No better than tsarist Russia

In 1682, the year of Peter the Great’s accession to the Russian throne at the age of 10, there was a coup fomented through a misinformation campaign from one of the warring factions. At issue was the legitimacy of Peter as the heir to the throne. While one influential faction of lords backed Peter, the opposition wanted his half-brother Ivan to rule the kingdom. The campaign of misinformation that climaxed with a revolt of the Streltzy, the palace guard, used well-known propaganda tactics to incite violence among masses. How did they do it? By spreading a lie that Ivan had been executed. And since this happened in the absence of the free press or any kind of checks and balances to verify the story, the fearful pawns, pre-primed into anger, their preconceived notions confirmed, did their job. The bloodshed was ghastly and occurred before the eyes of the child tsar, scarring him forever and informing his ruthlessly pragmatic ruling style. Ivan, very much alive, stood next to Peter on the stairs of the palace while the unleashed mob, unable to stop even in the face of seeing Ivan alive, bludgeoned members of the royal household.

The sleazy manipulation tactics of misinformation campaigns have come a long way. Fox, Drudge, Bannon and the like, are keen psychologists first, and purveyors of misinformation second, aided by the technological advances of the 21st century. The trick with misinformation is that in order to make it credible, it has to be at least somewhat true. Misinformation is just the composted cow manure that helps grow the seeds of emotional volatility among the mob. This emotional volatility, once watered by peer validation (just look at the comments on Breitbart), is not subject to rational examination or logical argument. This is the agitprop of dictatorships, so successful at steering people to go against their own interests. They turn off higher cognitive functions in favor of the autopilot of the reptilian brain. That’s the danger, this locomotive of unrestrained and unexamined toxic emotionality.

This is what the new President-elect has willfully unleashed and legitimized. Yesterday’s “meeting” in his Rapunzel tower with the leaders of the main stream press was a chilling and direct threat to our Democracy, which cannot exist without the freedom of the press. The report of this meeting on Breitbart was met with cheers for the dictator to destroy the mainstream media and put them all in jail. This is what abject fear looks like when it owns you. This is the addictive drug of righteous anger, the only relief they can get from that fear. Breitbart and the like are the drug dealers that will take their addicted followers’ last dime to further their own agendas. And the masses are willingly bringing themselves to be slaughtered.

This ugly blob of toothpaste will take some time to wrestle back into the tube.

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Welcome to the henhouse

This monster did not spring up overnight. It has been in the making for at least fifty years, since Goldwater lost his presidential bid, and the Republicans implemented their Southern strategy. The strategy consisted of bringing together an unlikely coalition of business interests and poor Southern religious conservatives. The former represented the interests of the true ruling class, the business people with a direct line to the government, while the latter catered to the poor who were still licking their festering wounds from Civil War losses, resented the broadening civil liberties won by African Americans and felt left behind by the Washington elite.

Hold on, you say, these are really divergent interests. How can there be an actual coalition between these groups who not only have nothing in common, but more likely hold diametrically opposed views on just about everything? Herein lies the brilliance of the crafting of the message (a.k.a. propaganda). While the Republican party already had the Ayn Randian plutocrats in their pockets (or actually the other way around, they were in the pockets of the plutocrats), with their help and resources, they could buy the best propagandists in the nation to spin the web of half-truths that would stir up the volatile wasp nest of white grievances. And while the unifying purpose of the entire undertaking was to seize power in Washington, the key to their populist message was religion. By reframing such issues as reproductive rights, gay relationships and women’s equality as feticide, destruction of marriage and emasculation, all encroachments on religious doctrine and individual freedoms, the message of trickle down economics was easy to sell. And when, during the Reagan era, as predicted, trickle down economics failed to produce jobs and financial benefits to the poor working class, the Republican propaganda machine doubled down on the social issues, promising a return to a better, more Christian time.

For the first four decades, the Republican double-speak continued to work, despite the stubborn refusal by the economic improvements, so astoundingly successful in the upper echelons, to trickle down to the downtrodden masses. Exuberant gerrymandering continued to keep the votes coming, even through the Clinton administration. And so long as there was still strife around abortion, venom about the gay and bickering over women’s rights, the loyalists stayed. But the writing was on the wall — something radical had to be done, and that something had to not just implicate Democratic policies in our economic and social failures, but to assassinate them beyond any hope of resurrection. Cue the Koch brothers stage right.

Since the early ’80s, these billionaire businessmen’s battle cry was “less government.” Their outfit Citizens for a Sound Economy was the seed that sprouted the now robust and exuberant industry of so-called “astroturf activism,” or political action funded by private interests by laundering their money through non-profit organizations. The Tea Party, representing the lunatic fringe of the Republican party, is the inevitable 2002 offspring of the Kochs’ agenda activism, fueled by their dollars to bring their “populist” message to the masses. Their platform rests on the tripod of climate change denial, the debunked theory of trickle down economics and a social agenda poised to slide us back into 17th century.

This is surely an oversimplified history of the ascendance of the extremist fringe within the Republican Party. But regardless of whether its origin lies with the old or new corporate cries for less regulation, it has gained not only the White House, but also the majority in both Congressional chambers.

