Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.” Holy fuck, who passed him the peyote?

In his interview piece, Bradshaw broke bread in San Francisco with Harvey, co-founder of Burning Man and its current “Chief Philosophic Officer,” who speaks fondly of rent control and the Bernie-led leftward shift of the Democratic Party. Norquist would not approve, even if Harvey is a contradictory character, insisting he has a “conservative sensibility” and lamenting the way many involved in social justice fixate on self esteem.

6) “The World Wide Cageand 7)Humans Have Long Wished to Fly Like Birds: Maybe We Shall” (Nicholas Carr, Aeon)

One of the best critics of our technological society keeps getting better.

The former piece is the introduction to Carr’s essay collection Utopia Is Creepy. The writer argues (powerfully) that we’ve defined “progress as essentially technological,” even though the Digital Age quickly became corrupted by commercial interests, and the initial thrill of the Internet faded as it became “civilized” in the most derogatory, Twain-ish use of that word. To Carr, the something gained (access to an avalanche of information) is overwhelmed by what’s lost (withdrawal from reality). The critic applies John Kenneth Galbraith’s term “innocent fraud” to the Silicon Valley marketing of techno-utopianism. 

You could extrapolate this thinking to much of our contemporary culture: binge-watching endless content, Pokémon Go, Comic-Con, fake Reality TV shows, reality-altering cable news, etc. Carr suggests we use the tools of Silicon Valley while refusing the ethos. Perhaps that’s possible, but I doubt you can separate such things.

The latter is a passage about biotechnology which wonders if science will soon move too fast not only for legislation but for ethics as well. The “philosophy is dead” assertion that’s persistently batted around in scientific circles drives me bonkers because we dearly need consideration about our likely commandeering of evolution. Carr doesn’t make that argument but instead rightly wonders if ethics is likely to be more than a “sideshow” when garages aren’t used to just hatch computer hardware or search engines but greatly altered or even new life forms. The tools will be cheap, the “creativity” decentralized, the “products” attractive. As Freeman Dyson wrote nearly a decade ago: “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.”

8) “Calum Chace: Ask Me Anything” (Chace, Reddit)

The writer, an all-around interesting thinker, conducted an AMA based on his book, The Economic Singularity, which envisions a future–and not such a far-flung one–when human labor is a thing of the past. It’s certainly possible since constantly improving technology could make fleets of cars driverless and factories workerless. In fact, there’s no reason why they can’t also be ownerless. 

What happens then? How do we reconcile a free-market society with an automated one? In the long run, it could be a great victory for humanity, but getting from here to there will be bumpy.

9) “England’s Post-Imperial Stress Disorder(Andrew Brown, Boston Globe)

Not being intimately familiar with the nuances of the U.K.’s politics and culture, I’m wary of assigning support for Brexit to ugly nativist tendencies, but it does seem a self-harming act provoked by the growing pains of globalism. It’s not nearly as dumb a move as a President Trump, for instance, but some of the same forces are at play, particularly when it comes to the pro-Brexit, anti-immigration UKIP party.

It’s not shocking that Britain and the U.S. are trying to dodge the arrival of a new day and greater competition, a time when empires can’t merely strike back at will. We’re richer now, we have better things, but the distribution is very uneven and we feel poor inside. For some, maybe a surprising number, blame must be assigned to the “others.” As Randy Newman sang: “The end of an empire is messy at best.”

10) My President Was Black” (Ta-Nahesi Coates, The Atlantic)

It wasn’t the color of President Obama’s suit that so bothered his critics but the color of his skin. Sure, Bill Clinton was impeached and John Kerry swiftboated, but there was something so deeply disqualifying about the antagonism that faced 44, something beyond mere partisanship, which boiled over into Birtherism, interruptions during the State of the Union, denial of his Christian faith and vicious insults hurled at his gorgeous wife.

The old adage that black people have to be twice as good at a job as white people proved to be mathematically refutable: The Obamas were a million times better, and it wasn’t nearly enough for their detractors. When Obama even mildly suggested that institutional racism still existed, something he rarely did, he was labeled a “jerk” by prominent Republicans. Worse yet, his most overtly bigoted tormentor will succeed him in the White House. 

That raises an obvious question: If the perfect son isn’t good enough, then what kind of chance do his siblings have?

In a towering essay, Coates reflects on Obama’s history and the “fitful spasmodic years” of his White House tenure, which had pluses and minuses but were a gravity-defying time of true accomplishment which will never happen the same way again. In addition to macro ideas about race and identity, Coates’ writing on the Justice Department under this Administration is of particular importance.

11) “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America (Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Atlantic)

Hope is usually audacious but sometimes misplaced.

Without that feeling of expectation in a country founded on white supremacy that has never erased institutional racism, Barack Hussein Obama would certainly have never been elected President of the United States, not once, let alone twice. But his hope has also served as an escape hatch for white Americans who wanted to not only ignore the past but also the present. By stressing the best in us, Obama overlooked the worst of us, and that worst has never gone away.

It’s doubtful he behaved this way merely due to political opportunism: Obama seems a true believer in America and the ideals it espouses but has never lived up to. I love him and Michelle and think they’re wonderful people, but the nation has never been as good as they are, and even on a good day I’m unsure we even aspire to be. A painfully true Atlantic essay by Cottom meditates on these ideas.

12) “We’re Coming Close to the Point Where We Can Create People Who Are Superior to Others” (Hannah Devlin, The Guardian)

Devlin interviews novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wonders if liberal democracy will be doomed by a new type of wealth inequality, the biological kind, in which gene editing and other tools make enhancement and improved health available only to the haves. Ishiguro isn’t a fatalist on the topic, encouraging more public engagement.

Some believe exorbitantly priced technologies created for the moneyed few will rapidly decrease in price and make their way inside everyone’s pockets (and bodies and brains), the same distribution path blazed by consumer electronics. That’s possible but certainly not definite. Of course, as the chilling political winds of 2016 have demonstrated, liberal democracy may be too fragile to even survive to that point.

13) “The Privacy Wars Are About to Get a Whole Lot Worse” (Cory Doctorow, Locus Magazine)

Read the fine print. That’s always been good advice, but it’s never been taken seriously when it comes to the Internet, a fast-moving, seemingly ephemeral medium that doesn’t invite slowing down to contemplate. So companies attach a consent form to their sites and apps about cookies. No one reads it, and there’s no legal recourse from having your laptop or smartphone from being plundered for all your personal info. It quietly removes legal recourse from surveillance capitalism.

In an excellent piece, Doctorow explains how this oversight, which has already had serious consequences, will snake its way into every corner of our lives once the Internet of Things turns every item into a computer, cars and lamps and soda machines and TV screens. “Notice and consent is an absurd legal fiction,” he writes, acknowledging that it persists despite its ridiculous premise and invasive nature.

14) “The Green Universe: A Vision” (Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books)

I’ve probably enjoyed Dyson’s “pure speculation” writings as much as anything I’ve read during my life, particularly the Imagined Worlds lecture and his NYRB essays and reviews. In this piece, the physicist goes far beyond his decades-old vision of an “Astrochicken” (a spacecraft that’s partly biological), conjuring a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the Universe with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth,” he writes. It’s a spectacular dream, though we may bury ourselves beneath water or ash long before it can come to fruition, especially with the threat of climate change.

15) “The Augmented Human Being: A Conversation With George Church” (Edge)

CRISPR’s surprising success has swept us into an age when it all seems possible: the manipulation of humans, animals and plants, even perhaps of extinct species. Which way forward?

The geneticist Church, who has long had visions of rejuvenated woolly mammoths and augmented humans, realizes some bristle at manipulation of the Homo sapiens germline because it calls into question all we are, but apart from metaphors, there are also very real practical concerns over the games getting messy and possibly dangerous. The good (diseases being edited out of existence, organs being tailored to transplantees, etc.) shouldn’t be dreams permanently deferred, but it is difficult to understand how bad applications will be contained. Of course, the negative will probably unfold regardless, so we owe it ourselves to pursue the positive, if carefully. Church himself is on board with a cautious approach but not one that’s unduly so.

16) “The Empty Brain(Robert Epstein, Aeon)

Since the 16th century, the human brain has often been compared to a machine of one sort or another, with it being likened to a computer today. The idea that the brain is a machine seems true, though the part about gray matter operating in a similar way to the gadgets that currently sit atop our laps or in our palms is likely false. 

In a wonderfully argumentative and provocative essay, psychologist Epstein says this reflexive labeling of human brains as information processors is a “story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand.” He doesn’t think the brain is tabula rasa but asserts that it doesn’t store memories like an Apple would.

