March 2018 Archives

Republican recycling is going gangbusters, writes The Nation's Rebecca Gordon:

A barely noticed anniversary slid by on March 20. It's been 15 years since the United States committed the greatest war crime of the 21st century: the unprovoked, aggressive invasion of Iraq.

Gordon reminds us that "at least 600,000 people died in the decade and a half of war, civil war, and chaos that followed" the US invasion:

These days, there's a significant consensus here that the Iraq invasion was a "terrible mistake," a "tragic error," or even the "single worst foreign-policy decision in American history." Fewer voices are saying what it really was: a war crime.

Gordon discusses the Nuremberg tribunal, and then writes:

Similarly, the many war crimes of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush--the extraordinary renditions; the acts of torture at Guantánamo, Bagram Air Basein Afghanistan, and CIA black sites all over the world; the nightmare of abuse at Abu Ghraib, a US military prison in Iraq; the siege and firebombing (with white phosphorus) of the Iraqi city of Fallujah; the massacre of civilians in Haditha, another Iraqi city--all of these arose from the Bush administration's determination to invade Iraq.

It was to secure "evidence" of a (nonexistent) connection between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda attackers of 9/11 that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld upped the ante at Guantánamo in his infamous memo approving torture there. The search for proof of the same connection motivated the torture of Abu Zubaydah at a CIA black site in Thailand. If not for that long-planned invasion of Iraq, the "war on terror" might have ended years ago.

"Secretary of Defense James ("Mad Dog") Mattis has said," Gordon continues, "that the president has the right to lock up anyone identified as a 'combatant' in our forever wars, well, forever:"

Speaking of Mattis and war crimes, there's already plenty of blood on his hands. He earned that "Mad Dog" sobriquet while commanding the US Marines who twice in 2004 laid siege to Fallujah. During those sieges, American forces sealed that Iraqi city off so no one could leave; attacked marked ambulances and aid workers; shot women, children, and an ambulance driver; killed almost 6,000 civilians outright; displaced 200,000 more; and destroyed 75 percent of the city with bombs and other munitions. The civilian toll was vastly disproportionate to any possible military objective--itself the definition of a war crime.

"In Iraq," the piece observes, "Mattis also saw to it that charges would be dropped against soldiers responsible for murdering civilians in the city of Haditha:"

In a well-documented 2005 massacre--a reprisal for a roadside bomb--American soldiers shot 24 unarmed men, women, and children at close range. As the convening authority for the subsequent judicial hearing, Mattis dismissed the murder charges against all the soldiers accused of that atrocity.

"Mattis is hardly the only slightly used war criminal in the Trump administration," notes Gordon--there is also Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel:

Haspel was responsible for running a CIA black site in Thailand, during a period in the Bush years when the Agency's torture program was operating at full throttle. She was in charge, for instance, when the CIA tortured Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was waterboarded at least three times and, according to the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's Torture report, "interrogated using the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques." (The report provided no further details.)

Haspel was also part of the chain of command that ordered the destruction of videotapes of the torture of Abu Zubaydah (waterboarded a staggering 83 times). According to the PBS show Frontline, she drafted the cable that CIA counterterrorism chief José Rodríguez sent out to make sure those tapes disappeared. In many countries, covering up war crimes would itself merit prosecution; in Washington, it earns a promotion.

Another torture-friendly Trumpite, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is now nominated for Secretary of State. "Still, of all Trump's recycled appointments, the most dangerous of all," writes Gordon, is John Bolton:

Under George W. Bush, Bolton was a key proponent of that invasion, which he'd been advocating since at least 1998 when he signed an infamous letter to Bill Clinton from the Project for a New American Century recommending just such a course of action.

It's not just Trump's personnel that are deplorable--it's also his policies:

Meanwhile, the United States continues to fund and support the Saudi military's three-year-old war crime in that country, providing weaponry (including cluster bombs), targeting intelligence, and mid-air refueling for Saudi aircraft conducting missions there. The conflict, which The New York Times has called "the world's worst humanitarian crisis," has killed at least 10,000 people, although accurate numbers are almost impossible to come by. As of December 2017, the Yemen Data Project had catalogued 15,489 separate air attacks, of which almost a third involved no known military targets and another 4,800 hit targets that have yet to be identified. Hospitals and other health facilities have been targeted along with crowded markets. Government funding for public health and sanitation ended in 2016, leading to a cholera epidemic that The Guardian calls "the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history."

Through the illegal blockading of Yemen's ports, Saudi Arabia and its allies have exposed vast numbers of Yemenis to the risk of famine as well.

"And then there's always the chance," Gordon concludes wearily, "that Trump will start his very own unprovoked war of aggression:"

"I'm good at war," Trump told an Iowa rally in 2015. "I've had a lot of wars of my own. I'm really good at war. I love war in a certain way, but only when we win." With Mike Pompeo whispering in one ear and John Bolton in the other, it's frighteningly likely Trump will soon commit his very own war crime by starting an aggressive war against Iran.

fury and fantasy

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Salon's Nicole Karlis discusses conservatives who are furious about Facebook's news-feed algorithms:

Given that Facebook is a for-profit corporation, one would think that conservatives would be arguing for the company's right as a free-market actor to do whatever they want with their product. Hypocritically, many conservatives are complaining about Facebook's algorithmic changes to its News Feed, and conspiratorially believe that they have been unfairly targeted by the social media giant.

Fox host Tucker Carlson called it "an act of ideological warfare," Ben Shapiro (editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire) says that "Facebook needs to be held to public account for its constant manipulation of what its users are seeing," and Liftable Media CEO Patrick Brown calls it "very troubling for free speech in this country:"

"It's pretty clear that this is a huge departure from Facebook's normal practices and they're making a decision to support one political side of the conversation against another."

"The power Facebook holds in the media universe is frustrating for all publications," writes Karlis, "but to claim that the social media company is targeting one political party over the other without solid evidence seems particularly partisan:"

Ironically, these conservatives' hard evidence-free claims only help sow the media landscape with misinformation -- which is precisely what Facebook is trying to keep at bay.

Jacob Bacharach discusses major media outlets hiring conservative voices, and notes that The Atlantic, home of Dubya speech writer David Frum, recently added Kevin Williamson from the National Review. "The truth," Bacharach writes, "is that these columnists are all hired as part of a project of desperate make-believe, in which it is possible to imagine that Donald Trump and our present politics really are a singular event, a historic deviation:"

In their fantasy, there remain two broadly similar and functional political parties whose respective ideologies meet in a nebulous but desirable middle, wherein reasonable men and their reasonable institutions can yet function as they ever have. It's a fairly rosy portrayal of American political history to begin with, but there was at least a sense that it was superficially, if only superficially, true. This genteel fiction permits the mandarins of respectable media to indulge the most preposterous fiction of them all, which is that the modern conservative movement in America isn't absolutely and irredeemably deranged.

killer jobs

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"We hear about killers all the time," intones Derek Beres at the beginning of his BigThink piece, such as "cancer; opioids; heart attack; stroke; traffic accidents:"

Yet there's another murderer that one Stanford professor [Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance--and What We Can Do About It] claims to be the fifth-leading cause of death in America, claiming over 120,000 lives and between 5 and 8 percent of annual health care costs: your job.

The study est

imates that "two million instances of workplace violence occur every year, with many cases going unreported:"

While the number of workplace murders is dropping slightly, he argues that a different type of violence is being conducted. A lot of emphases is placed on physical health and injury avoidance, yet little regard is paid to our mental and emotional health.

Beres writes that "the growing income divide is an obvious catalyst," but there are other factors:

Fewer people are doing more work for less pay as an elite few take more and more of the earnings. Many modern jobs provide no sense of meaning; if you feel easily replaceable your appreciation of the work will be nonexistent. Factor in the struggles of our health care system and, well, as Pfeffer says,
Job engagement, according to Gallup, is low. Distrust in management, according to the Edelman trust index, is high. Job satisfaction, according to the Conference Board, is low and has been in continual decline. The gig economy is growing, economic insecurity is growing, and wage growth overall has stagnated. Fewer people are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance than in the past, according to Kaiser Foundation surveys. And a strikingly high percentage of people, even those covered by insurance, say they forgo treatment and medications because of cost issues.

Economic need is, of course, cited as "the first reason many people persist in the jobs that are killing them:"

Beyond that, company prestige, challenging work, inertia, and pride are all attributed to keeping workers put. Leaving a position is a blow to self-esteem; some would rather "tough it out" than admit failure, even if in the process their health is sacrificed. This confusing paradox is made all the worse by its persistence across occupations.

"What's worse," Beres writes, is that "this toxicity has become normalized:"

In the manic demand for maximal productivity, most businesses fail to realize that they'll lose more money--estimates are at $300 billion-- when their employees are suffering from chronic stress. Calling out these "social polluters" arms workers and the public with a powerful tool for shaming executives and boards into making better decisions, a trend Pfeffer hopes will grow.

