New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast’s Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Aging, Illness, and Death

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Making sense of the human journey with wit, wisdom, and disarming vulnerability.

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

But besides appreciating Chast’s treatment of such grand human themes as death, duty, and “the moving sidewalk of life,” I was struck by how much her parents resembled my own — her father, just like mine, a “kind and sensitive” man of above-average awkwardness, “the spindly type,” inept at even the basics of taking care of himself domestically, with a genius for languages; her mother, just like mine, a dominant and hard-headed perfectionist “built like a fire hydrant,” with vanquished dreams of becoming a professional pianist, an unpredictable volcano of anger. (“Where my father was tentative and gentle,” Chast writes, “she was critical and uncompromising.” And: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter.”)

Chast, like myself, was an only child and her parents, like mine, had a hard time understanding how their daughter made her living given she didn’t run in the 9-to-5 hamster wheel of working for the man. There were also the shared family food issues, the childhood loneliness, the discomfort about money that stems from having grown up without it.

The point here, of course, isn’t to dance to the drum of solipsism. (Though we only children seem particularly attuned to its beat.) It’s to appreciate the elegance and bold vulnerability with which Chast weaves out of her own story a narrative at once so universally human yet so relatable in its kaleidoscope of particularities that any reader is bound to find a piece of him- or herself in it, to laugh and weep with the bittersweet relief of suddenly feeling less alone in the most lonesome-making of human struggles, to find some compassion for even the most tragicomic of our faults.

From reluctantly visiting her parents in the neighborhood where she grew up (“not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made — and bought — $8 chocolate bars [but] DEEP Brooklyn”) as their decline began, to accepting just as reluctantly the basic facts of life (“Old age didn’t change their basic personalities. If anything, it intensified what was already there.”), to witnessing her father’s mental dwindling (“One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again. On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything was hunky-dory.”), to the self-loathing brought on by the clash between the aspiration of a loving daughter and the financial strain of elder care (“I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money.”), Chast treks with extraordinary candor and vulnerability through the maze of her own psyche, mapping out our own in the process.

Chast also explores, with extraordinary sensitivity and self-awareness, the warping of identity that happens when the cycle of life and its uncompromising realities toss us into roles we always knew were part of the human journey but somehow thought we, we alone, would be spared. She writes:

It’s really easy to be patient and sympathetic with someone when it’s theoretical, or only for a little while. It’s a lot harder to deal with someone’s craziness when it’s constant, and that person is your dad, the one who’s supposed to be taking care of YOU.

But despite her enormous capacity for wit and humor even in so harrowing an experience, Chast doesn’t stray too far from its backbone of deep, complicated love and paralyzing grief. The book ends with Chast’s raw, unfiltered sketches from the final weeks she spent in the hospice ward where her mother took her last breath. A crystalline realization suddenly emerges that Chast’s cartooning isn’t some gimmicky ploy for quick laughs but her most direct access point to her own experience, her best sensemaking mechanism for understanding the world, life and, inevitably, death.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is an absolutely astounding read in its entirety — the kind that enters your soul through the backdoor, lightly, and touches more parts of it and more heavinesses than you ever thought you’d allow. You’re left, simply, grateful.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury © Roz Chast; thanks, Wendy

From the Food Babe to Dr. Oz, these four are the media’s biggest fear-mongers and snake-oil peddlers.



4 of the Biggest Quacks Plaguing America with False Claims About Science

Photo Credit: indiamos/Flickr

It may be easy to draw a caricature of a “quack” as a cross between the ShamWow pitchman and an alchemist, but they’re really not so easy to spot. Modern-day quacks often cherry-pick science and use what suits them as semantic backdrop to fool unsuspecting consumers. Quacks may dazzle people with fanciful research studies or scare them with intimidating warnings before trying to peddle products that make unreasonable promises. And those who use these alternative, unproven products may forego treatments that would be more likely to help them.

In short, quackery is dangerous. It promotes fear, devalues legitimate science and can destroy lives. Here are the four biggest quacks giving dubious health advice in the media and some samples of their detrimental advice.

1. Dr. (of Osteopathy) Joseph Mercola. Mercola is not a strict medical doctor, but an osteopath who practiced in suburban Chicago (according to Chicago magazine, he gave up his practice in 2006 to focus on Internet marketing). Mercola has also written several books on health that have become bestsellers.

Mercola operates one of the Internet’s largest and most trafficked health and consumer information sites. With an estimated 15.5 million unique monthly visitors, Merola.com dwarfs even ConsumerReports.org and HealthCentral.com. The site vigorously promotes and sells dietary supplements, many of which bear Dr. Mercola’s name.

A typical article on Mercola’s site touts the wonders of yet another miracle cure or supplement. Some recent articles include “13 Amazing Health Benefits of Himalayan Crystal Salt” and “Your Flu Shot Contains a Dangerous Neurotoxin.” His site has also touted Vitamin D as “The Silver Bullet for Cancer.”

Many of Mercola’s musings clash — sometimes bitterly — with conventional medical wisdom. Mercola advises against immunization, water fluoridation, mammography, and the routine administration of vitamin K shots for newborns.

The medical community says Mercola is dangerous, and that he steers patients away from proven medical treatments in favor of unproven therapies and supplements.

“The information he’s putting out to the public is extremely misleading and potentially very dangerous,” says Dr. Stephen Barrett, who runs the medical watchdog site Quackwatch.org. “He exaggerates the risks and potential dangers of legitimate science-based medical care, and he promotes a lot of unsubstantiated ideas and sells [certain] products with claims that are misleading.”

Mercola has been the subject of a number of Food and Drug Administration warning letters about his activities, including marketing products as providing “exceptional countermeasures” against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses. He also has marketed coconut oil to treat heart disease, Crohn’s disease, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Mercola.com also sold an infrared camera to be used as a cancer screening tool.

Some of Dr. Mercola’s wildest claims include:

  • HIV may not be the cause of AIDS. Mercola believes that the manifestations of AIDS (including opportunistic infections and death) could result from “psychological stress” brought on by the belief that HIV is harmful. Mercola.com has also featured positive presentations of the claims of AIDS truthers who deny the existence of AIDS or the role HIV has in the disease.

  • Mercola has said that microwave ovens emit dangerous radiation and that microwaving food alters its chemistry.

  • Commercial sunscreens increase the likelihood of skin cancer, instead of protecting from it. Of course, he sells his own natural sunscreens on his website.

2. The “Health Ranger,” Mike Adams. Adams runs a website called Natural News that is dedicated to supporting alternative medicine techniques and various conspiracy theories about chemtrails, the link between vaccinations and autism, and the dangers of fluoridated drinking water. Dr. Mercola is a frequent guest blogger on his site.

