The Empty Piety of the American Press

Chris Hedges

March 13, 2018

The press, giddy with its newfound sense of mission and purpose, is carrying out a moral crusade against Donald Trump. The airwaves and print have shed their traditional claims of “impartiality” and “objectivity.” They fulminate against Trump, charging—falsely—that he was elected because of Russian interference and calling him a liarignorant and incompetent. They give airtime to his bitterest critics and bizarre associates, such as Omarosa Manigault-Newman, a onetime star of “The Apprentice” and now a fired White House aide, and Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who says she had a sexual relationship with Trump. It is great entertainment. It is great for ratings. It is great for profits. But it is not moral, and it is not journalism.

The empty piety is a mask for self-interest. It is accompanied by the veneration of the establishment politicians, generals, intelligence chiefs, corporate heads and hired apologists who carried out the corporate coup d’état that created our system of “inverted totalitarianism.” The corporate structures that have a stranglehold on the country and have overseen deindustrialization and the evisceration of democratic institutions, plunging over half the country into chronic poverty and misery, are unassailable. They are portrayed as forces of progress. The criminals on Wall Street, including the heads of financial firms such as Goldman Sachs, are treated with reverence. Free trade is equated with freedom. Democratic politicians such as Barack Obama—who assaulted civil liberties, transferred trillions of dollars upward to reigning oligarchs, expanded the drone wars to include targeted assassinations of American citizens, and used the Espionage Act to silence investigative journalism—are hailed as champions of democracy. Deference is paid to democratic processes, liberties, electoral politics and rights enshrined in our Constitution, from due process to privacy, that no longer exist. It is a vast game of deception under the cover of a vacuous morality.

Those cast aside by corporate capitalism—Noam Chomsky calls them “unpeople”—are  rendered invisible and reviled at the same time. The “experts” whose opinions are amplified on every issue, from economics to empire and politics, are drawn from corporate-funded think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, or are former military and intelligence officials or politicians who are responsible for the failure of our democracy and usually in the employ of corporations. Cable news also has the incestuous habit of interviewing its own news celebrities. Former CIA Director John Brennan, one of many former officials now on the airwaves, has morphed into a senior national security and intelligence analyst for NBC and MSNBC. Brennan was the architect of the disastrous attempt to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to arm “moderate” rebels in Syria, oversaw the huge expansion of our drone wars and instigated the canard that Russia stole the last U.S. presidential election. The most astute critics of empire, including Andrew Bacevich, are banished, as are critics of corporate power, including Ralph Nader and Chomsky. Those who decry the waste within the military, such as MIT Professor Emeritus Ted Postol, who has exposed the useless $13 billion anti-ballistic missile program, are unheard. Advocates of universal health care, such as Dr. Margaret Flowers, are locked out of national health care debates. There is a long list of the censored. The acceptable range of opinion is so narrow it is almost nonexistent.

Where is the flood of stories about families being evicted or losing their homes because of foreclosures and bank repossessions? Where are the stories about the banks and lending agencies that prey on recent college graduates burdened with crippling loans and unable to find work? Where are the stories about families going into bankruptcy because they cannot pay medical bills and the soaring premiums of for-profit health care? Where are the stories about the despair that drives middle-aged white men to suicide and millions of Americans into the deadly embrace of opioid addiction? Where are the stories on the cruelty of mass incarceration, the collapse of our court system and the reign of terror by police in marginal communities? Where are the investigative pieces on the fraud and the tax boycott that have been legalized for Wall Street, the poisoning of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries? Why is climate change a forbidden subject, even as extreme weather devastates the nation and much of the rest of the planet? Why are the atrocities we commit or abet in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen ignored? Why are the war crimes carried out by Israel against the Palestinians erased from news coverage?

The relentless pillorying of Trump is news-as-reality-television. Trump fills in for Richard Hatch of the old “Survivor” show. Trump’s imbecility, dishonesty, narcissism and incompetence are at once revolting and riveting. The press, ostensibly seeking a more polished brand to improve the public presentation of empire and corporate capitalism, is in fact further empowering the lunatics who will dominate the political landscape.

“America is ceasing to be a nation,” reporter and author Matt Taibbi writes in his book “Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus,” “and turning into a giant television show.”

The stunts pulled during the last presidential election—Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul wearing goggles as he chain-sawed the tax code in half, Trump inviting women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault to a presidential debate and Ben Carson having to defend himself against allegations he lied when he wrote that as a child he attempted to stab another boy—will become staples of political campaigning. Voters, stripped of all meaningful power or control over their own destiny, used only as stage props in rallies and at party conventions, are permitted to vote only for a system they hate. And the winners are those who can give the best and most entertaining expression of that hatred. “Trump found the flaw in the American Death Star,” Taibbi writes. “It doesn’t know how to turn the cameras off, even when it’s filming its own demise.”

If the press sided with citizens and exposed the corporate systems of power that hold them captive, its advertising income would dwindle and it would be treated as an enemy of the state. Since corporations own the airwaves and declining city newspapers, this will not happen. Journalism will remain burlesque. The Public Broadcasting System, along with National Public Radio dependent on corporate money, including the Koch brothers, is as loath to take on the corporate establishment as its for-profit competitors. Dissenters and critics exist only on the margins of the internet, and the abolition of net neutrality will see them silenced.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the high priests in the Trump Inquisition, was quite open about the narrowness of the assault. Being interviewed on “The Axe Files” podcast, hosted by former Obama White House aide David Axelrod, Tapper addressed charges that he opposes Trump’s policies by saying, “Whenever anybody says that to me, I say, you can’t find any evidence about what I think about his tax plan or repealing Obamacare or DACA or immigration or trade or any of these issues—terrorism or ISIS or Syria. I’m agnostic on that. I want to have full and interesting and provocative debates and call balls and strikes. But I’m not putting out there an immigration proposal.”

The corporate airwaves have a depressing habit of taking political hacks like Axelrod or the former Clinton strategist George Stephanopoulos and transforming them into journalists. Even Chelsea Clinton got a shot at journalism, being paid $600,000 a year to do fluff pieces for NBC. The fusion of news and celebrity, with figures like Tapper appearing on late night talk shows, fits with the reality-television presidency the corporate press empowers.

The press, like the Democratic Party, is playing a very dangerous game. It is banking, as Hillary Clinton did, on Trump being so repugnant he and those who support him will be replaced with Democrats. It relies on polls to guide its tactics and strategy, forgetting that every national poll offered assurance that Trump would lose in 2016. This gamble may work. But it may not. Policy issues accounted for only 10 percent of the media coverage during the 2016 presidential race. News reports concentrated on the latest polls, scandals, publicity stunts, campaign tactics and strategy as well as Trump’s bombastic remarks, according to a report issued by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. In short, there was little substance to the coverage. This will only get worse. The gossip, trivia and invective masquerading as news are not only irrelevant to most of the electorate but reinforce the image of liberal elites being out of touch with the pain and rage rippling across the nation.

Corporations that own the press look at news as a revenue stream. The news division competes against other revenue streams. If news does not produce comparable profits, its managers are replaced and its content is altered and distorted to draw in more viewers. Journalism is irrelevant. The disease of celebrity and greed, which warps and deforms the personality of Trump, warps and deforms celebrities in the media. They share Trump’s most distasteful characteristics. The consequences are ominous. An ignored, impoverished and frustrated underclass will turn to increasingly bizarre politicians and more outlandish con artists and purveyors of hate. Trump is only the beginning. The grotesque mutations to come, ones that will make Trump look reasonable, are being spawned in newsrooms across the country.

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Smashing the Cult of Celebrity and the Disempowerment Game


By Dylan Charles,

At the dark heart of corporate consumer culture lie the social programs that mass-produce conformity, obedience, acquiescence and consent for the matrix.