Good health, he notes, goes beyond the advertising fluff known as wellness programs offered during lunchtime or after work. He is quite clear these do not work:

Wellness programs are an attempt to remediate the harmful effects of what's going on in the workplace. Instead of remediation you need to prevent. Instead of causing you to over-smoke and over-drink and over-eat and under-exercise because of what goes on in the workplace, and then giving you a wellness program, they should change the underlying work conditions.

[Feel free to pass this suggestion along to your HR department--anonymously, of course.]

WaPo's Jena McGregor interviewed Pfeffer about his work, which he summarized like this:

I enlisted two operations research colleagues to help, and we did a meta analysis on all the literature and they did some fancy modeling. We found that there are basically 120,000 excess deaths per year attributed to these ten workplace conditions and they cause approximately $190 billion in incremental health care costs. That would make the workplace the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. -- higher than Alzheimer's, higher than kidney disease.

"We focused on the physical environment" in mitigating workplace safety issues, says Pfeffer, during the interview, "and we now need to focus on the social environment:"

We have said to companies they cannot pass costs [of environmental damage] on to the broader society. We have not done that with respect to health. I would argue that it's actually maybe harder to measure smokestack emissions than it is to measure healthy work conditions. If we wanted to regulate it, we could regulate it.

Stanford Business' Dylan Walsh interviews Pfeffer, who says, "I've seen nothing inconsistent with the statement that the workplace has generally gotten worse:"

I look out at the workplace and I see stress, layoffs, longer hours, work-family conflict, enormous amounts of economic insecurity. I see a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane.

Pfeffer identifies "many issues" in the reluctance of workers to leave for safer jobs elsewhere:

One simple one that we should never overlook is sheer exhaustion. Finding a job is itself a job. If you are physically or psychologically drained by workplace stress, then you're not going to have the capacity to go out and look for another job.

Companies also play to our egos. They say, "What's wrong with you? Aren't you good enough? We're a special organization. We're changing the world and only certain people are going to be up for the task." Who wants to admit they're not good enough?

And we are influenced by what we see our peers doing. I've had people say to me: "I look around and all my colleagues are working themselves to death. What makes me think I'm so special that I don't have to?" We have come to normalize the unacceptable. It's hideous.

It's like Stockholm Syndrome, but the paychecks are the shackles. "I want to wake people up," writes Pfeffer:

This is a serious issue that has serious consequences for corporate performance and for people's well-being. We should care about people's psychological and physical health, not just about profits.

Ian Bogost inveighs against the infamous Trolley Problem. "The trolley problem has become so popular in autonomous-vehicle circles," writes Bogost, "that MIT engineers have built a crowdsourced version of it, called Moral Machine, which purports to catalog human opinion on how future robotic apparatuses should respond in various conditions:"

But there's a problem with the trolley problem. It does a remarkably bad job addressing the moral conditions of robot cars, boats, or workers, the domains to which it is most popularly applied today. Deploying it for those ends, especially as a source of answers or guidance for engineering or policy, leads to incomplete and dangerous conclusions about the ethics of machines.

After much analysis and several scenarios, Bogost asserts that "much greater moral sophistication is required to address and respond to autonomous vehicles:"

Ethics isn't a matter of applying a simple calculus to any situation--nor of applying an aggregate set of human opinions about a model case to apparent instances of that model. Indeed, to take those positions is to assume the utilitarian conclusion from the start. When engineers, critics, journalists, or ordinary people adopt the trolley problem as a satisfactory (or even just a convenient) way to think about autonomous-vehicle scenarios, they are refusing to consider the more complex moral situations in which these apparatuses operate.

For philosophers, thought experiments offer a way to consider unknown outcomes or to reconsider accepted ides. But they are just tools for thought, not recipes for ready-made action.

"It's time to put the brakes on the trolley," Bogost concludes, "before it runs everyone down."

read Marx!

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Immanuel Wallerstein is interviewed by Marcello Musto at TruthOut, forcefully recommending that we read Marx! Musto writes that "today, almost everywhere around the world, on the occasion of the bicentenary of Marx's birth, there is a 'Marx revival'," which he describes as "a return to an author in the past wrongly associated with Marxism-Leninism dogmatism and, then, hastily dismissed after the fall of the Berlin Wall." Accordingly, he writes that "Returning to Marx is still indispensable to understanding the logic and dynamics of capitalism:"

His work is also a very useful tool that provides a rigorous examination addressing why previous socio-economical experiments to replace capitalism with another mode of production failed. An explanation of these failures is critical for our contemporary search for alternatives.

Musto describes Wallerstein as being "among the greatest living sociologists and one of the most appropriate scholars to discuss the current relevance of Marx," and quotes him as saying, "The existing capitalist system cannot survive, but nobody can know for sure what will replace it:"

I am convinced that there are two possibilities: one is what I call the "Spirit of Davos." The goal of the World Economic Forum of Davos is to establish a system that maintains the worst features of capitalism: social hierarchy, exploitation and, above all, polarization of the wealth. The alternative is a system that must be more democratic and more egalitarian. Class struggle is the fundamental attempt to affect the future of what will replace capitalism.

This section of the interview is particularly trenchant:

In 2017, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Russian Revolution, some scholars returned to the contrast between Marx and some of his self-styled followers who were in power during the 20th century. What is the main difference between Marx and them?

Marx's writings are illuminating and much more subtle and variegated than some of the simplistic interpretations of his ideas. It is always good to remember the famous boutade in which Marx said: "If this is Marxism, what is certain is that I am not a Marxist." Marx was always ready to deal with the reality of the world, not like many others who dogmatically imposed their views. Marx changed his mind often. He was constantly on the search for solutions to the problems he saw that the world was facing. That is why he is still a very helpful and useful guide.

To conclude, what would you like to say to the younger generation who have not yet encountered Marx?

The first thing I have to say to young people is that they have to read him. Do not read about him, but read Marx. Few people -- in comparison with the many who talks about him -- actually read Marx. [...] So, my message to the new generation is that Marx is eminently worth discovering but you must read, read, read him. Read Karl Marx!

Colonel Ralph Peters (the "strategic analyst" at Fox who became infamous for calling President Obama "a total pussy" a while back) is now done with Fox:

Col. Ralph Peters was a vocal and vitriolic critic of President Obama, but even he has had enough. In an email sent by Peters to the Fox News staff and obtained by Buzzfeed, Peters explained his decision not to renew his contract.

Here is an excerpt from the full email:

Today, I feel that Fox News is assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law, while fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers. Over my decade with Fox, I long was proud of the association. Now I am ashamed.

In my view, Fox has degenerated from providing a legitimate and much-needed outlet for conservative voices to a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration.

It's about time that a conservative recognizes the truth...

Big Think mentioned a disturbing Pew study [see here] which found that 26% of Americans are 'almost constantly' online:

77% of American adults go online daily. while 43% are on several times per day. Only 11% of adults said they didn't use the internet at all. This rapid rise in near constant use has been attributed to the pervasiveness of smart phones.

Last November, electronics insurer Asurion completed a study that found that the average American checks their phone every 12 minutes, or about 80 times per day. Many respondents struggled to go just 10 minutes without looking at their phone, Asurion researchers said. According to a survey by Qualtrics and Accel, millennials check their phones even more often, 150 times per day on average.

"So what are the implications?" they ask:

Studies have shown that those who are constantly connected are more stressed, feel lonelier, and are more likely to experience depression or a sleep disorder. A 2015 University of Missouri study, found that regular use of social media platforms increased the likelihood of envy and depression.

In the Asurion survey, 31% of respondents felt separation anxiety when they couldn't check their phone. While 60% were stressed when their phone was off, charging, or out of reach. Most millennials don't go any more than five hours without checking their phone, according to the Qualtrics and Accel study, which can be considered addictive behavior. Half of all millennials in that investigation actually checked their phone in the middle of the night.

It is worth noting that "such devices aren't offered by those who love us, but who want money, which in this model is earned by placing the right ads in front of you as often as possible." Accordingly, "The best thing to do then for the sake of your own mental health, is to limit exposure:"

Consider turning your phone off and putting it in a drawer for certain hours of the day, and allow those closest to you other means such as a landline, to contact you in case of emergency. Also, social media and online interactions should never trump real, offline ones. If you find yourself wasting too much time online, get up and talk to a coworker, schedule coffee with a friend or a friendly acquaintance, or just take a walk and stretch your legs. If you can be conscious of your internet use and carefully consider dosage, chances are, you'll be more productive and happier too.

NYRB's Madeleine Bunting refers to this effort as disarming the weapons of mass distraction:

Technology provides us with new tools to grab people's attention. These innovations are dismantling traditional boundaries of private and public, home and office, work and leisure. Emails and tweets can reach us almost anywhere, anytime. There are no cracks left in which the mind can idle, rest, and recuperate. A taxi ad offers free wifi so that you can remain "productive" on a cab journey. [...]