Natural News, which gets an estimated 7 million unique visitors a month, primarily promotes alternative medicine, raw foods, and holistic nutrition. Adams claims he began the site after curing himself of Type II diabetes by using natural remedies.

Adams seems to revel in going against the grain. He likes to tell readers on his website that if they just exercise, eat the right foods and take the right supplements (he markets supplements on his site) infectious disease cannot harm them. Like Mercola, he is an AIDS denialist, and claims flu vaccines are totally ineffective.

Dr. David Gorski of the Science-Based Medicine website calls Natural News “a one-stop shop, a repository if you will, of virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping, helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general.”

Adams also considers himself a scientific researcher, but some of his claims are dubious. He has even bought himself a mass spectrometer which he uses to test various products for toxicity. He recently used this device to show that a flu vaccine containing thiomersal registered 51 parts per million of mercury. But that’s not the news in his findings: Adams went on to insist that his critics must be brain-damaged (or perhaps brainwashed) by mercury:

The only people who argue with this are those who are already mercury poisoned and thus incapable of rational thought. Mercury damages brain function, you see, which is exactly what causes some people to be tricked into thinking vaccines are safe and effective.

Science-Based Medicine blogger Dr. Steven Novella describes Adams’ site as “a crank alt-med site that promotes every sort of medical nonsense imaginable. If it is unscientific, antiscientific, conspiracy-mongering, or downright silly, Mike Adams appears to be all for it —whatever sells the ‘natural’ products he hawks on his site.”

What makes Adams unique is that he likes to mix far-right vitriol and conspiracy theories with his alternative medicine advice. He has come out as a climate-change denialist, 9/11 Truther, and a Birther.

Here’s some more quackery from Adams and Natural News:

3. The “Food Babe,” Vani Hari. She doesn’t have a degree in nutrition, chemistry or medicine, and her work background is as a management consultant. Yet without any serious credentials, Hari—the “Food Babe”—bills herself as a voice of consumer protection on the Internet. In just a few years, she’s assembled an army of followers who have joined her on her quest to get hard-to-pronounce ingredients banned from foods.

Hari’s acolytes see her as a muckraking reporter, saving us from nefarious chemicals, GMOs and unappetizing ingredients like beaver anus, yoga mat and fish bladder. The public and the media love her; a “food safety” campaign by the Food Babe can get thousands of signatures, countless media mentions and guest appearances on television shows such as Dr. Oz and The Doctors.

But Hari is really more of a fear-mongerer and conspiracy theorist than a safe-food advocate. Her campaigns are born of misinformation and anxiety. Recently, she published a petition on her website demanding that the top beer companies come clean about the ingredients in their beer. Citing a long list of creepy, chemical-sounding ingredients that are allowed in beer, she implied that the industry was flying under the radar and obscuring the additives it puts in its products.​ It turned out that the beer companies were actually using very few of the ingredients on her list, and some were only used in the production process and were not part of the finished product. When we looked further into it, we found that many of the nefarious ingredients and techniques she described were either misrepresented or entirely misunderstood by her.​

However, at Hari’s request, the top two breweries in the U.S. acquiesced and listed their ingredients on their websites, and none of the ingredients would come as a real shock to beer drinkers. Still, Hari continued to insist that GMO corn and other bad ingredients were integral ingredients in beer.

In response to critics who say Hari is not qualified to make hard judgments on food ingredients, Hari says, “I don’t think you need to have those degrees to be intellectually honest, to be able to research, to be able to present ideas.”

Dr. David Gorski, a cancer surgeon who writes for the website Science-Based Medicine takes offense to Hari’s food campaigns:

“Her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective,” wrote Gorski. “Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names.”​

Gorski says since companies live and die by public perception, it’s far easier to “give a blackmailer like Hari what she wants than to try to resist or to counter her propaganda by educating the public.”​

Some of Vani Hari’s more specious ideas about food are:

  • Microwaves kill food and remove its nutrients. Also, microwaves change the chemical properties of water. She persists with this theory although it has been persistently debunked by science.

  • Water, when exposed to the words “Hitler” and “Satan” changes its physical properties.

  • Flu shots contain “a bunch of toxic chemicals and additives that lead to several types of Cancers and Alzheimer [sic] disease over time.” Actually, flu shots are made up mostly of proteins and preservatives that give no indication of being harmful, despite plenty of medical research.

Hari has not provided any scientific evidence to back her claims as of yet.

4. Dr. Mehmet Oz. What do Vani Hari, Dr. Joseph Mercola and Mike Adams have in common? They’re all guest experts appearing on the Dr. Oz Show.

Dr. Oz is a media darling and cardiothoracic surgeon who first appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. In 2009, Oprah produced Oz’s namesake show focusing on medical issues and personal health.

But before we label Oz a quack, it’s only fair that we also should note he’s a professor at the Department of Surgery at Columbia University, directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, has authored more than 400 medical research papers and holds several patents.

But unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you probably know Dr. Oz has been exposed as a daytime-television snake oil peddler, while being shamed during testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last month.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, the chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, took Oz to task over false claims he’s made for over-the-counter weight loss cures. For example, Oz proclaims that worthless supplements such as green coffee beans have “miracle” properties.

The Missouri senator made it clear that she thinks Oz abuses his great influence. Products he endorses on his show are almost guaranteed to fly off the shelves.

“People want to believe they can take an itty-bitty pill to push fat out of their body,” McCaskill chided the celebrity doctor. “I know you know how much power you have.”

Oz acknowledged to the subcommittee that while there’s no such thing as a “miracle” supplement, and many he touts wouldn’t pass scientific muster, he insisted he was comfortable recommending them to his fans.

“My job is to be a cheerleader for the audience,” Oz says. ”And when they don’t think they have hope, when they don’t think they can make it happen, I want to look and I do look everywhere, including alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them.”

As McCaskill then pointed out, Oz was giving people false hope. Isn’t that what quacks do?

Oz often uses his show as a soapbox for the likes of Hari, Mercola and Adams. And when they’re guests on his show, they’re handled with kid gloves. Oz even describes Adams as an “activist researcher,” a “whistleblower” and a “food safety activist.” Viewers then open their wallets to Adams, who is there to promote his website. A similar scenario plays out when Mercola, a frequent guest, joins Oz. Hari, for her part, does not market miracle products on her site. She does, however, seem to make money from affiliate advertising.

Oz’s great sin is that he uses his show to promote all types of modern shamanism. Critics find it mystifying that he, a medical doctor, would host and promote people on his show who are anathema to science. It’s Oz’s instant access to millions and his medical degrees and peer-reviewed research papers that have given him credibility, but critics say he loses all of it when he promotes guests who explicitly reject the tenets of reason. So, can Oz still be considered a serious scientist?