The cult of celebrity is the royal monarch of these schemes, the ace in the hole for mass mind control and the disempowerment of the individual. This is the anointed paradigm of idol worship and idol sacrifice, a vampire’s feast on our individual and collective dreams. Who do you love? Who do you hate? Who do want to be like? 

Combine this paradigm with the technology of social media, and the individual is flung into oblivion, never fully understanding the importance and value of their own life, instead always comparing themselves to phony ideals and well-designed, well-funded marketing campaigns.

‘The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge – broadband tipping the Web from text to image; social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider – the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves – by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.’ ~William Deresiewicz

Marketeers and propagandists are skilled at leveraging human psychology to exploit human nature. They utilize the study of the psyche to gain inroads into your behavior, and they employ this science as a tool for stoking insecurities and triggering urges.

They may be selling an idea, a lifestyle, a product, or a war, but, the pitch is the same: a false idol rises from the wastelands of the American dream, and is presented to the hordes as a well-packaged product. The celebrity’s life is a projection of a niche fantasy, and a following is built up around this fantasy, and the cult followers are steered toward whatever point of purchase.

And that’s what a cult is: “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”

This kind of externalized validation serves as a power transfer. Your personal power is extracted and foisted onto a manufactured image in the matrix, and without realizing it, you’ve forfeited your power to influence the direction of your own life.

“The Fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, make us blame ourselves for our predicament, condition us to chase illusions of fame and happiness, and keep us from fighting back.” – Chris Hedges

This is about usurping individuality in order to foster groupthink and hive consciousness. It’s also about creating a barrier between what you believe is possible for yourself and what chances you are willing to take in order to manifest a unique vision for your life.

You see, human beings are energetic creations, partly made of matter and partly made of spirit, but wholly malleable to the direction of the mind. We are affected by subtle energies, body language, electromagnetic energy, frequencies of light that we cannot see, sounds that we cannot hear, and a thousand other hidden cues. We are beings of energy, and much like a battery, we can can give or receive energy.

But the mind is at the center of it all. Whatever the mind entertains, the being creates.

When the mind fixes on an external idol, this innate power to form ourselves is transferred outside of our own locus of control, and where the mind could be centered on creating and expanding the self, it is instead focused on the fantasy of achieving an impossible ideal.

As journalist Jon Rappoport notes:

“If perception and thought can be channeled, directed, reduced, and weakened, then it doesn’t matter what humans do to resist other types of control. They will always go down the wrong path. They will always operate within limited and bounded territory. They will always ignore their own authentic power.” ~Jon Rappoport

The end game here is to keep us from accepting ourselves as worthy and perfect divine beings, and to disconnect us from our own potential. This is deep stuff, reaching far beyond the push to convert us into greedy, materialistic consumers. In a metaphysical sense it is a transfer of energy, and where once we were strong and full of promise, we are now helpless and content to observe as the world flits by.

What’s most dangerous to any system of control is for the individual to know their own strength and to speak their own language, as Chris Hedges puts it.

“That’s why I don’t own a television… and I work as hard as I can to distance myself from popular culture so that I can speak in my own language, no the one they give me.” ~Chris Hedges

Dylan Charles is the editor of Waking Times and co-host of Redesigning Reality, both dedicated to ideas of personal transformation, societal awakening, and planetary renewal. His personal journey is deeply inspired by shamanic plant medicines and the arts of Kung Fu, Qi Gong and Yoga. After seven years of living in Costa Rica, he now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and enjoys spending time with family. He has written hundreds of articles, reaching and inspiring millions of people around the world.


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A Generation Emerging From the Wreckage

David Brooks FEB. 26, 2018


Yale students gathered for a class about happiness in January. Credit Monica Jorge for The New York Times

I’ve been going around to campuses asking undergraduate and graduate students how they see the world. Most of the students I’ve met with so far are at super-competitive schools — Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Davidson — so this is a tiny slice of the rising generation. Still, their comments are striking.

The first thing to say is that this is a generation with diminished expectations. Their lived experience includes the Iraq war, the financial crisis, police brutality and Donald Trump — a series of moments when the big institutions failed to provide basic security, competence and accountability. “We’re the school shooting generation,” one Harvard student told me. Another said: “Wall Street tanked the country and no one got punished. The same with government.”

I found little faith in large organizations. “I don’t believe in politicians; they have been corrupted. I don’t believe in intellectuals; they have been corrupted,” said one young woman at Yale. I asked a group of students from about 30 countries which of them believed that the people running their country were basically competent. Only one young man, from Germany, raised a hand. “The utopia of our parents is the dystopia of our age,” a Harvard student said, summarizing the general distemper.

It’s not that the students are hopeless. They are dedicating their lives to social change. It’s just that they have trouble naming institutions that work. A number said they used to have a lot of faith in the tech industry, but they have lost much of it. “The Occupy strategy was such a visible failure, it left everyone else feeling disillusioned,” one lamented. “We don’t even have a common truth. A common set of facts,” added another.

The second large theme was the loss of faith in the American idea. I told them that when I went to public school the American history curriculum was certainly liberal, but the primary emotion was gratitude. We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.

They looked at me like I was from Mars. “That’s the way powerful white males talk about America,” one student said. When I asked how they were taught American history, a few said they weren’t taught much of it.

“In my high school education the American Revolution was a rounding error,” one young woman said. Others made it clear that the American story is mostly a story of oppression and guilt. “You come to realize the U.S. is this incredibly imperfect place.” “I don’t have a sense of being proud to be an American.” Others didn’t recognize an American identity at all: “The U.S. doesn’t have a unified culture the way other places do,” one said.

I asked them to name the defining challenge of their generation. Several mentioned the decline of the nation-state and the threats to democracy. A few mentioned inequality, climate change and a spiritual crisis of meaning. “America is undergoing a renegotiation of the terms of who is powerful,” a woman from the University of Chicago astutely observed.

I asked the students what change agents they had faith in. They almost always mentioned somebody local, decentralized and on the ground — teachers, community organizers. A woman from Stockton, Calif., said she was hoping to return there. A woman from Morocco celebrated the uneducated local activists who operate from a position of no fear. They are just fighting for the basics — education, health care and food. “We want change agents that look like us. We want to see ourselves moving the country forward,” one Chicago woman told me.

The students spent a lot of time debating how you organize an effective movement. One pointed out that today’s successful movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, don’t have famous figureheads or centralized structures. Some students embraced these dispersed, ground-up and spontaneous organizations. If they flame out after a few months, so what? They did their job. Others thought that, no, social movements have to grow institutional structures if they are going to last, and they have to get into politics if they are going to produce any serious change.

A woman from the Middle East at Yale’s Jackson Institute noted that the Muslim Brotherhood spent decades debating whether to remain outside the system as a community organization or to go into politics. That was the sort of debate I saw playing out in front of me on campus after campus.

I came away from these conversations thinking that one big challenge for this generation is determining how to take good things that are happening on the local level and translate them to the national level, where the problems are. I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. “We’re more connected but we’re more apart,” one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. “How do you create relationship?” one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.

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The Bankruptcy of the American Left

Feb 6, 2018

Chris Hedges

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

There will be no economic or political justice for the poor, people of color, women or workers within the framework of global, corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism, which uses identity politics, multiculturalism and racial justice to masquerade as politics, will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance. Corporate capitalism cannot be reformed, despite its continually rebranding itself. The longer the self-identified left and liberal class seek to work within a system that the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” the more the noose will be tightened around our necks. If we do not rise up to bring government and financial systems under public control—which includes nationalizing banks, the fossil fuel industry and the arms industry—we will continue to be victims.

Corporate capitalism is supranational. It owes no loyalty to any nation-state. It uses the projection of military power by the United States to protect and advance its economic interests but at the same time cannibalizes the U.S., dismantling its democratic institutions, allowing its infrastructure to decay and deindustrializing its factory centers to ship manufacturing abroad to regions where workers are treated as serfs.