What, then, are the implications of how digital technologies are transforming our patterns of attention? In the current political anxiety about social mobility and inequality, more weight needs to be put on this most crucial and basic skill: sustaining attention.

The work of the psychologist B.F. Skinner--specifically the concept of "variable-ratio reinforcement," which can be summarized as "Give the pigeon a food pellet sometimes, and you have it well and truly hooked"--is eminently useful with regards to smartphones, because "We're just like the pigeon pecking at the button when we check our email or phone:"

Variable reinforcement ensures that the customer will keep coming back. It's the principle behind one of the most lucrative US industries: slot machines, which generate more profit than baseball, films, and theme parks combined. Gambling was once tightly restricted for its addictive potential, but most of us now have the attentional equivalent of a slot machine in our pocket, beside our plate at mealtimes, and by our pillow at night. Even during a meal out, a play at the theater, a film, or a tennis match. Almost nothing is now experienced uninterrupted.

Anxiety about the exponential rise of our gadget addiction and how it is fragmenting our attention is sometimes dismissed as a Luddite reaction to a technological revolution. But that misses the point. The problem is not the technology per se, but the commercial imperatives that drive the new technologies and, unrestrained, colonize our attention by fundamentally changing our experience of time and space, saturating both in information.

Bunting writes that "We actually need what we most fear: boredom:"

Despite my children's multitasking, I maintain that vital human capacities--depth of insight, emotional connection, and creativity--are at risk. I'm intrigued as to what the resistance might look like. There are stirrings of protest with the recent establishment of initiatives such as the Time Well Spent movement, founded by tech industry insiders who have become alarmed at the efforts invested in keeping people hooked. But collective action is elusive; the emphasis is repeatedly on the individual to develop the necessary self-regulation, but if that is precisely what is being eroded, we could be caught in a self-reinforcing loop.

HBR's Larry Rosen suggests 6 ways to counteract your smartphone addiction, including the following:

Use "cc" and "reply all" judiciously.

Recalibrate response time expectations.

My suggested middle ground--used in several multinational companies including Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom-- is a 7am-to-7pm policy: messages can, of course, be sent at any hour, but no one is required to respond earlier than 7am or later than 7pm.

Take regular, restorative breaks.

Reclaim friend and family time.

Keep technology out of the bedroom.

As Rosen summarizes:

Over the past decade technology has taken over our lives. While it offers access to information, connection and entertainment, it also has been shown to diminish our brainpower and harm our mental health. These six tactics--which you can implement for yourself or encourage on your team--are simple ways to ensure these ubiquitous devices do less harm than good.

Jason Easley reports at Politicus USA that a second woman has sued to be released from a Trump NDA:

Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with Trump, is suing the Trump allied National Enquirer to break her NDA so that she can talk publicly about Trump. [...]

The National Enquirer bought the rights to McDougal's story and then buried it while keeping her silent through an NDA.

"America is witnessing the disintegration of the Trump presidency," Easley writes, "as the Trump loose ends are coming undone." It appears that stormier weather is ahead...

Stephen Hawking's final paper is "an astounding farewell," writes Robby Berman at BigThink. "Stephen Hawking will never know if there really are multiple universes," Berman writes, "but he's left behind a hell of a parting shot: a test that could prove or disprove their existence:"

On March 4, a mere 10 days before he died, the theoretical physicist signed off on the final corrections for one last paper, "A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation." It proposes a data-collection mission for a deep-space probe, and it lays out the math for discerning the telltale signs of a multiverse in its data. How thrilling would it be if Hawking's final formula answers one of his most provocative questions?

The paper is still under review by a "leading journal," according to The Times, and hasn't been published yet. It was co-authored by theoretical physicist Thomas Hertog of KU Leuven University in Belgium. Work on the paper concluded at Hawking's deathbed, says The Times. [...]

Their paper asserts that evidence for multiple universes should be contained in background radiation from the beginning of time and that it should be measurable using the pair's new equations once a deep-space probe has made certain measurements.

"Leave it to Hawking to blow our minds one final, spectacular time," Berman concludes.

arts education

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Julian Baggini wants us to stop conflating educating and employability:

Education is obviously a good thing, but we're not demonstrating the extent of our own if we assert that its value is a no-brainer. If we don't stop and ask why education matters those who keep giving the wrong answer will get away with their mistake.

At a recent forum, he wrote, "I was struck by a bogus assumption that underpinned numerous defences of the value of education, especially in the arts and humanities:"

It shouldn't require highly developed critical thinking skills to spot the hidden premise here. Education is now routinely advocated and defended on the basis of its ability to prepare people for the world of work. Art teaches creativity, philosophy critical thinking, history empathy, sport dedication, and all these things are good because they are transferable skills that can be monetised.

We should not "foreground the economic case for arts education," he continues, because "Our ultimate goals are flourishing lives and thriving societies and the measure of these is not GDP:"

The primary function of education and of the arts is to make us more fully human, to enable us to live as more than just animals caught in the cycle of feeding and reproducing. Lifelong learning matters because it continues to enrich us, not because it enriches the nation's bank balance. That's why it's a tragedy personal musical tuition in state schools has all but disappeared, not because of the concomitant loss to the "creative industries."

His final point is that if we "argue for humanistic education on narrowly utilitarian grounds," then "we've already lost the debate because we're already playing according to the bean-counters' rules."

Politicus USA's Jason Easley writes that this fall, many of us will be voting, in effect, for an investigation into Cambridge Analytica:

The man who may be leading the House Russia investigation in a matter of months, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), said that the connections between Russia, Trump, and Cambridge Analytica need to be investigated.

Here is part of the transcript from ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

SCHIFF: We need to find out what we can about the misappropriation of the privacy, the private information of tens of millions of Americans. That misappropriate information used by this digital arm of the Trump campaign to manipulate American voters and, of course, the links between Cambridge Analytica and Julian Assange. We know Nick's (ph) reached out to Assange to try to acquire stolen Clinton emails. The links between this Russian researcher and Cambridge Analytica and the links between Russian Analytica and a Russian oil company Lukoil that wanted information about reaching American voters.

All of that needs to be investigated. And the premature conclusion of this investigation doesn't allow us to do our job.

As Easley remarks:

As the Special Counsel investigation widens and investigates Trump's businesses and potential money laundering, it is crystal clear why House Republicans rushed to shut down their investigation and issue a glowing report clearing the president of any wrongdoing. The pieces are coming together. Trump's data firm worked with Russians and the Trump campaign to target and manipulate voters to get Trump elected.

Axios analyzes the Cambridge Analytica blowback, as "The number of calls for investigations into Trump-linked Cambridge Analytica's illicit gathering of Facebook data grew on Sunday:"

There are concerns over Cambridge Analytica, which did work for the Trump campaign, gathering the data on millions of Facebook users. And there are also worries that the social platform didn't handle the incident properly, prompting lawmakers to raise their voices over the past few days on both sides of the pond.

Slate's Jacob Metcalf and Casey Fiesler explain some of the problems:

In a 2013 paper ["Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior"], psychologist Michal Kosinski and collaborators from University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom warned that "the predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behavior may have considerable negative implications," posing a threat to "well-being, freedom, or even life." This warning followed their striking findings about how accurately the personal attributes of a person (from political leanings to intelligence to sexual orientation) could be inferred from nothing but their Facebook likes.

This trove of reporting shows how Cambridge Analytica allegedly relied on the psychologist Aleksandr Kogan (who also goes by Aleksandr Spectre), a colleague of the original researchers at Cambridge, to gain access to profiles of around 50 million Facebook users.

Back then, "Facebook's API (the portal that allows third parties to make use of Facebook software and data) by default allowed third parties to access not only your own profile with permission, but also the full profiles of all of your friends," and this was exploited by Cambridge Analytica and their commercialized research:

It appears that Kogan deceitfully used his dual roles as a researcher and an entrepreneur to move data between an academic context and a commercial context, although the exact method of it is unclear. The Guardian claims that Kogan "had a licence from Facebook to collect profile data, but it was for research purposes only" and "[Kogan's] permission from Facebook to harvest profiles in large quantities was specifically restricted to academic use." Transferring the data this way would already be a violation of the terms of Facebook's API policies that barred use of the data outside of Facebook for commercial uses, but we are unfamiliar with Facebook offering a "license" or special "permission" for researchers to collect greater amounts of data via the API.

"Ultimately," the piece concludes, "researchers and platforms need each other:"

Platforms have a vast, unprecedented trove of data about human behavior, but they cannot understand it and build the best possible products without external researchers' critical insights. The worst possible result of this scandal is a reduction of access. The best possible result is the development of equitable, open, and transparent access to research data with user consent.

