Category Archives: Random Blogging

Shameless

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine’s cover story was “The Fog of Rudy”–a retrospective of sorts on a career that began semi-conventionally and now has a major role in the clown show that is the Trump Administration.

The article was undoubtedly informative for people who don’t obsessively follow political news. Since I’m among the obsessed, I was aware of most of the high and low points of Guiliani’s pursuit of fame and fortune–what the article described as his “seemingly hormonal desire for power and fame.” But I was struck by a theme running through the biographical material: shamelessness.

As a prosecutor,

Giuliani practiced politics in a different key, one characterized by brazenness, by shamelessness, by chutzpah. He embraced publicity indiscriminately, picked the highest-profile fights he could find and took all of them to the furthest possible extreme. He acted as if he were bulletproof; and so, in a way, he was.

Shamelessness is a central characteristic of what the article accurately describes as a new breed of politician

a publicity-obsessed, reality-defying master of resentment politics — that is, just the kind of figure who is now ascendant across the globe in the form of strongmen, oligarchs and even populist Tories. These are not men of vision, but men of appetites.

Shameless is a word that describes both Trump and Guiliani. These are men who are willing to say and do anything that will bring them attention–it’s almost as if they believe they don’t exist when the cameras aren’t on them. The Times article recounts Rudy’s numerous shady and self-serving activities as prosecutor, Mayor and private lawyer monetizing his connection with the tragedy of 9/11, and then returns to the theme of shamelessness:

Watching his invariably viral TV performances, it often felt as if the closest thing to a unifying explanation for his behavior was his pronounced inability to experience shame. Shamelessness is not an art or even a skill. It’s simply a way of operating in the world that informs all of your actions and interactions, for good or ill.

It’s a state of mind that he shares not only with Trump but also with a growing number of blatantly dishonest, nakedly opportunistic political figures. What creates the conditions in which such truly shameless figures can thrive? In 2020, the obvious answer is the rise of an all-consuming media ecosystem in which truth is no longer meaningfully litigated. … Combine that with the ubiquity of social media, which makes no distinctions between truth and lies, and what you end up with is a political conversation without consequences that favors the most outrageous voices. If you reliably make over-the-top claims, you will be rewarded with attention, and Giuliani never fails to make over-the-top claims.

The ability to feel shame requires an ability to recognize the distinction between right and wrong, and a desire to be–and be seen by others as– moral. I couldn’t help wondering about the sort of people who lack that desire, soI googled “mental health and shamelessness,” and found this psychiatrist’s explanation of the phenomenon compelling.

He writes that shamelessness is often displayed by pathological narcissists who are saddled with deep feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness, and who compensate with displays of  “rampant arrogance and a sense of entitlement.”

To be shameless–as opposed to shameful–is also to be guiltless. For in their assuming superiority over others (unconsciously, to dispossess themselves of buried feelings of inferiority), they see themselves as entitled to push their way (as it were) to the front of the line. Having once felt small, unimportant, and possibly demeaned and humiliated as well, their massively constructed defense system now enables them to feel “privileged.” They can experience themselves almost as above the law, and certainly beyond the court of public opinion. These are the individuals who, when convicted of trespassing on others’ rights–of having acted in flagrant disregard of their fellow humans–may demonstrate little, if any, remorse. And shamelessness, at its irremediable worst, is just one of many traits keying into the diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: why do presumably rational people reward these damaged folks with our attention and/or our votes?

And why on earth would we trust one of them with the nuclear codes?

 

What Pictures Do And Don’t Tell Us

As we head into what promises (threatens?) to be a pivotal year for American democratic governance, we do so in an environment unlike any that we have previously occupied. The “disinformation” industry has really come into its own over the past several years–filling the void that has been created by the near-demise of local journalism, and taking advantage of the enormous influence of social media.

The most recent weapons against facts and accuracy are visual: “deep fakes” in which the alterations are nearly impossible to detect. The influence of those fabrications on people who have lived in a world where “seeing is believing” is difficult to predict.

In a recent article from Axios Future, philosophers considered the challenge presented by deep fakes.

One possibility they considered: Technology might “erode the evidentiary value of video and audio” with the result that we begin seeing them the way we now see drawings or paintings —  rather than as factual records. In that case, all bets are off.

As the article put it,

Normally, when you receive new information, you decide whether or not to believe it in part based on how much you trust the person telling you.

“But there are cases where evidence for something is so strong that it overrides these social effects,” says Cailin O’Connor, a philosopher at UC Irvine. For decades, those cases have included video and audio evidence.

These recordings have been “backstops,” Rini says. But we’re hurtling toward a crisis that could quickly erode our ability to rely on them, leaving us leaning only on the reputation of the messenger.

One huge implication is that people may be less likely to avoid bad behavior if they know they can later disavow a recording of their mischief.

Just think how technological advances in deep fakes can affect political campaigns.

Just in time for the presidential election, the Brookings Institution shares news about a new technique for making deep fakes, invented by Israeli researchers.  It creates highly realistic videos by substituting the face of another individual for the person who is really speaking.

