Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We Need A War To End All Wars On Whatever

Human rights attorney Kenneth Roth asks "Must It Always Be Wartime?" This blogger has lived long enough to see Wars On — Poverty, Drugs, and Terror. The first two wars never saw victory and the outcome is doubtful for Terror. Il Douche has filled his administration with military officers (active and retired) in a vain commitment to wage war on abstractions. If this is a (fair & balanced) csll for an end to specious calls for "war" on abstractions, so be it.

Must It Always Be Wartime?
By Kenneth Roth

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Review of Rosa Brooks' How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016)

Societies often go to great lengths to separate war from peace. Wars are declared, sometimes with elaborate ritual. Soldiers wear uniforms and are part of specialized hierarchical organizations. Battlefields are often delineated. Maintaining this distinction is important because what is permissible in wartime is often prohibited in peacetime. Preventing the rules of war from infecting views of moral conduct in times of peace is essential for preserving civilization.

Yet particularly since September 11, 2001, the line between war and peace has blurred. The “war” on terrorism that President George W. Bush chose to declare was very different from, say, the confrontations between large national forces of World War II or even traditional counterinsurgency battles on a nation’s own territory. Al-Qaeda is a shadowy organization, many of its offshoots and successors even more so. The global and decentralized threat posed by the self-declared Islamic State presents a further complication.

The decision to treat the September 11 attack as an act of war rather than a horrible crime was a policy choice (one opposed in these pages by Philip Wilcox, a former American diplomat1). We could easily imagine a President Al Gore making a different choice. But once made, the decision to pursue “war” against al-Qaeda and its associated forces had major implications.

In war, opposing combatants can be targeted and killed by virtue of their status as combatants, without regard to their conduct at that moment. Captured combatants in wars between countries can be detained without charge or trial until the end of the armed conflict. In peacetime, by contrast, law enforcement rules allow the use of lethal force only as a last resort to stop an imminent lethal threat, and detentions generally can be sustained only after charges have been filed and a trial has taken place.

In view of the stakes, the debate about the proper way to characterize efforts to counter terrorism has understandably been intense. The stakes are only higher under President Donald J. Trump, given his apparent willingness to push the limits of legality in fighting terrorism. But as is often the case when alternative conceptions compete for recognition, resolving this debate has been difficult.

Rosa Brooks suggests, in her lively, informed, and insightful new book, that we consider a different approach. Brooks is a Georgetown law professor and former human rights investigator brought up by “left-wing antiwar activists.” But she also served as counselor to Michèle Flournoy, for two years the US undersecretary of defense for policy under Obama. From that position, Brooks had an insider’s perspective on many of the most difficult policy issues facing the Pentagon. She also ended up meeting her husband, an Army Special Forces officer with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, who she says helped her understand how the issues she was dealing with played out in reality.

Brooks discusses the implications of today’s increasingly blurred line between war and peace and concludes that we may need to transcend these old distinctions. After the atrocities of World War II, governments of leading nations drafted the series of treaties that are the basis of international human rights law, the detailed rules limiting what governments can do to people. In time of war, these rules are supplemented by international humanitarian law (also known as the laws of war or the laws of armed conflict), much of which is contained in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Protocols.

Each set of laws is quite detailed, with the Geneva Conventions alone amounting to several hundred pages. Yet the law distinguishing peace from war—determining when humanitarian law’s more permissive rules for killing and detention kick in—is surprisingly sparse, leaving much room for dispute, especially when one of the ostensible parties to a conflict is a non-state armed group or a terrorist organization.

“War” occurs when a sufficient level of hostilities takes place between sufficiently organized military forces. Among the factors considered in the various protocols, commentaries, and tribunal decisions that address the issue are the number, duration, and intensity of particular confrontations; the use of military weapons; the number of participants in the fighting; and the resulting casualties and displacement of civilians.

A confrontation between two national armies is easy to classify as war. Sporadic acts of violence by criminal syndicates or even drug cartels are widely agreed not to be war. But how does one classify the periodic attacks by such groups as al-Qaeda or ISIS beyond their territorial bases, combined with the occasional violent response by Western military forces? That the United States deploys military forces is not enough, by itself, to qualify the result as an armed conflict. If that were sufficient, then a government could justify the summary killing of “combatants” simply by using its armed forces. Yet a state can enter into “war” with a non-state armed group on grounds of the magnitude and sustained nature of its military deployment.

If the fight against terrorist groups is hard enough to classify, consider new and emerging security threats—such as cyberattacks on critical infrastructure or the use of bioengineered viruses—that do not involve the kinetic or explosive weapons of traditional war. Does it make sense to speak of “combatants” when the attacker is not an armed soldier but a hacker at a computer terminal or a scientist in a biology laboratory? And even if they are combatants, is it a proper response to such attacks to authorize shooting or bombing them from afar, as is permitted in a traditional armed conflict?

International humanitarian law is clearly in need of elaboration in order to address these newer forms of conflict, but it should at least provide the starting point. For example, biological warfare unleashing deadly pathogens or cyber warfare shutting down electrical facilities are disturbing in large part because they could inflict widespread indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian casualties—concepts that are central to humanitarian law.