Trump had senior White House officials sign NDAs, reports WaPo's Ruth Marcus:

Back in April 2016, when the notion of Donald Trump in the White House still seemed fanciful, The Post's Robert Costa and Bob Woodward sat down with Trump, and Costa, at one point, raised the subject of the nondisclosure agreements for employees of which the candidate was so fond.

Costa: "One thing I always wondered, are you going to make employees of the federal government sign nondisclosure agreements?"

Trump: "I think they should. [...] But when people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don't like that.

Marcus continues:

In the early months of the administration, at the behest of now-President Trump, who was furious over leaks from within the White House, senior White House staff members were asked to, and did, sign nondisclosure agreements vowing not to reveal confidential information and exposing them to damages for any violation. Some balked at first but, pressed by then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the White House Counsel's Office, ultimately complied, concluding that the agreements would likely not be enforceable in any event.

"This is extraordinary," writes Marcus:

Every president inveighs against leakers and bemoans the kiss-and-tell books; no president, to my knowledge, has attempted to impose such a pledge. And while White House staffers have various confidentiality obligations -- maintaining the secrecy of classified information or attorney-client privilege, for instance -- the notion of imposing a side agreement, supposedly enforceable even after the president leaves office, is not only oppressive but constitutionally repugnant. Unlike employees of private enterprises such as the Trump Organization or Trump campaign, White House aides have First Amendment rights when it comes to their employer, the federal government. If you have a leaker on your staff, the cure is firing, not suing.

"This is crazy," said attorney Debra Katz, who has represented numerous government whistleblowers and negotiated nondisclosure agreements. "The idea of having some kind of economic penalty is an outrageous effort to limit and chill speech. Once again, this president believes employees owe him a personal duty of loyalty, when their duty of loyalty is to the institution."

"Now we know," continues Marcus, "that he imported these bullying tactics into the White House:"

Which raises the obvious question: Why is he so consistently frantic to ensure that no one knows what goes on behind closed doors?

H/t to Digby for mentioning Michelle Goldberg's "Burn it down, Rex:"

Since the beginning of this nightmare administration, we've been assured -- via well-placed anonymous sources -- that a few sober, trustworthy people in the White House were checking Donald Trump's worst instincts and most erratic whims. A collection of generals, New York finance types and institution-minded Republicans were said to be nobly sacrificing their reputations and serving a disgraceful president for the good of the country. Through strategic leaks they presented themselves as guardians of American democracy rather than collaborators in its undoing.

What has happened as the nightmare continued?

Over the past 14 months we've also seen monstrous levels of corruption and chaos, a plummeting of America's standing in the world and the obliteration of a host of democratic norms. Yet things could always be worse; the economy is doing well and Trump has not yet started any real wars.

Increasingly, however, the people who were supposed to be the adults in the room aren't in the room anymore [but] The self-styled grown-ups are, for the most part, being replaced by lackeys and ideologues.

"This new stage of unbound Trumpism," Goldberg says worrisomely, "might make the administration's first year look stable in comparison:"

That would partly vindicate the adults' claims that things would be even messier without them. But it would also mean that by protecting the country from the consequences of an unhinged president, they helped Trump consolidate his power while he learned how to transcend restraints.

The Alt-Right is literally killing people, writes Kate Harveston:

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently counted more than 100 victims injured or killed by members of what is being dubbed the "alt-right." All of the perpetrators hold some common characteristics: white, male and under 40 years old.

On the surface, the majority of the alt-right's "members" appear to be politically disillusioned individuals encouraged to believe that their voices have been drowned out by a left-leaning mainstream news apparatus. Many other strong cultural movements have spawned from these same conditions, though.

From the civil rights struggle of the 1960s to the 1980s punk scene and beyond, movements found success through their ability to cater to a specifically disenfranchised group. These movements historically offer a sense of solidarity and organization to individuals who feel they have otherwise been scorned by society.

"However, this time seems different," Harveston writes, "as the violent alt-right is becoming increasingly empowered and dangerous. How will we counteract this threat in the coming years?"

Our country is undergoing an epidemic of mass shootings unrivaled by any other democracy today. And while these violent acts seem entirely random, almost all the shooters are white men under or around 30 years old -- awfully consistent with the alt-right. [...]

This is a movement fed on misinformation and toxic online forums. How, then, can we begin to strip the violent power from a movement that is fractured, independently operating and widely anonymous?

"A few ideas have been floated," she continues:

We should consider the positive aspects of the internet and our ability to share moving and convincing stories with all members of the community. [...] Gun control legislation is seen as the primary means by which our country can prevent future violent incidents. [...]

Directly confronting members of the alt-right has resulted in violence -- Charlottesville being the clearest example. Other indirect forms of confrontation, including censorship and "outing" online users or alt-right event participants, have been more effective.

"One thing we know," Harveston concludes, is that "The American epidemic of gun violence will continue if nothing changes:"

Since Columbine in 1999, there have been endless mass shootings. Now, a fresh wave of violence is sweeping the nation, and it seems to be most prevalent in a particular demographic: young white males. This issue won't disappear with the older generation. We need to be discussing actionable legislation that will help pave the way for a safer future -- because what we're doing clearly isn't working.

NYT discusses the Maine Republican who ended his candidacy after making a number of derogatory remarks about the Parkland survivors:

A Republican candidate for the Maine State House who disparaged two teenage survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., dropped out of the race after drawing heavy criticism and challengers from both political parties.

The candidate, Leslie Gibson, had been running to represent District 57 in central Maine unopposed, according to The Sun Journal, which first reported the comments he made on Twitter. Mr. Gibson called one Florida student, Emma González, a "skinhead lesbian," and another, David Hogg, a "moron" and a "baldfaced liar."

Later, after the negative attention, "Gibson acknowledged that his responses were "harsh and uncivil" and said it was 'inappropriate to single out' the students." As survivor David Hogg remarked:

"We need good people in office -- people who are actually human and have an ounce of empathy," he continued. "It's hilarious because its ridiculous. They're only proving our point that there are so many bad politicians out there. We almost let somebody that would say something like that win and run unopposed."

NRA spokes-bullshitter Dana Loesch is becoming remarkably consistent at attaining worst-person status for her remarks about Wednesday's "March for Our Lives" protest and walkout. Loesch asserts, "let's be clear -- gun control wouldn't have prevent what happened yesterday," but C&L offers this correction:

In fact, a new Florida gun control law that raises the age to buy a rifle to 21 would have prevented the 19-year-old Parkland shooter from purchasing the gun he used to kill 17 people.

MediaMatters reminds us that the rest of conservative media isn't much better, as they provide platforms for her screeds:

National Rifle Association national spokesperson Dana Loesch told Fox & Friends hosts that the protests were the result of some in the "political class ... trying to exploit this six ways to Sunday."

Debts 'R' Us

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Bloomberg writes about the ominous Toys'R'Us debacle:

But what's fascinating -- or unsettling -- is that overall revenue at Toys "R" Us didn't fall all that much, even during and after the recession. In the 12 months leading up to the LBO, the chain generated $11.2 billion of sales, versus $11.1 billion in the 12 months through October 2017, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The high was $13.9 billion for the year ended January 2012.

The overarching problem was costs -- and importantly, interest expense on borrowings.

Axios investigates the Toys 'R' Us blame game:

There is plenty of blame to go around, including for the private equity firms that bought Toys "R" Us in 2005, the senior lenders who control it now and an increased focus on toys by generalist retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart.

This reminds me of Mark Dunbar's In These Times piece from last October about how private equity killed the chain:

Since Toys "R" Us filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late September there has been much speculation as to what, or who, is to blame for the iconic toy company's collapse. Some commentators have pointed to a general decline in the toy industry, with kids increasingly preferring app-based digital games to physical ones. Others have cited the company's poorly constructed website and overpriced products, as compared to competitors like Walmart and Amazon.

As the story goes, Toys "R" Us was selling increasingly unpopular products inefficiently and at prices that didn't reflect the current economic landscape. So is it really a surprise that the company was finally forced to file for bankruptcy, potentially closing its 1,600 stores in 38 countries for good?

"Yet most importantly," Dunbar points out, "this analysis fails to account for how Toys "R" Us wound up so deeply in debt in the first place:"

In 2005, as the company's stock was regularly losing value due to mediocre sales, management decided to sell the company in a leveraged buyout to a trio of buyers, real-estate-investment trust Vornado Realty Trust and private equity firms KKR and Bain Capital.

This trio played a critical role in the downfall of Toys "R" Us, through imposing massive debt obligations on the company and requiring it to pay back its debts so that its buyers could turn a profit. Meanwhile, the finances of the company were thrown into disarray and employees were hit with wave after wave of layoffs.

"The pattern followed by Toys 'R' Us is typical in private equity takeovers," he writes as the legacy of Mitt Romney claims another victim:

Management is bought off: John Eyler, CEO of Toys "R" Us, was compensated $65.3 million upon the buyout's completion. Employees have no say in the matter. Then come the layoffs, debt transfers and shortsighted asset sales. Funds are earmarked to pay down debts--Toys "R" Us was spending more annually on debt payments than it was on its website and stores--even as cash reserves are depleted. Before the buyout, Toys R Us had $2.2 billion in reserves. As of 2017, that number is down to $301 million.

