Today is the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky! Though impossible to summarize such an incredible life with a few short articles, I hope that our conclusion of commemorations is icing on the cake for the Chomsky aficionado while a pique to the interest for newcomers. Today’s selection of videos glimpses his many discussions on geopolitics, activism, and history. And I conclude with a very special gift for Noam, so please read on.
Manufacturing Consent : C-SPAN
Noam appeared on C-SPAN some years ago to discuss Manufacturing Consent, a media critique, his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward Herman. Central to the book, the propaganda model identifies means through which corporate media must serve power in contravention to the stated purpose of a free press. The book itself is a good deal more technical than most of his later analytic books, so it might serve just to watch the documentary. Here, we present the book review.
Noam and Howard
Chomsky’s very close friend Howard Zinn was a titanic American historian who, to his professional peril, articulated the appropriately named A People’s History of the United States. Having met in the 1960s while working within the civil rights movements, Noam and Howard appeared in many interviews over the years, and here’s a great one from April of 2007 appearing on Democracy Now.
Chomsky chatted about Zinn not long after his passing. His reflections evoke heart-wrench, as Howard was a close personal friend. The world is lesser without him.
1995 : Contract with America, NAFTA, and Other Idiocies
Noam spoke on campus in 1995 to Doug Morris for an hour on contemporary American politics; NAFTA, Gingrich, and other topics of the day dominated the discussion.
Self-Destruction of the Species? Institutions versus People
Chomsky spoke in April of 2001 at MIT on the question of species self-destruction, arguing the crucial role of institutional stupidity. See the section below on Daniel Ellsberg for more.
What is Anarchism?
At a philosophy forum at the Czech Palacký University Olomouc, elder Chomsky discusses his take on anarcho-syndicalism and possible latter forms. One uppity whippersnapper argues that he’d prefer to be told what to do, with Noam’s response a rather clever one.
Chomsky on Dershowitz : “Just A Comic Figure”
Alan Dershowitz has recently indebted jingoists everywhere in his zany legal defenses of Donald Trump on Fox. Chomsky has debated Dershowitz several times through the years, describing him to me as “just a comic figure, desperate to defend his two clients, himself and the State of Israel, but smart enough to know that both are guilty as sin.” This was a reference to particular points of contention he and I were discussing regarding Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Dershowitz’ often ludicrous defense of it. “All this smoke that was blown…” is a great derogation Chomsky uses in the following debate in 2005 at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government.
Dan and Noam
Daniel Ellsberg was a government analyst working within the RAND corporation during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. He met Noam while working within the peace movement in the late 1960s. Here’s a picture of Noam, Dan, and Howard together in the 1970s.
In 1971, Noam defended his friend Daniel Ellsberg publicly after Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the hidden, vicious history of the Vietnam War. This release significantly contributed to the growing public discontent with the negligent, criminal actions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Be prepared to be annoyed as hell at the Buckley-esque cross-examiner, clearly more interested in hearing his own voice. I don’t even care enough to look up his name.
Noam and Daniel met at the University of Arizona this past spring to discuss Dan’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine, a book I hope to review here soon. These icons don’t pull punches in their scathing condemnation of nuclear proliferation. Don’t be depressed. This is a call to action!
9/11 and the “Rebel Without a Pause”
In 2005, filmmaker Will Pascoe produced Rebel Without a Pause, a documentary detailing the sharp uptick in Chomsky’s speaking requests after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York (not to be confused with the September 11, 1973 terror attack in Allende’s Chile.) Chomsky discussed his book on the former attack at the fifteenth anniversary of the Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR). Almost overnight, institutions, agencies, citizens spanning America and beyond expressed desperation in understanding what would motivate a group of criminals to murder thousands of civilians, killing themselves in the process. Listen for the most plausible explanation available, a summary and analysis of intelligence data and the historical, documentary record.
Bernie and Noam
Bernie Sanders is the most favorable political figure today, according to the far right news media Fox. Though Bernie’s 2016 campaign for president didn’t reach out to Noam for analysis, commentary, and so on (Noam told me this himself), they’ve crossed paths throughout the years; in 1985, Chomsky delivered a talk called “Deciphering Foreign Policy Jargon” at Burlington City Hall. Millennials will cheer when Bernie introduces Noam.
Noam and Gore
Noam and gay hero and activist Gore Vidal only occasionally appeared together; on the passing of Gore, Noam told me,
We were on similar paths,
but they didn’t cross
much. Moved in different
circles. We did have a
discussion once, arranged
by Jay Parini, a novelist
who’s a common friend.
Don’t know what happened to it.
A fine person, in my view.
And outstanding novelist, and
honest and often discerning
Well, it just so happens I found that video for him. Yesterday, we included Gore later recounting how no American media organization would release the video, not even in “San Francisco on a Sunday morning at four a.m.” In other words, not even the most “liberal” district featured mainstream media brave enough to challenge the recently deceased George H.W. Bush’s criminal aggression in Iraq.
Requiem for the American Dream
A very recent work of Noam’s called Requiem for the American Dream considers principles of wealth concentration in the post-industrial, neoliberal era. Documented in the same-named compilation of interviews with him, the instant classic was quite hard to find in theaters, even in the tolerant urban sprawl of Seattle. My husband and I could find only one venue, somewhat distant, and a cash-only operation. So much for the bastion of liberalism. One can find the full-length documentary here.
Randall Wallace and Chomsky Speaks
Randall Wallace, grandson of former vice president Henry Wallace, believes Chomsky to be perhaps the most important intellectual of the past century. To that end, he founded Chomsky Speaks, a project aimed at capturing as much of this incredible man on film as we can in Noam’s time with us. I’d invite you to take a look for yourself.
My Friendship with Noam
While studying computer science and the Georgia Institute of Technology, I came across Noam’s work repeatedly in courses on the theory of computation. In a purely academic pursuit, I searched the internet for discussions of his professional work; I then stumbled on his activist work, finding for the first time an author and thinker who spoke my language. Encyclopedic, diligent, and driven by integrity, his powerhouse talks became a significant time drain on me. I began ordering his books by the satchel, eager to consume every detail-packed tidbit he had to offer on geopolitics, critical analysis of foreign policy, and prescriptions for a better future. We began corresponding in 2012, remaining pen pals for these years since. I believe there isn’t a man I respect more, past or present. And it isn’t hero worship, as I, like Noam, stringently object to gladiators and saviors. Noam’s role as activist has been, and continues to be, an analyst, a curator of history, and a staunch defender of victims everywhere. Though he’d never admit it, it actually gratifies him to hear how his works have inspired generation after generation of activists. It isn’t immodesty. Each of us need validation that what we’re doing is meaningful, however minor or however impactful.
Here was my eager first meeting with the man himself.
So as Noam enters his tenth decade, let me close these three days of celebration with a song I composed and performed just for him; here are the lyrics. And the recording is below.
After a lengthy health sabbatical, I’m returning to blogging all things activism. Though I’ve mostly recovered, the world remains imperiled by runaway climate change, nuclear proliferation, imperialism, racism, violence against women and people of color, and the rest of the regulars in the twenty-first century. Though my progress is slow, great activists continue a great tradition of placing the human condition ahead of personal wealth, and often safety.
This is the first in what I hope will be a long tradition of discussions with activists. Below is a transcript and audio of my conversation with George Polisner. A special thank you is in order for George himself, as he kindly edited our transcript for clarity and ease.
NP Slagle: Thank you for listening to Scire Populum et Potentiam, To Know the People and Power. It’s my great pleasure to have George Polisner for the hour. George, the technologist has over a quarter of a century of experience managing and designing distributed systems, cloud services, QA and data products for various big names in high tech such as Dell and perhaps more infamously a director at Oracle. His impressive list of technical credits also include state and local initiatives as well as technology startup consulting as founder of Alonovo which we’ll talk about shortly. George, the activist is engaged in community organizing and media for a few years now and his impressive credits include the Lincoln County Democratic Central Committee in Oregon and hosting a regular program on community radio at KYAQ. Most recently, George founded civ.works, a social engagement platform designed to offer a privacy protective alternative to the for-profit social media and this is hot on the heels of a public resignation from Oracle, topics I’m very eager to explore. Welcome, George.
George Polisner: It’s a pleasure to be here, Neil.
NPS: I’d like to start with what it is that lead you to resign from Oracle, so maybe explain to listeners the genesis of that, what lead you to make that decision and what you plan to do going forward?
GP: That’s a good question. I remember after the election on November 8th, really being in shock I think with many of my progressive friends and …
NPS: We all were, yes.
GP: Yeah. It was a very dark period, but then when Oracle’s co-CEO, Safra Catz announced that she was going to work for the Trump transition team, I felt that while she was remaining active co-CEO at Oracle, and issued a statement that, “We are here to help the Trump administration,” I did not want to be included in that “we”. I did not want to normalize the kind of hateful rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign. The attacks on women, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ community, I could not take part in what Safra stated or I could not tolerate her position in remaining at Oracle while joining, what I saw as something that was just a hate-filled criminal enterprise.
NPS: Right. It certainly evokes the more recent wave of resignations we saw at Google over the drone programs that they’re engaging with respect to the federal government. Was there much internal discussion along these lines with some of your fellow coworkers and leaders in the company?
GP: There was really none. As a matter of fact, I read about Safra’s position in a paper. There was no internal communication about … Or formal issuing of a statement internally and so no, there just wasn’t really much talk. There had been some early concern. As a matter of fact with Trump’s stated desire to start a Muslim database, there was a Not in Our Name campaign and I was very proud to sign on to that and lend my name as an Oracle employee that we would not support any attempt to create what we saw as a database that could be used to eviscerate someone’s human and civil rights.
NPS: Yeah, absolutely. In my own experience at Microsoft, when they Muslim ban was first announced, this was a Muslim ban 1.0 which was a spectacular failure fortunately, it did cause a great deal of churn and upset in my organization because of course Microsoft is an international corporation and we have people from all over the world working there. It’s easy to see how that could be a very visceral concern for people who work in technology and have the interplay with all of these people from other countries. Seems like it is more than what Trump was trying to promote.
GP: It really should be. If we can’t learn from history and basically pointing out a class of people really othering them as they would say at the Haas Institute, that is something that I could not stand for and I think a lot of peers … It was interesting after I did issue my public resignation letter, I had many various supportive messages from all over the world including many Oracle people.
