Conspiracist-in-Chief

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Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues

A couple of decades ago, I used to check out the conspiracy-minded, anti-communist John Birch Society’s in-house magazine, The New American, to see where the Right-wing fringe was at, as it were. However, compared with today’s new online paranoid fascists, Birchers now seem like moderates.

Kenn Thomas in Trumpocalypse Now!  has shown how conspiracy theory has suddenly been transformed from a subversive taboo into a major spectacle. While most conspiracy theories are the subject of wild speculation, government skullduggery and corruption does indeed exist, which is why scholars distinguish between “populist conspiracism” and genuine “conspiratorial politics.” This essay concentrates on the former as well as the Trumpian worldview that favors tribalism over scientific and journalistic objectivity.

There was plenty of subterfuge, secrecy, and deception, on all sides, during the 2016 presidential election. Yet, conspiracy-mongering has itself become a vulgar spectacle. While Trump has been strategically using the conspiracy of a witch hunt for political mobilization, Mueller’s counter-intelligence investigation into Trump-Russsian collusion has become the Holy Grail of liberals in their quest to remove Trump from office, although there are less fantastic reasons for impeaching Trump.

During the 1960s, the conservative establishment fought against the radicalization of the American right. Archconservative William F. Buckley, for example, helped stigmatize the rhetoric of the John Birch Society – making it taboo within the conservative movement. Yet, the GOP no longer rejects the lunatic fringe since it has taken over the party.

The bottom line is if you want to anticipate which way the president is going to spin a story, don’t go to the conservative establishment, take a look at the lunatic fringe, because that’s where Trump’s ideology originates, before it gets watered down to reach wider audiences, like Fox & Friends.

The ideological sources of Trump’s campaign did not originate in Russia, like many liberal intellectuals have been insinuating, but on the edges of America’s political spectrum, where you find the likes of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose internet outlet Infowars  regularly broadcast Roger Stone, a key progenitor of Trump’s political narrative, as well as nativist Steve Bannon, whose Breitbart  online news network became a conduit between the Alt-Right and Trump’s campaign.1

Suffice to say Trump’s behavior toward Putin has been extremely strange and that elements in America’s national security are very upset in failing to deter Moscow’s cyberwar, which makes Russia a perfect scapegoat. In short, Trump’s crazy election victory may be explained without blaming the Kremlin. American plutocrats such as Robert Mercer, Sheldon Adelson, and Koch brothers played a much bigger role in the election than Russian oligarchs, although they don’t generate the kind of histrionic headlines.

The notion that Russian interference or propaganda genuinely changed the judgments, beliefs and attitudes of many voters is doubtful, due to the fact that people tend to interpret the world in ways that confirm their preexisting beliefs; for example, those who already hated Clinton were more receptive to negative Clinton adds, be they Alt-Right or Russian based-memes.

Although Trump was riding the wave of anger that also powered Bernie Sanders’ surprise campaign, his victory in the electoral college came as a total shock to the political pundits, who had underestimated populist indignation, Hillary’s unpopularity, and Donald’s demagogic electoral strategy.

Narcissistic News

Celebrity culture and spectacles have been driving journalism since the 1970s. Advertising revenue and audience decline over the last two decades have been fatal for quality newspapers that provide rigorous fact checking. This disruption within 21st century journalism as well as the emergence of distinct market niches is polarizing America’s epistemic community. Instead of getting objective reporting, people tune into what they want to hear. Today, two distinct views of the world have, more or less, emerged on American television news. The old mass audience has been torn apart by the likes of Fox News and MSNBC, which operate as competing echo chambers.

A growing body of research demonstrates that what people know is shaped by social, economic and partisan interests, and when our moral judgments come into conflict with evidence, we tend to look for ways to dismiss and minimize that evidence. In principle, overcoming cognitive bias is not impossible if one seeks truth in a non-partisan and non-ideological spirit. Objectivity requires due diligence, which is time-consuming and thus costly.

Broadly speaking, while news moves downmarket, where it’s more lucrative, social media is feeding our narcissistic preferences. If traditional journalism was subject to market incentives, online social networks have furthered the distorting influence.

In order to target advertisers, the internet has created algorithmically personalised online filter bubbles, which curates what we see on the basis of what we like. Unfortunately, filter bubbles also incubate and spread “fake news,” which outperformed real news on Facebook, towards the end of the 2016 presidential election, and reveals the demand for hyperpartisan content.

The same tendency of presenting opinion as fact exists in the realm of the so-called real news. Just look at America’s 24/7 cable news channels, which consists mostly of people talking to each other about stories they want to believe. In short, news with no factual content is designed for political as well as financial ends.

Populist Aesthetics

Unlettered barbarians outnumber literate citizens. What’s in fact popular often flies under the established media’s radar. The New York Times, for example, often underestimates the influence of religious and conservative best-sellers. Books like the Left Behind series, The Strange Case of the Obama Mama and The Plot to Destroy Trump are sold in mass across America’s chain stores. And conservative talk-radio hosts and televangelists, such as Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, as well as tabloids, like the National Enquirer, are simply ignored by critics for being cognitively insignificant. Literature of a really high quality only interests a minority of the population, which is one reason why the complexity of political discourse has been trending downward for decades.

Contrarily, the impact of social media platforms on politics did receive attention from serious newspapers. The role that Facebook and Twitter had on facilitating social protest movements and electoral campaigns was typically covered in a positive light during the Obama presidency. For example, Iran’s so-called “Green Revolution” (2009) and the Arab Spring (2011) were cheered on as the media marched in formation with the government. This was also the case during Obama’s second term; for example, protests like Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, Ukraine’s Maidan and Black Lives Matter (2013). The emergence of database politics pioneered by Silicon Valley as President Obama’s data-science team utilized social media in 2008 and 2012 was also covered in glowing language. Although it had been covered, we only really heard about the dangers of social media in the aftermath of the 2016 election and last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Even though Trump was adept at using social media, Hillary was thought to enjoy an overwhelming advantage in terms of money and technical talent. Trump’s unconventional campaign courted America’s white working and underclass more than the Republican establishment that had financially ditched him.

Knowing what he was up against, Trump turned to Twitter to spread his populist message.  On March 6, 2016, he told his followers. “How do you fight millions of dollars of fraudulent commercials pushing for crooked politicians? I will be using Facebook & Twitter. Watch!”2

Yet ironically, in spite of being outspent, the big television networks gave Trump free coverage, which turned him into the main story.

With his high ratings, the Donald was able to monopolize the media’s attention. He was a celebrity persona, after all, who had entered the national spotlight during the eighties bull market and came to personify the age of status and acquisitiveness before the crash.

By changing his business strategy from purchasing property with junk bonds, to licencing his name to others, Donald managed to maintain his real-estate mogul status even after infamously going bankrupt in the early nineties, a time when the Soviet Union was imploding and reality TV was taking-off. He literally cashed in on his iconic brand: firstly with Russian oligarchs and then NBC. In the 2000s, Trump was acting in predetermined unscripted storylines and fake sporting spectacles, like like The Apprentice and WrestleMania.

The lurid spectacle of reality-television is essentially a fictional genre that produces a highly “manipulated rendition of reality” that provides the same kind of vicarious experience which also drives tabloid sales. Ordinary viewers were spellbound by Trump. But why? Was it the fake realism of the genre? His dress, his demeanor? What is it that makes Trump so magnetic?

Well, according to The New Yorker, it’s “his impulse to transgress, the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world.” It’s like watching a train-wreck in slow motion, you can’t look away.3

Trump knows what the codified but unspoken system of culturally specific rules that he violates are. Yet he comports himself as if he doesn’t care about outward appearances or any inner psychological pain which he might be causing others. It’s this sadistic characteristic that makes him so fascinating to watch. Indeed, who didn’t enjoy watching him demolish his Republican opponents in the unscripted debates during the primary? His informal conversational style and forceful assertions blew away the professional politicians, whose oratory by contrast seemed so stilted.

The bottom line is Trump knows what he’s doing, for example, during his torturous and manic address at CPAC, he said,

“You know I’m totally off script right now and this is how I got elected, by being off script. And if we don’t go off script, our country’s in big trouble, folks, because we have to get it back.”

Trump instinctively knows how far he can go. While his tribalistic chauvinism crossed the line of his own party and pundits, whom tried to ridicule him, he understood something they didn’t; namely, what they find deplorable makes him popular.

In the end, Trump mobilized non-voters, who had lost faith in American democracy and justice decades ago. By promising to drain the swamp of crooked politicians and their cronies, who plagued the political system, Trump was going to Make America Great Again. It’s truly amazing, however, that so many estranged skeptics believed in the reality-TV star, turned anti-politican, but, then again, they had nothing to lose.

Hyperbole

Trump is essentially a promoter, huckster, snake-oil salesman, whose hype knows no bounds. Kenn Thomas traces Trump’s propensity for hyping “alternative facts” back to Trump’s ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal  (1987) and

coined the term “truthful hyperbole,” which he characterized as innocent exaggeration and a “very effective form of promotion.” Schwartz maintained, “people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” This is almost the reverse of conspiracy theory, where people believe the darkest, most sinister idea to be the most spectacular. That dialectic has come to characterize the beginning of the Trump era.4

Indeed, innocent hyperbole and sinister hyperbole may be two sides of the same cultural coin. Our celebrity and market dominated culture promotes and characterizes everything as the biggest and best and the shadow of this psychological tendency seems to be paranoid conspiratorial fantasy.

Pop Conspiracy Theory

Cosmic Convergence: 2012 and Beyond  has become my go-to source for understanding the unfiltered Trump narrative. This site nicely blends fascist and new age ideology into a worldview in which common sense, chance an unintended consequences scarcely exist. They – whoever they are – attempt to explain away all of the president’s contradictions and political failures while attributing sinister machinations behind social as well as natural events, such as migration and ecological disasters.5

And what is the reoccurring and main explanation? You guessed it, Trump’s Boogie Man: the Deep State, the instrument of the Illuminati and/or Rothschild Crime Syndicate is behind all things evil.

In the worldview of grand conspiracy theory, every massacre and mass shooting, from casinos to churches, have been orchestrated and covered-up by the Deep State. The NWO Globalist are behind everything from the death of Anthony Bourdain, Hurricane Michael in Florida, which was “geoengineered to take out the Florida Panhandle just before the 2018 election,” to the recent stock market crash, which was incidentally designed to Sabotage Trump’s MAGA Agenda.

October Surprise

Well, with all of the crazy happenings last fall, New Age fascists went into high gear, theorizing how the migrant caravan from Central America was organized by George Soros, who allegedly used them to help House Democrats win the Midterm election.

However, considering how FOX News constantly hyped this story, I’d say that if anybody organized this caravan, it was more likely done by a conservative operator, somebody like Roger Stone, since it strengthened the right-wing narrative.

And lets not forget what they said about the mail bomb scare (by Cesar Sayoc, the Trump supporter), as well as the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting (by neoNazi Robert Gregory Bowers). They were false flag operations, directed by the deep-state to demonize the Right and help the Left win in November.

And it gets crazier. In order to distract Americans from November’s election theft, the globalist cabal attacked California with fires in Malibu and Paradise by weaponizing the weather. Since there is no climate change, obviously the Deep State literally firebombed California from outer space. And there’s more to the story behind California’s fire apocalypse than mere Directed Energy Weapons, it was also a PSYOP. They didn’t pick a town named PARADISE for nothing.

Now, a simple fact would undermine their melodramatic thesis. But, notice the common tactic of simply avoiding more plausible explanations, like extreme dry conditions and PG&E’s powerline failure. Also, notice how the main suspect of August’s “Holy Jim fire” in Southern California is never mentioned. Forest Clark appears to believe in Trump’s kooky conspiracy theories and the Sovereign Citizen ideology.

Conned

These narratives are not only factually challenged and ideologically-driven, they are patently absurd. It’s odd how those who claim they are skeptical of officialdom tend to believe the most spectacular and sinister scenarios over more probable explanations.

They not only discount and ignore information that doesn’t agree with their opinions, they invent things from whole cloth. Without any standards, we are in the realm of pure fabrication or disinformation. The “Alex Jones” or “anything goes” school of alternative media accepts any conspiracy theory as long as it’s against the official story.

Trump’s “forgotten man” has been conned. Anybody who would immediately appoint a Goldman Sachs banker to run the Treasury and John Bolton as National Security Adviser, along with his side kick Elliot Abrams, has no intention of draining the swamp!

At this point, the only way to understand the Trump phenomenon is primarily as a cult, with a fascistic structure that demands obedience from his followers.

1  According to Rolling Stone, Alex Jones had a bigger online audience “than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined.”

2 “Brad Parscale, Trump’s top digital campaign strategist, told Wired, “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.” Reddit also played an important part of Trump’s strategy, providing a network for memes to go viral, which Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) allegedly seeded with disinformation.

3 According to Katherine Walker, a producer of The Aprentice, “Donald would not be President had it not been for that show.”

4 Kenn Thomas, Trumpocalypse Now! The Triumph of the Conspiracy Spectacle (Adventures Unlimited Press: USA, 2017), 21

5 I say They  because their “Who are we?” page has been under construction for months, yet They  have enough time to keep publishing their propaganda.

* Update: After the New Zealand mosque massacres on March 15th in Christchurch, I had a look at their unhinged interpretation of events based on free association or the alleged occult pattern, which they claim to understand. Due to the date and name of the city, They  knew it was really a deep state conspiracy, just like the Shri Lanka church attacks on Easter and the synagogue shooting in Poway, San Diego on the Sabbath of Passover were really False Flag or staged events. Accordingly, Brenton Harrison Tarrant and John Earnest are deep state operatives or MK-Ultra level mind-controlled agents of Gladio and, at the same time, Mossad. It’s entertaining how They  manage to amalgamate every pre-existing conspiracy theory together, without the slightest hint of cognitive dissonance. Indeed, these lone gunmen, who seem to be inspired by, or have links to, the far right identitarian movement, as well as Islamic terrorists are allegedly agents of the Illuminati. In short, what ever happens in the future and inspite of the facts, we can predict They  will discover the same pattern without presenting any evidence.

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Post-Truth Politics or Tribalism?

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By exploring the forces that have given rise to the new tribalism, I’ll show how identity politics is regressive from the perspective of citizenship and the nation-state. By appealing to people’s narrow tribal loyalties of religion race and ethnicity, politicians have ushered in a Post Truth age.

Conservatives won the cold war but lost the culture wars, which were kicked off during the momentous 1960s, as various social movements legitimately struggled for recognition and justice from mainstream society.

The Cold War,” according to the U.S. diplomatic and military historian Andrew Bacevich, “was a conflict fought on two fronts at once: a political and military struggle abroad and a political and cultural struggle at home. By the end of the twentieth century it was apparent that the side that had won abroad had lost at home—and vice versa.”1

The Cold Warriors “vanquished the forces of Marxism-Leninism, embodied by the Soviet Union. But in the internal conflict, the cultural left prevailed, not by destroying the right but by compromising it irredeemably. The counterculture of the 1960s had by the 1990s effectively become the dominant culture.” American society was “spared the class revolution that Marx predicted,” but “succumbed to the cultural revolution.”1

“Multiculturalism” is what is meant here by cultural revolution and which had by President Clinton’s time become a de facto orthodoxy replacing the older American creedal identity. The notion that the “cultural left” has prevailed in the internal struggle is an important pillar in the conservative critique of multiculturalism.2

Yet, the influence of so-called cultural marxists barely exists outside of college towns and the media. Their mythical power is an expression of conservative hostility to modernity. It represents a desire to roll back social changes while ignoring the underlying economic and technological causes of global change.

The real drivers of social change are prosperity and individual decision-making at the heart of capitalism. For time immemorial, economics had revolved around scarcity, but the main challenge for the captains of industry since the 1950s has been persuading the masses to consume. New technologies, popular culture, the triumph of mass consumption, contraception and the widening of career opportunities for women have radically altered the attitudes, sensibilities and mores of millennia.

Ironically, few American conservatives see the fundamental contradiction at the heart of their own ideology. While celebrating the virtues of turbo-capitalism, they mourn the decline of family values that are being eroded by the same market forces they praise.3

American values as enshrined in law conform with the demands of a market society, not religious fundamentalists. As a consequence neither progressives nor conservatives are truly satisfied; both have been betrayed by the political class that shares the spoils of the American economy.

The Supreme Court has in recent decades consistently sided with liberals on social issues and with conservatives (or actually libertarians) on economics, for example, when pitted against the interests of consumers and workers, the court sides with moneyed interests. So despite an ideologically divided Supreme Court, there has been a near-consensus on money, corporations and liberal social values.4

The conservative dream of returning to traditional family values and pre-Sixties morals is not going to happen. Period.

The End of Ideology

Popular discontent did more for Trump than all of the Russian meddling and machinations of Cambridge Analytics. If anyone deserves blame for fueling populist anger, it’s the neoliberal policies which both parties have been promoting for decades. Republicans may have initiated the policies, but Democrats continued them.

