Assange: Google Is Not What It Seems

When Google Met Wikileaks

In June 2011, Julian Assange received an unusual visitor: the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, arrived from America at Ellingham Hall, the country house in Norfolk, England where Assange was living under house arrest.

For several hours the besieged leader of the world’s most famous insurgent publishing organization and the billionaire head of the world’s largest information empire locked horns. The two men debated the political problems faced by society, and the technological solutions engendered by the global network—from the Arab Spring to Bitcoin.

They outlined radically opposing perspectives: for Assange, the liberating power of the Internet is based on its freedom and statelessness. For Schmidt, emancipation is at one with U.S. foreign policy objectives and is driven by connecting non-Western countries to Western companies and markets. These differences embodied a tug-of-war over the Internet’s future that has only gathered force subsequently.

In this extract from When Google Met WikiLeaks Assange describes his encounter with Schmidt and how he came to conclude that it was far from an innocent exchange of views.

Eric Schmidt is an influential figure, even among the parade of powerful characters with whom I have had to cross paths since I founded WikiLeaks. In mid-May 2011 I was under house arrest in rural Norfolk, England, about three hours’ drive northeast of London. The crackdown against our work was in full swing and every wasted moment seemed like an eternity. It was hard to get my attention.

But when my colleague Joseph Farrell told me the executive chairman of Google wanted to make an appointment with me, I was listening.

In some ways the higher echelons of Google seemed more distant and obscure to me than the halls of Washington. We had been locking horns with senior U.S. officials for years by that point. The mystique had worn off. But the power centers growing up in Silicon Valley were still opaque and I was suddenly conscious of an opportunity to understand and influence what was becoming the most influential company on earth. Schmidt had taken over as CEO of Google in 2001 and built it into an empire.

I was intrigued that the mountain would come to Muhammad. But it was not until well after Schmidt and his companions had been and gone that I came to understand who had really visited me.

The stated reason for the visit was a book. Schmidt was penning a treatise with Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, an outfit that describes itself as Google’s in-house “think/do tank.”

I knew little else about Cohen at the time. In fact, Cohen had moved to Google from the U.S. State Department in 2010. He had been a fast-talking “Generation Y” ideas man at State under two U.S. administrations, a courtier from the world of policy think tanks and institutes, poached in his early twenties.

He became a senior advisor for Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton. At State, on the Policy Planning Staff, Cohen was soon christened “Condi’s party-starter,” channeling buzzwords from Silicon Valley into U.S. policy circles and producing delightful rhetorical concoctions such as “Public Diplomacy 2.0.” On his Council on Foreign Relations adjunct staff page he listed his expertise as “terrorism; radicalization; impact of connection technologies on 21st century statecraft; Iran.”

It was Cohen who, while he was still at the Department of State, was said to have emailed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to delay scheduled maintenance in order to assist the aborted 2009 uprising in Iran. His documented love affair with Google began the same year when he befriended Eric Schmidt as they together surveyed the post-occupation wreckage of Baghdad. Just months later, Schmidt re-created Cohen’s natural habitat within Google itself by engineering a “think/do tank” based in New York and appointing Cohen as its head. Google Ideas was born.

Later that year two co-wrote a policy piece for the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, praising the reformative potential of Silicon Valley technologies as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Describing what they called “coalitions of the connected,” Schmidt and Cohen claimed that:

Democratic states that have built coalitions of their militaries have the capacity to do the same with their connection technologies.…

They offer a new way to exercise the duty to protect citizens around the world [emphasis added].

Schmidt and Cohen said they wanted to interview me. I agreed. A date was set for June.

Jared Cohen

Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas Olivia Harris/Reuters

* * *

By the time June came around there was already a lot to talk about. That summer WikiLeaks was still grinding through the release of U.S. diplomatic cables, publishing thousands of them every week. When, seven months earlier, we had first started releasing the cables, Hillary Clinton had denounced the publication as “an attack on the international community” that would “tear at the fabric” of government.

It was into this ferment that Google projected itself that June, touching down at a London airport and making the long drive up into East Anglia to Norfolk and Beccles.

Schmidt arrived first, accompanied by his then partner, Lisa Shields. When he introduced her as a vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations—a U.S. foreign-policy think tank with close ties to the State Department—I thought little more of it. Shields herself was straight out of Camelot, having been spotted by John Kennedy Jr.’s side back in the early 1990s.