Unlike previous methods, this one works on any two people without extensive, iterated focus on their faces, cutting hours or even days from previous deepfake processes without the need for expensive hardware. Because the Israeli researchers have released their model publicly—a move they justify as essential for defense against it—the proliferation of this cheap and easy deep fake technology appears inevitable.

Can videos of Joe Biden using the “n word” or Bernie Sanders vowing fidelity to communism be far behind? As the Brookings article notes,

If AI is reaching the point where it will be virtually impossible to detect audio and video representations of people saying things they never said (and even doing things they never did), seeing will no longer be believing, and we will have to decide for ourselves—without reliable evidence—whom or what to believe. Worse, candidates will be able to dismiss accurate but embarrassing representations of what they say are fakes, an evasion that will be hard to disprove.

In our incredibly polarized political environment, the temptation to “cherry pick” information–to give in to the very human impulse to engage in confirmation bias–is already strong. We are rapidly approaching a time when technology will be able to hand partisans a plausible reason to disbelieve inconvenient news about a preferred candidate, while giving others desired “evidence” about an opponent’s flaws.

We can also predict that a political party willing to employ gerrymandering, vote suppression and a wide variety of political “dirty tricks” will not hesitate to use these tools.

Uncharted territory, indeed…..

Listen to Rick Wilson

In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses (a period of time that has begun to seem interminable) and in the wake of the January Democratic debate, the identity of the Democratic party’s eventual nominee is still unknown. Whichever candidate emerges, however, he or she will face an incumbent and a party untethered to ethics and willing to employ a range of “dirty tricks” that far exceeds even the worst of what has gone before.

That nominee–and the Democratic Party–need to be prepared. They need to listen to Rick Wilson.

Wilson is a long-time Republican strategist. He is also one of the (comparatively few) “professional” Republicans who were horrified by Trump’s victory; he has spent the last three years advocating for a return to sanity and battling the conspiracy theories and “alternate facts” so beloved by Trump’s base. (I think–although I’m not sure–that he is the source of the “Vichy Republican” epithet widely used to describe Trump’s feckless GOP collaborators.)

Wilson has just come out with a new book: Running Against The Devil. His previous book was Everything Trump Touches Dies–the title doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity about Wilson’s opinion of The Donald, but just in case you didn’t pick up on his animus, he’s been quoted as saying that Trump will “go down in history with asterisks next to his name for endemic corruption, outrageous stupidity, egregious cruelty and inhumanity, for diminishing the presidency and the nation, and for being a lout with a terrible wig.”

Although I haven’t had a chance to read the new book, I did come across an informative review of it in The Guardian. Some excerpts:

Unlike most of the Washington reporters covering Donald Trump, Wilson, a Republican strategist and ad man, wastes no time trying to be fair or balanced about the career criminal who is the temporary occupant of the White House. His advice to Democrats is beautifully summarized in his epilogue:

Do not, as my party did, underestimate the evil, desperate nature of evil desperate people. Do not come to this fight believing that the Trump team views any action, including outright criminality, as off limits. [The 2020 election] is a battle that decides whether they have an unlimited runway to create a dynastic kleptocracy based on an authoritarian personality cult that makes North Korea look like Sweden, or whether the immune system of the Republic kicks in and purges them from the body public …

There is no bottom. There is no shame. There are no limits … He is surrounded by cowards with frightening and tremendous skills …

Wilson believes that the only thing that could save Trump in November would be a Democratic party “too stubborn, undisciplined and foolish to get out of its own way”–and those of us who follow such things know that such behavior on the part of the Democratic Party is a realistic possibility.

Democrats, in Wilson’s view, should emphasize foreign policy (a case that “makes itself”) and especially corruption.

Whether “it’s lobbyists for Wall Street banks, big coal, the payday loan industry, private prisons, or any other number of economic vampires, the Trump kakistocracy really does have something for everyone: nepotism, cronyism, pay-for-play, backroom deals for donors, abuse of power, lying to Congress … and as a bonus, monetizing cruelty to children.”

Trump, Wilson writes, is “sending a signal, loud and clear, that he’s for sale, satisfaction guaranteed.”

In November, we will see how many voters are buying the primary product Trump is selling–white supremacy and the demise of the American experiment.

 

 

The Art Of The Religious Deal

Reporters who have followed Donald Trump over the years tend to describe his approach to pretty much everything–business, family, charity and now the Presidency–as transactional. (That’s a nicer way of describing the paradigm through which he operates than “what’s in it for me.”)

A recent article from the Guardian suggests that a similarly transactional approach is not only more widespread than we might suppose, but that it explains the otherwise inexplicable support for Trump of those “family values” Evangelical Christians who comprise the majority of his political base.

Before the end of 2016 there was little in Donald Trump’s life, or frequently offensive political campaign, to suggest that as president he would be hailed as God’s appointee on Earth, be beloved by born-again Christians, or compared to a biblical king.

Yet that is exactly what has happened in the three years since Trump took office, as he has surrounded himself with a God-fearing cabinet and struck up an unlikely but extremely beneficial relationship with white evangelical supporters.