It should be clear to anyone that the primary purpose of this whole political “revolution” has been not to improve the well-being of the American public, but to liberate the corporate interests from government oversight. Regulatory burdens are severe, there is no question about that, and the government bureaucracy can be crushing. But that expression about the fox in the chicken coop? We are about to live it “bigly.” And while the masses of workers will not feel any economic relief, the social repressions, promised for years, are now on the horizon, as Mike Pence, the ultimate concession to the reactionary social agenda, promotes his willfully ignorant policies against gays, against education and against science, as we the people become collateral damage to the off-the-rails white supremacist Republican party’s quest for power. Congratulations!

Ouroboros in Arkadia

I changed the name and look of this site for several reasons. First, I am not inclined only to write poetry or creative prose. I am inclined to roar in the aftermath of this election. I wanted thr site to convey a cleaner message, with fewer artistic flourishes that may distract from the message. I wanted it to be more readable, and the current template provides that.

Now, the name. An “ouroboros” is a snake consuming itself starting with its own tail. Arkadia, in addition to my own personal childhood paradise, is a mythical dwelling of the Greek god Pan. So, a self-consuming snake in paradise, that is the image. Make of it what you will. For me it’s a powerful image of this moment in our history.

As always, thank you for reading. Expect more blogging about my take on the current events.

How propaganda works

Earlier today I came across a report that Steve Bannon, our President-Elect’s newly appointed chief strategist, suggested that Silicon Valley had too many Asian CEOs. This was a year ago in November. (You have to wonder why the HuffPo is resurrecting this story now, and knowing how Bannon operates, also wonder if he planted it.) To this our populist anti-elites President-Elect responded, “When someone is going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, all the greats… we throw them out of the country, and they can’t get back in… I think that’s terrible.”

Dissent among the ranks? Don’t be fooled. This is a strategy, or will be used as such even if a priori it was just a conversation. There are two thoughts I have about how this will go down.

1. Bannon stays in the position given him and continues to lob lunatic fringe ideas into the ether, just so that our President-Elect can counter them and thereby increase his sanity quotient in the public’s eye.

2. The job offer to Bannon is rescinded, which makes our President-Elect look even more sane and even willing to strike a compromise.

Either way, Bannon is a multipurpose tool, on the one hand allowing our President-Elect to appear at least somewhat sane, and on the other winking to the neo-nazi base that their atrocious agenda is represented. And either way, it will make all of us liberals pant with admiration, and we will settle back and watch the rest of the inferno that will be his presidency through the lens of this single push-pull dynamic. This will obscure all the other atrocities going on underneath.

Given Bannon’s cunning, I think he must prefer the first scenario. So we need to push really hard for the second. And stay vigilant and not give our President-Elect a pass on anything that remotely resembles like a dismantling of the ramparts of our Democracy.

This is how professional propaganda machine works.

When fascism comes to town

Well, so much for the “in-betweenness of being.” Nothing in-between about this — hate has won this round.

I know, I know, I too have friends and neighbors who voted for him. They are people whom I love and respect (respected?), and I am pretty sure that hate wasn’t the driver in their minds. But hate is what’s here.

What else can I call it? I cannot turn away from the heinous campaign rhetoric about immigrants, ethnic minorities, from the racism, homophobia and virulent violence against women this campaign traded in (I will not link to those horrific images here; we all witnessed them in real time). The image of the now President-Elect mocking a disabled reporter at one of his rallies haunts me; I have not seen such deplorable behavior from a serious contender for public office, let alone that of the President, in a long time. His election has legitimized violence and enshrined ignorance.

Stephen Bannon is now the President-Elect’s chief strategist. In case you are not familiar with this man’s history, here is a comprehensive article about him from Bloomberg. Briefly, he the alt-right’s (read neo-nazis, white supremacists) propagandist-in-chief. It would be redundant for me to recount all of the evidence now, but here is a link to a recent HuffPo article that samples at least some of the hateful pernicious lies he purveys through his Breitbart news organization. Oh, and if you think this man is not a threat to our Democracy, think again: his organization is already preparing a law suit against free press. (And if we don’t have free press, I am afraid we will, just like that song, be “back in the USSR.” But that’s a tale for another day. And I will tell it, since I experienced that brand of dictatorship first hand.) This tactic is a page out of Peter Thiel’s playbook, the self-hating gay man in the fold of this bigotry machine. This strategy was used by him to exact a personal vendetta from Gawker, putting them out of business for outing him.

The KKK has endorsed the President-Elect, and they are jubilant about his victory. They are holding rallies to celebrate his victory. This is one of the most dangerous hate groups in the US, and THEY ARE CELEBRATING OUR NEW PRESIDENT! Let that sink in. And, please, don’t lie to yourself: their endorsement is not a coincidence, no; it is the very essence of this campaign of hate. Think about it, if you were a group with a radical agenda, would you be ebullient about a candidate who did not advance it? Exactly. Here is an article that lays out this argument far more eloquently than I can.