Political Scientist Adolph Reed Jr. noted there’s nothing left of the old labor-left alliance; progressive politics has been hollowed-out. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory and the limits of political practice.Although Obama ran on change and transformational politics, he was a Clintonite Democrat, whose abstract symbolic significance outweighed his actual politics. Obama is a triumph of image and identity over content; indeed, he is the triumph of identity as content. . . .  Race is what Obama projects in place of an ideology.5

At the same time, his biographical narrative and feel-good evocation (devoid of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jesse Jackson’s political substance) drove some Americans crazy and disillusioned others, for example, forensic historian Kenn Thomas explains:

Obama seemed less interested in the plight of the working class than he was in protecting the choice of bathroom by teenage transgenders. Instead of dealing with issues of economic inequality and mass poverty, the ‘liberal’ establishment focused more on the worst of identity politics, dismissing any concerns of modern society that couldn’t be reduced to race, sex, sexual orientation or sexual identity. White working males, rather than viewed as victims of neoliberal economics, were dismissed as privileged oppressors who had no reason to bitch about anything.”6

Trump’s working class base in the rust belt would probably rather grope women or brag about grabbing them by the pussy than care about gender neutral bathrooms. And yet what did liberals tell deplorable white working males?

The Democratic Establishment essentially told them to suck it up, “well, if you think we’re bad, just look at those nasty Republicans. If you don’t like us, go ahead and vote GOP. I dare you.”

How many frustrated people in 2016 chose Trump for the simple reason of blowing up America’s corrupt and inept political system?

The documentary film-maker Michael Moore thinks Trump mobilized enough disenchanted voters to win the electoral college in key swing states and thus the presidency.

Identity Politics

The Democratic Establishment became elitist during the 90s, and has shown little regard for the working people they used to represent. Indeed, it seems as if their tactics were designed to drive the working class rightward, into the GOP camp.

The Left used to care about free speech. However, following the greatest economic recession in generations, political correctness exploded on American universities. Oddly, after violent crime had been declining for decades, students suddenly became obsessed with expressing their feelings in new jargon, like microaggression, trigger warnings, safe-spaces and so on.

The working class – as defined by a high school diploma or less – is the biggest demographic; and moreover, white working class men are still the 800 pound gorilla in electoral politics. So, are they impressed by this kind of privileged psychobabble?

No, blue-collar workers neither like having their speech corrected nor censored. While economic inequality, loss of status and immigration are the main drivers of identity politics on the right, the millennial snowflakes have certainly added fuel to the fire.

Now, why a political party would want to spend so much attention on marginal microscopic groups, like the estimated 1.4 million transgender people, is unfathomable without some historical context. According to political scientist Francis Fukuyama, although the left remains passionate about equality, after the collapse of the Soviet Union,

its agenda shifted from the earlier emphasis on the working class to the demands of an ever-widening circle of marginalized minorities. Many activists came to see the old working class and their trade unions as a privileged stratum that demonstrated little sympathy for the plight of immigrants and racial minorities. They sought to expand the rights of a growing list of groups rather than improve the economic conditions of individuals. . . . Marginalized groups increasingly demanded not only that laws and institutions treat them as equal to dominant groups but also that the broader society recognize and even celebrate the intrinsic differences that set them apart.”5

The small number of professors, students and activists, who espouse intolerance and extreme political correctness, have made themselves easy targets for conservative media to ridicule and thereby excoriate the Left as a whole, which then gets amplified online where people are recruited to alt-right, identitarian and neo-Nazi movements. The Regressive Left” undoubtedly shares some blame in the recrudescence of the far-right.

Regression

In his biography, the marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm tells us the Habsburg Empire was multinational, but not a multicultural society. German (with a local intonation) was its language, German (with a local touch) its culture, and its access to world culture, ancient and modern.” Historically, multiculturalism in nation-states mostly works under authoritarian regimes; for example, just look at the Middle East, places like Iraq or Syria, where political affiliation is ascribed by birth. Societies with a diverse population, like India, have been living a post-truth age since 1947, where different ethnic and religious groups see truth from different angles and yet manage to co-exist peacefully while socially interacting.

Because the state needs to reach a cognitive and normative consensus to realize political goals, a multiethnic democracy is a challenge and, thus, uncommon. Civilization is not natural; natural is tribal. Americans have been working against thousands of years of history to create a multiethnic civilization, which is what makes America exceptional. By the same token, Europe with its long-term historical legacies should not model itself on the American experience and act prudently concerning the incompatibility of cultures.

Western liberal bourgeoisie now seem less aware of the class-war going on than their conservative counterparts. In their hip, progressive stance on social issues, they disguise their contempt of the old working classes, whom they have left behind.  Working people, on the other hand, are not very conscious of themselves as a class in itself, when they divide themselves into tribal groupings.

The social elites could care less about the extremists battling it out on the streets. Because if the plebs are divided and fighting, the public spotlight is off them.

This situation is illustrated in one of the most political lines in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting sequel, T2, namely, the funny Anti-Catholic, Protestant pub scene in which Renton (Ewan McGregor) says: “These are people who’ve been abandoned by their political class. But at least they have a sense of identity.”

Scottish sectarianism reveals the same tribal dynamics operating everywhere. And all the while Davos Man’s wealth has been growing at obscene rates since the financial crisis.

Indentarian politics serves their political interests by diverting attention away from the biggest division between those who are doing well and those who are suffering. All the current data shows that social class, as defined by income and higher education, is what cuts across race, ethnicity and gender.

The championing of tribalism over inclusiveness by both regressive-leftists and ultra-Right crazies is undermining the collective power of ordinary citizens vis-a-vis the social elites.

* The image features a brawl between Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, Maga fans and black bloc clad Anarchists and Antifa groups.

  Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2002), 82.

2 Liberals also criticized multiculturalism. See: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 1992).

3 “Continental conservatism, according to Mark Lilla, has always rested on an organic conception of society,” in which the family is understood as the basic social unit. Every society is, after all, both a unity and a multiplicity, both a system of order and an arena of conflict, yet in reality each tends to emphasize one ideal type over another. French conservative intellectuals stress the role of the family and maintaining organic solidarity within a community over the economic self-interest of individuals. Unlike their American counterparts, who celebrate the economic forces that most put ‘the family’ they idealize under strain, the young French conservatives apply their organic vision to the economy as well, arguing that it must be subordinate to social needs.

4 While conservative justices have been dedicated to scaling back governmental regulations, expanding property rights, limiting lawsuits against business, liberal justices have been dedicated to civil rights: equal marriage, affirmative actions, abortion, gay marriage, and so on. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama nominated economic populists, like Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, whom FDR had appointed. Conservative judges, on the other hand, have decided with liberals on social issues. In short, the court has abandoned progressives in terms of economic justice and conservatives in terms of traditional social values.

5 Adolph Reed Jr., Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals, Harper’s Magazine, March 2014.

6 Kenn Thomas, Trumpocalypse Now! The Triumph of the Conspiracy Spectacle (Adventures Unlimited Press: USA, 2017), 13-14.

7 Fukuyama argues that identity politics has become a master concept that explains much of what is going on in global affairs. See: Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2018.

8 Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (Abacus Books: Great Britain, 2003), 10.

Cyber Valley & Social Elites

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This month, Tübingen University received 6.6 million euros from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research for its Artificial Intelligence center, which is set “to play a key role in the German government’s artificial intelligence development strategy.”

As the local community’s awareness of this project grows, we will likely witness a credibility crisis of social elites. What follows is an analysis of the contradictions between what a community is told and the bigger picture missing from local discussions, but first lets take a worm’s-eye view of events as they unfolded in Swabia.

Silicon Valley

On May 17, 2015, Christoph Keese, Axel Springer’s executive vice president, delivered a fully packed lecture at Tübingen’s German-American Institute (d.a.i.). Keese spoke with missionary fervor about his 6 month-long visit to Palo Alto, with Bild  editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann, and his experience with internet giants and start-ups, which formed the basis of his book, Silicon Valley. Was aus dem mächtigsten Tal der Welt auf uns zukommt (2014).

Keese’s message deserves to be elaborated here since it’s representative of Germany’s business attitude towards digital technology. I’d also argue that a lot of the subsequent rhetoric around Tübingen’s Cyber Valley project resonates with the economic ethos that Kesse had told his audience.

His main point was Germany needs to learn how to compete with Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial startup culture if it doesn’t want to miss out on the future or worse become its digital colony. German businesses aren’t used to the speed in which digitization is transforming the capitalist economy. Germans must learn to embrace tech entrepreneurship and disruption, which requires a new investment policy. Indeed, he’s right, startups, from the point of view investors, represent a huge potential for economic growth compared with your ordinary SME.

Due to changes in financing innovation, older ivory tower models of research no longer serve today’s high-tech, network economy. The startup culture, for example, at Stanford University channels students towards the application side of things. Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, corporations and professors work closely with another. Indeed, many scholars stress the importance of a real place over cyber space, because a place like Palo Alto – with its university, businesses, masonic lodge, coffee shops – is where innovation actually occurs.

Keese also diagnosed the present challenge facing Germany: the fear of failure. Germany’s risk-averse culture is said to be preventing the rise of startups. In recent times, Germany hasn’t been able to turn scientific breakthroughs into something practical and lucrative.1

Finally, Keese asked anybody to name the next big start-up hub, after Silicon Valley, and when a mute audience failed to respond, he provided the answer to his rhetorical question: Tel Aviv, which allegedly shares California’s business culture of risk-taking and innovation .2

Dramatizing his point, Keese added that venture capitalists only pass through Germany to make their connecting flights between California and Israel, the so-called start-up nation.3

Having lived in the Bay Area during the mid 90s, as the internet exploded, I found Keese’s enthusiasm for California and his 20-year-old management discourse a bit dated and naive. For example, he ignored what Ralph Gomory calls America’s “innovation delusion,” where the US design things and others build them.

Due to gentrification, the Bay Area has already lost much of its culture and affordable housing. Today, locals fire pellet guns at so-called Google buses ferrying workers to their postmodern offices. You also see the same local backlash and vandalism in Silicon Beach through the current guerrilla war against electric scooters, whose abrupt arrival last year is being interpreted as another sign of how the tech industry is encroaching on the local community without asking permission.

Cyber Valley

A little more than a year later, Tübingen (along with Stuttgart) became involved in a very impressive project. Without any public discussion, the state of Baden-Württemberg, the universities of Stuttgart and Tübingen, the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems and the companies Bosch, Daimler, Porsche, BMW, ZF Friedrichshafen and Facebook launched the „Cyber Valley“ initiative in Stuttgart’s New Palace.

The announcement of the cyber valley initiative on December 16, 2016 was made public with the signing of a “letter of intent” and yet the event went largely unnoticed.

Its ostensible goal of setting up an international research center for Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Neckar Valley from Stuttgart to Tübingen is to become a leading place for innovation. Allegedly, the Max Planck Gesellschaft initiated the project, but a platform for marketable applications was also created at the same time, and who is behind that is unclear.

The Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems has been in existence since 2011. Moreover, the two Max Plank locations in Stuttgart and Tübingen have created the first joint research center with ETH Zürich, Switzerland’s elite federal technical university.

Considering the ambitious scale of this project, the silence within the community was deafening. It was only about a year ago when locals first began to publicly discuss the ethical implications of developing artificial intelligence at Tübingen’s Max-Planck institute.

Grand Debate

On October 11, 2017, the d.a.i. Tübingen invited some special guests to discuss the digital revolution that’s currently underway. Dr. Christopher Gohl of the Weltethos-Institut moderated the discussion. Google manager John Gerosa gave a keynote speech, which was followed by a panel discussion with experts Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Rosenstiel (Dean of the Faculty of Science, Tübingen University), and Astrid Beger (Senior Program Manager, Hamburg).

Still, most people in Tübingen, then, hadn’t yet heard that corporations like Amazon would be involved. It seemed like the local media and town leaders were playing that down because Amazon is not very popular in a town that’s famous for its liberal-green mayor, thriving book stores and tradition of political protest since the 1960s.

The unspoken assumption among the state’s elites is that an AI cluster in the environs of Tübingen/Stuttgart is good. Yet, this is exactly what hasn’t been publicly discussed, which is amazing because it’s one of the grandest debates of our age.

Most locals are aware of concepts, like digitization and Industry 4.0, which is revolutionizing Germany’s manufacturing economy. However, they are less aware of the military’s interest in AI for surveillance and warfare.

So, that’s why Christoph Marischka from the Informationsstelle Militarisierung (IMI) held a rally on July 6th against selling out the city, the university and knowledge, which at the time was barely reported by the local newspaper.4

Marischka’s protest wasn’t based on empty demands, but is rather critically informed. His research presents a more sinister picture from that of officials. He explains how the University of Tübingen, which was formerly known for its humanities orientation, has in recent years received extensive funding from the German federal and state governments that has contributed to the university’s focus on computer science and cognitive sciences.5

The increase in funding is undisputed. However, more controversial are his claims that cyber valley will turn the city and region into an armaments center, or that, at least, AI research in Tübingen will become misused for military purposes, and that the network of research institutes and private companies are promoting the commercialization of science.

While the public awareness of Cyber Valley in Tübingen has definitely grown, thanks to the alliance of activists at July’s rally, I’ve recently talked with well-informed Stuttgart residents, who still haven’t even heard of the Cyber Valley project.

A few weeks later, Cyber Valley officials in Tübingen grudgingly acknowledged the criticism directed against them, but rejected Marischka’s allegations of militarization and selling-out by claiming that many scientists are against military research, which may indeed be true on an individual level, yet we must look at the situation from a structural point of view.

Geopolitics

The race to dominate artificial intelligence not only exists between companies, like Google and Amazon, but between great powers, like the US, Russia, and China as well as the UK and the European heartland. In this contest, the military or geopolitical dimension of AI trumps economics.

The same “winner takes all” logic of competition that’s forcing tech companies to innovate is driving the new international arms race in AI. Europe wants to catch up with the United States and China. Europe’s leadership has accepted technological disruption as a fact of life. Since all business models will inexorably be subject to disruption, Europe’s mercantile strategies aim at creating jobs in Europe. The hope is that comparative advantage and startups will streamline the process of creative destruction.

In 2015, Beijing unveiled its landmark plan “Made in China 2025.” The strategy is to move up the value chain by transitioning from labor-intense production to “smart manufacturing,” and ultimately overtake America’s technological supremacy. China’s economic and technological transformation has military implications and thus a geopolitical significance. Indeed, nobody doubts the geopolitical implications of AI after Putin’s comment last year that “whoever reaches a breakthrough in developing artificial intelligence will come to dominate the world.”

In regards to geopolitics, Europe may no longer have the kind of territorial ambitions that it once held, yet cyber attacks threaten national security and thus European elites neither want to lose control of their territorial integrity, nor cybersecurity.

The German government is creating the “Agentur für Disruptive Innovationen in der Cybersicherheit und Schlüsseltechnologien” (Agency for Disruptive Innovations in Cybersecurity and Key Technologies) or (ADIC), which will be equally supervised and financially supported by both interior and defence ministries. In a speech last May, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen equated ADIC with the United States’ DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

The German agency will start with 20 to 30 employees and a budget of €15 million, with plans to ramp up to 100 employees and a €50 million budget. Darpa’s budget, by contrast, is €3.5 billion annually. The US agency has a much wider brief and also covers aviation and aerospace for example – it was involved in the recent development of camouflage technology that makes planes invisible to radar. The German agency, on the other hand, will focus on cybersecurity only.”6

Moreover, contrary to what Tübingen’s Cyber Valley officials say, Germany’s Defence Ministry’s, Berlin based, Cyber Innovation Hub, “created last year, is slated to survey the domestic technology startup scene for ideas with potential military application.”7

There is nothing like government funding to assist technological breakthroughs and pave the way towards market entry and implementation.

Actually, it was French President Emmanuel Macron who first publicly proposed the creation of a European innovation body modelled on DARPA. In a speech last September, Macron announced his vision for a Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI).8

German Chancellor Angela Merkel accepted Macron’s proposal, which is to have “an annual budget of €1 billion, it will develop ‘dozens of operational prototypes’ each year, and fund 50-70 ‘extremely ambitious’ projects in areas such as cybersecurity, biotechnology, energy storage, health and aerospace.”

So, unlike Germany’s ADIC agency, the Franco-German JEDI group will work in several advance fields of technology. Moreover, this elite group, that sees itself as Jedi knights, consists of entrepreneurs, managers, financiers, scientists and top officials. The French-German investor André Loesekrug-Pietri is the driving force behind JEDI, but other important members include Wolfgang Wahlster, chief of another German Research Center for AI, René Obermann, former CEO of Deutsche Telekom, Claudie Haigneré, France’s first female astronaut, Guillaume Poupard, the head of France’s National Cybersecurity Agency and so on.

Human Gullibility

In spite of all of their reverential talk, how can any scientist claim that AI isn’t going to be developed for military purposes, when it’s being reported as the next battlefield.

It’s hard to imagine that Cyber Valley scientists have no knowledge whatsoever about what’s going on. Yet, if they continue to turn a blind eye to developments outside their labs, you could get a populist backlash against science. In my opinion, Cyber Valley officials are either lying when they say AI won’t be used for military applications or they’re hopelessly naive. Willful ignorance of world affairs is no excuse.

Why not tell the truth that Germany needs cyber independence from American government and companies? European standards of privacy require European software and cybersecurity, which is why German startups want to challenge Facebook and Google on things like logins.