They sat with me and we exchanged pleasantries. They said they had forgotten their Dictaphone, so we used mine. We made an agreement that I would forward them the recording and in exchange they would forward me the transcript, to be corrected for accuracy and clarity. We began. Schmidt plunged in at the deep end, straightaway quizzing me on the organizational and technological underpinnings of WikiLeaks.

* * *

Some time later Jared Cohen arrived. With him was Scott Malcomson, introduced as the book’s editor. Three months after the meeting Malcomson would enter the State Department as the lead speechwriter and principal advisor to Susan Rice (then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, now national security advisor).

At this point, the delegation was one part Google, three parts U.S. foreign-policy establishment, but I was still none the wiser. Handshakes out of the way, we got down to business.

Schmidt was a good foil. A late-fiftysomething, squint-eyed behind owlish spectacles, managerially dressed—Schmidt’s dour appearance concealed a machinelike analyticity. His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence.

It was the same intellect that had abstracted software-engineering principles to scale Google into a megacorp, ensuring that the corporate infrastructure always met the rate of growth. This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale and information flows.

For a man of systematic intelligence, Schmidt’s politics—such as I could hear from our discussion—were surprisingly conventional, even banal. He grasped structural relationships quickly, but struggled to verbalize many of them, often shoehorning geopolitical subtleties into Silicon Valley marketese or the ossified State Department micro-language of his companions. He was at his best when he was speaking (perhaps without realizing it) as an engineer, breaking down complexities into their orthogonal components.

I found Cohen a good listener, but a less interesting thinker, possessed of that relentless conviviality that routinely afflicts career generalists and Rhodes Scholars. As you would expect from his foreign-policy background, Cohen had a knowledge of international flash points and conflicts and moved rapidly between them, detailing different scenarios to test my assertions. But it sometimes felt as if he was riffing on orthodoxies in a way that was designed to impress his former colleagues in official Washington.

Malcomson, older, was more pensive, his input thoughtful and generous. Shields was quiet for much of the conversation, taking notes, humoring the bigger egos around the table while she got on with the real work.

As the interviewee, I was expected to do most of the talking. I sought to guide them into my worldview. To their credit, I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given. I was out of my comfort zone and I liked it.

We ate and then took a walk in the grounds, all the while on the record. I asked Eric Schmidt to leak U.S. government information requests to WikiLeaks, and he refused, suddenly nervous, citing the illegality of disclosing Patriot Act requests. And then, as the evening came on, it was done and they were gone, back to the unreal, remote halls of information empire, and I was left to get back to my work.

That was the end of it, or so I thought.

CONTINUED:   http://www.newsweek.com/assange-google-not-what-it-seems-279447?piano_d=1

Democratic Senate candidates sound right-wing themes in pre-election debates

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By Patrick Martin
24 October 2014

The November 4 election will decide whether the Democratic Party or the Republican Party has a majority in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, but it will not change the basic political direction of the United States, since both corporate-controlled parties are committed to programs of militarism, attacks on democratic rights, and slashing spending on domestic social programs.

The fundamental agreement between the Democrats and Republicans was on display last week in a series of debates between Senate candidates in five southern states: North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky. The five races are closely contested, with polls showing the outcome too close to call or with small leads for one party or the other.

Given the current 55-45 edge for the Democrats in the Senate, with the Republican Party needing a net gain of six seats to take control, the results in these five southern races could well decide the outcome. (Three seats being vacated by longtime Democratic senators, in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, are already projected to be won by the Republicans).

The five debates reviewed here included the following:

• GEORGIA, Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of longtime former senator Sam Nunn, vs. Republican millionaire CEO David Perdue.

• NORTH CAROLINA, Democratic Senator Kay Hagan vs. the Republican speaker of the state legislature Thom Tillis.

• LOUISIANA, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu vs. Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy.

• ARKANSAS, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor vs. Republican Congressman Tom Cotton.

• KENTUCKY, Democratic state secretary of state Allison Lundergan Grimes vs. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who would become Majority Leader if the Republicans take control November 4.

