Later On

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Inside the Conservative Fever Swamp

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Michael A. Cohen (aka, the other Michael Cohen) has a good post on his site. It begins:

As a general rule, I usually don’t read the right-wing website, Breitbart. It is one of the by-products of having a functioning brain.

But I’m making an exception today because a recent piece on the site offers useful insight into the workings of the conservative mind — and the debilitating ideology of modern conservatism.

Last week Breitbart Editor-at-Large John Nolte penned a piece lamenting that conservatives are not getting vaccinated against COVID-19. He also touted the benefits of getting a shot. These days that kind of language on a right-wing website is to be applauded. But Nolte took his argument in a strange direction: he claims that Republicans are not getting vaccinated because of liberals.

According to Nolte, “leftists like (Howard) Stern and CNNLOL and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Anthony Fauci are deliberately looking to manipulate Trump supporters into not getting vaccinated.”

How are they doing this?

“If I wanted to use reverse psychology to convince people not to get a life-saving vaccination, I would do exactly what Stern and the left are doing… I would bully and taunt and mock and ridicule you for not getting vaccinated, knowing the human response would be, Hey, fuck you, I’m never getting vaccinated!” “And why is that a perfectly human response? Because no one ever wants to feel like they are being bullied or ridiculed or mocked or pushed into doing anything.

It’s a helluva thing when a conservative writer takes the position that his fellow ideologues are like immature children who are so super sensitive and insecure that they will refuse to get a life-saving vaccine simply because their political opponents think they should. But that is Nolte’s argument.

It is, in fact, not a 100 percent normal human response to refuse vaccination in this circumstance — particularly if the alternative is death. Less normal is believing that Anthony Fauci, Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden are bullying, mocking, or ridiculing conservatives to purposely hasten their deaths. Far less normal is giving a rat’s ass about anything Howard Stern says. Nolte criticizes Stern for mocking anti-vaxxer conservative radio hosts who have died from COVID-19 — and rightfully so. It’s gross. But honestly, who cares? And who in their right mind makes a health care decision based on something that Howard Stern said? According to Nolte, conservatives do.

“No one wants to cave to a piece of shit like that, or a scumbag like Fauci, or any of the scumbags at CNNLOL, so we don’t. And what’s the result? They’re all vaccinated, and we’re not! And when you look at the numbers, the only numbers that matter, which is who’s dying, it’s overwhelmingly the unvaccinated who are dying, and they have just manipulated millions of their political enemies into the unvaccinated camp …

In another column this week, Nolte went a step further and argued that  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

The crazy never stops, and the stupid sinks ever lower.

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2021 at 5:36 pm

After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong

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In the Atlantic Garrett M. Graff, a journalist, historian, and the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, lays out the bad decisions after 9/11 — many of which were strongly opposed at the time (for example, many (including yours truly) vociferously opposed the (stupid) invasion of Iraq):

On the friday after 9/11, President George W. Bush visited the New York City site that the world would come to know as Ground Zero. After rescue workers shouted that they couldn’t hear him as he spoke to them through a bullhorn, he turned toward them and ad-libbed. “I can hear you,” he shouted. “The whole world hears you, and when we find these people who knocked these buildings down, they’ll hear all of us soon.” Everybody roared. At a prayer service later that day, he outlined the clear objective of the task ahead: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press two days later, Vice President Dick Cheney offered his own vengeful promise. “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will,” he told the host, Tim Russert. “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful.” He added, “That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.”

In retrospect, Cheney’s comment that morning came to define the U.S. response to the 2001 terrorist attacks over the next two decades, as the United States embraced the “dark side” to fight what was soon dubbed the “Global War on Terror” (the “GWOT” in gov-speak)—an all-encompassing, no-stone-unturned, whole-of-society, and whole-of-government fight against one of history’s great evils.

It was a colossal miscalculation.

The events of September 11, 2001, became the hinge on which all of recent American history would turn, rewriting global alliances, reorganizing the U.S. government, and even changing the feel of daily life, as security checkpoints and magnetometers proliferated inside buildings and protective bollards sprouted like kudzu along America’s streets.

I am the author of an oral history of 9/11. Two of my other books chronicle how that day changed the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts and the government’s doomsday plans. I’ve spent much of this year working on a podcast series about the lingering questions from the attacks. Along the way, I’ve interviewed the Cassandra-like FBI agents who chased Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda before the attacks; first responders and attack survivors in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania; government officials who hid away in bunkers under the White House and in the Virginia countryside as the day unfolded; the passengers aboard Air Force One with the president on 9/11; and the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden a decade later. I’ve interviewed directors of the CIA, FBI, and national intelligence; the interrogators in CIA black sites; and the men who found Saddam Hussein in that spider hole in Iraq.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones. The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization.

The nation’s failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What’s much harder to understand is how—if at all—we can make things right.

As a society, we succumbed to fear.

The most telling part of September 11, 2001, was the interval between the first plane crash at the World Trade Center, at 8:46 a.m., and the second, at 9:03. In those 17 minutes, the nation’s sheer innocence was on display.

The aftermath of the first crash was live on the nation’s televisions by 8:49 a.m. Though horrified, many Americans who saw those images still went on about their morning. In New York, the commuter-ferry captain Peter Johansen recalled how, afterward, he docked at the Wall Street Terminal and every single one of his passengers got off and walked into Lower Manhattan, even as papers and debris rained down from the damaged North Tower.

At the White House, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Bush, who was in Florida. They discussed the crash and agreed it was strange. But Rice proceeded with her 9 a.m. staff meeting, as previously scheduled, and Bush went into a classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School to promote his No Child Left Behind education agenda. At the FBI, the newly arrived director, Robert Mueller, was actually sitting in a briefing on al-Qaeda and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole when an aide interrupted with news of the first crash; he looked out the window at the bright blue sky and wondered how a plane could have hit the World Trade Center on such a clear day.

Those muted reactions seem inconceivable today but were totally appropriate to the nation that existed that September morning. The conclusion of the Cold War a decade earlier had supposedly ended history. To walk through Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock today is to marvel at how low-stakes everything in the 1990s seemed.

But after that second crash, and then the subsequent ones at the Pentagon and in the fields outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our government panicked. There’s really no other way to say it. Fear spread up the chain of command. Cheney, who had been hustled to safety in the minutes after the second crash, reflected later, “In the years since, I’ve heard speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.”

The initial fear seemed well grounded. Experts warned of a potential second wave of attacks and of al-Qaeda sleeper cells across the country. Within weeks, mysterious envelopes of anthrax powder began sickening and killing people in Florida, New York, and Washington. Entire congressional office buildings were sealed off by government officials in hazmat suits.

The world suddenly looked scary to ordinary citizens—and even worse behind the closed doors of intelligence briefings. The careful sifting of intelligence that our nation’s leaders rely on to make decisions fell apart. After the critique that federal law enforcement and spy agencies had “failed to connect the dots” took hold, everyone shared everything—every tip seemed to be treated as fact. James Comey, who served as deputy attorney general during some of the frantic post-9/11 era, told me in 2009 that he had been horrified by the unverified intelligence landing each day on the president’s desk. “When I started, I believed that a giant fire hose of information came in the ground floor of the U.S. government and then, as it went up, floor by floor, was whittled down until at the very top the president could drink from the cool, small stream of a water fountain,” Comey said. “I was shocked to find that after 9/11 the fire hose was just being passed up floor by floor. The fire hose every morning hit the FBI director, the attorney general, and then the president.”

According to one report soon after 9/11, a nuclear bomb that terrorists had managed to smuggle into the country was hidden on a train somewhere between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. This tip turned out to have come from an informant who had misheard a conversation between two men in a bathroom in Ukraine—in other words, from a terrible global game of telephone. For weeks after, Bush would ask in briefings, “Is this another Ukrainian urinal incident?”

Even disproved plots added to the impression that the U.S. was under constant attack by a shadowy, relentless, and widespread enemy. Rather than recognizing that an extremist group with an identifiable membership and distinctive ideology had exploited fixable flaws in the American security system to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the nation on a vague and ultimately catastrophic quest to rid the world of “terror” and “evil.”

At the time, some commentators politely noted the danger of tilting at such nebulous concepts, but a stunned American public appeared to crave a bold response imbued with a higher purpose. As the journalist Robert Draper writes in To Start a War, his new history of the Bush administration’s lies, obfuscations, and self-delusions that led from Afghanistan into Iraq, “In the after-shocks of 9/11, a reeling America found itself steadied by blunt-talking alpha males whose unflappable, crinkly-eyed certitude seemed the only antidote to nationwide panic.”

he crash of that second plane at 9:03, live on millions of television sets across the country, had revealed a gap in Americans’ understanding of our world, a gap into which anything and everything—caution and paranoia, liberal internationalism and vengeful militarism, a mission to democratize the Middle East and an ever more pointless campaign amid a military stalemate—might be poured in the name of shared national purpose. The depth of our leaders’ panic and the amorphousness of our enemy led to a long succession of tragic choices.

We chose the wrong way to seek justice.

Before 9/11, the United States had a considered, constitutional, and proven playbook for targeting terrorists: They were arrested anywhere in the world they could be caught, tried in regular federal courts, and, if convicted, sent to federal prison. The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Arrested in Pakistan. The 1998 embassy bombers? Caught in Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere. In Sweden on the very morning of 9/11, FBI agents had arrested an al-Qaeda plotter connected to the attack on the USS Cole. The hunt for the plotters of and accomplices to the new attacks could have been similarly handled in civilian courts, whose civil-liberties protections would have shown the world how even the worst evils met with reasoned justice under the law.