Transhumanism

As I mentioned earlier, AI is one of the most important debates of our time because it’s essentially about our future. I’d also argue that it’s connected to transhumanist discourse, which involves elements of fantasy and reality. Yet, now, might be a good time to ask what is Transhumanism?

In short, the coalescence of a number of sciences and technologies, such as advanced nano-technologies, AI, gene editing, quantum computing, 3D printing, that are now in fruition promise or threaten to transform the fundamentals of what it means to be human. For example, in 20 years, the extension of human life through genetic and machine enhancement will become a possible reality, along with perfect health and enhanced intelligence. Transhumanism contain both utopian and dystopian elements depending on how you look at the future.

Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity seems very utopian to me. In my opinion, if you look at the present closely and project today’s socioeconomic and technological trends into the future, we are looking at the mass redundancy of workers and the rise of Orwellian police states. Governments and corporations are going to embrace mass surveillance and cost-savings technologies since they will continue to improve their bottom line.

On a deeper level, transhumanism is obviously driven by a primordial impulse for transcendence and immortality, which is older than civilization. However, these ideals may finally become real, along with creating a master race; that is, at least, for those who can afford the fruits of this new technology.9

* The featured image is of Tübingen’s Max Plank Society.

1 Ironically, while Startupism is currently being propagated, along with the idiotic notion that Germans must learn how to fail, the English-speaking business press is fascinated with Germany’s so-called hidden champions, which form the backbone of the national economy, for example, the Mittelstand accounts for 70 percent of all jobs and 90 percent of all apprenticeships. Their strength lies in engineering and mastering complex niche markets.

The historian Henry William Brands believes that California’s culture of risk-taking springs from its goldrush mentality, which runs through Silicon Valley as well as Hollywood. For prospectors, success and failure had little to do with character and almost everything to do with luck. If you didn’t strike it rich, no big deal, because you didn’t lose anything.

On the other hand, if management gurus stopped repeating their tired buzzwords, like “change, “creativity, “speed, “leadership, “disruption and “creative destruction,” and well-known tales, for a moment, and instead examined the true innovators of the modern era, they might talk about the breath-taking audacious originality of Nazi Germany, which was the first country to develop and use lethal rockets, ballistic missiles, jet fighters, amphetamines, and engage in taboo breaking,  horrific medical experiments. However, celebrating Steve Jobs rather than a megalomaniac dictator sends a more benevolent message.

3 Many commentators note that Israel’s Silicon Valley is a byproduct of its military-industrial complex, especially, cryptography; that is, Israeli SIGINT National Unit (ISNU) or, more specifically, Unit 8200.

4 The local university magazine also ran an article about the rally.

5 Tübingen University has traditionally had an influential role in theology, philosophy and history. The cognitive structures of the humanities are qualitatively different from other fields of knowledge. Hegel’s philosophy of history, which sprung from Tübingen’s theological thought, influenced German social theory, even as Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud turned Hegel’s philosophy on its head. Big Data can hardly grasp Hegel’s dialectic between consciousness and objects outside itself. Understanding also requires imagination and emotional empathy.  And, to fully appreciate the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Goethe, or Dostoevsky, for instance, you need an historicist’s knowledge of an age, which is something more than the accumulation of facts or mere data.

6 Donata Riedel, German military to get new cybersecurity agency, August 22, 2018, Handelsblatt Global

7 Sebastian Sprenger, Germany wants its own version of DARPA, and within the year,July 18, 2018, DefenseNews.

8 Macron’s announcement came a year after the US unveiled its national AI strategy in 2016.

9 I only really began to take transhumanism seriously after hearing former counter-terrorist czar, Richard Clarke’s talk at the Stuttgart Library. While promoting his techno thriller Breaking Point (2007), Clarke boldly predicted the rich will become more intelligent in the future because they will be able to afford genetic technology. Clarke not only seemed credible, his logic was crystal clear. If biotechnology can cure problems, it can also enhance people too. And by enhancing their genes, they will be creating a new caste. Eugenics is coming back in the guise of genetics. His novel, incidentally, was also entertaining, I particularly enjoyed his references to Robert Heinlein’s Revolt 2100 and the thinly disguised Bill Joy, whose essay about the future disturbed me when it came out in 2000.

** Update: On November 29th, the nocybervalley demo starting at the Europlatz, ended up occupying Kupferbau, a lecture hall at Tübingen University. Also, in the occupied auditorium, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Wertheimer held a scholarly lecture on Schiller’s aesthetics and artificial intelligence, which touched on transhumanist themes that I’d mentioned above as man’s timeless transcendental impulses. According to Wertheimer, both Schiller and Goethe were fascinated by the play of magic powers yet, at the same time, feared losing control of their creations. Faust’s alchemically-created homunculus is symbolically akin to AI, which perhaps best represents the Mephistophelean bargain of our age.

 

 

Geobromance?

TRUMP-PUTIN

News of Trump’s plan for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, after a Nato meeting, is causing concern in the Western corridors of power. It’s also fueling speculation about their relationship and the whole can of worms known as collusion, of which Trump calls a ridiculous hoax.

The notion of collusion initially emerged out of an intelligence community report released in early January 2017 and that ultimately derives from the so-called Steele dossier or Trump–Russia dossier, which BuzzFeed  unconventionally published a few days later.1

Normally, journalists wouldn’t publish an unsubstantiated dossier, however, because of its newsworthiness, the editors argued the public had a right to know since the document had been circulating for months and acquired a kind of legendary status among journalists, lawmakers, and intelligence officials who have seen them. Mother Jones writer David Corn referred to the documents in a late October column.

And on January 11, 2017 Donald Trump vehemently dismissed the serious allegation that he colluded with Russia as FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!

Even days before his inauguration, Trump painted himself as a victim of the deep state that’s out to get him because he’s the sworn enemy of the Washington swamp. A patently absurd argument considering his shady business career. This is the guy who has gone through six bankruptcies, filed over 3,500 lawsuits and hired mobbed-up firms to erect Trump Tower and his Trump Plaza apartment building in Manhattan.

Liberal Hypocrisy

Regardless of the Kremlin’s role in this mess, what’s really ironic to James Bamford is the establishment’s rush to defend the CIA, FBI and NSA as purveyors of truth and justice, although these agencies had been justly chastised by much of the mainstream media for their illegal activities and abuse of power since 9/11.

The hypocrisy at the root of the government’s allegation is based on Americans deep yearning to be loved as the good guys. Officially, all of America’s foreign adventures, election meddling, destabilization programs and staged coups were justly carried out against terrible enemies out there.

Months before the Mueller investigation officially began in May 2017, the nation’s intelligence agencies’ unanimously told us that Russia had interfered in our democratic process. Although everyone is supposed to respect this conclusion, there isn’t much substance in the declassified version. The assertion that Russia tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election is simply common sense. I mean who doubts that Putin doesn’t like Hilary Clinton or the liberal world order and that RT (Russia’s TV network) wants to influence audiences globally?

Anyone who’s read a little history knows the US government lied throughout the Cold War. Truman could only sell his doctrine to the American public by scaring the hell out of them and Reagan’s crazy military spending was justified by substantially overestimating the Soviet threat. The military industrial complex was never interested in the real situation then and I doubt it is today.

On the one hand, the hysteria among liberal Americans and readiness to believe in the new Red Scare is surprising. Yet, I’m not so naive as to think the Kremlin isn’t spying against the US or meddling. In fact, I’d be surprised if Russians weren’t.

Special Counsel

Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed in May 2017 to investigate US intelligence findings that Russians conspired to tilt the election in Trump’s favour and whether any of his campaign aides colluded.

Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment of 16 defendants, in February 2018, is more revealing than the intelligence report from January 6, 2017. The 13 indicted Russians, who are never going to stand justice in the United States, and the three organizations involved in the scandal are insignificant compared to Mueller’s main focus of “information warfare against the United States of America.”

Apparently, Russia’s main “strategic goal was to sow discord in the U.S. political system.” In this objective, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams; however, since Americans are quite capable of creating discord on their own without outside help, we don’t really know how much credit the Kremlin deserves for its efforts.

The Kremlin tried to exert influence like every other country powerful enough to do so. As I mentioned last year, Russian propaganda is disruptive, which explains why the Kremlin simultaneously supported and denounced Trump. Moreover, the indictment alleges that Russia’s election meddling began back in 2014, way before Trump even started campaigning.

The indictment doesn’t establish any collusion between Russians and Trump, nor does it preclude the possibility. It also doesn’t address the political question whether Trump obstructed justice. Finally, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charge conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”2

So, why is the liberal establishment making such a fuss out of this when it probably altered the election less than the GOP’s effort to suppress American voters, which has been occurring for decades. Why does Trump refuse to acknowledge the Russian role in the election? Thereby, putting himself at odds with the entire American intelligence establishment. Is it because the claim of Russian interference casts doubt on his legitimacy – something a narcissist cannot stand like not winning the popular vote – or is President Trump Putin’s bitch?

This brings us to Trump’s associates who Mueller has charged: Flynn, Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos. Incidentally, none of these guys really have solid Russian connections, nor were they involved with Trump for very long. Lets look at them one by one.

Paul Manafort actually worked as a lobbyist for the Ukraine, not Russia. He created the so-called Hapsburg Group in 2011, which comprised Austrian and Italian ex-premiers that he’d recruited to help whitewash the image of his authoritarian client Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, who originally sought E.U. admission for the Ukraine and something that would hardly have pleased Putin.3

So, for years prior to working for Trump, Manafort and Rick Gates acted as US agents for Ukraine. It’s disingenuous how the mainstream press keeps calling Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned former Ukrainian president because during the time in which Manafort and Gates were working for him, Yanukovych wanted to join the EU.

The West has been trying to pull the Ukraine into its geopolitical orbit–a policy that isn’t in line with the Kremlin. Aside from meeting with a Russian secret agent, it’s hard to see how any of their lobbying had benefitted the Kremlin.

The former member of Trump’s foreign policy advisor team, George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, was actually working as an unregistered agent for Israel. And Mossad, according to his wife, Simona Mangiante, an Italian lawyer, may have been trying to entrap him. “I know he doesn’t have anything to do with Russia. We know he was under scrutiny because of his ties to Israel, not his ties to Russia. So what’s this about? One thing is clear, “This is much more complicated than Watergate.

In regards to the Russian investigation, Michael Flynn, who worked for Erdogan as well as Israel, failed to report income from three Russian companies, including RT. His failure “to disclose contact with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, to FBI investigators conducting a background check to renew Flynn’s security clearance looks serious as well as “intercepts of Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak reportedly showed that Flynn discussed sanctions on Russia and suggested the possibility of sanctions relief once Trump became president.” This certainly doesn’t look propper, but it’s not unprecedented. Incoming administrations often talk to foreign officials during the transition period, in order to change the government’s foreign policy from its existing course.

Though most of these guys have signed plea deals with Mueller, they don’t have much to do with the Trump-Russia story. Moreover, most have pleaded guilty for lying to federal investigators or for money laundering, but not for colluding with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. If anything they look like blundering fools, pursuing their own selfish interests. Finally, Republicans don’t have a monopoly on greed, it’s a characteristic that has corrupted Democrats too. Just look at the Clinton Foundation or ask Tony Podesta, whose Podesta Group also lobbied for Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine.

The accusation that Trump has obstructed justice is compelling but unverifiable. Trump’s private meetings with Comey and his request for loyalty look highly unusual, stupid, and even incriminating, however, from what we know of the President, this also looks simply Trumpian. Even Trump’s anger towards Jeff Sessions for not protecting him from the Russian investigation may be more innocent than it looks.

After all, that is one of the jobs of the Attorney General, which is perhaps the most unusual and ambiguous ministers in the President’s cabinet; for he serves two distinct and sometimes conflicting masters—the President and the Law. David Burnham in Above the Law argues:

To the president, he is a political and personal adviser. But for the public, the law also imposes the duty of providing ‘nonpartisan, even handed justice.’ Thus, from the earliest days of the nation’s history, the attorney general has been in an uncomfortable, frequently impossible position. As an officer of the court, the attorney general seeks justice. As a cabinet member and adviser to the president, the attorney general seeks to protect the White House from its ‘enemies’ no matter how honorable they may be.”4

Now, this structural problem within American government isn’t new. And, it’s also plausible that Trump genuinely believes the attorney general’s main job is to protect him from his enemies. I also assume that Trump cares very little about the law or justice. Everything is personal for Trump.

Another thing that appears very sinister is Trump’s opaque and deferential relationship with Putin. People ask why does he never criticize Putin, yet the same thing could be asked about Israel’s Netanyahu or China’s Xi Jinping, Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Philipines’ Duterte and so on.

Trump seems to admire authoritarians, who share his worldview, which is scary in itself, but not proof of collusion. Nor is his flouting of diplomatic convention and the concerns of US allies. Indeed, last month, Trump seemed to enjoy meeting with North Korea’s dictator more than the G7 leaders.

Trump’s unwavering acceptance of Putin’s denials of election meddling over the conclusions of his own intelligence community is highly unusual behavior, but not proof of collusion. In short, while the allegations of collusion are bolstered by documentary evidence and bizarre behavior, nothing has yet been proven in a court.

House of Trump

Okay, but what about Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, wasn’t he also indicted?

Not yet, but it looks like he has just flipped. The reason I didn’t bring him up earlier is because the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has been leading the charge against Cohen and not Mueller’s special Russian investigation, who, incidentally, is also looking at Cohen’s Russian oligarch connections. Whether or not Cohen colluded with Russians may be immaterial to Trump’s problems, according to Noah Feldman.

“Mueller’s appointment letter authorizes him to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and crimes arising from it. Any wrongdoing that is not connected to this interference arguably falls outside Mueller’s scope. In contrast, the Cohen investigation is taking place not under Mueller, but under the authority of the US attorney for the Southern District of New York. The Southern District is not restricted by any appointment letter, and its career attorneys have a mandate to uncover any criminal activity within their jurisdiction, whenever it may have occurred and for whatever purpose.

The FBI’s seizure of Cohen’s documents relating to the Trump Organization are not protected by attorney–client privilege since he himself is a suspect in a crime. Moreover, longtime Trump observers imagine that Cohen has knowledge of Trump’s Mob related business connections.

Jay Goldberg, Trump’s former lawyer, suggests that Cohen is being investigated for labor racketeering because “every builder in New York City is the subject of mob influence by unions.”5

Involvement of the mob with unions began in the 1920s. Of course, the mob made money through gambling, bootlegging and drugs, but its real strength – the closest substitute to political power – has been labor racketeering, which gave the Cosa Nostra power over every businessman in New York.

If anybody can potentially bring down the House of Trump, it’s Michael Cohen, whose testimony could reveal Trump’s past deals with organized crime.

1 The best background account of the Steele dossier is in Luke Harding’s Collusion. However, it should be read with a grain of salt because Steele and Simpson of GPS are obviously working for British and American intelligence, for example, “Between 2014 and 2016, Steele authored more than a hundred reports on Russia and Ukraine. These were written for a private client but shared widely within the State Department and sent up to Secretary of State John Kerry and to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was in charge of the U.S. response to the Ukraine crisis. See: Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and how Russia Helped Donald Trump Win (Random House: New York, 2017), 26

2 F.B.I. director James Comey’s public decision to open up Clinton’s email investigation – while suppressing news of the Trump-Russia probe – in the final days of the campaign probably altered the outcome of the 2016 election more than all of Russia’s meddling. Yet, nobody is asking whether Comey was colluding with the Kremlin.

3 It’s interesting how journalists have ignored the name of this a “secret lobby,” which just happens to be “an alternative spelling of Habsburg, the royal family of the Austro-Hungarian empire,” and enlisted influential European politicians, like Alfred Gusenbauer and Romano Prodi, to advocate for its cause. Coincidentally, the House of Habsburg has been lobbying for the Pan-European movement since 1923.

4 David Burnham, Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice (Scribner: New York, 1996), 27

5 Jay Goldberg, Cohen’s predecessor as Trump’s top lawyer, “was Trump’s exclusive litigator from 1990 to 2005. In the timeline of go-to Trump attorneys, he follows Roy Cohn. . . . Goldberg was a tabloid celebrity in his own right, one who had defended high-­profile figures like Matthew (Matty the Horse) Ianniello, who ran what prosecutors called a ‘smut cartel’ of topless bars and pornography shops in Manhattan; the gangster Meyer Lansky, who inspired, among other cinematic figures, the character of Hyman Roth in ‘The Godfather, Part II’ . . . . In 1970, he defended Lansky’s muscle, Vincent (Jimmy Blue Eyes) Alo (the character Johnny Ola in ‘The Godfather, Part II’), against charges that he had interfered with an S.E.C. investigation into stock fraud.

* The featured image is a BBC fake photomontage.

** Update: Days before the Russian-American summit, on July 13th, and while Trump was meeting the Queen, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein announced that 12 Russian intelligence agents were indicted “for allegedly hacking emails from the Democratic Party during the 2016 presidential election. Although we shall probably never see any evidence, this is supposed to put to rest the so-called “conspiracy theory that a whistleblower inside the Democratic Party, Seth Rich, leaked information showing the party elite manipulated the primaries to favor Clinton over Bernie Sanders. In any case, whether the information was leaked or hacked, the indictment doesn’t deny the veracity of the revelation. In short, the indictment doesn’t claim that any American wittingly colluded with the Russian operation or that it changed the election.

