25 May 2017

The Rich mystery, further mystified

The latest embarrassment in a very bad year for Fox News is the network's publicizing of a dubious theory attempting to explain the 2016 murder in Washington D.C. of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee data director. Given the alleged importance of leaked DNC emails in deciding last year's presidential campaign, armchair detectives of a political bent, believing that there are no coincidences in politics, came to suspect that Rich may have had something to do with the leak. Julian Assange of Wikileaks may have thought the same thing, or some infer from his mentioning the Rich murder during an interview last year. In short, the popular theory (in some circles) is that Rich was killed in reprisal for leaking emails to Wikileaks or the Russians. Recently a former police detective who appears occasionally on Fox News appeared once more to claim that evidence of contacts between Rich and Wikileaks had been covered up. His claims were touted by Sean Hannity, Fox's most prominent host after the sacking of Bill O'Reilly. The detective subsequently threw Fox under the bus, claiming that one of their people had told him about suppressed evidence in the first place, while he had no relevant evidence of his own. Hannity and Fox have been blasted by Rich's family, and some advertisers reportedly have bailed out on Hannity's show. On May 23 Fox formally retracted its news report, while Hannity announced that he would no longer discuss the subject on his show.

None of this, of course, will deter hardcore conspiracymongers who, if anything, will see Fox's retractions as fresh proof of the enduring power of the Deep State or the Clinton family, while some cynics will continue to see political profit in the Rich mystery. Assuming that the conspiracy theory will be kept alive to benefit a particular cause, what if it didn't? For amusement purposes only, let's imagine that Rich was leaking DNC documents. The object of leaking emails and other documents, presumably, was to discredit the Clinton campaign -- but there's obviously more than one way to do that. So what if Julian Assange, from his lair in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, arranged to have Rich killed on the assumption that people would blame the DNC or the Clintons? What if the Russians were involved in the data transaction and then had Rich killed on the assumption that either the Clintons or Assange could be blamed, the former if elected, the latter should he prove unfriendly in the future? What if either Assange or the Russians had a random DNC guy killed, who had noting to do with them, on the assumption that people would jump to conclusions about the Clintons? Watch enough TV whodunits and you'll realize that Occam's Razor isn't as sharp as reputed. The simplest explanation isn't necessarily the best, and sometimes an explanation appears simplest and best only from a certain perspective. Meanwhile, the problem with many conspiracy theorists, strange as it looks, may be that they lack imagination, that their thinking runs through a limited number of set channels determined by prejudices and personal feelings. Despite an air of cynicism or worldly wisdom, they tend to think that only certain people or groups are capable of anything and so jump to blame one suspect while ignoring others. They assume that certain people are guilty of something (or everything) and reason backwards from that assumption. The way to defeat partisan conspiracymongering may well be to counter them with more imaginative and cynical conspiracy theories that may be no more true but could well prove more entertaining -- and that probably counts more than anyone cares to admit these days.

24 May 2017

The biggest Democratic crybabies ever

In New Orleans and Charlottesville, and at points in between, there's been some hubbub over the past month over the removal of statues of Confederate war heroes. It was the typical caterwauling over the attempted erasure of regional heritage, brought to a hysterical peak in Charlottesville by alt-rightist Richard Spencer, who acted as if removal of the white race was next on the agenda. There's excess on the other side of the question, of course, and there's definitely room to debate whether every important American who owned slaves should be seen as a villain today. However, the removal of Confederate statues should be a moment of relative clarity. Let me put the issue in terms that those protesting the statues' removal might understand. For the sake of argument, let's presume that these protesters are supporters of President Trump, if not registered Republicans. If I'm right, then these people have spent much of the last five months or more calling Democrats crybabies and sore losers because Trump won the presidential election fair and square in the Electoral College. Some people have found it virtually seditious that Democrats in 2017 continue to question the legitimacy of Trump's Presidency or attempt to discredit his election. You've heard the rhetoric on TV or radio and seen it on social media: grow up, get over it, he's your President, etc. If Democratic behavior in 2017 is shameful and despicable, Democratic behavior in 1860 was far worse. Democrats that year were so freaked out over a Republican winning the election, even though they had only themselves to blame because their own party split along sectional lines that year, that several Democratic state governments seceded from the Union and started a war when President Lincoln refused to recognize the legitimacy of their action on such a chickenshit pretense. Let me repeat this: Southern Democrats seceded from the Union and started a war because they were sore losers of a presidential election. They gave Lincoln even less of a chance than today's Democrats are giving Trump, without even the fig leaf of accusations of foreign influence. Instead of marching and sometimes looting, they raised armies and perpetrated wholesale slaughter. And those are the heroes whose statues so many want to defend. This shouldn't be so hard to understand, and let it be noted that it has nothing to do with the presumed feelings of black people or any other demographic group. Republicans (and, presumably, Trump fans) like to link today's Democrats with their party's dark heritage of support for slavery and segregation. They like to say that because Democrats were racist back then, by some convoluted logic they are racists now. Those sort of partisan historic analogies should work both ways. How, then, can anyone who thinks of himself as a patriotic conservative today profess to revere people from 150 years ago who behaved the same way, only worse, as the partisans they currently despise? The answer is all too obvious and has everything to do with the feelings of some white people, as if those matter more when they're hurt than black feelings or any others. Well, let the rebs cry. That usually means we're doing something right.