Videos and transcripts of the debates are available on C-Span. The transcripts have the following oddity: while giving a verbatim account of what each candidate said, they do not identify candidates themselves by name, only as “unidentified speaker.” Given the similarity in content, it is frequently difficult to tell when the Democrat or the Republican is speaking. The constant references to Obama (from the Republicans), and the non-mention of Obama (from the Democrats) are the clearest indication of which party’s candidate is speaking.

One of the most remarkable aspects of these debates was their sheer narrowness and parochialism. The Obama administration last month launched a major war in the Middle East, bombing targets in Syria in addition to those already under attack in Iraq. Yet in two of the five Senate debates, there was no discussion of the war: in Arkansas, foreign policy was discussed only from the standpoint of the need to keep open local military bases, while in Kentucky, the subject did not come up at all.

In Georgia and North Carolina, the Democratic candidates fervently supported US military intervention and attacked their Republican opponents from the right, for being more reluctant to back such action.

Michelle Nunn in Georgia is the daughter of a former senator who played a hawkish role in US military and foreign policy in the 1980s and 1990s. She called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) an “incredibly dangerous threat,” and then went on to attack her opponent as insufficiently militaristic. “One year ago David Perdue said to do nothing about Syria, and I said we needed to intervene,” she argued. “It was not the popular thing to do then, but now it is.”

Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina described herself as someone who would “fight for the military” in her role on the Armed Services Committee. She said of ISIS, “These individuals are terrorists. They have attacked Americans. Our mission should be to eradicate these terrorists.”

She went on to attack her opponent Tillis, saying, “What I have seen Speaker Tillis has done is he is waffling on these issues. I have been clear. I have been decisive. I think we need to hear from Speaker Tillis as far as what he would do.”

In response to criticism by Tillis of her performance on the Armed Services Committee, she placed herself in the vanguard of pro-intervention senators, saying, “Please note a year ago this past spring I actually asked about arming and training moderate Syrian rebels at the time. That was before we knew what ISIS was. I really think if we had taken that step we would not have seen the proliferation of these barbaric terrorists.”

In Louisiana, Senator Landrieu embraced the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East, saying of ISIS, “We need to do everything we can to eliminate it. It’s a serious threat not only against the United States but the region, which is an important region of our interests. Secondly I do support the airstrikes against ISIS and believe that all presidents should have the authority to act when they believe America is in danger. Thirdly I would support the use of force. I think I would stop short at this point for boots on the ground.”

Republican Congressman Cassidy denounced the administration furiously but agreed with its policy in substance. “I support the plan because it’s the only plan out there,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s going to be adequate.” But he went on to suggest he would back the use of ground troops as part of a larger strategy.

On domestic policy, both Democrats and Republicans backed further cuts in public spending. Michelle Nunn said of the federal budget deficit, “We both agree this is a huge issue. We disagree in that I believe in a bipartisan effort. It has to be done in a collaboration. Cut spending, cut medical expenses.” She went on to say, “I believe the only way to craft good legislation is with Republican support.”

Asked for more specifics, she hailed the outgoing Republican senator she is running to succeed, Saxby Chambliss, in his effort to draft a bipartisan spending and tax bill with Democrat Mark Warner. “We need to cut spending and reform taxes to settle the deficit,” she concluded.

Kay Hagan likewise backed reactionary bipartisan measures including the immigration legislation proposed by Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, which would have established a 17-year process for immigrants to become citizens. She also backed Republican calls for a ban on travelers from the three countries in West Africa now devastated by Ebola.

Her plan for deficit reduction centered on a massive tax cut for giant US corporations that have parked $1 trillion in offshore accounts to avoid paying US corporate income taxes. The current tax rate is 35 percent, but Hagan boasted, “My bill would allow that money to come in at eight percent. They can bring that to five if they hire American workers.” In other words, corporate America would enjoy a windfall of $300 billion, courtesy of the US taxpayer.

In the Arkansas debate, Senator Pryor, the Democratic incumbent, portrayed himself as a veteran budget-cutter. “You all know me and you know I am serious about this. People in Washington know—I watch this closely and we have to get spending under control. That is why I voted to cut spending by $4 trillion in the last three years.”

As always in a US election, the Democrats portrayed the Republicans as committed to slashing Medicare and Social Security, while the Republicans piously proclaimed their dedication to these programs—only one, Cassidy in Louisiana, declaring his support for raising the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 70 years.