The Plot Against America Revisted

plot-2-1467048467

Reimagining the Historical Past

With the passing away of Philip Roth (1933-2018), critics have been praising him as America’s greatest postwar novelist. Many have even called him prescient for his alternative-history novel, The Plot Against America  (2004), which looks at how fascism could have happened in America during the Age of Roosevelt.

In Roth’s what-if story Charles Lindbergh, the aviation hero, Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 Presidential Election, which  turns the next couple of years into a living hell for American Jews, who undergo virulent anti-Semitism, the burning of synagogues and murderous mobs. The dramatic events are experienced through the central characters of an ordinary Jewish family, the Roths of Newark, and especially young Philip, who describes the creepy changes occurring in his neighborhood and nation, at large.

Roth doesn’t completely rewrite the past (just the dramatic years of 1940-42) because the narrative eventually conforms with the natural course of history. After organizing and resisting the abuse of power, the United States eventually goes to war against the Axis powers, and so everything ends up in line with our present.

It’s safe to say that Roth wasn’t thinking about Trump when he wrote the novel. If he’d been thinking about any contemporary politician at all, then it would have been President Bush. Moreover, the inspiration behind the novel comes from a what-if question that Roth asked himself while reading, the historian, Arthur Schlesinger’s autobiography, who had mentioned the real possibility of a Lindbergh candidacy. The story mixes imaginary historical events with real ones. Unlike Orwell’s grand dystopia, Roth “tried to imagine a small change in the past with horrendous consequences for a relative few.”1

Trump outstrips the Imagination

In short, the novel is not a Roman à clef  or an allegory about post 9/11 America. Nor is it a warning about the future; it’s a counter-factual story, a genre akin to science fiction that alters the past in order to speculate about historical reality; or as Roth explains,  “The Plot Against America is an exercise in historical imagination.”1

Yet demagogic Trump literally ripped off Lindbergh’s “America First” slogan and incorporated it into his campaign. And even Roth himself was shocked by uncanny parallels between his novel and reality. In 2017, Roth told The New Yorker:

“It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type—the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist—that outstrips the imagination,” he said “It is Trump as President of the United States. . . . Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called The Art of the Scam.”2

In short, no American con artist has climbed higher up the pinnacle of power than Trump, who is, indeed, a very “able criminal.”

The fact that America’s preeminent realist novelist never dreamt of a racist and xenophobic Trump presidency signifies how surreal the world has become. On the other hand, right-wing, authoritarianism has in recent years become a global trend and very few novelists saw this coming a decade ago.

If we look at Trump’s family during the interwar years, we know Donald’s father Frederick, or Fred, whose father Friedrich emigrated from Germany in 1885, was a supporter or member of the Ku Klux Klan, which, according to David Johnston, “was the first of many indications of Fred Trump’s racial enmity.”3 And a disposition that Donald inherited from his father.

So, it’s not that hard to also imagine Fred as somebody who would have supported the German-American Bund, or, at least, drink beer with them. This organization, like the KKK, is depicted in Roth’s novel, and was a part of Roth’s New Jersey childhood. This snippet below is from his novel, but it could be autobiographical, for example,  young Philip knew:

the German-American Bund had something to do with Hitler, and Hitler, as I hadn’t to be told, had everything to do with persecuting Jews. The intoxicant of anti-Semitism. That’s what I came to imagine them all so cheerfully drinking in their beer garden that day–like all the Nazis everywhere, downing pint after pint of anti-Semitism as through imbibing the universal remedy.

While it’s not that difficult imagining Trump’s father associating with the same fascist milieu that would have backed President Lindbergh, Donald Trump himself –  the actual man from Queens, who was born in 1946 – has throughout his life networked with a different sort of crowd.

The Public Mind

What I’m counter-intuitively suggesting here is that if you look closer at Trump’s personal network, you will notice many Jews: from killer capitalists to mobbed-up lawyers. Also, if you look at his demeanor, Trump sounds much more like Roth’s Loudmouth Jews than Waspish Lindbergh.4 Indeed, have we ever seen a president with more chutzpah?

So what has prevented critics from recognizing the close affinity between the Jewish characters in The Plot Against America with Trump and his court?

The general presumption in the collective consciousness is that Trump is a racist and whose “election,” according to Bradley Burston, “marked the greatest victory and validation for anti-Semitism in America since 1941.” There are many reasons for this belief.

Most obviously, Trump’s own words and Steve Bannon’s not so subtle anti-Semitic memes. This mainstream narrative has gained traction from the support Trump gets from the KKK and neo-nazis as well as his coddling and reluctance to repudiate them. Moreover, this belief gets mythologized, every time Trump’s alt-right supporters and anti-fascists ritually clash in the streets.

Yet, in spite of Trump’s anti-Semitism, Paul Berman says, “an impressive 25 percent of the American Jews voted for Trump!”5 Apparently, these politically conservative, largely Orthodox, Jews don’t mind Trump’s nativist xenophobic rhetoric.

Mythology

Observations are always selective and the selectivity of any observer is shaped by one’s cultural frames, especially powerful myths. As Paul Berman says, “Roth has written an American mythology of Jewish suffering” that is written in a “black-and-white simplicity.”  Well, this isn’t exactly new, it’s a theme that goes back to the Old Testament. Roth’s realistic what-if-history is a myth that “for artistic reasons left “out the ambiguous shadows.”6 Well, that shadowy element needs to be examined here; for it’s the current that the future Trump gets swept into.

On the one hand, myths in their most universal sense may unite peoples from different parts of the world, even, the figure of the Jew can symbolize the stranger in all of us. Yet, unfortunately, in order to create a sense of togetherness, myths also need an Outsider, which reflects the social construction of identity — individual as well as collective — because an in-group needs an out-group to become aware of itself.

Jews within the myths of Others since the Diaspora have served a specialized function; namely, as an “outsiders” or, even worse, as “enemies within.” Jews, in both myth and historical fact, have traditionally been “the Other,” the dangerous, if feeble, persisting outsider, whose political views, at times, radically challenge the established order. Jews, above all other ethnic groups, have historically served as the outsider for virtually every other peoples, but more so throughout western Christendom, than in Muslim lands, where many Europeans regarded them as Oriental, practitioners of dark magic.

However, this mythic function of Jews as the Other doesn’t square with contemporary America, since they aren’t perceived as an insidious force threatening to erode the national order, if they ever were.7  That honor today goes to Islam and before that Communist Russia as well as Germany.

Before the rise of home-grown fascists, like William Dudley Pelley, anti-Semitism in the New World had been a gentlemanly tradition. As the old-stock Anglo-Saxons started to feel their customary authority gradually slipping towards the end of the 19th century, exclusionary policies arose in prestigious hotels, clubs, private schools, corporations. Upper class anti-Semitism coincided in time with European anti-Semitism, however, without its feudal trappings and heritage.8

While Roth’s novel explored prejudice and social exclusion, which he admits “is a primary form of humiliation, and humiliation is crippling.”1 And yet, anti-Semitism became increasingly insignificant throughout most of his adult life, as the Wasp hierarchy opened itself up to talent. So, lets turn to the last time this victim myth played itself out on the American stage.

The Red Scare

The schizophrenia that split the New Deal establishment after WWII, came as a shock to many anti-fascists, who included many Jews that only a few years earlier had been fighting Nazis. Suddenly, they found themselves under attack as conspirators.

The mythical Jewish victim motif appears in E.L. Doctorow’s brilliant political novel, The Book of Daniel (1971),  which depicts the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, whose political ideals, as Doctorow suggests somehow sprung from their Jewishness.9

Most insightful, however, is his observation about those involved in the espionage case, as exhibited in this letter exchanged between the composite Rosenberg characters:

My darling have you noticed how many of the characters in this capitalist drama are Jewish? The defendants, the defense lawyer, the prosecution, the major prosecution witness, the judge. We are putting this little passion play for our Christian masters. In concentration camps the Nazis made guards of certain Jews and gave them whips. In Jim Crow Harlem the worst cops are Negro. Feuerman in his freckles and flaming red hair, this graduate of St. John’s, the arch assimilationist who represses the fact that he could never get a job with the telephone company–Feuerman is so full of self-hatred HE IS DETERMINED to purge us.10

Jews aren’t only depicted as victims and angels here; for there are also opportunists and sadists. Indeed, one of the federal prosecutors at the Rosenberg trial was Roy Cohn, who went on to become Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel as well as “consigliere” to mobsters and mentor to Donald Trump.

The Rosenberg trial and McCarthyism certainly terrified and divided America’s Jewish community as well as the old stock Protestant Establishment. McCarthy’s key advisers and investigators were Jews, who helped him deflect accusations of being anti-Semitic. The point is many communists and victims of the Red Scare were Jews, but so were some of the most rabid anti-communists, whose careers were enhanced through McCarthy’s demagoguery.

Ascendancy

The world has certainly changed since WWII. Akskenazi Zionists from Europe had by 1948 carved out a national sovereign state in the former British Mandate of Palestine, around the same time America’s glass ceiling came down for Jews. By the 1960s, Jewish scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and novelists were making it in America. Despite the reasons of their success, which sociologists are trying to understand, the facts are clear.

“Only the Jews moved into the middle class so rapidly. If one follows this transformation to the end of the twentieth century, one finds that the Jews are not only middle class, but that they are disproportionately represented in what ought to be called the “upper class” in America, if Americans only had enough class consciousness to use such a term. . . . Indeed, phenomenal Jewish wealth—like Jewish power—is the contemporary “love that dares not speak its name.”11

What has also dramatically changed since the time of The Plot Against America  is the alliance between Protestant American fundamentalists and the Israeli Right, which incidentally appalls the liberal Jewish elite. In short, Jews hardly serve as the Other in America’s 21st century mythology nor do they, in spite of the myth, really exist as outsiders. Ever since Eisenhower, emphasized America’s Judeo-Christian heritage during the cultural cold war, Jews have become well-integrated into American life.

Fact vs Fiction

Now, while Trump is oddly popular in Middle America, he has nothing in common with their  ways and values, except for perhaps his European descent. His demeanor is nothing like Lindy’s and yet the heartland and Christian fundamentalists love Trump, who they see as an instrument of God, bringing the world closer to the rapture.

The 1930s radio demagogue Father Coughlin, whose anti-Semitic slurs about Jewish conspirators made him infamous, appears in Roth’s novel and yet stands out from most of today’s televangelicals who publicly support Jews and Zionism. What they really think maybe another matter, for example, Reverend Billy Graham confided in private that he had a strong feeling America’s problems arise from Satanic Jews, a notion he had extrapolated from a Biblical reference to the “synagogue of Satan.”  After word got out via the Nixon tapes, Graham had to spend decades defending himself from charges of anti-Semitism. His son, Franklin, who is a visible Trump supporter, would never be caught uttering such a taboo.**

This brings us to the parallels between Rabbi Bengelsdorf, Roth’s fictional pro-Lindbergh rabbi, who is “koshering Lindbergh for the goyim,” and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an associate of billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Alt-right Breitbart news. Alvin, Philip’s cousin, tells us,

He’s up there talking to the goyim–he’s giving the goyim all over the country his personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy on Election Day.  Don’t you see, Uncle Herman, what they got the great Bengelsdorf to do? He just guaranteed Roosevelt’s defeat!

It’s also next to impossible to accuse Trump of being anti-Semitic because the celebrity rabbi, Shmuley and Mort Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, defend people like Trump, Bannon and Gorka from charges of anti-Semitism. Well, at least, the Haaretz  noticed the ways in which Shmuley is “koshering Trump for the goyim.”

Although Trump’s rants may seem anti-Semitic, Trump has never hid his association with Jewish bankers, real estate developers and lawyers. And, once you consider that both Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter, Ivanka, are Jewish, as well as his most senior advisers, it’s kind of difficult to believe Trump is really anti-Semitic.12

I imagine that narcissistic Trump would have gotten along with Walter Winchell, the vulgar gossip columnist, who in Roth’s novel led the political opposition and died heroically at the climax of the story, but in reality went on to become a rabid anti-communist.

This brings me to Abe Steinheim, Roth’s portrayal of an ambitious capitalist in Newark’s construction business. I assume Abe, like Walter Winchell, would have also become an anti-communist after WWII. While Alvin couldn’t stand Steinheim, this is somebody Donald could have related to.

Old man Steinheim, who had a heavy accent and couldn’t read English but who was, in my father’s words, “made of steel,” . . .  turned his immigrant fa­ther’s little building company into a multimillion-dollar opera­tion … my father told us that Abe Steinheim was the most colorful, the most exciting, the greatest builder Newark had ever seen. . . .  But Alvin couldn’t bear Steinheim and reviled him constantly— he’s a fake, he’s a bully, he’s a cheapskate, he’s a screamer, he’s a shouter, he’s a swindler, he’s a man without a friend in the world, people cannot stand to be anywhere near him. . . . Money is everything, though not to buy things but so as to be able always to weather the storm: to protect his position and in­sure his holdings and buy anything he wants in real estate at a dis­count, which is how he made a killing after the crash. Money, money, money—to be in the middle of the chaos and in the mid­dle of the deals and make all the money in the world.

The rough attitude of many struggling entrepreneurs is beautifully expressed here in the character of Abe, who would have had a lot in common with Trump’s father, Fred. I mean the tendency to despise government regulation, high taxes and red tape, as well as the prejudices of a white man during that time.

Kosher Nostra

As Paul Berman tells us that Roth “pictures in acute detail how the Jews of New Jersey respond to the fascist menace, and his political spectrum reaches all the way to the gangsters and thugs, quite as if, he wanted to paint Jewish reality in even its ugliest colors.”6 And yet, that is what actually happened.

The nastiest elements of Jewish life defended their people from the Silvershirts, Klansmen and Nazi Bundists. This isn’t a matter of artistic choice, but an accurate historical representation of the Jewish community’s reaction.

Everyone knows that gangsters became rich through bootlegging, but not much about its ethnic composition. Though most Americans think of the mafia as Italian, historically they have just been one group among many in organized crime. “During Prohibition, fifty percent of the nation’s leading bootleggers were Jews, and Jews and Jewish gangs bossed the rackets in some of America’s largest cities.”13

While enterprising racketeers were moving out of the ghettos and into respectable enterprises after 1934, they were also confronted with international fascism. Thugs helped squelch America’s fledgling Nazi movement and even cooperated with the US government during WWII.

In Roth’s reimagining Longy Zwillman, Newark Jewish gangster, heads the Provisional Jewish Police to protect Jewish businesses and neighborhoods. Well, it’s odd how none of the literary critics ever mention what really happened, which requires the skills of a literary detective.

Newark’s Jewish Minutemen had been organized by a Jewish ex-prizefighter by the name of Nat Arno. They saw to it that no Nazi Bund meetings were held in the New Jersey area, particularly in Newark and the small towns surrounding it. . . . Arno received financial and political support in these forays from Longy Zwillman. In those days, Zwillman controlled Newark’s police and government. Whenever the Bund met, the police informed Longy of the time and place and conveniently abandoned their posts so that the Nazis were left unguarded.14

Across the nation, Jewish gangsters in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League  responded in a similar way. Indeed, some of the most notorious gangsters, assisted local communities in stopping pro-Nazi gatherings during the 1930s.

Meyer Lansky in New York, Max Hoff in Philadelphia, Jacob Rubenstein, aka Jack Ruby in Chicago, Isidore Blumenfeld and Davie Berman in Minneapolis, and Mickey Cohen in Los Angeles literally kicked the shit out of these homegrown Nazis. The point is America’s Jewish underworld were hardly victims in this chapter of American history and moreover a few mobsters would go on to assist the Zionists establish a Jewish state.

After WWII, it’s commonly said that the Kosher Nostra, unlike the Italian mafia, gradually disappeared, as legitimate business opportunities opened up. While that’s mostly true, many shadowy figures from the ghettos, who relied on brains over brawn, went on to operate covertly in the realm of power brokering, money laundering and real estate. Moreover, the influence of this Supermob lasted well into the 1980s.

And yet finally, just as a cash-strapped Donald Trump was in need of money around the end of the Cold War, a new wave of Jewish criminals arrived from the Soviet Union and settled in New York.

* Featured image is taken from an article in Forward, which claims Philip Roth predicted the rise of Donald Trump.

1 Philip Roth, The Story Behind ‘The Plot Against America’, The New York Times, September, 19, 2004

2 Judith Thurman, Philip Roth E-mails on Trump, The New Yorker, January 30, 2017

3 David Cay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump (Melville House: Brooklyn, 2016), 9

4 Roth’s loudmouth Jews refers to a particular style of speech and argument comes from Russian Jewish emigrants. Scholars of the so-called “sensory turn” in the humanities are examining how speaking and listening have changed over time and through immigration. Typically Jews, like Italians, during the turn of the 20th century, were described as speaking loudly, defending their opinions in a combative way, using hand gestures and body language which transgressed traditional notions of decorum and etiquette.

5 Paul Berman, “Three Theories of the Rise of Trump,” Tablet, February 5, 2018

6 Paul Berman, “The Plot Against America,” The New York Times, October 3, 2004

7 Aside from a minority of Jew baiting quasi-fascists, who believed the country needed to be saved from the international Jewish-Communist conspiracy, most Americans during the 1930s and 40s saw fascism as the enemy and then, only after the war, perceived the Soviets, as godless-communists.