Instead, on November 13, 2001, President Bush announced in an executive order that those rounded up in the War on Terror would be treated not as criminals, or even as prisoners of war, but as part of a murky category that came to be known as “enemy combatants.”

While civil libertarians warned of a dark path ahead, Americans seemed not . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Meanwhile, for all the original talk of banishing evil from the world, the GWOT’s seemingly exclusive focus on Islamic extremism has led to the neglect of other threats actively killing Americans. In the 20 years since 9/11, thousands of Americans have succumbed to mass killers—just not the ones we went to war against in 2001. The victims have included worshippers in churchessynagogues, and temples; people at shopping mallsmovie theaters, and a Walmart; students and faculty at universities and community colleges; professors at a nursing school; children in elementarymiddle, and high schools; kids at an Amish school and on a Minnesota Native American reservation; nearly 60 concertgoers who were machine-gunned to death from hotel windows in Las Vegas. But none of those massacres were by the Islamic extremists we’d been spending so much time and money to combat. Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by domestic terrorists than by foreign ones. Political pressure kept national-security officials from refocusing attention and resources on the growing threat from white nationalists, armed militias, and other groups energized by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim strains of the War on Terror.

FDR was right: the thing to fear is fear itself — fear leads to panic, and panic leads to bad and ill-considered decisions.

Update: But see also David Corn’s article  in Mother Jones: “It’s Not Too Late to Learn the Lessons We Didn’t Learn From 9/11.”

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 3:57 pm

The sluggish response when a government is no longer focused on public service

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Stephen Engelberg, Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica, sends out a regular newsletter. This is from the one I received this morning:

More than a decade ago, a young reporter named Sasha Chavkin filed a story for ProPublica about the sort of bureaucratic indifference that makes people hate their government. Across the country, thousands of people who had suffered grievous injuries that prevented them from working were being hounded for student loans they had no chance of repaying. Many had been classified as disabled by the Social Security Administration and were already receiving government support. But the Department of Education, which handles loan forgiveness, insisted that borrowers jump through a separate set of hoops to prove they were unable to work. In some cases, the department was garnishing Social Security payments sent to people with disabilities who were in arrears on their loans.

We published Sasha’s story on Feb. 13, 2011. It introduced readers to Tina Brooks, a former police officer who fractured a vertebra in her back and damaged three others in her neck when she plunged 15 feet down a steep quarry while training for bicycle patrol. Although five doctors and a judge from Social Security all agreed that she was fully disabled, Education Department officials continued to insist she pay off $43,000 in loans.

It was one of those stories where each paragraph makes you madder.

“I’m a cop, and I know how to fill out paperwork,” Brooks told Sasha. “But when you’re trying to comply with people and they’re not telling you the rules, I might as well beat my head on the wall.”

ProPublica is unusual among news organizations in that we measure our success by the tangible impact our stories achieve. As editors and reporters, we are trained to try to make every story well-written, fair, solidly documented and maybe even prizeworthy. But Herb and Marion Sandler, the founders of ProPublica, said from the very beginning that they had a higher goal for ProPublica: that our stories should make a difference.

It’s a tough target to hit. Journalists, myself included, are notoriously poor at forecasting which stories will spur change. Sometimes, we reveal utterly outrageous abuses and the reaction

is muted. Other times, people explode with anger and change comes overnight. New reporters hired from other organizations frequently ask: What’s a ProPublica story? My answer is that readers should finish one of our investigative articles with a clear understanding of what’s gone wrong and to whom they should send a blistering letter (or email) demanding immediate action.

I expected our 2011 story on disabilities and student loans to prompt swift action. Congress had already demanded that the Department of Education improve its handling of disability cases. An internal audit, which we obtained, had found that the department was failing to follow its own rules. It seemed like a political no-brainer to intervene, both for members of Congress and for the Obama administration. They stood to earn kudos for adopting an approach that is both required by law and a gesture of human decency.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, little of that happened. The Education Department made some modest improvements but continued to insist that people fill out applications for relief. The process remained cumbersome, and the burden remained on the disabled person to prove they were entitled to relief. Few loans were forgiven.

It was only last month that the department announced that it was enacting a new policy in which people deemed severely disabled by the SSA would automatically have their loans forgiven. The technique? A simple computer search that would match the names of people receiving disability payments with names of student loan borrowers. Officials said they would be writing off a staggering $5.8 billion in loans. Clearly, the existing procedures had not worked for the vast majority of disabled borrowers.

I asked Sasha what finally made the difference. His answer, not surprisingly, was politics. The left wing of the Democratic Party, notably Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have been pressuring the Biden administration to launch a broad program of relief for 43 million Americans who owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loans. President Joe Biden has never endorsed that idea. But as Sasha points out “this fix for disabled borrowers was something no one could reasonably oppose.” The no-brainer solution, he said, was always out there, but it “took a long time and a lot of unnecessary hardship” before it was politically beneficial to the people with the power to impose change.

It’s worth noting that this story is not yet over. The Department of Education continues to withhold debt relief from a substantial number of student loan borrowers who receive federal disability payments — people whose disabilities the SSA views as serious but that it believes have some chance of easing in the future.

Remarkably, one of the people we interviewed back in 2011, a carpenter and draftsman who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is among those who remain on the hook for his student loans. He has tried to return to work several times since 2011, but his medical problems made that impossible. SSA officials argue that his lung disease might someday improve enough to allow him to work.

“There’s no improving COPD,” the carpenter, Scott Creighton, said in our recent story. “Since I spoke to you last time I’ve had one pulmonary embolism and I’ve had one heart attack.”

Some have argued in recent years that we live in a post-shame era, that spotlighting outrageous wrongdoing no longer brings results. For those who feel that is true, I suggest you visit the page on which we list stories that have had an impact. I hope you’ll find it inspiring. I do.

Steve

Written by Leisureguy

8 September 2021 at 12:00 pm

Capitalism, Cultural Disintegration, and Buzzfeed

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This video is somewhat dense (in terms of ideas per minute) and is well worth watching.

Written by Leisureguy

4 September 2021 at 9:00 am

Kayfabe Ascendent

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Two very interesting videos:

Written by Leisureguy

3 September 2021 at 6:13 pm

Why Facebook Won’t Stop Pushing Propaganda: It’s their business model.

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“I ran because our kids needed to see you don’t have to be white and you don’t have to be a man to run for office in our town.” 
Lynsey Weatherspoon

Monica Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery write in the Atlantic:

Joyce Jones’ Facebook page is almost an archetype of what the social network is supposed to look like: Pictures of her kids, her kids’ friends, her sports teams, her kids’ friends’ sports teams. Videos of her husband’s sermons at New Mount Moriah Baptist Church. Memes celebrating achievement and solidarity, holiday greetings, public health messages. It’s what Mark Zuckerberg extols when he talks about how his company is all about “bringing people together.”

So when Jones decided to run for mayor in her Alabama town last year, it seemed obvious that she’d try to bring people together on Facebook. Her bid to be Montevallo’s first Black mayor, challenging a 12-year City Council incumbent, drew an enthusiastic, diverse crew of volunteers. They put up a campaign page, One Montevallo, and started posting cheery endorsements alongside recycling updates and plugs for drive-in movies.

It was a historic moment for Montevallo, whose population (7,000) is two-thirds white and which sits in Shelby County, the infamous plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. It was also a turning point for Jones, who grew up in the shotgun house her father had built on a dirt road far from the neighborhood where her grandmother cleaned houses. “My cousins and I would come with her,” the 45-year-old recalls. “We would do yardwork in the houses that she worked in. We never ever thought that living here was an option.”

“Now I’ve been living here for 17 years. We have a wonderful home. We have raised four wonderful children. And part of what I was being challenged with was: It’s not okay for me to make it out. I have to do something to make sure that other people have every opportunity. I ran because our kids needed to see you don’t have to be white and you don’t have to be a man to run for office in our town.”

But getting her campaign message out was tough. “We’re in a pandemic, so we couldn’t go to churches and meet people,” Jones told me. Montevallo does not have a news outlet of its own, and the Shelby County Reporter, based in nearby Columbiana, has a single staff reporter for the 14 communities it covers. “For us, the fastest way to get news is through social media,” she says.

Jones is not quite sure how the rumors started, but she remembers how fast they spread. Facebook accounts popped up and shared posts to Montevallo community groups, implying she wanted to defund police (she does not). Someone made up a report of a burglary at her home, referencing her landlord’s name—to highlight that she was renting, she believes. Another account dredged up a bounced check she’d written for groceries as her family struggled during the 2008 recession.

“The algorithm, how fast the messages were shared and how quickly people saw them, that was just eye-opening to me,” Jones says. Her campaign would put up posts debunking the rumors, but the corrections were seen far fewer times than the attack posts. “It was so much more vitriolic, and it would get so many hits. It was just lightning fast.”

Soon, Jones noticed a chill around her. “I’d be going to the grocery store and people who would normally speak to you and be nice to you would avoid you. I’d go to a football game and people would avoid me. I was baffled by all that. It’s one thing to not know me, but it’s another to know me my whole life and treat me like the plague.”

One night her then 16-year-old son, who had been hanging out at the park with a group of families he’d grown up with, called to ask her to pick him up. The adults had been talking about her, not realizing he was within earshot. When Jones came to get him, he told her, “For the first time, I felt like the Black kid.”