Similarly, a firmer grounding in international human rights and humanitarian law would have helped to avoid the kinds of perversions of that law that were orchestrated by the Bush administration, whose attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete” and whose Justice Department cited a “new kind of war” to authorize “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, a form of torture. In fact, despite Trump’s musings about reviving it, international law prohibits torture—indeed, makes it a crime—in times of both peace and war.

Greater attention to human rights principles might also have led Trump to temper his executive order temporarily banning visitors to the United States from seven mainly Muslim countries. Ostensibly designed to fight terrorism, it made no effort to limit its scope to people who posed any identifiable threat, at enormous personal cost, if upheld by the courts, to the 60,000 people whose visas were suddenly not recognized.

Complicating matters further is the expanding role of the US military. Today, counterinsurgency strategy is broadly understood to involve far more than fighting an opposing military. It also has come to mean protecting the civilian population and building government institutions that serve rather than prey upon people, including a legal system that protects rights. Trump is now questioning the utility of such “nation-building,” but in the meantime it has led the Pentagon to sponsor a variety of programs that have little to do with confronting enemy troops.

As Brooks describes it, US soldiers now undertake public health programs, agricultural reform efforts, small business development projects, and training in the rule of law. This expanding mandate, as Brooks shows, has enabled the Pentagon to dramatically increase its budget—few in Congress deny requests for more spending on national defense—even as austerity eviscerates the budgets of the agencies that traditionally carry out these tasks, such as the State Department and USAID.

The radically different budgets of the Pentagon and its civilian counterparts only reinforce the tendency to look to the military to address nonmilitary problems—to treat it as a “Super Walmart” ready to respond to the nation’s every foreign policy need. “It’s a vicious circle,” Brooks explains, “as civilian capacity has declined, the military has stepped into the breach.”

Yet there is a cost to a self-reinforcing cycle of militarizing US foreign policy. Pursuing economic development, undertaking agrarian reform, expanding the rule of law—these are tasks requiring considerable expertise, including linguistic skills and cultural sensitivity not usually associated with the average military recruit, still chosen foremost for strength and agility even in a world in which traditional military tasks diminish in importance.

Moreover, humanitarian and development workers have typically enjoyed a degree of protection in the field because of their neutrality—their dedication to offering services on the basis of need rather than political preference. The militarization of these efforts has contributed to the “shrinking of humanitarian space” in which aid workers give assistance; they are increasingly endangered because they are perceived as military assets. The US may not be well served by Congress’s reflexive preference for military solutions to civilian problems.

Brooks discusses these emerging legal and practical problems with the clarity of an outsider given a seat at the insider’s table. But her book focuses on a more current problem: America’s use of aerial drones to kill terrorist suspects. In places where the United States is obviously at war, such as the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the use of drones is relatively uncontroversial. Indeed, because of their exceptional accuracy, their small blast radius, and their ability to linger over an area to verify targets and choose a moment to attack when the fewest civilians are nearby, drones can help avoid civilian casualties—a central requirement of international humanitarian law.

But problems arise when drones are used in places where the US has not claimed to be at war, such as Yemen or Somalia. If law-enforcement standards are applied in such places, US security officials would still be permitted to use lethal force, but only in exceptional circumstances—when it is the only feasible way to avoid an imminent threat to life. In a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama accepted these law-enforcement standards for such situations, stating that the United States would use lethal force only against “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and even then, only if capture is not possible and there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

In fact, as far as can be determined given the secrecy shrouding US drone attacks, Obama’s speech seems to have made little difference in the way attacks are actually carried out, and Trump in any event, in one of his first executive orders, has called for a reexamination of these rules. Part of the problem seems to stem from the US government’s elastic definition of a continuing “imminent” threat; its definition allows such a threat to be established regardless of how soon an alleged planned attack might take place. This sleight of hand seems to leave the United States operating more under war rules, in which a person’s status as an enemy combatant provides sufficient grounds to attack—was distinguished from the doctrine that the person must pose an imminent threat. It is as if the law-enforcement rules articulated by Obama have reverted back to war rules.

To make matters worse, even though it is unclear how the US government even makes such determinations, it sometimes seems to treat mere association with a suspect as evidence of membership in a terrorist group. That expands the range of targetable people still further—possibly beyond the definition of an enemy combatant even if war rules applied.

This matters not only for the victims of unlawful US counterterrorism efforts but also for many others. America’s monopoly on weaponized drones is already breaking down. Other governments are developing or purchasing this technology as well. Even ISIS reportedly has attacked with simple drones.

Moreover, if targeted killing is permitted under an expansive rationale for the “war against terrorism,” there may be no need for drones at all. Assassinations, poisoning, car bombs, “accidents”—there are plenty of ways to kill an “enemy combatant” once that characterization is accepted. And in an increasingly mobile world, even the most isolated governments will have opportunities to detain US citizens if broad, war-based standards for detention without charge gain wide acceptance. As Brooks notes, when the US government embraces controversial legal theories, it prepares “the way for other states to behave in similar ways.” She adds: “Let’s not kid ourselves: the legal arguments that the United States is now making will come back and bite us in the future.”