Chauncey DeVega observes that Hillary is right about states that voted for Trump. "Hillary Clinton has a problem. She tells impolitic truths at inopportune times," and not just her "basket of deplorables" remark. "Clinton let slip another truth about Trump's voters and the 2016 presidential election," DeVega writes:

She continued by saying that "all that red in the middle" of the nation, where Trump and the Republicans tend to dominate, was deceptive because "what the map doesn't show you is that I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward." Trump's campaign, she said, "was looking backwards" by playing to white voters who "didn't like black people getting rights" or women leaving the home and getting jobs.

Republicans attacked Clinton's latest comments, of course, as an example of how the Democrats are supposedly "isolated," "elitist" and "out of touch." Some of her fellow Democrats piled on with complaints that Clinton is being "unhelpful" by "re-litigating" the 2016 presidential election instead of looking to the future.

These voices of protest have provided little if any evidence to disprove Hillary Clinton's central thesis. Why? Because the facts are on her side.

"One can still endorse Hillary Clinton's truth-telling," he continues, "while demanding that she should be more precise in her observations:"

It should not be overlooked that Clinton and her team made strategic and tactical errors by paying little attention to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, the states that gave Trump the White House.

Most important, there are many liberals, progressives and other members of the Democratic Party's constituency (nonwhites, gays and lesbians and younger voters) who live in red-state America. They should be embraced and mobilized, rather than being marginalized because of geography.

His conclusion? "The Republican Party is a masterful machine of deception:"

For at least the last 50 years its leaders and media have consistently lied to the American people about almost every issue, including the economy, the environment, international relations, civil rights, crime and health care. This strategy created the poisoned swamp from which Donald Trump and his proto-fascist movement emerged.

The question now becomes whether the Democratic Party will tell the American people the truth in order to win back power, or rely instead on reassuring lies? It is a provocative question. Fighting fire with fire sometimes works. The trick is not to be burned alive in the conflagration.

Jeremy Adam Smith asks at SciAm, why are white men stockpiling guns?

Since the 2008 election of President Obama, the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled, while imports have doubled. This doesn't mean more households have guns than ever before--that percentage has stayed fairly steady for decades. Rather, more guns are being stockpiled by a small number of individuals. Three percent of the population now owns half of the country's firearms, says a recent, definitive study from the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University.

So, who is buying all these guns--and why?

"The American citizen most likely to own a gun is a white male," he observes, "and "the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile:"

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don't appear to be religious--and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisis in meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story--one in which they are once again the heroes.

Additionally, a 2013 paper ["Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites May Influence Policy Decisions"] by UK researchers "found that a one-point jump in the scale they used to measure racism increased the odds of owning a gun by 50 percent." Sociologists Paul Froese and F. Carson Mencken (from Baylor University) made these comments:

For these economically insecure, irreligious white men, "the gun is a ubiquitous symbol of power and independence, two things white males are worried about," says Froese. "Guns, therefore, provide a way to regain their masculinity, which they perceive has been eroded by increasing economic impotency." [...]

"Put simply, owners who are more attached to their guns are most likely to believe that guns are a solution to our social ills," says Froese. "For them, more 'good' people with guns would drastically reduce violence and increase civility. Again, it reflects a hero narrative, which many white man long to feel a part of." [...] Unfortunately, the people most likely to be killed by the guns of white men aren't the "bad guys," presumably criminals or terrorists. It's themselves--and their families. [...]

As a new study published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine ["State Firearm Laws and Interstate Firearm Deaths From Homicide and Suicide in the United States: A Cross-sectional Analysis of Data by County"] once again shows us, restrictive gun laws don't prevent white men from defending themselves and their families. Instead, those laws stop them from shooting themselves and each other.

AlterNet also looks at who likes guns and why, and suggests 6 steps the media could take to stop gun violence. In contrast to absurd schemes such as gun-slinging gym teachers, suggests Liz Posner, "We should turn our attention to the ways in which gun violence and mass shootings are covered by mainstream corporate news."

1. Don't use the killers' names.

2. Publish crime scene photos.

On the flip side, while avoiding glamourizing these crimes can help prevent copycats, the media could fully leverage its power by depicting the true devastation of these shootings.

3. Cover the whole story, and don't abandon the issue after the news cycle moves on. ["too soon" to talk about policy quickly becomes "too long ago to talk about"--and that must change]

4. Report shootings in non-white neighborhoods.

5. Include Black Lives Matter in the gun violence conversation.

Gun violence doesn't occur in a racial vacuum. If we talk about preventing shootings, we need to talk about the availability of guns in cities like Chicago and the record number of kids killed there last year, without delving into a racist conversation about so-called "black-on-black crime." Black kids are 10 times more likely than white kids to be killed by gun violence, making gun control indisputably a race issue. This needs to be included in the mass media's portrayal of the gun debate.

6. Talk about toxic masculinity and domestic violence.

We clearly have a great deal of work to do, on many fronts, to address this epidemic.

hollow points

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The Federalist's Dan Weber worries about Millennials not respecting their elders' Second-Amendment interpretations, specifically the Parkland-inspired student activists:

Their enthusiasm is admirable. But their trivial knowledge of firearms and the Second Amendment is not. Before they try to change every Americans' constitutional rights forever, perhaps these eager young men and women might want to learn something from their elders on these matters.

According to Weber, the "right to keep and bear arms" crowd is supposed to be fearful during their "sunset years:"

The elderly are especially vulnerable to violent crime and, as a result, the number of senior citizens carrying firearms is on the rise. Nearly 23,000 people over 65 took basic firearm training courses from NRA-certified instructors in 2015, four times the number five years earlier. Since 2010, seniors' demand for firearms training climbed 400 percent.

These are realities of life that the vast majority of the young people clamoring for gun control do not appear to grasp.

Does Weber grasp the quarter-century decline in violent crime? Could he "learn something" from statisticians? Apparently not, because he asserts that "gun violence has become more and more of a problem, despite fewer and fewer people possessing firearms." Facts aside, he insists that "student activists don't get the moral dimension of the Second Amendment, a failure of education that will likely devastate our democracy:"

The right to keep and bear arms is about self-defense, of course. But it's more than that, which should be obvious, because the overwhelming majority of guns in this country will never -- thank goodness -- be used in act of self-defense. It's about responsibility, and lack of ownership (not only of firearms, but of anything) breeds irresponsibility. And it's young Americans who especially would benefit from getting to know a right that's primarily about obligation, obligation to oneself as well as to one's neighbors.

According to the Second Amendment, we're not obligated to join the (ostensibly) well-regulated militia, and gun ownership is not an impediment to "getting to know a right." (Indeed, gun ownership seems to create an emotional investment in perpetuating gun culture.) To get back to Weber's piece, however, he claimed that millennials "still can't figure out why older Americans can't take them seriously as fully-formed adults. It's not entirely their fault though:"

With the pervasive influence of progressivism, they are indoctrinated in school to believe there's very little, if anything, to be learned from the past. Each generation is wiser than the previous one. So history is merely a saga of bigotry, racism, hatred, misogyny, and xenophobia. That by extension means that those who lived before us are not be trusted, as they are products of an enlightened era.

If millennials were willing to accept that they could learn something from their grandparents, they would learn a lot about firearms, about which they claim to care passionately.

Millennials' grandparents were behind the disastrous Heller decision, which exacerbated America's gun problem.

I applaud the student activists for getting off the couch, putting down their iPhones, and getting involved in the public square. But if saving lives as well as our democracy is genuinely their aim, their time would be better spent more effectively reading a civics textbook or sitting down with their grandparents for an afternoon.

Perhaps some books on the Second Amendment--such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment--would be more appropriate. Until then, Weber's argument rings hollow.

Are these really the last days of Stan Lee? "Months after losing his wife, the 95-year-old comic book legend is surrounded by charlatans and mountebanks," writes Mark Ebner, as "Stan and [his daughter] JC are literally being picked apart by vultures:"

In just over two months, there have been published reports of an unauthorized check for $300,000 written from Lee's business account without his knowledge to Hands of Respect, a "merchandising company" and ersatz charity formed by Lee and Jerry Olivarez, a former business associate of his daughter's.

One or more five-figure checks have been made out to Olivarez, money leaking out of larger financial transactions, mysterious bank transfers, and questionable real estate purchases. Under particular scrutiny is the period when Olivarez was briefly able to gain power of attorney over Lee's affairs in the chaos surrounding the death of Lee's wife. Forensic accountants (among them Tobey Maguire's brother Vince) are currently ferreting through over a thousand pages of financial records from the eight individual estates, corporate entities and trusts comprising Lee's holdings.