“What happens on Facebook doesn’t just stay on Facebook,” Jones says. “It comes off social media. You have to live with that.”

There’s a direct connection between Jones’ ordeal, last November’s election, the January 6 insurrection, and the attacks on American democracy that have played out every day since then. That connection is Facebook, specifically, it’s the toxic feedback loop by which the platform amplifies falsehoods and misinformation. That loop won’t end with the belated bans on Donald Trump and others, because the fundamental problem is not that there are people who post violentracist, antidemocratic, and conspiratorial material. It’s that Facebook and other social platforms actively push that content into the feeds of tens of millions of people, making lies viral while truth languishes.

The technical term for this is algorithmic amplification, and it means just that: What you see on Facebook has been amplified, and pushed into your feed, by the company’s proprietary algorithm. When you (or Mother Jones, or Trump) create a post, it’s visible to no one except those who deliberately seek out your page. But within instants, the algorithm analyzes your post, factoring in who you and your connections are, what you’ve looked at or shared before, and myriad other data points. Then it decides whether to show that post in someone else’s News Feed, the primary page you see when you log on. Think of it as a speed-reading robot that curates everything you see.

The way social media companies tell it, their robots are benevolent, serving only your best interests. You’ve clicked on your cousin’s recipes but not your friend’s fitness bragging? Here is more pasta and less Chloe Ting. You’ve shown an interest in Trump and also fanciful pottery? Here are some MAGA garden gnomes. The founding narrative of social media companies is that they merely provide a space for you, dear user, to do and see what you want.

In reality, as the people who work at these companies know quite well, technology reflects the biases of those who make it. And when those who make it are corporations, it reflects corporate imperatives. In Facebook’s case, those imperatives—chief among them, to grow faster than anyone else—have played out with especially high stakes, making the company one of the world’s most significant threats to democracy, human rights, and decency.

Facebook has been proved to be a vehicle for election disinformation in many countries (see: Brexit, Trump, Duterte). It has been an organizing space and megaphone for violent extremism and genocidal hate (see: KenoshaMyanmarSri Lanka, and Afghanistan). Its power is so far-reaching, it shapes elections in small-town Alabama and helps launch mobs into the Capitol. It reaches you whether or not you are on social media, because, as Jones says, what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook.

That’s why one of the most significant battles of the coming years is over whether and how government should regulate social media. So far, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much much more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 2:41 pm

The biggest military evacuation in US history is going pretty well

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Kevin Drum points out some obvious facts that some are ignoring:

I have had it with coverage of the Kabul evacuation. The plain fact is that, under the circumstances, it’s going fairly well. Both Americans and Afghan allies are being flown out safely and bloodshed on the ground is surprisingly limited. Sure, the whole operation is going to take a few weeks, but what did everyone expect?

But you’d never know this thanks to an immense firehose of crap coming from the very people we should least believe. This includes:

  • The hawks who kept the war in Afghanistan going for years with lies and happy talk, and who are now desperate to defend themselves.
  • Republicans who figure this is a great opportunity to sling partisan bullshit. Their favorite is that Biden has destroyed America’s standing in the world, an old chestnut for which there’s no evidence whatsoever.
  • Trumpies trying to avoid blame for the execution of their own plan. It is gobsmacking to hear them complain about slow processing of Afghan allies when they were the ones who deliberately hobbled the visa process in the first place.
  • Democrats who, as usual, are too damn cowardly to defend the withdrawal for fear of—something. It’s not always clear what.
  • Reporters who are sympathetic to all this because they genuinely care about the danger that the withdrawal poses for people they knew in Afghanistan.

The only real mistake the military made in this operation was in not realizing just what a terrible job they had been doing all along. Everything else flows from that. If the Afghan government had been able to hold off the Taliban for even a few weeks, everything would have been fine. But they didn’t even try. Ghani just grabbed a few suitcases of cash and took off.

All by itself, this should tell you how hopeless the situation in Afghanistan has been all along. After 20 years, the Afghan military, even with plenty of warning about when we planned to leave, was unable, and in many cases unwilling, to fight. It’s laughable to think that another few months would have made any difference. It’s equally laughable to hear from the “light footprint” gang, who think that we could have kept a few thousand troops in Afghanistan forever and avoided any kind of fighting even after the Taliban cease-fire was over.

As for all the Americans being airlifted out, I suppose it’s bad form to point out that they were told to leave months ago? If they had a lick of common sense most of them wouldn’t be stuck in Kabul and elsewhere waiting to be rescued.

The sophisticated attitude these days is to say that, of course, we needed to leave Afghanistan, but surely we could have executed the withdrawal more competently? Maybe, but I’d like to hear the plan. The problems we’ve run into were baked into the cake long ago, and the actual evacuation itself has been run with courage and guts. “There’s a whole nother story line that media could follow,” Cheryl Rofer says. “The people who are working to keep the flights running, the people who get on the flights, the people who are helping others to get to the airport, the people who are running the logistics.”

Amen to that. This is by far the biggest military evacuation in US history, and it’s being handled surprisingly well. Maybe that will change tomorrow. Anything could happen. But so far the US media has been suckered into a narrative that’s almost precisely the opposite of the truth. It needs to stop.

See, for example, “Congressman Seeking to Relaunch Afghan War Made Millions in Defense Contracting.”

Written by Leisureguy

22 August 2021 at 4:02 pm

Beware Blob talking points on Afghanistan

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“The Blob” seems to be Robert Wright’s name for the US foreign-policy establishment, which includes the White House and State Department, and also an amorphous mass of think tanks, talking heads and opinionators on cable and TV, mainstream media both on the editorial and opinion pages and in slanted reporting.

In this post, Wright lists some talking points the Blob is currently using:

“A disastrous American exit” was the title of Monday’s edition of The Washington Post’s flagship podcast, which was devoted to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In case you missed the point, the podcast revisited the subject of Afghanistan the following day and featured Post National Security Correspondent Shane Harris issuing this lamentation: “It’s so hard for us as Americans to believe that an American president would knowingly walk away from a country, understanding that it was just going to descend into chaos and be overtaken by militant fundamentalists. But that’s what happened.”

Is it? Did Afghanistan really “descend into chaos”? It’s true that there were scenes of chaos, most notably near Kabul’s airport, where Afghans who fear Taliban rule rushed to flee. That’s a genuine problem, a problem actually worthy of lamentation, and it may yet portend a humanitarian disaster.

But the reason these Afghans had to rush to the airport on such short notice was that the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan without the country descending into chaos. Most observers had assumed that, though an eventual Taliban victory was somewhere between likely and inevitable, it would involve a sustained fight and possibly a long civil war—even a nationwide descent into chaos. But it turned out the Taliban had quietly negotiated, region by region, a shockingly non-chaotic takeover of Afghanistan.

It’s not reassuring that Harris—a senior “straight-news” reporter at one of the country’s most important newspapers—calibrates his language so carelessly. But he’s not alone. Reporters and commentators on pretty much all mainstream media platforms have more and more, in recent years, been incentivized to dramatize. And the fall of Kabul further heightened the incentive.

It’s important to resist this tide—to stay as calm and clear as possible amid what is undeniably a tragic situation. One reason is that there’s a chance of this getting much more tragic and much more chaotic. And a panicked American overreaction to melodramatic reporting from people like Harris could make such an outcome more likely. With that in mind, here is a list of four talking points that will be circulating in the coming days, partly on the strength of their dramatic tenor, and shouldn’t be accepted without critical inspection:

1. This is going to be a win for Russia! The New York Times pushed this line via the headline “With Afghan Collapse, Moscow Takes Charge in Central Asia”—followed by a subhead which tells us that this Russian gain comes “at the expense of the United States.” It’s certainly true that America’s withdrawal, and the ensuing transition of power, will reduce direct US influence in Afghanistan and its vicinity. But the Times piece offers no good reason to think that any attendant expansion of Russian influence will come at the expense of America’s national interest. Indeed, Arkady Dubnov, a Russian expert on the region cited in the piece, offers this view:

All things being equal, Mr. Dubnov said, Moscow would have been happy for the United States to remain in Afghanistan and for Washington to continue to shoulder the burden of preventing the country from becoming a haven for international terrorist groups. The Kremlin sees the possibility of Islamist extremists and drug traffickers crossing into post-Soviet republics in Central Asia, and from there into Russia, as a serious threat. “It was of course a great deal for us when the Americans were doing the work of dragging the hotheads out of the fire over there,” Mr. Dubnov said.

In other words, the US and Russia have some shared interests in Afghanistan, and now Russia will pay more of the cost of pursuing them. Another term for that is: a US win!

It’s not clear why you would think expanded Russian influence in the region automatically brings net damage to American interests—unless, of course, you’re locked into a Cold War mindset. Which leads to:

2. This is going to be a win for China! Well, it may be a kind of win for China. The question is whether every win for China is a loss for America. Certainly China sees opportunity in the replacement of an Afghan regime that was allied with China’s nemesis India by an Afghan regime that isn’t. And certainly China believes it has real interests at stake. For one thing, Afghanistan shares a border with China’s Xinjiang Province, home of the Uyghur Muslim population that Beijing views (however irrationally) as a threat to China’s national cohesion. For this and other reasons, expect China to court the Taliban and provide them with various goodies in exchange for, among other things, keeping weapons from flowing across that border.

