Saturday, June 22, 2019

Silicon Valley Is Destroying American Democracy by Playing Political Favorites — Strategic Culture

How a Feminist Prophet Became an Apostate—An Interview with Dr Phyllis Chesler


Dr Phyllis Chesler has never been afraid to be unpopular. During 60 years as an academic, feminist campaigner, and psychotherapist, she has frequently courted controversy. Her new memoir, A Politically Incorrect Feminist, details her experiences as a leader of the Second Wave feminist movement in the United States. Readers are introduced to a star cast that includes household names such as Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, as well as women such as Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Mary Daly, and Shulamith Firestone, women who produced influential work that is now often forgotten, or else misremembered by Third Wave feminists keen to distance themselves from their feminist foremothers. But Chesler refuses to be misremembered. She’s here to give her side of the story, and she doesn’t pull her punches.

We spoke over Skype from her home in New York. Chesler in conversation is just the same as Chesler in print: warm and razor-sharp. At the age of 78, she is both a prolific writer and an energetic campaigner. Most of her campaigning interests are concerned with feminism—she has a particular interest in motherhood (she describes herself as a “proud mother and grandmother”) and has published several books on surrogacy and child custody. She is also engaged with politics more broadly, and in recent decades has written extensively on antisemitism and Islamism. Her interests have ranged widely over the course of her career, but she has steadfastly remained a radical feminist—albeit an unorthodox one.

Born into a Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn in 1940, she was in precisely the right time and place to be at the centre of the Second Wave. She was part of a generation of women who were teenagers during the stifling 1950s and came of age during the counterculture movement. The high point of the Second Wave was a period of intense creativity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which a relatively small group of (mostly young) women developed an astounding number of new ideas. Some of these became mainstream—for instance, the existence of ‘sexual harassment’ as a distinct category of mistreatment, and the recognition that rape is often committed by intimates rather than strangers. Other radical ideas were never accepted outside of a small circle of dedicated activists, including the legal campaign against pornography made famous by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon.

Chesler was immersed in this frenetic activity and has spent the decades since campaigning on a wide range of issues. Although Chesler believes she was never truly accepted in the academy, describing herself and other radicals as “howling hungrily” outside of the mainstream, she has nevertheless published 18 books, spent three decades teaching psychology at American universities, and lectured all over the world. And she has not shied away from provocative debate. In fact, she seems to have revelled in it.

Here follows a non-exhaustive list of people that Chesler has infuriated over the course of her career.

  • Anti-abortion campaigners. In the 1960s she helped women to obtain abortions as part of an ‘underground railroad’ within the United States. Chesler and other activists moved women from house to house to avoid arrest and sympathetic doctors taught feminists to perform illegal abortions themselves. This was a time when women suffered from intense stigma: “Every woman I knew had had an abortion,” writes Chesler, “it was something we didn’t discuss.”
  • The psychotherapeutic establishment. In 1970, Chesler provoked international headlines when she gave a speech at the American Psychological Association convention demanding reparations for women who had been victims of medical malpractice. She went on to write a bestselling book, Women and Madness, detailing the sexism inherent to psychiatry, particularly the abuse of female patients by clinicians. The book went on to sell more than 2.5 million copies and propelled Chesler to fame in the 1970s.
  • The Regressive Left. Since the turn of the century, Chesler has focused on the rise of antisemitism, the demonisation of Israel, and the refusal of progressives to recognise the oppression of women under Islam. Several of her books have tackled this topic head on, and Chesler has predictably been accused of Islamophobia and widely vilified, which has included enduring efforts to no-platform her in recent years.

And here’s another group she has come into conflict with: feminists. In 2002, Chesler published Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, which described the ways in which women perpetrate abuse against other women. Those feminists who clung to a naïve view of feminine virtue accused her of betraying the movement, and a few sought to block publication of the book. Chesler tells me that, when asked by another feminist if she was going to “name names” in detailing misbehaviour in the movement, she laughed and replied that she had no intention of “publishing the phone book.” This response typifies her style—funny and candid, but also rather melancholy.

She is particularly upfront in speaking about the dark side of the feminist movement. This darkness is rooted, she believes, in the dysfunctional ways in which women often relate to one another. Although Chesler used to believe that “all women were kind, caring, maternal, valiant, and noble under siege, and that all men were their oppressors,” she now knows this to be false, as do all except the most starry-eyed feminists. In fact, as she tells me, “women are hugely aggressive—but mainly towards other women. Unlike men, most women have been taught to deny this in themselves and to remain unaware of their own behaviour. Usually, the aggression is ‘indirect’… It consists of spreading gossip about and then socially ostracising a target girl or woman, especially one who is perceived as ‘prettier’ or more talented or simply ‘different’.”

In Politically Incorrect Feminist, Chesler describes the communitarianism found within Second Wave feminist circles as reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: “Many feminists came to believe that feminist ideas and activism belonged to the movement, not to any individual, and especially not to the feminist who did the writing or organised the protest.” Achievements never belonged to a particular woman, but rather to “‘the people, the sisterhood, the boundary-less merging of one with all.” Anyone who defied this dictum was liable to be trashed—that is, bad-mouthed and exiled from the movement. In the 1980s, Chesler interviewed women who had been involved in the Second Wave and many of them spoke about the experience of being trashed, “and then at the end I’d say ‘and did you ever do this to another woman?’” The answer was always ‘no’: “the amnesia was total, the denial was total, because it’s not nice, it’s not ‘good girl’ behaviour.”

To a large extent, this is the sort of behaviour typically found on the Left, and Chesler is keen to stress that interpersonal aggression manifests itself in any revolutionary movement in which a “take-no-prisoners ethos” is at play. Indeed, much of the worst in-fighting was imported directly from the Left, since Chesler believes that some feminists brought with them “its tactics of intimidation and interrogation.”

The difference though is that, unlike men, women tend to take such conflict deeply personally. Chesler diverges from many other feminists in recognising that there are some average psychological differences between men and women. She now feels that her fellow Second Wave activists failed to recognise “that men and women are different in certain ways”—including their resilience in the face of conflict.

Chesler writes that most of the women involved in the Second Wave were “not psychologically prepared for such intense and overt battles, and experienced them personally, not politically—and sometimes as near-death experiences.” These were conflicts that could be “breathtakingly vicious” and eventually served to undermine the movement.

One chapter of Politically Incorrect Feminist deals with a particularly painful truth that Chesler has not previously written about: the high rates of mental illness among Second Wave feminists. Having written so critically of the tendency of doctors to pathologise female emotion, Chesler knows full well that such claims should not be thrown around lightly. When she writes of the madness of some of her fellow feminists, she knows what she’s talking about: “I don’t mean neurotic, difficult, anxious, or eccentric. I mean clinically schizophrenic or manic depressive, suicidal, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or afflicted with a personality disorder.” Her description of Kate Millett’s long-term suffering is particularly shocking. Although Chesler is not averse to acid comments (for instance, quipping that Millet “spoke with a slight British accent—just to make sure you knew that she’d been to Oxford”) she writes of the anguish these women experienced with real feeling. For all of their conflict, the bonds between second wave activists were precious: “we were all lost in a dream,” Chesler writes, but “only now, looking back, do I remember how much of the early years of second-wave feminism was painful.” This memoir serves as a useful rejoinder to any feminist tempted to idealise the past.