Unintended civilian casualties are not the issue. Regardless of the rules applied, the US government has a strong incentive to avoid such casualties, not only for humanitarian reasons but also because of the huge propaganda advantages they provide to terrorists. Rather, the central issue is who can be deliberately targeted. Who is the intended victim, and on what grounds?

A similar problem arises with respect to detention. In an ordinary armed conflict between countries, as noted, the laws of war permit detaining an enemy combatant until the end of the conflict. The rationale is not punitive—criminal prosecution rarely occurs and is not needed—but to prevent the combatant from returning to the battlefield and again taking up arms against the detaining power. But in traditional armed conflicts, the uniformed combatants, the battlefield, and the end of the conflict are all relatively easy to determine. As a result, there has been little requirement for judicial oversight, because most of the central facts justifying detention are obvious.

This is not so in the fight against terrorism, in which members of terrorist groups try to hide, their organizations operate under the radar, and there is no one with whom to sign an armistice even if one were desired. It is with these uncertainties in mind that the US Supreme Court granted Guantánamo detainees at least the nominal right to judicial oversight of the lawfulness of their detention. In fact, however, the federal judges involved have been extraordinarily deferential to the US military’s assessments of whether an individual is a member of an “enemy” group even when evidence is scant.

For much of the past fifteen years, the US officials favoring expansive powers to fight terrorism have been at loggerheads with human rights organizations that have been trying to limit those powers. In Brooks’s view, this debate is going nowhere because it is so difficult to demonstrate conclusively whether standards for war or for law enforcement should apply. As with the famous drawing, reproduced by Wittgenstein, that can be a rabbit or a duck depending on how you look at it, Brooks fears there is no right answer to this debate—or at least no answer that will convince someone already wedded to the opposing point of view. “Many U.S. counterterrorism practices simply defy straightforward legal categorization,” she concludes. The issue, she says, is not one of “lawbreaking, but of law’s brokenness.”

As Brooks notes, “there’s nothing natural or inevitable about any of our familiar categories or distinctions.” They reflect the concepts of a particular era. Rather than continue the effort to divide the world into two categories, she suggests “recognizing that war and peace are not binary opposites, but lie along a continuum.” The task then, she concludes, is to ask not what the law requires, since the law’s answer depends on the difficult-to-resolve dispute over the definition of war or peace. What matters instead is what is right, based on our values. Lawyers may feel less at home with this debate, she observes, but many others will feel that they can contribute to solutions.

For example, why not require some degree of judicial review before a suspect is put on the “kill list” for a drone attack? The traditional answer is that you can’t possibly have judges second-guessing split-second, life-and-death judgments on the battlefield. But that argument tends to assume that scenes of conflict resemble the Normandy invasion or even an urban battlefield where prior judicial review would indeed be impractical.

By contrast, most drone attacks today occur only after lengthy surveillance and extensive discussion among various elements of the executive branch. Rather than the anonymity of the traditional battlefield, today’s targets are often known in intimate detail. In such cases, there is plenty of time for an independent officer such as a judge to assess whether standards for using lethal force have been met. “The logic underlying the law of armed conflict’s permissive rules on status-based killing doesn’t apply here,” Brooks observes. Some judgments may still be made at the last second—such as determining when the target is most isolated in order to avoid unintended civilian casualties—but placing a target on a kill list is compatible with greater scrutiny, including judicial oversight, even if the standards of war are accepted. As Brooks points out, such a policy would help us “develop better mechanisms to prevent arbitrariness, mistake, and abuse in targeted killings.”

Similarly, even if judicial review is typically impractical and unnecessary for decisions about detention in the midst of an ordinary armed conflict, why should it not be extended to detainees like those in Guantánamo? Many of them find themselves accused of terrorist associations on flimsy grounds (using “intelligence” provided by dubious informants or even following torture), and their lengthy detention in the “forever war” against terrorism provides plenty of opportunity and need for an independent assessment.

In my view, Brooks has made a fresh and useful argument, but she carries it too far. I would not give up on the basic distinction between war and law enforcement, because to a very significant extent, at least under Obama, that argument was won in favor of the requirements of law enforcement, which are more protective of rights. Obama abandoned Bush’s “global war on terrorism” rhetoric. In his speech at the National Defense University, Obama endorsed the application of law-enforcement standards to drone attacks that do not take place in obvious war zones, even if his requirement of “imminence” was stretched beyond common understanding and the evidence used to select a target is often weak. As a practical matter, Obama also rejected the standards of war for detaining new terrorist suspects. During his eight years in office, all such suspects were brought into the criminal justice system for prosecution; no one new was sent to Guantánamo and its limitless detention, even if Obama continued to rely on war standards to deal with the Bush detainees at Guantánamo. This is important ground won that I would not cede, especially as we enter the uncertainties of the Trump administration.