There are various unwelcome things that could flow from all this. China may, for example, offer the Taliban surveillance software to help it control a restive population. But beware what is likely to be the prevailing Blob overreading of a close China-Taliban relationship: that it’s an example of China supporting the spread of authoritarianism as part of a global war against democracy. A simpler interpretation is that it’s China pursuing what it sees as its national interest via tit-for-tat cooperation with a country that happens to be authoritarian. Sure, China will want that friendly regime to stay in power, and so will abet its authoritarianism—just as the US did many times during the Cold War and still does. In neither case is this support of authoritarianism strong evidence of a plot to subvert democracy globally.

3. This is going to turn Afghanistan into a giant platform for anti-American terrorists! On NPR, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said of the Taliban, “There is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, for ISIS and for terrorism in general. And that constitutes, frankly, a national security threat to the United States.” No question at all? That’s a strange degree of confidence given that the Taliban has fought ISIS repeatedly in recent years. A Taliban alliance with al-Qaeda is more likely, but even that isn’t assured. And the first step toward reducing the chances of that happening is to muster a clearer comprehension of the situation than (former Pentagon chief!) Panetta seems to possess.

Meanwhile, there’s a war-on-terror upside to withdrawal from Afghanistan that you probably won’t hear about in mainstream media. The only kind of post-9/11 jihadist terrorism that has been successful in America on a significant scale—“homegrown” terrorism, committed by people who were in America before being radicalized—has often been inspired by US wars conducted in majority-Muslim countries. The 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting—which, with a death toll of 49, was the second most lethal mass shooting in modern American history—was conducted by an Afghan-American who, while the shooting was unfolding, mentioned American interventions in Iraq and Syria and “my country.”

4. We must stop the Taliban at all costs! Various people—some of them energized by one or more of the above three talking points—are proposing continued struggle against the Taliban of a kind that could take a big toll on the Afghan people. The forms of proposed struggle range from proxy warfare (as suggested in a Washington Post op-ed by an aspiring proxy warrior) to the use of economic punishment (which is already happening).

Both kinds of sticks, though typically justified in terms of human welfare, tend to bring human suffering. And there’s a second irony: They would make more likely the kinds of outcomes their proponents tend to warn against—like driving the Taliban closer to Russia or China or al Qaeda. (It’s in principle possible to use economic sticks and carrots wisely, inducing desired change via sanctions and then relaxing them as a reward—and if we can pull that off, fine. But American politics tends to turn sanctions into perma-sticks.)

There can be no doubt that the Biden administration mishandled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, imperiling tens of thousands of Afghans who had aided the US military effort. And, though the administration has its excuses (the Afghan government opposed early evacuation and did so for non-crazy reasons), none fully absolves Biden of blame.

It’s fine for journalists and commentators to highlight this failing and its possible consequences, including any heightening of human suffering and any damage to American interests. What’s not fine is for them to turn it into an occasion for melodramatic preening of a kind that could bring more suffering and do lasting damage to American interests.

Readings

  • In the Washington Post, Susannah George looks into why the Taliban beat the Afghan government so quickly. The answer begins last year, when the US agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan in a deal with the Taliban. After the deal was signed, members of the Afghan security forces—many of whom weren’t being paid or adequately supplied by Kabul—began negotiating surrenders with local Taliban leaders. Negotiations gradually expanded from the local to the provincial level, setting the stage for the dramatic series of capitulations that culminated in the government’s fall. In Politico, Anatol Lieven argues that US officials—who estimated that Kabul would hold out for at least a month after withdrawal—should have seen this coming. “That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years,” Lieven writes.
  • In Popular Information, Judd Legum criticizes mainstream media’s reliance on hawkish pundits for analysis of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. These former generals, diplomats and policymakers have “focused criticism on Biden” and obscured how their own failures helped create the current crisis. “While there are legitimate criticisms of the way Biden executed the withdrawal, the result is an extremely distorted narrative,” Legum writes. In the Washington Post, Stephen Wertheim argues that these players-turned-commentators are unwilling to face two facts: The US lost to the Taliban, and it never had a chance to win. “Instead of accepting and learning from loss, some foreign policy leaders prefer to perpetuate the very myths that inspired the tragedy in the first place, beginning with the proposition that the United States should and could transform Afghanistan, if only it tried long and hard enough,” Wertheim writes.
  • Also in the Post, immigration reporter Felipe De La Hoz explains that Biden has the power to let in as many refugees as he deems necessary using “humanitarian parole”—a designation that empowers Biden to “temporarily admit almost anyone into the country on the spot.” De La Hoz notes that Gerald Ford used this pathway to accept over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.
  • One of the biggest questions following the withdrawal has been how the Taliban takeover will affect women in formerly government-held areas. While the Taliban has tried to appear more moderate in recent months, most observers believe that women’s rights will take a significant hit under its rule. In the American Prospect, Afghanistan expert Marya Hannun argues that the narrative that the US was saving—and is now abandoning—Afghan women is flawed. Hannun notes that the 70 percent of Afghan women who live in rural areas have suffered disproportionately from the last 20 years of war. Their frustration, she argues, is less about the withdrawal and more about being excluded from US-Taliban talks. In InStyle, Shireen Ahmed offers a few non-military ways Americans can help Afghan women, including learning more about them before weighing in on what they need, donating to charities working in Afghanistan, and pushing US politicians to accept more refugees.
  • The US and other rich countries are . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 1:37 pm

Where are the anti-war voices?

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Judd Legum has another excellent piece in Popular Information, which begins:

Yesterday’s newsletter detailed how the media is largely overlooking voices that supported Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Instead media reports are almost exclusively highlighting criticism of the withdrawal — often from people complicit in two decades of failed policy in Afghanistan.

We have reason to believe that this is not an accident. On Wednesday, Popular Information spoke to a veteran communications professional who has been trying to place prominent voices supportive of the withdrawal on television and in print. The source said that it has been next to impossible:

I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this before. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t even get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back…

I’ve fed sources to reporters, who end up not quoting the sources, but do quote multiple voices who are critical of the president and/or put the withdrawal in a negative light.

I turn on TV and watch CNN and, frankly, a lot of MSNBC shows, and they’re presenting it as if there’s not a voice out there willing to defend the president and his decision to withdraw. But I offered those very shows those voices, and the shows purposely decided to shut them out.

In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.

Who is on TV? As Media Matters has documented, there are plenty of former Bush administration officials criticizing the withdrawal.

Is it really about execution?

Much of the criticism of Biden’s decision to withdraw has focused on the administration’s “execution.” The critics claim the withdrawal was poorly planned, chaotic, and unnecessarily put Americans — and their Afghan allies — in danger.

Some of these claims may be true. It’s hard to know, for example, how many people have been left behind since evacuations are ongoing. But, with a few exceptions, the criticisms of Biden’s execution are being made by people who opposed withdrawal altogether.

For example, in a scathing column published in the Washington Post, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticizes the execution of the withdrawal. But she also makes clear that she does not think the U.S. military should have left.

Twenty years was not enough to complete a journey from the 7th-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government. Twenty years may also not have been enough to consolidate our gains against terrorism and assure our own safety. We — and they — needed more time.

Rice’s argument for why the withdrawal was executed poorly is very similar. She says that waiting a few more months, until winter, would have made it more difficult for the Taliban to fight and “given the Afghans a little more time to develop a strategy to prevent the chaotic fall of Kabul.”

But Rice’s argument makes clear that it is impossible to disentangle the execution of the withdrawal with the broader policy failures of the last two decades. It may be more difficult for the Taliban to fight in the winter, but the Taliban did not need to fight. Afghan security forces simply evaporated.

The twenty-year effort to build up these institutions — touted by Rice and much of the national security establishment — was a total failure. A . . .

Continue reading. There may be a paywall, unfortunately, but the newsletter is excellent.

The media’s systemic failure on Afghanistan

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Judd Legum has a particularly strong column today. It may be protected by a paywall, but it’s worth checking out if you can. He writes:

After two decades of war, President Biden finally made the decision to fully withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. It did not go as planned. The Afghan government and security forces, which the United States spent two decades building up, evaporated in days. The Taliban, the Islamist group which harbored Al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, quickly regained control over the country.

This was a failure that comes with real consequences for innocent Afghans. At particular risk are the Afghans that assisted US efforts, who may face retribution if they remain in the country, and women and girls, who may be stripped of their rights by the repressive Taliban regime.

But was this primarily a failure by Biden, for deciding to withdraw now? Or was it the unavoidable conclusion of failed policies in Afghanistan across four presidential administrations? Most coverage has focused criticism on Biden. And to bolster that argument, media outlets are relying on many of the people responsible for two decades of failure in Afghanistan. While there are legitimate criticisms of the way Biden executed the withdrawal, the result is an extremely distorted narrative.

Inside the Washington Post’s “straight news” piece on Afghanistan

Let’s examine, for example, this piece in the Washington Post: “Biden’s promise to restore competence to the presidency is undercut by chaos in Afghanistan.” Although this is presented as a “straight news” piece, the entire premise is that Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects his own incompetence. The author, Matt Viser, reports that the decision and its execution reflected “an inability to plan” and “an underestimation of a foreign adversary.”

As proof, Viser cites, “leading lawmakers and others” who believe that “the chaotic, and deadly, implementation of [Biden’s] decision reflects a failure by Biden at a critical moment to deliver the steady leadership and sound judgment he promised.” Who are these “leading lawmakers and others”? The same people who have been consistently wrong about Afghanistan strategy for the last twenty years.

The lead quote comes from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who said Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects the fact that Biden “didn’t really spend much time on the issue” and the Biden administration was simply “crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result.”