Unlike the other three quacks mentioned in this article, Oz is more a ringmaster than a snake-oil salesman. However, he’s not without his list of dubious stances:

  • In November 2012, Dr. Oz invited Julie Hamilton, a representative of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, who claimed that she could heal homosexuality with gay reparative therapy. Although the show did include guests who condemned reparative therapy, Dr. Oz never weighed in on the subject, and the audience was led to believe that there were valid arguments on both sides of this issue.

  • His proclamation on Oprah that resveratrol is an effective anti-aging supplement sparked a resveratrol marketing craze. Numerous fly-by-night online peddlers used his name and likeness (along with the likenesses of age-defying actresses Jennifer Aniston and Marisa Tomei) to peddle the so-called miracle supplement. But it’s anyone’s guess what was in those pills.

  • Oz has invited a medium on his show who told selected audience members that she was communicating with their lost loved ones.

  • Oz once invited a faith healer, Issam Nemeh, to “heal” sick audience members on his show. On his website, Oz bragged about the “Oz Effect”: “Dr. Nemeh has received an overwhelming response from the viewers of the Dr. Oz show. Medical office appointments with Dr. Nemeh are already filled for the next four months.”

Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on Facebook.

 

 

The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

Chomsky: The System We Have Now Is Radically Anti-Democratic


A fascinating, wide-ranging interview on major issues facing the public.

Noam Chomsky
Photo Credit: The Real News Network

CHRIS HEDGES, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Let’s begin with a classic paradigm which is throughout the Industrial Revolution, which has been cited by theorists from Marx to Kropotkin to Proudhon and to yourself, that you build a consciousness among workers within the manufacturing class, and eventually you lead to a kind of autonomous position where workers can control their own production.We now live in a system, a globalized system, where most of the working class in industrial countries like the United States are service workers. We have reverted to a Dickensian system where those who actually produced live in conditions that begin to replicate almost slave labor–and, I think, as you have written, in places like southern China in fact are slave [labor]. What’s the new paradigm for resistance? You know, how do we learn from the old and confront the new?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution. It was, of course, earlier in England, but let’s take here in the United States. The Industrial Revolution took off right around here, eastern Massachusetts, mid 19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being driven into the industrial system–men and women, incidentally, women from the farms, so-called factory girls–and they bitterly resented it. It was a period of a very free press, the most in the history of the country. There was a wide variety of journals, ethnic, labor, or others. And when you read them, they’re pretty fascinating.

The people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings who were being forced into what they called wage slavery, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact, this was such a popular view that it was actually a slogan of the Republican Party, that the only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for a wage is supposedly temporary–pretty soon you’ll be free. Other than that, they’re not different.

And they bitterly resented the fact that the industrial system was even taking away their rich cultural life. And the cultural life was rich. You know, there are by now studies of the British working class and the American working class, and they were part of high culture of the day. Actually, I remembered this as late as the 1930s with my own family, you know, sort of unemployed working-class, and they said, this is being taken away from us, we’re being forced to be something like slaves. They argued that if you’re, say, a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell your product, you’re selling what you produced. If you’re a wage earner, you’re selling yourself, which is deeply offensive. They condemned what they called the new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self. Sounds familiar.

And it was extremely radical. It was combined with the most radical democratic movement in American history, the early populist movement–radical farmers. It began in Texas, spread into the Midwest–enormous movement of farmers who wanted to free themselves from the domination by the Northeastern bankers and capitalists, guys that ran the markets, you know, sort of forced them to sell what they produced on credit and squeeze them with credit and so on. They went on to develop their own banks, their own cooperatives. They started to link up with the Knights of Labor–major labor movement which held that, as they put it, those who work in the mills ought to own them, that it should be a free, democratic society.

These were very powerful movements. By the 1890s, you know, workers were taking over towns and running them in Western Pennsylvania. Homestead was a famous case. Well, they were crushed by force. It took some time. Sort of the final blow was Woodrow Wilson’s red scare right after the First World War, which virtually crushed the labor movement.

At the same time, in the early 19th century, the business world recognized, both in England and the United States, that sufficient freedom had been won so that they could no longer control people just by violence. They had to turn to new means of control. The obvious ones were control of opinions and attitudes. That’s the origins of the massive public relations industry, which is explicitly dedicated to controlling minds and attitudes.

The first–it partly was government. The first government commission was the British Ministry of Information. This is long before Orwell–he didn’t have to invent it. So the Ministry of Information had as its goal to control the minds of the people of the world, but particularly the minds of American intellectuals, for a very good reason: they knew that if they can delude American intellectuals into supporting British policy, they could be very effective in imposing that on the population of the United States. The British, of course, were desperate to get the Americans into the war with a pacifist population. Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election with the slogan “Peace without Victory”. And they had to drive a pacifist population into a population that bitterly hated all things German, wanted to tear the Germans apart. The Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play Beethoven. You know. And they succeeded.

Wilson set up a counterpart to the Ministry of Information called the Committee on Public Information. You know, again, you can guess what it was. And they’ve at least felt, probably correctly, that they had succeeded in carrying out this massive change of opinion on the part of the population and driving the pacifist population into, you know, warmongering fanatics.

And the people on the commission learned a lesson. One of them was Edward Bernays, who went on to found–the main guru of the public relations industry. Another one was Walter Lippman, who was the leading progressive intellectual of the 20th century. And they both drew the same lessons, and said so.

The lessons were that we have what Lippmann called a “new art” in democracy, “manufacturing consent”. That’s where Ed Herman and I took the phrase from. For Bernays it was “engineering of consent”. The conception was that the intelligent minority, who of course is us, have to make sure that we can run the affairs of public affairs, affairs of state, the economy, and so on. We’re the only ones capable of doing it, of course. And we have to be–I’m quoting–”free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd”, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders”–the general public. They have a role. Their role is to be “spectators”, not participants. And every couple of years they’re permitted to choose among one of the “responsible men”, us.

And the John Dewey circle took the same view. Dewey changed his mind a couple of years later, to his credit, but at that time, Dewey and his circle were writing that–speaking of the First World War, that this was the first war in history that was not organized and manipulated by the military and the political figures and so on, but rather it was carefully planned by rational calculation of “the intelligent men of the community”, namely us, and we thought it through carefully and decided that this is the reasonable thing to do, for all kind of benevolent reasons.

And they were very proud of themselves.

There were people who disagreed. Like, Randolph Bourne disagreed. He was kicked out. He couldn’t write in the Deweyite journals. He wasn’t killed, you know, but he was just excluded.

And if you take a look around the world, it was pretty much the same. The intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause–all sides, Germans, British, everywhere.