One shocking episode that Chesler details in her memoir highlights this with particular clarity. In 1979, Chesler was raped by her then-employer, Davidson Nicol—a senior official at the United Nations and dignitary from Sierra Leone. She tells me that this rape proved to be less traumatic than the subsequent behaviour of her fellow feminists. When Chesler disclosed what had happened to Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem—some of the most powerful women in the movement at the time—they refused to support her in confronting her attacker. Chesler writes that Morgan told her that it would “look bad for feminism” for a “white feminist to charge a black man with rape and sexual harassment,” and that Steinem backed up this decision. Even Andrea Dworkin failed to stand up for her, telling Chesler that in her opinion “accusing a black man would make feminists look like racists.” This, despite the fact that several women of colour were supportive of Chesler’s desire to confront Nicol, particularly given that he was well known to be predatory.

This was a betrayal that hurt Chesler deeply. It is also a betrayal that Steinem has repeated since, infamously supporting Bill Clinton in the face of allegations of predatory behaviour because—her critics suggest—it suited her interests to support the Democratic Party. It seems that there have always been instances of feminists putting political loyalties over personal ones, even from the earliest days of the Second Wave. This is a form of treachery that is by no means unique to the present day.

Chesler and Steinem have since parted ideological company. Steinem became, Chesler believes, over-eager to embrace a brand of feminism that was “less about violence against women and more about racism, prison reform, climate change, foreign ‘occupations,’ and nuclear war.” In recent years, Steinem has also been a close ally of Linda Sarsour, the Women’s March leader who has been accused of acting as an apologist for Sharia law and has made statements widely interpreted as anti-Semitic.

In contrast, Chesler has been strongly critical of Islam and has written a number of books on the abuse of women in Muslim-majority countries. This is partly influenced by her own experiences, detailed in her book An American Bride in Kabul. Aged 20, Chesler married a fellow student and travelled with him back to his native country of Afghanistan. On arrival in Kabul her passport was removed and she spent five months effectively imprisoned in her husband’s family home. There she witnessed what she describes as gender apartheid: “polygamy, purdah, women in burqas who were forced to sit at the back of the bus, arranged first-cousin marriages, child brides, honor killings.” Chesler has no compunction in calling such practices “barbaric.” She almost died of dysentery before eventually being allowed to return home, pregnant and weighing only 90 pounds. She had an illegal abortion.

This is not an experience shared by Chesler’s feminist contemporaries in the United States, and this may in part be why she refuses to conform to the orthodox view of Islam on the Left. As she tells me, “What passes for feminism today, at least in the academy, is faux feminism. It is far more concerned with racism than with sexism and anyone who does not toe this line is called out as a racist. Faux feminism is far more invested in condemning America, the Enlightenment, Western Civilization, Western-only imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism; in condemning truth tellers like Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali.” As she sees it, feminists who refuse to stand up against the treatment of women in Muslim majority countries are simply lacking in courage: “They’re afraid they’ll be ostracised if they don’t follow the party line.”

Such fears are not without basis. It is the issue of Islam, more than any other, that has attracted controversy for Chesler in recent years. She tells me that she now needs security on campus when she lectures, and that she has been disinvited and from a number of events. Where once she was given front-page coverage in the New York Times, now she cannot get published in the Left-leaning media. Instead she writes for conservative outlets in which she can be certain that her work won’t be “rendered into some ‘politically correct’ form.” Some left-wing feminists told her that they would never read her work because of where it was published, but when she asked them to suggest an alternative platform “they could not do so.” What choice does she have?

Chesler is not optimistic. She speaks of feeling “aghast, heartbroken, outraged” at the state of contemporary feminism and the new threats facing women. She is particularly concerned about abuses within the surrogacy industry and is currently campaigning against proposed legislation that would legalise commercial surrogacy in the state of New York. We also spoke about the transgender movement, which Chesler sees as a progressive obsession which has “totally supplanted all or any remaining interest in biological women’s special woes.”

The issue of prostitution remains no less urgent than it was in the early days of the second wave, and Chesler continues to campaign for abolition.

“Decriminalising prostitution,” she tells me, “is about refusing to understand the extent to which most prostituted women are female children, and children who have been impoverished and raped in childhood and then trafficked by pimps into drug and alcohol addiction, necessary drugs to withstand the killing field that most prostitutes, both male and female, must face.”

She now recognises the naïveté of the Second Wave: “We really believed that we could accomplish a revolution in a decade, certainly within a quarter-century. We did not plan for a future in which we would have to keep on fighting … primarily as unpaid volunteers, even as we aged, became disabled or ill, became poor, became no longer ‘relevant’ … Some of us have lived long enough to see our work disappeared, forgotten, maligned.”

Chesler partly uses her memoir as an opportunity to set the record straight, which sometimes includes airing the movement’s dirty laundry. But the book also reads as an elegy for the women of the second wave, many of whom have now died, sometimes in tragic circumstances. Chesler ends with moving tributes to each of the feminists mentioned in the book. They all believed so sincerely in the righteousness of what they were fighting for, and although the activists of the Second Wave achieved remarkable things, most of their goals have not been realised. Chesler now looks back on their idealism with a note of sadness: “None of us understood that this work would occupy us for the rest of our lives and that all we would be able to claim was the struggle, not the victory.”


Louise Perry is a freelance writer based in Oxford, U.K. You can read an excerpt from Phyllis Chesler’s memoir, A Politically Incorrect Feminist, here.

The post How a Feminist Prophet Became an Apostate—An Interview with Dr Phyllis Chesler appeared first on Quillette.


How a rebellious scientist (Lee Jussim) uncovered the left-wing bias of psychology

Kindergarten Teacher Shocks Facebook By Very Bluntly Explaining Why She Quit Her Job


34-year-old Jessica Gentry truly loved what she did.  For the past 12 years, she was a teacher at Stone Spring Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, but she recently quit her job and she is telling the whole world why.  She says that her mental and physical health were in jeopardy every single day due to […]

The post Kindergarten Teacher Shocks Facebook By Very Bluntly Explaining Why She Quit Her Job appeared first on The Most Important News.


The Fact That Americans Need To Be Deceived Into War Proves Their Underlying Goodness


Last night Fox’s Tucker Carlson praised Trump’s decision not to go forward with a planned attack against Iran which the president claims would have killed approximately 150 people in response to a downed drone, which if true would have been a profoundly barbaric response to a broken toy plane and would have led to retaliations from Iran, followed by a chain of military actions which could have escalated God knows how far.

Carlson, who has been credited with persuading Trump against further military escalations with Iran, lit into the neoconservative elements of Trump’s cabinet with unprecedented viciousness. He called National Security Advisor John Bolton a “bureaucratic tapeworm” who never suffers any consequences for his relentless warmongering and accusing him and his collaborators of deliberately engineering a provocation to lead to direct military confrontation. Carlson urged Trump to expunge the influencers who are pushing for a war with Iran, and cautioned that it would cost him re-election.

“Bombing Iran would have ended [Trump’s] political career in a minute,” Carlson said. “There’d be no chance of re-election after that.”

Carlson’s first guest, The American Conservative’s Robert Merry, plainly stated the likely reason for Bolton’s deceitful manipulations, saying that Americans are typically reluctant to go to war and citing a few of the historical instances in which they were tricked into consenting to it by those who desire mass military violence.

“So, you’re saying that there is a long, almost unbroken history of lying our way into war?” Carlson asked his guest rhetorically.