But is Panetta a credible voice on how policies will play out in Afghanistan? In a November 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, Panetta said that the military campaign in Afghanistan had “seriously weakened the Taliban” and now the Afghan people were “able to control their own fate.” He said that the development of the Afghan army and police force was “on target” and they were “doing the job.”

This was a consistent refrain during Panetta’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. “[W]e are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan,” Panetta said in December 2011.

After a March 2012 visit to Afghanistan, Panetta was even more optimistic. “Afghanistan needs to be able to govern and secure itself,” Panetta said. “We are very close to accomplishing that.” In January 2013, Panetta announced we had entered “the last chapter of establishing a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future.”

Panetta, of course, was wrong about all of this. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

. . . But neither Panetta’s role in the failed mission, nor his history of poor judgments about the trajectory of the country, are mentioned in the Washington Post. Instead he’s given free rein to paper over his involvement and place the blame on Biden.  . .

And there are more: others who were making disastrous decisions and misjudgments at the time, but quoted by the Washington Post as though they were impartial experts (rather than men trying to ignore their own role by placing blame on Biden).

It’s pieces like this — and there’s much more — that make me subscribe to Popular Information.

Another snippet from the piece:

Crocker’s role in covering up the corruption of the Afghan government is not mentioned in Viser’s Washington Post article or the other outlets that quoted him for criticizing the withdrawal — NBC NewsThe HillAxios, and Fox News.

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2021 at 6:35 pm

How the government can support a free press and cut disinformation

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Martha Minow of the Harvard Law School is interviewed by Christina Pazzanese in The Harvard Gazette:

The mainstream news industry has been in sharp decline since the 1990s, owing to a series of financial and cultural changes brought by the rise of the internet. Amid the closing or shrinking of newspapers, magazines, and other legacy news outlets, Americans have increasingly turned to social media and heavily partisan websites and cable networks as their main sources of news and information, which has led to a proliferation of disinformation and misinformation and fueled polarization.

Given the vital role a free and responsible press plays in American democracy and the unique protections the Constitution provides for it under the First Amendment, is it time for the government to get involved? Is it government’s place to do so? And how could that happen without infringing on that freedom?

In a new book, Saving the News: Why the Constitution Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech (Oxford University Press, 2021), Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard Law School, says the First Amendment not only does not preclude the federal government from protecting a free press in jeopardy, it requires that it do so. Minow spoke with the Gazette about some of the ways to potentially clean up social media and bankroll local news, and why arguing on Twitter isn’t a First Amendment right.

Q&A with Martha Minow

GAZETTE: There seems to be broad misunderstanding about what speech is protected by the First Amendment and what is not. Underlying “cancel culture” and complaints about “deplatforming” is a belief that people should not be penalized for saying things online that others find objectionable or that are inaccurate or even false because of their right to freely express themselves. Can you clarify how the First Amendment applies and doesn’t apply to social media platforms, like Twitter or Facebook, and online generally?

MINOW: I wrote a book to examine the challenges and decline of the news industry during a time of exploding misinformation and disinformation, a global pandemic, and great challenges to democracies in the United States and elsewhere. Certainly, one big dimension of this context is [what] some people are calling [an] infodemic: the flood of information that is enabled by the internet, and particularly social media. But it is not just social media. It’s conventional media, particularly cable news, but also some broadcast news.

Most of the sources of communications are private, and private communications are not governed by the First Amendment. Private companies are entitled to edit, elevate, suppress, remove [speech], whether it’s in broadcast, cable, or on a social media platform. Indeed, private companies have First Amendment freedoms against any government intervention. We in America are very fond of rights, and rights maybe are what hold us together more certainly than shared traditions, shared identities. And one of the ways that’s really evolved is how we talk about rights as if it’s a cultural phenomenon or it’s part of our identities. But that kind of informal conversation about “I have First Amendment freedom” may be a metaphor on a social media platform, but it is not a legal right. We sign terms-of-service agreements with platform companies. They’re the ones that control what is communicated and what’s not. That’s much less edited than broadcast or cable or print media. So, we’re living in an unprecedented time of lowered barriers to communicating to mass audiences — almost anybody can have access to a mass audience. But that’s all enabled by private providers and the private providers are not restricted by the First Amendment in what they remove or amplify.

GAZETTE: What are a few of the measures that could effectively hold tech firms to account for what is published and shared on their platforms?

MINOW: When it comes to holding the platform companies responsible for conveying, amplifying, even escalating hateful communications, misinformation, [and] disinformation, there are some techniques, but we have to be careful because if the government is involved, then the First Amendment is front and center. The techniques include eliminating or reducing the immunity currently granted under the [1996] Communications Decency Act, which has a section, Section 230, that treats platform companies differently from any other media and specifically immunizes them from liabilities that apply to all these other entities. They include liabilities for fraud, for defamation, for violating contract terms. [But] even Section 230 does not immunize the platforms from criminal responsibility or from violations of intellectual property rights. So, one very direct step to hold companies responsible would be to either eliminate this immunity or make it conditional. I actually prefer that alternative.

Companies adopt and should adhere to standards of moderation, content moderation rules. They can develop their own, but the idea would be they’d have to announce standards; they’d have to report on them; and they’d have to have processes to act on anyone calling them out for violating their own standards. That’s pretty direct, and it would put them on the same par as all the other media entities that exist in the country.

Another possibility would be to take intellectual property seriously and make the platforms pay when they take or steal or promote information from other news sources. They don’t put the revenues that they gain, particularly from advertising, back into investment in news. It’s not a punishment; it’s simply the idea of holding them responsible like [the] grown-up companies that they are.

You know, the fact of the matter is, the big disinformation source is as much broadcast and cable [television as it is online] and on those, there is a basis for government regulation. The FCC could take that seriously and withhold licenses, remove them, terminate them, for companies that are misleading people, that are labeling as news something that’s entirely opinion. Cable is largely a monopoly. Local communities grant franchises to cable companies; local communities could hold them more responsible. I don’t look forward to a day, I hope we never see it, that the government, at any level, is deciding the content. But when there is scarce opportunity to amplify communications given to private companies, it’s only fair that they should have standards that they then deliver on [by] providing some quality control of what they amplify. There is no right to have your message sent to everybody in the world anywhere. What there is, is a right to be free from government restrictions on your speech. So, one very specific suggestion that I have is that when we deal with digital communications, there could be a delay, and there could be speed bumps. Before people can spread messages to large numbers of people, there could be a delay, they could even use artificial intelligence to monitor it before it can be spread beyond a handful of people.

GAZETTE: The era of self-policing hasn’t worked very well so far, but you say there are things companies can and should be doing right now to act more responsibly and to help support the news. What are a few of those?

MINOW: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2021 at 5:34 pm

The Afghanistan Debacle: How Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden Bamboozled the American Public

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David Corn’s newsletter The Land is available three times a week through a paid subscription, but the current issue — on the very interesting topic of how the public was betrayed by a succession of Presidents — is available free. It begins:

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the calamitous collapse of Kabul are the result of years of American failure to understand that nation and that war—an immense failure that was covered up by the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.

It was Bush and Dick Cheney who led the United States into what would be the longest-running quagmire in American history. And they did so with little strategic thought about what to do after chasing Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan and running the al-Qaeda-friendly Taliban out of power. Most notoriously, before figuring out how to proceed in Afghanistan after the initial attack, they launched the even more misguided war in Iraq on the basis of lies and, in similar fashion, without a clear plan for what would come after the fall of Saddam Hussein. As a result, over 4,400 American soldiers would perish there, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians would die in the years of post-invasion fighting. Meanwhile, nearly 6,300 American GIs and contractors would lose their lives in Afghanistan. The arrogance and ineptitude of Bush, Cheney, and their henchmen have led to the horrible images and tales we have seen reported from Afghanistan in the past few days—which themselves are the continuation of many years of horrible images and tales from the double-debacle of these two wars.

But the Obama and Trump administrations were complicit in the Afghanistan catastrophe, particularly for perpetuating the national security establishment’s delusions—and lies—about the war. In 2019, the Washington Post obtained access to a trove of confidential US government documents about the Afghanistan war that were produced as part of an inspector general’s project that investigated the root failures of the war by conducting interviews with 400 insiders involved with the effort, including generals, White House officials, diplomats, and Afghan officials. The findings were damning. As the Post put it, “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

That was a helluva secret to keep from the public. A sharp indictment came from Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who was the White House Afghan war czar for Bush and Obama. In 2015, he told the project’s interviewers, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan­—we didn’t know what we were doing.” The guy in charge of Afghanistan remarkably added, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Lute also observed, “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.” Yes, imagine if we did—though the vast corruption that undermined the massive US rebuilding endeavor was well reported repeatedly over the years. As were the continuous failures within the war itself. Yet Congress, the media, and the citizenry paid insufficient attention to this never-ending, going-nowhere conflict.

Several officials interviewed noted the US government—military HQ in Kabul and the White House—consistently hoodwinked the public to make it seem the US was winning in Afghanistan when it was not. Remember the steady stream of assurances the Afghan military was becoming more capable of beating back the Taliban? That was BS. A senior National Security Council official said there was pressure from the Obama White House and the Pentagon to concoct stats showing the American troop surge was succeeding: “It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory, and none of it painted an accurate picture. The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

John Sopko, who headed the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which ran the project, bottom-lined this for the Post: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”

Think about that. Americans have paid about $1 trillion for the war in Afghanistan. Thousands have given their lives; many more have suffered tremendous injuries. And the public was not told the truth about this venture. It was bamboozled by successive administrations. The Post had to twice sue SIGAR to force the release of these papers under the Freedom of Information Act. The Trump administration preferred to keep this material under wraps.