NPS: Right. This gets to the broader conversation that I want us to have about how to engage technologists. I find that it really is true and most of the companies where I’ve worked, I have found a pretty strong contingency of people who are sympathetic to a more liberal perspective of the world. A more liberal and global perspective but there is this concern about forfeiting one’s career and certainly I’ve been part of that also and it’s hard to know where that dividing line should be. When do you take the stand and when do you not because sometimes if you do take that stand, it can mean you won’t work in industry again. I suppose that’s part of the uphill battle that we’re dealing with.
GP: In some of the messages I received, people were supportive and that they admired my courage but they weren’t in a position where they could do what I did. I recognized that. I mean, I was fortunate, Neil to have been in this industry a long time and be in a point in my career where I was able to take this personal risk but I recognize it’s an individual and very personal decision. I mean, I was at a point in time in which my kids were through college. They were independent. I’d put them on the ‘quantitative easing’ dad economic program for sometime so they were standing on their own. I was just at a very different point in my life. I also recognized that the circumstances that we’re dealing with today … At the time when I left Oracle, they were theoretical. I mean, really we didn’t know what would happen or how bad things would be. I expected an assault across the entire spectrum of progressive issues. At the time, people were saying, “Shouldn’t you really be patient and see what’s going to happen?”
NPS: Yeah. That’s what I was going to mention. One of the very frustrating things that came out of that especially in what limited social media access I have that there’s a course to rabid collection of people who are very much so going to try to force their views on us and there’s a lot of savage activity that happens online but there is this contingency of people that I like to think of the way Martin Luther King described them, the white moderates. People who want us to test the waters incrementally and say, “Well, we really should be patient,” and like you were saying, “Wait and see what this man does because it may not be all that bad. Maybe he just lied in the campaign and that was just to get people spun up but he’s going to actually gravitate more towards the center.” We know that wasn’t true.
GP: Well, we certainly felt it wasn’t.
NPS: I’m married to a psychiatrist and so that gives me special dispensation that is not necessarily good dispensation inside in the personalities and what we’re dealing with is something that is very, very pathological.
GP: There’s no question. Dr. King also talked about ‘The Fierce Urgency Of Now’ over 50 years ago. In my mind, the now has never been more fierce.
NPS: Right. The now is always with us and I think that’s part of the realization that technologist in particular I’d like to reach. It reminds me of what Noam Chomsky says about dipping a toe in and really the currents are strong enough that if you dip a toe in, it’s probably gonna sweep your way. My first exposure to you was seeing your resignation letter that was posted on LinkedIn and I have to say I was so impressed and gratified at the same time to see somebody in this industry where we have immense power and influence much more so than trade folks in other industries. Seeing you take this stand very publicly was gratifying and incredible and I realized this is a man I need to get to know.
GP: It’s funny Neil because there’s a back story there. After I’d found out that Safra had joined the Trump transition team, my children had been visiting as they often did during their … They would try to visit in winter break when they were in college and then later on they would try to plan some time around the holidays to come out and we would play Catan, Risk, and Monopoly and all of these games. We were in the midst of this.
NPS: And rather metaphoric playing Risk and Monopoly.
GP: Yes, exactly. Probably fueling my fire but when I found that this had happened, I said, “This can’t stand with me. This aggression will not stand,” to quote The Big Lebowski. I wrote this letter over the weekend and so we were watching what was happening. It was really unexpected. We would see, “Gee, this is now been seen by 3,000 people.” We were looking at that going, “Well, gee, what if it reaches 10,000? This will really be amazing.” It went over 350,000 views and then got coverage from The Guardian. Olivia Solon who is a wonderful senior reporter over at The Guardian wrote a story about it. The New York Times followed with a story. It was completely unexpected. I was very happy that it could serve while many of us were really still in a state of shock that it was able to serve as an example of tangible things that we could do to not normalize the behavior of this administration.
NPS: Right. I can remember I was a little bit more fearful that he would be elected partially because I believed social desirability keeps people from stating what they really think. It’s like you encounter a person on the street and you ask him, “Are you a racist?” Well, what is he going to say? If he tells you he’s a racist, then you’ll know you’re dealing with an interesting person.
GP: We know what they’ll say now and they’ll say, “Make America great again.”
NPS: Yes, MAGA all the way. I can remember it certainly … Well, it was what motivated me to form this blog and start trying to basically establish a record, a written record of views and positions and source material that hopefully will be useful for people. I know certainly your works have been very useful for me, so far. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. I was listening to a couple of your talks in preparation for this interview and one of these talks was geared towards discussing Alonovo. I’d like to hear more about that and this notion of ethical advertising and ethical affinity. I found this to be a really interesting discussion so if you could share a few words about that.
GP: Oh, of course. During the Bush-Cheney years, in which so many people felt disenfranchised by government, I recognized along with many others that shaped my point of view really starting with John Kenneth Galbraith that there’s incredible power that’s untapped that we all share from an economic perspective and the socially responsible investing community had been started and had gained certain amount of momentum. People like Peter Kinder who founded KLD Research and Analytics which would guide institutional investors on social screens. In other words, which companies to invest in that aren’t doing as much harm instead of tobacco companies or defense manufacturers, weapons manufacturers.
GP: Exactly, coal. This work had been going on for a while. People like Peter, Amy Domini and others were really leading the charge. Other friends along the way like John Tepper Marlin and Alice Tepper Marlin really shaped a lot of my perspective but what I saw was there was a lot of guidance with respect to how we would invest capital but the majority of Americans are consumers as opposed to investors. I felt that there was a very large component that was missing from the socially responsible economic equation and so what I envisioned through Alonovo was providing a service to consumers that guided them towards which companies are doing less harm, which companies are evolving to mitigate their environmental impact that are managing their resources well, that are really truly adding value to society, that are treating their workforce well. In the classic case that I would talk about with respect to socially responsible consumption if that’s not oxymoron.It is like the Costco versus Walmart story. Costco has embraced organized labor. They treat their employees well. They’re well paid, they have great benefits and that’s one side of the case study. The other side of course is Walmart which is really an economic giant but they’re notorious in terms of trying to essentially erode any kind of organized labor and the treatment of their supply chain is horrific. When they’ve opened stores …
GP: Exactly. I mean, when they open a store, it usually means the death of the main street economy in a particular town. I look at that Costco versus Walmart example and then thought about Brave New Films and The High Cost of Low Prices and thought, you know something. If we use similar information that guides institutional investment but make it accessible to consumers, we can create demand affinity with companies that are doing the right thing. If we do this, then … I used to say hey, if we can make Dick Cheney a socially responsible investor without him having to know that he is, then we will have succeeded because if we create greater equity growth in companies who are doing the right thing, it’s going to create natural affinity for investment to follow those companies. I saw consumer demand was being a missing piece to … And why I felt that socially responsible investing have been really marginalized in terms of its impact. I got together with a group of people and put some of my money into Alonovo which was created as a service that sat as part of the Amazon shopping experience that would provide guidance, a simple grade as to whether this company was treating people well and treating the environment well and operating ethically.
GP: Then the ideas was to educate people so if they clicked on that grade, they could find out the attributes that make up what would be a more evolved socially responsible company. The ideas was to not only create this demand affinity but also educate people and make this decision ubiquitous as people would basically look at products or services in terms of not only brand reputation but also what kind of behaviors am I perpetuating when I spend my money on this particular company.
NPS: Yes. This is very important work and it very so much dovetails with this broader discussion of motivating technologists in particular. I’m guilty of this as much as anybody else of not being completely aware of the impact of all of my choices as a consumer. When I was doing research for one of my blog pieces on climate changes, I came across the works … Her name escapes me [Kari Marie Noorgard] but she’s a social scientist from Norway who wrote a book about the capacity for denial that we have around climate change. You can take me for instance. I feel like I want to be socially responsible but I also fly on planes all the time which means all my carbon footprint is much … It’s larger than a dinosaur’s footprint unfortunately because of this, and the point that she was making in these series of studies that she conducted is that it’s one thing to care about the issue and it’s another thing to know how to implement that and having this kind of service available would make it much easier and also believable for technologist. I worked with people at Amazon, some of them very good people. One guy in particular, very socially responsible and just all around a great guy, and I can remember chatting with him about the conditions of schools in the United States. He was floored when I told him that there are public schools in this country that don’t have power and don’t have water that the students can drink and don’t have enough textbooks. These are the kinds of things that are hiding in plain sight.
GP: That’s right.
NPS: Our consumer choices are related to this, and that by receiving these enormous tax breaks when we’re in the upper parts of the income spectrum, we don’t realize the huge price that’s being exacted on people in the lower couple of quintiles.
NPS: Even the name of it is condescending, “trickle.”
GP: Right. Exactly
NPS: Trickle, if we give anything to the lower income earners, it should be a trickle because that’s all they really deserve. There are lots of values that are tried into just the language. Which hearkens to George Lakoff’s work around metaphors in the way that we frame these issues in the first place.
GP: It may as well be trickled on as opposed trickle down.
NPS: Yes. That is great. I have not heard that. That is excellent. Definitely great stuff and I’d like to learn more in the days ahead about your work with Alonovo.
Salvage the Franchise While Evolving Beyond the Booth
GP: Oh, sure. As a matter of fact, Alonovo at the time, we were looking for money and looking for investment to really take it to the next level and there was another entity that attracted a couple of serious rounds of venture capital. GoodGuide which was founded and operated by a Berkeley professor – Dara O’Rourke and Dara and I got to know each other fairly well. GoodGuide was eventually purchased by Underwriter Laboratories. I still think that there’s an incredible opportunity to not only … When I think about civic engagement and we’ll talk about civ.works, I’m sure next. When I think about civic engagement a large part of that is economics. A large part of that isn’t just about attending a town hall meeting or registering a vote which are incredibly important or the act of voting itself but how we live our lives is an expression of civic engagement.
NPS: Good citizenship.
GP: We go shop at Walmart and Walmart then takes some of their money and lobbies, tries to elect candidates that are for school voucher programs and want to eviscerate public education. When people shop at WalMart their money is supporting the erosion of public schools. We need to understand as a society that our power goes beyond just our vote. It’s how we choose to live and the choices that we make have influence in our society.
NPS: Just wait to vote for somebody else which certainly was not what we heard when we had the Clinton scandals in 1998-99.
GP: Right. I suspect it’s even worse than that, Neil because I think that people are told either directly or indirectly why bother to vote? Both parties are inherently corrupt. Who cares? I think it’s not only really trying to marginalize people’s impact in the political and civic world but it’s also about disenfranchising people so that we end up with a very toxic government as we have today.