“Lying sometimes, not always lying, sometimes it’s manipulations, but yeah,” Merry replied. “America’s warmaking history indicates that there’s been significant instances of that kind of maneuvering, manipulations, and in some instances lying — Vietnam is a great example — to get us into wars that the American people weren’t clamoring for.”

Both men are correct. The US empire does indeed have an extensive and well-documented history of using lies, manipulations and distortions to manufacture consent for war from a populace that would otherwise choose peace, and a Reuters poll released last month found that only 12 percent of Americans favor attacking Iranian military interests without having been attacked first.

Watching Americans react online to the jarring report about how close they may have just come to a war which would have impacted most of the world to varying degrees, I’ve been experiencing a deep appreciation for what truly, sincerely good people they are underneath all the propaganda and deceit.

The fact that Americans have had to be tricked into every major military action since the Spanish-American War is telling in itself. If Americans were truly a war-hungry mob, the hawks wouldn’t need to do that. Notice too how these tricks almost always hinge on manipulating Americans’ desire to help others. The manipulators literally have to use people’s goodness to manufacture consent for war by making it all about a “dictator” who is harming his people or some variation of this theme. The hawks could try to play off of hatred or fear, but they know it wouldn’t work nearly as effectively as manipulating the already-installed “Save the day!” helping desire that most Americans live and breathe.

Now, these tricks are becoming more and more conscious for an increasing number of Americans. For instance, on the day of the Gulf of Oman incident, “Gulf of Tonkin” briefly trended on Twitter. As it becomes more apparent that they’ve been lied to, you could expect people to compartmentalize away from the bloodshed by arguing for exceptionalism and for strengthening the petrodollar and US geostrategic interests no matter the cost. They could simply switch gears and take their cues from Bolton and the neocons. But the large majority don’t. They are horrified. There is shame and there is palpable grief. They hate the thought that they might be the baddies, and they want to do what they can to stop the next senseless military bloodbath.

And then something like this near-miss happens in Iran and the responses on social media make it very clear that the will for war with Iran is almost non-existent everywhere except DC. On the contrary, Americans came out in force over the last two days to mock, deride, argue and demand that Trump cease this madness immediately. I’ve been reading all day and just swelling with so much love.

I’ve often had the thought that American culture creates the kind of people we need to save the world, but they’re also subject to the most sophisticated propaganda in the world, so so far they’ve put all that get-up-and-go goodwill into fighting shadows and each other. If the veil of the propaganda gets too thin, these guys might really end up being the superheroes, but for real this time.

And that gives me so much hope. If the US-centralized empire were built upon a foundation of cold, uncaring people, I’d probably pack it in right now and seek out a low-effort job so I can buy chips and booze to take the edge off while I wait for armageddon. But it’s not. All that’s holding our world back from health is a thin, wispy leash made of propaganda.

Whenever I try to talk about this I get a lot of pushback, not from outsiders like myself but from Americans themselves. When you’re in the thick of a society that keeps seeing itself manipulated into war after war after war, it can feel like being in the middle of an endless zombie apocalypse, and it’s easy to grow impatient with one’s countrymen.

But it’s so important that the blame be placed in the right place. We must be vigilant in directing our anger at the manipulators and not the manipulated. It’s always the conman’s fault, never the victim. That’s how it works in fraud law and how it works in life. Blaming people for being “stupid” is not only victim blaming, it’s also unlikely to be true. Being susceptible to propaganda has very little to do with intelligence. You will notice that some of the smartest people you know not only fervently believe the propaganda, they are able to gaslight themselves and others more effectively than most with their own clever arguments. A high IQ does not inoculate you against propaganda, in fact it can work against you because agile minds are able to create the most convincing kinds of reframes.

They’re not stupid, they’re trusting. And is being trusting something we really want to mock? Aside from mocking a beautiful attribute that we should be trying to protect, it also is a bad strategy if you want to help someone into seeing that they’ve been duped. Our brains are very adept at avoiding the feeling of shame, and people will use many strategies to avoid feeling the shame of being duped. So when you mock people as “stupid” you’re literally just strengthening their shame cage by making them defend it. Get angry at their abusers instead and encourage them to get angry at them too. It’s the manipulators who we should be staring down right now, not their victims.

What we are watching with Iran is a war propaganda narrative failing to get airborne. It was all set up and ready to go, they had the whole marketing team working on it, and then it faceplanted right on the linoleum. This is what a failed narrative management campaign looks like. It is possible for us to see this more and more.

Today I have a lot more hope. It’s becoming clear that the manipulations of the US war machine are becoming more and more obvious to more and more people and that everyday, regular Americans are reacting with a healthy amount of horror and revulsion. There was always the risk that the US population would already be sufficiently paced ahead of these revelations and there would be little to no reaction, but that didn’t happen. Americans are seeing what they’re doing, and they don’t like it, and they don’t want it.

And that makes me so happy. Come on Captain America. Save the day. The world is counting on you.


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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?


There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific
dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines.

What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit.

Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the dawn of a new civilization” with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But instead we are lurching towards what Taichi Sakaiya has called “a high-tech middle ages.” In his landmark 1973 work, The Coming of Post-Industrial SocietyDaniel Bell predicted that, by handing ultimate economic and cultural power to a small number of technologists and financiers the opportunity to monetize every aspect of human behavior and emotion, we would be handing them the chance to fulfill “a social alchemist’s dream: the dream of ordering mass society.”

The New Aristocracy

Like the barbarian princes who seized control of western Europe after the fall of Rome, the oligarchs have captured the digital landscape from the old industrial corporations and have proceeded to concentrate it in ever-fewer hands. Like the Medieval aristocracy, the ruling tech oligarchy—epitomized by firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—have never produced a single coherent political manifesto laying out the technocratic vision of the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a sense of what the internet elite believe and, more tellingly, to see the outlines of the world they want to create.

This tiny sliver of humanity, with their relatively small cadre of financiers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers, now control the exploitation of our personal data, what Alibaba founder, Jack Ma calls the “electricity of the 21st century.” Their “super platforms,” as one analyst noted, “now operate as “digital gatekeepers” lording over “e-monopsonies” that control enormous parts of the economy. Their growing power, notes a recent World Bank Study, is built on “natural monopolies” that adhere to web-based business, and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

The rulers of the Valley and its Puget Sound doppelganger now account for eight of the 20 wealthiest people on the planet. Seventy percent of the 56 billionaires under 40 live in the state of California, with 12 in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry, mostly in California, produced 11 new billionaires. The Bay Area has more billionaires on the Forbes 400 list than any metro region other than New York and more millionaires per capita than any other large metropolis.

For an industry once known for competition, the level of concentration is remarkable. Google controls nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of US e-book sales, and, perhaps most importantly, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, Google and Apple control more than 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices, while Microsoft still accounts for more than 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.

The wealth generated by these near-monopolies funds the tech oligarchy’s drive to monopolize existing industries such as entertainment, education, and retail, as well as those of the future, such as autonomous cars, drones, space exploration, and most critically, artificial intelligence. Unless checked, they will have accumulated the power to bring about what could best be seen as a “post-human” future, in which society is dominated by artificial intelligence and those who control it.

What Do the Oligarchs Want?

The oligarchs are creating a “a scientific caste system,” not dissimilar to that outlined in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. Unlike the former masters of the industrial age, they have little use for the labor of  middle- and working-class people—they need only their data. Virtually all their human resource emphasis relies on cultivating and retaining a relative handful of tech-savvy operators. “Software,” Bill Gates told Forbes in 2005, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future.”