For the most part, the actual differences between the Democrats and Republicans boiled down to the following, in state after state: the Democrats backed an increase in the minimum wage, declared climate change to be a reality, supported gay marriage, and opposed repeal of Obamacare. The Republicans took the opposite stand on each question.

While the climate change issue reveals the grip of Christian fundamentalists (and oil companies) on the Republican Party, the differences in ideology have no real practical implications. Democratic candidate Grimes in Kentucky pledged her loyalty to the coal industry and Senator Landrieu in Louisiana did the same for the oil and gas producers.

On Obamacare, the Republicans continue to point to its most reactionary features, such as cuts in Medicare funding, even while they themselves support even deeper cuts. The Arkansas debate was held just after Arkansas-based Walmart announced it was ending health care benefits for tens of thousands of part-time workers, dumping these workers into the exchanges set up under Obamacare.

The minimum wage increase is an empty promise that even if fulfilled would not lift millions of low-paid workers out of poverty. With a Republican-controlled House, there is no possibility of such an increase passing, so Democratic Senate candidates are happy to make the promise knowing they won’t have to do anything.

This issue has been highlighted is several states by the introduction of referendum measures which will be on the ballot November 4, whose major purpose is to persuade poor and working-class voters to go to the polls despite their deep aversion to both parties.

In only one of the five debates was a Republican placed at a disadvantage on the economic issue, and that by his own doing. In the Georgia debate, David Perdue was asked about outsourcing at several corporations he had headed, particularly the textile manufacturer Pillowtex and he proceeded to boast about his record. In the aftermath of the debate, his poll numbers began to plunge.

Because the policies of the Obama administration have so clearly favored the wealthy and Wall Street, however, it was impossible for the Democratic candidates to sustain the pretense that they defended the interests of working people. This was demonstrated in the Arkansas debate, where Senator Pryor, the Democratic incumbent, denounced his Republican opponent Cotton for his ties to billionaires like the Koch brothers.

At one point Pryor was asked how he defined middle class, and the senator, himself the son of former senator David Pryor, and thus an epitome of inherited privilege, said that $200,000 a year was a middle-class income. This is a state which ranks 49th out of the 50 states in nearly every socioeconomic indicator, with a median income of barely $40,000.

A lengthy wrangle over the economy then ensued, with Cotton concluding, “Over the last six years of the economy, if you make a living off of assets or investments like stocks or bonds, the top five percent of all income earners, you are doing OK. If you make a living by working, if labor is your means of putting food on your table, your incomes are down… That is because Mark Pryor is a rubberstamp for Barack Obama’s policies.”

Cotton is perhaps the most extreme right-winger running as a major-party Senate candidate this year, calling for the gutting of food stamps and other forms of government support to the poor. That this diehard reactionary can posture as a defender of those who “make a living by working” only testifies to the utter bankruptcy of the Democratic Party, and of the two-party system as a whole.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/24/elec-o24.html

Blackwater mercenaries convicted for role in 2007 Iraq massacre

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By Thomas Gaist
23 October 2014

A federal court jury convicted four former Blackwater Worldwide mercenaries on charges of murder and manslaughter Wednesday for their role in the 2007 massacre in Nisour Square in Baghdad, which left 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians dead and another 20 wounded.

Blackwater earned global notoriety for the massacre, which was one expression of a brutal US war and occupation that has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and laid waste to an entire society. The Nisour Square massacre stands alongside similar atrocities carried out by US forces in Haditha, Fallujah, the Abu Ghraib prison facility and elsewhere.

Former Blackwater sniper Nicholas Slatten was convicted of first degree murder. Evan Liberty, Paul Slough and Dustin Heard were all found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime. The convictions carry minimum sentences of 30 years in prison for Liberty, Slough and Heard and a potential life sentence for Slatten.

The decision is subject to appeal, which could take a year or more, and the verdicts could be overturned in the process.

After 28 days of deliberation following an 11-week trial, the jury in a federal district court in Washington decisively rejected the defense team’s arguments that the mercenaries had fired on the crowd in self-defense. This story had already been thoroughly debunked by an Iraqi government study and independent investigations by reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post .