One possible counterweight is Keya Morgan, who "has been friends with Stan and his wife Joan for a decade."

Morgan seems to have Stan's ear during this time of trial, and (at Stan's behest) has hired security guards, secured a new lawyer and forensic accountants, and changed the locks on the house to restrict the escalating flow of unwelcome surprises.

"There are other red flags," continues, Ebner, "apart from the allegations against Olivarez:"

And there's another point of contention--rather, 1.4 million of them. "There is $1.4 million missing," said Morgan, referring to vanished cash first reported by TMZ and confirmed by JC's representative. "What happened was, it was $6 million. By the time it was transferred to Merrill Lynch and back to UBS, it was $4.6 million, so I want to know what happened to that $1.4 million.

Mark Evanier writes of the scandal that "a lot of it's speculation from afar and that's not helpful:"

I personally have some very mixed feelings about Stan Lee but I have enough affection for him to not add to the pile of rumors, some of which are obviously wrong or askew. I'm convinced there are enough lawyers and law enforcement officials and benevolent friends of Stan swarming around this matter that he's now as protected as he can be, and that the truth will eventually come out, though maybe not in his lifetime. What matters most now is his health and comfort...and I'm thinking he could also do with a little privacy.

Despite mostly taking Jack Kirby's side during the intermittent Lee/Kirby disagreements, I have no small affection for the writer whose overwrought and alliterative writing did so much to bring the beloved Marvel Universe into being. May he be treated well in his sunset years, as our culture's myth-makers deserve to be.

In a piece addressed to the dear annoying Parkland kids, Robert Tracinski looks at US violent-crime rates and worldwide war deaths--both of which are near all-time lows--but then (deliberately) neglects to compare US gun deaths with gun deaths in the rest of the world. Is he afraid to tell his audience that we fare poorly when compared to other countries, and that stronger gun regulation would help prevent many of these tragedies?

Tracinski claims that "we can't stop every tragedy like the Parkland shooting" [so let's not try to stop any of them?], and deplores the young activists' efforts as "ignorant ranting," snarkily suggesting that they "show a little humility, kids:"

You're still learning, and you would be well served not to be content to repeat what you learn at school, but to go do your own reading and research and listen to people who disagree with you. It's not as traumatic an experience as you have been led to believe. When you can show that you understand what's good about the world we are giving you, and you have some idea of how it got to be that way--then we'll listen to your ideas for changing it.

As if that weren't insulting enough, he then targets the media by asserting that "The hyping of the Parkland kids is one giant appeal to emotion:"

The approach is to go to a school where a shooting happened and carefully select a small number of kids who are reasonably articulate and willing to go along with the full gun-control agenda. Ignore the ones who don't. Then give these kids the backing of well-funded and well-connected advocacy groups. Fly them around the country and book them on cable TV shows.

Which of those advocacy groups is as well-funded and well-connected as the NRA, you might wonder. Putting a human face on the incessant gun tragedies (enabled by the NRA and its weaponization of everyday life) is hardly a nefarious deed, yet he stumbles onward:

While the gun-banners are busy convincing themselves they've now got a winning issue for a "blue wave" in November, they don't realize that they are also mobilizing pro-Second-Amendment voters who feel a very different set of emotions when they are accused of being child-killers and are told they should be turned into criminals.

Tracinski's follow-up at The Federalist about putting reason over emotion is just as disingenuous, as similarly claims that "The hyping of the Parkland kids is one giant appeal to emotion." Interestingly, it is the emotionality of gun nuts that is the roadblock here, with their desire to protect guns instead of people. Absent the fear-filled tirades promoted by the NRA, as exemplified by Tracinski's screeds, establishing "well-regulated" militias would be immensely easier.

An interesting counterpart to Tracinski is Sohrab Ahmari, who complaints about unhappy liberalism while listing "all the material benefits their philosophy has produced:"

...massive reductions in global poverty rates; near universal education and literacy; unprecedented connectivity and mobility; myriad gadgets and scientific wonders; and on and on.

"Liberal democracy's self-appointed guardians are left feeling," he writes, "unhappy:"

Consider four recent developments, from four disparate places, which upend contemporary liberalism's expectations for the world as it should be:

In China, President Xi Jinping has purged rival power centers, cracked down against religious liberty [because] China's rulers-and, crucially, the country's rising middle classes-aren't prepared to take the leap into political freedom that is supposed to come with capitalist prosperity.

Saudi Arabia offers a second example:

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is pursuing an ambitious program of liberalization. He has granted women the right to drive and to enter soccer stadiums, brought movie theaters back to the Kingdom, and pushed young Saudis off the petro-dole and into the private economy. At the same time, however, MBS has centralized power-with himself at the very center.

A third is Italy, "where last weekend's general election handed a sweeping victory to populist, anti-immigration and Euroskeptic parties:"

The Silvio Berlusconi-led center right, meanwhile, plays second fiddle to hard-right leaders, who take a much tougher stance on questions of immigration and integration.

The final example of Trump, he declares, "decisively rejects the vision of a borderless world underpinning the Democrats' immigration agenda." Capital must be free, but workers might need to be chained--as the unspoken implication of Ahmari might read were it more honest:

China and Saudi Arabia show that civilizations and cultures really are different, sometimes radically so, and in politically significant ways. In most of the world and across most of human history, moreover, the desire for stable authority is much more potent than the demand for individual freedom or representative government.

The Italian and American examples, meanwhile, are a reminder that even in liberalism's Western heartlands, people want order and meaningful communion.

He writes that "community makes possible a common life and a shared vision of the common good" [as long as those "other" commoners are kept out], and even admits that "liberalism has achieved remarkable things:"

Free societies are the only kind I would wish to live in, which is why I remain a practical liberal.

But preserving the highest achievements of liberal civilization calls for a humbler, more chastened liberalism. Yelling at the ingrates won't do.

Speaking of yelling at ingrates, however, we see the example of MAGA whackjobs threatening a California bookstore:

A male Trump supporter, wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, called the staffer "commie scum" and told her that "we're going to burn down your bookstore."

The staffer informed them that she had video of them threatening to burn down the store and told them to "please leave" the premises.

"This is America, f*ck you!" the man shouted at her.

Later in the video, the man can be seen telling people outside the store that, "Trump is going to get rid of all you pieces of sh*t."

He called the woman who worked at the book store an "anti-white racist piece of sh*t" and said that the only people who shopped at the store were "Antifa pieces of sh*t."

Here's the video:

Tracinski and Ahmari would likely blame the bookstore staffers for being unhappy about being threatened; I contend that the Right tends to be both more emotional and more unhappy--in far too many instances, unhappy enough to threaten violence. (No doubt the NRA would suggest "more guns" as a remedy...)

"woke tech"

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"Woke tech" is the concept of selling technological solutions to problems caused by technology, writes Julianne Tveten at In These Times. "Capitalizing on this notion is the Center for Humane Technology (CHT)," she writes, "a cohort of tech-industry veterans who purportedly seek to render technology less, as they call it, 'addictive':"

CHT's plan, though scarce in detail, is multi-pronged: lobbying Congress to pressure hardware companies like Apple and Samsung to change their design standards, raising consumer awareness of harmful technologies and "empowering [tech] employees" to advocate for design decisions that command less user attention. The organization is helmed by former Google "design ethicist" Tristan Harris--who the Atlantic deems the "closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience"...

The tenets of the tech-remorse movement resemble those of another recent phenomenon: unplugging. Spearheaded by such multimillionaires as Deepak Chopra and Arianna Huffington, "unplugging" is the act of temporarily separating oneself from Internet-connected devices to foster relaxation and social connection. If even for a day or an evening, acolytes argue, turning off one's phone curbs its noxious, addictive effects--improving sleep, creativity, and productivity. (Relatedly, CHT is fiscally sponsored by Reboot, a nonprofit that hosts the National Day of Unplugging.)

Tveten points out that "the trend of tech repentance isn't a challenge to the bane of surveillance capitalism; it's merely an upgraded version of it:"

The smartphone makers, meditation-app companies and other appointees of the tech-reform vanguard will continue to track and monetize user data--the very issues they claim to address--while crowing about business ethics and preaching personal responsibility. While tech executives may admit to creating the problem, they most certainly won't be the ones to solve it.

"Our society is being hijacked by technology," writes Harris at CHT, and "Unfortunately, what's best for capturing our attention isn't best for our well-being:"

  • Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship.
  • Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self worth.
  • Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.
  • YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep.

"These are not neutral products," he continues, "They are part of a system designed to addict us." Harris is working through CHT, to "Create a Cultural Awakening" by:

...transforming public awareness so that consumers recognize the difference between technology designed to extract the most attention from us, and technology whose goals are aligned with our own. We are building a movement for consumers to take control of their digital lives with better tools, habits and demands to make this change.

Tristan Harris' TED talk "how better tech could protect us from distraction" is a good intro to his thoughts on the similarities between smartphones and slot machines.