Resistance to this global cabal of corporate oligarchs must also be supranational. It must build alliances with workers around the globe. It must defy the liberal institutions, including the Democratic Party, which betray workers. It is this betrayal that has given rise to fascist and protofascist movements in Europe and other countries. Donald Trump would never have been elected but for this betrayal. We will build a global movement powerful enough to bring down corporate capitalism or witness the rise of a new, supranational totalitarianism.

The left, seduced by the culture wars and identity politics, largely ignores the primacy of capitalism and the class struggle. As long as unregulated capitalism reigns supreme, all social, economic, cultural and political change will be cosmetic. Capitalism, at its core, is about the commodification of human beings and the natural world for exploitation and profit. To increase profit, it constantly seeks to reduce the cost of labor and demolish the regulations and laws that protect the common good. But as capitalism ravages the social fabric, it damages, like any parasite, the host that allows it to exist. It unleashes dark, uncontrollable yearnings among an enraged population that threaten capitalism itself.

“This is a crisis of global dimensions,” David North, the national chairman of the Socialist Equality Party in the United States, told me when we spoke in New York. “It is a crisis that dominates every element of American politics. The response that we’re seeing, the astonishing changes in the state of the government, in the decay of political life, the astonishingly low level of political and intellectual discourse, is in a certain sense an expression of the bewilderment of the ruling elite to what it’s going through.”

“We can expect a monumental explosion of class struggle in the United States,” he said. “I think this country is a social powder keg. There is an anger that exists over working conditions and social inequality. However [much] they may be confused on many questions, workers in this country have a deep belief in democratic rights. We totally reject the narrative that the working class is racist. I think this has been the narrative pushed by the pseudo-left, middle-class groups who are drunk on identity politics, which have a vested interest in constantly distracting people from the essential class differences that exist in the society. Dividing everyone up on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference fails to address the major problem.”

North argues, correctly, that capitalism by its nature lurches from crisis to crisis. This makes our current predicament similar to past crises.

“All the unanswered questions of the 20th century—the basic problem of the nation-state system, the reactionary character of private ownership with the means of production, corporate power, all of these issues which led to the first and Second world wars—are with us again, and add to that fascism,” he said.

“We live in a global economy, highly interconnected,” North went on. “A globalized process of production, financial system. The ruling class has an international policy. They organize themselves on an international scale. The labor movement has remained organized on a national basis. It has been completely incapable of answering this [ruling-class policy]. Therefore, it falls behind various national protectionist programs. The trade unions support Trump.”

The sociologist Charles Derber, whom I also spoke with in New York, agrees.

“We don’t really have a left because we don’t have conversations about capitalism,” Derber said. “How many times can you turn on a mainstream news like CNN and expect to hear the word ‘capitalism’ discussed? Bernie [Sanders] did one thing. He called himself a democratic socialist, which was a bit transformational simply in terms of rhetoric. He’s saying there’s something other than capitalism that we ought to be talking about.”

“As the [capitalist] system universalizes and becomes more and more intersectional, we need intersectional resistance,” Derber said. “At the end of the 1960s, when I was getting my own political education, the universalizing dimensions of the left, which was growing in the ’60s, fell apart. The women began to feel their issues were not being addressed. They were treated badly by white males, student leaders. Blacks, Panthers, began to feel the whites could not speak for race issues. They developed separate organizations. The upshot was the left lost its universalizing character. It no longer dealt with the intersection of all these issues within the context of a militarized, capitalist, hegemonic American empire. It treated politics as siloed group identity problems. Women had glass ceilings. Same with blacks. Same with gays.”

The loss of this intersectionality was deadly. Instead of focusing on the plight of all of the oppressed, oppressed groups began to seek representation for their own members within capitalist structures.

“Let’s take a modern version of this,” Derber said. “Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, she did a third-wave feminism thing. She said ‘lean in.’ It captures this identity politics that has become toxic on the left. What does ‘lean in’ mean? It means women should lean in and go as far as they can in the corporation. They should become, as she has, a major, wealthy executive of a leading corporation. When feminism was turned into that kind of leaning in, it created an identity politics that legitimizes the very system that needs to be critiqued. The early feminists were overtly socialists. As was [Martin Luther] King. But all that got erased.”

“The left became a kind of grab bag of discrete, siloed identity movements,” Derber said. “This is very connected to moral purity. You’re concerned about your advancement within the existing system. You’re competing against others within the existing system. Everyone else has privilege. You’re just concerned about getting your fair share.”

“People in movements are products of the system they’re fighting,” he continued. “We’re all raised in a capitalistic, individualistic, egoistic culture, so it’s not surprising. And it has to be consciously recognized and struggled against. Everybody in movements has been brought up in systems they’re repulsed by. This has created a structural transformation of the left. The left offers no broad critique of the political economy of capitalism. It’s largely an identity-politics party. It focuses on reforms for blacks and women and so forth. But it doesn’t offer a contextual analysis within capitalism.”

Derber, like North, argues that the left’s myopic, siloed politics paved the way for right-wing, nativist, protofascist movements around the globe as well as the ascendancy of Trump.

“When you bring politics down to simply about helping your group get a piece of the pie, you lose that systemic analysis,” he said. “You’re fragmented. You don’t have natural connections or solidarity with other groups. You don’t see the larger systemic context. By saying I want, as a gay person, to fight in the military, in a funny way you’re legitimating the American empire. If you were living in Nazi Germany, would you say I want the right of a gay person to fight in combat with the Nazi soldiers?”

“I don’t want to say we should eliminate all identity politics,” he said. “But any identity politics has to be done within the framework of understanding the larger political economy. That’s been stripped away and erased. Even on the left, you cannot find a deep conversation about capitalism and militarized capitalism. It’s just been erased. That’s why Trump came in. He unified a kind of very powerful right-wing identity politics built around nationalism, militarism and the exceptionalism of the American empire.”

“Identity politics is to a large degree a right-wing discourse,” Derber said. “It focuses on tribalism tied in modern times to nationalism, which is always militaristic. When you break the left into these siloed identity politics, which are not contextualized, you easily get into this dogmatic fundamentalism. The identity politics of the left reproduces the worse sociopathic features of the system as a whole. It’s scary.”

“How much of the left,” he asked, “is reproducing what we are seeing in the society that we’re fighting?”

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Early Facebook and Google employees form coalition to fight what they built Nellie Bowles

Nellie Bowles  Feb 5, 2018

Reporter, The New York Times
Roger McNamee

Mark Neuling | CNBC
Roger McNamee

SAN FRANCISCO — A group of Silicon Valley technologists who were early employees at Facebook and Google, alarmed over the ill effects of social networks and smartphones, are banding together to challenge the companies they helped build.

The cohort is creating a union of concerned experts called the Center for Humane Technology. Along with the nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense Media, it also plans an anti-tech addiction lobbying effort and an ad campaign at 55,000 public schools in the United States.

The campaign, titled The Truth About Tech, will be funded with $7 million from Common Sense and capital raised by the Center for Humane Technology. Common Sense also has $50 million in donated media and airtime from partners including Comcast and DirecTV. It will be aimed at educating students, parents and teachers about the dangers of technology, including the depression that can come from heavy use of social media.

More from The New York Times:

“We were on the inside,” said Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google who is heading the new group. “We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works.”

The effect of technology, especially on younger minds, has become hotly debated in recent months. In January, two big Wall Street investors asked Apple to study the health effects of its products and to make it easier to limit children’s use of iPhones and iPads. Pediatric and mental health experts called on Facebook last week to abandon a messaging service the company had introduced for children as young as 6. Parenting groups have also sounded the alarm about YouTube Kids, a product aimed at childrenthat sometimes features disturbing content.

“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and where are we pointing them?” Mr. Harris said. “We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.”