It’s a rich piece of writing full of ideas and examples, though I wish Epstein would have relied less on the word “never” (e.g., “we will never have to worry about a human mind going amok in cyberspace”), because while he’s almost certainly correct about the foreseeable future, given enough time no one knows how the machines in our heads and pockets will change.

17) “North Korea’s One-Percenters Savor Life in ‘Pyonghattan‘” (Anna Fifield, The Washington Post)

Even in Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian state there are haves and have-nots who experience wildly different lifestyles. In the midst of the politically driven arrests and murders, military parades and nuclear threats, there exists a class of super rich kids familiar with squash courts, high-end shopping and fine dining. “Pyonghattan,” it’s called, this sphere of Western-ish consumerist living, which is, of course, just a drop in the bucket when compared to the irresponsible splurges of the Rodman-wrangling “Outstanding Leader.” Still weird, though.

18) “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi (Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Jewish Journal)

The poet of despair, who lived for a time in a monastery, spent some of his last decade discussing spirituality and more earthly matters with the Los Angeles-based rabbi, who explains how the Jewish tradition informed Cohen’s work. “We shared a common language, a common nightmare,” he writes. One remark the prophet of doom made to Finley hits especially hard with the demons awakened during this election season: “You won’t like what comes next after America.”

19) Five Books Interview: Ellen Wayland-Smith Discusses Utopias (Five Books)

In a smart Q&AWayland-Smith, author of Oneida, talks about a group of titles on the topic of Utopia. She surmises that attempts at such communities aren’t prevalent like they were in the 1840s or even the 1960s because most of us realize they don’t normally end well, whether we’re talking about the bitter financial and organizational failures of Fruitlands and Brook Farm or the utter madness of Jonestown. That’s true on a micro-community level, though I would argue that there have never been more people dreaming of large-scale Utopias–and corresponding dystopias–then there are right now. The visions have just grown significantly in scope.

In macro visions, Silicon Valley technologists speak today of an approaching post-scarcity society, an automated, quantified, work-free world in which all basic needs are met and drudgery has disappeared into a string of zeros and ones. These thoughts were once the talking points of those on the fringe, say, a teenage guru who believed he could levitate the Houston Astrodome, but now they (and Mars settlements, a-mortality and the computerization of every object) are on the tongues of the most important business people of our day, billionaires who hope to shape the Earth and beyond into a Shangri-La. 

Perhaps much good will come from these goals, and maybe a few disasters will be enabled as well. 

20) “Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny” (Tad Friend, New Yorker)

Friend’s “Letter from California” articles in the New Yorker are probably the long-form journalism I most anticipate, because he’s so good at understanding distinct milieus and those who make them what they are, revealing the micro and macro of any situation or subject and sorting through psychological motivations that drive the behavior of individuals or groups. To put it concisely: He gets ecosystems.

The writer’s latest effort, a profile of Y Combinator President Sam Altman, a stripling yet a strongman, reveals someone who has almost no patience for or interest in most people yet wants to save the world–or something.

It’s not a hit job, as Altman really has no intent to offend or injure, but it vivisects Silicon Valley’s Venture Capital culture and the outrageous hubris of those insulated inside its wealth and privilege, the ones who nod approvingly while watching Steve Jobs use Mahatma Gandhi’s image to sell wildly marked-up electronics made by sweatshop labor, and believe they also can think different.

When envisioning the future, Altman sees perhaps a post-scarcity, automated future where a few grand a year of Universal Basic Income can buy the jobless a bare existence (certainly not the big patch of Big Sur he owns), or maybe there’ll be complete societal collapse. Either or. More or less. If the latter occurs, the VC wunderkind plans to flee the carnage by jetting to the safety of his New Zealand spread with Peter Thiel, who has a moral blind spot reminiscent of Hitler’s secretary. A grisly death seems preferable. 

21) “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” (Neal Gabler, The Atlantic)

The term “middle class” was not always a nebulous one in America. It meant that you had arrived on solid ground and only the worst luck or behavior was likely to shake the earth beneath your feet. That’s become less and less true for four decades, as a number of factors (technology, globalization, tax codes, the decline of unions, the 2008 economic collapse, etc.) have conspired to hollow out this hallowed ground. You can’t arrive someplace that barely exists.

Middle class is now what you think you would be if you had any money. George Carlin’s great line that “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it” seems truer every day. It’s not so much a fear of falling anymore, but the fear of never getting up, at least not within the current financial arrangement. Those hardworking, decent people you see every day? They’re just as afraid as you are. They are you.

In the spirit of the great 1977 Atlantic article “The Gentle Art of Poverty” and William McPherson’s recent Hedgehog Review piece “Falling,” the excellent writer and film critic Gabler has penned an essay about his “secret shame” of being far poorer than appearances would indicate.

22) “Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy(Roxane Gay, The New York Times)

We have to separate the art and the artist or we’ll end up without a culture, but it’s not always so easy to do. There was likely no more creative person who ever walked the Earth than David Bowie, whose death kicked off an awful 2016, yet the guy did have sex with children. And Pablo Picasso beat women, Louis-Ferdinand Céline was an anti-Semite, Anne Sexton molested her daughter and so on. In Gay’s smart, humane op-ed, she looks at the controversy surrounding Birth of a Nation writer-director Parker, realizing she can’t compartmentalize her feelings about creators and creations. Agree with her or not, but it’s certainly a far more suitable response than Stephen Galloway’s shockingly amoral Hollywood Reporter piece on the firestorm.

23) “The Case Against Reality (Amanda Gefter, The Atlantic)

A world in which Virtual Reality is in wide use would present a different way to see things, but what if reality is already not what we think it is? It’s usually accepted that we don’t all see things exactly the same way–not just metaphorically–and that our individual interpretation of stimuli is more a rough cut than an exact science. It’s a guesstimate. But things may be even murkier than we believe. Gefter interviews cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman who thinks our perception isn’t even a reliable simulacra, that what we take in is nothing like what actually is. It requires just a few minutes to read and will provoke hours of thought.

24) “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” (Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books)

For many of us the idea of a tyrant in the White House is unthinkable, but for some that’s all they can think about. These aren’t genuinely struggling folks in the Rust Belt whose dreams have been foreclosed on by the death rattle of the Industrial Age and made a terrible decision that will only deepen their wounds, but a large number of citizens with fairly secure lifestyles who want to unleash their fury on a world not entirely their own anymore. 

I’ve often wondered how Nazi Germany was possible, and I think this election has finally provided me with the answer. There has to be pervasive prejudice, sure, and it helps if there is a financially desperate populace, but I also think it’s the large-scale revenge of mediocrity, of people wanting to establish an order where might, not merit, will rule.

Gessen addresses the spooky parallels between Russia and this new U.S. as we begin what looks to be a Trump-Putin bromance. Her advice to those wondering if they’re being too paranoid about what may now occur: “Believe the autocrat.”

25) “The Future of Privacy” (William Gibson, New York Times)

What surprises me most about the new abnormal isn’t that surveillance has entered our lives but that we’ve invited it in.

For a coupon code or a “friend,” we’re willing to surrender privacy to a corporate state that wants to engage us, know us, follow us, all to better commodify us. In fact, we feel sort of left out if no one is watching.

It may be that in a scary world we want a brother looking after us even if it’s Big Brother, so we’ve entered into an era of likes and leaks, one that will only grow more profoundly challenging when the Internet of Things becomes the thing.

In a wonderful essay, Gibson considers privacy, history and encryption, those thorny, interrelated topics.

26) “Why You Should Believe in the Digital Afterlife” (Michael Graziano, The Atlantic)

When Russian oligarch Dmitry Itskov vows that by 2045 we’ll be able to upload our consciousness into a computer and achieve a sort of immortality, I’m perplexed. Think about the unlikelihood: It’s not a promise to just create a general, computational brain–difficult enough–but to precisely simulate particular human minds. That ups the ante by a whole lot. While it seems theoretically possible, this process may take awhile.

The Princeton neuroscientist Graziano plots the steps required to encase human consciousness, to create a second life that sounds a bit like Second Life. He acknowledges opinions will differ over whether we’ve generated “another you” or some unsatisfactory simulacrum, a mere copy of an original. Graziano’s clearly excited, though, by the possibility that “biological life [may become] more like a larval stage.”

27) “Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will” (Yuval Noah Harari, The Financial Times)

First we slide machines into our pockets, and then we slide into theirs.

As long as humans have roamed the Earth, we’ve been part of a biological organism larger than ourselves. At first, we were barely connected parts, but gradually we became a Global Village. In order for that connectivity to become possible, the bio-organism gave way to a technological machine. As we stand now, we’re moving ourselves deeper and deeper into a computer, one with no OFF switch. We’ll be counted, whether we like it or not. Some of that will be great, and some not.