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PoliticusUSA's Jason Easley has a nice video clip of John Oliver talking about the NRA's dirty little secret--feeding the fear that I mentioned earlier:

The highlight might well be Loesch's comment that "The only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth" being mocked by Oliver as "just a little past the bent elbow of nonsense and hiding in the overstuffed pocket of overly aggressive metaphors." As Easley continues, "NRATV is QVC for guns:"

NRATV isn't interested in protecting the rights of gun owners. The network is set up to do one thing, and that is to motivate people to buy more guns. The NRA hides behind the Second Amendment and bogus claims that they are a membership organization for gun owners, but what kind of membership organization is only interested in moving more merchandise?

Liberal America comments that,

Oliver's biting commentary on the NRA's naked attempts at brainwashing women into buying guns is just one example of how the gun lobby has burrowed into every aspect of American society like a gluttonous tick with an insatiable appetite for blood.

Crooks and Liars remarks that,

At this point the NRA is trying the double down move, which is a sure sign that their "silence after a shooting incident until it blows over" habit isn't working.

and The Nation's Scot Nakagawa writes that NRA TV is no joke:

NRA TV is directly speaking to the group Donald Trump referred to as "Second Amendment people" in a campaign speech many read as an incitement to violent action from gun advocates if the election were "rigged" and Hillary Clinton won.

Trump's "Second Amendment people" include the Patriot Movement, a network made up of groups like the Bundy bunch that famously staged a 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur County Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, in January 2016. The animating, radicalizing core ideology of that movement is violent white nationalism. NRA TV ideologically trains these front-line troops, which many believe will only grow more dangerous as the Trump presidency continues, particularly if he is perceived to be under attack, scandalized, and humiliated. That's no joke.

Trump is like a fetish object for far right, whose rage is not really animated by corrupt banks, failing government, the rise of the 1 percent, and globalization. These forces may create the underlying conditions for the rise of radical movements, but what animates movements on the right--the demons that drive them to action and keep them tucked into Trumpist foolishness--is their hatred of people like us. We are the targets of their rage specifically because they're losing cultural currency as we grow in cultural influence. We have become proxies for all of the ills of society. For these radical elements of the white-identity movement, the stockpiling of guns is one way of signaling in-group belonging, their commitment to the past in a world where they are losing the future, and, of course, their possession of the ultimate tools of the bully.

Henry Giroux discusses killing children in the age of disposability at TruthOut:

Trump's proposal to arm teachers suggests that the burden of gun violence and the crimes of the gun industries and politicians should fall on teachers' shoulders, foolishly imagining that armed teachers would be able to stop a killer with military grade weapons, and disregarding the risk of teachers shooting other students, staff or faculty in the midst of such a chaotic moment.

"In his call to arm 20 percent of all teachers," writes Giroux, "Trump is suggesting that 640,000 teachers be trained and given guns:"

The Washington Post estimates that the costs of training teachers sufficiently could reach as high as $718 million while the cost of providing teachers with firearms could amount to an additional $251 million. According to the Post, "the full-price, more expansive training and the full-price firearm ... creeps past $1 billion." Furthermore, putting 640,000 more guns in schools is not only a reckless suggestion, it also further enriches the profits of gun makers by adding millions of dollars to their bottom line. Why not invest this amount of money in providing support staff and services for students -- services that could meaningfully support those facing mental health issues, bullying, homelessness and poverty? [...]

Gun violence in the US is not simply about a growing culture of violence, it is about the emergence of a form of domestic terrorism in which fear, mistrust, lies, corruption and financial gain become more important than the values, social relations and institutions that write children into the script of democracy and give them hope for a decent future.

"A culture of cruelty, silence and indifference to the needs of children, built on the backs of the conservative media politicians and the gun industry and lobby," he continues, "has become a central and ethically disturbing feature of American society:"

This is a culture of political corruption and social abandonment that "has a remarkable tolerance for child slaughter, especially the mass murders of the children of others." This culture of violence has a long history in the United States, and has become increasingly legitimated under the Trump regime, a regime in which lawlessness and corruption combine to ignore the needs of children, the poor, elderly, sick and vulnerable. In the age of neoliberal brutality, protecting guns and profits have become more important than protecting the lives of young people. [...]

As Brad Evans and I have argued in Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of the Spectacle, violence has now become the defining organizing principle for society in general. It is also worth noting that the spectacle, marketing and commodification of violence powerfully mediates how the American public both understands the relations of power that benefit from the production of violence at all levels of society and how the visceral suffering that is produced can be neutralized in a culture of immediacy and "alternative facts." [...]

The message to students is clear. They are not worth protecting if they threaten the profits of the gun industries and the purses of the politicians who have become the lackeys for them.

We should regulate weapons like we do in the military, says Joshua Lott in a Reuters piece:

I'm a Regular Army officer and have served in frontline positions in Iraq [and] My niche perspective is this: in the Army, firearms are much more heavily regulated than in civil society. How can so many enthusiastic gun owners say that they hold the military as a model, and yet not accept the strict regulations that go with the military's use of firearms? [...]

In the Army, firearms are stored under lock, key, and sometimes guard, and god help you if one goes missing--the post shuts down and a frenzied search bordering on a religious quest begins. After basic training, soldiers are required to go through a few hours of refresher training with practical drills before they are even allowed on a range for individual shooting qualification. [...]

Clearly, with several hundred million firearms in circulation, mass confiscation is not practical, politically toxic, and as a sporting man myself, I would say culturally undesirable. But simple steps such as limiting high-capacity magazines, stringent background checks (lets's not pretend they hold water now), and a licensing process are all good starts. After a certain list of tangible steps is exhausted though, the question becomes a nebulous one of cultural norms. Is there going to be a shift toward seeing firearm ownership as innately bound up in social responsibility? One can hope. [...]

Will most Americans grow up and out of the fairy tale that their right to bear arms is without nuance or burden of responsibility? Will they realize they are probably not Lone Rangers waiting for their moment to save the day in their home or school?

War correspondent Arnold Isaacs comments that:

...these guys who want teachers to pack heat are the same people who yell at us nonstop that mass shootings happen because people are crazy, nothing to do with how easy it is in this country to buy AR15s. At the same time they're positive that those otherwise crazy people will be perfectly rational in just one way and will stay away from a school if they think a teacher might have a gun.

It would be funny if it weren't so sad

Also worth noting are these comments from "a gun-fancier who lives (and shoots) in Canada:"

And I don't understand why one needs a license to drive a car or fly an aircraft, which each offer lots of opportunity for tragedy, but somehow owning and using a firearm is somehow completely unregulated. It's illogical. Ironically, in the case of the automobile and the aircraft it is illegal to use both under the influence of alcohol, but one can shoot a gun pissed to the gills and violate no state or federal statutes.

I'm afraid I think much of this firearm stuff truly is wrapped up in white-guy-anxiety-about-blacks-and-'others'. I know so many Americans with whom I sit on Boards (which in theory should mean they're reasonably bright and well-informed) who keep a handgun in their cars or pickups. It's apparently for 'self-defense' but none of them can point to a previous need for such a measure. They're just scared.

Their audience is scared, proving that the NRA's tactics have worked...

Alvin McEwen writes that Mike Huckabee's whining about resigning from the Country Music Association Foundation is becoming insufferable, as when Huckabee complains that "If the industry doesn't want people of faith or who hold conservative and traditional political views to buy tickets and music," whines Huckabee, "they should be forthcoming and say it:"

Until recently, the arts was the one place America could set aside political, geographical, racial, religious, and economic barriers and come together. If the arts community becomes part of the polarization instead of bridging communities and people over the power of civil norms as reflected in the arts, then we as a civilization may not be long for this earth.

Huckabee, of course, has a long history of making slanderous comments about molestation and scouting, "claiming that we want to 'criminalize Christianity'," and supporting the harmful "reparative therapy" fraud. As McEwen continues, "I don't want to mince words here:"

Mike Huckabee is a lying sack of garbage who seems to think that he is privileged to say anything he feels about the LGBTQ community without any expectations of us raising an objection. He minimizes the severity of his slurs and then plays the victim when the targets of his words refuse to play his game.

He is indicative of the ignorance some people have in thinking that LGBTQs are supposed to so grateful about society's so-called tolerance of us that we raise no objections when our lives, our children, and our families are besmirched and disrespected. It's not enough for people like Huckabee to insult us. According to them, we are supposed to accept the insults and the second-class status prescribed to us by those harsh words and ugly inaccuracies about our lives. If we don't accept those things, then we are intolerant hypocrites.


We are human beings. And that means we are intolerant of certain things, such as disrespect, lies, attacks, and especially people who attempt to reshape who we are based upon their ignorance and religious beliefs.

It's not a matter of "tolerance" or "intolerance."

It's a matter of self-respect.