Silicon Valley executives for years positioned their companies as tight-knit families and rarely spoke publicly against one another. That has changed. Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist who was an early employee at Facebook, said in November that the social network was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

The new Center for Humane Technology includes an unprecedented alliance of former employees of some of today’s biggest tech companies. Apart from Mr. Harris, the center includes Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager; Lynn Fox, a former Apple and Google communications executive; Dave Morin, a former Facebook executive; Justin Rosenstein, who created Facebook’s Like button and is a co-founder of Asana; Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook; and Renée DiResta, a technologist who studies bots.

The group expects its numbers to grow. Its first project to reform the industry will be to introduce a Ledger of Harms — a website aimed at guiding rank-and-file engineers who are concerned about what they are being asked to build. The site will include data on the health effects of different technologies and ways to make products that are healthier.

Jim Steyer, chief executive and founder of Common Sense, said the Truth About Tech campaign was modeled on antismoking drives and focused on children because of their vulnerability. That may sway tech chief executives to change, he said. Already, Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, told The Guardian last month that he would not let his nephew on social media, while the Facebook investor Sean Parker also recently said of the social network that “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Mr. Steyer said, “You see a degree of hypocrisy with all these guys in Silicon Valley.”

The new group also plans to begin lobbying for laws to curtail the power of big tech companies. It will initially focus on two pieces of legislation: a bill being introduced by Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, that would commission research on technology’s impact on children’s health, and a bill in California by State Senator Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat, which would prohibit the use of digital bots without identification.

Mr. McNamee said he had joined the Center for Humane Technology because he was horrified by what he had helped enable as an early Facebook investor.

“Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger,” he said. “And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment.”

He said the people who made these products could stop them before they did more harm.

“This is an opportunity for me to correct a wrong,” Mr. McNamee said.

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Trump’s Blood Sport Politics


Credit Matt Chase

For all those sour headlines about slumping ratings and player protests, the National Football League landed a dandy matchup for its marquee event. More than 110 million Americans will probably watch Sunday’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. The contest will instantly become one of the most-watched programs in American history.

On days like this, my mind fixes on “The Sporting Spirit,” an essay written by George Orwell in 1945 that sought to reckon with the rise of our modern athletic-industrial complex.

Orwell noted that sports faded in prominence after the fall of Rome, only to surge again in the 19th century, in England and the United States, where games became “a heavily financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions.” For Orwell, the rise of sports was bound up with the rise of nationalism, both of them examples of “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

Fans are apt to bristle at this assessment, among them most recent presidents, who look to sports as a folksy way of connecting to voters.

President Barack Obama was especially fond of this jock populism. Not only did he fill out his March Madness brackets on TV, but he used his final public appearance in office to argue that sports played a major role in our nation’s moral progress.

Sports “has the power to bring us together, even when the country is divided,” he insisted, adding, “There’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.”

Mr. Obama’s earnest belief that sports “speaks to something better in us” is a common trope among aficionados. They extol the grace and courage of favorite players, the ecumenical bonding experience of fandom, and especially those moments when a devotion to athletic prowess overpowers prejudice.

But the current occupant of the Oval Office has given voice to a more primal, and frankly powerful, vision of sports, the same one Orwell identified seven decades ago: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” Orwell wrote. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in violence.”

Anyone familiar with the president’s Twitter feed — which has become both his bully pulpit and his confessional booth — would have a hard time disputing that his brand of politics exudes this sporting spirit.

Mr. Trump is ruled by a lust for competitive prestige, which he achieves by bragging and stoking feuds. Like no other president before him, he has abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of compromise in favor of the zero-sum game. For him to win, the other side must lose.

It can be tempting to mock a leader who nurses his ego by gazing at a map of his “massive” Electoral College victory. But Mr. Trump is president, in no small part, because he was able to exploit the sporting spirit within us.

From the moment he began his campaign, Mr. Trump understood that most Americans have exchanged the burdens of citizenship for the pleasures of fandom. And he intuited that politics, for all its precious norms and pretensions, was at its root a blood sport.

While his primary opponents droned on about policy, Mr. Trump dominated debates simply by trash talking. At rallies, he bragged about his poll numbers and urged partisans to pummel protesters. He mocked elitist losers and vowed to usher in an era of winning.

Establishment Republicans yelped that he needed to pivot to a gentler, more inclusive tone. But in the end nearly all of them voted for Mr. Trump. They did so because of what political scientists call “negative partisanship,” an ingrained hatred for the other party that is often entirely divorced from ethics or policy.

Orwell would have seen in this pattern the infiltration of the sporting spirit into our political culture. The result is voters whose prevailing ethos boils down to the motto of Al Davis, the former owner of the Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby.” Even if you need to suppress votes, or gerrymander districts, or get help from Russian agents to do it.

But Americans across the political spectrum got caught up in the same spirit. Think about how much time liberals spent hate-watching Mr. Trump’s rallies, or hitting refresh on predictive models such as The Times’s Upshot meter. They, too, gobbled up stories that focused on strategy and poll numbers. Is it any wonder that the news media spent so much time focused on the scoreboard, and not the stakes?

We should all be alarmed by a postelection study, conducted by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, which revealed that just 10 percent of the 2016 election coverage focused on policy. But we should also understand that this dismal statistic redounds to us.

A year into the Trump presidency, the news media continues to treat politics as a kind of wonky offshoot of the sports entertainment industry. Coverage of major bills focuses more on whip counts and the tallying of winners and losers than the consequences of legislation.

The president, naturally, continues to exploit this tendency. He uses the news media to sow discord, to inflame warring cultural and racial factions in a manner designed to steadily erode the common good.

Should any of the Patriots or Eagles choose to kneel during the national anthem, you can be sure our tweeter in chief will post a bilious squib aimed at inciting his fans against those with the gall to protest institutional racism on Super Bowl Sunday.

President Obama lauded sports as a realm capable of “changing hearts.” But he never quite grasped the relationship between our devotion to athletics and the cycle of escalating recrimination and intransigence in our realpolitik.

Instead, we now have a leader who grasps, all too well, the ways in which our sporting spirit can be prodded to reveal the darkest precincts of our national soul.

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The Useful Idiocy of Donald Trump

Jan 28, 2018  Chris Hedges

The Useful Idiocy of Donald Trump

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

The problem with Donald Trump is not that he is imbecilic and inept—it is that he has surrendered total power to the oligarchic and military elites. They get what they want. They do what they want. Although the president is a one-man wrecking crew aimed at democratic norms and institutions, although he has turned the United States into a laughingstock around the globe, our national crisis is embodied not in Trump but the corporate state’s now unfettered pillage.

Trump, who has no inclination or ability to govern, has handed the machinery of government over to the bankers, corporate executives, right-wing think tanks, intelligence chiefs and generals. They are eradicating the few regulations and laws that inhibited a naked kleptocracy. They are dynamiting the institutions, including the State Department, that served interests other than corporate profit and are stacking the courts with right-wing, corporate-controlled ideologues. Trump provides the daily entertainment; the elites handle the business of looting, exploiting and destroying.

Once democratic institutions are hollowed out, a process begun before the election of Trump, despotism is inevitable. The press is shackled. Corruption and theft take place on a massive scale. The rights and needs of citizens are irrelevant. Dissent is criminalized. Militarized police monitor, seize and detain Americans without probable cause. The rituals of democracy become farce. This is the road we are traveling. It is a road that leads to internal collapse and tyranny, and we are very far down it.

The elites’ moral and intellectual vacuum produced Trump. They too are con artists. They are slicker than he at selling the lies and more adept at disguising their greed through absurd ideologies such as neoliberalism and globalization, but they belong to the same criminal class and share many of the pathologies that characterize Trump. The grotesque visage of Trump is the true face of politicians such as George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Clintons and Obama, unlike Bush and Trump, are self-aware and therefore cynical, but all lack a moral compass. As Michael Wolff writes in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” the president has “no scruples.” He lives “outside the rules” and is “contemptuous of them.” And this makes him identical to those he has replaced, not different. “A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not,” Wolff writes.