These documents were somewhat akin to the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page long history of the Vietnam War that was leaked to the media by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and showed that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had routinely deceived the public about supposed progress in that war. (The Afghanistan papers, unlike the Vietnam study, were not classified.) Yet the Post’s big get did not detonate a major controversy, as the Pentagon Papers did. This holy-shit scoop was duly noted, and then, as is often the case, we all moved on. The Afghanistan war had long since become a non-story, relegated to p. A15, if covered at all.

Now we are worried, perhaps angered, by the fall of Kabul, and we fear for the Afghans—especially the women and girls, the human rights activists, and those who aided US forces and Western journalists—who are about to become inhabitants of the Taliban’s fundamentalist hellscape. But however we reached this point—and whether or not President Joe Biden committed a grave error with the US troop withdrawal and its management—one thing is clear: US presidents, military officials, and policymakers were not straight with the American public about Afghanistan. We never had an honest debate about what was being done there and what could—and couldn’t—be accomplished. (For a snapshot of the absurdity of the Afghanistan war, see this recent thread from Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.)

As Afghans in Kabul, including President Ashraf Ghani, fled the incoming Taliban this past weekend, the blame game kicked in. Who lost Afghanistan? Well, it wasn’t ours to lose in the first place. But everyone is to blame, for everyone lied or got it wrong: Bush and Cheney, Obama and Biden, Trump and Pence, and now Biden and Harris. When Trump in February 2020 signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban obligating the US troop withdrawal that has just occurred, he told Americans that he expected the Taliban would act responsibly. He claimed the Taliban was “tired of war.” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called it a “hopeful moment.” Months later, there was intensified fighting. In July, President Joe Biden, who had the choice of abiding by this deal or confronting an anticipated expansion in Taliban attacks, presented a false impression of what to expect with the troop pullout Trump had negotiated: “The jury is still out, but the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Ending the US military involvement in Afghanistan is a noble goal. But while it was too easy for the United States, in the wake of 9/11, to launch a forever war in the land that previously defied the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and other outsiders, extrication was never going to be smooth and cost-free. History doesn’t lie. And with no honest dialogue about the war, this brutal finish is even more shocking.

The American public has been conned about Afghanistan for two decades by successive administrations. Did any of those lies do the Afghan people any good? . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Kevin Drum on Afghanistan

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Written by Leisureguy

17 August 2021 at 4:05 pm

“We Research Misinformation on Facebook. It Just Disabled Our Accounts.”

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Facebook increasingly acts in an authoritarian and bad-faith manner. It’s a dangerous company because it defies any effort to study or regulate it, and it does not have our interests at heart: it is concerned only with becoming more powerful and profitable.

Laura Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at N.Y.U.’s Tandon School of Engineering, and Damon McCoy, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the same school, are affiliated with the nonpartisan research group Cybersecurity for Democracy, and their column in the NY Times illuminates Facebook’s determination to keep its operations secret. They write:

We learned last week that Facebook had disabled our Facebook accounts and our access to data that we have been using to study how misinformation spreads on the company’s platform.

We were informed of this in an automated email. In a statement, Facebook says we used “unauthorized means to access and collect data” and that it shut us out to comply with an order from the Federal Trade Commission to respect the privacy of its users.

This is deeply misleading. We collect identifying information only about Facebook’s advertisers. We believe that Facebook is using privacy as a pretext to squelch research that it considers inconvenient. Notably, the acting director of the F.T.C.’s consumer protection bureau told Facebook last week that the “insinuation” that the agency’s order required the disabling of our accounts was “inaccurate.”

“The F.T.C. is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission,” the acting director, Samuel Levine, wrote to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive.

Our team at N.Y.U.’s Center for Cybersecurity has been studying Facebook’s platform for three years. Last year, we deployed a browser extension we developed called Ad Observer that allows users to voluntarily share information with us about ads that Facebook shows them. It is this tool that has raised the ire of Facebook and that it pointed to when it disabled our accounts.

In the course of our overall research, we’ve been able to demonstrate that extreme, unreliable news sources get more “engagement” — that is, user interaction — on Facebook, at the expense of accurate posts and reporting. What’s more, our work shows that the archive of political ads that Facebook makes available to researchers is missing more than 100,000 ads.

There is still a lot of important research we want to do. When Facebook shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.

We are privacy and cybersecurity researchers whose careers are built on protecting users. That’s why we’ve been so careful to make sure that our Ad Observer tool collects only limited and anonymous information from the users who agreed to participate in our research. And it is also why we made the tool’s source code public so that

Facebook and others can verify that it does what we say it does.

We strongly believe we are not violating Facebook’s terms of service, as the company contends. But even if we had been, Facebook could have authorized our research. As Facebook declared in announcing the disabling of our accounts, “We’ll continue to provide ways for responsible researchers to conduct studies that are in the public interest while protecting the security of our platform and the privacy of people who use it.”

Our research is responsible and in the public interest. We’ve protected the privacy of our volunteers. Essentially, our ad tool collects the ads our volunteers see on their Facebook accounts, plus information provided by Facebook about when and why they were shown the ads and who paid for them. These ads are seen by the specific audience the advertiser targets.

This tool provides a way to see what entities are trying to influence the public, and how they’re doing it. We think that’s important to democracy. Yet Facebook has denied us important access to continue to do much of our work.

One of the odd things about this dispute is that while Facebook has barred us from research tools available to users and other academic researchers, it has not blocked our Ad Observer browser either by technical or legal means. It is still operational, and we are still collecting data from volunteers. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2021 at 9:57 pm

The love affair between Republicans and dictators

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Today, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán posted on Facebook a photo of Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson visiting him. Carlson is broadcasting his television show from Hungary this week, before he speaks on Saturday at MCC Feszt, an event hosted by a government-sponsored university whose mission is to produce a conservative elite.

Hungary is a country in central Europe of about 10 million people who have, in the decade since Orbán took power for the second time, watched their democracy erode. On paper, Hungary is a democracy in that it still holds elections, but it is, in fact, a one-party state overseen by the prime minister.

Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace the multiculturalism at the heart of democracy with Christian culture, stop the immigration that he believes undermines Hungarian culture, and reject “adaptable family models” with “the Christian family model.”

No matter what he calls it, Orbán’s model is not democracy at all. As soon as he retook office in 2010, he began to establish control over the media, cracking down on those critical of his party, Fidesz, and rewarding those who toed the party line. In 2012, his supporters rewrote the country’s constitution to strengthen his hand, and extreme gerrymandering gave his party more power while changes to election rules benefited his campaigns. Increasingly, he used the power of the state to concentrate wealth among his cronies, and he reworked the country’s judicial system and civil service system to stack it with his loyalists. While Hungary still has elections, state control of the media and the apparatus of voting means that it is impossible for Orbán’s opponents to take power.

Trump supporters have long admired Orbán’s nationalism and centering of Christianity, while the fact that Hungary continues to have elections enables them to pretend that the country remains a democracy.

Currently, political patterns in America look much like those Orbán used to gather power into his own hands. Republican-dominated legislatures are passing new measures to suppress the vote, aided by the Big Lie that former president Trump did not lose the 2020 election. Trump and his supporters are focusing on the so-called “forensic audit” of Maricopa County in Arizona, paid for and conducted by Trump loyalists who insist that Trump actually won despite the repeated investigations that have proved the election was clean.

Today, a piece by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker revealed how the money for that audit is coming not from local protesters, but rather from “sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives.” Those organizations “have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.”

Mayer details how organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the anti-regulation FreedomWorks, and the Judicial Education Project (which is tied to Leonard Leo, a chair of the Federalist Society, which has worked since the 1980s to stack the courts with originalists) have turned from their previous advocacy to focus on voter suppression. These groups are bankrolled by Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, whose board member Cleta Mitchell was on Trump’s January 3, 2021, call to Georgia election officials.

In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent noted that the goal of these audits is to undermine Americans’ faith in elections altogether. Continued questioning of election results even after repeated recounts and verification makes any outcome seem untrustworthy. In such a case, a state legislature might argue it was justified either in “finding” enough votes to swing an election—as Trump tried to get Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to do in Georgia in 2020—or in throwing out the vote altogether and advancing its own slate of electors to the Electoral College.

Mayer points out that organizations funded by the Bradley Foundation are, indeed, talking about taking the choice of electors away from voters and giving it instead to state officials.

Carlson has shown support for Hungary in the past. Notably, in 2019, he endorsed . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2021 at 4:18 pm

H.L. Mencken Kindle collection for 80¢

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H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), famous Baltimore writer, had a glistening career, arousing both ire and admiration, generally not in the same person You can buy for 80¢ a Kindle collection of seven of his books:

The American Credo
The American Language
The Philosophy Of Friedrich Nietzsche
A Book Of Burlesques
A Book Of Prefaces
Damn! A Book Of Calumny
In Defense Of Women

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 11:13 am

She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.

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Karen Hao reports in Technology Review:

The world first learned of Sophie Zhang in September 2020, when BuzzFeed News obtained and published highlights from an abridged version of her nearly 8,000-word exit memo from Facebook.

Before she was fired, Zhang was officially employed as a low-level data scientist at the company. But she had become consumed by a task she deemed more important: finding and taking down fake accounts and likes that were being used to sway elections globally.