The Israeli historian examines this new normal, one that’s occurred without close study of what it will mean for the cogs in the machine–us. As he writes, “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.”

28) “How Howard Stern Owned Donald Trump(Virginia Heffernan, Politico Magazine)

Whether it’s Howard Stern or that other shock jock Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump’s deep-seated need for praise has made him a mark for those who know how to push his buttons. In the 1990s, when the hideous hotelier was at a career nadir, he was a veritable Wack Packer, dropping by the Stern show to cruelly evaluate women and engage in all sorts of locker-room banter. Trump has dismissed these un-Presidential comments as “entertainment,” but his vulgarity off-air is likewise well-documented. He wasn’t out of his element when with the King of All Media but squarely in it. And it wasn’t just two decades ago. Up until 2014, Trump was still playing right along, allowing himself to be flattered into conversation he must have realized on some level was best avoided.

For Stern, who’s become somewhat less of an asshole as Trump has become far more of one, the joke was always that ugly men were sitting in judgement of attractive women. The future GOP nominee, however, was seemingly not aware he was a punchline. He’s a self-described teetotaler who somehow has beer goggles for himself. During this Baba Booey of an election season, Heffernan wrote knowingly of the dynamic between the two men.

29) “I’m Andrew Hessel: Ask Me Anything” (Hessel, Reddit)

If you like your human beings to come with fingers and toes, you may be disquieted by this undeniably heady AMA conducted by a futurist and a “biotechnology catalyst” at Autodesk. The researcher fields questions about a variety of flaws and illnesses plaguing people that biotech may be able to address, even eliminate. Of course, depending on your perspective, humanness itself can be seen as a failing, something to be “cured.”

30) “What If the Aliens We Are Looking For Are AI? (Richard Hollingham, BBC Future) 

If there are aliens out there, Sir Martin Rees feels fairly certain they’re conscious machines, not oxygen-hoarding humans. It’s just too inhospitable for carbon beings to travel beyond our solar system. He allows that perhaps cyborgs, a form of semi-organic post-humans, could possibly make a go of it. But that’s as close a reflection of ourselves we may be able to see in space. Hollingham explores this theory, wondering if a lack of contact can be explained by the limits we put on our search by expecting a familiar face in the final frontier.

31) “We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus

If performance-enhancing drugs weren’t at all dangerous to the athletes using them, should they be banned?

I bet plenty of people would say they should, bowing before some notion of competitive purity which has never existed. It’s also a nod to “god-given ability,” a curious concept in an increasingly agnostic world. Why should those born with the best legs and lungs be the fastest? Why should the ones lucky enough to have the greatest gray matter at birth be our best thinkers? Why should those fortunate to initially get the healthiest organs live the longest? It doesn’t make much sense to hold back the rest of the world out of respect for a few winners of the genetics lottery.

Hsu relates how genetic engineering will supercharge athletes and the rest of us, making widely available the gifts of Usain Bolt, who gained his from hard work, sure, but also a twist of fate. In fact, extrapolating much further, he believes “speciation seems a definite possibility.”

32) “How Democracies Fall Apart(Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, Foreign Affairs

If we are hollow men (and women), American liberty, that admittedly unevenly distributed thing, may be over after 240 years. And it could very well end not with a bang but a whimper.

Those waiting for the moment when autocracy topples the normal order of things are too late. Election Day was that time. It’s not guaranteed that the nation transforms into 1930s Europe or that we definitely descend into tyranny, but the conditions have never been more favorable in modern times for the U.S. to capitulate to autocracy. The creeps are in office, and the creeping will be a gradual process. Don’t wait for an explosion; we’re living in its wake.

Kendall-Taylor and Frantz analyze how quietly freedom can abandon us.

33) Khizr Khan’s Speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention (Khan, DNC)

Ever since Apple’sThink Different ad in 1997, the one in which Steve jobs used Gandhi’s image to sell marked-up consumer electronics made by sweatshop labor, Silicon Valley business titans have been celebrated the way astronauts used to be. Jobs, who took credit for that advertising campaign which someone else created, specifically wondered why we put on a pedestal those who voyage into space when he and his clever friends were changing the world–or something–with their gadgets. He believed technologists were the best and brightest Americans. He was wrong.

Some of the Valley’s biggest names filed dourly into Trump Tower recently in a sort of reverse perp walk. It was the same, sad spectacle of Al Gore’s pilgrimage, which was answered with Scott Pruitt, climate-change denier, being chosen EPA Chief. Perhaps they made the trek on some sort of utilitarian impulse, but I would guess there was also some element of self-preservation, not an unheard of sense of compromise for those who see their corporations as if they were countries, not only because of their elephantine “GDPs,” but also because of how they view themselves. I don’t think they’re all Peter Thiel, an emotional leper and intellectual fraud who now gets to play out his remarkably stupid theories in a large-scale manner. I’ve joked that Thiel has a moral blind spot reminiscent of Hitler’s secretary, but the truth is probably far darker. 

What would have been far more impressive would have been if Musk, Cook, Page, Sandberg, Bezos and the rest stopped downstairs in front of the building and read a statement saying that while they would love to aid any U.S. President, they could not in this case because the President-Elect has displayed vicious xenophobia, misogyny and callous disregard for non-white people throughout the campaign and in the election’s aftermath. He’s shown totalitarian impulses and has disdain for the checks and balances that make the U.S. a free country. In fact, with his bullying nastiness he continues to double down on his prejudices, which has been made very clear by not only his words but through his cabinet appointments. They could have stated their dream for the future doesn’t involve using Big Data to spy on Muslims and Mexicans or programming 3D printers to build internment camps on Mars. They might have noted that Steve Bannon, whom Trump chose as his Chef Strategist, just recently said that there were too many Asian CEOs in Silicon alley, revealing his white-nationalistic ugliness yet again. They could have refused to normalize Trump’s odious vision. They could have taken a stand.

They didn’t because they’re not our absolute finest citizens. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who understand the essence of the nation in a way the tech billionaires do not, more truly represent us at our most excellent. They possess a wisdom and moral courage that’s as necessary as the Constitution itself. The Silicon Valley folks lack these essential qualities, and without them, you can’t be called our best and brightest.

And maybe Khan’s DNC speech is our ultimate Cassandra moment, when we didn’t listen, or maybe we did but when we looked deep inside for our better angels we came up empty. Regardless, he told the truth beautifully and passionately. When we went low, he went high.

34) “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.” (Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane)

It was thought that the Russian hacking of the U.S. Presidential election wasn’t met with an immediate response because no one thought Trump really had a chance to win, but the truth is the gravity of this virtual Watergate initially took even many veteran Washington insiders by surprise. This great piece of reportage provides deep and fascinating insight into one of the jaw-dropping scandals of an outrageous election season, which has its origins in the 1990s.

35) “Goodbye to Barack Obama’s World” (Edward Luce, The Financial Times

He must be taken seriously,” Luce wrote in the Financial Times in December 2015 of Donald Trump, as the anti-politician trolled the whole of America with his Penthouse-Apartment Pinochet routine, which seems to have been more genuine than many realized.

Like most, the columnist believed several months earlier that the Reality TV Torquemada was headed for a crash, though he rightly surmised the demons Trump had so gleefully and opportunistically awakened, the vengeful pangs of those who longed to Make America Great White Again, were not likely to dissipate.

But the dice were kind to the casino killer, and a string of accidents and incidents enabled Trump and the mob he riled to score enough Electoral College votes to turn the country, and world, upside down. It’s such an unforced error, one which makes Brexit seem a mere trifle, that it feels like we’ve permanently surrendered something essential about the U.S., that more than an era has ended.

In this post-election analysis, Luce looks forward for America and the whole globe and sees possibilities that are downright ugly.

36) “The Writer Who Was Too Strong To Live” (Dave McKenna, Deadspin)

A postmortem about Jennifer Frey, a journalistic prodigy of the 1990s who burned brilliantly before burning out. A Harvard grad who was filing pieces for newspapers before she was even allowed to drink–legally, that is–Frey was a full-time sportswriter for the New York Times by 24, out-thinking, out-hustling and out-filing even veteran scribes at a clip that was all but impossible. Frey seemed to have it all and was positioned to only get more.

Part of what she had, though, that nobody knew about, was bipolar disorder, which she self-medicated with a sea of alcohol. Career, family and friends gradually floated away, and she died painfully and miserably at age 47. The problem with formidable talent as much as with outrageous wealth is that it can be forceful enough to insulate a troubled soul from treatment. Then, when the fall finally occurs, as it must, it’s too late to rise once more.