Perhaps the best insight into the mentality of the tech oligarchy comes from an admirer, researcher Greg Ferenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders. The emerging tech world has little place for upward mobility, he found, except for those in the charmed circle at the top of the tech infrastructure; the middle and working classes become, as in feudal times, increasingly marginal.

This reflects their perception of how society will evolve. Ferenstein notes that most oligarchs believe “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ‘gig work’ and government aid.” Such part-time work has been growing rapidly, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the workforce in the US and Europe, and is expected to grow substantially, adds McKinsey.

Of course, the oligarchs have no more intention of surrendering their power and wealth to the proletariat than the Commissars did after the 1917 revolution in Russia. Instead, they favor providing what Marx once described as a “proletarian alms bag” to subsidize worker housing, and provide welfare benefits to their ever expanding cadre of “gig” economy serfs. The former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare, and many top tech executives—including Mark Zuckerberg, Y combinator founder Sam Altman, and Elon Musk—favor a guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about the “disruption” on a potentially exposed workforce.

Their social vision amounts to what could be called oligarchal socialism, or what the Corbynite Left calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Like the original bolshevist model, technology and science, as suggested by billionaire tech investor Naval Ravikant, would occasion “the breakdown of family structure and religion” while creating the hegemony of a left-wing identity-centered individualism.

Life in a world dominated by these oligarchs would depart from the model of democratic and competitive capitalism that emerged over the last half-century. Rather than hope to achieve upward mobility and the chance to own property, the new generation will be relegated largely to the status of rental serfs. For the next generation, this promises a future not of upward mobility and owned houses, but of rented apartments and social stagnation. Here in California, Facebook is leading the drive to vastly expand this kind of housing, where the serfs and technocoolies can lose themselves in what Google calls “immersive computing.”  The poor, most of whom simply want opportunity, will be relegated to permanent dependent status.

The World They Are Creating

To get a preview of the society the oligarchs want to create, the best place to look is where oligarchal domination is most complete. Wired magazine’s Antonio Garcia Martinez has called Silicon Valley “feudalism with better marketing.” In Martinez’s view, the new aristocratic class is an “Inner Party” of venture capitalists and company founders. Well below them is an “Outer Party” of skilled professionals, well paid, but forced to live ordinary middle-class lives due to high housing prices and high taxes. Below them lies the vast population of gig workers, whom Martinez compares to sharecroppers in the South, “…with the serfs responding to a smartphone prompt rather than an overseer’s command.” Further below still lie those who constitute, in Martinez’s phrase, “the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal.”

California, and particularly the Bay Area, already reflects this neo-feudal reality. Adjusted for costs, my adopted home state suffers the overall highest poverty rate in the country, according to the US  Census Bureau. Fully one in three welfare recipients in the nation live in California, which is home to barely 12 percent of the country’s population, while a 2017 United Way study showed that close to one in three of the state’s families are barely able to pay their bills. Today, eight million Californians live in poverty, including two million children. Roughly one in five California children lives in deep poverty and nearly half subsist barely above that.

For all its protestations of progressive faith, the Golden State now suffers one of the highest GINI rates—the ratio between the wealthiest and the poorest—among the states. Inequality is growing faster than in almost any state—it now surpasses that of Mexico, and is closer to that of Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras than it is to developed countries like Canada and Norway. There’s even the return of medieval diseases such as Typhus tied to the growing homeless encampments. We could soon even see the return of Bubonic plague, although the mainstream media seems to be ready to blame this, like most ills, on climate change as opposed to failed social policy.

Urban website CityLab has described the tech-rich Bay Area as “a region of segregated innovation,” where the rich wax, the middle class wanes, and the poor live in increasingly unshakeable poverty. Some 76,000 millionaires and billionaires call Santa Clara and San Mateo counties home. At the other end are the thousands of people who struggle to feed their families and pay their bills each month. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private assistance.

As recently as the 1980s, the San Jose area boasted one of the country’s most egalitarian economies. But in the current boom, cost-adjusted wages for middle class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley actually dropped. Many minorities labor in the service sector in jobs such as security guard, for around $25,000 annually, working for contractors. There’s ever-greater segregation of minority and low income families, workers forced into mobile home parks or sleeping in their cars, as well as some of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. According to the Brookings Institution, in the last decade, increasingly tech-dominated San Francisco has suffered the most rapid growth in inequality while the middle class family heads towards extinction.

Needed: An Alliance of Progressives and Conservatives against the Oligarchy

Americans, enamored of the entrepreneurial spirit, were initially slow to see in the tech oligarchy a threat to the future of the republic. But public skepticism, notably in California, towards the tech lords is growing; many on both sides of the political divide see them much like modern versions of the gilded age mogul, successfully playing the political system to avoid regulation, anti-trust action, and taxes.

Yet overcoming the oligarchs will not be easy. Far more than the old industrial giants, they enjoy unprecedented sway through their manipulation of the information pipelines, as is widely evidenced in de-platforming of largely conservative voices on outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through Facebook and Google and their dominance among younger generations is, if anything, more overwhelming. As the Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”  

To this influence, they have added control over what is left of the traditional media they have helped to undermine. Often getting bargain basement prices, the oligarchs have been able to buy up prestigious outlets, including the New Republic in 2012, the Washington Post in 2013, the Atlantic in 2017, and Time last year.

In the coming political storm, the oligarchs will also retain some supporters on both the Left and Right, all aided by a huge, growing, and politically hermaphroditic lobbying operation. Some California progressives have backed the oligarchs on privacy and Senator Kamala Harris, one of the leading Democratic contenders, has gained widespread support from the oligarchs. Meanwhile, on the Right, some libertarians at places like the Wall Street Journal and conservative think-tanks, continue to defend the oligarchs as the rightful winners of dogged economic competition.

But these well-placed defenders may not be enough to fend off regulatory assaults, particularly as more people recognize how the world being created by the tech elites offers little promise for the middle class, democracy, or free thought. Rather than the saviors many once saw, the oligarchs now represent a clear and present danger to the most basic foundations of our democracy. Resisting them represents the great imperative of our era.


Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017).

The post What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us? appeared first on Quillette.


High School Girl Who Lost Race to Transgender Athletes Files Federal Complaint


A female high school athlete who didn’t qualify for a track event because two boys who identify as girls ran faster filed a complaint Monday with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

“No one in the state of Connecticut is happy about this, but no one has enough courage to speak up,” Selina Soule said during an interview with Tucker Carlson that aired Monday night on his Fox News Channel show.

Selina competes in track at Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, Connecticut. She wasn’t able to qualify for the 55-meter event in the New England regionals because two spots were taken by biological boys, as The Daily Signal’s Kelsey Bolar documented in a recent video report on the 16-year-old’s situation.

She is far from the only female athlete disadvantaged by policies that allow transgender girls to compete with biological girls, Selina told Carlson on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“I haven’t been the only one affected by this,” she said. “There have been countless other female athletes in the state of Connecticut, as well as my entire indoor track team. We missed out on winning the state open championship because of the team that the transgender athlete was on.”

Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal aid group, joined Selina for the interview. Holcomb said the organization filed the complaint to bring justice to Selina’s situation.

“Alliance Defending Freedom, on behalf of Selina and a couple of other brave female athletes, has filed or is in the process of filing a Title IX complaint asking the Department of Education to step in, to investigate, and to restore a level playing field for Selina,” Holcomb said.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights enforces Title IX, the federal law that “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance,” according to the agency’s website.  