Indeed, in the current political environment in which populist politicians are ascendant and centrist leaders often seem to have lost their voice, I would be reluctant to embark on any new attempt to set global standards on something as sensitive as counterterrorism policy. The opponents of stronger limits on governmental powers to kill or detain are now likely to come from both the White House and the Kremlin. Even Theresa May, the new British prime minister, vowed at the most recent Conservative Party conference “never again” to “let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave—the men and women of [Britain’s] armed forces.” In such circumstances, it is unlikely that new standards would be more protective than the current ones.

But it may still be worth using Brooks’s argument to secure whatever additional safeguards we can from those who would continue to rely on war standards to counter terrorism. I would rephrase her argument not as a substitute for the “category problem” she identifies of distinguishing between war and peace but as a supplement to it. For example, one might argue: even if you think US drone attacks in Yemen should be governed by war rules, and granted the difficulty of judicial oversight in the midst of classic combat, surely we should accept some judicial oversight for the more deliberative actions taking place on the “battlefield.”

Or even if you think counterterrorism detentions should be governed by war rules, with very limited judicial scrutiny, surely we should accept more oversight before detention in a “conflict” in which it is difficult to say who the combatants are, or where the “war” takes place, and when it ends. Indeed, we should strongly prefer criminal prosecution to mere detention. These arguments should not be understood to substitute for rules of law enforcement, but to improve upon an unfettered application of war standards for those who still refuse to accept any law-enforcement approach to addressing terrorism.

As Brooks shows us, the battle of competing standards may well have left insufficient protection of the fundamental rights not to be killed or summarily detained. But the nuanced set of questions she poses should be used as much as possible to supplement existing standards, not to abandon them. Otherwise, we risk undermining the important if imperfect protections we already have. And with countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates today all involved in active efforts against armed or terrorist groups outside their territories, any weakening of the rules would give those countries greater latitude too—a frightening thought. ###

1Philip C. Wilcox Jr., “The Terror,” The New York Review, October 18, 2001.

[Kenneth Rotp>h has been the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch since 1993. Roth received a BA (history) from Brown University and a JD from the Yale Law School.]

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Today, A Tag-Team Takes Down Trumpcare

To supplement today's 'toon from Tom Tomorrow, look at John Oliver's recent dissection of the Stupid's struggle to replace Obamacare.

[x YouTube/LastWeekTonigh Channel]
"Obamacare: Last Week Tonight"
With John Oliver

If this is a (fair & balanced) double-hit, so be it.

[x TMW]
Welcome To Trumpcare
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow." His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political blog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. Even more recently, Dan Perkins was a runner-up for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.]

Copyright © 2017 This Modern World/Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Stupid Price We Pay & Will Pay

Eags (Timothy Egan) caps today's fine essay with paraphrase of former House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr.'s aphorism: "All -politics- weather is local (until it isn’t)." Il Douche is hellbent to build a useless wall on the southern border while the national infrastructure goes to the blazes because the Stupids won't increase taxes to pay for improvements. If this is a (fair & balanced) indictment of Stupid policy, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Rising Walls, Falling Bridges
By Eags (Timothy Egan)

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Even more than politics, all weather is local. So, while most of the nation basked in record warmth this week, the West Coast was battered again by a system carrying enough water vapor to equal the flow of about 10 Mississippi Rivers.

The storm was the latest hydraulic dump from an “atmospheric river,” a term usually tossed around only by weather nerds like myself, but now part of daily conversations on the West Coast. These airborne streams originate in the Pacific, sometimes 300 miles wide and up to 2,000 miles in length, and become biblical downpours once they collide with coastal mountains.

The result is what you saw on the nightly news: dams falling apart, bridges cracking, highways under water, houses sliding down hillsides, gusts topping 190 miles an hour, and people trying to find their way through San Jose, CA, in rescue boats. Snow in the Sierra is at Donner Party depths — 53 feet has fallen at Mount Rose, for example.

But wait — isn’t all this water from bruised skies a good thing? Didn’t California just go through an existential drought for the ages? Is that the same governor, the unsinkable Jerry Brown, who ordered water rationing two years ago, now requesting a federal emergency to deal with too much water?

Yes, and it’s all connected. What we saw over the last seven years — a drought that brought California to its knees, followed by what could be the wettest year on record — is in the climate forecast models of the future. California, and the rest of our poor, fragmented country, is a crippled tangle of old-century solutions to a turbulent new world.

Yesterday’s dams are trying to hold back tomorrow’s climate. And what are we doing about it? We’re building a wall along the Mexican border to fix a problem that’s already taken care of itself. A wall that could cost upward of $30 billion.

After the latest storm, at Big Sur along the road that hugs perhaps the most beautiful coastline in the world, large cracks forced the shutdown of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge section of Highway 1. It’s now listed as beyond repair. At least the fracture was noticed before cars tumbled into the ravine. An additional 2,000 bridges in California are considered structurally deficient.

This is the state that gave us Golden Gate Bridge, that sublime masterpiece, that engineering marvel — built during the Great Depression. As bread lines formed in cities and one in four adults were out of work, we constructed Hoover Dam, pinching the Colorado River, and Grand Coulee Dam, backing up the mighty Columbia.