37) “United States of Paranoia: They See Gangs of Stalkers” (Mike McPhate, The New York Times)

Sometimes mental illness wears the trappings of the era in which it’s experienced. Mike Jay has written beautifully in the last couple of years about such occurrences attending the burial of Napoleon Bonaparte and the current rise of surveillance and Reality TV. The latter is something of a Truman Show syndrome, in which sick people believe they’re being observed, that they’re being followed. To a degree, they’re right, we all are under much greater technological scrutiny now, though these folks have a paranoia which can drive such concerns into crippling obsessions.

Because we’re all connected now, the “besieged” have found one another online, banning together as “targeted individuals” who’ve been marked by the government (or some other group entity) for observation, harassment and mind control. McPhate’s troubling article demonstrates that the dream of endless information offering lucidity has been dashed for a surprising amount of people, that the inundation of data has served to confuse rather than clarify. These shaky citizens resemble those with alien abduction stories, except they seem to have been “shanghaied” by the sweep of history.

38) “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China. It’s Automation. (Claire Cain Miller, The New York Times)

Many people nowadays wonder what will replace capitalism, but I believe capitalism will be just fine.

You and me, however, we’re fucked.

The problem is that an uber technologized version of capitalism may not require as many of us or value as highly those who’ve yet to be relieved of their duties. Perhaps a thin crust at the very top will thrive, but without sound policy the rest may be Joads with smartphones. In this scenario, we’d be tracked and commodified, given virtual trinkets rather than be paid. Our privacy, like many of our jobs, will disappear into the zeros and ones.

While the orange supremacist was waving his penis in America’s face during the campaign, the thorny question of what to do should widespread automation be established was left unexplored. That’s terrifying, since more and more outsourcing won’t refer to work moved beyond borders but beyond species. Certainly great investment in education is required, but that won’t likely be enough. Not every freshly unemployed taxi driver can be upskilled into a driverless car software engineer. There’s not enough room on that road.

Miller, a reporter who understands both numbers and people in a way few do, analyzes how outsourcing will increasingly refer to work not moved beyond borders but beyond species.

39) “Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself(Sasha Von Oldershausen, Texas Monthly)

Surveillance is a murky thing almost always attended by a self-censorship, quietly encouraging citizens to abridge their communication because perhaps someone is watching or listening. It’s a chilling of civil rights that happens in a creeping manner. Nothing can be trusted, not even the mundane, not even your own judgement. That’s the goal, really, of such a system–that everyone should feel endlessly observed.

The West Texas border reporter finds similarities between her stretch of America, which feverishly focuses on security from intruders, and her time spent living under theocracy in Iran.

40) “Madness” (Eyal Press, The New Yorker)

“By the nineties, prisons had become America’s dominant mental-health institutions,” writes Press in this infuriating study of a Florida correctional facility in which guards tortured, brutalized, even allegedly murdered, inmates–and employed retaliatory measures against mental health workers who complained. Prison reform is supposedly one of those issues that has bipartisan support, but very little seems to get done in rehabilitating a system that warehouses many nonviolent offenders and mentally ill people among those who truly need to be incarcerated. It seems a breakdown of the institution but is more likely a perpetuation of business as it was intended to be. Either way, the situation needs all the scrutiny and investigation journalists can muster.

41) It May Not Feel Like Anything To Be an Alien(Susan Schneider, Nautilus)

Until deep into the twentieth century, most popular dreams of ETs usually centered on biology. We wanted new friends that reminded us of ourselves or were even cuter. When we accepted we had no Martian doppelgangers, a dejected resignation set in. Perhaps some sort of simple cellular life existed somewhere, but what thin gruel to digest.

Then a new reality took hold: Maybe advanced intelligence exists in space as silicon, not carbon. It’s postbiological.

If there are aliens out there, maybe they’re conscious machines, not oxygen-hoarding humans. It’s just too inhospitable for beings like us to travel beyond our solar system. He allows that cyborgs, a form of semi-organic post-humans, could possibly make a go of it. But that’s as close a reflection of ourselves we may be able to see in space. 

Soon enough, that may be true as well on Earth, a relatively young planet on which intelligence may be in the process of shedding its mortal coil. Another possibility: Perhaps intelligence is also discarding consciousness.

Schneider’s smart article asserts that “soon, humans will no longer be the measure of intelligence on Earth” and tries to surmise what that transition will mean.

42) “Schadenfreude with Bite(Richard Seymour, London Review of Books)

The problem with anarchy is that it has a tendency to get out of control.

In 2013, Eric Schmidt, the most perplexing of Googlers, wrote (along with Jared Cohen) the truest thing about our newly connected age: “The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.”

Yes, indeed.

California was once a wild, untamed plot of land, and when people initially flooded the zone, it was exciting if harsh. But then, soon enough: the crowds, the pollution, the Adam Sandler films. The Golden State became civilized with laws and regulations and taxes, which was a trade-off but one that established order and security. The Web has been commodified but never been truly domesticated, so while the rules don’t apply it still contains all the smog and noise of the developed world. Like Los Angeles without the traffic lights.

Our new abnormal has played out for both better and worse. The fan triumphed over the professional, a mixed development that, yes, spread greater democracy on a surface level, but also left truth attenuated. Into this unfiltered, post-fact, indecent swamp slithered the troll, that witless, cowardly insult comic.

The biggest troll of them all, Donald Trump, the racist opportunist who stalked our first African-American President demanding his birth certificate, is succeeding Obama in the Oval Office, which is terrible for the country if perfectly logical for the age. His Lampanelli-Mussolini campaign also emboldened all manner of KKK 2.0, manosphere and neo-Nazi detritus in their own trolling, as they used social media to spread a discombobulating disinformation meant to confuse and distract so hate could take root and grow. No water needed; bile would do.

In the wonderfully written essay, Seymour analyzes the discomfiting age of the troll.

43) “An American Tragedy(David Remnick, The New Yorker)

It happened here, and Remnick, who spent years covering the Kremlin and many more thinking about the White House, was perfectly prepared to respond to a moment he hoped would never arrive. As the unthinkable was still unfolding and most felt paralyzed by the American embrace of a demagogue, the New Yorker EIC urgently warned of the coming normalization of the incoming Administration, instantly drawing a line that allowed for myriad voices to demand decency and insist on truth and facts, which is our best safeguard against the total deterioration of liberal governance.

44) “This Is New York in the Not-So-Distant Future” (Andrew Rice, New York)

Some sort of survival mechanism allows us to forget the full horror of a tragedy, and that’s a good thing. That fading of facts makes it possible for us to go on. But it’s dangerous to be completely amnesiac about disaster.

Case in point: In 2014, Barry Diller announced plans to build a lavish park off Manhattan at the pier where Titanic survivors came to shore. Dial back just a little over two years ago to another waterlogged disaster, when Hurricane Sandy struck the city, and imagine such an island scheme even being suggested then. The wonder at that point was whether Manhattan was long for this world. Diller’s designs don’t sound much different than the captain of a supposedly unsinkable ship ordering a swimming pool built on the deck just after the ship hit an iceberg.

Rice provides an excellent profile of scientist Klaus Joseph, who believes NYC, as we know it, has no future. The academic could be wrong, but if he isn’t, his words about the effects of Irene and Sandy are chilling: “God forbid what’s next.”

45) “The Newer Testament” (Robyn Ross, Texas Monthly)

A Lone Star State millennial using apps and gadgets to disrupt Big Church doesn’t really seem odder than anything else in this hyperconnected and tech-happy entrepreneurial age, when the way things have been are threatened at every turn. At Experience Life in Lubbock, Soylent has yet to replace wine and there’s no Virtual Reality confessionals, but self-described “computer nerd” Chris Galanos has done his best to take the “Old” out of the Old Testament with his buzzing, whirring House of God 2.0. Is nothing sacred anymore?

46) “The New Nationalism Of Brexit And Trump Is A Product Of The Digital Age” (Douglas Rushkoff, Fast Company)

“We are flummoxed by today’s nationalist, regressively anti-global sentiments only because we are interpreting politics through that now-obsolete television screen,” writes Rushkoff in this excellent piece about the factious nature of the Digital Age. The post-TV landscape is a narrowcasted one littered with an infinite number of granular choices and niches. It’s empowering in a sense, an opportunity to vote “Leave” to everything, even a future that’s arriving regardless of popular consensus. It’s a far cry from not that long ago when an entire world sat transfixed by Neil Armstrong’s giant leap. Now everyone is trying to land on the moon at the same time–and no one can agree where it is. It’s more democratic this way, but maybe to an untenable degree, perhaps to the point where it’s a new form of anarchy.