If the two boys who identify as girls had not been allowed to compete as girls, Selina says, she would have placed sixth and had the opportunity to run the 55 in front of college coaches at the New England regionals.

Her complaint, according to a press release from Alliance Defending Freedom, asks the Education Department “to investigate illegal discrimination against the Connecticut athletes,” including Selina.

Since the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference implemented a protocol “that allows biological males who claim a female identity to compete in girls’ athletic events,” the complaint says, “boys have consistently deprived [Selina] Soule and the other female athletes of honors and opportunities to compete at elite levels.”

“Girls like Selina should never be forced to be spectators in their own sports, but, unfortunately, that is exactly what is taking place when you allow biological males to compete in sports that have been set aside and specifically designed for women like Selina,” Holcomb said. “Title IX was designed to ensure that girls have a fair shake at athletics, and are not denied the opportunity to participate at the highest levels of competition.”

Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal in an email that Selina should not be facing such discrimination.

“Women and girls should be free to compete in athletics without fear of injury, and with the expectation that their opponents will be of the same sex,” Kao said, adding:

Policies that allow males to self-identity as females in athletic competition are already politicizing sports and taking away accomplishments and scholarship opportunities from deserving female athletes like Selina Soule and her classmates.

Since Congress passed Title IX in 1972, the number of women and girls participating in sports has risen from 1 in 27 to 2 in 5. This has benefitted their performance in classes as well as on the playing fields.

By ignoring the reality of sex differences, gender identity policies threaten progress and create unfairness and danger for female athletes.


This article was republished with permission from The Daily Signal.


A Deadly Epidemic Is Hitting Trump Supporters the Hardest


We hear a lot about suicide when celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade die by their own hand. Otherwise, it seldom makes the headlines. That’s odd given the magnitude of the problem.

In 2017, 47,173 Americans killed themselves. In that single year, in other words, the suicide count was nearly seven times greater than the number of American soldiers killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars between 2001 and 2018.

A suicide occurs in the United States roughly once every 12 minutes. What’s more, after decades of decline, the rate of self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 people annually — the suicide rate — has been increasing sharply since the late 1990s. Suicides now claim two-and-a-half times as many lives in this country as do homicides, even though the murder rate gets so much more attention.

In other words, we’re talking about a national epidemic of self-inflicted deaths.

Worrisome Numbers

Anyone who has lost a close relative or friend to suicide or has worked on a suicide hotline (as I have) knows that statistics transform the individual, the personal, and indeed the mysterious aspects of that violent act — Why this person?  Why now? Why in this manner? — into depersonalized abstractions. Still, to grasp how serious the suicide epidemic has become, numbers are a necessity.

According to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control study, between 1999 and 2016, the suicide rate increased in every state in the union except Nevada, which already had a remarkably high rate.  In 30 states, it jumped by 25% or more; in 17, by at least a third.  Nationally, it increased 33%.  In some states the upsurge was far higher: North Dakota (57.6%), New Hampshire (48.3%), Kansas (45%), Idaho (43%).

Alas, the news only gets grimmer.

Since 2008, suicide has ranked 10th among the causes of death in this country. For Americans between the ages of 10 and 34, however, it comes in second; for those between 35 and 45, fourth.  The United States also has the ninth-highest rate in the 38-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Globally, it ranks 27th.

More importantly, the trend in the United States doesn’t align with what’s happening elsewhere in the developed world. The World Health Organization, for instance, reports that Great Britain, Canada, and China all have notably lower suicide rates than the U.S., as do all but six countries in the European Union. (Japan’s is only slightly lower.)

World Bank statistics show that, worldwide, the suicide rate fell from 12.8 per 100,000 in 2000 to 10.6 in 2016.  It’s been falling in ChinaJapan (where it has declined steadily for nearly a decade and is at its lowest point in 37 years), most of Europe, and even countries like South Korea and Russia that have a significantly higher suicide rate than the United States. In Russia, for instance, it has dropped by nearly 26% from a high point of 42 per 100,000 in 1994 to 31 in 2019.

We know a fair amount about the patterns of suicide in the United States.  In 2017, the rate was highest for men between the ages of 45 and 64 (30 per 100,000) and those 75 and older (39.7 per 100,000).

The rates in rural counties are almost double those in the most urbanized ones, which is why states like Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, and North Dakota sit atop the suicide list. Furthermore, a far higher percentage of people in rural states own guns than in cities and suburbs, leading to a higher rate of suicide involving firearms, the means used in half of all such acts in this country.

There are gender-based differences as well. From 1999 to 2017, the rate for men was substantially higher than for women — almost four-and-a-half times higher in the first of those years, slightly more than three-and-a-half times in the last.

Education is also a factor.  The suicide rate is lowest among individuals with college degrees. Those who, at best, completed high school are, by comparison, twice as likely to kill themselves.  Suicide rates also tend to be lower among people in higher-income brackets.

The Economics of Stress

This surge in the suicide rate has taken place in years during which the working class has experienced greater economic hardship and psychological stress.  Increased competition from abroad and outsourcing, the results of globalization, have contributed to job loss, particularly in economic sectors like manufacturing, steel, and mining that had long been mainstays of employment for such workers. The jobs still available often paid less and provided fewer benefits.

Technological change, including computerization, robotics, and the coming of artificial intelligence, has similarly begun to displace labor in significant ways, leaving Americans without college degrees, especially those 50 and older, in far more difficult straits when it comes to finding new jobs that pay well. The lack of anything resembling an industrial policy of a sort that exists in Europe has made these dislocations even more painful for American workers, while a sharp decline in private-sector union membership — downfrom nearly 17% in 1983 to 6.4% today — has reduced their ability to press for higher wages through collective bargaining.

Furthermore, the inflation-adjusted median wage has barely budged over the last four decades (even as CEO salaries have soared).  And a decline in worker productivity doesn’t explain it: between 1973 and 2017 productivity increased by 77%, while a worker’s average hourly wage only rose by 12.4%. Wage stagnation has made it harder for working-class Americans to get by, let alone have a lifestyle comparable to that of their parents or grandparents.

The gap in earnings between those at the top and bottom of American society has also increased — a lot. Since 1979, the wages of Americans in the 10th percentile increased by a pitiful 1.2%. Those in the 50th percentile did a bit better, making a gain of 6%.  By contrast, those in the 90th percentile increased by 34.3% and those near the peak of the wage pyramid — the top 1% and especially the rarefied 0.1% — made far more substantial gains.

And mind you, we’re just talking about wages, not other forms of income like large stock dividends, expensive homes, or eyepopping inheritances.  The share of net national wealth held by the richest 0.1% increased from 10% in the 1980s to 20% in 2016.  By contrast, the share of the bottom 90% shrank in those same decades from about 35% to 20%.  As for the top 1%, by 2016 its share had increased to almost 39%.

The precise relationship between economic inequality and suicide rates remains unclear, and suicide certainly can’t simply be reduced to wealth disparities or financial stress. Still, strikingly, in contrast to the United States, suicide rates are noticeably lower and have been declining in Western European countries where income inequalities are far less pronounced, publicly funded healthcare is regarded as a right (not demonized as a pathway to serfdom), social safety nets far more extensive, and apprenticeships and worker retraining programs more widespread.