8 This legacy of accumulated prejudices was unconsciously absorbed by America’s genteel classes, who were obsessed with social distinctions. See: E. Digby Baltzell, The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America (New York, 1964). This situation is subtly expressed in Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age fiction; for example, her crude social climbers who are trying to infiltrate New York’s Anglo-Dutch aristocracy are obviously Jewish characters.

9 I’d say that Roth’s The Plot Against America  and American Pastoral  (1997) are indebted to Doctorow’s documentary novel. Firstly, for the way in which the present is approached via the past; and secondly, for the way in which the generational gap between the old and new Left is dramatized.

10 The reference to the telephone company here refers to the tendency of big utility companies, like Bell, to only hire Christians. Minorities, until the 60s, were excluded from the executive suites of the large corporation where one could draw a comfortable salary.

11 David Biale, “Jewish Consumer Culture,” in Longing, Belonging, and the Making of Jewish Consumer Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 26

12 So, one can only assume the anti-Semitic undercurrents in his campaign were purely instrumental, similar to Netanyahu’s son, Yair, whose cynical use of George Soros memes caused a scandal, or Tal Silberstein, the spin-doctor, who weaponized anti-Semitism during Austria’s election to smear the opposition candidate for chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.

13 Robert Rockaway, But He Was Good To His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters (Gefen: Jerusalem, 2000), 9

14 Robert Rockaway, But He Was Good To His Mother, 231

 ** Update: A week after posting this, Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, was kicked off Twitter for making homophobic and anti-Semitic statements in a video clip titled “Thoroughly and completely unmasking the Satanic Jew and the Synagogue of Satan.”

*** Update: You can find more excerpts from Robert Rockaway’s book in his newly published essay: Gangsters vs. Nazis, Tablet, July 2, 2018. And oddly professor Rockway’s discovery of the Zionist-Jewish Gangster nexus came up again in the Haaretz on July 17, 2018.

 

 

Rollback, Dumbing-Down, Blowback

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When I first heard that liberals were actually thinking about an Oprah Winfrey Presidency in 2020, I knew the Democratic Party and country had finally lost its mind. At first, I thought they were kidding. Yeah, America really needs another billionaire TV celebrity running the country, even if she is the first billionaire African-American.

And yet, many Democrats are serious; they genuinely believe Oprah or The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, represents their only chance of beating Trump. Sadly, they may be right. You’d think finding a viable candidate to run against a vulgar fascist would be easy.

What happened to American society? I mean Americans weren’t this dumb when I was born. Let’s just take the sixties as a high point. Not that long ago, popular music and art were plugged into cosmic consciousness and anticommercialism was at its zenith. Even the conservatives were wiser, take Nixon, for example, although he didn’t like long-haired, dope smoking, hippies, he never tried to dismantle the regulations that FDR put in place to protect society and the environment from rapacious market forces. That came later with Reagan.

So, when did American society start becoming so dumb?

In my opinion, it began with government repression: when US law enforcement agencies turned their counterinsurgency capabilities, that had been developed abroad in fighting dirty wars, against educated Americans who read books, questioned authority and pushed for civil rights.

Nobody has more eloquently described rollback than the novelist, Thomas Pynchon, whose black humor graces his tales with comic relief; for lets face it, the dumbing-down of American society is an absurd process that’s being driven by greed over common sense. We shall explore this phenomenon through Pynchon’s California trilogy: The Crying of Lot 49  (1966), Vineland  (1990) and Inherent Vice  (2009).

The Rollback of Flower Power

When The Crying of Lot 49  appeared, the American public remained totally ignorant of the FBI’s illegal Cointelpro campaign against civil rights and New Left activists as well as the CIA’s domestic espionage project, code name Operation CHAOS, which had been illegally launched on orders from President Johnson in 1967 (and expanded under President Nixon), to uncover possible foreign influence on the domestic things the FBI was trying to suppress.1

On the other hand, California Governor Ronald Reagan’s 1969 speech during Operation Cablesplicer  wasn’t a secret.2 This subplan of the national Operation Garden Plot  sought to unite all law enforcement agencies throughout the state and in coordination with the US military in case Black Panthers, College Students, Civil Rights protesters and Anti-War activists tried to overthrow the government of California.3

The sixties revolt wasn’t just about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. While hippies opposed commerce, advertising and conformism, they embraced ecology and mysticism. The immense upsurge in hallucinogens wasn’t merely about the glorification of drugs but rather the psychedelic experience itself, which influenced the literature, music, art, and fashions of the counterculture.

The exploration of altered states of consciousness that have nothing to do with the production and consumption of material goods was simply too much for the powers that be, who felt threatened. Afraid that the fabric of society was unraveling, those on top feared they wouldn’t be for long. In short, the sixties counterculture provoked a backlash that officially proceeded with Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration of war on drugs, which forms the subtext of Vineland. 4

Pynchon’s elliptical narrative takes place in California during 1984 (which, of course, evokes Orwell’s Big Brother), but keeps flashing back to the Psychedelic Sixties, as in the following dialogue between Zoyd Wheeler, the protagonist, and Mucho Mas, from The Crying of Lot 49. While reminiscing on Orange Sunshine, these two Californian acid-heads are trying to figure out what went wrong: in the widest sense, from the hippie mafia‘s emancipation project (who thought acid could save the world) to Marcuse’s Great Refusal.

“Remember how that acid was? Remember that windowpane, down in Laguna that time? God, I knew then, I knew….” They had a look. “Uh-huh, me too. That you were never going to die. Ha! No wonder the State panicked. How are they supposed to control a population that knows it’ll never die? When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death. But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one, so of course they had to take it away from us. ”     “Yeah, but they can’t take what happened, what we found out. ”  “Easy. They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming– just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.”

This certainly rings true. If the people of the planet were, indeed, tuned-in and turned-on to higher vibrational frequencies and free from the primordial fear of death, humanity could drop out of the rat race, refuse repression and even celebrate a debt Jubilee. However, The Man  knows this and uses fear to evoke lower chakra energies, as a diversionary tactic.

The Dumbing Down of America

Was the rollback deliberate? Harper’s Magazine  recently published an old interview of John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief and creator of  “the Plumbers,” that clearly reveals the original motive behind the war on drugs.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Pynchon shows how the so-called war on drugs not only leads to a steady encroachment of the state, such as omnipresent surveillance, but to the development of a snitch culture, which literally turns citizens into the eyes and ears of the state and thereby sowing discord within a community.

The biggest snitch in Vineland  is Frenesy, the daughter of leftist parents, who come from Donald Trumbo’s Hollywood blacklist milieu. She not only symbolizes America’s snitch culture, but represents America’s betrayal of itself or the masochistic craving to be subjugated and the joys of social control. Frenesy falls for the obsessively ambitious and sadistic, U.S. Attorney, Brock Vond, who represents the types of perverts which the system tends to elevate.

The novel ends with a glimmer of hope; for Frenesy’s daughter, Prairie isn’t seduced by the Cosmic Fascist, Mr. Vond, who tells her “I’m your father,” not Zoyd.  Yet Prairie vehmently rejects him, “Get the fuck out of here!”

Inherent Vice,  set in seedy, sunny Los Angeles during the aftermath of the Manson murders, is a complex story told through the voice of one very stoned private eye, Doc. While the plot may ultimately be incomprehensible, like who is working for who, or what is the shadowy force that seems to be pulling the strings of the LAPD, the Mob, the FBI, Pynchon is deliberately only allowing us a worm’s-eye perspective. Doc, nevertheless, has a few lucid moments of clarity and intimations, like what’s on the horizon of the Zeitgeist.

“the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness . . . how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”

The many cultural references and allusions to noir films help frame the narrative: government, business and crime are seamlessly interwoven within the deep structure of the city. The interchangeability of police and thug in bringing about the end of hippiedom is ingeniously expressed in Doc’s observations. Among gatherings of carefree youth and happy dopers in Greater Los Angeles,

Doc had begun to notice older men, there and not there, rigid, unsmiling, that he knew he’d seen before, not the faces necessarily but a defiant posture, an unwillingness to blur out, like everyone else at the psychedelic events of those days, … Doc Knew these people, he’d seen enough of them in the course of business. They went out to collect cash debts, they broke rib cages, they got people fired, they kept an unforgiving eye on anything that might become a threat. If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen. Was it possible, that at every gathering–concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever–those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?
‘Gee,’ he said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno…’

In hindsight, we know what happened. The “War on Drugs” has become a method of political subversion and social control; and very effective in dealing with troublesome poor folks, who are fed into the prison-complex, thus justifying increasing federal pork for law enforcement. At the same time, illegal drugs provide a source of cash for covert operations and liquidity for the powerful banks, whose political funding or campaign contributions ensure bank executives will never be prosecuted for money laundering. Everyone profits from the system.

The laundering process brings us to Pynchon’s greatest metaphor – “the mob behind the mob,” which stands for capitalism itself.  The narco-dollars that are behind so-called legitimate businesses, involves lawyers and business executives, who conceal the source of the dirty money. Yet, those who knowingly take mob money are likely to be just as sociopathic as gangsters. Moreover, as the mob’s liquid capital flows through the system, into construction, real estate and solid property, the mob’s influence becomes more pervasive.

Blowback

Today’s so-called “black paranoia” seems more justified than Pynchon’s pothead paranoia; just look at the incarceration rates of African-Americans as percentage of the population. America’s drug laws, indeed, look like a new Jim Crow system.

The war on drugs by the 1980s had become a cultural catastrophe, particularly for black society. It has liquidated families and communities. Funds which could have been allocated to education, are diverted to an unproductive criminal justice system.

At the same time, the expanded civil forfeiture laws in 1984 authorized federal law enforcement agencies to seize real property as well as the seizure of all profits and assets from drug trafficking. Law enforcement has come to depend upon this cash cow to facilitate the business of fighting crime. The collection of assets through forfeiture programs is another means of raising revenue; and has even become a part of budget projections.

While Vineland ostensibly deals with Reagan’s so-called “War on Drugs,” Pynchon suggests American society is plagued by a deeper addiction, the most dangerous opiate: the Tube or commercial television. Ex-DEA agent and Tube-addict, Hector Zuñiga is constantly humming television theme songs, like the Flintstones, or using phrases from Gilligan’s Island. Hector’s representative of every stratum of society that’s suffering from tubal abuse and video-related disorders. His condition illustrates what happens to society when fact and fiction become indistinguishable.

The counterculture failed not because of government repression, but rather because of “one often unremarked fact: over the 1960s and 1970s, most people simply did not stop watching television.” As Tim Wu notes, “by the early 1970s, television viewing had increased to an average of six hours per day per household.” In other words, it wasn’t the “criminalization of LSD,” which killed the “consciousness revolution,” it was co-opted by the mainstream media, whose messages essentially manipulate the mass mind.5

The powerful leveling forces of TV had by the 1980s infantilized Americans. TV isn’t the best medium for transmitting complex ideas and public debate; for spectacles and images matter more than evidence. The limitation of the medium itself may be seen in relation to the press, which was still powerful in the 60s. Our first blog emphasized the qualitative difference between the press and the media, but I feel obliged to mention it again in the context of the dumbing-down of American politics.

JFK may have been the first Pop president, but he cultivated the press. Kennedy is said to have known dozens of reporters personally; he wrote them letters and won their respect. Reagan, on the other hand, didn’t know anybody at the New York Times.  Reagan had always been a media man, film man, TV man; and went on to become the first media president. Our post-literate era has called forth something new: a President who can barely read the headlines and represents total television.

By shining its spotlight, as it were, TV privileges certain aspects of social life over others, cutting us off from things not broadcast, and which the government uses to sweep things under the rug. So, who became “publicly visible” during the 1980s?

Although celebrity culture had been around for some time, celebrities in combination with an anesthetized consumer culture during the 80s metastasized throughout the entire mainstream, giving us People and shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Entertainment Tonight. The power of a celebrity is akin to a quasi-religious force, binding entranced people who are glued to their screens. Like a narcotic, the celebrity fills modern capitalist society’s cultural vacuum. The Eighties gave us new TV shows and icons, like Trump and Oprah who may compete against each other in 2020.

America’s dumbed-down electorate is epitomized by their real estate mogul and reality-TV-star, President. Trump, whose attention span seems childlike, appears as perpetually distracted and compulsively, addicted to social media as any teenager. Yet, he’s a master attention merchant, people are transfixed; they literally can’t-look-away, and, unlike in past dictatorships, Trump doesn’t even control the media, who during the campaign gave him free coverage although he treated them contemptuously.

If the attention span of the electorate continues to diminish at its present rate, it won’t be too long until we get a President Camacho, who would certainly keep people glued to their screens.

*  The featured image is of President Camacho from the 2006 film Idiocracy.

1 The Crying of Lot 49 is a satirical novel that treats sex and power farcically. Through his portrayal of extreme characters, fashions, and organizations, Pynchon mocks California society and conspiratorial logic. For example, the ridiculous right-wing libertarian “Peter Pinguid Society” is said to make the Birchers look “left-leaning.” Pynchon’s narrative seems to suggest that the spectre of a conspiracy may be more effective in spreading paranoia than the actuality of one.  On the other hand, the absence of a solid plot in The Crying of Lot 49 has in no way curtailed the drive to find meaning. Indeed, some allegorical interpretations of the novel go way beyond the text. For Umberto Eco, this kind of “overinterpretation” or “Hermetic semiosis” – the free-wheeling application of associations, similarities, sympathy, connotations, infinite chains of signifiers, in an uncontrolled unlimited semiosis – is driven by a deep suspicion that has penetrated our political culture since the 1960s.

2 See: George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (South End Press: Boston, 1987)

3 If we are looking for some kind of equivalence between the real world and Pynchon’s fiction, “Operation Cablesplicer” certainly sounds like “Vigilant California” or the “Viggies” in Inherent Vice. These brown shirts seem to operate under the command of the “fixer” Crocker Fenway, who also seems to have connections with the mysterious Golden Fang drug cartel, which may or may not be part of the US intelligence community. We never discover who Fenway’s principles are, but it’s fair to say they are the owners of America.

4 Nixon’s decision to launch a national war on drugs was made in 1969 if not earlier, for example, in September 1968, during a campaign appearance in Anaheim California, candidate Nixon declared that Democrats were “soft on crime” and that drugs had become a “modern curse of American youth.” And, while liberals tend to blame Nixon, both Kennedy and Johnson had supported FBI director Hoover’s various racist and unlawful counter intelligence efforts to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize” targeted organizations.  Corruption did not begin with the Nixon administration. The politicization of the FBI began with FDR; and the FBI’s secret and manipulative involvement in national politics became systematic as every administration used Hoover’s political intelligence, who in turn cultivated both Republicans and Democrats. See: David Burnham, Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice (Scribner: New York, 1996)

5 Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Alfred Knopf: New York, 2016), 160, 168

 

Germany’s Multiple Pasts

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Our last blog argued that the consequence of Merkel’s refugee policy was predictable: namely, the rise of a populist- or far-right movement in Germany and Austria, in particular, and Europe, in general. And so, if Merkel hadn’t advocated a generous migration policy of openness, the right-wing AfD wouldn’t be sitting in the Bundestag today. Hence, the current situation could have been very different.

Far from being a waste of time, counterfactual history allows us to ask “what if” questions and thus imagine alternative outcomes. For example, if the SPD had (instead of the CDU) been leading the coalition government, the traditionally conservative CDU would have certainly said no to letting millions of Muslim refugees cross into Germany’s border with no controls.

What’s truly amazing is that in 2015 there wasn’t a single established party in the country which clearly rejected Merkel’s imprudent policy. Even more astounding, in the run up to the 2017 federal election, every party, except for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), positioned themselves as bleeding heart, do-gooders, although Merkel’s refugee policy had already by January 2016 become unpopular. Yet, of course, a few voices have disagreed with their own parties.1

Germany’s leftist political parties, like the SPD, have a tougher time with nationalism than other countries. Take Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for example, who is a populist leader of France’s leftwing as well as a traditional proponent of national sovereignty. Like Marine Le Pen, his stance is anti-immigration and anti-EU. French leftists have paid condolences to refugees, who have drowned in the Mediterranean, but don’t offer an alternative to France’s current immigration policy.

Austria provides another counter example. While Germany’s traditional conservative party, the CDU, refuses to form a coalition with the far-right AfD, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) just formed a conservative-populist government with the far-right, Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). What’s now socially acceptable in Austria would shock citizens in Germany. Probably because Austrians have never really confronted their Nazi past. Nor do they share Germany’s sense of historic responsibility, although the Aryan ideology sprang from Austria.

In contrast, Germans who exist in the heart of Europe are more diplomatic; firmly believe they must never fall back into unfettered nationalism; claim to be working through their past; and have, for decades, been reassuring their European neighbours they seek peace and friendship.

Nevertheless, political decision-making consists of national interests, electoral possibilities and normative concerns. In terms of the 2015 refugee crisis, the German government – the grand coalition – appears to have prioritized the latter over national interests and electoral success.