GP: It’s a science. If you know that your couple of points are going to make a difference between electing somebody like a known pedophile versus someone else, well, then you could play with voting machines, the placement of less voting machines in an area in which people are only given a very brief time to be away from work in order to vote. We’ll have lines for hours going out the door.
NPS: And always on a work day, never on a Saturday or a Sunday.
GP: That’s right, or vote by mail which is implemented in Oregon and has really been a phenomenal program. If we care about democracy, we should be demanding that people are automatically registered to vote. We should be demanding that it is easy as possible to vote not this garbage that people are taught by right-wing groups about the voter ID programs and doing these things to really try to disenfranchise people of color and impoverished that maybe don’t have the time to spend six hours at a DMV trying to get an ID to then spend four hours in line waiting to vote. To them such might make difference between paying the rent this month or being able to afford bus fare to get to their work. If we care about democracy, we should be making as easy as possible for people to vote.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly conjures this notion of what you see in dictatorships and in much more totalitarian regimes where the population generally because of sanctions are forced to starve and do without all basic necessities except for what they can get from the dictator. You see that on a … It’s certainly a different magnitude here but if it is the difference between you being able to pay your bills to go vote when you’re told your vote doesn’t matter anyway and chances are the candidate … The one of the two choices that you’re given probably won’t win anyway. It has a devastating effect in aggregate and I think that it is pretty clear to anybody who actually reads about these programs of voter suppression that the architects of these policies know very well the truth.
GP: That’s right, and it dates back to ALEC and a lot of the right wing think tanks like Heritage. I think we’re talking before about Paul Weyrich who said, “We don’t want people to vote.” When you think just about a couple of points of difference, it’s voter suppression voter caging. Other initiatives, it’s gerrymandering. It’s a electoral college that promotes a candidate getting more than three million more popular votes but losing the election. There are all kinds of ways in which the system is abused for the sake of the perpetuation of power by what we see right now.
NPS: Right. A very narrow ideological framework that we’re forced to endure. I suppose that there is no time like the present to talk about civ.works. I’m very interested in understanding what is the genesis of it? First of all, what is it, what does it do? What do you want it to do and why did you create it?
GP: Well, I had a stroke. You’ll have to ask one question at a time.
NPS: I’m very, very grateful that you’re still with us. Please don’t go anywhere, George. We really need you.
GP: I am taking care of myself under my daughters and son, and granddaughter’s orders, so I appreciate that, Neil. The genesis is before the election, Adam Lake, Golda Velez and I were having great discussions in the background and we were all working full-time at other entities but we’re having great background discussions about the corrupting influence of money in the American political system and we’re having discussions about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which has brought these horrible voter suppression laws, open season on people of color laws, called Stand Your Ground, the right to work laws which are anything but …
GP: This is a horrible sinister organization that maybe people haven’t heard of. We started to think … I had spent a few years at the California State Legislative Counsel and Golda, Adam and I started thinking, “We need as we need a people’s ALEC,” or what we were calling a Smart ALEC at the time. We were thinking about databasing law and policy that people could use in their local jurisdiction, their state legislature or even on a federal level to promote policy and law that benefits the majority of people as opposed to just the Koch Brothers. As we have these discussions, we were continuing to design and develop and conceptualize the thought of an environment where this could all be readily available to people and then the election happened.
GP: When it did, we knew that … A couple of different things. We knew or felt that society was going to be assailed on just about every front. Every progressive front, any gain that was since the new deal would be under assault by this administration and this congress. We also felt that legislation if you look at a spectrum of civic action or civic engagement that people that can be involved in, working with legislation policy or running for office are probably the heaviest lifts there are. Asking somebody that’s already working hard, maybe working two jobs to make ends meet to get more involved in something like legislation, policy …
NPS: Take a five-year break off your career, right?
GP: And sell data. That was something that we absolutely didn’t want to do. We felt the privacy protection part was incredibly important to what we have been building. We conceptualized civ.works. I left Oracle, I think around … I think it December 20th or 21st, or something like that.
NPS: The shortest day of the year, pretty much.
GP: It was the shortest day and the longest day, I guess. In any event, we went from concept to launch in two -and-a-half months. We launched on February 14th in what we call … We launched for the love of democracy, so launching on Valentine’s Day was important. Then we continued to add features and functions that were critical to the model and so we added the ability to aggregate civic actions from organizations like NARAL, Moms Demand Action, and Color of Change, Fight for $15. All of these great organizations, the ACLU, that we’re doing phenomenal work in trying to protect society’s most vulnerable to this very toxic administration. We would aggregate these actions coming from all over the United States and then when people signed up on the platform we would understand their geolocation. They would provide their zip code, and so when we had an action that matched their issue affinity and their geography, we would then basically provide them with, “Hey, here’s something that you can do. Then when people would actually say, “Yes, I did this,” they get civic action points because we felt that it’s important to overtime reward behavior even though there isn’t any inherent value or cryptocurrency behind civic action points or ego points.
NPS: Then again people will play Farmville for 100 hours a week because they get new crops. If people really believe that what they’re doing is making a difference.
GP: Well, we want a new crop of candidates.
NPS: Exactly, yes.
GP: Policy and legislation. It’s like Farmville for democracy.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly is a very big step in the direction of overcoming the problem of stratification that happens in activist circles where you may be interested in one particular kind of cause and I may be interested in another but what we want is a lot more similar than the differences would tell.
GP: That is exactly right. I felt that … Beyond just the peer technology solution, we really looked at a lot of behavioral and organizing theory and I have long felt the progressive space tends to marginalize its impact by siloing itself or segmenting itself and the reality is from a systems perspective whether you’re trying to address climate change or you’re trying to address systemic poverty in our urban areas, if we’re not working together, that’s a problem. I understand. If you’re doing climate work, that’s incredibly important because without a livable climate, there’s nothing else to talk about but there’s no reason that we can’t have mechanisms that allow us to work together as a societal flash mob. That’s how we viewed the way we would like to build and continue to evolve the thought of civ.works or the civ.works concept is respecting local autonomy, your ability to work in your passion area but when we all need to come together and act together as a society, let’s act together.
GP: I’ve written a lot and I’ve probably angered some people and so sorry about that.
NPS: That’s what we do.
GP: I early on felt that civ.works must be about meaningful civic action and not all petitions are bad. I mean, I recognized that there is some value because they provide education and exposure. The things that were happening at Standing Rock for example were probably not gonna make the news but when 100,000 people were signing petitions and viewing this, that’s important. It’s important to raise visibility and awareness. What I talk about is when I get a study flood of petitions that say things like, “Paul Ryan just sneezed, sign my petition and chip in $5 now before he sneezes again.”
NPS: We need Kleenex available everywhere.
GP: That’s right. It’s a problem and it works … It’s a problem in multiple ways. One is somebody that wants to essentially have a political or civic impact things that they have, and so they do this collectivism thing, incredibly easy to click on this petition.
GP: That’s right. As opposed to actually doing something that’s effective and advancing or resisting or helping to protect vulnerable people. You’re just getting added to a mailing list and potentially being divested of a little bit of your cash. I just saw that as a huge problem. I met with entities that are actually a fairly large players in the petition space because I said, “Hey, here’s an opportunity.” I have no desire to build civ.works on my own. I always look at how can I collaborate? How can we get the resources that we need and act together and therefore accelerate our ability to be impactful? I met with people kind of what I would think of as the usual suspects that have been doing great work but most of it has been around petitions and I met with them and said … This was well before we actually launched civ.works. I would say, “You know something? There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. I haven’t funded real research or anything that’s peer reviewed but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are becoming sick of petitions. Now, I said we have an administration in which we know we’re going to be attacked on all fronts, so there’s going be an explosion of petition.
NPS: It’s a flood of petitions in my inbox.
GP: I was really met with the same reaction that you would get from the band, from Spinal Tap. It’s like our amplifier goes through 11. There was really … It’s like, “Oh, no. More people are signing more petitions now. It’s really going great.” No, it isn’t. It was an unfortunate experience in some ways but it also basically solidified my thought about just really going all in on civ.works and making the investment on my own and thinking that if you’re … When you understand what the right path is there is no toe in the water. If you’re not all in then you’re just part of the problem. I didn’t wanna be a white moderate … I wanted to embrace my more activist radical thinking about getting this done.
NPS: Right. It’s very much so is an honorable and needed cause. It’s interesting that while you were talking about this problem of petitions that it does remind me of the research I mentioned earlier where once we believe that we’ve made a difference in a certain regard like I can recycle the myriad aluminum cans waste that I produce because I drink so many diet sodas, there is this thought that I’m doing something for the environment that’s good but the problem and what she was finding is that we’re large either unaware of the rest of the impact that we have or somehow we’ve managed to push ourselves into denial.
GP: We didn’t push ourselves. Advertising, it plays a lot of that. We already don’t like to change our behaviors if we don’t have to and then when we … Advertising works. How many kids understand that a happy meal involves really a horrible situation for sentient beings being packaged up in fun little wrappers with a clown.
NPS: Yes. It’s really interesting because I do think that there is good scholarship around the psychology of petitions, the psychology of taking an action that you believe is good. What brought that to mind when I was listening to your discussions is this gamification. This mechanism by which you can tap into that in a benign way, more than benign, a good and productive way.
GP: Right. When I think about civ.works, there are activists that are gonna be engaged regardless. They don’t need civ.works. They may already belong to Indivisible or the National Organizations for Women or Color of Change or other great organizations that are doing amazing work. They’re gonna be active regardless but I have always viewed the issue with the center and even the center left and center right, the more you go towards this center, the more likely I think people need to have some reinforcement for the civic activities that they do. For the good that they do. We know that gamification works. We know that competition works. I’ve often thought wouldn’t be great to be able to take communities and say for example, “Gee, Rancho Cordova near Sacramento is all over this great activity. What’s wrong with you guys over in Elk Grove? You should be all over this to and so you can create natural competitions to cause and really incentivize behaviors that are ultimate gonna be great things for society.” That’s how I see this potentially being used in the future.
NPS: It is essentially anecdotal but I used to watch … What is it called? It’s Seth MacFarlane show. Family Guy. I would watch Family Guy which of course is just a perverse and hilarious comedy but it and The Simpsons and Futurama and these cartoons have a very negative message about activism. They are very, very, very critical of people organizing and protesting which you see that anywhere all over the news, particularly on Fox if you could even call that a news channel.