Trump, backed by the most retrograde elements of corporate capitalism, including Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Sheldon Adelson and Carl Icahn, is the fool who prances at the front of our death march. As natural resources become scarce and the wealth of the empire evaporates, a shackled population will be forced to work harder for less. State revenues will be squandered in grandiose projects and futile wars in an attempt to return the empire to a mythical golden age. The decision to slash corporate tax rates for the rich while increasing an already bloated military budget by $54 billion is typical of decayed civilizations. Empires expand beyond their capacity to sustain themselves and then go bankrupt. The Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, Khmer, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires all imploded in a similar fashion. The lessons of history are clear. But the illiterate charlatans who seize power in the dying days of empire know nothing of history. They are driven by a primal and inchoate lust for wealth, one that is never satisfied no matter how many billions they possess.

The elites in dying cultures turn everything into a commodity. Human beings are commodities. The natural world is a commodity. Government and democratic institutions are commodities. All are mined and wrecked for profit. Nothing has an intrinsic value. Nothing is sacred. The relentless and suicidal drive to accumulate greater and greater wealth by destroying the systems that sustain life is idolatry. It ignores the biblical injunction that idols always begin by demanding human sacrifice and end by demanding self-sacrifice. The elites are not only building our funeral pyre, they are building their own.

The elites, lacking a vision beyond satiating their own greed, revel in the intoxicating power to destroy. They confuse destruction with creation. They are agents of what Sigmund Freud calls the death instinct. They find in acts of national self-immolation a godlike power. They denigrate empathy, intellectual curiosity, artistic expression and the common good, virtues that sustain life. They celebrate a hyper-individualism embodied in celebrity, wealth, hedonism, manipulation and the ability to dominate others. They know nothing of the past. They do not think about the future. Those around them are temporarily useful to their aims and must be flattered and rewarded but in the end are ruthlessly cast aside. There is no human connection. This emotional numbness lies at the core of Trump’s personality.

“[Stephen] Bannon described Trump as a simple machine,” Wolff writes. “The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door.”

The elites in a dying culture confuse what the economist Karl Polanyi calls “real” and “fictitious” commodities. A commodity is a product manufactured for sale. The ecosystem, labor and money, therefore, are not commodities. Once these fictitious commodities are treated as real ones for exploitation and manipulation, Polanyi writes, human society devours itself. Workers become dehumanized cogs. Currency and trade are manipulated by speculators, wreaking havoc with the economy and leading to financial collapse. The natural world is turned into a toxic wasteland. The elites, as the society breaks down, retreat into protected enclaves where they have access to security and services denied to the wider population. They last longer than those outside their gates, but the tsunami of destruction they orchestrate does not spare them.

As long as Trump serves the interests of the elites he will remain president. If, for some reason, he is unable to serve these interests he will disappear. Wolff notes in the book that after his election there was “a surprising and sudden business and Wall Street affinity for Trump.” He went on: “An antiregulatory White House and the promise of tax reform outweighed the prospect of disruptive tweeting and other forms of Trump chaos; besides, the market had not stopped climbing since November 9, the day after the election.”

The Russia investigation—launched when Robert Mueller became special counsel in May and which appears to be focused on money laundering, fraud and shady business practices, things that have always characterized Trump’s financial empire—is unlikely to unseat the president. He will not be impeached for mental incompetence, over the emoluments clause or for obstruction of justice, although he is guilty on all these counts. He is useful to those who hold real power in the corporate state, however much they would like to domesticate him.

Trump’s bizarre ramblings and behavior also serve a useful purpose. They are a colorful diversion from the razing of democratic institutions. As cable news networks feed us stories of his trysts with a porn actress and outlandish tweets, the real work of the elites is being carried out largely away from public view. The courts are stacked with Federalist Society judges, the fossil fuel industry is plundering public lands and the coastlines and ripping up regulations that protected us from its poisons, and the Pentagon, given carte blanche, is engaged in an orgy of militarism with a trillion-dollar-a-year budget and about 800 military bases in scores of countries around the world.

Trump, as Wolff describes him in the book, is clueless about what he has unleashed. He is uninterested in and bored by the complexities of governance and policy. The faster Trump finds a member of the oligarchy or the military to take a job off his hands the happier he becomes. This suits his desires. It suits the desires of those who manage the corporate state. For the president there is only one real concern, the tumultuous Trump White House reality show and how it plays out on television. He is a creature solely concerned with image, or more exactly his image. Nothing else matters.

“For each of his enemies—and, actually, for each of his friends—the issue for him came down, in many ways, to their personal press plan,” Wolff writes of the president. “Trump assumed everybody wanted his or her fifteen minutes and that everybody had a press strategy for when they got them. If you couldn’t get press directly for yourself, you became a leaker. There was no happenstance news, in Trump’s view. All news was manipulated and designed, planned and planted. All news was to some extent fake—he understood that very well, because he himself had faked it so many times in his career. This was why he had so naturally cottoned to the ‘fake news’ label. ‘I’ve made stuff up forever, and they always print it,’ he bragged.”

Yes, the elites wish Trump would act more presidential. It would help the brand. But all attempts by the elites to make Trump conform to the outward norms embraced by most public officials have failed. Trump will not be reformed by criticism from the establishment. Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who denounced Trump, saw their approval ratings plummet and have decided not to run for re-election. Trump may have public approval of only 39 percent overall, but among Republicans the figure is 78 percent. And I don’t think those numbers will decrease.

The inability of the political establishment and the press to moderate or reform Trump’s egregious behavior is rooted in their loss of credibility. The press, along with political and intellectual elites, spent decades championing economic and political policies that solidified corporate power and betrayed and impoverished American workers. The hypocrisy and mendacity of the elites left them despised and distrusted by the victims of deindustrialization and austerity programs. The attempt to restore civility to public discourse and competency to political office is, therefore, fruitless. Liberal and establishment institutions, including the leadership of the two main political parties, academia and the press, squandered their moral authority. And the dogged refusal by the elites to address the engine of discontent—social inequality—ensures that they will remain ineffectual. They lay down the asphalt for the buffoonery of Trump and the coming tyranny.

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Thought Police for the 21st Century

January 23, 2018

Chris Hedges

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

DETROIT—The abolition of net neutrality and the use of algorithms by Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter to divert readers and viewers from progressive, left-wing and anti-war sites, along with demonizing as foreign agents the journalists who expose the crimes of corporate capitalism and imperialism, have given the corporate state the power to destroy freedom of speech. Any state that accrues this kind of power will use it. And for that reason I traveled last week to Detroit to join David North, the chairperson of the international editorial board of the World Socialist Web Site, in a live-stream event calling for the formation of a broad front to block an escalating censorship while we still have a voice.

“The future of humanity is the struggle between humans that control machines and machines that control humans,” Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, said in a statement issued in support of the event. “Between the democratization of communication and usurpation of communication by artificial intelligence. While the Internet has brought about a revolution in people’s ability to educate themselves and others, the resulting democratic phenomena has shaken existing establishments to their core. Google, Facebook and their Chinese equivalents, who are socially, logistically and financially integrated with existing elites, have moved to re-establish discourse control. This is not simply a corrective action. Undetectable mass social influence powered by artificial intelligence is an existential threat to humanity. While still in its infancy, the trends are clear and of a geometric nature. The phenomena differs in traditional attempts to shape cultural and political phenomena by operating at scale, speed and increasingly at a subtlety that eclipses human capacities.”