There were a few, a fringe of dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who was in jail; Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, in jail; Randolph Bourne, marginalized; Eugene Debs, in jail for daring to question the magnificence of the war. In fact, Wilson hated him with such passion that when he finally declared an amnesty, Debs was left out, you know, had to wait for Warren Harding to release him. And he was the leading labor figure in the country. He was a candidate for president, Socialist Party, and so on.

But the lesson that came out is we believe you can and of course ought to control the public, and if we can’t do it by force, we’ll do it by manufacturing consent, by engineering of consent. Out of that comes the huge public relations industry, massive industry dedicated to this.

Incidentally, it’s also dedicated to undermining markets, a fact that’s rarely noticed but is quite obvious. Business hates markets. They don’t want to–and you can see it very clearly. Markets, if you take an economics course, are based on rational, informed consumers making rational choices. Turn on the television set and look at the first ad you see. It’s trying to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. That’s the whole point of the huge advertising industry. But also to try to control and manipulate thought. And it takes various forms in different institutions. The media do it one way, the academic institutions do it another way, and the educational system is a crucial part of it.

This is not a new observation. There’s actually an interesting essay by–Orwell’s, which is not very well known because it wasn’t published. It’s the introduction to Animal Farm. In the introduction, he addresses himself to the people of England and he says, you shouldn’t feel too self-righteous reading this satire of the totalitarian enemy, because in free England, ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he doesn’t say much about it. He actually has two sentences. He says one reason is the press “is owned by wealthy men” who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed.

But the second reason, and the more important one in my view, is a good education, so that if you’ve gone to all the good schools, you know, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say–and I don’t think he went far enough: wouldn’t do to think. And that’s very broad among the educated classes. That’s why overwhelmingly they tend to support state power and state violence, and maybe with some qualifications, like, say, Obama is regarded as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because he thought it was a strategic blunder. That puts him on the same moral level as some Nazi general who thought that the second front was a strategic blunder–you should knock off England first. That’s called criticism.

And sometimes it’s kind of outlandish. For example, there was just a review in The New York Times Book Review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book by Michael Kinsley, and which bitterly condemned him as–mostly character assassination. Didn’t say anything substantive. But Kinsley did say that it’s ridiculous to think that there’s any repression in the media in the United States, ’cause we can write quite clearly and criticize anything. And he can, but then you have to look at what he says, and it’s quite interesting.

In the 1980s, when the major local news story was the massive U.S. atrocities in Central America–they were horrendous; I mean, it wasn’t presented that way, but that’s what was happening–Kinsley was the voice of the left on television. And there were interesting incidents. At one point, the U.S. Southern Command, which ran–you know, it was the overseer of these actions–gave instructions to the terrorist force that they were running in Nicaragua, called the Contras–and they were a terrorist force–they gave them orders to–they said “not to (…) duke it out with the Sandinistas”, meaning avoid the Nicaraguan army, and attack undefended targets like agricultural cooperatives and, you know, health clinics and so on. And they could do it, because they were the first guerrillas in history to have high-level communications equipment, you know, computers and so on. The U.S., the CIA, just controlled the air totally, so they could send instructions to the terrorist forces telling them how to avoid the Nicaraguan army detachments and attack undefended civilian targets.

Well, this was mentioned; you know, it wasn’t publicized, but it was mentioned. And Americas Watch, which later became part of Human Rights Watch, made some protests. And Michael Kinsley responded. He condemned Americas Watch for their emotionalism. He said, we have to recognize that we have to accept a pragmatic criterion. We have to ask–something like this–he said, we have to compare the amount of blood and misery poured in with the success of the outcome in producing democracy–what we’ll call democracy. And if it meets the pragmatic criterion, then terrorist attacks against civilian targets are perfectly legitimate–which is not a surprising view in his case. He’s the editor of The New Republic. The New Republic, supposedly a liberal journal, was arguing that we should support Latin American fascists because there are more important things than human rights in El Salvador, where they were murdering tens of thousands of people.

That’s the liberals. And, yeah, they can get in the media no problem. And they’re praised for it, regarded with praise. All of this is part of the massive system of–you know, it’s not that anybody sits at the top and plans at all; it’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: But that system, of course, is constant. But what’s changed is that we don’t produce anything anymore. So what we define as our working class is a service sector class working in places like Walmart. And the effective forms of resistance–the sitdown strikes, you know, going back even further in the middle of the 19th century with the women in Lowell–I think that was–the Wobblies were behind those textile strikes. What are the mechanisms now? And I know you have written, as many anarchists have done, about the importance of the working class controlling the means of production, taking control, and you have a great quote about how, you know, Lenin and the Bolsheviks are right-wing deviants, I think, was the–which is, of course, exactly right, because it was centralized control, destroying the Soviets. Given the fact that production has moved to places like Bangladesh or southern China, what is going to be the paradigm now? And given, as you point out, the powerful forces of propaganda–and you touched upon now the security and surveillance state. We are the most monitored, watched, photographed, eavesdropped population in human history. And you cannot even use the world liberty when you eviscerate privacy. That’s what totalitarian is. What is the road we take now, given the paradigm that we have, which is somewhat different from, you know, what this country was, certainly, in the first half of the 20th century?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it’s pretty much the same, frankly. The idea still should be that of the Knights of Labor: those who work in the mills should own them. And there’s plenty of manufacturing going on in the country, and probably there will be more, for unpleasant reasons. One thing that’s happening right now which is quite interesting is that energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren, but under the, you know, capitalist morality, the calculus is that profits tomorrow outweigh the existence of your grandchildren. It’s institutionally-based, so, yes, we’re getting lower energy prices. And if you look at the business press, they’re, you know, very enthusiastic about the fact that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe because we’ll have lower energy prices, and therefore manufacturing will come back here, and we can even undermine European efforts at developing sustainable energy because we’ll have this advantage.

Britain is saying the same thing. I was just in England recently. As I left the airport, I read The Daily Telegraph, you know, I mean, newspaper. Big headline: England is going to begin fracking all of the country, even fracking under people’s homes without their permission. And that’ll allow us to destroy the environment even more quickly and will bring manufacturing back here.

The same is true with Asia. Manufacturing is moving back, to an extent, to Mexico, and even here, as wages increase in China, partly because of labor struggles. There’s massive labor struggles in China, huge, all over the place, and since we’re integrated with them, we can be supportive of them.

But manufacturing is coming back here. And both manufacturing and the service industries can move towards having those who do the work take over the management and ownership and control. In fact, it’s happening. In the old Rust Belt–you know, Indiana, Ohio, and so on–there’s a significant–not huge, but significant growth of worker-owned enterprises. They’re not huge, but they’re substantial around Cleveland and other places.