23 May 2017

The Tampa Case

If they don't make a movie about the recent events in Tampa I'll be very surprised. If you haven't heard about it yet, once upon a time there were four buddies who shared an apartment down there and were white nationalists. A few days ago one of them stormed into a local smoke shop brandishing a gun and threatening patrons. After surrendering to police, he told them that he'd killed two of his roommates. The fourth roommate was arrested later while transporting bomb-making materials he had kept in the apartment. The existence of an "Atomwaffen" cell is a story in its own right, of course, but Roommate No. 3, the shooter, has gotten more attention, not just because he killed people but because of his improbable conversion to Islam. Jumping from white nationalism to Islam is quite a leap, as Islam, like Judaism, is semitic in origin, and is understood to preach racial equality. It's less of a leap, of course, if your only motive for joining either motive is piss off people you know, or society in general, by joining the most transgressive, offensive movement they can imagine. Local news reports give the impression that the shooter converted as he was falling out, or washing out, with others in the Atomwaffen. In that case, converting to Islam may simply have been a gesture calculated to piss off white nationalists. On one hand, I wonder about the sincerity of his conversion. That his roommates, still white nationalists, disrespected the shooter's new faith may seem superficially plausible as a provocation, but that and the spectacle he made of himself at that store may simply cover up issues having more to do with the bomb materials than with anyone's religion. On the other hand, I wonder whether the shooter is like a canary in a mineshaft indicating a change in fetishes among angry, alienated youth. If white nationalism is often simply a big F.U. to modern society, radical Islam is arguably more so, and possibly more appealing to misfits like the Tampa killer because of its greater success at acts of violence like yesterday's suicide attack at a Manchester pop concert. If you want to see the world burn, are you really going to put your faith in Hitler or Aryanism in the year 2017? I suppose you might if you still depend on your "whiteness" to give your life meaning, but if the shooter had already become an odd man out before converting, does that mean that the more completely isolated you become, the more alluring an Islamic vision of destructive power becomes? Time may tell, especially if people who've placed their faith in President Trump as a savior for white people see his promises unfulfilled.  It wouldn't be much different from kids becoming radical Marxists, or pretending to, back in the 1960s, except that it seems easier for anyone to fulfill their dreams of terror today. Since no one is going to make any of these ideas go away, somebody somewhere has to start offering a more compelling vision of the future before those with no vision decide simply to do as they will.

22 May 2017

The mountain comes to Muhammad

The President was in Saudi Arabia over the weekend to finalize another arms sale and give a speech about Islamic extremism. The speech, as it appears on the President's Facebook page, was an interesting balancing act, and from the snippets I've heard Trump delivered it well. The balancing act consisted of not denouncing the religion of Islam while not appearing to pander to it. In this way he avoids alarming people without insulting the intelligence (for want of a better word) of his fans with happy talk about a "religion of peace." Trump's main point. repeated forcefully in the highlight of the speech, was that it's primarily the responsibility of Muslim-majority governments to "drive out" extremists from their midst, but on this subject the President may have been too vague for his own good. What exactly is an "extremist?" On Trump's testimony, it seems to be someone with a proclivity toward violence. More specifically, they are "barbaric criminals." But for what purpose? Trump himself says that terrorists only invoke God falsely, that "Terrorists do not worship God [but] worship death." This misses the point by some distance. Any discussion of Islamic extremism (or Islamism) has to be a discussion about shari'a law. The issue since the middle of the last century has been whether governments in Muslim-majority lands are legitimate if they don't govern according to the traditions of the Prophet as canonically interpreted by some ancient school of jurists. If a line is to be drawn in the sand against Islamic extremism, it presumably needs to be made clear that extremists aren't entitled to force shari'a down anyone's throats, not even fellow Muslims'. Of course, Saudi Arabia probably is the wrong country to make that speech in, and the President has to be a diplomat -- as does any businessman of global reach, I suppose. But if anything, Trump's diplomatic solicitude toward the Saudis sometimes makes the Riyadh speech sound like a description of an alternate reality.