I can believe the discontent felt by a large swath of the American voters that compelled them to vote for this man. But I cannot believe that they will now sit by and watch this spectacular assault on all of our values in silence, worse, cheer it on. Is this really who we are now?

I will leave you with the words attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” And guess what: it’s here.

Elections, statistics, and the in-betweenness of being

There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics. In statistics we create variables, then look at them from all angles, move them around our mouths, masticating their meanings. We swing at them, we grab them, we lurch to save ourselves from their crooked trajectories. But first of all, we categorize them, wrangle them into shapes that will speak to us whether they like it or not. Sometimes it feels like a forced confession, as in “assume a spherical cow.” But that is the way we make sense of the universe. Because God is a mathematician.

Some variables are categorical. They are like sunflower seeds – a kernel (category: edible) and a hull (category: inedible). Some of the variables have a handful of categories (race, for instance), while others limit themselves to forced binaries (dead/alive, male/female, single/married, young/old, you get the picture). We like binary variables; they are easy to work with.

Other variables are continuous. They are like a ripe peach – each bite its own peach essence. These are the variables with tedious trails of possible values. They are age, height, weight, blood pressure just to name a few. They are messy, exist on a continuum and don’t readily self-categorize without some imposed order of a reference value. These are the variables we force into means, medians and modes in order to understand them. They are thorny, mutinous. We subordinate them with our functions, our programming code, whip them into shapes that are manageable, shapes we can understand and draw conclusions from.

If you think about it, even those variables that we call categorical aren’t so easy to categorize. Dead or alive may seem like a simple dichotomy, but how many of us have known people in-between? My patients in the ICU spent days and sometimes months in the purgatory of neither. Though by virtue of maintaining some of their bodily functions they were considered technically alive, by other mathematical estimations they could just as easily have been classified as dead – artificial respiration, artificial circulation, artificial kidney function, etc.

More to the point, such dichotomies as single vs. married fell by the wayside decades ago, when shacking up became a thing, a culturally acceptable phenomenon. And again, the dichotomy of acceptable/unacceptable fails here: acceptable to whom, to which part of the culture?

Male/female binary is being destroyed before our very eyes by the current generation of brave souls who, despite crushing societal disapprobation, forge their own courses in these stormy waters, reminding all of us living in the safety of our deeply worn trenches of our younger, less certain days, when we lived the “both and” rather than “either or.” Even race, according to genetics, is more of a social construct than a biological reality. So do these categories really help us understand our world, or are they just cramming the complexities into an irrelevant ill-fitting cubbyhole?

The world is becoming more continuous, fewer splines, fewer sharp distinctions, more curves and connections. This destruction of the false security of categories is leaving me with a sense of vertigo, but also of wonder and curiosity. (Which are themselves, incidentally, categories.) And some of my fellow humans are choosing to dig deeper trenches, to stay in what they think was once a great America, where “girls were girls and men were men,” where minorities could be easily categorized into black or Hispanic, where you were either straight or gay, and you knew who was a pervert, a criminal, a thug. In those days in that great America people did not hover between life and death, throwing families into alternating states of hope and despair.

In that great America there were three classes – the upper, the middle and the lower, simple categorical variables, easy to cram into a consistent picture of enviable clarity. But what always lurked under these categories are the details of the continua they obscured. You didn’t just wake up one day in the upper class, traversing a financial distance from here to infinity. No, the awakening after the New Deal, after the Great War was to the possibility of the middle category, spanning a coveted but limited segment of wealth, just enough to keep people satisfied. Because satisfied people don’t question. And because categories confirm our understanding of the world, naturally there needed to be a class to elevate all others, a class to look down upon, a class to grind into the dirt, the lower class. The line, however, was thin, where these categories needed to keep the illusion of fluidity, where social mobility was the carrot for all. Life was simple and great in that America, especially if you could move up. And didn’t we all dream of moving up?

The demolition of categories is a double-edged sword. It is a snake you let into your home that will poison your family, the serpent who will enchant you into eating from the tree of knowledge. It is the sledgehammer that destroys the status quo, fills in the trenches, exposes the truth of the continuum. It pulls apart the curtains of our misguided thinking, destroys an outdated model of what we have grown to see as truth.

This election season has been about demolition. Like an ice storm it is pruning dead branches and dying ideas.If we are wise, this election is tilling the field, turning shit into compost, and we will emerge smarter, kinder, more awake, uncomfortable to be sure, but with a better understanding of our world and our selves. There is no suppressing this rebellion, this fracturing of categories, this emergence of the blinding complexity so frightening and exciting to the human brain.

 At my computer I do not yet know of other ways to examine data. I still have to impose my will in order to make the numbers spill their secrets. I am still the KGB officer and they fallen dissidents. My computer is an orderly array of zeros and ones, the ultimate rejection of the continuous. The analog world around me is infinite, not subject to binary limitations. Not either man or woman, not either black or white, not either Democrat or Republican. Not either Liberty or Justice. Not either Equality or Freedom. No. Both at the same time. And everything in-between.