NPS: We can’t without laughing. It’s a joke. I found it was interesting in the years that I watched this show and my own awakening coming to recognition about what activism can actually do and what civic engagement really should really look like. Not that I embody it by any stretch of the imagination now but I understand what it needs to look like. Seeing that in this show, they go out of their way to criticize anybody who would do something like that. Anybody who steps out of their cast, essentially. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on this notion that the cast system in this country very much follows the same pattern of thought, pattern of propaganda as what we had with the institution of slavery that we were told by the powers that be that this was the way God wanted the order of man to be that women are subjugated to their husbands and their fathers and that slaves are going to be slaves because of the mark of Cain or whatever nonsense that they came up with at the time. Now, we’re told that we shouldn’t act out of our economic stratum because the market wants us to be there. We shouldn’t want poor workers at McDonald’s to be paid minimum wage or to raise minimum wage because it’s not what the market demands. The market is now become this thing that we appeal to as a deity.
GP: That’s right. The market has become America’s religion and when I think about American culture, and I think that American culture right now is very diseased. Now, you look at all over the violence. We look at kids with guns. We look at everything that’s happening in society and it’s a price that we’re paying for essentially making the free market our religion where profits and the concentration of wealth and material things are valued more than nature and more than people, your neighbors, your communities.
NPS: Elderly widow across town who can’t afford medication has to choose between medication and food.
GP: Look at how retirees, retired teachers were vilified in Wisconsin by Scott Walker as being, “You horrible people are the ones that are ruining America.” It’s ridiculous. We are intentionally divided and conquered and so this idea of trying to break out of silos and segmentation and work together because that’s what really is required, Neil. I mean, when I look at the games that were made in the 1960s and 1970s, it was even before the word intersectionality was coined. It was the movements of civil rights, labor, the women’s movements and the peace movements coming together to basically challenge what is the American dream? It certainly wasn’t prosecuting more on popular wars in countries where we shouldn’t have been. It was not in the denigration of women. It was not in paying women 78 cents on the dollar or worse if you’re a woman of color. It’s not disenfranchising people of color from the vote. This is not our vision of America. Maybe some people’s vision of America where only wealthy white landowners have a vote and have a say in our direction, but we are divided and conquered and it was these groups of people coming together and saying, “You know something? We’re different but we’re fighting for the same dream.” That’s what’s required now and so that’s why in a virtualized way, we created this mechanism for people to actually work together whether they know that they are or not. We don’t care. We just want them working together because that’s what’s required.
NPS: One of the questions that I get a lot when I’m discussing these kinds of things with … I don’t know. For a lack of a better term, I would say lay people as far as people that don’t take a lot of time to try to understand history. This happens usually if I’m a Lyft or an Uber and I end up talking to the driver.
GP: Great discussions.
NPS: Even when I was working at Uber, I would tell them I needed to unionize. That probably wouldn’t made me very popular at work but they would ask the question what is it that we can do? The period of time that you’re describing in the 1960s and 1970s was monumental. A monumental shift in society and we saw something very similar in the 1890s and the early 1900s with the labor movements that were coming out of the industrial revolution and they actually managed to get some pretty powerful victories like having a forty-hour workweek as opposed to an eighty-hour workweek.
GP: We forget that a lot of those movements were paid for in blood and violence. Now …
NPS: Unusual amounts of violence for similar kinds of events if you look at other western democracies. Then we also saw something very similar in the early 1930s. In fact what we saw there is something that I really do wish workers in this country fully understood. I wish I could internalize this value and I guess if there’s one value that I would suggest to them above all others, it is the power of striking. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on that we are literally one sit down strike away from deep profound societal transformation. In the early 1930s, the workers sat down on the job and that terrified the owners. It terrified those in power to the extent that we had a card carrying member of the New York elite, inherited wealth, the whole bit, Franklin Roosevelt as president becoming very sympathetic to these people out of which came the new deal.
GP: It’s economic empowerment in our collective ability when we’re not divided. As we were talking a little bit before, we started this. I know that a lot of progressive organizations in leadership talk about what do we do if Robert Mueller is fired? What if that investigation which is incredibly important to preserving a thread of our aspirations ofdemocracy, what do we do? There’s a lot of thought about well, if that happens, we go out into the streets and march. Well, there really needs to be some thought about an extended labor strike if that happens and it can’t be people pouring into the streets on a Thursday afternoon and then going back to work on Friday morning as if nothing had happened. If that happens, this is a very different America unless we all gather together in an action. When you’re dealing with a concentration of wealth as we are now among the Koch brothers and the Walton family, and the Mercer family, and the Sheldon Aldeson‘s. Then hitting them economically is the only place where it’s going to make them reconsider the fact that they have pushed American society over a threshold.
NPS: Right. The capacity to organize nowadays … Again, when I ask this question, I refer to these points in history where people organize in the industrial revolution or the aftermath you had news journals that were produced by localities and it was a very lively press that enabled them to quickly organize just using the printing press. Now, what we have is the capacity to communicate with anyone in this entire world pretty much almost instantaneously because of the internet which is another reason that I’m really excited about civ.works and the role that it can play. One thing I definitely want to get to before we run out of time is what are the needs for civ.works? We’ve discussed this before that there is a need and demand for software engineering support among other things. If you can talk about that a little bit, I wanna share those things with listeners and readers so that they will know what they can do to help?
GP: That’s a great question, Neil. The biggest challenge that we face isn’t the fact that there are resources available but the issue is we end up competing. We have campaigns with political campaigns and other work that’s going on. We’re really long-term infrastructure and so we’re not the cool building, apartment building or condo building that everybody wants to live in with great views. We’re the infrastructure, were the plumbing and the electrical grid. We tended not be very sexy and so if we’re competing with somebody like Doug Jones in a political [race], people want to expend their money in such a way that they feel that they’re having a tangible and direct impact on what’s happening right now. That’s still very important. I mean, the campaigns absolutely need funds. They need television airtime. Ronald Reagan made sure of that by eviscerating the fairness doctrine but for us, we do need money. We need resources, we need people to become active subscribers. What we’ve done, we didn’t want economics to be a barrier to use for civ.works and we struggled with how do we fund this and make this viable? We adopted a model very much like The Guardian newspaper. We didn’t want to have a pay wall and so we took away the pay wall but we do ask if people can afford to do it that they purchase monthly subscriptions for $3.99. That helps us immeasurably. That creates a foundation of revenue that we then use for operations, for new software development. There’s absolute things that we want to do. We want to have a native mobile platform available for civ.works to make it easier to use. We want to improve our core experience. There are certain very powerful functions and features that we to implement that are really waiting for the resources to get … I mean, we know what we want and we’re waiting for the financial or engineering resources to help us get there. Then once we do, once we have what we believe is a pretty well evolved set of features, functions, and mobile capability, we want to democratize development. This is the people’s social platform and so we want our subscribers to weigh in and say, “You know something? This would be a great … If we did this, let’s build this.” For us, it’s about resources whether it’s tax deductible donations as a 501(c)(3) organization. It’s about people that volunteer on the platform by helping us review and approve actions that we collect from all over the United States and really the world. There’s some talk about extending our capability. There’s been talk about using us in the UK.
GP: Some great discussions about potentially using this platform in Brazil. Anywhere, where we’re talking about how to organize people against the interest of organized, concentrated wealth. civ.works can be an effective mechanism in the tool chest of society, in the tool chest of the 99% to actually help rebalance power. Anyway, for us, it’s really about money and about engineering resources and then people that can actually be involved in the platform. We have created an environment. I would characterize it honestly in terms of a social platform. We’re nowhere near as good as Facebook in terms of features and functions but we haven’t had the hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in user experience.
NPS: Also, you’re not selling data to other malevolent actors.
GP: Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer not getting our data. Cambridge Analytica is not …
GP: That’s right. God help us, Peter Thiel. Anyway.
NPS: They make so many of us look bad. This is very, very exciting work and I think that is incredibly important and often times when I review LinkedIn profiles looking for recruiting opportunities just for my day job, I noticed that a lot of people are looking for ways to volunteer their time for causes they believe in. I think that this is something that might be of great utility if we can find the right people who have the right skills who want to donate the time. I know that I’m a believer and I want to donate my time.
GP: I’m very grateful, Neil. I know that you and others that have advocated and helped us evangelize the work that we’re doing inspire me. I mean, there are days … These are dark times. I haven’t drawn a paycheck for a year-and-a-half and it’s challenging. You wake up and something that’s very different from the America that we’re really taught about when we’re young. People like yourself inspire, and motivate, and keep us going on days when it’s very hard to keep going.
NPS: Well, certainly you do that for me, so thank you very, very much for this very enlightening and exciting hour, and also helping me pilot this series of interviews with activists. Thank you very much. I look forward to what we’re doing in the future.
GP: I’m always happy to be a beta test, Neil.
NPS: Thank you very much. I usually end up being a gamma, so there you go. All right. Thank you so much, George.
This week marks the seventy-second anniversary of an event showcasing both the ascent of the human species to the top of the evolutionary ladder and its descent into what could be the darkest and final chapter of our roughly 200,000 year run on this planet : the bombing of Japan by the United States with nuclear weapons.
On August 6, 1945, the United States Air Force deployed the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, incinerating a few thousand acres of densely populated city, killing anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 people in the blast; perhaps another 70,000 died from exposure. On August 9, the U.S. continued by dropping a plutonium bomb on Japan over the city of Nagasaki, killing maybe 40,000 instantly and another 40,000 from the aftermath. American apologists offer that these mass murders were essential in ending the Second World War while minimizing Allied casualties. Certainly, that’s what I learned growing up, the pertinent question being whether this is true; it wasn’t until I took world history under Dr. Pat Ledbetter, longtime activist, jurist, and professor, that I ever heard the decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan come into question.
Quite relevant today is Donald Trump’s quite harsh rhetoric toward the nation of North Korea as reported by the New York Times. His outrageous words,
[t]hey will be met with fire
and fury like the world has
as usual exhibit the uncensored, grotesque gaffes we’ve come to expect from him. They also eerily echo similar words by Harry S Truman, president at the conclusion of the Second World War :
[the Japanese can] expect a
rain of ruin from the air,
the like of which has never
been seen on this earth.