Evidence from the United StatesBrazilJapan, and Sweden does indicate that, as income inequality increases, so does the suicide rate. If so, the good news is that progressive economic policies — should Democrats ever retake the White House and the Senate — could make a positive difference.  A study based on state-by-state variations in the U.S. found that simply boosting the minimum wage and Earned Income Tax Credit by 10% appreciably reduces the suicide rate among people without college degrees.

The Race Enigma

One aspect of the suicide epidemic is puzzling.  Though whites have fared far better economically (and in many other ways) than African Americans, their suicide rate is significantly higher.  It increased from 11.3 per 100,000 in 2000 to 15.85 per 100,000 in 2017; for African Americans in those years the rates were 5.52 per 100,000 and 6.61 per 100,000. Black men are 10 times more likely to be homicide victims than white men, but the latter are two-and-half times more likely to kill themselves.

The higher suicide rate among whites as well as among people with only a high school diploma highlights suicide’s disproportionate effect on working-class whites. This segment of the population also accounts for a disproportionate share of what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have labeled “deaths of despair” — those caused by suicides plus opioid overdoses and liver diseases linked to alcohol abuse. Though it’s hard to offer a complete explanation for this, economic hardship and its ripple effects do appear to matter.

According to a study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the white working class accounted for 45% of all income earned in the United States in 1990, but only 27% in 2016.  In those same years, its share of national wealth plummeted, from 45% to 22%.  And as inflation-adjusted wages have decreased for men without college degrees, many white workers seem to have lost hope of success of any sort.  Paradoxically, the sense of failure and the accompanying stress may be greater for white workers precisely because they traditionally were much better off economically than their African American and Hispanic counterparts.

In addition, the fraying of communities knit together by employment in once-robust factories and mines has increased social isolation among them, and the evidence that it — along with opioid addiction and alcohol abuse — increases the risk of suicide is strong. On top of that, a significantly higher proportion of whites than blacks and Hispanics own firearms, and suicide rates are markedly higher in states where gun ownership is more widespread.

Trump’s Faux Populism

The large increase in suicide within the white working class began a couple of decades before Donald Trump’s election. Still, it’s reasonable to ask what he’s tried to do about it, particularly since votes from these Americans helped propel him to the White House. In 2016, he received 64% of the votes of whites without college degrees; Hillary Clinton, only 28%.  Nationwide, he beat Clinton in counties where deaths of despair rose significantly between 2000 and 2015.

White workers will remain crucial to Trump’s chances of winning in 2020.  Yet while he has spoken about, and initiated steps aimed at reducing, the high suicide rate among veterans, his speeches and tweets have never highlighted the national suicide epidemic or its inordinate impact on white workers. More importantly, to the extent that economic despair contributes to their high suicide rate, his policies will only make matters worse.

The real benefits from the December 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act championed by the president and congressional Republicans flowed to those on the top steps of the economic ladder.  By 2027, when the Act’s provisions will run out, the wealthiest Americans are expected to have captured 81.8%of the gains.  And that’s not counting the windfall they received from recent changes in taxes on inheritances. Trump and the GOP doubled the annual amount exempt from estate taxes — wealth bequeathed to heirs — through 2025 from $5.6 million per individual to $11.2 million (or $22.4 million per couple). And who benefits most from this act of generosity?  Not workers, that’s for sure, but every household with an estate worth $22 million or more will.

As for job retraining provided by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the president proposed cutting that program by 40% in his 2019 budget, later settling for keeping it at 2017 levels. Future cuts seem in the cards as long as Trump is in the White House. The Congressional Budget Office projects that his tax cuts alone will produce even bigger budget deficits in the years to come. (The shortfall last year was $779 billion and it is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2020.) Inevitably, the president and congressional Republicans will then demand additional reductions in spending for social programs.

This is all the more likely because Trump and those Republicans also slashed corporate taxes from 35% to 21% — an estimated $1.4 trillion in savings for corporations over the next decade. And unlike the income tax cut, the corporate tax has no end date. The president assured his base that the big bucks those companies had stashed abroad would start flowing home and produce a wave of job creation — all without adding to the deficit. As it happens, however, most of that repatriated cash has been used for corporate stock buy-backs, which totaled more than $800 billion last year.  That, in turn, boosted share prices, but didn’t exactly rain money down on workers. No surprise, of course, since the wealthiest 10% of Americans own at least 84% of all stocks and the bottom 60% have less than 2% of them.

And the president’s corporate tax cut hasn’t produced the tsunami of job-generating investments he predicted either. Indeed, in its aftermath, more than 80% of American companies stated that their plans for investment and hiring hadn’t changed. As a result, the monthly increase in jobs has proven unremarkable compared to President Obama’s second term, when the economic recovery that Trump largely inherited began. Yes, the economy did grow 2.3% in 2017 and 2.9% in 2018 (though not 3.1% as the president claimed). There wasn’t, however, any “unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before” as he insisted in this year’s State of the Union Address.

Anyway, what matters for workers struggling to get by is growth in real wages, and there’s nothing to celebrate on that front: between 2017 and mid-2018 they actually declined by 1.63% for white workers and 2.5% for African Americans, while they rose for Hispanics by a measly 0.37%.  And though Trump insists that his beloved tariff hikes are going to help workers, they will actually raise the prices of goods, hurting the working class and other low-income Americans the most.

Then there are the obstacles those susceptible to suicide face in receiving insurance-provided mental-health care. If you’re a white worker without medical coverage or have a policy with a deductible and co-payments that are high and your income, while low, is too high to qualify for Medicaid, Trump and the GOP haven’t done anything for you. Never mind the president’s tweet proclaiming that “the Republican Party Will Become ‘The Party of Healthcare!’”

Let me amend that: actually, they have done something. It’s just not what you’d call helpful. The percentage of uninsured adults, which fell from 18% in 2013 to 10.9% at the end of 2016, thanks in no small measure to Obamacare, had risen to 13.7% by the end of last year.

The bottom line? On a problem that literally has life-and-death significance for a pivotal portion of his base, Trump has been AWOL. In fact, to the extent that economic strain contributes to the alarming suicide rate among white workers, his policies are only likely to exacerbate what is already a national crisis of epidemic proportions.


Meanwhile In China, Echoes Of Lehman As Interbank Market Freezes

Pause A Moment And Think About How Many People AREN’T Whistleblowing


Whistleblower Chelsea Manning is now being slammed with $500 fines for every single day that she remains imprisoned in contempt of court for refusing to testify in a secret grand jury against Julian Assange. Next month it will increase to $1,000 a day.

Again, this is while Manning is also locked up in jail. It’s not enough to re-imprison a whistleblower who already served years of prison time, including nearly a year in solitary confinement, for taking a principled stand against an opaque and unjust grand jury system; they’re going to potentially ruin her life with crippling debt as well. The only way to make it more cruel and unusual would be to start waterboarding her or threatening her family members.

All for refusing to participate in a corrupt and unaccountable legal performance designed to imprison a publisher to whom she leaked evidence of US war crimes in 2010.

People see this. People watch this and learn from this, as sure as people watched and learned from the public town square executions of those who spoke ill of their medieval lords. And just like those medieval executions, many of the onlookers have been trained to cheer and celebrate at the fate of the accused; have a look at the power-worshipping, government-bootlicking comments under my recent tweet about Manning’s persecution for a perfect example of this. People have been taught what happens to those who blow the whistle on the powerful, and they have been taught to become quite comfortable with it.

And, of course, that is the whole idea.