The background is interesting. In 1977, U.S. Steel, the, you know, multinational, decided to close down their mills in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town, sort of built by the steelworkers, one of the main steel-producing areas. Well, the union tried to buy the plants from U.S. Steel. They objected–in my view, mostly on class lines. They might have even profited from it. But the idea of worker-owned industry doesn’t have much appeal to corporate leaders, which means bankers and so on. It went to the courts. Finally, the union lost in the courts. But with enough popular support, they could have won.

Well, the working class and the community did not give up. They couldn’t get the steel mills, but they began to develop small worker-owned enterprises. They’ve now spread throughout the region. They’re substantial. And it can happen more and more.

And the same thing happened in Walmarts. I mean, there’s massive efforts right now, significant ones, to organize the service workers–what they call associates–in the service industries. And these industries, remember, depend very heavily on taxpayer largess in all kinds of ways. I mean, for example, let’s take, say, Walmarts. They import goods produced in China, which are brought here on container ships which were designed and developed by the U.S. Navy. And point after point where you look, you find that the way the system–the system that we now have is one which is radically anticapitalist, radically so.

I mean, I mentioned one thing, the powerful effort to try to undermine markets for consumers, but there’s something much more striking. I mean, in a capitalist system, the basic principle is that, say, if you invest in something and, say, it’s a risky investment, so you put money into it for a long time, maybe decades, and finally after a long time something comes out that’s marketable for a profit, it’s supposed to go back to you. That’s not the way it works here. Take, say, computers, internet, lasers, microelectronics, containers, GPS, in fact the whole IT revolution. There was taxpayer investment in that for decades, literally decades, doing all the hard, creative, risky work. Does the taxpayer get any of the profit? None, because that’s not the way our system works. It’s radically anti-capitalist, just as it’s radically anti-democratic, opposed to markets, in favor of concentrating wealth and power.

But that doesn’t have to be accepted by the population. These are–all kinds of forms of resistance to this can be developed if people become aware of it.

HEDGES: Well, you could argue that in the election of 2008, Obama wasn’t accepted by the population. But what we see repeatedly is that once elected officials achieve power through, of course, corporate financing, the consent of the governed is a kind of cruel joke. It doesn’t, poll after poll. I mean, I sued Obama over the National Defense Authorization Act, in which you were coplaintiff, and the polling was 97 percent against this section of the NDAA. And yet the courts, which have become wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state, the elected officials, the executive branch, and the press, which largely ignored it–the only organ that responsibly covered the case was, ironically, The New York Times. We don’t have–it doesn’t matter what we want. It doesn’t–I mean, and I think, you know, that’s the question: how do we effect change when we have reached a point where we can no longer appeal to the traditional liberal institutions that, as Karl Popper said once, made incremental or piecemeal reform possible, to adjust the system–of course, to save capitalism? But now it can’t even adjust the system. You know, we see cutting welfare.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. I mean, it’s perfectly true that the population is mostly disenfranchised. In fact, that’s a leading theme even of academic political science. You take a look at the mainstream political science, so, for example, a recent paper that was just published out of Princeton by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, two of the leading analysts of these topics, what they point out is they went through a couple of thousand policy decisions and found what has long been known, that there was almost no–that the public attitudes had almost no effect. Public organizations that are–nonprofit organizations that are publicly based, no effect. The outcomes were determined by concentrated private power.

There’s a long record of that going way back. Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist near here, has shown very convincingly that something as simple as campaign spending is a very good predictor of policy. That goes back into the late 19th century, right through the New Deal, you know, right up till the present. And that’s only one element of it. And you take a look at the literature, about 70 percent of the population, what they believe has no effect on policy at all. You get a little more influence as you go up. When you get to the top, which is probably, like, a tenth of one percent, they basically write the legislation.

I mean, you see this all over. I mean, take these huge so-called trade agreements that are being negotiated, Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic–enormous agreements, kind of NAFTA-style agreements. They’re secret–almost. They’re not secret from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing them. They know about it, which means that their bosses know about it. And the Obama administration and the press says, look, this has to be secret, otherwise we can’t defend our interests. Yeah, our interests means the interests of the corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing the legislation. Take the few pieces that have been leaked and you see that’s exactly what it is. Same with the others.

But it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. And there have been changes. So take, say–in the 1920s, the labor movement had been practically destroyed. There’s a famous book. One of the leading labor historians, David Montgomery, has a major book called something like The Fall of the House of Labor. He’s talking about the 1920s. It was done. There had been a very militant labor movement, very effective, farmers movement as well. Crushed in the 1920s. Almost nothing left. Well, in the 1930s it changed, and it changed because of popular activism.

HEDGES: But it also changed because of the breakdown of capitalism.

CHOMSKY: There was a circumstance that led to the opportunity to do something, but we’re living with that constantly. I mean, take the last 30 years. For the majority of the population it’s been stagnation or worse. That’s–it’s not exactly the deep Depression, but it’s kind of a permanent semi-depression for most of the population. That’s–there’s plenty of kindling out there which can be lighted.

And what happened in the ’30s is primarily CIO organizing, the militant actions like sit-down strikes. A sit-down strike’s very frightening. It’s a step before taking over the institution and saying, we don’t need the bosses. And that–there was a cooperative administration, Roosevelt administration, so there was some interaction. And significant legislation was passed–not radical, but significant, underestimated. And it happened again in the ’60s. It can happen again today. So I don’t think that one should abandon hope in chipping away at the more oppressive aspects of the society within the electoral system. But it’s only going to happen if there’s massive popular organization, which doesn’t have to stop at that. It can also be building the institutions of the future within the present society.

HEDGES: Would you say that the–you spoke about propaganda earlier and the Creel Commission and the rise of the public relations industry. The capacity to disseminate propaganda is something that now you virtually can’t escape it. I mean, it’s there in some electronic form, even in a hand-held device. Does that make that propaganda more effective?

CHOMSKY: Well, and it’s kind of an interesting question. Like a lot of people, I’ve written a lot about media and intellectual propaganda, but there’s another question which isn’t studied much: how effective is it? And that’s–when you brought up the polls, it’s a striking illustration. The propaganda is–you can see from the poll results that the propaganda has only limited effectiveness. I mean, it can drive a population into terror and fear and war hysteria, like before the Iraq invasion or 1917 and so on, but over time, public attitudes remain quite different. In fact, studies even of what’s called the right-wing, you know, people who say, get the government off my back, that kind of sector, they turn out to be kind of social democratic. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, women with dependent children, but not welfare, no spending on welfare, because Reagan, who was an extreme racist, succeeded in demonizing the notion of welfare. So in people’s minds welfare means a rich black woman driving in her limousine to the welfare office to steal your money. Well, nobody wants that. But they want what welfare does.