The parallel may have been on purpose, as Trump seems to fancy himself the most accomplished president of our time, and Truman, in Americana, is widely regarded to have successfully ended the single most destructive conflict in history. Trump can rest at ease spiritually, according to “faith leader” Robert Jeffress : contravening Romans chapter twelve’s directive to refrain from repaying evil for evil, he suggests that God’s instructions don’t apply to the government, and thus this same, loving “god” has bestowed upon Trump license to obliterate North Korea. Certainly some hearts, are indeed, “desperately wicked.”
Though the philosophies of extremist devotees of Trump might not be all that surprising in their rapacity and blood-lust, the the claim that the atomic bombs were necessary to save American lives at the conclusion of the second world war, is, in fact, propaganda. It turns out that the Japanese had suggested a surrender months before the bombs landed, asking only that they keep their emperor, largely a figure head and cultural symbol. Washington refused, despite General Eisenhower, among others, urging Truman that
it wasn't necessary to hit them
with that awful thing … to use
the atomic bomb, to kill and
terrorize civilians, without even
attempting [negotiations], was a
Additionally, Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, apparently argued that
[t]he use of this barbarous weapon…was
of no material assistance in our war
against Japan[;] [m]y own feeling was
that in being the first to use it,
we had adopted an ethical standard common
to the barbarians of the Dark Ages [...]
I was not taught to make wars in that
fashion, and wars cannot be won by
destroying women and children.
The Nation suggested in an investigative report released on the seventieth anniversary of the bombings quite accurately that we Americans need to face the ugly truth that the war was ready for a bloodless conclusion before Truman ordered the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of people. Military head after military head uniformly agreed that the bombing was unnecessary, raising the more serious question of why one would wreak such horrendous havoc unnecessarily on civilians, and why no one exacted a political price for it.
One can easily point to an incredible misinformation campaign demonizing the Japanese as subhuman, feral monsters, documented by Anthony Navarro in A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American Propaganda during World War II. He offers a critique of both sides, but the imagery is striking. Lingering resentment about Pearl Harbor eased propagandizing Americans, despite the attack being retribution for America freezing supply lines in Manchuria and conducting war exercises a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, facts conveniently missing from the American consciousness. We Yankees, perhaps, simply didn’t think the Japanese deserved to live.
It’s reminiscent of the euphoria when Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, murdered by a special operation in Pakistan which incidentally risked nuclear war; elite media and governments alike believed murder of a suspect without a trial was a monumental achievement, documented on Wikipedia‘s summary of official statements. It seemed lost on interested parties that constitutional protections, inherited from Magna Carta, simply don’t matter in certain cases where the state deems them unnecessary. I myself was stunned at the hysterical outpouring of happiness on Facebook and other social media. I found myself nearly alone asking whether the dissolution of basic human rights in the case of a defenseless suspect made any sense. It’s true that if he were actually guilty of masterminding the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, his was a vicious, malevolent crime. But then again, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush committed atrocities, uncontroversially, so far off the spectrum by comparison that it’s impossible to even imagine, documented by Noam Chomsky. Standing next in line are Barack Obama with the drone assassination campaign, Bill Clinton in Serbia, and, yes, even dear Jimmy Carter in complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor under Suharto, documented by Joe Nunes.
In any case, historian Hanson Baldwin argued in The Great Mistakes of the War that Washington’s “unconditional surrender” demands needlessly cost lives and lengthened the duration of the war; he wrote
[b]ut, in fact, our only warning
to a Japan already militarily
defeated, and in a hopeless
situation, was the Potsdam demand
for unconditional surrender issued
on July 26, when we knew Japanese
surrender attempts had started.
Even the conservative Mises Institute editorializes that the bombing was one of the greatest crimes ever committed; John Denson argued in The Hiroshima Myth that the bombing was knowingly unnecessary. In a more recent article, Ralph Raico continued the critique with a quote from physicist Leo Szilard, one of the originators of the Manhattan project :
[i]f the Germans had dropped atomic
bombs on cities instead of us,
we would have defined the
dropping of atomic bombs on
cities as a war crime, and we
would have sentenced the Germans
who were guilty of this crime to
death at Nuremberg and hanged them.
Dr. Szilard was making the obvious point that what evils others do seem to resonate while our own crimes either languish in the vat of forgotten history or simply cease to be crimes. I’ve long argued that if Hitler had won the war, we would have eventually either forgotten his crimes or exalted them; after all, isn’t this precisely what we’ve done with Truman and the atomic bombs, Jackson and the Trail of Tears, Washington and the extermination of the Iroquois in the Sullivan expedition, and so on. At worst, state apologists would argue that these events, like the tragedies of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, were perhaps strategic blunders rather than the more deserved casting of “fundamentally immoral,” a description with which 52% of Americans surveyed in 1995 by Gallupagreed; that of course requires the events to even remain in public consciousness.
what decisively changed the views
of the Japanese ruling elite was
the Soviet entry into the war [...]
[i]t catapulted the Japanese
government into taking immediate
action [...] [f]or the first time,
it forced the government squarely to
confront the issue of whether it
should accept the Potsdam terms.
That is, the overwhelming evidence is that the Japanese military elites acceded to the Potsdam requirements because of fear of Soviet aggression, further undermining the assertion that the nuclear bombs ended the war. The hideous irony is that the Allied forces permitted Japan’s emperor to remain in place at the time of surrender, the only condition the Japanese leaders required in their earlier attempts.
The historical question is whether the Japanese really would have surrendered; I’ve unfortunately seen monstrous commentary online to this effect, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of lives were easily forfeit next to a demand made by the Allied leadership eventually tossed by the way side. If there were even a chance for peace by accepting what really was a trivial request by comparison to the massive loss of life to follow, shouldn’t we, as activist David Swanson often suggests, give peace a chance?
Establishing that the dropping of the bombs wasn’t necessary to end the war seems academic; further, we know now the architects of said wanton decision were evenaware it was unnecessary. So why carry out such an action, as we asked earlier? It turns out that the answer is akin to why a child might pull wings of of butterflies : just to see what happens. Echoed later by Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns in Senate testimony about escalating the bombing of civilians in Laos after Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt on the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, the rationale boiled down to
[w]ell, we had all those planes
sitting around and couldn’t
just let them stay there with
nothing to do.
Further, Truman felt a display of force was necessary to place the tenuously-held alliance with Moscow on notice, intended to restrict the Soviet sphere of influence once the spoils of the Second World War became available, as Howard Zinn argues with much historical evidence in his final book, The Bomb.
The myopic jingoists over at The National Interest argue otherwise, suggesting the savage butchery of hundreds of thousands was an understandable price to pay :
would even one more Allied
death have been worth not dropping
the bomb, in the minds of the
president and his advisors, after
six years of the worst fighting
in the history of the human race?
Tom Nichols goes on to argue that Truman would have faced impeachment if he’d revealed the existence of the bomb later to war-weary Americans, and that they would have thirsted for blood if they learned of a more expedient conclusion. His argument is approximately the same as that from a propaganda piece from The Atlantic published in 1946, seventy years earlier : physicist Karl Compton argued, seriously if you can believe it, that the Japanese wouldn’t have ever surrendered, as a “well-informed Japanese officer” told him
[w]e would have kept on fighting
until all Japanese were killed,
but we would not have been
Both arguments are absurd, as Americans can easily learn that a more expedient, less destructive conclusion was available as of May 1945, and yet only a few of us in the margins believe Truman should have faced a war crimes tribunal. In a similar vein, the Taliban in Afghanistan offered to hand over Osama bin Laden, provided we offered him a fair trial and not continue to bomb their country. Would they have? We’ll never know, as Bush scoffed in his repulsive drawl, “We know he’s guilty.” But then again, what is a couple hundred thousand Afghans, or 200,000 Japanese lives to America-first chauvinists, a question now coming to haunt us with Trump’s incisive, menacing rhetoric?
As we’ve discussed previously, nuclear war is one of two existential threats looming over human civilization, both of which the Republican party has committed to accelerating : escalate both ecological catastrophe and the growing atomic maelstrom. Trump’s threats toward a small nation with whom we can genuinely pursue peace imperils millions of lives and risks war with both China and Russia. Our series on Cuba aims to demonstrate that harsh sanctions, imperialism, and aggression universally backfire, as one can see with one example after another in our history, and to further expose the many near-misses the nuclear age has wrought on a hapless species, many of which appear in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, gatekeepers of the Doomsday Clock.
So during this solemn week, let’s remember that history can repeat itself if we allow it. We Americans can stop Trump and the warmongering political elites, if only we organize and resist. Some decent references on getting involved to move us to a nuclear-free world are Waging Peace, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Simon’s Foundation.
We’ll close with words from the only officially recognized survivor of both nuclear blasts, Tsutomu Yamaguchi :
[t]he only people who should
be allowed to govern countries
with nuclear weapons are mothers,
those who are still breast-feeding
In a series of posts, we’ll be analyzing and reviewing Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, an excellent discussion of the mythology of conservatives with respect to the government, corporations, and economics. Instructive is how this mythology can apply in recent events, a review of which follows. Donald Trump may serve an ideology of nothing more than “me first,” but behind the scenes, the nanny state machine continues to perpetuate a heavily propagandized mythology of markets, capitalism, and government..
All in a Day’s Work : Conservative Market Mythology
Donald Trump’s recent tantrums around the Republican failure to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act adorn the craven, viciously insipid strategy of the Paul Ryan / Mitch McConnell crowd : for eight years, they’ve vowed incessantly to supplant Obamacare with a better version upon gaining both majority power in Congress and a rubber stamp in the White House, yet in those eight years, they’ve managed to formulate absolutely nothing in the way of a cogent substitute. This bears repeating : despite more time than is necessary to complete a doctorate in the most abstract, difficult theoretical fields in mathematics, the devout acolyte of Ayn Rand that is the vapid Paul Ryan has formulated absolutely no solution to our healthcare quagmire, aside from the tired, intellectually bankrupt admonishments of impotency about poor people being lazy and workers not trying hard enough. Subject to the market fanaticism they worship so completely, they should be fired immediately for such astonishingly blatant incompetence. Trump, by slight contrast, seems to care nothing for the details, wanting only to piss all over every last accomplishment of Obama; never mind all the campaign promises of universal healthcare. He prefers to destroy Obamacare now, perhaps unaware of the malevolence and cruelty in destabilizing the exchange and kicking off coverage at least twenty to thirty million people, a estimate reported by NPR. He’s apparently too busy
pretending unsuccessfully to be an anonymous White House insider source through his idiotic communications director Andrew Scaramucci with “claims” that the Russian government didn’t hack the 2016 election,
railing that collusion with a foreign entity is normal once an account of a meeting between his son Donald Trump, Jr. and a lawyer for the Russian government appeared in the New York Times, (apparently, a meeting with representatives of a foreign government to obtain dirt on a political opponent, prefaced by the longing of said government to see your guy to victory doesn’t constitute collusion),
and so on. His character assassination of Sessions for attention seems to be the last straw among a mountain of bundles, drawing ire from his shrieking media base of support (documented in The Atlantic) since Sessions is an alternative right folk hero. Noteworthy is a quote from an arch-conservative writer for The American Conservative, Rod Deher, who didn’t support Trump but bears rather preposterous ideas :
I believe the Democratic Party today wants to
do as much damage as it possibly can to social
and religious conservatism. I believe the
Democratic Party would empower some of the worst
people in America. But at least you know what
they’re going to do. Trump really is an unstable
lunatic whose word means nothing, and who sees no
higher obligation than serving himself.