Chelsea Manning is paying $500/day fines for not testifying, scheduled to double next month. Slamming someone with crippling debt for taking a principled stand against warmongering tyrants is in some ways just as draconian as imprisoning them.

 — @caitoz

Who is going to blow the whistle on US government malfeasance after watching what’s being done to Chelsea Manning? Seriously, who? Would you? Would anyone you know?

I think most people, the overwhelming majority of people, would opt out of the chance to give the empire a truth smack in exchange for years in prison, financial ruin, and seeing their name slandered and smeared around the world. Most people have too much to lose and too little to gain to take that risk already, and the war on whistleblowers and investigative journalists is only escalating.

And that’s just the general population. What percentage of people who’d be willing to suffer the draconian consequences of telling the truth about the powerful are actually in a position to do so? Most of the people who are in a position to expose significant government malfeasance are individuals who’ve already been selected and appointed to their positions because they’ve exhibited certain qualities that indicate loyalty and obedience. The bigger the secrets you have access to, the higher up the chain of command you must therefore be, and the more loyalty and obedience hoops you’ll therefore have had to have jumped through.

What percentage of this population, the population who has gained access to sensitive information by demonstrating loyalty and obedience, would be willing to face the harsh punishments which are inflicted on anyone who exposes the evil deeds of the powerful? Almost none. And the higher up the chain of command you go, i.e. the more significant information someone might have access to, the lower the probability of their blowing the whistle on any depravity they discover.

It’s a really slick double bind they’ve got us all in, if you think about it. Try to expose government malfeasance from the inside and you’re a traitor; you’re guilty of transgressing the rules of the position you’ve been entrusted with. You go to jail. Try to expose government malfeasance from the outside and that’s hacking, that’s espionage. You go to jail.

Either way, you go to jail. Directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

When is it possible to expose government malfeasance without going to jail? Why, when the government says so, of course.

And this has all been a long-winded preamble for me to get to what I really want to say here, which is this: think about how many government insiders aren’t whistleblowing.

Seriously, just pause and really think about that for a minute. Let it sink all the way in. We know about just a teeny, tiny fraction of the evils that our governments have been up to behind the scenes, because the people who are in a position to expose those evils and who are willing to do so are exceedingly rare. And, because of the public flagellations of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, we may be certain that they are becoming much rarer. We appear to be moving rapidly toward a world with no Chelsea Mannings at all.

The celebrated author, journalist and historian William Blum once said that “No matter how paranoid or conspiracy-minded you are, what the government is actually doing is worse than you imagine.” I have no idea how much the late Mr Blum knew or whether he was exaggerating to make a point, but if you look at what I’m pointing to here it becomes self-evident that at the very least what we know about government malfeasance is dwarfed by what we don’t know about government malfeasance. There are so very, very many disincentives for people to blow the whistle on the powerful, and so very, very many incentives for them not to, that it is a certain bet that there is exponentially more wickedness going on behind the veil of government secrecy than we realize.

More Police Raids as War on Journalism Escalates Worldwide

 — @Consortiumnews

If you looked through a tiny crack in the door and saw a thousand people just in that narrow sliver of your field of vision, it would be very silly of you to assume that there are merely one thousand people standing outside. If you can see that many people based just on a very small slice of the information you’d have access to if you were, say, standing on the roof, it would be safe to assume that there are a great many thousands more that you can’t see from your current perspective. How many thousands? You can’t see that either.

Pause and reflect on how much you know about the evils that your government has been guilty of. Maybe you’re just learning about this stuff, maybe you think you’re a hot shit conspiracy know-it-all, it doesn’t matter, because get this: however much you know, that’s just what you can see through the tiny crack in the door. Through the very small number of gaps in government secrecy where truth was able to shine through. No matter how much you think you know about the depravity of your government, it is necessarily dwarfed by what you don’t know.

This is why the US-centralized empire fights so hard to maintain government secrecy and shut down anything that is a threat to that secrecy. It’s because if we could see what’s really going on back there behind that veil of government opacity, it would blow our minds. And then they would never again be able to get us back under control.

Does grasping this self-evident truth mean harboring an intense suspicion of everything your government says and does? Most certainly. But the alternative is to live in a fantasy world. And an uncomfortable truth is always superior to a comfortable fantasy.


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Conformity: The Power of Social Influences—A Review


A review of Conformity: The Power of Social Influences by Cass Sunstein, NYU Press, 176 pages (May, 2019)

“It’s often a good idea to adopt the practices and beliefs of the people around you. For one thing, the people around you aren’t dead. If you do what they do, you might continue not being dead as well.”

-Steve Stewart-Williams

You’re sitting at a machine. A serious-looking experimenter holds a clipboard nearby. In another room, there is a man with electrodes attached to his arms. You ask questions, the man responds. For each incorrect answer he gives, you press a switch, delivering what you believe are increasingly higher voltage electric shocks. The man cries out in pain, shouting about his heart condition. You express concern, but the experimenter tells you to continue the experiment.

You have probably heard of this well-known study as the Milgram Experiment. Prior to the study, Stanley Milgram had asked 40 psychiatrists to estimate how many participants they thought would continue to the end of the experiment, delivering the final 450-volt shock. Their estimate was one-tenth of one percent. They thought nearly everyone would be so disturbed they’d stop the study. In reality, 65 percent of participants pressed the final switch.

Participant in Milgram’s experiment

In another version of the study, Milgram added a twist. He hired two confederates (actors) to join, along with the participants. For each trial, there was a team of three people: the participant and two confederates. Milgram secretly instructed the two actors to dissent, refusing to administer shocks beyond a certain point. To his surprise, when the confederates refused to continue the shocks, over 90 percent of participants went along with them. They joined in rebelling against the experimenter, ignoring his calls for further shocks.

Our urge to obey authority is powerful. But our drive to conform is greater.

Cass Sunstein’s new book, Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, delivers a brisk and accessible overview of research from social psychology, economics, and political science on how people behave in groups. Sunstein, a Harvard professor and alumnus of the Obama Administration, discusses the dangers of conformity and ideological groupthink in structuring a society and its various institutions. Sunstein, moreover, examines how viewpoint diversity can serve as a bulwark against group polarization and institutional rot. Indeed, any organization, system, or society which does not incentivize freedom of expression and public dissent is one that is doomed to fail.

Commitment Issues

If you’ve seen the film Men in Black, you’ll remember the now iconic quote delivered by Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones. When challenged on the intelligence of humans, K replies, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” There is something about this line that rings true. K’s words are accurate not because they expose the fallibility of human intelligence, but because they reveal a quirk in the human condition: we become different people in groups. In many ways, this quote captures the theme of Sunstein’s book, albeit in a blunt and unrefined manner.

For many people, conformity sparks mental images of sheep doing what they’re told. But in fact, at the outset, Sunstein notes that conformity has its advantages. We lack information about science, health, politics, and so on. Not only that, but we simply don’t have the time to assess every option presented before us. Oftentimes, the most rational course of action is to follow the choices of those we trust. We are natural conformers because, more often than not, it keeps us alive and in good standing with our peers. But sometimes it can lead us to disaster.