47) “The Incredible Fulk(Alexandra Suich, The Economist 1843)

The insanity of our increasingly scary wealth inequality is chronicled expertly in this richly descriptive article, even though it seems in no way intended as a hit piece. The title refers to Ken Fulk, Silicon Valley’s go-to “lifestyle designer,” who charges billionaires millions to create loud interiors, rooms stuffed with antique doors from shuttered mental institutions and musk-ox taxidermy, intended to “evoke feelings” or some such shit.

As the article says: “His spaces, when completed, have a theatrical quality to them, which Fulk plays up. Once he’s finished a project he often brings clients to their homes to show them the final product, a ceremony which he calls the ‘big reveal.’ For the Birches’ home in San Francisco, he hired men dressed as beefeaters to stand outside the entrance and musicians to play indoors. For another set of clients in Palm Springs, he hired synchronized swimmers, a camel and an impersonator to dress up and sing like Dean Martin.” It’s all good, provided a bloody revolution never occurs.

Fulk acknowledges a “tension between high and low” in his work. Know what else has tension? Nooses.

48) “Truth Is a Lost Game in Turkey. Don’t Let the Same Thing Happen to You.(Ece Temelkuran, The Guardian)

Nihilism is sometimes an end but more often a means.

Truth can be fuzzy and facts imprecise, but an honest pursuit of these precious goods allows for a basic decency, a sense of order. Bombard such efforts for an adequate length of time, convince enough people that veracity and reality are fully amorphous, and opportunities for mischief abound.

Break down the normal rules (written and unwritten ones), create an air of confusion with shocking behaviors and statements, blast an opening where anything is possible–even “unspeakable things”–and a democracy can fall and tyranny rise. The timing has to be right, but sooner or later that time will arrive.

Has such a moment come for America? The conditions haven’t been this ripe for at least 60 years, and nothing can now be taken for granted.

Temelkuran explains how Turkey became a post-truth state, a nation-sized mirage, and how the same fate may befall Europe and the U.S. She certainly shares my concerns about the almost non-stop use of the world “elites” to neutralize the righteous into paralysis.

49) “Prepping for Doomsday: Bunkers, Panic Rooms, and Going Off the Grid” (Clare Trapasso, Realtor.com)

Utter societal collapse in the United States may not occur in the immediate future, but it’s certainly an understandable time for a case of the willies. In advance of the November elections, the bunker business boomed, as some among us thought things would soon fall apart and busied themselves counting their gold coins and covering their asses. In a shocking twist, the result of the Presidential election has calmed many of the previously most panicked among us and activated the fears of the formerly hopeful.

50) “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Lives in the Future” (Caroline Winter, Bloomberg Businessweek)

Jacque Fresco, one of those fascinating people who walks through life building a world inside his head, hoping it eventually influences the wider one, is now into his second century of life. A futurist and designer who’s focused much of his work on sustainable living, technology and automation, Fresco is the brains behind the Venus Project, which encourages a post-money, post-scarcity, post-politician utopia. He’s clearly a template for many of today’s Silicon Valley aspiring game-changers.

Winter traveled to Middle-of-Nowhere, Florida (pop: Fresco + girlfriend and collaborator Roxanne Meadows), to write this smart portrait of the visionary after ten decades of reimagining the world according to his own specifications. He doesn’t think the road to a computer-governed utopia will be smooth, however. As Winter writes: “Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. ‘There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,’ he says wryly.” Well, he’s had a good run.•

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Taking a week off from this blog so that I can read books and take naps. Will be back on January 2 if the world doesn’t blow up first (fifty-fifty at this point).

Be well.

Darren

This week, the President-Elect began to make good on his promise to arrest foreigners who’ve crossed our borders to do work Americans could have done.

 

  • Angus Deaton considers the role opioids have played in our political turbulence.
  • Brad DeLong drops truth bombs about our economic system.
  • Gillian Tett wonders if machines will complement rather than replace workers.
  • Eric Eyre investigates Big Pharma profiteering on pain in West Virginia.
  • Big Pharma aims to export America’s opioid crisis all over the world.
  • Louis Harris was the most famous American pollster of the twentieth century.

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.”•

Tags: ,

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.•

Tags: , ,

“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).•

Tags: ,

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.•

Tags: , ,

Nihilism is sometimes an end but more often a means.

Truth can be fuzzy and facts imprecise, but an honest pursuit of these precious goods allows for a basic decency, a sense of order. Bombard such efforts for an adequate length of time, convince enough people that veracity and reality are fully amorphous, and opportunities for mischief abound.

Break down the normal rules (written and unwritten ones), create an air of confusion with shocking behaviors and statements, blast an opening where anything is possible–even “unspeakable things”–and a democracy can fall and tyranny rise. The timing has to be right, but sooner or later that time will arrive.

Has such a moment come for America? The conditions haven’t been this ripe for at least 60 years, and nothing can now be taken for granted.

In an excellent Guardian opinion piece, Ece Temelkuran explains how Turkey became a post-truth state, a nation-sized mirage, and how the same fate may befall Europe and the U.S. She certainly shares my concerns about the almost non-stop use of the world “elites” to neutralize the righteous into paralysis. An excerpt:

This refashioning of a post-truth, post-fact Turkey has not happened overnight. The process has involved the skilful and wilful manipulation of narratives. We gave up asking the astonished questions “How can they say or do that?” some time ago. Truth is a lost game in my country. In Europe and America, you still have time to rescue it – but you must learn from Turkey how easily it can be lost.

It started 15 years ago, with a phenomenon that will now be familiar to you, when intellectuals and journalists reacted to a nascent populism with the self-critical question: “Are we out of touch?” To counter that possibility, they widened the parameters of public debate to include those who were said to be representatives of “real people”. We thought our own tool, the ability to question and establish truth, would be adequate to keep the discourse safe. It wasn’t. Soon we were paralysed by the lies of populism, which always sounded more attractive than our boring facts.

We found, as you are now finding, that the new truth-building process does not require facts or the underpinning of agreed values. We were confronted – as you are being confronted – by a toxic vocabulary: “elite”, “experts”, “real people” and “alienated intellectuals”. The elite, with experts as mouthpieces of that oppressive elite, were portrayed as people detached from society, willing to suppress the needs, choices and beliefs of “real people”.

Events moved quickly.•

Tags: ,

I find myself thinking often of a passage from the opening chapter of Ian Frazier’s excellent 2000 book, On the Rez. In telling about Chief Red Cloud’s visit to the White House in 1870, Frazier examined our age and came to some troubling conclusions, all of which seem even truer 16 years on. Real freedom in our corporatocracy is more expensive than ever, but it’s cheap and easy to be discarded. The excerpt:

    In 1608, the newly arrived Englishmen at Jamestown colony in Virginia proposed to give the most powerful Indian in the vicinity, Chief Powhatan, a crown. Their idea was to coronate him a sub-emperor of Indians, and vassal to the English King. Powhatan found the offer insulting. “I also am a King,” he said, “and this is my land.” Joseph Brant, a Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy between eastern New York and the Great Lakes, was received as a celebrity when he went to England with a delegation from his tribe in 1785. Taken to St. James’s Palace for a royal audience, he refused to kneel and kiss the hand of George III; he told the King that he would, however, gladly kiss the hand of the Queen. Almost a century later, the U.S. government gave Red Cloud, victorious war leader of the Oglala, the fanciest reception it knew how, with a dinner party at the White House featuring lighted chandeliers and wine and a dessert of strawberries and ice cream. The next day Red Cloud parleyed with the government officials just as he was accustomed to on the prairie—sitting on the floor. To a member of a Senate select committee who had delivered a tirade against Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader carelessly replied, “I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man.”

     That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them.

Another remark which non-Indians often make on the subject of Indians is “Why can’t they get with the program?” Anyone who talks about Indians in public will be asked that question, or variations on it; over and over: Why don’t Indians forget all this tribal nonsense and become ordinary Americans like the rest of us? Why do they insist on living in the past? Why don’t they accept the fact that we won and they lost? Why won’t they stop, finally, being Indians and join the modern world? I have a variety of answers handy. Sometimes I say that in former days “the program” called for the eradication of Indian languages, and children in Indian boarding schools were beaten for speaking them and forced to speak English, so they would fit in; time passed, cultural fashions changed, and Hollywood made a feature film about Indians in which for the sake of authenticity the Sioux characters spoke Sioux (with English subtitles), and the movie became a hit, and lots of people decided they wanted to learn Sioux, and those who still knew the language, those who had somehow managed to avoid “the program” in the first place, were suddenly the ones in demand. Now, I think it’s better not to answer the question but to ask a question in return: What program, exactly, do you have in mind?