Her memo revealed that she’d identified dozens of countries, including India, Mexico, Afghanistan, and South Korea, where this type of abuse was enabling politicians to mislead the public and gain power. It also revealed how little the company had done to mitigate the problem, despite Zhang’s repeated efforts to bring it to the attention of leadership.

“I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” she wrote.

On the eve of her departure, Zhang was still debating whether to write the memo at all. It was perhaps her last chance to create enough internal pressure on leadership to start taking the problems seriously. In anticipation of writing it, she had turned down a nearly $64,000 severance package that would have involved signing a nondisparagement agreement. She wanted to retain the freedom to speak critically about the company.

But it was just two months before the 2020 US election, and she was disturbed by the idea that the memo could erode the public’s trust in the electoral process if prematurely released to the press. “I was terrified of somehow becoming the James Comey of 2020,” she says, referring to the former FBI director who, days before the 2016 election, told Congress the agency had reopened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Clinton went on to blame Comey for her loss.

To Zhang’s great relief, that didn’t happen. And after the election passed, she proceeded with her original plan. In April, she came forward in two Guardian articles with her face, her name, and even more detailed documentation of the political manipulation she’d uncovered and Facebook’s negligence in dealing with it.

Her account supplied concrete evidence to support what critics had long been saying on the outside: that Facebook makes election interference easy, and that unless such activity hurts the company’s business interests, it can’t be bothered to fix the problem.

In a statement, Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, vehemently denied these claims. “For the countless press interviews she’s done since leaving Facebook, we have fundamentally disagreed with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform,” he said. “We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work. As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 150 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior … Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority.”

By going public and eschewing anonymity, Zhang risked legal action from the company, harm to her future career prospects, and perhaps even reprisals from the politicians she exposed in the process. “What she did is very brave,” says Julia Carrie Wong, the Guardian reporter who published her revelations.

After nearly a year of avoiding personal questions, Zhang is now ready to tell her story. She wants the world to understand how she became so involved in trying to protect democracy worldwide and why she cared so deeply. She’s also tired of being in the closet as a transgender woman, a core aspect of her identity that informed her actions at Facebook and after she left.

Her story reveals that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2021 at 2:43 pm

Our democracy is under attack. Washington journalists must stop covering it like politics as usual.

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Margaret Sullivan, one-time Public “Editor for the NY Times and now a columnist for the Washington Post, has a good piece today:

Back in the dark ages of 2012, two think-tank scholars, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, wrote a book titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” about the rise of Republican Party extremism and its dire effect on American democracy.

In a related op-ed piece, these writers made a damning statement about Washington press coverage, which treats the two parties as roughly equal and everything they do as deserving of similar coverage.

Ornstein and Mann didn’t use the now-in-vogue terms “both-sidesism” or “false equivalence,” but they laid out the problem with devastating clarity (the italics are mine):

“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change any time soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.”

Positive proof was in the recent coverage of congressional efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

The Democratic leadership has been trying to assemble a bipartisan panel that would study that mob attack on our democracy and make sure it is never repeated. Republican leaders, meanwhile, have been trying to undermine the investigation, cynically requesting that two congressmen who backed efforts to invalidate the election be allowed to join the commission, then boycotting it entirely. And the media has played straight into Republicans’ hands, seemingly incapable of framing this as anything but base political drama.

“ ‘What You’re Doing Is Unprecedented’: McCarthy-Pelosi Feud Boils Over,” read a CNN headline this week. “After a whiplash week of power plays . . . tensions are at an all-time high.”

Is it really a “feud” when Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy performatively blames Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for refusing to seat Republicans Jim Jordan and Jim Banks — two sycophantic allies of Trump, who called the Jan. 6 mob to gather?

One writer at Politico called Pelosi’s decision a “gift to McCarthy.” And its Playbook tut-tutted the decision as handing Republicans “a legitimate grievance,” thus dooming the holy notion of bipartisanship.

“Both parties have attacked the other as insincere and uninterested in conducting a fair-minded examination,” a Washington Post news story observed. (“Can it really be lost on the Post that the Republican party has acted in bad faith at every turn to undermine every attempt to investigate the events of Jan. 6?” a reader complained to me.)

The bankruptcy of this sort of coverage was exposed on Tuesday morning, when the Jan. 6 commission kicked off with somber, powerful, pointedly nonpolitical testimony from four police officers who were attacked during the insurrection. Two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, even defied McCarthy’s boycott to ensure their party would be sanely represented.

Law officers became truth seekers about who was responsible for the Capitol attacks

This strain of news coverage, observed Jon Allsop in Columbia Journalism Review, centers on twinned, dubious implications: “That bipartisanship is desirable and that Democrats bear responsibility for upholding it — even in the face of explicit Republican obstructionism.”

This stance comes across as both cynical (“politics was ever thus”) and unsophisticated (“we’re just doing our job of reporting what was said”). Quite a feat.

Mainstream journalists want their work to be perceived as fair-minded and nonpartisan. They want to defend themselves against charges of bias. So they equalize the unequal. This practice seems so ingrained as to be unresolvable.

There is a way out. But it requires the leadership of news organizations to radically reframe the mission of its Washington coverage. As a possible starting point, I’ll offer these recommendations:

  • Toss out the insidious “inside-politics” frame and replace it with a “pro-democracy” frame.
  • Stop calling the reporters who cover this stuff “political reporters.” Start calling them “government reporters.”

  • Stop asking who the winners and losers were in the latest skirmish. Start asking who is serving the democracy and who is undermining it

  • Stop being “savvy” and start being patriotic.

In a year-end piece for Nieman Lab, Andrew Donohue, managing editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, called for news organizations to put reporters on a new-style “democracy beat” to focus on voting suppression and redistricting. “These reporters won’t see their work in terms of politics or parties, but instead through the lens of honesty, fairness, and transparency,” he wrote.

I’d make it more sweeping. The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation, but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media.

Making this happen will call for something that Big Journalism is notoriously bad at: An open-minded, nondefensive recognition of what’s gone wrong.

Top editors, Sunday talk-show moderators and other news executives should pull together their brain trusts to grapple with this. And they should be transparent with the public about what they’re doing and why.

As a model, they might have to swallow their big-media pride and look to places like Harrisburg, Pa., public radio station WITF which has admirably explained to its audience why it continually offers reminders about the actions of those public officials who tried to overturn the 2020 election results. Or to Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Chris Quinn’s letter to readers about how the paper and its website, Cleveland.com, refuse to cover every reckless, attention-getting lie of Republican Josh Mandel as he runs for the U.S. Senate next year. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 1:34 pm

The Real Source of America’s Rising Rage

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Kevin Drum has a good article in Mother Jones that begins:

Americans sure are angry these days. Everyone says so, so it must be true.

But who or what are we angry at? Pandemic stresses aside, I’d bet you’re not especially angry at your family. Or your friends. Or your priest or your plumber or your postal carrier. Or even your boss.

Unless, of course, the conversation turns to politics. That’s when we start shouting at each other. We are way, way angrier about politics than we used to be, something confirmed by both common experience and formal research.

When did this all start? Here are a few data points to consider. From 1994 to 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of Democrats held a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans, but then these feelings started to climb. Between 2000 and 2014 it rose to 38 percent and by 2021 it was about 52 percent. And the same is true in reverse for Republicans: The share who intensely dislike Democrats went from 17 percent to 43 percent to about 52 percent.

Likewise, in 1958 Gallup asked people if they’d prefer their daughter marry a Democrat or a Republican. Only 28 percent cared one way or the other. But when Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA, asked a similar question a few years ago, 55 percent were opposed to the idea of their children marrying outside their party.

Or consider the right track/wrong track poll, every pundit’s favorite. Normally this hovers around 40–50 percent of the country who think we’re on the right track, with variations depending on how the economy is doing. But shortly after recovering from the 2000 recession, this changed, plunging to 20–30 percent over the next decade and then staying there.

Finally, academic research confirms what these polls tell us. Last year a team of researchers published an international study that estimated what’s called “affective polarization,” or the way we feel about the opposite political party. In 1978, we rated people who belonged to our party 27 points higher than people who belonged to the other party. That stayed roughly the same for the next two decades, but then began to spike in the year 2000. By 2016 it had gone up to 46 points—by far the highest of any of the countries surveyed—and that’s before everything that has enraged us for the last four years.

What’s the reason for this? There’s no shortage of speculation. Political scientists talk about the fragility of presidential systems. Sociologists explicate the culture wars. Historians note the widening divide between the parties after white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party following the civil rights era. Reporters will regale you with stories about the impact of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.

There’s truth in all of these, but even taken together they are unlikely to explain the underlying problem. Some aren’t new (presidential systems, culture wars) while others are symptoms more than causes (the Southern Strategy).

I’ve been spending considerable time digging into the source of our collective rage, and the answer to this question is trickier than most people think. For starters, any good answer has to fit the timeline of when our national temper tantrum began—roughly around the year 2000. The answer also has to be true: That is, it needs to be a genuine change from past behavior—maybe an inflection point or a sudden acceleration. Once you put those two things together, the number of candidates plummets.

But I believe there is an answer. I’ll get to that, but first we need to investigate a few of the most popular—but ultimately unsatisfying—theories currently in circulation.

Theory #1: Americans Have Gone Crazy With Conspiracy Theories

It’s probably illegal to talk about the American taste for conspiracy theorizing without quoting from Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It was written in 1964, but this passage (from the book version) about the typical conspiracy monger should ring a bell for the modern reader:

He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.