In late April and early May the World Socialist Web Site, which identifies itself as a Trotskyite group that focuses on the crimes of capitalism, the plight of the working class and imperialism, began to see a steep decline in readership. The decline persisted into June. Search traffic to the World Socialist Web Site has been reduced by 75 percent overall. And the site is not alone. AlterNet’s search traffic is down 71 percent, Consortium News is down 72 percent, Global Research and Truthdig have seen declines. And the situation appears to be growing worse.

The reductions coincided with the introduction of algorithms imposed by Google to fight “fake news.” Google said the algorithms are designed to elevate “more authoritative content” and marginalize “blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.” It soon became apparent, however, that in the name of combating “fake news,” Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are censoring left-wing, progressive and anti-war sites. The 150 most popular search terms that brought readers to the World Socialist Web Site, including “socialism,” “Russian Revolution” and “inequality,” today elicit little or no traffic.

Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in a hearing Wednesday that Facebook employs a security team of 10,000—7,500 of whom “assess potentially violating content”—and that “by the end of 2018 we will more than double” it to over 20,000. Social media companies are intertwined with and often work for U.S. intelligence agencies. This army of censors is our Thought Police.

The group, Bickert said, includes “a dedicated counterterrorism team” of “former intelligence and law-enforcement officials and prosecutors who worked in the area of counterterrorism.” She testified that artificial intelligence automatically flags questionable content. Facebook, she said, does not “wait for these … bad actors to upload content to Facebook before placing it into our detection systems.” The “propaganda” that Facebook blocks, she said, “is content that we identify ourselves before anybody” else can see it. Facebook, she said, along with over a dozen other social media companies has created a blacklist of 50,000 “unique digital fingerprints” that can prevent content from being posted.

“We believe that a key part of combating extremism is preventing recruitment by disrupting the underlying ideologies that drive people to commit acts of violence,” she told the committee. “That’s why we support a variety of counterspeech efforts.”

“Counterspeech” is a word that could have been lifted from the pages of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

This censorship is global. The German government’s Network Enforcement Act fines social media companies for allegedly objectionable content. French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to remove “fake news” from the internet. Facebook and Instagram erased the accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator of the Chechen Republic, because he is on a U.S. sanctions list. Kadyrov is certainly repugnant, but this ban, as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, empowers the U.S. government to effectively censor content. Facebook, working with the Israeli government, has removed over 100 accounts of Palestinian activists. This is an ominous march to an Orwellian world of Thought Police, “Newspeak” and “thought-crime” or, as Facebook likes to call it, “de-ranking” and “counterspeech.”

The censorship, justified in the name of combating terrorism by blocking the content of extremist groups, is also designed to prevent a distressed public from accessing the language and ideas needed to understand corporate oppression, imperialism and socialism.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Orwell wrote in “1984.” “In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. …”

Corporate capitalism, and the ideology that justifies it—neoliberalism, the free market, globalization—no longer has any credibility. All of the utopian promises of globalization have been exposed as lies. Allowing banks and corporations to determine how we should order human society and govern ourselves did not spread global wealth, raise the living standards of workers or implant democracy across the globe. The ideology, preached in business schools and by pliant politicians, was a thin cover for the rapacious greed of the elites, elites who now control most of the world’s wealth.

The ruling elites know they are in trouble. The Republican and Democratic parties’ abject subservience to corporate power is transparent. The insurgencies in the two parties that saw Bernie Sanders nearly defeat the seemingly preordained Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and the election of Donald Trump terrify the elites. The elites, by attacking critics and dissidents as foreign agents for Russia, are seeking to deflect attention from the cause of these insurgencies—massive social inequality. Critics of the corporate state and imperialism, already pushed to the margins, are now dangerous because the elites no longer have a viable counterargument. And so these dissidents must be silenced.

“What’s so specifically important about this is that in a period of growing political radicalization among young people, among workers, they start to look for oppositional information, they become interested in socialism, revolution, terms like ‘equality,’ those terms which previously would bring thousands of readers to the World Socialist Web Site, now were bringing no readers to the World Socialist Web Site,” North said. “In other words, they were setting up a quarantine between those who may be interested in our site and the WSWS. From being a bridge, Google was becoming a barrier, a guard preventing access to our site.”

The internet, with its ability to reach across international boundaries, is a potent tool for connecting workers across the earth who are fighting the same enemy—corporate capitalism. And control of the internet, the elites know, is vital to suppress information and consciousness.

“There is no national solution to the problems of American capitalism,” North said. “The effort of the United States is to overcome this through a policy of war. Because what, ultimately, is imperialism? The inability to solve the problems of the nation-state within national borders drives the policy of war and conquest. That is what is emerging. Under conditions of war, the threat of war, conditions of growing and immeasurable inequality, democracy cannot survive. The tendency now is the suppression of democracy. And just as there is no national solution for capitalism, there is no national solution for the working class.”

“War is not an expression of the strength of the system,” North said. “It is an expression of profound and deep crisis. Trotsky said in the Transitional Program: ‘The ruling elites toboggan with eyes closed toward catastrophe.’ In 1939, they went to war, as in 1914, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences. Certainly, in 1939, they knew what the consequences of war were: War brings revolution. But they could not see a way out. The global problems which exist can only be solved in one of two ways: the capitalist, imperialist solution is war and […] fascism. The working-class solution is socialist revolution. This is, I think, the alternative we’re confronted with. So, the question that has come up, in the broadest sense, [is] what is the answer to the problems we face? Building a revolutionary party.”

“There is going to be, and there is already unfolding, massive social struggles,” North said. “The question of social revolution is not utopian. It is a process that emerges objectively out of the contradictions of capitalism. I think the argument can be made—and I think we made this argument—that really, since 2008, we have been witnessing an acceleration of crisis. It has never been solved, and, indeed, the massive levels of social inequality are themselves not the expression of a healthy but [instead] a deeply diseased socioeconomic order. It is fueling, at every level, social opposition. Of course, the great problem, then, is overcoming the legacy of political confusion, produced, as a matter of fact, by the defeats and the betrayals of the 20th century: the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Stalinism; the betrayals of the working class by social democracy; the subordination of the working class in the United States to the Democratic Party. These are the critical issues and lessons that have to be learned. The education of the working class in these issues, and the development of perspective, is the most critical point … the basic problem is not an absence of courage. It is not an absence of the desire to fight. It is an absence of understanding.”

“Socialist consciousness must be brought into the working class,” North said. “There is a working class. That working class is open now and receptive to revolutionary ideas. Our challenge is to create the conditions. The workers will not learn this in the universities. The Marxist movement, the Trotskyist movement, must provide the working class with the intellectual, cultural tools that it requires, so that it understands what must be done. It will provide the force, it will provide the determination, the emotional and passionate fuel of every revolutionary movement is present. But what it requires is understanding. And we will, and we are seeking to defend internet freedom because we want to make use of this medium, along with others, to create the conditions for this education and revival of revolutionary consciousness to take place.”

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Trump, Oprah and the Art of Deflection

Will American politics return to normalcy in 2021 or 2025? I’m not betting on it.

Oprah Winfrey backstage with her Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., Jan. 7.
Oprah Winfrey backstage with her Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., Jan. 7. Photo: Reuters

Deflection as a media strategy has become an art form. Its purpose is to avoid answering a charge by misdirecting it and confusing the issue. It’s often used during crisis.

There are classics of the genre. After Princess Diana died in August 1997, the British press came under severe pressure, accused of literally driving the poor half-mad woman to her death. The paparazzi had chased her like jackals, raced after her car in the tunnel, surrounded it, and taken pictures after the crash. Fleet Street hunkered down in confusion, perhaps even some guilt. Then some genius noticed Buckingham Palace wasn’t flying a flag at half-staff. The tabloids rushed to front-page it: The cold Windsors, disrespecting Diana in death as they had in life. They shifted the focus of public ire. Suddenly there was no more talk of grubby hacks. Everyone was mad at the queen.