Certainly, the fact-free fantasy land of the conservative establishment is nothing new, ranging from the Powell memorandum discussed in earlier posts, to Reagan’s supply-side blather denounced even by George H.W. Bush as “voodoo economics”, to Trump’s mind-numbingly stupid insistence of widespread voter fraud by illegals, to Mike Pence’sinsistence that smoking isn’t harmful, to Pat Robertson’s claims that Trump represents God’s will, and the list continues. Supply-side economics, like the young earth hypothesis, seems immortally immune to the colossal three-decade record of failures, long documented by the Center for American Progress. Take the recent shenanigans in Mississippi and Kansas : both state governments slashed taxes with the promise of economic boosts, and both states have subsequently slashed services, some with disastrous import, such as curtailing of medical school faculty salaries. Astoundingly, the party of so-called “fiscal conservatism” seems not to understand why less water flows when one turns the faucet down.
Big Government and the Poor : Supervillains
Conservatives and so-called new Democrats have long argued that so-called “big government” is universally a bad thing, indicative of avaricious largesse at best and vicious totalitarianism at worst; from my early life, I’ve heard conservatives in my home state of Texas bemoan the overwhelming burden of government regulation and taxation asphyxiating an otherwise highly efficient, wealth-and-job-creating small businesses. They argue further that welfare, otherwise known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) poisons the resolve of potential workers and feeds a lazy, repulsive underclass always in the market for cheating hard-working business owners out of their hard-earned profits. So deep was the racism and disdain for welfare recipients that we greatly feared the marginalized black community in my hometown, despite having been on the welfare rolls ourselves soon after my mother and father divorced back in 1987, the irony being that we as poor whites had more in common with the poor blacks than we did upper middle class Texans. Despite my college curriculum lifting partly the veil of ignorance, at least with regard to history, I nonetheless took my first “big-boy” job at a defense contractor believing, rather naively, that the conservatives there really were serious about eliminating government waste and pursuing honest efficiency to benefit the organization. Imagine my surprise to discover that almost the exact opposite is the case : with some notable exceptions (see my LinkedIn connections), the organization was rife with effete, wasteful protectionists, all-too-willing to bend contractual obligations with the U.S. government to butter their own bread and conceal their incompetence. Supplanting genuine concern for the government customer was a sneering cynicism at even their most sacred public institution of all : the military. They held contempt even for arch-conservative Dick Cheney himself, as he had a long history of opposing the Osprey V-22 program in the first Bush administration. In the more religious pockets of my social sphere of those days, welfare recipients were the target of ire, with the lobotomous justification that “the heart is desperately wicked… who can know it?” That is, the innate wickedness of the human creature discussed in the Bible suggests that helping a poor person ever is a mistake contravening the will of the Most High; only the filthy rich deserve a second thought. Then again, local faith leaders in my home community offered social commentary on a vast array of topics, including dubious claims that Santa Claus, in fact, is a woman masquerading as a jolly old man (Santa somehow sounded female), that Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, is in fact an alcoholic (owing to a condition known as telangiectasia), and perhaps most intriguing, that devotees of Catholicism are, believe it or not, addicted to cats. Serious analysis aside, ahem, Pat Robertson would no doubt explode with pride, as wealth is godliness in his refined estimation; after all, why else would Operation : Blessing feature more return shipments of diamonds from than food shipments to impoverished Zaire? His cozy relationship with bloodthirsty Mobutu Sese Seko clearly paid dividends. All of this seems underscores a profoundly destructive paradigm in which we measure a person’s worth, exclusively, by her capacity to generate capital. Whether the means by which she raises the capital is good for society is largely irrelevant, but if she fails to generate said capital, she’s discounted. The industrial revolution heralded this cruel dogma; Noam Chomsky suggests that though feudalism and slavery were horrendous, brutal tyrannies, the intrinsic value of a person in each caste at least wasn’t taken for granted; the caste values were viciously low, but the value wasn’t questioned. Post-industrial revolution and with the abolition of slavery, industry leaders discovered more profit in shrinking compensation for workers below that of a living wage. Though the natural knee-jerk response to such a statement is understandable, one must bear in mind the effects of our state capitalist system on the global population, not just those in our own country. Also bear in mind this is in no way an endorsement of either of the aforementioned antiquated, monstrous frameworks, but it’s worth noting the shift in values and its origins, something we’ll discuss later in this series.
It turns out that laissez-faire market ideology and small government are, in fact, grand hoaxes, the former of which we’ve discussed in a little depth previously as we referenced American-flavor state capitalism. Quite instructive on the latter topic is The Conservative Nanny State : How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, written by Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy and Research. Weighing in at just over one hundred pages, the book is a treasure trove of powerful evidence-based arguments targeted at refuting the myths surrounding what he calls the conservative nanny state, an apt and resonant depiction of big government in support of the overclass.
He discusses in awesome detail
the sly yet devastatingly powerful protectionism for upper-income earners such as doctors, lawyers, and technocrats accompanying the better-known globalization and immigration policies leading to downward wage pressure on lower-income earners,
the union-busting governmental muscles flexed to diminish collective bargaining in America,
the skyrocketing CEO pay in the United States stemming from the corporation, a legal fiction conferred enormous power by the government,
the government supplied monopolies on inventions and creative work through patents and copyrights,
the government punishment of debtors down on their luck accompanying happy-go-lucky freedom from debt corporations enjoy, both a product of a thing dubiously labeled “bankruptcy reform,”
the government crackdown on individual’s capacity to sue run-away corporations and the decidedly one-sided nature of the two-way street of eminent domain and government investment,
the government protections for small businesses which are actually quite harmful to the economy and the environment,
the government coddling of high-dollar tax evaders while systematically demonizing recipients of the safety net,
among many others. In this series of posts, we’ll analyze his arguments, addressing additional points and more recent evidence.
Donald Trump is arguably the most disliked president in the history of modern polling, according to Five-Thirty-Eight. Haphazard, mean-spirited (even by Trump’s own admission) healthcare proposals, blatantly racist travel bans, and the growing Russia scandal leave Trump in a very weak bargaining position with respect to Congress. Or perhaps the intention is to distract with whatever vulgar offering Trump and Bannon provide on Twitter away from the Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell plot to eviscerate social programs and keep the rich rolling in the fat, as suggested by Noam Chomsky in an interview with Truthout. Whatever the Republican strategy (or lack thereof), Trump’s extreme unpopularity has heralded close calls for Democrats in a few of the four special elections held this year which would otherwise be very strongly Republican. Yet their strategy is broken.
Jon Ossoff very slightly lost a heavily Republican district very close to where I lived some years ago, and his defeat has predictably emboldened the hopelessly flat Trump to proclaim a landside 100%+ mandate for himself and his stupefying agenda. More appropriately, the closeness of the race in Kansas, to which we’ll return shortly, demonstrates profound dissatisfaction with Trump, something no doubt imperceptible to the mad king in his choking fog of self-congratulatory reverie. Georgia’s is the fourth special election in the months since Trump has become president, and this is the only one the Democratic National Committee cared to notice. Vox noted rather cleverly that Ossoff’s loss occurred because of a lack of substantive policies, permitting sleazy, establishment career politician Karen Handel to smear him on where he lives, who’s funding him (mostly small-time donors through Act Blue), and the like, despite his being raised in the district and her not and her receiving heavy donations from the corporate Republican machine. The issue becomes, rather strikingly, the simple fact that Ossoff, like Obama in 2008, ran only on the “I’m not Trump/Bush and never will be,” rather than actually offering strong policy. One can visit Obama’s 2008 campaign website to find rather scant policy content, mostly platitudes about changing politics and rhetoric. Obama, unlike Ossoff, won because of the previous increasingly frustrating years with warmongering liar Bush in charge, and that McCain, a fresh(ish) departure from Bush, was probably unelectable with Sarah Palin on the ticket. Of course, if Obama had run for the House against McCain and Palin, or McCain and a gorilla for that matter, in Georgia’s sixth district in 2008, he would have walked away with a striking defeat.
The other, and perhaps most significant issue in many urban/suburban districts is a systematic, widespread campaign of voter suppression, long documented by investigative journalist Greg Palast of Democracy Now and of course in outstanding work by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot. These two analysts unearth mountains of evidence of persistent voter suppression in the United States against minorities, quite remarkable in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in that they very likely cost the Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively, the electoral college. Forms the suppression take are
purging voter rolls because of fuzzy matching of voter names with those of convicted felons,
deceptive polling location announcements,
dilapidated voting machinery,
insufficient staffing, paper ballots, or machines,
early polling place closures,
legal yet highly unethical barriers to voter registration (see Kasdan below),
persecution of volunteer registrars, a widespread form of suppression documented by Diana Kasdan of the Brennan Center for Justice (an instructive read, as it turns out many state and local governments prefer for voting drives not to happen),
and so on. Earlier, more hostile tactics included barring entry of African Americans to polling places at gun point, unbelievably difficult literacy tests, violence, murder, intimidation, and the list goes on and on.