Or how about this passage from Daniel Bell’s “The Dispossessed”? It was written in 1962:

The politics of the radical right is the politics of frustration—the sour impotence of those who find themselves unable to understand, let alone command, the complex mass society that is the polity today…Insofar as there is no real left to counterpoise to the right, the liberal has become the psychological target of that frustration.

In other words, the extreme right lives to own the libs. And it’s no coincidence that both Hofstadter and Bell wrote about this in the early ’60s: That was about the time that the John Birch Society was gaining notoriety and the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater for president. But as Hofstadter in particular makes clear, a fondness for conspiracy theories has pervaded American culture from the very beginning. Historian Bernard Bailyn upended revolutionary-era history and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his argument that belief in a worldwide British conspiracy against liberty “lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement”—an argument given almost Trumpian form by Sam Adams, who proclaimed that the British empire literally wanted to enslave white Americans. Conspiracy theories that followed targeted the Bavarian Illuminati, the Masons, Catholics, East Coast bankers, a global Jewish cabal, and so on.

But because it helps illuminate what we face now, let’s unpack the very first big conspiracy theory of the modern right, which began within weeks of the end of World War II.

In 1945 FDR met with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Yalta with the aim of gaining agreement about the formation of the United Nations and free elections in Europe. In this he succeeded: Stalin agreed to everything FDR proposed. When FDR returned home he gave a speech to Congress about the meeting, and it was generally well received. A month later he died.

Needless to say, Stalin failed to observe most of the agreements he had signed. He never had any intention of allowing “free and fair” elections in Eastern Europe, which he wanted as a buffer zone against any future military incursion from Western Europe. The United States did nothing about this, to the disgust of many conservatives. However, this was not due to any special gutlessness on the part of Harry Truman or anyone in the Army. It was because the Soviet army occupied Eastern Europe when hostilities ended and there was no way to dislodge it short of total war, something the American public had no appetite for.

And there things might have stood. Scholars could have argued for years about whether FDR was naive about Stalin, or whether there was more the US and its allies could have done to push Soviet troops out of Europe. Books would have been written and dissertations defended, but not much more. So far we have no conspiracy theory, just some normal partisan disagreement.

But then came 1948. Thomas Dewey lost the presidency to Harry Truman and Republicans lost control of the House. Soon thereafter the Soviet Union demonstrated an atomic bomb and communists overran China. It was at this point that a normal disagreement turned into a conspiracy theory. The extreme right began suggesting that FDR had deliberately turned over Eastern Europe to Stalin and that the US delegation at Yalta had been rife with Soviet spies. Almost immediately Joe McCarthy was warning that the entire US government was infiltrated by communists at the highest levels. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the architect of the Manhattan Project, was surely a communist. George Marshall, the hero of World War II, was part of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Like most good conspiracy theories, there was a kernel of truth here. Stalin really did take over Eastern Europe. Alger Hiss, part of the Yalta delegation, really did turn out to be a Soviet mole. Klaus Fuchs and others really did pass along atomic secrets to the Soviets. Never mind that Stalin couldn’t have been stopped; never mind that Hiss was a junior diplomat who played no role in the Yalta agreements; never mind that Fuchs may have passed along secrets the Soviets already knew. It was enough to power a widespread belief in McCarthy’s claim of the biggest conspiracy in all of human history.

There’s no polling data from back then, but belief in this conspiracy became a right-wing mainstay for years—arguably the wellspring of conservative conspiracy theories for decades. Notably, it caught on during a time of conservative loss and liberal ascendancy. This is a pattern we’ve seen over and over since World War II. The John Birch Society and the JFK assassination conspiracies gained ground after enormous Democratic congressional victories in 1958 and again in 1964. The full panoply of Clinton conspiracies blossomed after Democrats won united control of government in the 1992 election. Benghazi was a reaction to Barack Obama—not just a Democratic win, but the first Black man to be elected president. And today’s conspiracy theories about stealing the presidential election are a response to Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.

How widespread are these kinds of beliefs? And has their popularity changed over time? The evidence is sketchy but there’s polling data that provides clues. McCarthy’s conspiracy theories were practically a pandemic, consuming American attention for an entire decade. Belief in a cover-up of the JFK assassination has always hovered around 50 percent or higher. In the mid-aughts, a third of poll respondents strongly or somewhat believed that 9/11 was an inside job, very similar to the one-third of Americans who believe today that there was significant fraud in the 2020 election even though there’s no evidence to support this. And that famous one-third of Americans who are skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine? In 1954 an identical third of Americans were skeptical of the polio vaccine that had just become available.

So how does QAnon, the great liberal hobgoblin of the past year, measure up? It may seem historically widespread for such an unhinged conspiracy theory, but it’s not: Polls suggest that actual QAnon followers are rare and that belief in QAnon hovers at less than 10 percent of the American public. It’s no more popular than other fringe fever swamp theories of the past.

It’s natural to believe that things happening today—to you—are worse than similar things lost in the haze of history, especially when social media keeps modern outrages so relentlessly in our faces. But often it just isn’t true. A mountain of evidence suggests that the American predilection for conspiracy theories is neither new nor growing. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, preeminent scholars of conspiracy theories, confirmed this with some original research based on letters to the editors of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune between 1890 and 2010. Their conclusion: Belief in conspiracy theories has been stable since about 1960. Along with more recent polling, this suggests that the aggregate belief in conspiracy theories hasn’t changed a lot and therefore isn’t likely to provide us with much insight into why American political culture has corroded so badly during the 21st century.

Theory #2: It’s All About Social Media

How about social media? Has it had an effect? Of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — along with what he views as the main cause.

And note these:

RELATED STORIES

Today It’s Critical Race Theory. 200 Years Ago It Was Abolitionist Literature.

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Post-Trump, the GOP Continues to Be the Party of (White) Grievance

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2021 at 12:00 pm

Will America resume competition? Big corporations don’t like it, and they have power.

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

On Friday, as President Joe Biden signed “An Executive Order Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” he echoed the language of his predecessors. “[C]ompetition keeps the economy moving and keeps it growing,” he said. “Fair competition is why capitalism has been the world’s greatest force for prosperity and growth…. But what we’ve seen over the past few decades is less competition and more concentration that holds our economy back.”

Biden listed how prescription drugs, hearing aids, internet service, and agricultural supplies are all overpriced in the U.S. because of a lack of competition (RFD TV, the nation’s rural channel, has a long-running ad complaining of the cost of hearing aids). He also noted that noncompete clauses make it hard for workers to change jobs, another issue straight out of the late nineteenth century, when southern states tried to keep prices low by prohibiting employers from hiring Black workers away from their current jobs.

“I’m a proud capitalist,” Biden said. “I know America can’t succeed unless American business succeeds…. But let me be very clear: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation. Without healthy competition, big players can change and charge whatever they want and treat you however they want…. “[W]e know we’ve got a problem—a major problem.  But we also have an incredible opportunity. We can bring back more competition to more of the country, helping entrepreneurs and small businesses get in the game, helping workers get a better deal, helping families save money every month. The good news is: We’ve done it before.”

Biden reached into our history to reclaim our long tradition of opposing economic consolidation. Calling out both Roosevelt presidents—Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw part of the Progressive Era, and Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who oversaw the New Deal—Biden celebrated their attempt to rein in the power of big business, first by focusing on the abuses of those businesses, and then by championing competition.

Civil War era Republicans had organized around the idea that the American economy enjoyed what they called a “harmony of interest.” By that, they meant that everyone had the same economic interests. People at the bottom of the economy, people who drew value out of the products of nature—trees, or fish, or grain—produced value through their hard work. They created more value than they could consume, and this value, in the form of capital, employed people on the next level of the economy: shoemakers, dry goods merchants, cabinetmakers, and so on. They, in turn, produced more than they could consume, and their excess supported a few industrialists and financiers at the top of the pyramid who, in their turn, employed those just starting out. In this vision, the economy was a web in which every person shared a harmony of interest.

But by the 1880s, this idea that all Americans shared the same economic interest had changed into the idea that protecting American businesses would be good for everyone. American businessmen had begun to consolidate their enterprises into trusts, bringing a number of corporations under the same umbrella. The trusts stifled competition and colluded to raise the prices paid by consumers. Their power and funding gave them increasing power over lawmakers. As wealth migrated upward and working Americans felt like they had less and less control over their lives, they began to wonder what had happened to the equality for which they had fought the Civil War.

Labor leaders, newspapers, and Democratic lawmakers began to complain about the power of the wealthy in society and to claim the economic game was rigged, but their general critiques of the economy simply left them open to charges of being “socialists” who wanted to overturn society. Congress in 1890 finally gave in and passed an antitrust act, but it was so toothless that only one senator in the staunchly pro-business Senate voted against it, and no one in the House of Representatives voted no.

Then, around 1900, the so-called muckrakers hit their stride. Muckrakers were journalists who took on the political corruption and the concentration of wealth that plagued their era, but rather than making general moral statements, they did deep research into the workings of specific industries and political machines—Standard Oil, for example, and Minneapolis city government—and revealed the details behind the general outrage.

Their stories built pressure to regulate the robber barons, as they were called by then, but Congress, dominated by business interests, had no interest. Instead, President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, tended to rein in the trusts through the executive branch of the government, especially by legal action undertaken by the Department of Justice.

On Friday, Biden promised to use the power of the executive branch to rein in corporations, much as Theodore Roosevelt did during his terms of office. But there was more to Biden’s statement than that. His emphasis on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 July 2021 at 2:07 pm

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