Why was that the case?  Did the government simply miscalculate or were larger forces at work? To answer these questions, we need to look at Germany’s multiple pasts and generations since 1945.

This essay is guided by the premise that Jürgen Habermas, “the Hegel of the Federal Republic,” provides a unique vantage point from which to consider postwar German history and the Berlin Republic. Intellectual historians have shown how his legacy complements Adenauer’s strategic achievement of binding the Bonn Republic with the Western alliance. Indeed, Habermas’s discursive democratization helped integrate Germany within the political culture of an ideal West. Moreover, Habermas, who identifies as a “left-liberal,” is emblematic of Germany’s redemptive intellectuals, who, in spite of being secular, approach social justice through a theological perspective of sin and redemption.

Stunde Null

We’ve talked about Germany’s historical continuity with its Nazi past before and how most of the perpetrators of unprecedented crimes against humanity were never brought to justice, but how do we explain the dramatic changes that have occurred since 1945?

I mean bourgeois capitalism, democracy and multiculturalism are currently thriving in liberal Germany. So, obviously something fundamentally changed, but when did this break take place? The answer must be sought in generational time, not in the realm of events, wars, or technology, which change much faster than cultural attitudes and public opinion.

For several decades, historians of Germany have methodically deconstructed the myth of “the Zero Hour” of 1945, showing how the clean break with the past – rejection of Nazism – was in reality an identity construct. Furthermore, this new foundational identity took on a different form inside each occupational zone, which created separate myths and memory cultures.

So, when analyzing contemporary German history, we are in reality dealing with four pasts:  The Nazi regime, which is now ancient history in that those who experienced it are mostly dead. In general, because people are primarily engaged with the “here and now,” interest in – as well as the intensity of feelings towards – the past subsides with each passing generation. In the case of Germany, “memories of the war and interpretations of the Holocaust are mediated above all by family conversations rather than by the education system. The private sphere, more than the public sphere, is the site and first source of social memory.”2

West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR) histories were played out during the Cold War. Since more people remember this time, the oral transmission of memory within most families still exists. Finally, the past of reunified Germany, which reaches back to 1990, is the only period the current generation under thirty knows. The Berlin Republic is tasked with the tricky job of bringing these separate memory cultures together. Well, at least, that’s what Bundespräsident Steinmeier’s “Day of German Unity” speech seems to be attempting.3

Germany’s Cold Civil War

It’s enough to say that the genocide of European Jewry has stigmatized the Nazi past, so lets turn our attention to the postwar period. Historians now describe the conflict between communism and capitalism in divided Germany as “Germany’s Cold Civil War.”

The GDR told its working class citizens they bore no responsibility for war crimes and whom with the aid of Soviet troops bravely fought against fascism, which was understood by Marxism-Leninism as a product of the highest stage of capitalism. The GDR saw itself as the successor state to the antifascist resistance fighters, while the FRG was the successor of fascists and Nazis. Although many Western marxists bought into this “monoply-capitalist” theory of fascism in the 60s, historians have shown how capital

“can come to terms with any regime that does not actually expropriate it, and any regime must come to terms with it. . . . Big business in the early 1930s did not particularly want Hitler, and would have preferred more orthodox conservatism. It gave him little support until the Great Slump, and even then support was late and patchy.”4

In any case, the same German monopoly capital that flowed from industrialists, like Flick, Krupp, Thyssen, to the Nazis continued to flow into the CDU’s party coffers, from Adenauer to Kohl. Yet, while the GDR celebrated its antifascist resistance during the Cold War, East Germans ignored their own role in the Third Reich. In short, they were never committed to a tedious and painstaking Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to grips with the past), which in West Germany only happened after 1968ers demanded an end to their parents’ silence.

Generational Cohorts

The other social divide in postwar Germany is generational between those who were born after the war, or were too young to have participated, and the Tätergeneration, the so-called “perpetrator generation,” i.e. those who carried out the Second World War.

It wasn’t the perpetrators, but the Baby Boomers or so-called “sixty-eighters” (whose formative experience was the global student revolt) who as a generation first attempted to seriously grapple with its country’s dark past. The 68ers rejected their parents claims of innocence and ignorance of Nazi crimes and in time, with assistance from what A. Dirk Moses calls the “forty-fivers,” came to accept universal Western values and post-nationalism.

This generational cohort’s formative experience was shaped by the collapse of the Nazi regime and its aftermath as well as reorienting Germany’s political culture. Intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas and Ralf Dahrendorf, both born in 1929 are examples of “forty-fivers,” as well as chancellor Helmut Kohl (1930), who ran the federal republic until the 1990s). They have also been called the Flakhelfer  generation, who as boys were enlisted in the war effort. While their generational identity was formed by the dramatic experiences of 1945, Matthew Specter calls this cohort “58ers,” because 1958 approximates the time when members of this generation, “then in their thirties, began to take important positions in universities and the media.”5

In general, this generation may be divided between those who felt compelled to expiate sins committed and those who worked to forget or normalize the past. Habermas belongs with the former group of “forty-fivers,” whom also influenced the New Left.

Unlike the illiberal, rebellious 68ers, forty-fivers were committed to reforming the Federal Republic from within through “fundamental democratization” (the moral transformation of authority relations in family, classroom and workplace) and politische Bildung (civic education). Also, the “forty-fivers,” more victims than perpetrators, were the first generation to “truly challenge the postwar continuities with the fascist past.”5

The so-called “founder” (Adenauer’s) generation of the Bonn Republic were socialized in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany. Although this cohort was the first generation to pass from being subjects to citizens in 1918, they also lived through the turbulent twenties. The pauperization of the intellectual middle classes through hyperinflation and financial sharks paved the way for the Nazi revolution.

While National Socialism helped purge many aristocratic Prussian elites, the occupying armies irrevocably removed the political framework of the old imperial elites, on the other hand. And yet, making a clean break from statism after centuries of authoritarian super structures – feudal, ecclesiastical and monarchist elements – was no easy task. The transition to a liberal democratic republic as well as the emancipation of civil society from the state took decades.

The “mental” rupture with the Nazi past as well as patriarchal and hierarchical thinking wasn’t 1945, but rather 1968-1969. In short, the “68 movment” brought lasting changes to German society. And so, all Germans today are children of sixty-eighters.

Sixty-Eighters

Remembering the past is a difficult process because it’s connected with national identity, and in the case of Germany, Nazi atrocities had spoiled it. The German culture of remembering its Nazi past began in part as a strategy of managing their stigma. Obviously, this didn’t happen all at once; but gradually in small steps and then bold leaps.

In 1952-53, chancellor Adenauer persuaded the Bundestag to grant reparations to Israel for resettling Holocaust survivors. Though this was motivated by diplomatic expediency rather than moral considerations, it helped transform Germany from a moral leper into responsible member of the Western alliance.

The main karmic readjustment occurred through the London Debt Conference, which gave the German economy good credit standing and access to international capital. As the legal successor state to the defunct German Reich, Adenauer accepted responsibility to pay back all central government debt incurred between the two world wars as well as Marshall aid. By recognizing its moral and economic obligations, Germany took its first politico-psychological step towards rehabilitating its collective identity. Also, due to this recognition, Germany received generous debt relief from the creditors, who had learned from past mistakes, such as the harsh financial reparations imposed on Germany in Versailles.

By 1960, West German officials, who had observed how unfairly black soldiers were treated during the war and occupation as well as in the American Deep South, could claim a moral victory over America vis-a-vis racial and social progress. Germans saw how little progress the United States had made in the painful process of coming to grips with its dark past. So ironically, around the time when foreign or migrant workers from Turkey and North Africa first started arriving, German officials “declared the provisional period of postwar racial re-education closed.”6

Shortly thereafter, as Bonn officially backed Washington’s Vietnam policy, Germany’s Boomer generation “energetically rejected the image of the United States as democracy’s international helpmate. Rather, New Left critics vilified American foreign and domestic policy (in Vietnam and in relations to Black Americans) as boldly participating in capitalist, imperialist, and racist exploitation at home and abroad. For the German New Left, the United States represented oppression on a global scale.”7

Yet, it wasn’t only the German New Left who saw America as an imperial power, but a global New Left. The social movements and revolts in 1968 were globally connected through the media. As events in one part of the world were reported, they synchronically influenced other regions, and the New Left learned from the struggles and revolutionary movements in the Third World. In short, the instantaneous feedback loops between the periphery and the centers of the the capitalist system have made social change much more difficult to predict as well as manage.

Though these nationalist struggles against imperialism had been framed in terms of a cold war conflict, the youth weren’t buying into this argument any longer. Ho Chi Minh and Mohammad Mossadegh weren’t secret communists, but rather patriotic nationalists, like George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi.8

The palpable feeling of an imminent revolution in 1968, liberation, and that anything was possible was as illusory as eternal youth. The age of Aquarius was propelled by psychedelics, rising expectations and, above all, an expanding postwar economy. Ironically, the main driver of the postwar boom was the military-industrial complex, which depended upon the quantitative expansion of the university system, for technical research and educating young technicians to manage the system.

Yet, for a brief moment, Western youth revolted against their suburban, consumerist life style and working for the machine. Moreover, the sublime violence that’s necessarily implicit in state institutions reacted. As cops cracked people’s heads, the state’s true or repressive nature came as a revelation to many. American youth also called their police fascist pigs, who as social types along with district attorneys and lawyers who work for the federal government tend to operate as authoritarians. Because their job is to prevent crime, prosecute crime and punish crime, constitutional rights are simply impediments to the smooth functioning of the state’s machinery.9

On the other hand, radicals confused central power itself with a fascist monster, and self-styled left-wing revolutionaries took up arms against the Man. Radicals felt authorized to use violence against President Nixon or Chancellor Kiesinger, whom they considered war criminals. For Habermas, the illiberal radicals were driven by revolutionary fantasy and lacked legitimacy.

Calls to Smash the State, anarchist bombings and assassinations became more prevalent. The shift in goals from peaceful reform to militant revolution after 1969 was precipitated by Nixonian reaction, which included covert programs to neutralize growing domestic dissent. Warfare in the streets caused self-styled left-wing revolutionaries to go underground. Leftist terrorism helped undermine the progressive mass movement and pave the way for a police state that reformers like Habermas wanted to avoid.

By the German Autumn of 1977, it had become clear to most leftists that revolutionary violence had no conceivable chance of bringing about social change, which Habermas had foreseen ten years earlier. Indeed, the direct action and romantic violence of radicals strengthened conservative politics. The “leftist fascism” of the SDS was anathema to Habermas’s committment of reforming the Federal Republic. His critique of the SDS alienated him from the radical student movement, who found a guru in Marcuse. The bottom line is Habermas never had the kind of persuasive influence that C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse had on the emerging New Left.

Boomers Ascent into the Establishment

As radical movements eventually burned out and as 68ers marched through the institutions, the values of progressive leftists broadly shifted towards a model of liberal democracy. A process that Habermas helped shape by swaying “German progressive and academic public opinion,” which, Specter notes, “contributed to a liberalization of the German Left.(204)” On the one hand, as the 68ers assumed key positions, they significantly pushed the national culture in a liberal direction. On the other hand, stepping through the portals of power, further liberalized their outlook.

Defending the rule of law during a time when the universities, judiciary and government still had never undergone denazification wasn’t only unpopular, it appeared regressive to most 68ers. Yet after, their generational rebellion, Habermas helped steer leftists, like Joschka Fischer, away from radicalism towards constitutionalism. Though Habermas helped re-enchant the rule of law (Rechtsstaat), he neglected political economy.

Habermas became popular among leftists, liberals and anti-germans during the historical debates (Historikerstreit) of the 1980s. As conservatives tried to morally relativize Nazi crimes within the context of Bolshevist mass murder, Habermas – with the backing of American, English and Israeli historians – attacked the neoconservatives. Everything that limits the role of Holocaust memory violates the political culture and became taboo – along with anti-Semitism which is connected to Germany’s collective guilt. By emphasizing Germany’s unique historical responsibility, Habermas won over many members of the 60’s New Left, “whose myopic fixation on the intersection of capitalism and fascism” had blinded them

“to the singularity of the Nazis’ systematic annihilation of the Jews under the generic term and structural concept of fascism.’ To read history forward, German New Left intellectuals—and the more politically conservative West German historical profession—had not yet come to an understanding of the uniqueness of National Socialist crimes or the single historical centrality of the Jewish Holocaust for understanding National Socialism would only tentatively emerge in West Germany in the 1970s and gain momentum in the 1980s and beyond.”10

Habermas influenced the politics of German memory and the commemoration culture that developed in hundreds of towns and cities across West German.

By 1990, most of West Germany’s institutions of cultural transmission (academia and journalism) were controlled by a Habermasian intelligentsia. And although he had laid the intellectual foundations for a Berlin Republic, he was apprehensive about reunification. “There is a mentality predominating in the new states that we recognize from the Adenauer period. The GDR has not yet caught up  with the dramatic transformations of value orientations that occurred in the Federal Republic since the 60s.”11

Chancellor Kohl (1982-1998), who presided over reunification, failed to roll back the social and cultural transformations that Habermas’s idealism efficaciously shaped. Moreover, Moses argues that “the Red-Green government of Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) turned this philosophy into policy.(14)” At the same time, that the Schröder-Fischer government gave the “spiritual-moral-turn” of the sixty-eighters secure footing, it also initiated neoliberal economic policies that could only have been pushed through with assistance from Germany’s powerful labor unions.

Chancellor Merkel never challenged the cultural status quo. Despite her conservative praise of the schwäbish Hausfrau (Swabian housewife), she has never seriously attempted to return to the 1950s, whose own experience of that period was shaped by the SED-dictatorship. As a youth, Merkavelli learned to be acutely sensitive to the nuances of power. Though she presents herself as Mother Theresa, she’s a very ambitious and opportunistic politician. Until 2015, she had been brilliant at calculating the next series of moves on the German chessboard to her advantage. Perhaps, the notion of winning the Nobel Peace Prize overruled her normal caution.

Nationhood

The social values of sixty-eighters have since the 1990s meshed with neoliberal globalization. Although the CDU has been in power since 2005, most of that time they have been in a grand coalition with the SPD, which has left the electorate with a feeling that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, which chancellor Schröder initiated and Merkel has continued along with the Red-Green government’s policy of multiculturalism.

In short, the ostensibly separate debates over public memory and German national identity have become acutely intertwined with the politics of migration and multiculturalism. While the leftist intelligentsia may have won the battle over the public sphere, ordinary voters, unlike intellectuals, don’t spend their time reflecting on the meaning of the Nazi past and how it’s stigmatized their collective identity.

Most Germans today don’t mind scrutinizing their past; however, they aren’t interested in Habermas’s hollow constitutional patriotism nor the absurd notion of a post-national identity because they aren’t obsessed with Auschwitz.

* The featured image is of Joschka Fischer as Street fightin’ Man.

1 After Cologne’s New Year’s Eve, Oskar Lafontaine and Sahra Wagenknecht, leading figures of the left-wing Die Linke, criticized the government’s refugee policy, , as well as their own party’s leadership. For example, Wagenknecht pointed out two obvious facts: firstly, human rights are, in reality, conditional; and secondly, Germany’s capacity to aborb and integrate refugees is limited. “Whoever abuses their right to hospitality, has also forfeited that right to hospitality”  (Wer sein Gastrecht missbraucht, der hat sein Gastrecht eben auch verwirkt) and “Of course there are limits on capacity, whoever denies this is naïve.” (Natürlich gibt es Kapazitätsgrenzen, wer das leugnet, ist doch weltfremd.) The Green Tübingen mayor, Boris Palmer’s vocal critique of the government’s refugee policy has received national attention, but has had little impact on the Grünen. Historically, the post-New Left Greens have been more genuinely concerned about international solidarity than the Left Party, whose political roots are mostly in “the ruling East German Stalinist Socialist Unity Party (SED), which espoused a thoroughly nationalist policy at home and abroad – despite all its talk of socialism. . . .”

2 A. Dirk Moses, German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past (Cambridge University Press, 2007),

3 To officially commemorate Germany’s peaceful reunification, Steinmeier struck a conciliatory tone: “Of course, mistakes were made in the years after 1990. There’s no reason to sweep them under the carpet. After reunification, people in eastern Germany experienced upheaval in ways that my generation in the West could only imagine. Still, these stories from eastern Germany never became an integral part of who ‘we’ are, like those that are told in the West. I think it’s time for them to become just that.”

4 Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (Great Britain, Abacus: 1994), 129

5 Mathew Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7

6 Rita Chin, Heide Fehrenbach, Geoff Eley, and Anita Grossmann, After the Nazi Racial State: Difference and Democracy in Germany and Europe (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2009), 48

After the Nazi Racial State, 110

8 See: George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (South End Press: Boston, 1987)

9 The killing of Benno Ohnesorg – the event that radicalized Germany’s Left – is more complicated than, say, the Kent State shootings, because it turns out the cop who shot Ohnesorg had been an informant for the Stassi, East Germany’s secret police, casting a long shadow over the incident.

10 After the Nazi Racial State,110

11 Mathew Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184

 

Who could have guessed?

Sozialistische Reichspartei, Dorls, Remer, Westarp

Having won 12.6% share of the votes in Germany’s federal election on September 24th, the populist right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) just entered parliament this week as the third-largest party, and the German Establishment is shocked, shocked!