On September 16, 2007, the security contractors opened up with machine guns and grenade launchers into stopped traffic, before turning their sights on crowds of civilians seeking to flee the scene. The Blackwater forces suffered virtually no damage during the incident.

Civilian vehicles were riddled with dozens of bullets. One woman was shot as she held her dead son in her arms, with the vehicle she was in then incinerated. Blackwater helicopters also fired into cars from overhead.

Jurors were reportedly overwhelmed by the gruesome details supplied in testimony by witnesses. One juror was excused after informing the judge that testimony from a father about the death of his 9-year old son caused her to suffer from bouts of insomnia.

The massacre occurred amidst the massive wave of sectarian and ethnic bloodletting, fomented in 2007 by the US as part the “surge,” which forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes in a matter of months, bringing to the total number of refugees produced by the US invasion to some 3.7 million.

The Obama administration, which prosecuted the case, has sought to spin the guilty verdict as an example of the US government’s supposed democratic values.

“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” US Attorney Ronald Machen said in an official statement. “Today’s verdict demonstrates the FBI’s dedication to investigating violations of US law no matter where they occur,” said top FBI official Andrew McCabe.

In reality, while the Blackwater mercenaries are guilty of horrendous crimes, these crimes flowed from the overarching crime: the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US government with the aim of extending its control over the oil-rich country.

For this crime, the entire political and military establishment stands guilty, and none of the principal architects have been prosecuted. This includes the top officials in the Bush administration: former president George W. Bush, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former vice president Dick Cheney and many others. The preparation and launching of the war of aggression was aided and abetted by Democrats and Republicans in the Congress, along with the mass media, which propagated the lies used to justify the war.

While shielding Bush-era war criminals from prosecution, the Obama administration has continued and extended the global program of war and violence of the US military. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were followed by the war in Libya, the stoking of civil war in Syria, and a massive program of murder through drone warfare, with the populations of Yemen, Libya and Somalia subject to regular volleys of cruise missiles and laser guided-weapons.

Now the Obama administration has launched a new war in the Middle East, with troops returning to Iraq and preparations being put in place for a direct war in Syria. At the same time, the US military is increasingly turning its attention to larger threats to the interests of the American ruling class, including China and Russia.

The Blackwater verdict gives expression to growing popular revulsion against the neocolonial war policies of the government and the prominent role of fascistic mercenary forces. While the Justice Department brought the case, the verdict was undoubtedly received with a mixture of shock and apprehension by the Obama administration and the military.

Contrary to numerous reports in the corporate media portraying the convictions as a long-standing goal of US policy, in reality the military, political establishment and court system made strenuous efforts to protect the Blackwater agents from prosecution. The State Department granted the mercenaries partial immunity, and a federal judge dismissed the case against them in 2009 before it was later reinstated. The US also blocked efforts by Iraq to try the men in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Blackwater, since renamed Xi and now Academi, remains a favored instrument of US foreign policy, with hundreds of its private gunmen serving as shock troops for the US-backed regime in Kiev in its terror war against the civilian population of east Ukraine. Supported by US intelligence, Blackwater operators have played a leadership role in the operations of neo-Nazi Right Sector militias and fascistic forces responsible for ongoing atrocities.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/23/blac-o23.html

Mugshots of female Nazi concentration camp guards

The ordinary faces of evil:
10.22.2014

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Frieda Walter: sentenced to three years imprisonment.

Though their actions were monstrous, they are not monsters. There are no horns, no sharp teeth, no demonic eyes, no number of the Beast. They are just ordinary women. Mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, widows, spinsters. Ordinary women, ordinary human beings.

In the photographs they look shameful, guilty, scared, brazen, stupid, cunning, disappointed, desperate, confused. These women were Nazi guards at the Belsen-Bergen concentration camp during the Second World War, and were all tried and found guilty of carrying out horrendous crimes against their fellow human beings—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons. Interesting how “evil” looks just like you and me.

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Hilde Liesewitz: sentenced to one year imprisonment.

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Gertrude Feist: sentenced to five years imprisonment.

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Gertrude Saurer: sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

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Anna Hempel: sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

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Herta Bothe accompanied a death march of woman from central Poland to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She was sentenced to ten years imprisonment but was released early from prison on December 22nd, 1951.

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Hildegard Lohbauer: sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

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Ilse Forster: sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

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Helene Kopper: sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment.