Foreign aid is an interesting case. There’s an enormous propaganda against foreign aid, ’cause we’re giving everything to the undeserving people out there. You take a look at public attitudes. A lot of opposition to foreign aid. Very high. On the other hand, when you ask people, how much do we give in foreign aid? Way beyond what we give. When you ask what we should give in foreign aid, far above what we give.

And this runs across the board. Take, say taxes. There’ve been studies of attitudes towards taxes for 40 years. Overwhelmingly the population says taxes are much too low for the rich and the corporate sector. You’ve got to raise it. What happens? Well, the opposite.

It’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: Well, what was fascinating about–I mean, the point, just to buttress this point: when you took the major issues of the Occupy movement, they were a majoritarian movement. When you look back on the Occupy movement, what do you think its failings were, its importance were?

CHOMSKY: Well, I think it’s a little misleading to call it a movement. Occupy was a tactic, in fact a brilliant tactic. I mean, if I’d been asked a couple of months earlier whether they should take over public places, I would have said it’s crazy. But it worked extremely well, and it lit a spark which went all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of places in the country, there were Occupy events. It was all over the world. I mean, I gave talks in Sydney, Australia, to the Occupy movement there. But it was a tactic, a very effective tactic. Changed public discourse, not policy. It brought issues to the forefront.

I think my own feeling is its most important contribution was just to break through the atomization of the society. I mean, it’s a very atomized society. There’s all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another, as if the ideal social unit is, you know, you and your TV set.

HEDGES: You know, Hannah Arendt raises atomization as one of the key components of totalitarianism.

CHOMSKY: Exactly. And the Occupy actions broke that down for a large part of the population. People could recognize that we can get together and do things for ourselves, we can have a common kitchen, we can have a place for public discourse, we can form our ideas and do something. Now, that’s an important attack on the core of the means by which the public is controlled. So you’re not just an individual trying to maximize your consumption, but there are other concerns in life, and you can do something about them. If those attitudes and associations and bonds can be sustained and move in other directions, that’ll be important.

But going back to Occupy, it’s a tactic. Tactics have a kind of a half-life. You can’t keep doing them, and certainly you can’t keep occupying public places for very long. And was very successful, but it was not in itself a movement. The question is: what happens to the people who were involved in it? Do they go on and develop, do they move into communities, pick up community issues? Do they organize?

Take, say, this business of, say, worker-owned industry. Right here in Massachusetts, not far from here, there was something similar. One of the multinationals decided to close down a fairly profitable small plant, which was producing aerospace equipment. High-skilled workers and so on, but it wasn’t profitable enough, so they were going to close it down. The union wanted to buy it. Company refused–usual class reasons, I think. If the Occupy efforts had been available at the time, they could have provided the public support for it.

This happened when Obama virtually nationalized the auto industry. There were choices. One choice was what he took, of course, was to rescue it, return it to essentially the same owners–different faces, but the same class basis–and send them back to doing what they had been doing in the past–producing automobiles. There were other choices, and if something like the Occupy movement had been around and sufficient, it could have driven the government into other choices, like, for example, turning the auto plants over to the working class and have them produce what the country needs.

I mean, we don’t need more cars. We need mass public transportation. The United States is an absolute scandal in this regard. I just came back from Europe–so you can see it dramatically. You get on a European train, you can go where you want to go in no time. Well, the train from Boston to New York, it may be, I don’t know, 20 minutes faster than when I took it 60 years ago. You go along the Connecticut Turnpike and the trucks are going faster than the train. Recently Japan offered the United States a low-interest loan to build high-speed rail from Washington to New York. It was turned down, of course. But what they were offering was to build the kind of train that I took in Japan 50 years ago. And this was a scandal all over the country.

Well, you know, a reconstituted auto industry could have turned in that direction under worker and community control. I don’t think these things are out of sight. And, incidentally, they even have so-called conservative support, because they’re within a broader what’s called capitalist framework (it’s not really capitalist). And those are directions that should be pressed.

Right now, for example, the Steelworkers union is trying to establish some kind of relations with Mondragon, the huge worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country in Spain, which is very successful, in fact, and includes industry, manufacturing, banks, hospitals, living quarters. It’s very broad. It’s not impossible that that can be brought here, and it’s potentially radical. It’s creating the basis for quite a different society.

And I think with things like, say, Occupy, the timing wasn’t quite right. But if the timing had been a little better (and this goes on all the time, so it’s always possible), it could have provided a kind of an impetus to move significant parts of the socioeconomic system in a different direction. And once those things begin to take off and people can see the advantages of them, it can become quite significant.

There are kind of islands like that around the country. So take Chattanooga, Tennessee. It happens to have a publicly organized internet system. It’s by far the best in the country. Rapid internet access for broad parts of the population. I suspect the roots of it probably go back to the TVA and the New Deal initiatives. Well, if that can spread throughout the country (why not? it’s very efficient, very cheap, works very well), it could undermine the telecommunications industry and its oligopoly, which would be a very good thing. There are lots of possibilities like this.

HEDGES: I want to ask just two last questions. First, the fact that we have become a militarized society, something all of the predictions of the Anti-Imperialist League at the end of the 19th century, including Carnegie and Jane Addams–hard to think of them both in the same room. But you go back and read what they wrote, and they were right how militarized society has deformed us economically–Seymour Melman wrote about this quite well–and politically. And that is a hurdle that as we attempt to reform or reconfigure our society we have to cope with. And I wondered if you could address this military monstrosity that you have written about quite a bit.

CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing, the public doesn’t like it. What’s called isolationism or one or another bad word, as, you know, pacifism was, is just the public recognition that there’s something deeply wrong with our dedication to military force all over the world.

Now, of course, at the same time, the public is frightened into believing that we have to defend ourselves. And it’s not entirely false. Part of the military system is generating forces which will be harmful to us, say, Obama’s terrorist campaign, drone campaign, the biggest terrorist campaign in history. It’s generating potential terrorists faster than it’s killing suspects.

You can see it. It’s very striking what’s happening right now in Iraq. And the truth of the matter is very evident. Go back to the Nuremberg judgments. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but in Nuremberg aggression was defined as “the supreme international crime,” differing from other war crimes in that it includes, it encompasses all of the evil that follows. Well, the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq is a textbook case of aggression. By the standards of Nuremberg, they’d all be hanged. And one of the things it did, one of the crimes was to ignite a Sunni-Shiite conflict which hadn’t been going on. I mean, there was, you know, various kinds of tensions, but Iraqis didn’t believe there could ever be a conflict. They were intermarried, they lived in the same places, and so on. But the invasion set it off. Took off on its own. By now it’s inflaming the whole region. Now we’re at the point where Sunni jihadi forces are actually marching on Baghdad.