Returning to strategy, the fundamental issue is that the DNC seems to think the pretty people with Hollywood money and empty platitudes will persuade heartlanders and southerners to pull the lever for a tepid return to establishment politics. Despite Trump’s shriveling popularity, it seems unlikely that they’ll abandon him for an outsider with a shallow platform. And though the Citizens United decision makes the Republican attack ads about outside money all the more absurd and hypocritical (after all they happily gobble up contributions from outside corporations and tycoons, as Think Progress has pointed out), public relations experts in the Republican camp certainly know how to twist that knife by portraying Ossoff as a “San Francisco candidate.” The DNC’s push to moderate Ossoff’s position essentially tied his hands with respect to combating the unremitting propaganda machine, as he’s left largely silent on policy while being forced to defend its outlandish accusations.
The DNC continues to favor centrist, establishment figures, neither of which Trump’s working class base wants. Bernie’s ascendancy and Trump’s slight electoral victory last year indicated a strong preference among younger and working class people from both parties for an attempt from outside the Beltway.
Though Trump is extremely unpopular, bland establishment shills won’t tempt moderate Republicans, even if they dislike Trump. Though Trump may compulsively pat himself on the back for the victories, they’re actually quite revealing of his unpopularity, as Republicans have atypically only slightly held their seats with a new Republican president in office; Democratic leadership has yet to discover how to leverage it. True upstarts who challenge politics as usual with authentic advocacy for constituency is much more likely to convince people to abandon party and energize activists; as usual, they begin locally.
an unsuccessful endeavor to circumvent illegally the Cuban embargo in the 1990s, together with disastrously unpopular domestic and foreign policy missteps leaves him with a need for a convenient bogeyman in the dictatorship to the south,
none of Trump’s foreign policy, though perhaps unusually egocentric and idiotic, is particularly shocking when placed in proper historical context. When George W. Bush delivered his first state of the union address in 2002, he thumbed his nose at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, declaring them to be an “axis of evil,” reversing the meager efforts by his predecessor Bill Clinton in thawing relations with Pyongyang in the so-called Agreed Framework. Bush, like Trump to follow and Reagan to precede, seemed to have only a very slight understanding of geopolitics or the incredibly dangerous, malevolent game of poking-the-bear that is harsh sanctions and embargoes. Indeed, this unique combination of ignorance and possible malevolence is worth examining, notable resource being Neil Buchanan’s recent discussion in Newsweek. But returning to Cuba, fully appreciating the gravity of Trump’s intention to frustrate normalization requires investigating the deeply intertwined history with the rest of Latin America, the United States, the Soviet Union, and indeed the European imperialists who conquered it 500 years past. Over the next handful of articles, I’ll detail the post-colonial history of what was once called the “Pearl” of the Spanish Empire in the hopes that of sharing the moral and ethical legacy demanded of us as citizens responsible for our government’s deeds.
In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, landed in Hispaniola and Cuba searching for a shorter trade route with the East Indies; upon arrival, he immediately set to the task of conquering and later exterminating the Taíno, the native peoples, installing a colonial government to oversee crop cultivation, resource extraction and, a very, very distant priority, Christianization of the fast-dying peoples. An aside, one can find an instructive first-hand account of Columbus and his initial expedition in Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States, with thematically familiar vignettes of generous, open-minded natives offering succor and sustenance to their strange European visitors, only to be repaid with savagery, rape, pestilence, and butchery.
For over two centuries, Spanish dominance remained in play despite frequent attempts at usurpation by other European powers, but for a brief interlude in the eighteenth century during the Seven Years’ War in which the British claimed Havana, introducing tens of thousands of African slaves to the island. Demographically, non-white Cubans constituted roughly forty percent of the population in 1775, cresting at fifty-eight percent in the first half of the nineteenth century. Liberation movements stirred, partly due to the French revolution and independence of the thirteen British colonies to the north; contributing perhaps more resonantly was a slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, together with independence efforts by both whites, blacks, and so-called mulattos, or mixtures. Under pressure to close the slave trade (Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1807), Spain weakly complied, spurring uprisings throughout the middle decades of the 1800s. Of particular note, documented by Jose Canton Navarro in his History of Cuba, was the Conspiración de La Escalera, a vicious campaign to quell slave revolts with torture, murder, and exile owing its name to torture involving a ladder and a whip.
Instructive is the influence beginning in the nineteenth century of the independent thirteen colonies to the north on Cuba, to which we’ll return in subsequent articles.
A few days ago, Donald Trump predictably announced his unilateral decision to toss aside the Paris accord, an agreement which in of itself probably fails to adequately address the existential threat of ecological catastrophe. It’s worth remembering that the agreement is non-binding, essentially expecting each signatory to commit to, well, whatever to which that signatory commits. It may sound like a tautology, and that’s precisely what it is. After all, imagine if the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT) had simply been voluntary on the part of the old Soviet Union and the United States. That is to say, perhaps both countries would come to the table to agree that each would reduce the number of nuclear-carrying ballistic missiles by x% and y%, respectively, and each could assign that number at their leisure. It’s almost a prisoner’s dilemma, each side deciding later how to assign their number. Trump’s simian, chest-thumping “I get to play at the big people’s table” nonsense is all bluster: he just as easily could have played nice, then cut the commitment to zero. The Breitbart-Bannon crowd welcome Trump’s slash-and-burn America-first policy-making approach, no doubt euphoric at their bitter flavor of ignorance finally reaching institutional gravitas. Trump, clearly unaware of consequences, revels in his promise-keeping capacities. Too bad they don’t extend to truly defending the security of Americans by ignoring the Pentagon’s recognition that climate change is a threat, to say nothing of “draining the swamp”, as Trump and his cabinet have so many conflicts-of-interest that the rigor mortis of normalization is firmly in place.
More disconcerting is the relentless propaganda of the past thirty years with respect to the environment. I can remember sitting in computer science courses listening to a naive professor expel the gassy strawman that environmentalists simply don’t want anyone to have a job, as though completely eradicating chances of decent survival of the human race can’t compete with the tacit assumption that full employment is an essential feature of a successful society, as we’ve discussed previously. I’m reminded of Al Gore discussing imagery of a balancing scale with Earth on one plate and gold on the other, a slide from a presentation at a corporate consortium discussion on global warming.
When I was in elementary school, I recall the final chapter in my fifth grade science textbook explaining air and water pollution, acid rain, the ozone layer, and anthropogenic climate adjustments through introduction of wildlife to untouched ecosystems, industrialization, habitat destruction, and the like. I specifically remember my fifth grade teacher, Carolyn Hassell, remarking that she felt the textbook ends splendidly in suggesting that we, the youth of today but adults of tomorrow, have the power to save the environment and our future. That was spring of 1991, twenty-six years ago, in a rural, quite conservative town in Texas. Certainly no one could accuse any of my elementary school teachers of being particularly liberal, yet none could imagine any other conclusion than human beings influence the environment in quite potent ways, and that wisdom and judiciousness are requisite in deciding policy. A striking irony is that the Republican party, an organization dedicated to opposing environmentalism in virtually all of its policy manifestations, bears the moniker “conservative,” a label originating with Theodore Roosevelt and his passion for conservationism, noteworthy in his creation of the National Conservation Commission.
Recognition of industrial pollutants has certainly been in public consciousness more recently. Since the dawn of the industrial era, mass production and increasingly large factories have released more and more toxins into the air, water, and soil. Corporations, concerning purely with profit, are institutionally compelled to transfer the costs of waste to the environment, and ultimately, to the ecosystem; this phenomenon is something called an externality, in the parlance of economics. That is, market systems consider mostly the first order effect of a transaction, ignoring higher order effects. The example often discussed by analyst Noam Chomsky is perhaps you sell me a car for some fixed sum, and maybe we each get a good deal; an externality, among many, is that the additional car may result in more traffic, pollution, and the like, yet the original transaction fails to reflect any of these additional factors. In the more extreme case, industrialists need not consider dumping waste into local rivers, as they may not face any direct financial consequence for doing so. Quite infamous is the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, symbolic of the effects of runaway industrialization on nature; the Stokes brothers, one the mayor of Cleveland, the other a federal congressman, jointly lobbied for passage of the Clean Air Act signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972. The United Kingdom beat the United States by sixteen years: in 1952, rare weather conditions permitted a heavy concentration of sulfuric acid, emitted from coal-fired power plants, to coalesce in the atmosphere over London. For four days in December, the smog refused to lift, killing at least 12,000 people and poisoning 100,000 more. Four years later, Parliament enacted the first serious legislation aimed at curtailing emissions. Recent work by Texas A&M uncovered more detail in the specific mechanisms, but certainly the causes remain fairly obvious.
Existing evidence suggests that certain
groups in the population may be particularly
susceptible to lead injury. Children and
pregnant women constitute two of the most
important of such groups. Some studies have
suggested an association between lead
exposure and the occurrence of mental
retardation among children.
Two decades and much public pressure finally wrested regulatory control from corporations, including Associated Octel, responsible for poisoning the population. Much data was available earlier from studies in New Zealand on the toxicity of lead, yet American lobbyists stubbornly allowed gold to weigh more than earth, borrowing from the earlier imagery.
Tracing the history of the runaway greenhouse effect as we understand it today, we have that Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first proposed in 1896 that by-products of fossil fuel combustion could gradually warm the planet. After some back and forth in the mid-twentieth century, scientists settled in 1988 on the proposition that atmospheric temperatures were higher than anytime since 1880, a warming trend due primarily to industrialization. The mechanics of industrial release of carbon dioxide and oceanic resorption were by then largely understood, and the recognition that industrial activity was releasing more carbon dioxide than could be absorbed was beyond question. A coalition of international scientists formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization representing perhaps the largest peer-reviewed scientific cooperation in history. More recent scientific studies, including reports in 2014 and 2016 by the Coastal Resources Commission in North Carolina Coastal dispense with the propagandized claptrap of fossil-fuel underwritten think tanks such as Koch Industries, arguing the scope and damage of rising sea levels is perhaps inevitable now at the current rate of warming. North Carolina is perhaps most striking in its proactive stance toward climate change: in 2012, they simply outlawed it by denying local governments from enacting ordinances or legislation with respect to an earlier report. So much for permitting local governments to make their own choices, a frequent conservative refrain with a host of betrayals, such as the instructing all state and local governments how to define how people can associate in the Defense of Marriage Act, denying local governments the right to protect vulnerable immigrants through Gestapo-like tactics by the Immigration Customs Enforcement, and the like. One can’t help but ponder the tired argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery, despite the slave states happily supporting the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a preposterous piece of freedom-trampling legislation compelling citizens in free states to form militias to return runaway slaves.