Consider group polarization, the topic of one of the chapters. In short, social psychologists have found that when individuals hold certain beliefs, those beliefs are magnified when they interact with others who hold similar beliefs. In a study on jury behavior, researchers gave jurors an 8-point scale to measure how severely they wanted to punish a law-breaker. They found that when individual jurists preferred high punishment, the overall verdict ended up higher than that recommended by the median juror. Put differently, when individual jurors preferred a severe punishment, deliberation with other jurors sharing this view raised the overall severity of the punishment. One juror might say they want to impose a fine of $10,000 while another might say that anything less than $12,000 is unacceptable. By the end, the fine might increase to an amount far beyond anyone’s initial starting point. On the flip side, Sunstein reports that groups comprised of lenient jurors produced even more lenient verdicts than the one recommended by the median juror in the group. When group members drift in a certain direction, individual members will double down on that perspective to show their commitment. This drives the group towards extremism despite individual members not being extremists themselves.

For Sunstein, deliberation among the likeminded creates an ideological echo chamber where moderately held beliefs become dogma. To this extent, Sunstein notes that groups act as affect multipliers. They increase the credibility and acceptability of certain ideas held by those in the group. Consider outrage culture. In the age of social media, individuals initially outraged when confronted with an act of moral wrongdoing become even more outraged after consulting with their respective group.

In some cases, group polarization occurs because of “rhetorical advantages”. Sunstein shares a study in which law students tended to support higher punitive awards for those suing corporations. By Sunstein’s reckoning, it is easy to come up with arguments for why corporations should be severely punished. Alternatively, leniency for corporations is unpopular. Thus, those who advocate for stricter punishments have the advantage. Relatedly, psychologist Paul Bloom, in Against Empathy, has suggested that there is a rhetorical advantage for those who prize empathy over free speech. As he puts it, “free speech is always on the side of the censor. It is easy to feel the pain of the person upset by speech…the case for free speech, in contrast, is pretty unemphatic.” If someone is hurt by what another person says, those who come to their aid hold a rhetorical advantage over those who argue for the abstract principle of free speech. You look kind when comforting a hurt person and you look like a jerk when prioritizing the value of free expression over hurt feelings.

The Conformity Paradox

Then there are what Sunstein calls “affective ties.” Plainly, dissent can disrupt social harmony, which is not always the best course of action when interacting with our peers. As the book puts it, “Some forms of dissent might correct mistakes while also weakening social bonds.” This can be risky. The choice we face is a difficult one. Do we share our views, introducing information that could improve group decision-making, or do we go along to get along, preserving our social relationships in the process? When we are bonded by affective ties, the latter option is often more appealing. But for Sunstein, the first option offers indisputable long-term benefits.

The problem with conformity is that it deprives a society of the information it desperately needs. Sunstein rightly asserts that conformists are often viewed as protectors of the social interest while dissenters are seen as selfish individualists, calling attention to themselves and disrupting the status quo. This is not always the case. The dissenter challenges the status quo, introducing new ideas that may aid his group by improving an ailing system. The conformist is reticent, choosing to live in comfort as his group blunders.

Consider the war-making capacities of the Axis and Allied powers during the Second World War. Sunstein, citing the observations of political scientist Luther Gulick, contends that the systems of review and criticism that were embedded in Allied democracies allowed them to triumph over Axis autocracies where dissent meant death. Free expression gave the Allies a key advantage. For Sunstein, institutions perform better when citizens do not stifle themselves and information can flow freely. Indeed, orthodoxies form when there is no pushback. This highlights the importance of free speech as a tool for encouraging dissent; for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

However, when people hear what their group members believe, they are motivated to reflect those beliefs back in order to preserve their position. In a group where individuals are motivated by, say, truth, individuals can afford to ignore feelings. But sometimes truth isn’t the goal of groups.

Dissenting can sour others’ feelings toward you. In a group where the aim is to make good decisions, stirring those feelings might not be a big deal. But if the aim, explicitly or implicitly, is to promote cooperation and harmony, dissent can lower your standing within the group. This is especially the case if you are close to those in your group. This is the conformity paradox. The more you care about the people in your group, the stronger the social incentive to be dishonest with them.

Beware of Cascades

In another chapter, Sunstein draws heavily on his work with famed economist Timur Kuran, the scholar who coined the term “preference falsification”. Here, Sunstein introduces two very important concepts: informational cascade and reputational cascade. These concepts, when put together, help us understand how seemingly bad ideas come to be accepted by large swathes of a population.

Informational cascade refers to a process by which individuals stop relying on private information or opinions, sticking only to what is publicly known. This lack of information about what individuals privately think allows other bits of information to be prioritized and to become engrained within the public conscience. After all, if you’re never introduced to the notion that the world is round, you’ll continue believing the world is flat because that’s what everyone else believes. Informational cascades are particularly dangerous as people might converge on an idea that is erroneous.

Reputational cascades follow the same internal logic except that private information is withheld not because people don’t know any better but because they are afraid that sharing it might damage their reputation. Indeed, in an environment where an orthodoxy exists, it may be risky to go up against certain ideas.

When we put the informational and reputational cascades together, it becomes easy to see how certain ideas come to nestle themselves in the public conscience. If people are unaware of an alternative viewpoint or too scared to share it, then orthodoxy cannot be dislodged. 

Old Studies and Affirmative Action

Though a very good book, Conformity is not without its flaws. Sunstein leans heavily on a number of old studies. Much of the social science literature has been updated, and it would have been useful to see how recent work could be practically applied. Still, the principles Sunstein discusses are reliable. Fortunately, he reports classic findings on a topic that has survived the recent replication crisis. For better or worse, research on obedience, polarization, and group identification is robust. It is now beyond doubt that people conform with their groups, punish norm violators, identify with in-groups, and denigrate out-groups.

Furthermore, there is one sub-section in chapter 4 that seems out of place. Though Sunstein’s policy recommendations are perspicacious, his defense of race-based affirmative action as a tool for improving viewpoint diversity on college campuses is not well explained. To specify, Sunstein states, “The simple idea here is that racially diverse populations are likely to increase the range of thoughts and perspectives and to reduce the risk of conformity, cascades, and polarization associated with group influences.” While it is certainly true that minority groups can contribute unique experiences to a discussion, it is unclear how this policy would improve the current climate of political correctness on college campuses. Indeed, many American colleges that already practice affirmative action are currently awash with self-censorship and ideological groupthink. It is possible that affirmative action increases viewpoint diversity, but Sunstein does not discuss how the current trend on university campuses relates to this claim.

Perhaps the reason for Sunstein’s support for affirmative action lies in his support for ideological diversity among judges. Sunstein reports that intellectually independent judges were more likely to engage in whistleblowing, eschewing conformity for the sake of truth and justice. However, Sunstein is conflating the ideological diversity of circuit court judges with the racial diversity of college students. These things are not the same. Sunstein himself states, “what matters is diversity of ideas, not racial diversity.” If this is the case, why not just advocate for affirmative action based on ideological diversity, or at the very least, a college application process that includes viewpoint diversity? Furthermore, the supposed merits of affirmative action must be reconciled with the evidence (for example, see here, here, and here) suggesting deleterious effects on students.

In this tightly written book, Sunstein reviews key findings from classic studies in social psychology, economics, and political science to describe how the decision-making process works, depending on whether groups and individuals prize outcomes or reputation, and provides an excellent examination of the benefits and dangers of conformity, as well as the underlying mechanisms behind it.


Rob Henderson is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge. He received a B.S. in Psychology from Yale University and is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. You can follow him on Twitter @robkhenderson

Vincent Harinam is a law enforcement consultant, research associate at the Independence Institute, and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. He received his BA and MA in Criminology from the University of Toronto. You can follow him (or not) @vincentharinam on Twitter.

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