    We live in a craven time. I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can’t be nice, we’d better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. “Who does he think he is?” is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us. What we read in newsprint and see on television always reminds us how great they are, and we can’t disagree. Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear. The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air—freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval—has become a luxury most of us can’t afford.•

From the March 7, 1890 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

After decades of lies and obfuscation about the neatly packaged premature death it was selling to Americans, Big Tobacco finally saw its light dim on the home front, so the industry decided to make up for the shortfall by exporting with a vengeance. Big Pharma is now on a similar trajectory in regards to opioids. As notoriety about the tremendous damage done to U.S. (and Canadian) citizens threatens the sector domestically on an existential level, it endeavors to pivot to a world stage, looking enthusiastically for wounds to numb.

Following up on yesterday’s post about the wake of a needless epidemic driven by greed and aided by wealth inequality, I read “OxyContin Goes Global,” a Los Angeles Times piece by Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion and Scott Glover, which notes that as North America goes through withdrawal, other nations are just now being enticed. The opening:

OxyContin is a dying business in America.

With the nation in the grip of an opioid epidemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, the U.S. medical establishment is turning away from painkillers. Top health officials are discouraging primary care doctors from prescribing them for chronic pain, saying there is no proof they work long-term and substantial evidence they put patients at risk.

Prescriptions for OxyContin have fallen nearly 40% since 2010, meaning billions in lost revenue for its Connecticut manufacturer, Purdue Pharma.

So the company’s owners, the Sackler family, are pursuing a new strategy: Put the painkiller that set off the U.S. opioid crisis into medicine cabinets around the world.

A network of international companies owned by the family is moving rapidly into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions, and pushing for broad use of painkillers in places ill-prepared to deal with the ravages of opioid abuse and addiction.

In this global drive, the companies, known as Mundipharma, are using some of the same controversial marketing practices that made OxyContin a pharmaceutical blockbuster in the U.S.

In Brazil, China and elsewhere, the companies are running training seminars where doctors are urged to overcome “opiophobia” and prescribe painkillers.•

Tags: , ,

American astronaut Edgar Mitchell is one selection in this year’s annual New York Times Magazine postmortem potpourri, “The Lives They Lived.”

The sixth person to walk on the moon, Mitchell fell back to Earth not with a thud, like, for instance, Buzz Aldrin, but into the warm embrace of Me Decade pseudoscience. A legit Ph.D. taken with ESP, telekinesis, remote healing, etc., the spaceman set up shop to study paranormal fields not long after his egress from Apollo 14.

A piece from a 1974 People profile of the spaceman, “Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,” is followed by a passage from Charles Homans’ beautifully written NYT remembrance.


From People:

Like most men who have felt a huge booster rocket light up on the pad beneath them and the beginning vibrations of a launch into space, Ed Mitchell is never far from some reminder of his most astounding hours. The walls of his cramped office in Palo Alto, California, where his esoteric business is the study of parapsychological phenomena, are hung with photographs celebrating the Apollo 14 mission, in which Mitchell was the lunar module pilot and became the sixth man to walk on the surface of the moon. One of the pictures shows the U.S.S. New Orleans, the recovery ship that picked up the Apollo crew in February 1971. As Mitchell pointed out to a visitor, his first name is misspelled “Egar” in the commemorative inscription. In a wry Cockney imitation, Mitchell said of that error, “It keeps me ‘umble.”

Humble or not—and the topic has priority among people who know him—Ed Mitchell has maintained a high public profile. Interest in him has even increased since his flight, a rarity in astronaut fame shared only by John Glenn. The reason for this is twofold: Mitchell had a transcendent personal experience during his moon flight, and he has been proclaiming it ever since—on the lecture circuit, to influential listeners wherever he can collar them, and in a book coming out in June. To an extent that seems almost to contradict his native skepticism and training in hard science, Ed Mitchell has become a man obsessed by the idea that the world can be changed by the right application of human awareness, and he has quite literally made it his business to apply it.

To his determination Mitchell brings great self-confidence, not exactly a new acquisition. He is remembered by some from his pre-moon flight days at NASA as rank-conscious and overbearing. Apparently more mellow now, the president and founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences nonetheless explained his forgivable ignorance about the identity of Pop Star Mick Jagger by saying not long ago, “I’m too busy making history. I don’t have time to read about it.”

Still, there are ample grounds to support his good opinion of himself. At 43, Mitchell has come a head-swelling distance to his present eminence in a field on the frontier of behavioral studies. From a modest start in a Southwest ranching family during the Depression (he used to wash down crop dusters’ airplanes to get free rides), he gained the top academic rank, or very near it, at every school he attended. He holds a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. Before his retirement from NASA in 1972 (and from the U.S. Navy as a captain) he was generally regarded as one of the brightest and most intellectually adventurous of the astronauts. His credentials as a pilot were most impressively stated by Alan Shepard, the cool and utterly unhumble boss of the Apollo 14 crew. “He’s a great flyer,” said Rear Admiral Shepard, a man frugal in praise of others, “simply outstanding.” And, of course, Mitchell has kicked up moon dust, which puts him in a very special brotherhood. In some substantial way, that experience has profoundly marked the life or outlook of each of the 12 men who have known it. One, Jim Irwin, became an evangelist preacher, and Alan Shepard described his own transformation. “I used to be a rotten s.o.b.,” he has said. “Now I’m just an s.o.b.”

It was Mitchell’s moon visit—or the changes it wrought in him—that led to his current total preoccupation with the frontiers of psychic research and parapsychology, fields in which there is a booming interest but that are still considered only marginally respectable by many scientists.

“The experience I had on the flight was akin to a religious experience,” explained Mitchell in a soft, weary voice, the gray hair just beginning to show in his reddish-brown beard. “It was euphoric, one of those rare moments in life when you seemed to be able to reach out and touch the universe, when you had an intuitive flash about the real meaning of truth.”

After between 25 and 30 hours of such mystic perceptions, Mitchell came back to earth determined to do something about the truth he understood so starkly from a lunar distance. The solution, he felt, lay in a sort of planet-wide consciousness-raising, which would be accomplished through the scientific applications of parapsychology (sometimes called psi). It was a field he had been interested in long before the flight, and indeed, without NASA’s knowledge he had set up an experiment in extrasensory perception to be conducted during the mission with four men back on earth. The test involved the men on earth guessing the correct order of certain standard symbols as Mitchell “sent” them from space by telepathy and it was later judged to be a moderate success.

At any rate, in Mitchell’s new resolution, such psi techniques could include ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy and psychokinesis (the use of psychic energy to bring about physical changes, like bending forks with well aimed thinking). All these and more could be employed in the quest for greater realization of the power of the human mind.•


From NYT:

In the Apollo years, NASA sent military test pilots into space, not poets or preachers; they came back in possession of extraordinary knowledge that, by dint of personality or professional inclination, they seemed helpless to communicate. As the Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins once put it, “It was not within our ken to share emotions or to utter extraneous information.” Asked what it was like to go to the moon, Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad replied: “Super! Really enjoyed it!”

But then there was Mitchell. After returning to Earth, he left NASA, grew a beard and divorced his wife. He founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which advocated exploring the universe by means of inquiry that lay outside of science and religion. He sought out South American shamans and Haitian Vodou priests, promoted the benefits of Tibetan Buddhist lucid dreaming, visited the homes of people who claimed their children could bend spoons with their minds. He went on Jack Paar’s talk show with the self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller. Two more marriages, one of them to a former Playboy playmate, came and went. He got deep, very deep, into theories about extraterrestrials. He had a posthumous cameo in the cache of John Podesta’s hacked emails that WikiLeaks published this year, which included messages Mitchell sent to Podesta (a U.F.O. buff) asking him to discuss the possibility of disclosing the federal government’s records of alien contact. He signed the emails “6th man to walk on the Moon.”

If he got weird sometimes — O.K., a lot of times — could you really blame him?•

Tags:

War may seem to favor those with a clear head and steady hand, but strategy is only half the battle. A sense of invincibility must be achieved in the combatants, at least until technology allows all the killing machines to be actual machines.

Human beings are no angels, but genocide and beheading, for instance, are not, thankfully, our default mode. Such heinous courses can be decided on by sober if sinister minds but their commission sometimes requires moods altered either by hysteria and brainwashing or, more simply, pharmaceuticals. The Nazis favored crystal meth and ISIS Captagon, these forms of amphetamine not only helpful with focus and energy but also able to disappear inhibitions.

Crimes against humanity can certainly occur without speed, but oftentimes you’ll find a pervasive drug culture in close proximity to such atrocities. It’s not the source of evil but a way to lubricate the war machine.