Though the AfD had already been represented in 13 of 16 regional parliaments, the press during the run up to the election was already predicting a political earthquake and a caesura in Germany’s post-Second World War history.1

The earthquake metaphor is apt for describing the historic loss of the two established parties, the CDU and SPD, which have dominated electoral politics since WWII. However, the AfD’s victory is less of a watershed moment when seen in an international and historical context.

Firstly, the German election is in line within the international right-wing protest movement. For example, three weeks later, Austria’s FPÖ, which has been a magnet for nationalists since the 1980s, won around 25% of the national vote and is poised to enter government again. So, Germany’s government is going to be much more moderate than Austria’s.

Secondly, with ubiquitous headlines about a historical caesura, the media has created the false impression that radical right-wing parties had never been in the Bundestag since WWII. The media’s portrayal of events is not only factually wrong, it’s distorting the past.

Actually, the far-right, Deutsche Konservative Partei – Deutsche Rechtspartei (DKP-DRP) won five parliamentary seats in 1949, the first democratic election in 17 years. So, while the quasi-Nazi German Right Party (Deutsche Reichspartei) DRP sent five members to the first Bundestag in 1950, the conservative, nationalist Deutsche Partei (DP) won 4% with 18 seats. The nationalist German Party became part of Konrad Adenauer’s coalition government, which included every party right of the SPD, and sat in parliament until 1960. We should also mention the right-wing political party composed of expellees (GB/BHE), which won 5.9% of the vote and 27 seats in the 1953 federal election.

The point is all of these völkisch parties were founded by nationalists and represented the rights of ex-nazis, but then again so did Konrad Adenauer, who in a speech in 1949 denounced the denazification policy of the Allies.

After the 5% national electoral threshold rule came into existence, most of these brown-tinged parties merged with the mainstream conservative and bourgeois parties or disappeared from electoral politics. At any rate, none ever entered the Bundestag after the 1961 federal election. What’s amazing is how many well-educated Germans know none of this early history, which shows how the media is misleading ordinary people.

You find a similar pattern during the early years of postwar Austria. The Federation of Independents (VdU) also won 11% and 16 seats in the 1949 election. The VdU also represented former Nazis and the interests of expellees from Central Europe. After the party dissolved in 1955, they were succeeded by the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in 1956. Though Austria’s FPÖ like France’s Front National were founded by neofascists, they have recently rid their ranks of anti-Semitic elements to actually win elections.2

Germany’s Multiple Pasts

Historical facts ought to frame the stories that the media and politicians tell. Yet, most of what gets framed in German discourse is designed to make the country’s postwar past appear virtuous. It also seems like nobody remembers the Cold War period. For example, the German-Jewish leader, Charlotte Knobloch, who refered to the election as a nightmarish “historical caesura,” ought to have known better, but that didn’t stop her from carelessly uttering off-base sound-bites.

German discourse seems to be suffering from collective amnesia, yet this might have something to do with the confusion of living with multiple pasts. For example, the general subtext of the media’s election commentary could be entitled “what the hell is wrong with East Germans,” who voted for the AfD in such high numbers.

There is the ancient history of the Nazi regime, which only a small percentage of Germans personally remember; there are the two postwar histories of West and East Germany; and there is the 27 year history of post-Cold War Germany. So, for “Generation Z,” there is no generational memory of a time before the so-called “Berlin Republic,” the polity that refers to reunified Germany, which is distinct from both the Weimar and Bonn republics. Since the Berlin Republic stems from the Bonn Republic, negative characteristics, like populist and xenophobic sentiments, must originate in East German history. Well, at least, that is what powerful opinion-makers seem to be suggesting.

Altnazis

The bottom line is, there was no real “denazification” in both East and West Germany. Although the Allies at the Potsdam Conference had in 1945 publicly agreed to democratize society and dismantle Hitler’s military-industrial complex, many Americans and Soviets were never interested in denazification and decartelization.

Nazism may have vanished as an organized political force by the early 1950s, but individual Nazis just didn’t disappear. After the war, most men who had served in the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS had no desire to join an explicit neo-Nazi party, but rather preferred to suppress their war record and collaborate with the Allies.

The CDU – the heir of the Catholic Zentrumspartei of the Weimar period – led the postwar West German government under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, who was willing to allow many ex-Nazis to flourish in West Germany’s new competitive and meritocratic society.

Because both the US and USSR were competing to strengthen their respective positions in central Europe, they needed collaborators, not prisoners. Also, bear in mind, that unlike a business, you cannot fire and replace an entire country. The number of qualified people in Germany was limited. Results were more important for the two Super Powers than ideological consistency.

Stalin was not a strict Marxist; he wanted everyone, including National Socialists, to collaborate with him. Eventually, the East German Communist Party or the SED became his chosen instrument. Initially, Stalin was even willing to collaborate, with ex-Nazis, particularly the Strasserite wing, who were, after all, ostensibly socialists. Stalin allowed the National-Demokratische Partei Deutschlands in East Germany (DDR), which attracted national socialists. In short, Stalin cared more about keeping Germany out of a Western military alliance than his puppet state. And in March 1952, Stalin called for a reunified but neutral Germany.

During the same month, the neo-Nazi, Sozialistische Reichspartei Deutschlands  (SRP), which was founded in 1949 by Otto Ernst Remer, became the first political party to be abolished by the Federal Constitutional Court in 1952. Incidentally, while many Germans know that the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was outlawed by the West German Constitutional Court in 1956, very few are aware of the SRP-Verbot (or ruling of the SRP as unconstitutional).3

Konrad Adenauer rejected Stalin’s offer; he decided for Westbingung (integration with the West) over Wiedervereinigung (reunification). Being closely linked to the new American Super Power was the cost of remaining independent of the Soviet Union. A price Adenauer obviously thought worth paying.

Amnesty and Amnesia

Instances of institutional continuity between the Nazi regime and the Bonn Republic may be found in the personnel who ran the police, intelligence services, judiciary, home and foreign offices, and so on. Aside from civil servants, powerful Nazi industrialists and bankers, like Alfried Krupp, Friedrich Flick and Hermann Abs, had very successful postwar careers, which is why it’s kind of absurd to narrowly focus on political parties as the media has done. So, if you look at German history in terms of people instead of party, historical continuity exists at the highest levels of government and business.

Denazification was an Allied initiative to rid German and Austrian society of fascism. So why did it come to an end so early on?

The Soviet Military Administration ended denazification and prosecution of Nazis for alleged war crimes in 1948. Three years later, the US officially abolished denazification in 1951 and the newly created West German government passed a series of amnesty laws, which according to The Guardian,

reinstated the pensions of Nazi soldiers and paroled 20,000 Nazis previously jailed for ‘deeds against life’. According to the German historian Norbert Frei, nearly 800,000 people benefited from amnesty laws. By the end of the decade, thousands of Nazis had been freed from German prisons and rehabilitated, taking up comfortable posts in the judiciary, police and state administration.”

Adenauer’s policy of amnesty and reintegration had the backing of public opinion, as evidenced in

“the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which lasted from 1963 to 1965 and attracted unprecedented coverage in the domestic and international press, but were a ‘matter of indifference, if not open hostility, for much of the German public,’ Pendas has written. When they concluded, pollsters asked the German public whether further Nazi trials should be held. Fifty-seven percent said no.”

The point is that public opinion didn’t really shift in Germany until a new generation entered the political scene: namely, the baby-boomers, who, like their idealistic American counterparts, sought salvation.

Predictable Accident

What was truly unprecedented was the government’s migration policy, not the election.

For years Merkel’s government’s response to Europe’s migration crisis was so slow that no policy could be said to exist. Then suddenly in 2015, Merkel declared there are “no limits” to the number of refugees.

The period between her “refugees are welcome” message and its reversal was surreal because Germans, who are normally rational, fell in line without engaging in a transparent and dynamic public debate. I mean the German Establishment quickly closed ranks behind Merkel’s decision and disregarded all arguments against Merkel’s decision as xenophobic. A “yes, we can” rhetoric replaced all critical discussion.

Blindness to the logistical, economic, social and cultural problems best characterizes the policy of the politicians. However, at the time, I wrote how Merkel’s irresponsible decision was going to undermine any chance of creating a sustainable immigration policy.

The fact of the matter is that Merkel’s promotion of economic austerity and mass migration of Muslims throughout Europe has simply been a recipe for fascism.

*  The featured image is of Fritz Dorls, Otto Ernst Remer and Wolf Graf von Westarp, who were leaders of the Sozialistische Reichspartei Deutschlands  (SRP) in 1952.

1 In early September, the newsweekly Spiegel  had already framed the election through the phrase Die Zäsur.Now with the AfD, a right-wing populist movement is about to enter Parliament for the first time in the history of the republic.” Headlines and table of contents are the soundbites of print media. It’s not until after the second page, that the reader hastily learns how right-wing radical parties have only been kept out of the Bundestag for 60 years. Since then, right-wing parties were never successful nationally because it became taboo to openly identify with fascism. Commentators are now worried that the extreme right-wing will soon be mainstreaming taboo things, like Schuldkult and Lügenpresse, in the Bundestag.

2 This radical reversal from the past is best seen in generational time through Marine Le Pen the current leader of the FN, who has formally rejected anti-Semitism, and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Holocaust distorter and founder of the party. Also, the populist Right today shares an enemy with Netanyahu’s Israel in political Islam and socialists. Severing their old ties to neo-Nazi groups and supporting Israel has given some Populist-Right parties a veneer of respectability to attract more voters.

3 The Socialist Reich Party (SRP) was part of the European Social Movement (ESM) as well as the New European Order (NEO), which aimed to create a neo-fascist European-wide alliance that originated in conferences at Rome in 1950 and Malmö in 1951. What’s really interesting is the possibility that the fascist SRP received financing from Stalin. Martin Lee’s claim seems less bizarre now that one can observe a similar realpolitik  pattern in the so-called New Cold War; for instance, irregardless of ideology, Putin supports all  European parties that are anti-EU.

A Post-Financial Crisis Bank Aesthetic

 

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Has anyone visited Tübingen’s newly renovated Kriessparkasse?

Well, I’ve visited it a few times since it has reopened. The new bank aesthetic for the digital age is minimalist, to the say least, yet it was only yesterday that the change in style fully hit me.

Tübingen’s new Sparkasse reminds me of Stuttgart’s new Stadtbibliothek (municipal library), which differs from much of the modern Swabian Streamline architectural style. The “Bücherknast”  (book prison) looks as if the Korean architect, Eun Young Yi was inspired by Michel Foucault’s contemporary classic “Discipline and Punishment.” Aside from the outward carceral and inward panopticonic feel, the most striking feature of the library is its lack of books, which is why I call it the “Buchlosbibliotek” (bookless library). Once inside, above the quasi-prison courtyard structure, which is featured in the picture above, you are in the library proper.1  At the very top, looking down, you feel disembodied or like a virtual mouse moving around in a computer screen, rather than an actual body. Hardly anyone reads books here; most people are staring at their screens.

Back to my savings bank.2

The Kreissparkasse  seems to be going with the same white antiseptic aesthetic. When you walk up into the new Sparkasse, you are quickly triangulated by three young good-looking girls – distinctly, sitting apart at sleek desks in strategic positions – who greet you as you enter the second layer of empty space, above the entrance floor with the cash-machines. At first glance, they appear to be busy with their computers; however, under closer observation, they are playing with their phones.

In the past, you just walked up to the counter that dealt with the kind of business you needed. Today, as soon as you need to make a slightly more complex transaction, they call a consultant, which is a total waste of time because a few months ago that would have been quickly and routinely handled at the counter, which no longer exists, along with other essentials, as we shall see.

While waiting for an adviser to arrive, I ask one of the girls if she likes the new bank interior and of course she does; incidentally, all three do. “It’s so much nicer than the old style, which was way too dark.” (I wonder why that had never occurred to me?) Then I ask why the bank spent so much trouble and money to change the interior? Because functionally I cannot see the purpose. The young pretty hostess says it was done for security reasons. “Money is no longer being handled by real people; cash only exists in the ATMs. Foreign exchange and precious metals are also being phased out.” In short, I learned a few things about the newly renovated bank while waiting for the consultant to come.

Another day while I was waiting for one of the bank consultants/tellers, I saw what I’d describe as a telescreen amidst the whiteness of the walls. You can touch the screen and see the price of the DAX or the dollar/euro/gold course. I guess this is the new Orwellian toy, which is supposed to entertain people in the “Geldlosbank” (moneyless bank). Behind me, I hear the voice of another new consultant. She takes me away from playing with the telescreen into a new glass consulting room. Upon a simple request, she has to walk up the stairs to the top floor to speak with her superiors, which is when I had time to leisurely observe the girls at their workplace. Realizing the procedures are very different from before, I ask where Herr Schwarz is. “He’s not here now.” A few minutes later, the woman is starting to annoy me. After I ask her what I should do with my empty coffee cup, she acts peeved. Apparently there is nowhere to throw your trash away. So, she suggest I take it with me.

Not exactly getting friendly service and wondering why routine procedures have suddenly changed, I ask her when will Herr Schwarz be back. And now she tells me, “Herr Schwarz is no longer with us, he’s retired.” It’s then that I realize, I don’t recognize a single soul although I’ve been a customer of this bank for over a decade. So, I ask about Frau Grün. “Um, she also just retired.” Finally, it dawns on me that the changes at Sparkasse are not limited to the building itself. What does the renovation have to do with these new rules and personnel? What’s going on?

The local branch in my village just shut down a year ago. It’s inconvenient, but not a major problem as it is for the elderly living in my village. I can go to the main branch, but I don’t want superficial American style service. Like American airlines, all I expect is substandard mediocrity. Well, at least, the Sparkasse is not trying to rip me off, like my American bank.

Yet, what really pisses me off is that my bank had the nerve to raise the monthly service fee this year right after cutting services. To be fair, perhaps my local bank cannot compete with the financial offshore industry.  Actually, the old teller at my local village branch told me that the ECB’s monetary policy is killing their business model. Incidentally, the negative interest rates of central banks is not only killing savers, it’s creating equity and real estate bubbles in many German cities.3

So, why is the Sparkasse wasting money on cosmetic changes while cutting jobs? In short, I believe the new aesthetic of the “Geldlosbank” is conditioning the sensibilities and preparing the next generation for the emergence of the “cashless society.”

*  Stuttgart’s municipal library is the featured image above.

**  I just found two photos of Tübingen’s newly renovated Sparkasse. Unfortunately, there is no view from the main entrance.

1 You can find a picture of the upper part of the library here.

2 A Sparkasse is a local financial institution, which arose in the 18th century to provide savings products (interest) to all levels of the population. They were designed to encourage low-income people to save money and have access to banking services. They were set up by local governments or socially committed organizations. The point is, like credit unions, they are supposed to serve the interests of the community and not engage in risky business, in order to make a quick buck.

3 Also, the only party that talked about this problem during Germany’s multiparty pre-election debate was the AfD candidate. It’s true, Alice Weidel opposed rent controls, but she was the only one that analysed the financial source of the problem. If you want to understand the insanity of the art market, look no further than the monetary policies of the central bankers, the quintessential technocrats of our Post-Truth age.

On the Bright Side of Post-Truth

After six months of a Trump presidency, who any longer doubts that we are living in a “Post-Truth” age, a period characterized by the “fake” news versus “real” news debate and epitomized by an habitual lying, media-obsessed, tweeting President, who boldly lies in direct contradiction to known facts.1

On November 27th, Trump tweeted, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” The fact is he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes.

Trump has repeatedly alleged, without any evidence, that between 3 and 5 million noncitizens voted unlawfully. During his first televised White House interview, Trump insisted that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Then White House press secretary, Sean Spicer told the press that Trump drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” which Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, subsequently described as “alternative facts.”

The notion of objective, verifiable truth has been under attack since Friedrich Nietzsche first declared, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Yet, I’m not talking about relativistic thinkers or academic postmodernism here, but rather politicians who are supposedly living in the “real” world.

Before 2016, most people had associated “fake news” with satire – something you read in The Onion  – or with rumors that quickly spread on the net before journalists could establish facts during breaking stories, like the Boston Marathon bombing. Yet the virtual fake-news hysteria that immediately followed Trump’s electoral victory was hyped by the “mainstream media,” which also became quickly synonymous with Russian propaganda.2

In short, the phenomenon of actual fake news, for example, the fabrication of stories for money, like how Albanians and unemployed millennials were making millions cranking out lies on the internet, only became topical after election day. Trump, who had constantly been accusing the media of lying, in December finally denounced the mainstream media as fake news.3

Our “Post-Truth” age not only signifies political polarization and uncontrolled partisanship, but points to the erosion of public trust and norms that govern democratic politics.

The Paradox

Many are talking about the corrosive effects of “Post-Truthon political culture, however, I’d like to focus on the bright side here, or more precisely, the paradoxical character of our digital age. 

Obviously, there are many scary scenarios, such as falsehoods being cynically presented as facts or companies developing artificial intelligence to help governments better police society.

But the big story is the democratization of access to information, on the one hand, and mass manipulation, on the other hand. While it’s never been easier for an individual to get informed, the masses have never been so misinformed and manipulated. Social media tends to reinforce people’s pre-existing partisan biases and new psychological knowledge in combination with Big Data (for example, predictive analytics & microtargeting) have permitted opinion managers to move from prediction towards manipulation.