We built bridges and roads and dams to make life easier, to light cities, to invest in tomorrow. Grand Coulee’s original project name was the Planned Promised Land — a Pacific Northwest Eden for all those Dust Bowl refugees.

In the 1950s, under President Dwight Eisenhower, we constructed an Interstate highway system that was the envy of the world. It connected red states to blue, prairie to mountain. It was all part of the American Century. And you can trace some of that farsightedness to the Brooklyn Bridge, built after the United States tore itself apart in the Civil War.

Now, the focus is on a useless wall to salve the delusions of a ranting demagogue. It would be fitting if the only infrastructure legacy of the Donald Trump era was something that did not bring water to a desert, or span a gaping chasm, or electrify a rural state, but was an ugly barrier sending this message: Keep out.

On top of that, Trump is taking measures to ensure that the climate gets ever more erratic, ordering federal agencies to allow major polluters to spit more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

It’s no secret that the physical foundation of the country is falling apart. During the campaign, Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure investment. That amount was cut in half in the transition. And now it looks like the administration will propose nothing for this year — kicking the can down the road till 2018, if ever.

Their plate is full. In other words, the administration is too busy trying to take away people’s health care, rounding up immigrants and preparing a tax cut to treat our broken system like the national emergency it is.

Well, surely Congress will act. I’m kidding, of course. For Republicans on the Trump train, America First is something you shout at foreigners, not a design for a better country. Republicans hated President Obama’s injection in 2009 of much-needed financial support for all the bandaged bridges across the fruited plain.

And a huge new investment would surely require the one thing that Republicans hate most: a tax increase.

So, we look to the skies, and pray, or curse, or cower. The next big storm isn’t expected to hit California until Sunday. It’s their problem, right? Not for long. All weather is local, until it isn’t. ###

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Call 9-1-1 — Find A 12-Step Program For "Spectacle Addiction"

A, ha! Another explanation of our times has emerged. Professor Robert Zaretsky draws upon the work of the late French social theorist, Guy Debord, to find the source of our current malaise. We are addicted to spectacle. To paraphrase the British rock singer, Robert Palmer:

[x YouTube/BigJujube Channel]
"Addicted To Love" (Ladies Only video version)
By Robert Palmer

The song might well be "Addicted to Spectacle" because the images are arresting. If this is a (fair & balanced) attempt to explain our maliaise, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Trump And The "Society Of The Spectacle"
By Robert Zaretskyo

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Nearly 50 years ago, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) reached bookshelves in France. It was a thin book in a plain white cover, with an obscure publisher and an author who shunned interviews, but its impact was immediate and far-reaching, delivering a social critique that helped shape France’s student protests and disruptions of 1968.

The Society of the Spectacle is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.

As with the first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”) and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), Debord, an intellectual descendant of both of these thinkers, opens with political praxis couched in high drama: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.

The “image,” for Debord, carried the same economic and existential weight as the notion of “commodity” did for Marx. Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra. Images have become so ubiquitous, Debord warned, that we no longer remember what it is we have lost. As one of his biographers, Andy Merrifield, elaborated, “Spectacular images make us want to forget — indeed, insist we should forget.”

But in Debord’s view, forgetting doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. We are not just innocent dupes or victims in this cataclysmic shift from being to appearing, he insisted. Rather, we reinforce this state of affairs when we lend our attention to the spectacle. The sun never sets, Debord dryly noted, “on the empire of modern passivity.” And in this passive state, we surrender ourselves to the spectacle.

For Marx, alienation from labor was a defining trait of modernity. We are no longer, he announced, what we make. But even as we were alienated from our working lives, Marx assumed that we could still be ourselves outside of work. For Debord, though, the relentless pounding of images had pulverized even that haven. The consequences are both disastrous and innocuous. “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them,” Debord concluded, “because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.” Public spaces, like the agora of Ancient Greece, no longer exist. But having grown as accustomed to the crushing presence of images as we have to the presence of earth’s gravity, we live our lives as if nothing has changed.

With the presidency of Donald Trump, the Debordian analysis of modern life resonates more deeply and darkly than perhaps even its creator thought possible, anticipating, in so many ways, the frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature of our newly installed government. In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.

In his later work, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1991), published almost 20 years after the original, Debord seemed to foresee the spectacular process that commenced on January 20. “The spectacle proves its arguments,” he wrote, “simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed …. Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte.” After Trump’s inauguration, the actual size of the audience quickly ceased to matter. The battle over images of the crowd, snapped from above or at ground level, simply fueled our collective case of delirium tremens.

Since then, as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all. It goes on, Debord observed, “to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists. The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.” Indeed. Who among us recalls the many lies told by Trump on the campaign trail? Who can re-experience the shock felt when first seeing or hearing the “Access Hollywood” tape? Who can separate the real Trump from the countless parodies of Trump and the real dangers from the mere idiocies? Who remembers the Russians when our own Customs and Border officials are coming for our visas?