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Herta Ehlert: sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment.

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Elizabeth Volkenrath: Head Wardess at Belsen-Bergen: sentenced to death. She was hanged on 13 December 1945.

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Juana Bormann: sentenced to death.

Via Vintage Everyday

http://dangerousminds.net/comments/the_ordinary_faces_of_evil_mugshots_of_female_nazi

The Impulse Society

How Our Growing Desperation for Instant Connection Is Ruining Us

Consumer culture does everything in its power to persuade us that adversity has no place in our lives.

The following is an excerpt from Paul Roberts’ new book, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification (Bloomsbury, 2014). Reprinted here with permission.

The metaphor of the expanding fragile modern self is quite apt. To personalize is, in effect, to reject the world “as is,” and instead to insist on bending it to our preferences, as if mastery and dominance were our only mode. But humans aren’t meant only for mastery. We’re also meant to adapt to something larger. Our large brains are specialized for cooperation and compromise and negotiation—with other individuals, but also with the broader world, which, for most of history, did not cater to our preferences or likes. For all our ancestors’ tremendous skills at modifying and improving their environment, daily survival depended as much on their capacity to conform themselves and their expectations to the world as they found it. Indeed, it was only by enduring adversity and disappointment that we humans gained the strength and knowledge and perspective that are essential to sustainable mastery.

Virtually every traditional culture understood this and regarded adversity as inseparable from, and essential to, the formation of strong, self-sufficient individuals. Yet the modern conception of “character” now leaves little space for discomfort or real adversity. To the contrary, under the Impulse Society, consumer culture does everything in its considerable power to persuade us that adversity and difficulty and even awkwardness have no place in our lives (or belong only in discrete, self-enhancing moments, such as ropes courses or really hard ab workouts). Discomfort, difficulty, anxiety, suffering, depression, rejection, uncertainty, or ambiguity—in the Impulse Society, these aren’t opportunities to mature and toughen or become. Rather, they represent errors and inefficiencies, and thus opportunities to correct—nearly always with more consumption and self-expression.

So rather than having to wait a few days for a package, we have it overnighted. Or we pay for same-day service. Or we pine for the moment when Amazon launches drone delivery and can get us our package in thirty minutes.* And as the system gets faster at gratifying our desires, the possibility that we might actually be more satisfied by waiting and enduring a delay never arises. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the efficient consumer market abhors delay and adversity, and by extension, it cannot abide the strength of character that delay and adversity and inefficiency generally might produce. To the efficient market, “character” and “virtue” are themselves inefficiencies—impediments to the volume-based, share-price-maximizing economy. Once some new increment of self-expressive, self-gratifying, self-promoting capability is made available, the unstated but overriding assumption of contemporary consumer culture is that this capability can and should be put to use. Which means we now allow the efficient market and the treadmills and the relentless cycles of capital and innovation to determine how, and how far, we will take our self-expression and, by extension, our selves— even when doing so leaves us in a weaker state.

Consider the way our social relationships, and the larger processes of community, are changing under the relentless pressure of our new efficiencies. We know how important community is for individual development. It’s in the context of community that we absorb the social rules and prerequisites for interaction and success. It’s here that we come to understand and, ideally, to internalize, the need for limits and self-control, for patience and persistence and long-term commitments; the pressure of community is one way society persuades us to control our myopia and selfishness. (Or as economists Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis have put it, community is the vehicle through which “society’s ‘oughts’ become its members’ ‘wants.’ ”) But community’s function isn’t simply to say “no.” It’s in the context of our social relationships where we discover our capacities and strengths. It’s here that we gain our sense of worth as individuals, as citizens and as social producers—active participants who don’t merely consume social goods, but contribute something the community needs.