Returning to the environment, denialism actually dates back to explorations by Exxon Mobile in 1979 into the implications of climate shifts due to fossil-fuel combustion, an understandable venture given policy could affect their bread-and-butter; in the following years, they vehemently funded a campaign of disinformation to postpone any meaningful action. No strangers to controversy, their almost suicidal foot-dragging and propaganda campaigns permitted horrendous accidents such as the Exxon Valdes spill, a near impossibility with a more decentralized sustainable energy system. Early governmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, would have required signatories to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as the aforementioned carbon dioxide, chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), aerosol chemicals known to damage the paper-thin shield of ozone gas absorbing some of the sun’s more harmful ultraviolet radiation, and a handful of other pollutants and toxins. Not unexpectedly, George W. Bush pulled out of the agreement, citing economic needs of American business were more important than the environment; his advisers came to regret the unilateral cowboy decision, as it, like Trump’s blustering parallel move this past week, further galvanized the rest of the world in their perception that America is the selfish, bully child demanding more than its fair share.
Though one could read myriad books on the subject of human contributions to environmental destruction, I’m more interested here in discussing the persistent issue: mountains of evidence, virtual unanimity among scientists regarding these issues, together with palpable, very visible effects seem insufficient to overcome the static friction of apathy. Though we can point to indoctrination and diminished sources of information in the past, online media has somewhat mitigated this problem in recent years, provided one knows where to look for peer-reviewed summaries. A 2015 study by Yale University reports distributions of awareness and concern throughout the world about climate change, noting that 40% of people in the world have never heard about it, obviously mostly in third world nations, and that 48% of Americans aren’t worried despite having heard a good deal of evidence. Certainly that pattern persists across the developed world : awareness perhaps weakly correlates with concern. So one might ask, logically, how it is possible that seemingly rational people can deny the overwhelming scientific evidence? Is it simply because they deny science? Is it because they follow the lead of their favorite pundits and politicians? I would tend to believe the problem is both institutional and sociological, the former being the more obvious antecedent, the latter based on fairly recent research, to which we’ll return.
Corporate disinformation is a major institutional factor : science discovers some mechanism through which environmental manipulation harms ecosystems, imperiling the food supplies and the quality of water and air, next industrial corporations mostly responsible for the devastation dispatch their public relations people to the airwaves and their lobbyists to Washington to “control the narrative,” or rather supplant or obfuscate truth. One can literally go case after case to find the same pattern: if there’s an agency or cache of talking points aimed at undermining environmental concerns, typically the underwriting comes from none other than the corporations poised to lose the most if policy reflects said concerns, as we mentioned earlier. One can note that as of June 6, 2017, Exxon itself buys ad space on Google if one searches for “Exxon climate change denial;” the page is an exercise in public relations spin mostly lambasting environmental groups dedicated to reducing consumption of fossil fuels in energy production, suggesting they and the media are somehow part of an outlandish conspiracy theory discussed by Paul Krugman in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. Krugman’s arguments extend to more than just climate change, which we’ll discuss momentarily. Greenpeace provides a fascinating timeline of Exxon’s early research in the 1960s and 1970s, initially with Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins presenting a report to the American Petroleum Institute about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide raising sea levels and re-architecting marine ecosystems, James Black of the research division circulating reports internally about the greenhouse effect, writing in 1978 that
[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of
five to ten years before the need for hard decisions
regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical,
and so on into the early 1980s. In particular, meeting minutes released from a task force on climate change organized by Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, Shell, and others suggested agreement with the realities of greenhouse gas emission and climate change, along with concession of the responsibilities they would bear going forward. Roger Cohen, a scientist at Exxon, wrote in an internal memo in 1983, later leaked,
[t]he consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from
its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average
global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C [equal to 5.4 ± 1.7°F]…
There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that
a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about
significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall
distribution and alterations in the biosphere.
Cohen decided to reverse his position later, joining a denial think tank created by Exxon. Disinformation campaigns have emerged over time from various industrial leaders, the Koch leaders being a particular example. In the academic field of climate science, near unanimity of the scope and risk of ecological catastrophe is easy to find, documented heavily by various non-partisan organizations such as Skeptical Science. The majority of scientists in other fields and government scientific agencies also agree with the consensus, documented by NASA. Astonishingly, as the consensus has solidified and global temperatures have risen steadily by easily understood anthropomorphic mechanisms, the Republican party’s official position has shifted increasingly in the direction of mind-numbingly stupid denialism. Vox offered an intriguing look at the evolution of the Republican position on environmentalism in an April 22 article, tracing the perspectives as beginning with more sound acceptance of scientific research, gradually eased out by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s and both the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy in the 1980s, along with a tidal wave of anti-establishment politics in Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory. Ann Gorsuch, mother of Trump’s recent far-right appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, headed the Environmental Protection Agency with a penchant for dismantling the regulatory and administrative state shared by the nationalist Bannon contingency in today’s executive branch. She later resigned amidst threats from the Democratic-led Congress to investigate allegations into corruption; a SCOTUS decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council 1984 broadened agency interpretation of legislation, reversing somewhat Reagan’s efforts at deregulation. Nonetheless, institutional denial has increased as the science has become more certain; analyst Noam Chomsky points to institutional bias of corporations as a partial culprit, pointing out that a CEO of a multinational corporation, even if aware of the overwhelming dangers, cannot risk profits, even at great moral cost. Anglo-American legal precedent offers evidence in Dodge v. Fordin 1919, codifying the position that corporations granted charters in America must pursue profits above all other considerations, meaning the rest, as I would imagine most people know, is public relations. We’ll return to the contradiction of rising denialism corresponding to increasing uniformity in the scientific consensus momentarily, but to circle back to Krugman’s editorial, the official Republican party position has become increasingly fact-free, or perhaps more appropriately fact-abhorrent. As he points out, whether it be environmentalism, the budget, healthcare, and the like, Trump’s programs, and by a marginal difference, the Paul Ryan fiscal wing, are almost completely without any constructive intent. Trump’s own leaked internal analysis of his first stab at healthcare reform had even more dire projections than the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment, despite all the bluster to the contrary. As Chomsky has pointed out previously, the Republican party no longer follows parliamentary procedure, nor does it care about the opinions of experts, scientists, or anyone offering anything challenging their fragile, fantastical world-view, echoing conservative analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in declaring the “unparty” to be a “radical insurgency”. This madness extends to the stubborn, Republican position that curtailing fossil fuel consumption would destroy jobs, no longer supported by any facts since renewable energy job projections far exceed any job loss associated with older energy programs, reported by Fortune; even today, the number of jobs in renewable energy exceeds that of non-renewables, according to a Department of Energy study. In older arguments I’ve heard throughout my life, conservatives have pointed to the high cost of investment in renewable energy, again ignorant of the pervasive state capitalism model we’ve discussed previously : heavy government investment in the technology sector during the more expensive phase of research and development, followed by private interests cashing in once the technology becomes marketable. So in summary, every argument offered by Republicans contravening meaningful action against ecological catastrophe folds like a cheap card table under the enormity of scientific consensus and thorough economic analysis.
So certainly we can point to institutional corruption and the shift rightward of both major political parties, placing one center right and the other in outer space, in explaining part of the propaganda campaign against environmentalism, but how do we explain some of the more curious phenomena with respect to attitudes and beliefs? Sociologist Kari Marie Noorgard of the University of Oregon has an interesting set of answers in her 2011 book Living in Denial. She compares a few competing theories on denialism: the first theory, for instance discussed in Harriet Bulkeley’s paper in 2000 on Australian attitudes, suggests that denialism is rooted in disinformation campaigns of corrupt institutions and ignorance of the population, neatly a problem of information. The more astonishing theory, echoing work in Norway by Hellevik and Barstad in 2004, asserts that willingness to solve climate change diminishes as public awareness grows. Similar work in the United States by Kellsted, Zahran, and Vedlitz finds a similar, stunning trend : the more people know about the problem, the less responsible they feel for it. Aside from the 26% of Americans who stubbornly refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus, coincident with Trump’s more galvanized nativist base, many of us simply refuse to take responsibility for it, and thus fail to pressure the political elite to ignore intensive lobbying from fossil-fuel firms. In fact, I found in reading the theory that I, too am part of the contingency; though I drive an electric car to reduce emissions, aim for aluminum can consumption rather than plastic bottle since aluminum is cheaper and easier to recycle, lobby officials on behalf of environmental causes, and eat virtually no meat, I nonetheless have a much larger carbon footprint than do most people, mainly in very frequent air travel to see family scattered across the continent. It occurred to me in thinking about the problem that I, too, feel a sense of resignation in the defeat of either more environmentally-friendly or more malleable candidates, such as Clinton in 2016 (more the latter than the former, as the Democratic party barely addresses the climate concerns), and thus somehow feel less responsible for the damage done either in the manufacture of products that I buy or not more vehemently pressing local, state, and federal representatives to pursue more sustainable policies. Calmer, more educated conservatives point to this contradiction as part of the problem of framing, as in the American Conservative. They complain that liberals, if that term even makes sense anymore, appeal to social justice, uplifting indigenous populations vulnerable to sea rises, and the like, notions argued to be viscerally repulsive to their less educated Christian conservative brethren. It’s rather stunning to me that one could profess to be Christ-like yet be unconcerned with social justice, but then again most flavors of religion offer a mixture of dogmatism, progressivism, oppression, liberation, and so on, depending on where you look. Certainly Christian conservative politicians fall off the spectrum, with such notables as Jim Inhofe saying,
God is still up there... arrogance of
people to think that we, human beings,
would be able to change what He is doing
in the climate is to me outrageous.
In any case, Noorgard’s research suggests to me that most of us, whether we’re knowledgeable or not, bear responsibility for what happens with regard to this existential threat. Admittedly, convincing the unscientifically-minded and the institutionally-indoctrinated of the gravity presents challenges, but we’re fast running out of options. Facing believers and non-believers alike are
retreating glaciers, something visually perceivable thanks to photography and more recently satellite imagery,
extreme weather, destroying coastal cities and killing thousands of people,
melting of Siberian tundra, releasing from peat bogs vast reserves of the significantly more potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere,
and the terrifying list grows. And unlike in the mortgage crisis of 2008, the stock market crash of 1929, the savings and loans disaster of the 1980s, the automotive crisis of 2008 to 2010, and other “free market” disasters, corporations primarily responsible for ecological destruction will find no nanny state riding to the rescue when the elites finally ask for help, cap contritely in hand, to borrow an expression from Chomsky.