It’s a relationship that, for Trump, has ensured unwavering support from a key voter base and for his religious supporters, seen a conservative takeover of the courts and an assault on reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

The Executive Director of Americans United has accurately summed up the transactional nature of this support, noting that Trump continues to confer “unparalleled privilege” on this one narrow religious constituency–and that, in exchange for that privilege, Evangelicals are willing to ignore the numerous behaviors that are blatantly inconsistent with their purported beliefs, and to exhibit loyalty at the ballot box.

In law school contracts class, students learn that enforceable transactions require consideration (promises) from both parties. If you do thus-and-so, I promise to do thus-and-so. If one of the parties breaches, by failing to deliver on those promises, performance by the other will be excused.

Thus far, at least, Trump has lived up to his end of this particular deal. That makes this  transaction unusual: he has stiffed contractors, banks and charities, cheated on wives, broken promises to students enrolled in Trump University…In this case, however, he undoubtedly realizes that failure to perform would doom any chance of re-election.

Trump’s capture by the Evangelical Christian constituency has been widely remarked, and the steadfast loyalty of that community has been the subject of significant commentary–most of which has revolved around the stunning hypocrisy shown by  religious right figures and their transparent efforts to justify support for a man who (if he wasn’t delivering judges) they would call the anti-Christ.

The unlikely alliance between those nominally following biblical interpretations of right and wrong, and a thrice-married man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and infamously paid off a pornographic actor, has thrown up a rich – and bizarre – cast of characters.

A sustained effort by influential Christian voices to justify Trump’s personal misdeeds and political cruelty has led to the frequent portrayal of Trump as a flawed vessel for God’s will. In particular, Trump has been compared to King Cyrus, who, according to the Bible, liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity, despite himself being a Persian ruler.

The hypocrisy is certainly there. But what is becoming clear is that it isn’t only Donald Trump who approaches everything as a “deal.” In the Evangelical community, capitalism and market values have rather clearly overwhelmed (trumped?) theological commitments.

Wasn’t there a warning in Genesis about selling one’s soul for a bowl of pottage?

 

 

The Disinformation Century

As citizens all over the world confront a daunting number of challenges–climate change, the rise of populism and white nationalism, the decay of social and physical infrastructure, the wealth gap, endless wars, terrorism, and on and on–we find ourselves deprived of an essential tool with which to address them: reliable information.

Such information exists, but it is increasingly countered by seductive propaganda.

I say “seductive” because–thanks to technology– disinformation can be crafted and aimed with precision at people whose profiles suggest the nature of their vulnerabilities.

Remember Cambridge Analytica? It turns out that its influence was far greater than we originally understood.

An explosive leak of tens of thousands of documents from the defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica is set to expose the inner workings of the company that collapsed after the Observer revealed it had misappropriated 87 million Facebook profiles.

More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.

It comes as Christopher Steele, the ex-head of MI6’s Russia desk and the intelligence expert behind the so-called “Steele dossier” into Trump’s relationship with Russia, said that while the company had closed down, the failure to properly punish bad actors meant that the prospects for manipulation of the US election this year were even worse.

The documents were released by a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, who became a whistleblower. She starred in the Oscar-shortlisted Netflix documentary The Great Hack, and says she decided to go public after last month’s election in Britain.

“It’s so abundantly clear our electoral systems are wide open to abuse,” she said. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”

Kaiser had shared some material with the British parliament in April 2018, but she has since said that there were thousands of additional pages, showing a “breadth and depth of the work” that went “way beyond what people think they know about ‘the Cambridge Analytica scandal.”

Kaiser said the Facebook data scandal was part of a much bigger global operation that worked with governments, intelligence agencies, commercial companies and political campaigns to manipulate and influence people, and that raised huge national security implications.

The firm helped develop what Kaiser describes as a “sophisticated infrastructure of shell companies that were designed to funnel dark money into politics.”

Among the documents are exchanges between Trump donors discussing how to disguise the source of the contributions, and others disclosing tactics used in the election in Great Britain. The most chilling aspect of the new disclosures, however, wasn’t the fact that the organization’s operations were much more far-reaching than previously known, but the description of what it did, and how.

Emma Briant, an academic at Bard College, New York, who specialises in investigating propaganda and has had access to some of the documents for research, said that what had been revealed was “the tip of the iceberg”…

“There’s evidence of really quite disturbing experiments on American voters, manipulating them with fear-based messaging, targeting the most vulnerable, that seems to be continuing. This is an entire global industry that’s out of control but what this does is lay out what was happening with this one company.”

Politics in 2020 are almost guaranteed to be uglier and more misleading than any in the recent past. If we can get past November without self-destructing, however, the growing effort to teach media literacy may make a longterm difference.

Ad Fontes Media has created a very useful media bias chart.  Media Literacy Now has a state report on the status of media literacy education,as well as model legislation for states that currently don’t require such education. There are other, similar efforts underway.

For a long time, it has been popular to claim that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” but we live in an era that disproves the saying. The technical ability to create what the White House celebrates as “alternate reality” is new; we need to respond by creating tools that separate fact from fiction.