But community doesn’t simply teach us to be productive citizens. People with strong social connections generally have a much better time. We enjoy better physical and mental health, recover faster from sickness or injury, and are less likely to suffer eating or sleeping disorders. We report being happier and rank our quality of life as higher—and do so even when the community that we’re connected to isn’t particularly well off or educated. Indeed, social connectedness is actually more important than affluence: regular social activities such as volunteering, church attendance, entertaining friends, or joining a club provide us with the same boost to happiness as does a doubling of personal income. As Harvard’s Robert Putnam notes, “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”

Unfortunately, for all the importance of social connectedness, we haven’t done a terribly good job of preserving it under the Impulse Society. Under the steady pressure of commercial and technological efficiencies, many of the tight social structures of the past have been eliminated or replaced with entirely new social arrangements. True, many of these new arrangements are clearly superior—even in ostensibly free societies, traditional communities left little room for individual growth or experimentation or happiness. Yet our new arrangements, which invariably seek to give individuals substantially more control over how they connect, exact a price. More and more, social connection becomes just another form of consumption, one we expect to tailor to our personal preferences and schedules—almost as if community was no longer a necessity or an obligation, but a matter of personal style, something to engage as it suits our mood or preference. And while such freedom has its obvious attractions, it clearly has downsides. In gaining so much control over the process of social connection, we may be depriving ourselves of some of the robust give-and-take of traditional interaction that is essential to becoming a functional, fulfilled individual.

Consider our vaunted and increasing capacity to communicate and connect digitally. In theory, our smartphones and social media allow us the opportunity to be more social than at any time in history. And yet, because there are few natural limits to this format—we can, in effect, communicate incessantly, posting every conceivable life event, expressing every thought no matter how incompletely formed or inappropriate or mundane—we may be diluting the value of the connection.

Studies suggest, for example, that the efficiency with which we can respond to an online provocation routinely leads to escalations that can destroy offline relationships. “People seem aware that these kinds of crucial conversations should not take place on social media,” notes Joseph Grenny, whose firm, VitalSmarts, surveys online behavior. “Yet there seems to be a compulsion to resolve emotions right now and via the convenience of these channels.”

Even when our online communications are entirely friendly, the ease with which we can reach out often undermines the very connection we seek to create. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist who has spent decades researching digital interactions, argues that because it is now possible to be in virtually constant contact with others, we tend to communicate so excessively that even a momentary lapse can leave us feeling isolated or abandoned. Where people in the pre-digital age did not think it alarming to go hours or days or even weeks without hearing from someone, the digital mind can become uncomfortable and anxious without instant feedback. In her book Alone Together, Turkle describes a social world of collapsing time horizons. College students text their parents daily, and even hourly, over the smallest matters—and feel anxious if they can’t get a quick response. Lovers break up over the failure to reply instantly to a text; friendships sour when posts aren’t “liked” fast enough. Parents call 911 if Junior doesn’t respond immediately to a text or a phone call—a degree of panic that was simply unknown before constant digital contact. Here, too, is a world made increasingly insecure by its own capabilities and its own accelerating efficiencies.

This same efficiency-driven insecurity now lurks just below the surface in nearly all digital interactions. Whatever the relationship (romantic, familial, professional), the very nature of our technology inclines us to a constant state of emotional suspense. Thanks to the casual, abbreviated nature of digital communication, we converse in fragments of thoughts and feelings that can be completed only through more interaction—we are always waiting to know how the story ends. The result, Turkle says, is a communication style, and a relationship style, that allow us to “express emotions while they are being formed” and in which “feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated.” In other words, what was once primarily an interior process—thoughts were formed and feelings experienced before we expressed them—has now become a process that is external and iterative and public. Identity itself comes to depend on iterative interaction—giving rise to what Turkle calls the “collaborative self.” Meanwhile, our skills as a private, self-contained person vanish. “What is not being cultivated here,” Turkle writes, “is the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” For all the emphasis on independence and individual freedom under the Impulse Society, we may be losing the capacity to truly be on our own.

In a culture obsessed with individual self-interest, such an incapacity is surely one of the greatest ironies of the Impulse Society. Yet it many ways it was inevitable. Herded along by a consumer culture that is both solicitous and manipulative, one that proposes absolute individual liberty while enforcing absolute material dependence—we rely completely on the machine of the marketplace—it is all too easy to emerge with a self-image, and a sense of self, that are both wildly inflated and fundamentally weak and insecure. Unable to fully experience the satisfactions of genuine independence and individuality, we compensate with more personalized self-expression and gratification, which only push us further from the real relationships that might have helped us to a stable, fulfilling existence.