In the end, Debord leaves us with disquieting questions. Whether we love Trump or hate him, is it possible we are all equally addicted consumers of spectacular images he continues to generate? Have we been complicit in the rise of Trump, if only by consuming the images generated by his person and politics? Do the critical counter-images that protesters create constitute true resistance, or are they instead collaborating with our fascination with spectacle? We may insist that this consumption is the basic work of concerned citizenship and moral vigilance. But Debord would counter that such consumption reflects little more than a deepening addiction. We may follow the fact checkers and cite the critics to our hearts’ delight, but these activities, absorbed by the spectacle, have no impact on it.

Surely, the spectacle has continued nonstop since January 20. While Debord, who committed suicide in 1994, despaired of finding a way to institutionalize what, by nature, is resistant to institutionalization, we need not. We seem to be entering a period similar to May 1968, which represents what Debord called “lived time,” stripping back space and time from the realm of spectacle and returning it to the world of human interaction.

The unfolding of national protests and marches, and more important the return to local politics and community organizing, may well succeed where the anarchic spasms of 1968 failed, and shatter the spell of the spectacle. # # #

[Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston and the author, most recently, of Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015). Zaretsky received a BA (philosophy) from McGill University, an MA (history) from the University of Vermont, and a PhD (history) from the University of Virginia.]

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Welcome To The United States Of -America- Cupidity

If Il Douche breaks into a dance in the Oval Office, it will likely be Van McCoy's "The Hustle" (1975). "The Hustle" is a street-term for the favorite technique of the swindler. "Lie, cheat, and steal" are the con-man's watchwords. Il Douche cannot behave like his predecessors. Instead, he communicates with his Stupid followers like the maestro of a county fair sideshow where he all but cries" "Step right up,- Suckers-, er... Folks! It is the fulfillment of Phineas T. Barnum's prediction that "There is a sucker born every minute." And, if Barnum was alive in 2016, he would be talking about voters, not suckers because the terms became interchangeable in 2016. If this is a (fair & balanced) demonstration of electoral stupidty, so be it.

[x TNR]
The Art Of Don’s Con
By Clancy Martin

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When I was a teenager, I learned the jewelry business from the most gifted swindler I would ever know. This was in Dallas-Fort Worth in 1983, when Texas was drunk on the high price of oil. Precious metals had been booming; the Hunt Brothers were trying to corner the silver market; and I—16 years old and freshly expelled from high school—was working the buy counter at a jewelry store, the Fort Worth Gold & Silver Exchange. We had lines around the corner when we opened the doors in the morning. People took a number, just like at a deli, to wait for a salesperson. My old boss, Ronnie Cooper—who eventually did five years in federal prison for mail fraud—ran full-page ads in Texas Monthly announcing FINE JEWELRY ROUTINELY 50–80% BELOW RETAIL! “Anything to pack the store,” he told me. His idea was to create a feeding frenzy, to use the crowd to convince each new customer that he or she shouldn’t wait to buy or what they wanted would be gone.

In the literature on fraud, this is called “social proof,” a crucial aspect of lowering the mark’s skepticism about “buying in” to a con. The second setup is what’s known as the “representativeness” heuristic: If a store looks like a place where the best people shop, buyers will assume it is trustworthy. Ronnie’s store had walnut-paneled walls and a Baccarat chandelier. When you walked through the brass and lead-paned front doors, the first thing you saw was a Louis XV table next to an enormous chair made of bull horns. When Ronnie came down from his upstairs office in his three-piece suit and Hermès tie, he bestowed prosperity upon us all.

Donald Trump has fashioned his worldview by the representativeness heuristic. The same year I began working the jewelry counter, Trump opened Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th streets. The skyscraper was widely expected to be not unlike its owner, pompous and shoddy. There had been squabbles about the height of the building—Trump advertised it as ten stories taller than it was, due to a lavish public atrium on the ground floor. “It has not been difficult to presume that the Trump Tower would be silly, pretentious, and not a little vulgar,” wrote Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New York Times. “After all, what New York building has been surrounded by so much hoopla?”

But upon its unveiling, even Goldberger was impressed: “What is truly remarkable about this six-story atrium is the Breccia Perniche marble that covers its walls and floors, a rich, lush Italian marble with an absolutely exquisite color that is best described as a mixture of rose and peach and orange. It is not like any stone that has been used in such quantity anywhere else in New York, and it gives off a glow of happy, if self-satisfied, affluence.”

Trump replicated the con on the campaign trail. Anyone who walked into a Trump rally—and likely every public event he will hold as president—was confronted with a fold-out table covered in Trump steaks, bottles of Trump vodka, cases of Trump wine, and still-wrapped Trump water, a cornucopia of meat and booze worthy of a Dutch still life. Yes, it’s all unbelievably tacky—but it’s also somehow both irresistible and convincing. There is at the heart of every gaudy surface an isolated shimmer of something beautiful: the glint of a diamond, the clink of a wineglass, the hue of a marble surface. This is a part of the draw of a fraud, the self-satisfied affluence that holds up amid so much hoopla.