To my knowledge, all the terrorist acts carried out by Muslims in the U.S. have been carried out by Sunni Muslims, but in Riyadh Trump says that the fount of terrorism is Iran, the Shiite superpower. The Islamic Republic, which just had another apparently fair election in which the presidential candidate favored by the "Supreme Leader" lost, is the first cause of regional instability, in Trump's account. In his biggest absurdity, he calls Iran's intervention in support of the established government in Syria "destabilizing." To be fair, Iran certainly has been overly aggressive in its defense of Shiite rights outside its territory, particularly in Yemen, having no more right to act as guardian of the world's Shiites than Russia, say, has to act as guardian of the world's Slavs. But to say, as Trump seems to, that Iran is the problem in the Middle East or the Muslim world, simply ignores the autonomous origins of Sunni extremism in resistance, often supported by both the Saudis and the U.S., to secular or leftist regimes in the region. Americans might be confused by this focus on Iran, presumably caring little for geopolitics, were it not for the enduring hate engendered by the 1979-81 hostage crisis that makes it all too easy to portray Iran as the bad guy. Yet for all we know Sunnis probably would have flown the planes into the towers had the Shah of Iran remained on his throne. Scapegoating Iran for the global reach of Islamic terrorism today is an easy call in Riyadh, not to mention in the President's next stop, Tel Aviv, and it may fool people who still don't know (or don't care about) the difference between Sunni and Shiite, but taming or crushing the Islamic Republic is unlikely to solve the terrorism problem here or around the world, and I hope Trump isn't making plans on the assumption that it will.

19 May 2017

In your guts you know he's nuts

The code of conduct for the American Psychiatric Association includes something called the Goldwater Rule. This rule forbids APA members from making public comments on the mental health of public figures without personally examining them. The rule is named after Barry Goldwater, the former U.S. Senator from Arizona and late-life libertarian whose 1964 presidential campaign, despite its catastrophic failure at the polls, began the Republican party's transformation into its present form. Goldwater's campaign slogan was "In your heart you know he's right," to which critics answered, "In your guts you know he's nuts." Thinking along similar lines, one thousand psychiatrists that year signed a public statement diagnosing Goldwater, who wanted to roll back much of the New Deal and infamously asserted, in a Cold War context, that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," was psychologically unfit for the presidency. Goldwater successfully sued the magazine that published the psychiatrists' statement. More than fifty years later, The New Yorker reports that some APA members want to repeal the Goldwater Rule. You can guess why. If you can't, it's because they want to state publicly that Donald Trump is psychologically unfit for the office he actually holds. At least one interviewed by the magazine argues that his profession has a public duty to warn Americans about Trump's state of mind. This topic has come up before on this blog, after Trump had been diagnosed, without the benefit of a direct professional examination, with a "narcissistic personality disorder." Some psychiatrists argue for retaining the Goldwater Rule on pragmatic grounds, noting that comments on Trump's mental health inevitably will be attributed to a liberal bias in the profession. I'd like to think that some in the profession still remember when the Soviet Union and other communists countries were criticized -- particularly, I presume, by entities like the APA, for treating some of their political dissidents as if they were mental cases. Unfortunately, the history of the Goldwater Rule shows that American handwringing over the Soviet practice was at least partly hypocritical. While it is probably true that no one ever proposed forcing Barry Goldwater into a mental hospital, his political enemies were not above reducing his dissent against the liberal consensus to a psychological problem. The psychiatrists' campaign against Trump suggests that this questioning the sanity of liberalism's critics is typical of liberalism, as opposed to conservatives, who blame criticism of their own worldview on moral failings, and radicals, who often blame criticism of their agenda on stupidity. While some of Trump's behaviors and utterances may be genuinely worrisome, it's just as worrisome that some liberals can't believe that a sane person would disagree with their worldview.

18 May 2017

Roger Ailes (1940-2017)

The founder of Fox News barely outlived his good name. Ailes was forced out of power last summer after facing apparently creditable charges of sexual harassment, but those won't really taint his place in American history as probably the most consequential media figure since Henry Luce or William Randolph Hearst. Ailes wasn't a ground-up entrepreneur like those past media titans, being an employee of Rupert Murdoch, but few media figures have done more to influence the form and content of public discussion than Ailes did. His revolutionary act was to identify the absence of conservative bias on television news, in contrast to the heavy conservative bias of print media in the days of Hearst and Luce, as bias unto itself. In the way it presents news and opinion, Fox News isn't much different from a Republican-leaning newspaper of the 1930s, or Time magazine (or Life, which, unlike Time, had an editorial page) when Luce had direct control of it. But Americans had grown so unaccustomed to seeing right-wing bias in the media after the founding titans had passed from the scene that its appearance on television under Ailes' supervision seemed to many liberals like an alarming invasion of a sanctified sphere.