An excerpt from “Don’t Fight Sober,” Mike Jay’s London Review of Books piece on new volumes on the topic by Łukasz Kamieński and Norman Ohler:

The unreliable narratives that always build up around illicit drugs are compounded by the fog of war. Exaggeration, doubletalk and disinformation bend reality into mythic shapes. The image of the Captagon-crazed jihadi is reminiscent of the Assassins, whose story was imported to Europe by Marco Polo: they were said to have been brainwashed with a dose of hashish and persuaded by their fanatical leader that suicide missions would be rewarded with an eternity in paradise. Recent scholarship has established that ‘assassins’ (or ‘hashishin’) was a pejorative term applied to them by their enemies: in fact they were a strictly ascetic order whose adherents abstained from all drugs including alcohol. The appeal of the myth is obvious: if the drugs made them do it, their motives require no further investigation. Asked after the Bataclan attacks whether the killers had been on drugs, Montasser Alde’emeh, a Belgian-Palestinian expert on radicalisation, turned the question succinctly on its head: ‘Unfortunately, they don’t need it. Their ideology is their Captagon!’

In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines.•

Tags: , ,

Just started reading Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, though I believe capitalism will be just fine.

You and me, however, we’re fucked.

The problem is that an uber technologized version of capitalism may not require as many of us or value as highly those who’ve yet to be relieved of their duties. Perhaps a thin crust at the very top will thrive, but without sound policy the rest may be Joads with smartphones. In this scenario, we’d be tracked and commodified, given virtual trinkets rather than be paid. Our privacy, like many of our jobs, will disappear into the zeros and ones.

While the orange supremacist was waving his penis in America’s face during the campaign, the thorny question of what to do should widespread automation be established was left unexplored. That’s terrifying, since more and more outsourcing won’t refer to work moved beyond borders but beyond species. Certainly great investment in education is required, but that won’t likely be enough. Not every freshly unemployed taxi driver can be upskilled into a driverless car software engineer. There’s not enough room on that road.

The opening of a new piece about automation by the NYT‘s always clear-eyed Claire Cain Miller, who understands both numbers and people: 

The first job that Sherry Johnson, 56, lost to automation was at the local newspaper in Marietta, Ga., where she fed paper into the printing machines and laid out pages. Later, she watched machines learn to do her jobs on a factory floor making breathing machines, and in inventory and filing.

“It actually kind of ticked me off because it’s like, How are we supposed to make a living?” she said. She took a computer class at Goodwill, but it was too little too late. “The 20- and 30-year-olds are more up to date on that stuff than we are because we didn’t have that when we were growing up,” said Ms. Johnson, who is now on disability and lives in a housing project in Jefferson City, Tenn.

Donald J. Trump told workers like Ms. Johnson that he would bring back their jobs by clamping down on trade, offshoring and immigration. But economists say the bigger threat to their jobs has been something else: automation.

“Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important — it’s not even close,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard who studies labor and technological change.

No candidate talked much about automation on the campaign trail. Technology is not as convenient a villain as China or Mexico, there is no clear way to stop it, and many of the technology companies are in the United States and benefit the country in many ways.•

Tags: , ,

If America has a future as a liberal democracy, and that’s never been iffier, the role the opioid plague played in our perplexing age, a time of tremendous potential for good or ill, will be a topic of study for future scholars. Wealth inequality, the end of the Industrial Age and twilight arriving for the coal and manufacturing sectors left many citizens in pain, physical and otherwise, and Big Pharma was there with scripts in hand, ready to profiteer off the poor and suffering.

Until a couple of years ago, I had relatives who lived in the area of NYC that’s ground zero for opiate addiction. When people ask me if I’ve ever seen the Walking Dead, I say “yes,” though it had nothing to do with TV. Folks there would start with legit if perhaps unnecessary prescriptions to manage back or knee pain and then devolve into street purchases of cheaper heroin when there were no doctors left to shop. It was a one-way elevator, headed always down, for those who’d spent most of their lives on the up and up. You’d see seriously dosed people buying Lottos in bodegas, under the influence of two losing gambles. 

Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths.

The trail of painkillers leads to West Virginia’s southern coalfields, to places like Kermit, population 392. There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town.

Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.

The trail also weaves through Wyoming County, where shipments of OxyContin have doubled, and the county’s overdose death rate leads the nation. One mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana received 600 times as many oxycodone pills as the Rite Aid drugstore just eight blocks away.

In six years, drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers, a Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation found.
The unfettered shipments amount to 433 pain pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia.

“These numbers will shake even the most cynical observer,” said former Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, a retired pharmacist who finished his term earlier this month. “Distributors have fed their greed on human frailties and to criminal effect. There is no excuse and should be no forgiveness.”•

Tags: , ,

Charles “Chuck” Connors was full of life, and other stuff.

The so-called “Mayor of Chinatown” was an Irishman dubbed “Insect” by his neighbors until his penchant for cooking chuck steaks over open fires in the streets earned him a new nickname. An inveterate self-promoter, he was a tour guide, vaudevillian, boxer, bouncer and raconteur. Some of his stories were even true.

One that wasn’t: For a fee, he showed tourists “authentic” Chinatown opium dens, which were often merely apartments he rented and filled with “extras” paid to pretend to be dragon chasers. The crafty man realized that narratives about urban blight, told just so, could be commodified.

Although he initially wasn’t so appreciated by his Chinese neighbors, Connors eventually earned their esteem and his blarney was sadly missed when it was permanently silenced. An article in the May 10, 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced his death.

Louis Harris, the most famous American pollster of the twentieth century, just died at 95. I worked for the company in its last pre-acquisition days when I was an undergraduate. The offices were located at 630 Fifth Avenue, a building with a giant Atlas statue at its entrance. On a lunch break one day, I sat across the street on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral reading a copy of The Stories of John Cheever. I absorbed “The Country Husband” (still my favorite tale by the writer), which coincidentally mentions the very same Atlas building right before my eyes. Cool. 

What I can recall about the experience:

  • The break room had a shrine to the late professional wrestler Bruiser Brody, who had been murdered in 1988 in a backstage altercation Puerto Rico. There’s even a Mountain Goats song about the stabbing.
  • The Harris Poll was the least buttoned-down workplace I’ve ever come across. The crew was a mix of anarchist squatters from the Lower East Side (who apparently had no regular access to soap), a few college students like myself, a handful of aspiring actresses and theater directors, several little people, and some LGBTQ folks who told me they had trouble getting non-phone work because they couldn’t or wouldn’t masquerade as something that was more acceptable in America at the time. Oh, and there was a very nice and quiet middle-aged woman who was said to be a former Bob Fosse dancer who’d fallen on hard times.
  • The employees were almost universally extremely liberal politically, even radical, though that seemed to have no influence over survey outcomes. Many polls wound up reflecting a strong conservative opinion.
  • I was instructed that when conducting phone surveys I needed to be more assertive with women in the Midwest, since they could be bossed around. It wasn’t exactly in those words, but close. I was told precisely that when Middle American females told me they weren’t interested in doing a survey that I was to ask to speak to the “man of the house.”
  • I once referred to the company as “Lou” Harris and was immediately told to never, ever do that again. The founder had retired by then but was still a sort of spectral presence.

From Robert D. McFadden’s New York Times obituary of the man who called too much:

He preferred to be called a public-opinion analyst rather than a pollster, a word that he believed trivialized what he did, which went beyond gathering data into new realms of interpretation — useful to clients of his consulting firm and more meaningful to millions who watched his analyses on the CBS and ABC television networks or who read his nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine columns.

His results were sometimes wrong. And critics questioned his early practice of using his polls to promote candidates — notably John F. Kennedy in his 1960 presidential race — for whom he worked as a campaign strategist. But he gave up political advocacy after a few years to concentrate on public polling and analyses for the newspaper and television jobs that made him a household name in America.

In the 1960s, he developed television’s ability to project national election winners on the basis of early returns after polls closed in the East. But critics said projections before the polls closed in the West discouraged some voters from casting ballots, and the networks voluntarily ended the practice.

Mr. Harris denied that his work affected the outcome of elections or corrupted voting processes. He rejected charges that he was too commercial, although he made a fortune in market research. And he scoffed at accusations that his polls reflected a liberal Democratic bias; he said he often worked for Republicans and was guided by principles of fairness and accuracy.

Like Elmo Roper and George Gallup, his pioneering predecessors, Mr. Harris plumbed attitudes with face-to-face interviews, using carefully worded questions put by trained interviewers to subjects selected as part of a group that was chosen as demographically representative of the nation. (Telephone interviews, faster and less expensive, came into wide use in the late 1970s, and proved to be just as valid.)•

Tags: ,

wernher5 (1)

Henry Miller was oft thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way. Maybe Peter Thiel’s disgraceful political pivot will enable a marriage between the despotism of tech and a government even more autocratic. 