There are few fraudsters who aren’t worthy of American admiration in some sense of the word, Edward J. Balleisen reminds us in his new book, Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff (2017). Career grifters like P.T. Barnum, Charles Ponzi, and Bernie Madoff are heroes so long as they are in the game; we only turn on them when they become goats. After all, the American Revolution was won by cleverness, with a dependence on spycraft, smuggling, and guerrilla warfare. The least extraordinary thing about the early republic was its ambivalence toward fraud, and the most extraordinary thing about our current, late republic is that this ambivalence still widely holds. “Corruption, embezzlement, fraud. These are all characteristics which exist everywhere,” said Alan Greenspan in 2007 on the radio program "Democracy Now!" “What successful economies do is keep it to a minimum.”

Despite nearly a century of government regulation, we are still living in a world in which caveat emptor remains the rule of law, one that takes a certain pride in its American past. The lesson of Balleisen’s study is that when we trust businesspeople to be honest, and when we trust the market to regulate itself, the market, and the businessperson, will take advantage of our trust. Depending on whom you ask, this trust is either the cornerstone of American innovation or the crumbling foundation of a Constitution that does little to protect its citizens from economic inequality.

On January 11, the press attempted to ask the president-elect of the United States what he thought of his own new advantage—a role that features, by constitutional design or default, a “no-conflict situation” for the commander-in-chief to engage in business interests with unprecedented insider trading. “It’s a nice thing to have,” Trump reminded the press, the public, and himself during the chaotic press conference. Trump, and most of America, had discovered this loophole only a few months before, a flaw in a system that was supposed to elevate a person with a certain level of human shame to serve a public that holds that shame accountable. Trump then kindly reminded the press that Vice President Pence might also enjoy this luxury, even though “I don’t think he’ll need it,” a sly dig at the underwhelming business holdings of the former governor of Indiana, a longtime public official and salary man with a net worth of under $1 million. But why wouldn’t he use it? In the Trump administration, as in the nearly 300-year history of our country, it would be un-American to not even try.

The most dangerous thing about Trump’s rise to the presidency is that the extraordinary web of lies he weaves will continue to be seen as its own kind of American success, impressive for those who can no longer distinguish the forest from the trees, the foyer from the marble. President Trump will be encouraged by a population that voted for him, often against their best interests, because economic mobility has always been a hustle—to leapfrog over seemingly impossible social obstacles requires a certain amount of luck, cleverness, and a cavalier willingness to lie. As inequality widens, so does admiration for the swindler, while playing the system has become synonymous with achieving the American dream. # # #

[Clancy Martin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is the author of the novel How to Sell (2009) and one of his latest books is Bad Sex (2015). Martin received a BA (philosophy) from Baylor University and a PhD (philosophy) from The University of Texas at Austin.]

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Roll Over John Dean, Today's Big Question Is "What If Michael T. Flynn Flips To Avoid The Slammer And Gives Up Il Douche?"

Probably, Il Douche's greatest talent is his ability to tell lies (both big and small) without a tell: nary a twitch, blink, or a look askance. The twisted A$$hole-in-Chief is dual-threat liar: in person or in Twitterspace. So, both his mouth lies (anytime his lips are moving) and he also lies with the short fingers of hie tiny hands. He can tell whopper untruths and he can lie with an offhand remark. In the Stupid Hall of Shame, St. Dutch was the Great Communicator and Il Douche will be remembered as the Great Prevaricator. Both were/are lyin' sumbitches belovd by the Stupid faithful. If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of political dishonesty, so be it.

[x HNN]
By Rick Shenkman

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Donald Trump lies repeatedly to the public like no one else ever has. But Michael Flynn lies once to Mike Pence and he's out on his ear?

This seems like a paradox. It isn't. Here's why.

The shocking events of the last 24 hours that culminated in the resignation of the National Security Advisor demonstrate a truth that first dawned on me 20 years ago when I was writing my book, Presidential Ambition. It's this.

Presidents can lie freely to the American public with few consequences so long as they are liked and events are going their way. But they rarely if ever lie to other politicians. The consequences of lying to people with whom you have to work are too high in most cases.

The only example I have seen in the last generation of a president telling a big fat lie to other politicians was Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The lie worked. It helped keep his cabinet with him during the early months of the scandal. By the time they learned the truth the issue was no longer whether he'd had an affair but whether Democrats were going to stand with him in a fight with the GOP. As the polls were with Clinton that was an easy call.

Then there’s Trump. He happens to be someone who lies both to the public and to the people around him. In this respect he's truly different from representatives of the political class. Until now he's managed to succeed despite this moral deficiency.

But in another way he's just like normal politicians. It's apparent he often doesn't seem to recognize the difference between the truth and a lie. This is common among politicians. It's the main way they get away with lying.

As humans we have two main defenses against a liar. One is that liars get a reputation for lying. Once they do we are on our guard when they open their mouth and speak. But this chiefly works in the sphere of life in which we operate day to day. In the political realm a reputation for lying can often easily be dismissed as the creation of partisan enemies.

