Archive for February, 2017

The “transmission belts” Of Misinformation

I feel blessed that I am no longer responsible for launching an ICBM as I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy was president and I do not envy those charged with that responsibility now. I trusted JFK to comprehend the enormity of launching even one nuclear weapon and basing any decision on clear reasoning and facts. I cannot even imagine trusting Donald Trump — he of the “alternative facts.” 

The world has heard alternative facts before, fed to receptive audiences by dictators on the rise. Hannah Arendt’s,  “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, is a primer for those wanting to understand how the democratic process unwinds from seemingly harmless origins and feeds on discontent. 

As techniques of government, the totalitarian devices appear simple and ingenious and effective. They assure not only an absolute power monopoly, but unparalleled certainty that all commands will always be carried out; the multiplicity of the transmission belts, the confusion of the hierarchy, secure the dictator’s complete independence from all his inferiors and make possible the swift and surprising changes in policy for which totalitarianism has become famous.

Trump’s alternative facts are the “transmission belts” of conflicting information that cause confusion and uncertainty.  We are directed to fear people we don’t know, have never met, and about whose culture and beliefs we know very little.  Throughout history there have always been necessary “others” to be pointed at, to be vilified and held responsible for popular discontent. We are told we are the victims of “others” and we marshal our resources against the onslaught of otherness, whoever those others may be.  The taxonomy of “otherness” is vast — color, ethnicity, language, social class, a foreign accent, whether a person is rural or urban, religion of course, national origin, occupation, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation.  The list is long and ever growing. You might even find yourself on the list — one never knows.

History has shown us this process before, the slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. This transformation has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of the public wanting to be saved from whatever. Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed, discredited, and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The so-called “elites”, whoever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people, while the true elites remain out of sight.

The world has been down this path many times before — we should know it by heart. Alternative facts are disseminated, cronies rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated are the most susceptible to pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who, without ethical or moral commitment to the truth, prey with a simplistic vocabulary. The target of those whirlwinds of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of a foundational social contract.

Our country has become a theater where politicians mouth carefully scripted, democracy-drenched syntax and promises all the while doing their best to deny voting rights and marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions. In Congress efforts are being initiated to undo banking rules, Social Security, health care, and other social programs. Meanwhile, the president cries “fake news” at anything that contradicts the alternative version of reality he is spinning for his followers. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The messengers of the press are vilified and perforce people don’t know what or who to believe. The inevitable confusion ensuing from all of the above lays the groundwork for social discord — fertile ground for a dictator to offer delusionary comfort via social control.

 

Would you obey an ICBM launch order from such a commander in chief akin to the commando raid in Yemen? You say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Don’t be so sure.

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The Notion of Democracy

Democracy in the United States has become notional, perhaps it has always been this way and we simply haven’t noticed. Our beliefs are always either evolving or devolving, always changing with the times, and eventually delivering less than what has been promised. A version of death by a thousand cuts  or what is aptly described as “creeping normality”. All the trappings of the real thing are there but behind the red-white and blue bunting lies another story. That story is the devolution from the principles of democracy to populism and its evil cousin, neoliberalism. Our long history of mistreatment of minorities especially minorities of color, for example, exposes many of the contradictions. But since our founding, it is the firm grip of wealth on political processes that invariably influences political and social outcomes. The notion of democracy stands for the reality of capitalism, the greatest social zero-sum game ever invented.

It isn’t that wealth has had more seats at the table than the working class proletariat.Today the influence and control of wealth concentrated in the bank accounts of fewer and fewer individuals has overwhelmed the rest of us. The predicates of democracy are diametrically opposed to those of capitalism. The rewards and power of capitalism far exceed the perceived rewards of democracy. It’s a deadly conundrum. Our world has become a kind of theater where politicians mouth democracy drenched words all the while doing their best to deny voting rights to marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions.

Consider how many Americans do not vote; fewer than half of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016.  Many people surveyed expressed doubt that their votes matter and that being what it is – a self-fulfilling proposition. There cannot be true representative government without participation and that is why certain politicians are doing their best to devise and pass ever more restrictive voting regulations.

The rise of neoliberalism is itself the greatest threat to democracy to ever have faced the United States. Neoliberalism will be the final blow. Neoliberalism combined with populism will serve double-speak, compromised founding principles, and no firm or verifiable truth will be accepted.  All we will have will be “alternative facts”. Truth made fungible and pliant to suit the moment and the desired ends. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The president has gone so far as to launch a federal investigation to validate his claims. 

In a country founded on the principle of religious freedom we have a vice-president, who is a self-identified Christian zealot proclaiming Christianity as the founding belief of the United States. The new Vice-President has proclaimed his Christianity on the floor of the House of Representatives stating the creationism should be taught in public schools and continues his personal “agenda in office. According to the PEW research organization, eight in ten voters who identified as “Christian” voted for the new administration. For people like this religion and politics are one and the same. Populist politics is become a crusade.   

  History has shown us this process, this slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. And it has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of public approval. “Save us from this!” “Save us from that!” Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The “elites”, whomever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people. We have been here before. Alternative truth is disseminated, cronies are rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated, are at large the most susceptible to the pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who are without ethical or moral commitment to the truth preying with the simplistic vocabulary of a child. The net result of this whirlwind of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of the social contract.

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming. “Trust me … I’m a smart person.” Famous last words.


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