HEDGES: And the Iraqi army is collapsing.

CHOMSKY: The Iraqi army’s just giving away their arms. There obviously is a lot of collaboration going on.

And all of this is a U.S. crime if we believe in the validity of the judgments against the Nazis.

And it’s kind of interesting. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor, a U.S. justice, at the tribunal, addressed the tribunal, and he pointed out, as he put it, that we’re giving these defendants a “poisoned chalice”, and if we ever sip from it, we have to be treated the same way, or else the whole thing is a farce and we should recognize this as just victor’s justice.

HEDGES: But it’s not accidental that our security and surveillance apparatus is militarized. And you’re right, of course, that there is no broad popular support for this expanding military adventurism. And yet the question is if there is a serious effort to curtail their power and their budgets. They have mechanisms. And we even heard Nancy Pelosi echo this in terms of how they play dirty. I mean, they are monitoring all the elected officials as well.

CHOMSKY: Monitoring. But despite everything, it’s still a pretty free society, and the recognition by U.S. and British business back 100 years ago that they can no longer control the population by violence is correct. And control of attitude and opinion is pretty fragile, as is surveillance. It’s very different than sending in the storm troopers. You know, so there’s a lot of latitude, for people of relative privilege, at least, to do all sorts of things. I mean, it’s different if you’re a black kid in the ghetto. Yeah, then you’re subjected to state violence. But for a large part of the population, there’s plenty of opportunities which have not been available in the past.

HEDGES: But those people are essentially passive, virtually.

CHOMSKY: But they don’t have to be.

HEDGES: They don’t have to be, but Hannah Arendt, when she writes about the omnipotent policing were directed against the stateless, including ourself and France, said the problem of building omnipotent policing, which we have done in our marginal neighborhoods in targeting people of color–we can have their doors kicked in and stopped at random and thrown in jail for decades for crimes they didn’t commit–is that when you have a societal upheaval, you already have both a legal and a physical mechanism by which that omnipotent policing can be quickly inflicted.

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that’s true here. I think the time has passed when that can be done for increasing parts of the population, those who have almost any degree of privilege. The state may want to do it, but they don’t have the power to do it. They can carry out extensive surveillance, monitoring, they can be violent against parts of the population that can’t defend themselves–undocumented immigrants, black kids in the ghetto, and so on–but even that can be undercut. For example, one of the major scandals in the United States since Reagan is the huge incarceration program, which is a weapon against–it’s a race war. But it’s based on drugs. And there is finally cutting away at the source of this and the criminalization and the radical distortion of the way criminalization of drug use has worked. That can have an effect.

I mean, I think–look, there’s no doubt that the population is passive. There are lots of ways of keeping them passive. There’s lots of ways of marginalizing and atomizing them. But that’s different from storm troopers. It’s quite different. And it can be overcome, has been overcome in the past. And I think there are lots of initiatives, some of them being undertaken, others developing, which can be used to break down this system. I think it’s a very fragile system, including the militarism.

HEDGES: Let’s just close with climate change. Like, I read climate change reports, which–.

CHOMSKY: Well, unfortunately, that’s–may doom us all, and not in the long-distance future. That just overwhelms everything. It is the first time in human history when we not only–we have the capacity to destroy the conditions for a decent survival. And it’s already happening. I mean, just take a look at species destruction. Species destruction now is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth and ended the period of the dinosaurs, wiped out huge numbers of species. Same level today, and we’re the asteroid. And you take a look at what’s happening in the world, I mean, anybody looking at this from outer space would be astonished.

I mean, there are sectors of the global population that are trying to impede the catastrophe. There are other sectors that are trying to accelerate it. And you take a look at who they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward: indigenous populations, the First Nations in Canada, you know, aboriginals from Australia, the tribal people in India, you know, all over the world, are trying to impede it. Who’s accelerating it? The most privileged, advanced–so-called advanced–educated populations in the world, U.S. and Canada right in the lead. And we know why.

There are also–. Here’s an interesting case of manufacture of consent and does it work? You take a look at international polls on global warming, Americans, who are the most propagandized on this–I mean, there’s huge propaganda efforts to make it believe it’s not happening–they’re a little below the norm, so there’s some effect of the propaganda. It’s stratified. If you take a look at Republicans, they’re way below the norm. But what’s happening in the Republican Party all across the spectrum is a very striking. So, for example, about two-thirds of Republicans believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and all sorts of other things. You know. So it’s stratified. But there’s some impact of the propaganda, but not overwhelming. Most of the population still regards it as a serious problem.

There’s actually an interesting article about this in the Columbia Journalism Review which just appeared, current issue, the lead critical review of journalism. They attribute this to what they call the doctrine of fairness in the media. Doctrine of fairness says that if you have an opinion piece by 95, 97 percent of the scientists, you have to pair it with an opinion piece by the energy corporations, ’cause that’d be fair and balanced. There isn’t any such doctrine. Like, if you have an opinion piece denouncing Putin as the new Hitler for annexing Crimea, you don’t have to balance it with an opinion piece saying that 100 years ago the United States took over southeastern Cuba at the point of a gun and is still holding it, though it has absolutely no justification other than to try to undermine Cuban development, whereas in contrast, whatever you think of Putin, there’s reasons. You don’t have to have that. And you have to have fair and balanced when it affects the concerns of private power, period. But try to get an article in the Columbia Journalism Review pointing that out, although it’s transparent.

So all those things are there, but they can be overcome, and they’d better be. This isn’t–you know, unless there’s a sharp reversal in policy, unless we here in the so-called advanced societies can gain the consciousness of the indigenous people of the world, we’re in deep trouble. Our grandchildren are going to suffer from it.

HEDGES: And I think you would agree that’s not going to come from the power elite.

CHOMSKY: It’s certainly not.

HEDGES: It’s up to us.

CHOMSKY: Absolutely. And it’s urgent.

HEDGES: It is. Thank you very much.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes a regular column for Truthdig every Monday. Hedges’ most recent book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

http://www.alternet.org/media/noam-chomsky-tells-chris-hedges-how-our-ruling-elite-leading-america-catastrophe?akid=12034.265072.WHH2Dd&rd=1&src=newsletter1011911&t=13&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

 

THE BULLSHIT MACHINE

Here’s a tiny confession. I’m bored.

Yes; I know. I’m a sinner. Go ahead. Burn me at the stake of your puritanical Calvinism; the righteously, thoroughly, well, boring idea that boredom itself is a moral defect; that a restless mind is the Devil’s sweatshop.