The other defense we have against a liar is that liars normally give themselves away. They twitch or blink or look away or do something that suggests insincerity. Our human cheater detection system goes into overdrive when we detect insincerity. This protects us from cheaters.

But do you see the problem? A really good liar can defeat our cheater detection system if they can lie without appearing nervous. They do this by convincing themselves in the moment they are lying that they are not lying. LBJ was said to be good at this. (See Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, volumes 1 through 4.)

Trump seems to have this facility. He doesn’t give away himself when he’s lying. He sounds the same no matter what he’s saying. To his believers he’s a truth teller.

The Flynn incident should serve as a lesson in morality for Mr. Trump. It should teach him that the consequences of prevarication are steep. It won’t. So you can expect Mr. Trump to keep lying.

This is sad. ###

[Rick Shenkman is the editor and founder of the History News Network, a website that features articles by historians on current events. Shenkman has written two acclaimed history books: Political Animals (2016) and Just How Stupid Are We? (2008). Shenkman received a BA (history) from Vassar College.]

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Today, The Hard Truth About Our National Crisis

In mid-November 2016, Luigi Zingales wrote about resisting Il Douche from the perspective of Italian resistance against Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian PM for for a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011. Like Il Douche, Berlesonic was a lout with an unhealthy fixation on women as sexual objects. It is not too late to heed Zingales' critique of anti-Trump strategies. If this is a (fair & balanced) overdue idea, so be it.

[x NY Fiswrap]
The Right Way To Resist Trump
By Luigi Zingales

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Five years ago, I warned about the risk of a Donald J. Trump presidency. Most people laughed. They thought it inconceivable.

I was not particularly prescient; I come from Italy, and I had already seen this movie, starring Silvio Berlusconi, who led the Italian government as prime minister for a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011. I knew how it could unfold.

Now that Mr. Trump has been elected president, the Berlusconi parallel could offer an important lesson in how to avoid transforming a razor-thin victory into a two-decade affair. If you think presidential term limits and Mr. Trump’s age could save the country from that fate, think again. His tenure could easily turn into a Trump dynasty.

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

We saw this dynamic during the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was so focused on explaining how bad Mr. Trump was that she too often didn’t promote her own ideas, to make the positive case for voting for her. The news media was so intent on ridiculing Mr. Trump’s behavior that it ended up providing him with free advertising.

Unfortunately, the dynamic has not ended with the election. Shortly after Mr. Trump gave his acceptance speech, protests sprang up all over America. What are these people protesting against? Whether we like it or not, Mr. Trump won legitimately. Denying that only feeds the perception that there are “legitimate” candidates and “illegitimate” ones, and a small elite decides which is which. If that’s true, elections are just a beauty contest among candidates blessed by the Guardian Council of clerics, just like in Iran.

These protests are also counterproductive. There will be plenty of reasons to complain during the Trump presidency, when really awful decisions are made. Why complain now, when no decision has been made? It delegitimizes the future protests and exposes the bias of the opposition.

Even the petition calling for members of the Electoral College to violate their mandate and not vote for Mr. Trump could play into the president-elect’s hands. This idea is misguided. What ground would we then have to stand on when Mr. Trump tricks the system to obtain what he wants?

The Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.

The Democratic Party should learn this lesson. It should not do as the Republicans did after President Obama was elected. Their preconceived opposition to any of his initiatives poisoned the Washington well, fueling the anti-establishment reaction (even if it was a successful electoral strategy for the party). There are plenty of Trump proposals that Democrats can agree with, like new infrastructure investments. Most Democrats, including politicians like Mrs. Clinton and Bernie Sanders and economists like Lawrence Summers and Paul Krugman, have pushed the idea of infrastructure as a way to increase demand and to expand employment among non-college-educated workers. Some details might be different from a Republican plan, but it will add credibility to the Democratic opposition if it tries to find the points in common, not just differences.

And an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.

Democrats should also offer Mr. Trump help against the Republican establishment, an offer that would reveal whether his populism is empty language or a real position. For example, with Mr. Trump’s encouragement, the Republican platform called for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, which would separate investment and commercial banking. The Democrats should declare their support of this separation, a policy that many Republicans oppose. The last thing they should want is for Mr. Trump to use the Republican establishment as a fig leaf for his own failure, dumping on it the responsibility for blocking the popular reforms that he promised during the campaign and probably never intended to pass. That will only enlarge his image as a hero of the people shackled by the elites.

Finally, the Democratic Party should also find a credible candidate among young leaders, one outside the party’s Brahmins. The news that Chelsea Clinton is considering running for office is the worst possible. If the Democratic Party is turning into a monarchy, how can it fight the autocratic tendencies in Mr. Trump? ###

[Luigi Zingales is the Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and the David G. Booth Faculty Fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He is the co-author (with Raghuram Rajan) of Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists (2003) and, more recently, A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity (2012). Zingales received a bachelor's degree in economics summa cum laude from Università Bocconi in Italy in 1987 and a PhD (economics) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992. He joined the Chicago Booth faculty in 1992.]

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