Another: In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Monica Lewinsky had a problem. Hillary Clinton was running, which meant the Monica story would be regularly resurrected. If she took a step wrong she’d be targeted by ferocious Clinton staffers. In any case she’d be hounded by the press: Monica, how do you feel now about being slimed as a stalker? Have you forgiven Hillary for calling you a “narcissistic Looney Tune”?

Ms. Lewinsky had gone into virtual hiding in 2008, when Hillary last ran, and didn’t want to do it again. So in 2014, just before the cycle got serious, she rather brilliantly wrote a piece for Vanity Fair in which she announced yes, she’d been a victim in a national scandal and the true culprit was . . . the press, the internet and the “feedback loop of defame and shame.”

In fact she was the Clintons’ victim, but she successfully deflected your gaze. Once Mrs. Clinton’s people understood Monica would be taking shots not at Hillary but at Matt Drudge, Ms. Lewinsky’s problem went away.

The best deflection has some truth in it. The Windsors were a chilly lot, and the internet does amplify a personal humiliation.

I thought of all this last weekend as I watched the Golden Globes. Hollywood has known forever about abuse, harassment and rape within its ranks. All the true powers in the industry—the agencies, the studios—have one way or another been complicit. And so, in the first awards show after the watershed revelations of 2017, they understood they would not be able to dodge the subject. They seized it and redirected it. They boldly declared themselves the heroes of the saga. They were the real leaders in the fight against sexual abuse. They dressed in black to show solidarity, they spoke truth to power.

They went so far, a viewer would be forgiven for thinking that they were not upset because they found out about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, et al. They were upset, as Glenn Reynolds noted on Twitter , that you found out, and thought less of them. Anyway, they painted themselves as heroes of the struggle.

Deflection is brilliant, wicked, and tends to work.

When something works you’ll be seeing more of it, in entertainment and politics. Keep your eyes sharp.

When Oprah Winfrey spoke, she brought the crowd to their feet, which gave rise to a new wave of speculation about whether she will run for president. I would be surprised if she did. She has what looks like a richly enjoyable life. She’s never been brutalized in the way that national contenders are. If in the past few decades she’s been insulted to her face, or even rudely interrupted, it has gone unrecorded. But to run for president is to be insulted every day. I think sometimes of what Gov. Chris Christie said to debate moderator John Harwood in 2015: “Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude.”

But could she win? Absolutely.

Oprah is stable. Oprah is smart. Oprah is truly self-made. She has a moving personal story. She has dignity and, more important, sees the dignity in others. She is fully wired into modern media; she helped invent modern media. Reporters and editors are awed by her. People experience her not as radical but moderate. She has been a living-room presence for two generations and is enormously popular. The first poll, published Wednesday, had her leading President Trump 48% to 38%.

It would all depend on what she wants and, if she decides she wants it, whether she could accept what goes with it.

But it freaks you out, doesn’t it? Not that American presidents now don’t have to have the traditional credentials and governmental experience, but that maybe they can’t be fully accomplished and appropriate because that’s boring. History has been turned on its head. In falling in love with celebrity and personality, we are acting not like a tough and grounded country but a frivolous, shallow one.

And yes, of course Donald Trump changed it all. When he walked through the door he blew out the jambs. He left a jagged opening big enough that anyone could walk through after him. He was like a cartoon character that bursts through a wall leaving a him-shaped hole. Last April I had a disagreement with a friend, a brilliant journalist who said when the Trump era is over, we will turn for safety to the old ways. We will return to normalcy. Suddenly we’ll see the mystique of the solid two-term governor in the gray suit, the veteran senator with the bad haircut. After all the drama of Mr. Trump, normality will have a new charisma.

No I said, I see just the opposite. We will not go back for a long time, maybe ever. We are in the age of celebrity and the next one will and can be anything—Nobel laureate, movie star, professional wrestler, talk-show host, charismatic corporate executive.

The political class can bemoan this—the veteran journalists, the senators and governors, the administrators of the federal government. But this is a good time to remind ourselves that it was the failures of the political class that brought our circumstances about.

When at least half the country no longer trusts its political leaders, when people see the detached, cynical and uncaring refusal to handle such problems as illegal immigration, when those leaders commit a great nation to wars they blithely assume will be quickly won because we’re good and they’re bad and we’re the Jetsons and they’re the Flintstones, and while they were doing that they neglected to notice there was something hinky going on with the financial sector, something to do with mortgages, and then the courts decide to direct the culture, and the IRS abuses its power, and a bunch of nuns have to file a lawsuit because the government orders them to violate their conscience . . .

Why wouldn’t people look elsewhere for leadership? Maybe the TV star’s policies won’t always please you, but at least he’ll distract and entertain you every day. The other ones didn’t manage that!

The idea that a lot had to go wrong before we had a President Trump, and the celebrity who follows him, has gotten lost in time, as if someone wanted to bury it.

Sometimes I see a congressman or senator shrug and say, in explanation of something outlandish, “It’s Trump.” And I think: Buddy, you’ve been on the Hill 20 years, and we didn’t get to this pass only because of him. That’s a deflection.

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Corpses of Souls

Corpses of Souls- Chris Hedges
Mr. Fish / Truthdig

Walker Percy in his 1971 dystopian novel “Love in the Ruins” paints a picture of a morally degenerate America consumed by hedonism, wallowing in ignorance, led by kleptocrats and fools, fragmented into warring and often violent cultural extremes and on the cusp of a nuclear war. It is a country cursed by its failure to address or atone for its original sins of genocide and slavery. The ethos of ceaseless capitalist expansion, white supremacy and American exceptionalism, perpetuated overseas in the country’s imperial wars, eventually consumes the nation itself. The accomplices, who once benefited from this evil, become its victims. How, Percy asks, does one live a life of meaning in such a predatory society? Is it even possible? And can a culture ever regain its equilibrium when it sinks into such depravity?

The novel’s main character, a doctor named Tom More, is a suicidal alcoholic and a womanizer. He has invented the “Ontological Lapsometer” to measure human souls. He notes that “the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man” has worsened “ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.”

Percy, echoing the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, argues that the capitalist, rationalist ethic that crushed empathy and understanding and replaced it with the primacy of personal gain, cruelty and profit doomed Western civilization. The basest lusts are celebrated by capitalism. Success is defined by material advancement, power and the attainment of celebrity. Those, like Donald Trump, who amass enormous wealth, often by cheating, abusing and defrauding their employees and associates, are treated like pagan idols.

Percy, who like the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was a medical school graduate, was steeped in the classics, theology, philosophy, literature and history. He knew the common denominators of decaying societies. The elevation of the morally degenerate in the last days was never accidental. These corrupt elites embodied the warped values of a dying culture. They reflected back to the society, as does Trump, its spiritual emptiness. The feckless Romanovs in Russia, the megalomaniacal Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany and the doddering head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph I, in the last days of the European monarchies exhibited the same stupidity, self-delusion and self-destructiveness seen in the late American Empire. The moment of terminal decline is always marked by an inability to acknowledge reality and by monstrous, ill-fated schemes, often expressed in wars, to restore a supposed golden age.

“In every civilization its most impressive period seems to precede death by only a moment,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote. “Like the woods of autumn, life defies death in a glorious pageantry of color. But the riot of this color has been distilled by an alchemy in which life has already been touched by death. Thus man claims immortality for his spiritual achievements just when their mortal fate becomes apparent; and death and mortality are strangely mixed into, and potent in, the very pretention of immortality.”