Ailes' justification was that there was a "conservative" side to nearly every issue, and that the established TV networks and CNN had failed in their implicit civil responsibility to present all sides -- or all the important sides -- of the issues. Presenting the conservative side, both in news reporting and interviewing and on Fox's popular prime-time talk shows, thus became sufficient proof that Ailes' channel was more "fair and balanced" than its rivals. Earlier conservative media moguls would not have recognized any duty to keep their publications fair and balanced, but Ailes exploited the modern news media's pretensions of objectivity, which those older moguls did not share, in order to expose his rivals' apparent hypocrisy. For Fox News, the only acceptable proof of objectivity was that all (i.e. both) sides were represented, however feebly the left might be represented (or however grossly it might be exaggerated) on Fox. While Ailes' side might be entitled to representation solely on the strength of numbers, both at the polls and in legislatures, its representation doesn't itself make any discussion of any issue more objective. The reductio ad absurdam of Ailes' logic is the "Teach the Controversy" assertion that traditional accounts of divine creation should be mentioned in discussions of the origins of life.

Nevertheless, the rationale for Fox News appealed to those who saw an increasing divergence between the way they saw the world and the way the established media reported it. The Fox News audience never was the only group to perceive such a divergence, or to perceive bias in what is fairly called the corporate media, but enough people shared Ailes' own perspective to sustain Fox when there was no chance for a Marxist or Anarchist news network. While some critics of Fox appealed to the old ideal of objectivity, it eventually became easier and more appealing to answer bias with bias, to the point today where Ailes' propaganda against the news establishment looks more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a correct diagnosis of his own time. Meanwhile, there were signs before his death, if not before his departure, that the Fox News model was already becoming obsolete. Ratings reportedly show that Fox recently fell behind its cable-news rivals, the liberal-biased MSNBC and the quasi-objective CNN, for the first time in something like forever. Apologists for Ailes might blame this on the recent absence of his guiding hand, but it's more likely that Fox has fallen between two stools, being perceived from the left as too soft on President Trump while it has more likely been too ambivalent toward Trump for the tastes of its base. That base may be showing by its preference for Twitter and other social-media bubbles that it was always  more interested in bias than "fair and balanced," while Fox, despite its liberal critics, was always too much of an actual news network to give the most hardcore viewers the propaganda rush they really craved. Ironically, MSNBC may now deliver that sort of rush more consistently to its own base audience than Fox does to its loyalists. It would be more ironic still if, once past its apparent peak of influence, and at the moment of Ailes's death, that ambivalence towards Trump which may alienate many viewers, as opposed to the unanimous hysteria seen elsewhere, made Fox News the most objective of the cable news channels today. I doubt that's actually true, but it still would be ironic.

17 May 2017

Artifact: a public debate continues....

This is at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway in Troy NY, across the street from the city post office and in front of a failed shopping mall now used by state workers:

I don't know when this debate began but there's more than one layer of paper posted here. I remember seeing it at an earlier stage where the disputants were trading quotes from Voltaire. Whatever its beginnings we have a libertarian of some sort (one who distinguishes between "croney capitalism" and a "truly free market") and some sort of leftist or, as the libertarian sees him, an incipient "facist." We've all heard that a healthy public sphere is essential to liberal democracy, but I'm not sure this is the sort of public discussion the idealists have in mind.

Artifact: "Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere"

This was posted at the corner of Lark and Washington streets in Albany NY, outside a bank building that was recently converted into a church.

It's a produce of Crimethinc., an anarchist entity that's been around since at least the 1990s that currently describes itself as "a rebel alliance—a decentralized network pledged to anonymous collective action—a breakout from the prisons of our age. They sympathize with the global "antifa" movement, but it's unclear whether they endorse "antifa" efforts to banish "alt-right" or just plain "right" speakers from college campuses. The premise of the poster is that police are the same everywhere, whether it's a capitalist republic or a totalitarian dictatorship. A moral equivalence is implied between political dissidents, shoplifters and squatters. Crimethinc. rejects the premise that police are essential to a civilized society. The poster argues that killings by police make a mockery of the pro-police claim that "without you we'd all be killing each other," but the pretty clear threat that "You won't fuck with us much longer" belies the implicit claim that police are the actual violent element in society. I took this picture on May 12; I haven't checked since then to see whether the poster is still in place. A few blocks away, on the Dana Park pedestrian island, a poster calling on people to address police in "the only language they understand," and showing a bullet blasting through a police helmet, was up for some time, and may still be up now.