Conover Kennard smacks down a GOP lawmaker over the "thoughts and prayers" dodge:

A Florida state senator [Kelli Stargel (R)], who is obviously, like, a totally stable genius, said the only thing that is going to stop "the evil" behind mass shootings is "thoughts and prayers." That didn't work after the Columbine school massacre and it won't after the most recent mass shooting in Parkdale, Florida. Maybe God is trying to tell right-wing Christians to do something.

As the gun-lobby's lackey said:

"When we say 'thoughts and prayers,' it's frowned upon. And I take real offense at that because thoughts and prayers are really the only thing that's gonna stop the evil from within the individual who is taking up their arms to do this kind of a massacre."

"It's not the weapon that matters," Stargel insisted, but it's "the evil from within." [...]

"In my opinion, the one thing that will actually change this the most is the one thing that has become fighting words, which is to say 'thoughts and prayers,'" she said. "So that's something I'm gonna continue to add to my comprehensive plan so we can hopefully stop the evil that is happening from within our world."

Does the author of this "comprehensive plan" comprehend anything as relevant as universal background checks, waiting periods, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, or the "well-regulated" part of the Second Amendment?

Asking for a nation tired of getting shot up...

N+1 magazine looks at gun violence and the war on terror, pointing out that the more things change,

There was something unsettling or self-serving about the excess of praise adults heaped on the Stoneman Douglas students who boarded charter buses bound for the Tallahassee statehouse just a few days after watching their classmates die. "This shooting is different from the other ones," a 16-year-old boy told a Times reporter. "I just have a gut feeling--something is going to change." It's understandable that he should feel this way; insofar as no previous school shooting had happened in his school, to his friends and teachers, this time was different. But his representatives quickly demonstrated that it was not different enough. Florida's legislature voted down a motion to debate an assault weapons ban.

they more they remain the same:

That traumatized children had to learn this about their government in front of national news reporters struck me as a continuation of the shooting, not a response to it. The shooting shows us that the US is a place where children either grow up in fear of random, catastrophic violence or else don't grow up at all. The debate that has followed the shooting shows us that things are going to stay that way.

In a sense, this is reminiscent of terrorism, as "Today's mass shooters have all grown up in a country that lives in a constantly reinforced fear of a certain kind of violent spectacle:"

No other violent act is more feared, more discussed, more capable of causing society to change itself--nothing gets more attention and recognition. The mass shooting is our domestic variant of the jihadist terrorist attack. Were the US to abandon the specter of terrorism as the organizing principle of the country's foreign policy, travel laws, and security procedures, the mass shooting would lose much of its dark appeal. But during this century so far, America has responded to terrorist attacks by deepening its fears and by entrenching itself in militarism and surveillance. It is responding to mass shootings in much the same way. So long as that pattern holds, angry and unstable young men will continue to act in accordance with the world that was made for them to grow up in.

Considering that we, as Americans, are 124 times more likely to die from a gun assault than from a foreign-born terrorist incident, the problem can seem intractable. The media (especially those on the Right) are fixated on the wrong problem, while ignoring the fact that, as In These Times' Leonard C. Goodman reminds us, it's never been about the Second Amendment--it's about corporate profits:

Parkland teenagers are smart enough to understand that the real impediment to sensible gun laws is not the Second Amendment but lawmakers who take industry money through groups like the NRA.

"A familiar pattern has emerged after mass shootings," he observes:

Lawmakers offer thoughts and prayers and then quietly shoot down any restrictions on gun sales, citing their fealty to the Second Amendment.

There is a chance that this time will be different, thanks largely to the teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who are fighting back against lawmakers who protect industry profits over the lives of their constituents.

One relevant example is Senator Marco Rubio, who has received $3,303,355 from the NRA over the course of his career:

Unable to discuss their NRA funding, gun industry lackeys like Rubio fall back on the excuse that the Second Amendment ties their hands and prohibits restrictions on gun sales. This is nonsense.

"Corporate-owned politicians," Goodman concludes, "don't care about the Constitution:"

How many of them have even read it? They make it easy for mass-killers to buy assault rifles because this helps their patrons in the gun industry sell more guns and maximize profits.

Thank you, Parkland teenagers for finally calling them out.

Cristina Orsini explains how the "fake news frenzy threatens dissent, pointing out that it's "often a catch-all term, used to smear opposing points of view:"

This is why it is crucial for people around the globe to understand the impact that current narratives on fake news and proposed solutions may have on their potential to be active and free citizens, in order to preserve the possibility of dissent and maintain a pluralistic and informative public sphere.

The US is not yet Iran, Egypt, or Brazil, she writes, but "content regulation to fight fake news is concerning activists in what would be considered well-established democracies as well:"

For example, in June last year the German parliament voted for a bill to fine social media platforms that fail to remove illegal content within 24 hours, which can include hate speech and fake news. This triggered concerns over accidental and privatized censorship due to the short time-frame allowed for analysis of each case. Emmanuel Macron started 2018 by announcing that his government is developing rules to crack down on fake news, including the possibility for judges to block accounts.

Orsini continues by noting that "top-down approaches to fake news disregard the existence of propaganda and the fact that misinformation can be spread by governments themselves and used to advance their own interests:"

Letting governments control narratives can result in the homogenization of available information, which would be dangerous for democratic debate, and paradoxical if this was to occur in the name of protecting "truth" itself. [...]

However, investing social media platforms, and thus private companies, with the task of managing content can be extremely problematic. Social media platforms have been criticized for their lack of transparency about the mechanisms and algorithms used to prioritize content, often influenced by the power of money and by a business model based on maximizing clicks for advertisement purposes.

Creeping infotainment is one risk, and another is that "social media platforms can be co-opted by governments:"

For example, Facebook has been removing content published by Palestinian activists at the request of the Israeli government. This has created an asymmetrical social media sphere where hate speech and misinformation by some is removed, but not by others.

"It is perhaps critical thinking itself," she concludes, "that is most deeply challenged by the fake news frenzy:"

In the words of Frank La Rue, a human rights lawyer and assistant director-general for communication and information at UNESCO, "fake news is a trap. Why? Because ... they are trying to dissuade us from reading the news and thinking." In other words, fake news narratives risk making citizens increasingly cynical about information in general, which could result in a sort of agnosticism to news and information. This could lead to public disengagement, a condition in which the powerful go unchallenged and collective action for the defense of citizens' rights becomes harder to achieve. [...]

Most activists seem to agree that if an antidote to fake news exists -- within a truly democratic society where freedom of expression is respected -- it will arrive through education and be based on critical thinking.

Sophia A. McClennen expresses concern that we are a nation of ignoramuses:

In the days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we learned that we weren't just fighting gun violence in our country; we were also fighting bots that were using Facebook and other social media platforms to control the narrative and sow division. Parallel to bot propaganda after the shootings, a similar disinformation campaign popped up after the premiere of "Black Panther," with images of violence circulating on Twitter suggesting that white people weren't welcome at the screenings.

Suddenly the breaking news story is that bots and trolls and other agents of disinformation are not only trying to influence our elections, they are trying to cause conflict among U.S. citizens. And of course, most of the news coverage hysterically suggests that the source of these digital media attacks is primarily Russian.

"The real problem," she tells us, "is that the United States is one of the least intelligent nations in the developed world:"

We aren't good at processing and analyzing information, and that makes us suckers for bots, trolls and all other sorts of disinformation tactics. [...] Study after study shows that the United States underperforms in literacy across the developed world -- especially given its resources. But that isn't even the core issue; the real problem is the way we have consistently devalued quality education across all levels for decades.

Consider the fact that 14 states teach creationism in public schools. Add to that the reality that a Pew Research Study from 2015 found that 34 percent of Americans reject evolution entirely, saying humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

But it isn't just our knowledge base that's the problem; it's the fact that the United States has effectively abandoned the notion that investing in education is critical for the future of our nation.

The situation is no better after high school, because "The same pattern is true for higher education:"

States continue to slash support for public colleges and universities and funding remains below historic levels. Overall, state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2017 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation.

It should come as no surprise that reduced investment in education leads to lower student outcomes and to poorer critical thinking skills. [...]

And as convenient as it might be to turn this into a partisan problem with the Republicans as the stooges and the Democrats as the sharp ones, that approach won't work. Sure, we have considerable data on the gullibility of the Republican brain and the fact that fake news was shared far more often by Republicans, but, in the end, this is a truly bi-partisan problem on a national scale.

"The parties may have their own special brands of ignorance," McClennan observes, "but there is plenty of dumb to go around:"

So before we overly invest energy and resources into shutting down propaganda, hoax news and other forms of disinformation, we should probably make an effort to wise up. Philosopher Steven Nadler wonders if it is even possible to "fix American stupidity," a mindset he describes as intellectual stubbornness. Yet, thus far, we have stubbornly refused to take stock of our own critical thinking failures. The stupidest thing we could do is try to solve this problem by ignoring our own collective stupidity.

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