Our capitalist elites have used propaganda, money and the marginalizing of their critics to erase the first three of philosopher John Locke’s elements of the perfect state: liberty, equality and freedom. They exclusively empower the fourth, property. Liberty and freedom in the corporate state mean the liberty and freedom of corporations and the rich to exploit and pillage without government interference or regulatory oversight. And the single most important characteristic of government is its willingness to use force, at home and abroad, to protect the interests of the property classes. This abject surrender of the state to the rich is expressed at this moment in the United States in the new tax code and the dismantling of environmental regulations. This degradation of basic democratic ideals—evidenced when the Supreme Court refuses to curb wholesale government surveillance of the public or defines pouring unlimited dark money into political campaigns as a form of free speech and the right to petition the government—means the society defines itself by virtues that are dead. The longer this illusion is perpetuated, the more an enraged public turns to demagogues who promise a new utopia and then, once in power, accelerate the assault.

All of our institutions are corrupted by a neoliberal ideology. It has contaminated the press, the academy, the arts, the courts and religious institutions. Christian theology has ingested the toxic brew of American exceptionalism, the myth of American virtues and the conflation of freedom with unfettered capitalism. The liberal church, like the bankrupt liberal class, holds up multiculturalism and identity politics as an ethical imperative and ignores the primacy of economic justice. It tolerates the intolerant, giving credibility to those who peddle the heretical creed of the “prosperity gospel,” a creed that says God showers divine favors in the form of wealth and power on the Christian elect. This idea makes Trump one of God’s favorites. It is also an idea that is a complete inversion of the core message of the Christian Gospels.

In Percy’s novel, the Roman Catholic Church has rebranded itself as the American Catholic Church, based in Cicero, Ill. It celebrates Property Rights Sunday. The priest raises the Eucharistic host in the Mass, conducted in Latin, to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sermons focus on how the rich in the Bible—Joseph of Arimathea and Lazarus—were specially blessed by God. Evangelical Christians stage ever more elaborate spectacles and entertainment, including nighttime golf—the Moonlight Tour of the Champs—advertised with the slogan “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All.”

Today’s secularists have their own forms of hedonism, self-worship and idolatry. Spirituality is framed by puerile questions: How is it with me? Am I in touch with myself? Have I achieved happiness and inner peace? Have I, along with my life coach, ensured that I have reached my full career potential? Am I still young-looking? What does my therapist say? It is a culture based on self-absorption, a vain quest for eternal youth, and narcissism. Any form of suffering, which is always part of self-sacrifice, is to be avoided. The plight of our neighbor is irrelevant. Sexual degeneracy—narcissists are incapable of love—abounds in a society entranced by casual hook-ups and pornography. In the Percy novel’s “Love Clinic,” “volunteers perform sexual acts singly, in couples, and in groups, behind viewing mirrors in order that man might learn more about the human sexual response.”

“I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all,” More says. “Generally I do as I please.”

The single-minded pursuit of happiness, with happiness equated with wealth and power, creates a population consumed by anxiety and self-loathing. Few achieve the imagined pinnacle of success, and those who do are often psychopaths. Building a society around these goals is masochistic. It shuts down any desire for self-knowledge because the truth of our lives is unpleasant. We fill the spiritual vacuum with endless activities, entertainment and nonstop electronic hallucinations. We flee from silence and contemplation. We are determined to avoid facing what we have become.

Renegades in the novel have formed armed guerrilla bands in the swamps. These “castoffs” and “disaffected” rebels include “dropouts from Tulane and Vanderbilt, M.I.T. and Loyola; draft dodgers, deserters from the Swedish army, psychopaths and pederasts from Memphis and New Orleans whose practices were not even to be tolerated in New Orleans; antipapal Catholics, malcontented Methodists, ESPers, UFOers, Aquarians, ex-Ayn Randers, Choctaw Zionists who have returned to their ancestral hunting grounds, and even a few old graybeard Kerouac beats. …”

The United States in Percy’s book has been fighting a war in Ecuador for 15 years. The old and infirm, like the poor and disabled, are abandoned by the society. The elderly are shipped off to a euthanasia facility called Happy Isles Separation Center where they are finished off with the “Euphoric Switch.” All those pushed aside by the corporate state live in misery and poverty and are treated as a criminal caste.

More—whose ancestor was St. Thomas More, the writer of “Utopia”— and his three paramours escape to the abandoned ruins of the local Howard Johnson’s. The faded Rotary banner still adorns the banquet room. It reads: “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships?” More and one of his lovers, Moira, sit on a moldering bed and read “above the Gideon Bible” scrawled on the wall the words “For a free suck call room 208.”

“I am surrounded by the corpses of souls,” says Father Rinaldo Smith, the pastor of the tiny remnant of Catholics who refuse to join the American Catholic Church. “We live in a city of the dead.”

“There are Left states and Knothead states,” Percy writes—Knothead being the new name of the Republican Party—“Left towns and Knothead towns but no center towns. … Left networks and Knothead networks, Left movies and Knothead movies. The most popular Left films are dirty movies from Sweden [one depicted fellatio being performed in mid-air by two skydivers in free fall on an outdoor two-hundred-foot screen.] All-time Knothead favorites, on the other hand, include The Sound of Music, Flubber, and Ice Capades 1981, clean movies all.”

The Democratic Party is now the Left Party. The political agenda is captured in the acronym LEFTPAPASANE, which stands for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.”

The elites, who live in well-protected gated communities, all get along with each other whether they are members of the Left Party or the Knothead Party. They are, like the Clintons and the Trumps, members of the same exclusive club.

“The scientists, who are mostly liberals and unbelievers, and the businessmen, who are mostly conservative and Christian, live side by side in Paradise Estates,” he writes of the gated community in the novel. “Though the two make much of their differences—one speaking of ‘outworn dogmas and creeds,’ the other of ‘atheism and immorality,’ etcetera—to tell the truth, I do not notice a great deal of difference between the two.”

“Paradise Estates, where I live, is a paradise indeed, an oasis of concord in a troubled land,” More says. “For our beloved old U.S.A. is in a bad way. Americans have turned against each other; race against race; right against left, believer against heathen, San Francisco against Los Angeles, Chicago against Cicero. Vines sprout in sections of New York where not even Negros will live. Wolves have been seen in downtown Cleveland, like Rome during the Black Plague. Some southern states have established diplomatic ties with Rhodesia. Minnesota and Oregon have their own consulates in Sweden (where so many deserters from these states dwell).”

“People look and talk and smile and are nice and the abyss yawns,” he writes. “The niceness is terrifying.”

In the novel’s raging culture wars, the political triumphs of the left include removing the words “In God We Trust” from pennies. The Knotheads enacted a law that required “compulsory prayers in the black public schools and made funds available for birth control in Africa, Asia, and Alabama.” An exclusive private school, Valley Forge Academy—like the privatized education being implemented by Trump appointee Betsy DeVos—is “founded on religious and patriotic principles and to keep Negroes out.”

Students in the universities, radical multiculturalists and moral purists “are a shaky dogmatic lot,” Percy writes. “And the ‘freer’ they are, the more dogmatic. At heart they’re totalitarians: they want either total dogmatic freedom or total dogmatic unfreedom, and the one thing that makes them unhappy is something in between.”

Percy is describing what Kierkegaard called “sickness unto death”—the numbing of the soul by despair that leads to moral and physical death.

“Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn’t work after all,” Percy writes.

The old U.S.A. didn’t work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? That the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer. Moon Mullins blames it on the niggers. Hm. Was it the nigger business from the beginning? What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers. But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play for you because you already had passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all.

One little test: you flunk!

God, was it always the nigger business, now, just as in 1883, 1783, 1683, and hasn’t it always been that ever since the first tough God-believing Christ-haunted cunning violent rapacious Visigoth-Western-Gentile first set foot here with the first black man, the one willing to risk everything, take all or lose all, the other willing just to wait and outlast because once he was violated all he had to do was wait because sooner or later the first would wake up and know that he had flunked, been proved a liar where he lived, and no man can live with that. And sooner or later the lordly Visigoth-Western-Gentile-Christian-Americans would have to falter, fall out, turn upon themselves like scorpions in a bottle.

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