The main sources of post-truth today arise from the following trends: 1) geopolitical multipolarity; 2) digitization; and 3) the rise of subaltern public spheres.

Technocracy

The concept of a post-factual age also implies a time in which democracy and truth once flourished. Yet, did a de facto age of facts ever really exist? Probably not, but there was a high degree of political consensus during and after WWII. If an actual age of facts” ever existed, I’d say the postwar liberal period of the Cold War comes as close as one can imagine.

The technocratic glorification of facts lasted well into the 1960s and it took decades to transition from a deference to facts towards the denial of facts. Technocracy tends to ignore the opinions of ordinary people, but society since the financial crisis of 2008 is questioning the expert decisions of technocrats, who feel little need to negotiate with the public. Technocrats know the right way of doing things and want to make policies without a social debate. Yet, politics doesn’t just revolve around facts, values and goals also matter.

Two political currents are clashing in Western democracies: a populist backlash and an entrenched, bumbling technocracy. Trump’s base, England’s UKIP, Germany’s AfD, France’s National Front and Italy’s Five Star Movement have something in common, they are opposed to the administrators in Washington and Brussels.

The mistrust between populists and elites is mutual and may be observed in the hated figure of Angela Merkel, the cool technocratic physicist and chancellor of Germany, who also seems to distrust basic democratic decisions as well as Donald Trump, the plutocratic president of the United States who ignores the scientific evidence of climate change. Weirdly, the educated class, rather than the billionaire class, are now viewed as the elite in many places in America.

Propaganda

To better understand the phenomenon of (fake-news as) propaganda, we need to return to a time before the term had negative connotations. The American sociologist, Talcott Parsons defined propaganda in 1942 as the:

attempt to influence attitudes, and hence directly or indirectly the actions of people, by linguistic stimuli, by the written or spoken word. It is specifically contrasted with rational ‘enlightenment,’ with the imparting of information from which a person is left to ‘draw his own conclusions,’ and is thus a mode of influence mainly through ‘non-rational’ mechanisms of behavior. . . .  But most propaganda is oriented to the influencing not of single persons, but of large numbers in such a way that its effectiveness will lead to an appreciable alteration of the ‘state of the social system’ of which they are a part.”4

The advantage of interpreting the phenomenon of propaganda through Parsonian sociology is that it’s placed in the larger context of social control. Parsons regarded propaganda neutrally; it’s simply another agency of control or a modern tool that supports “the institutionalized definition of the situation,” and provides a “constraining” influence on social action.Moreover, Parsons strongly advocated deliberate propaganda as part of the war effort, which he considered as a general extension of government power.6

We shall come back to Parsons later, but first let us return to our analysis of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.  In regards to communications, Orwell’s totalitarian world is very different from our “Post-Truth” world. Whereas Big Brother’s monopoly over all information through censorship was absolute, our neoliberal oligarchy is losing control over the lines of communication.

            Multipolar World

The international system is becoming increasingly multipolar since the United States foolishly plunged its military into the Middle East. The Bush administration was unable to turn Iraq into a neoliberal democracy. The only reality they temporarily controlled was the narrative inside America. Yet the Iraqi insurgency made that increasingly difficult because events on the ground are what ultimately drive a narrative.

While America’s “unipolar moment” quickly passed, China’s meteoric rise accelerated and Putin has delivered Russia from past humiliations by putting it back on the geopolitical map.

Historically, geopolitics has reinforced Freud’s “reality principle.” War, according to Orwell, was what kept human societies in touch with physical reality. In spite of cultural relativity, adaptation to reality is common to all societies. Psychologically, reality is, more or less, experienced everywhere in terms of the existing institutionalized social structure in which one finds oneself. Moreover, the institutionalized patterns of a particular social system are historically shaped by the physical environment and other social-systems. The maximization of the “reality principle” in Western society through rationalization developed in response to intense geopolitical competition.  

In short, Orwell suggested that the ontological distinction between mind and world had historically never been abolished because “inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions.”

In Orwell’s totalitarian world, the capacity of Big Brother to create social reality was omnipotent. Big Brother could deny reality because the threat of war had vanished. Actually, the oligarchy could only deny the existence of the external world within its territory because the danger of conquest was eliminated. The oligarchies of Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia exercised absolute control over their respective populations because real war had ceased to exist. And thus, the total control over external reality went hand in hand with the denial of reality.

Historically, the Soviet Union came much closer to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four than the United States, which has always resembled Aldous Huxley‘s dystopian future.  For example, how many people outside of the Soviet Union had heard of the Novocherkassk massacre in 1962? Nobody in the West knew about this pivotal event nor much about the Soviet economy. Yet, due to the ubiquity of smart phones and social media, it would be nearly impossible to suppress news like that today.

Deng Xiaoping, on the other hand, openly cracked down on peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square. In any case, the one-party state’s legitimacy wasn’t badly tarnished because Xiaoping replaced Maosim with Chinese nationalism and an ideology of getting gloriously rich.

The country today which most approximates Orwell’s totalitarian hell is North Korea, whose oligarchy maintains total control over information within its territory. The regime can afford to circulate any illusion it pleases, because the probability of conquest has been dramatically reduced by its nuclear deterrence. China, incidentally, enjoys watching North Korea threaten America’s credibility.

The United States created a system of regional alliances in Europe and Asia, as an anti-Communist bulwark. Today, Russia and China are the only great powers seriously challenging the existing world order, which Washington put in place after WWII. As American imperial power declines, we may expect China and Russia to exert themselves both politically and ideologically.

Digitization

The multipolar world that’s emerging coincides with the explosion of the world-wide-web, satellites, smart phones, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Wikileaks and so on.

China still tries to filter internet traffic through its “Great Firewall” and Russian, Iranian and Saudi governments may resort to censorship, but returning to the old days of broadcast and radio jamming is next to impossible. China has the legal authority and technical ability to totally seal the internet off from the outside world, yet it hasn’t so far, because censorship would hinder the country’s innovation and cripple its economy. 

Netanyahu, for example, could shut down Al Jazera in Israel, but such an action would bring him down to the same level as Erdoğan, whose Turkish government has been closing down media organizations that are critical of it. Such an act would also undermine Israel’s main claim to legitimacy; namely, that it’s the only democratic country in the Middle East.

Digital radio trumps medium wave radio. The reception of broadcast news is limited. I can hear NPR clear in Germany and German Deutsche Welle  in Florida over a smartphone or Greek radio in Germany. The only barriers are linguistic, but many states broadcast in foreign languages to reach their target audience. In short, the internet has created a “Long Tail” for niche entertainment-and-news markets; and the two have combined into a single product: infotainment. Showbiz has infected politics and news; hence, the creation of political-entertainment.

Subaltern Public Spheres

The public sphere is slowly breaking down, due to digitization and the rise of alternative news and social media.  Previously, when I was growing up, you’d only come across fringe topics on late-night radio talk shows, which as a teenager in the 80s was weird because you’d hear things that were never spoken of during the day. Yet, these glimpses of matters outside consensus reality were rare. Political rants from the fringes of the political spectrum were vigilantly quarantined.

Before it was banished, the symbolic medium of religion had for centuries backed the single official reality, and has only recently come to function as the quintessential subaltern public sphere. The public intellectuals who police the public sphere exclude certain values. Because their outlook is scientific and secular, religious discourse has essentially been displaced in America’s intellectual public sphere.

The situation is very different in Germany where religion is tolerated but ignored. The German constitution guarantees religious education as a regular subject in public schools and every morning a Christian intellectual gives a little sermon on public radio. Germany’s official churches produce and circulate interpretations of reality that are, more or less, in line with mainstream political and scholarly discourse.

In America, where religion is excluded from public radio, Christian radio is broadcast most of the day on private stations, and their messages are less secular than in Germany.  While Christian public intellectuals were vanishing during the 1960s, fundamentalists started building up their subaltern public spheres. Around the same time, ironically, Pope John XXIII intended to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world by convoking the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Evangelicals, however, aren’t exactly known for their tolerance. Their outlook remains premodern. They for one didn’t follow Timothy Leary, the High Priest of acid, to the gates of Hell and beyond. It was the psychedelic experience and sixties counterculture that ushered in the postmodern era, when the norms of “Norman Rockwell America” began to crack. In time, many subaltern groups developed in parallel and opposition to the official public sphere. What was once fringe is now becoming mainstream.

But then again, one wonders if the kind of mass consciousness that existed before the advent of streaming and on-demand television has simply vanished?

Deception

Ironically, there is a grain of truth in Trump’s continuous fake news rhetoric. Within days after November 8th, smugly complacent liberals were concluding that fake news and Russian disinformation had swung the election.Even though the data hadn’t yet been interpreted, opinion makers knew the answers.Such groundless claims are as perverse as Trump’s allegation that he’d have won the popular vote had it not been for widespread voter fraud.

Censorship in America operates more through institutional bias than deliberate deception. Writing about the Washington-media alliance, Noam Chomsky suggests the Washington press follows a predictable script: the administration gives a signal and the press expresses outrage or praise on the issue at hand. Mainstream news is manufactured by multinational corporations, which reflects the interests of the super rich and the managing classes. Also, as Glen Glenwald notes, elite reporters tend to identify with the U.S. government.

“This identification of the establishment media with government is cemented by various factors, one of them being socioeconomic. Many of the influential journalists in the United States are now multimillionaires. They live in the same neighborhoods as the political figures and financial elites over which they ostensibly serve as watchdogs. They attend the same functions, they have the same circles of friends and associates, their children go to the same elite private schools. The revolving door moves the media figures into high-level Washington jobs, just as government officials often leave office to the reward of a lucrative media contract.”9

Elite journalists and government officials not only live in the same cosmopolitan bubble, but share a technocratic function. Collectively, they decide which stories are fit to print. Technocrats are adept at twisting facts to fit their own opinion as well as using facts to suppress other opinions. The public may be as misinformed as the technocrats claim, however, they are also to blame.

Even if Russia had hacked the DNC servers and John Podesta’s emails, the information disclosed was neither “fake news” nor disinformation. In general, Moscow’s RT, France24, Tehran’s PressTV, and Qatari Aljazeera are disclosing truthful and newsworthy information that is often not presented in American mainstream media. These foreign media outlets simply broadcast events that are not covered by mainstream news or circulate the ideas of American dissidents.

Since we know Russia is trying to exploit Europe’s re-nationalist resurgent parties and leftists alike, from France’s Front National and Pegida to the Communists, we also know Russia’s communication strategy. Parsons said there were three kinds of propaganda techniques: revolutionary, disruptive and reinforcement.

We may infer that Russian propaganda dovetails with its strategy of supporting a disruptive American president. From this point of view, we may also assume that Russia cares very little about “revolutionary” ideology and winning people over to an alternative set of values from existing ones.

Domestically, I assume Russian news serves a “reinforcement” function; that is, using propaganda to strengthen society’s basic institutional patterns and cultural traditions. In principle, when RT covers Russia, one ought to take what is said with a grain of salt.

However, the technique that Russia propagates abroad is “disruptive.” Russian propaganda isn’t trying to convert Americans, British or Germans to Russian values. To paraphrase Parsons, a disruptive strategy merely seeks to undermine a nation’s attachments to the “existing institutional system as such.” Disruptive propaganda seeks to undermine social cohesion as well as “confidence in authority and leadership,” in order “to paralyze its capacity for action.”

Previously, when the Nazis were employing disruptive propaganda techniques, the United States had already stopped immigration and was pushing an assimilation policy. In response to Nazi disruptive propaganda, the US practiced reinforcement propaganda, which backed its “Americanization” federal policy and committment to a free marketplace of ideas.

Interestingly, “disruptive” propaganda doesn’t require much deception, it works by systematically and deliberately agitating society’s elements of tension and conflict. Now, this isn’t too hard to carry out against the United States; for America’s vulnerability to disruptive propaganda has been self-inflicted by liberals, who have for the last decades emphasized social diversity over national unity.

RT merely needs to present Russia in a good light while throwing a critical light on Washington by giving American dissidents a platform to comment on current events.

Attention Economy

Regardless of a news outlet’s ideological orientation, the presentation of new information is welcome. Since everyone has blind-spots, news from another point of view helps one form a more balanced picture of the world.

The point is that more media outlets is good news for individuals who want access to more information. Since news is institutionally biased and socially determined, curious individuals ought to welcome different perspectives of events. In principle, a single news-media cannot always report all of the facts. This is one reason why news often feels more like propaganda than impartial reporting. In any case, lies are primarily believed because people are inclined to seek out stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether they are true or not.

To counter cognitive bias, make a conscious effort to consume news-media that you implicitly disagree with.

Noise is the other challenge today. PR experts know how to manipulate information in a world where the supply of media choices is practically unlimited. People’s awareness of podcasts, newspapers, magazines, blogs and their ability to find them is constrained by the time and attention they can spare. In short, people are overwhelmed by the abundance of choice and generally consume whatever is trending or is popular in their own social bubble rather than explore more obscure corners of the web.

So, despite the availability of information, why are people as ignorant as ever? Primarily, because of the low-level of education in relation to a country’s population, but also remember propaganda doesn’t influence single persons but impacts large numbers of people; and finally, entertainment has become our modern-day soma.

Today, our world is fundamentally different from times when governments could, more or less, control information within their territory. Platforms like Wikileaks and YouTube simply bypass political gatekeepers and the filters of established news organizations. It’s the abundance of information that characterizes our age. We are in virgin territory.

While having touched on China’s great fire wall, Google and Apple’s willingness to help Beijing control citizens’ access to the Internet ought to make us think. If these internet giants easily comply with Chinese demands, what would they do for Washington? Well, as Noam Chomsky says, the US establishment finds the idea intolerable that there should be a network reaching people, which does not repeat the US propaganda system.” We know that technology already aggregates atomized audiences; if algorithms can steer people to what’s popular, they can also steer people away from what officialdom deems inappropriate, i.e. “fake news,” a notion which the Washington Post and New York Times are wholeheartedly praising.

Trump’s goal maybe to delegitimize the mainstream media’s role of watchdog and create a space for his own alternate reality. However, should the media be the arbiter of facts when they have lost so much credibility?

1 “From the perspective of neoliberal internationalism, of course, the post-factual age began as late as 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum and the smashing of Clintonism by Donald Trump.” Yet, the German sociologist, Wolfgang Streeck goes on to say that the “new age of post-factual politics”  was inaugurated decades ago by the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal revolution. However, I’d add that Germany had already experienced a postfaktische age under Hitler, who was a better orator and dramatist than a military strategist. President Reagan, on the other hand, by mastering the powerful medium of Television, proved that political theater is inseparable from political life. TV isn’t the best medium for transmitting complex ideas, but, like theater, it provides great entertainment, and thus, played a significant role in the inauguration of post-factual politics.

2 I don’t know who coined the term “mainstream media,” but Noam Chomsky has been using it for decades, to critique the concentration of media ownership and US foreign policy, for example, Chomsky has shown how the New York Times, “the newspaper or record,” has a record of ignoring taboo stories. Ironically, the Rightwing has appropriated the pejorative term, and have combined it with Sarah Palin’s populist expression “lamestream media.”

3 Trump’s usage of the terms corresponds with the right-wing German slogan Lügenpresse. However, it lacks meaning because Trump uses it against any organization that personally displeases him, be it negative polls, CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

4 Talcott Parsons, “Propaganda and Social Control,” in Essays In Sociological Theory (The Free Press, Gencoe Illinois: 1954), 142-143

5 Social control employs two kinds of techniques on deviant behavior: persuasion and coercion. Parsons believes a state ought to concentrate on using symbolic power to persuade rather than coercive power to compel obedience, because persuasion encourages cooperation while raw force engenders antagonism and alienation. Since brute force produces resistance, it diminishes legitimacy and hence power.

6 Government must take care of everyone who cannot stand on their own feet and those who cannot take care of themselves must necessarily submit to those who are more competent. Since the unconscious influence of propaganda is inevitable, Parsons argued that competent experts need to manage opinion in a paternalistic manner. The notion that the public must be taken fully into government’s confidence and treated as responsible adults” is unrealistic and isn’t based on the findings of modern social science. The pre-Freudian enlightenment “view is largely a compound of utopianism and rationalistic bias.” So, since the areas of competence of the citizenry are very limited, technocrats are entrusted to manage most institutions. Parsons conceived the exercise of power in fiduciary terms” and in conformity with the basic [democratic] patterns of the society.” To be fair, Parsons imagined the technocrats in charge of propaganda would consist of uomo di fiducia or men of trust. Today, however, we know that our trustees and gaurdians have abused power since WWII. To manipulate public opinion, for example, the CIA has been involved in activities from subsidizing newspapers, liberal colleges, to carrying out black propaganda; and, hence, operating far outside the law.

7  Hillary Clinton attributed her election defeat to Russian hacking and FBI director James Comey’s letter.

8 Determining the reasons why Trump won requires measuring data and placing it inside a complex empirical theory, and social scientists hadn’t then come up with any conclusive explanation.

9 Glen Glenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and U.S. Surveillance State (Hamish Hamilton: London, 2014), 234-235.