The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!•

“Anything felt possible,” writes Garry Kasparov in the WSJ of the ebullient time a quarter century ago when it became apparent Soviet autocracy had failed and democracy seemed, at long last, to have triumphed. The walls came down, history supposedly ended, and it was only a matter of time until all nations succumbed to the new reality.

In 2016, with liberal governance in retreat, anything again feels possible, but in a different and chilling way.  

In a reversal of fortunes, in an unforced error, America would appear to have retroactively lost the Cold War, perhaps even World War II. The blissfully unaware, the political opportunists and the truly evil have conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Hope has never needed to be more audacious because this is no joke, it is not a test, we’re really on fire. 

From Kasparov on how the failure to address history left the demons breathing, if barely, waiting to revitalize and pounce once more:

It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet. The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.

The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones.

Ronald Reagan’s warning that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” was never meant to be put to the test, but it is being tested now. If anything, Reagan’s time frame of a generation was far too generous. The dramatic expansion of freedom that occurred 25 years ago may be coming undone in 25 months.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the end of watch for the anti-Communist coalition formed by Harry Truman after World War II. A year later, baby boomer Bill Clinton was making jokes with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and it was time to party, not press the advantage. The U.S. had unrivaled global power and influence, more than at any other time in history. Yet instead of using it to shape a new global framework to protect and project the values of democracy and human rights—as Truman had done immediately to put Stalin in check—the free world acted as though the fight had been won once and for all.

Even worse, we made the same mistake in Russia and in many other newly independent states. We were so eager to embrace the bright future that we failed to address our dark past.•


A remote match via telephone versus David Letterman in 1989.

Tags:

Donald Trump promised during the election to do “unspeakable things” to terrorists, but the most dreadful of all might be what he does to American democracy. Many of his rallies seemed the night before Kristallnacht, with truth and decency only introduced to be mocked, sucker punched and desecrated. Who knows who may be harmed this time, but something awful seems ready to happen. A lot of evil has been unloosed, and some of the ones who helped free the demons are blissfully unaware. The others are overjoyed. America as a beacon for all, a land of liberty, may be a thing of the past.

Illiberal government’s ugly rise is far from just a U.S. issue. Two excerpts follow, one about our mess and another about a parallel travesty occurring in Europe.


The opening of 

WARSAW — The Law and Justice Party rode to power on a pledge to drain the swamp of Polish politics and roll back the legacy of the previous administration. One year later, its patriotic revolution, the party proclaims, has cleaned house and brought God and country back to Poland.

Opponents, however, see the birth of a neo-Dark Age — one that, as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, is a harbinger of the power of populism to upend a Western society. In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place — one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.

In the land of Law and Justice, anti-intellectualism is king. Polish scientists are aghast at proposed curriculum changes in a new education bill that would downplay evolution theory and climate change and add hours for “patriotic” history lessons. In a Facebook chat, a top equal rights official mused that Polish hotels should not be forced to provide service to black or gay customers. After the official stepped down for unrelated reasons, his successor rejected an international convention to combat violence against women because it appeared to argue against traditional gender roles.•


The opening of Paul Krugman’s NYT op-ed “How Republics End,” which examines parallels between the fall of Rome and America’s potential faceplant:

Consider what just happened in North Carolina. The voters made a clear choice, electing a Democratic governor. The Republican legislature didn’t openly overturn the result — not this time, anyway — but it effectively stripped the governor’s office of power, ensuring that the will of the voters wouldn’t actually matter.

Combine this sort of thing with continuing efforts to disenfranchise or at least discourage voting by minority groups, and you have the potential making of a de facto one-party state: one that maintains the fiction of democracy, but has rigged the game so that the other side can never win.

Why is this happening? I’m not asking why white working-class voters support politicians whose policies will hurt them — I’ll be coming back to that issue in future columns. My question, instead, is why one party’s politicians and officials no longer seem to care about what we used to think were essential American values. And let’s be clear: This is a Republican story, not a case of “both sides do it.”

So what’s driving this story?

Tags: ,

Few Americans have distinguished themselves in the aftermath of the election as has David Frum, the erstwhile Dubya speechwriter who’s become a post-partisan truth-teller, history professor and, perhaps, self-designated mourner. It seems all his education, employment and life experience prepared him for this moment which he clearly hoped would never arrive.

The nation’s best-case scenario is a cast of brand-name robber barons fully strip struggling Americans, eventually redirecting the nation’s teeming anger at a foreign enemy (real or imagined) after the check bounces. The worst case is that 240 years of American democracy ends ignominiously, World War II and the Cold War lost retroactively, with a Berlusconi who aspires to be a Mussolini now destabilizing any institutions than can counter his whims with laws or reason.

Trump is aided by wingnuts and political opportunists of all manner, who go along with him to get something out of him. Does anyone think Steve Bannon or Mitch McConnell care more for the Constitution than they do for power? It’s the perfect storm, and a deathly chill comes at us sideways.

In his latest Atlantic piece, Frum writes wisely of today’s shocking assassination of Russian diplomat Andrey G. Karlov in Ankara, arguing that political killings aren’t motivations for war but rather justifications. Putin and Erdogan may not militarize the moment, but Trump might not pass on such a future opportunity.

An excerpt:

Assassinations provide opportunities and occasions for wars; they do not cause them.

Consider an even grimmer example.

The murderer of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been described in some reports as motivated by rage against Russian atrocities in Syria. His act may summon to memory the example of Herschel Grynszan, a young Jew who tried to avenge the sufferings of his family at Nazi hands by killing a German diplomat in Paris on November 7, 1938. Hitler seized upon the killing as his excuse for the rampage we know as Kristallnacht.

Yet when a Jewish student killed the leader of the Swiss Nazi party in February 1936, Hitler did nothing. Germany had secured the 1936 Olympic games before Hitler’s rise to power, and there was much agitation that year to rescind the award to protest Nazi anti-Semitism. Determined to maintain domestic quiet, Hitler let the death of Wilhelm Gustloff vanish into historical obscurity. (His killer, originally from Croatia, survived the Second World War in a Swiss prison.)

Even Hitler used outrages for his own ends, rather than being motivated by them.

Will today’s crime spark conflict between Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey? Only if those two authoritarian rulers want trouble.•

Tags:

In 2011, I quoted something from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels:

The Angels don’t like to be called losers, but they have learned to live with it. “Yeah, I guess I am,” said one. “But you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.”

It’s an odd outcome because the Angels emerged from America’s great triumph in World War II, as it and other motorcycle gangs were formed from the wanderlust of our war vets. But the love of the road turned into hatred for the self, and then, the other.

Five years ago when I published that excerpt, I was more concerned about militias and a scary strain of right-wing backlash that seemed awakened by the election of our first African-American President and gains made by women and other minorities. I never expected those on the fringes to make such gains on the center–to win it. And I’m not exactly someone who spends my idle time at Berkeley cocktail parties.

The ones who wanted to make America white again formed a faction with those who felt adrift in the modern economy, with its wealth inequality and bruising technological shift. The latter group had always looked on others as the “losers” and didn’t want to join them, even if the scoreboard said they already had. Together the haters and the backsliders made a hell of a scene in 2016.

From Susan McWilliams’ Nation piece about Thompson forecasting the rise of Trumpism:

It has been 50 years since Hunter S. Thompson published the definitive book on motorcycle guys: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. It grew out of a piece first published in The Nation one year earlier. My grandfather, Carey McWilliams, editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1975, commissioned the piece from Thompson—it was the gonzo journalist’s first big break, and the beginning of a friendship between the two men that would last until my grandfather died in 1980. Because of that family connection, I had long known that Hell’s Angels was a political book. Even so, I was surprised, when I finally picked it up a few years ago, by how prophetic Thompson is and how eerily he anticipates 21st-century American politics. This year, when people asked me what I thought of the election, I kept telling them to read Hell’s Angels.

Most people read Hell’s Angels for the lurid stories of sex and drugs. But that misses the point entirely. What’s truly shocking about reading the book today is how well Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind. Thompson saw the appeal of that retaliatory ethic. He claimed that a small part of every human being longs to burn it all down, especially when faced with great and impersonal powers that seem hostile to your very existence. In the United States, a place of ever greater and more impersonal powers, the ethic of total retaliation was likely to catch on.

What made that outcome almost certain, Thompson thought, was the obliviousness of Berkeley, California, types who, from the safety of their cocktail parties, imagined that they understood and represented the downtrodden. The Berkeley types, Thompson thought, were not going to realize how presumptuous they had been until the downtrodden broke into one of those cocktail parties and embarked on a campaign of rape, pillage, and slaughter.•


Sonny Barger terrorizes Thompson in 1967 on Canadian TV.

Ad for Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for Sheriff of Aspen in 1970.

Tags:

« Older entries § Newer entries »