During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was able to post commentary and analysis from what many seemed to think was a fairly neutral position, pointing out how and where US policy was right and wrong in how we got there, and the mechanics and flow of the invasion. I posted links to various sources, both pro and con, as well as original analysis based on satellite imagery. It got a fair amount of praise from those who opposed the war (who thought it was a little “pro war” but fair) and those against (who implied I had “anti war” sentiments but provided a good service). It even broke a couple of stories well before the popular media. Although there were of course the occasional trolls, rarely did any of the critics resort to insults or wild accusations. Most people asked civil questions and the discussions were interesting.
What a difference 20 years makes! The Internet was a much smaller place back then, and society was less angry. When I pointed out that Saddam Hussein had started as a US ally and reformer, and that the evolution from that to despotic dictator and enemy was in part (maybe significant part) due to US policy miss-steps, no one ever accused me of being his supporter. Yet, if I point out that from his perspective, Russia and Putin have valid reasons for doing what they are doing in Ukraine, and that we bear significant responsibility for this tragedy, I am accused of being a Putin Lover and purveyor/victim of misinformation.
The biggest problem is the media environment. The US media was hijacked by the government and corporate interests a long time ago. The Pentagon and CIA spent a lot of money and resources studying how they lost control of the narrative over Vietnam. Those ideas were put in to practice by one of the (then) young officers involved in those studies who had risen to the highest levels by the time of the first Gulf War – Colin Powell. They were a spectacular success; the news media was totally co-opted through the use of tactics like embedding, selective background briefings and leaks, providing “warheads” (“former” military officers and intel agents) who have taken over expert commentary and even reporting in some cases, and so forth. The consolidation of the media and, with the advent of CNN, the change of news divisions from prestige, public service loss leaders into profitable business units dependent on engaging viewers and advertising revenues completed the transition from journalism to stenographers for the US Government or large corporate viewpoints on most subjects.
Now with Fox News and the proliferation of internet sources, you can easily find a source that matches your worldview without challenge. Fox in particular helped blur the line between news and commentary, and the advent of advocacy journalism on the left means neutral news reporting – always at risk – is now firmly a thing of the past. So today the vast majority of people who are engaged in online discussions are far too secure in their own information bubbles. Rather than think through and consider their possible preconceptions and try to understand the other side, they lash out and assume the worst about anything and anyone that contradicts their worldview in the slightest way. Rather than present reasoned arguments, ad hominum attacks and dismissal based on personality or source rule the day. Humility in the face of a complex situation with decades, even centuries of convoluted history is totally absent. As is self awareness, and considering critically actions by all actors in context.
As if that isn’t bad enough, there are now legions of enforcers for particular issues who seem to have nothing better to do than track down and deluge any site that disagrees with their point of view with vitriol. Some are paid, some don’t even exist – the notorious ‘bots’, others are just people who are fired up with self righteousness about a subject and feel they have the right and/or obligation to shout down any opposition.
Functioning as an independent part time commentator in this environment is almost impossible. So I’m going to scale back public analysis and comment on the subject of Ukraine and other geopolitical issues. It’s not that I’m thin skinned – I relish a good, fact based discussion of contrary views since it helps sharpen arguments and we all learn from it and evolve our positions. I’ve certainly changed positions on some subjects based on feedback. The problem is that in today’s environment it has become just too stressful and time consuming to try to moderate, respond, and keep discussions on a civil and rational level. Even with the support of my honored Patreons I just can’t keep up (I still have a “real” job, which as noted funding has declined so I no longer have as much flexibility as I used to anyway). So I’ll do what so many have asked, stick to natural disasters, with occasional commentary on the information/news dynamics and misinformation/propaganda problem (but no longer suggest sources – it seems you aren’t supposed to even *look* at anything that might contradict your worldview, even for the purpose of criticizing it!).
The ultimate threat and problem is this: information dynamics, geopolitical stresses, resource limitations, and other issues have overwhelmed our systems of communications and governance. It is clear our leaders are no longer capable of guiding our society – and society is so fragmented and delusional it is rapidly becoming dysfunctional. Democracy simply isn’t possible without some kind of shared values, means of calm discourse, and orderly basis for decision making. These have eroded to the point of collapse. I fear hard times are coming, and our leaders and the societies that select/support them are incapable of dealing with the difficult circumstances to come.