 

http://www.alternet.org/books/impulse-society-how-our-growing-desperation-instant-connection-ruining-us?akid=12390.265072.bjTHr8&rd=1&src=newsletter1024073&t=9&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

 

Census report: Half of Americans poor or near poor

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By Andre Damon
22 October 2014

Forty-seven percent of Americans have incomes under twice the official poverty rate, making half of the country either poor or near-poor, according to figures released last week by the Census Bureau.

These figures are based on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which takes into account government transfers and the regional cost-of-living in calculating the poverty rate. According to that calculation, there were 48.7 million people in poverty in the United States, three million higher than the official census figures released last month. The US poverty rate, according to the SPM, was 15.5 percent.

Data from the Census Bureau report

The release of these figures, as well as last month’s official poverty figures, have been greeted with silence in the media, despite the fact that the US is a mere two weeks away from a midterm election. As with every major social and political question, the issues of poverty and social inequality are being totally excluded from debate and discussion in the elections and ignored by the two big business parties.

The figures follow the release of a series of reports and studies documenting the growth of social inequality in the United States. Last week, Credit Suisse reported that the top one percent of the world’s population controls nearly half of all wealth, and that the United States has nearly ten times more super-wealthy people than any other country.

The census figures “show that poverty is still a major problem in the US,” said Christopher Wimer, Co-Director of the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, in a telephone interview Tuesday.

He said the SPM begins with a slightly higher poverty threshold then the official poverty figure, and then adjusts it based on the local cost of living and the prices of necessities of life.

As a result, both the poverty rate and the number of people in poverty are slightly higher than under the official poverty figure. But the biggest difference is that the more sophisticated supplemental measure shows the extent to which a much broader section of the population is struggling to make ends meet. “Because the supplemental poverty measure subtracts non-discretionary income, you get a lot more people hovering close to the poverty line,” Dr. Wimer said.

The official poverty threshold is calculated as “three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963,” adjusted for inflation. By that calculation, the poverty threshold of an adult living alone is $11,888, and an adult with two children is $18,769, both of which are absurdly low.

Since the SPM takes into account regional differences in the cost of living, it better reflects the true prevalence of poverty in high cost-of-living states, such as California, and cities, such as New York City.

“The supplemental poverty measure reflects the fact that the cost of living is much higher in many major metropolitan areas,” Dr. Wimer said. “Those areas also tend to have higher population densities, so that ends up affecting a lot of people.”

Based on the latest Census numbers, nearly one in four people in California lives below the poverty line. Using the supplemental measure, California has a poverty rate of 23.4 percent, compared with the state’s official poverty figures of about 16 percent.

Dr. Wimer said he and fellow researchers at Columbia University have followed a methodology similar to that used by the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure to study economic hardship among a representative sample of New York City residents.

They found that nearly a quarter of the city’s residents were in poverty—23 percent, compared to the official poverty rate of about 21 percent. Fifty-five percent of New York City residents had an income of below twice the poverty line.

Thirty-seven percent of New York City residents were affected by what the survey called “severe material hardships,” including “staying at a shelter, moving in with others or having utilities shut off.” The report added, “If we consider the number of New Yorkers who suffer moderate, if not truly severe, material adversity, the number climbs to 6 in 10 New Yorkers.”

Based on these findings, the report concluded, “Nearly two-thirds of New York City residents struggled to make ends meet at some point during 2012.”

The wealth of the super-rich, meanwhile, continues to soar, with the net worth of the Forbes 400 richest people in the United States surging 13 percent last year. Fifty-two members of the Forbes 400 resided in New York City, more than twice the number living in any other city.

Dr. Wimer noted that the Census SPM report shows the role played by government anti-poverty programs in keeping large sections of the population out of destitution. To the extent that there has been a decline in poverty in recent decades, “it is not driven by market income; the reduction has been coming from government policies and programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance,” he said.

According to the Census SPM report, food stamps kept two percent of the population out of poverty in 2012, while unemployment insurance kept about one percent of the population out of poverty. The census figures reflect cutbacks in both of these programs in 2013.

With the expiration of federal extended unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed at the end of last year, together with additional cutbacks to food stamps, the number of people affected by cuts to these vital anti-poverty programs will only increase.

Cuts to these programs have been implemented and supported by both the Democrats and Republicans. The Obama administration’s 2015 budget proposal, for example, calls for slashing the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds the Head Start preschool program, and the Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, by more than five percent.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/22/pove-o22.html

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