The track hasn’t changed much since yesterday, although the forecast winds at landfall are slightly less (100 vs 110 knots). That will help – recall that dynamic pressure (force the wind exerts on an object) is based on the square of the wind speed, so 110 knots is 21% stronger than 100 knots. But still going to be bad …
Rain is another big worry. Here is the forecast rain amounts for the next five days – some parts in the south could see 0.7 meters, or two feet of rain!
After Madagascar, it looks like Emnati will turn out to sea and not make landfall on the mainland of Africa.
There are over 16 million people in the forecast damage swath, with over 3 million likely to experience hurricane conditions or worse. Impacts on the mainland are still over five days away, but it is likely there will be additional flooding there as well with the additional moisture being pumped in to the region.
Watching the controversy over a Tennessee school board banning the comic Maus, I find myself wishing people would spend half as much bandwidth on opposing actual F’ing Nazis as they do expressing outrage over fictional ones. Where was the outrage over scenes like this, the US Military Attache to the Embassy in Ukraine, acting in her official capacity, rendering honors at a memorial to the fallen members of a neo-Nazi militia?
That’s not to say the school board’s actions aren’t worthy of comment and reconsideration. The “graphic novel” art form is an interesting approach that certainly will engage this upcoming generation. But a number of serious academics have criticized the work over the animal metaphor, with the depiction of various nationalities as different animals. Some of these depictions are potentially offensive, such as the use of pigs for Poles, and some argue that the work plays into the Nazi stereotype that various nationalities and religions are different species, not just variations with a common humanity. There are other adult themes and subtexts regarding family that have also been noted by critics. So like many issues in modern America, I think this controversy isn’t quite so straightforward as it seems. Given these and other factors, I would certainly want to be careful about the age of students exposed to it. High school (Juniors and Seniors) should be of an age to be able to discuss the work, and I think it could be a good part of an “interdisciplinary” approach in the Arts, English, and History classwork, especially if these other issues were discussed. But like everything in education it should be as part of a carefully structured curriculum designed to teach kids to think, and prepare them for a complex, nuanced world.
And here is where the school board apparently went off the rails: far too often administrators and politicians avoid difficult subjects and controversy by restricting or banning them rather than creating a framework for using them. I suspect that the outrage over banning Maus is overblown and this wasn’t part of, as the author alleged, an attempt to whitewash Holocaust history. I doubt the Board thought it through much beyond “Oh, bad words and nudity, this subject makes us uncomfortable, fetch the banhammer!” Not everything is about some deeper issue, and making it more than that without solid evidence is a disservice to the victims of the Nazis.
Still, it is interesting to compare this controversy to a similar one playing out in the Seattle schools this week, the dropping of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from their required reading list. In that case, the argument is remarkably similar, yet one those pushing for the use of Maus might well agree with without realizing they have switched sides. To quote from one of the members of the board,
“It’s a very difficult book and a lot of thorny subjects are raised, and we felt that some teachers may not feel comfortable guiding their students through it,” Gahagan said. “It deals not only with racism, but it reflects a time when racism was tolerated. Atticus Finch, of course, is in everyone’s memory the great hero of the book, but in fact he was kind of tolerant of the racism around him. He described one of the members of the lynch mob as a good man.”
Wow. In my world, that’s exactly what we call a “teachable moment.” And any teacher “not comfortable guiding their students” on this needs some retraining or another career. As I often rant, the problem with the Nazis, or KKK, or any odious group isn’t that they were some kind of alien evil, it is that they are all too human. Virtually every human organization that was what we would call evil had good and bad aspects, and typically had people who participated in them who were not irredeemably evil. With a bit of generalization, Americans love to see things in black and white. But the world isn’t that simple. Why did men who were clearly moral and ethical on many levels, like Thomas Jefferson, or Robert E. Lee, enable or support slavery? How did someone like Erwin Rommel, or Werner von Braun become a Nazi? Many of the people who were instrumental in triggering and supporting the civil rights movement were, like Atticus, complex, doing the right thing while holding views that today would be considered repugnant. Likewise, those who participated in lynch mobs were often “good” family loving people in other contexts. Why? What makes them different?
If you don’t read their works and fictional accounts that relate that complexity, and study – in context – their life and times, you will never know. And never recognize it when your own government makes common cause with evil for expedient short term gain, or your organization that is trying to do good, by either protecting children or educating them, resorts to the kind of book banning and demonization without cause that the Nazis exploited in their rise.
The first place to look for signs and symptoms of toxic ideologies like Fascism isn’t out the window. It’s in the mirror. That seems to be the real lesson here.