There’s nothing more boring than that; and I’ll return to that very idea at the end of this essay; which I hope is the beginning.

What am I bored of? Everything. Blogs books music art business ideas politics tweets movies science math technology…but more than that: the spirit of the age; the atmosphere of the time; the tendency of the now; the disposition of the here.

Sorry; but it’s true. It’s boring me numb and dumb.

A culture that prizes narcissism above individualism. A politics that places “tolerance” above acceptance. A spirit that encourages cynicism over reverence. A public sphere that places irony over sincerity. A technosophy that elevates “data” over understanding. A society that puts “opportunity” before decency. An economy that…you know. Works us harder to make us poorer at “jobs” we hate where we make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from our souls to sell to everyone else who’s working harder to get poorer at “jobs” they hate where they make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from their souls.

To be bored isn’t to be indifferent. It is to be fatigued. Because one is exhausted. And that is precisely where—and only where—the values above lead us. To exhaustion; with the ceaseless, endless, meaningless work of maintaining the fiction. Of pretending that who we truly want to be is what everyone believes everyone else wants to be. Liked, not loved; “attractive”, not beautiful; clever, not wise; snarky, not happy; advantaged, not prosperous.

It exhausts us; literally; this game of parasitically craving everyone’s cravings. It makes us adversaries not of one another; but of ourselves. Until there is nothing left. Not of us as we are; but of the people we might have been. The values above shrink and reduce and diminish our potential; as individuals, as people, societies. And so I have grown fatigued by them.

Ah, you say. But when hasn’t humanity always suffered all the above? Please. Let’s not mince ideas. Unless you think the middle class didn’t actually thrive once; unless you think that the gentleman that’s made forty seven Saw flicks (so far) is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock; unless you believe that this era has a John Lennon; unless you think that Jeff Koons is Picasso…perhaps you see my point.

I’m bored, in short, of what I’d call a cycle of perpetual bullshit. A bullshit machine. The bullshit machine turns life into waste.

The bullshit machine looks something like this. Narcissism about who you are leads to cynicism about who you could be leads to mediocrity in what you do…leads to narcissism about who you are. Narcissism leads to cynicism leads to mediocrity…leads to narcissism.

Let me simplify that tiny model of the stalemate the human heart can reach with life.

The bullshit machine is the work we do only to live lives we don’t want, need, love, or deserve.

Everything’s work now. Relationships; hobbies; exercise. Even love. Gruelling; tedious; unrelenting; formulaic; passionless; calculated; repetitive; predictable; analysed; mined; timed; performed.

Work is bullshit. You know it, I know it; mankind has always known it. Sure; you have to work at what you want to accomplish. But that’s not the point. It is the flash of genius; the glimmer of intuition; the afterglow of achievement; the savoring of experience; the incandescence of meaning; all these make life worthwhile, pregnant, impossible, aching with purpose. These are the ends. Work is merely the means.

Our lives are confused like that. They are means without ends; model homes; acts which we perform, but do not fully experience.

Remember when I mentioned puritanical Calvinism? The idea that being bored is itself a sign of a lack of virtue—and that is, itself, the most boring idea in the world?

That’s the battery that powers the bullshit machine. We’re not allowed to admit it: that we’re bored. We’ve always got to be doing something. Always always always. Tapping, clicking, meeting, partying, exercising, networking, “friending”. Work hard, play hard, live hard. Improve. Gain. Benefit. Realize.

Hold on. Let me turn on crotchety Grandpa mode. Click.

Remember when cafes used to be full of people…thinking? Now I defy you to find one not full of people Tinder—Twitter—Facebook—App-of-the-nanosecond-ing; furiously. Like true believers hunched over the glow of a spiritualized Eden they can never truly enter; which is precisely why they’re mesmerized by it. The chance at a perfect life; full of pleasure; the perfect partner, relationship, audience, job, secret, home, career; it’s a tap away. It’s something like a slot-machine of the human soul, this culture we’re building. The jackpot’s just another coin away…forever. Who wouldn’t be seduced by that?

Winners of a million followers, fans, friends, lovers, dollars…after all, a billion people tweeting, updating, flicking, swiping, tapping into the void a thousand times a minute can’t be wrong. Can they?

And therein is the paradox of the bullshit machine. We do more than humans have ever done before. But we are not accomplishing much; and we are, it seems to me, becoming even less than that.

The more we do, the more passive we seem to become. Compliant. Complaisant. As if we are merely going through the motions.

Why? We are something like apparitions today; juggling a multiplicity of selves through the noise; the “you” you are on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Tinder…wherever…at your day job, your night job, your hobby, your primary relationship, your friend-with-benefits, your incredibly astonishing range of extracurricular activities. But this hyperfragmentation of self gives rise to a kind of schizophrenia; conflicts, dissocations, tensions, dislocations, anxieties, paranoias, delusions. Our social wombs do not give birth to our true selves; the selves explosive with capability, possibility, wonder.

Tap tap tap. And yet. We are barely there, at all; in our own lives; in the moments which we will one day look back on and ask ourselves…what were we thinking wasting our lives on things that didn’t matter at all?

The answer, of course, is that we weren’t thinking. Or feeling. We don’t have time to think anymore. Thinking is a superluxury. Feeling is an even bigger superluxury. In an era where decent food, water, education, and healthcare are luxuries; thinking and feeling are activities to costly for society to allow. They are a drag on “growth”; a burden on “productivity”; they slow down the furious acceleration of the bullshit machine.

And so. Here we are. Going through the motions. The bullshit machine says the small is the great; the absence is the presence; the vicious is the noble; the lie is the truth. We believe it; and, greedily, it feeds on our belief. The more we feed it, the more insatiable it becomes. Until, at last, we are exhausted. By pretending to want the lives we think we should; instead of daring to live the lives we know we could.

Fuck it. Just admit it. You’re probably just as bored as I am.

Good for you.

Welcome to the world beyond the Bullshit Machine.

Where’s the Outrage Over a Boy Burnt to Death?

http://cdn.images.express.co.uk/img/dynamic/78/590x/mohammed-abu-khdeir-486949.jpg

The Atrocity

by URI AVNERY

Bombs are raining on Gaza and rockets on Southern Israel, people are dying and homes are being destroyed.

Again.

Again without any purpose. Again with the certainty that after it’s all over, everything will essentially be the same as it was before.

But I can hardly hear the sirens which warn of rockets coming towards Tel Aviv. I cannot take my mind off the awful thing that happened in Jerusalem.

If a gang of neo-Nazis had kidnapped a 16-year old boy in a London Jewish neighborhood in the dark of the night, driven him to Hyde Park, beaten him up, poured gasoline into his mouth, doused him all over and set him on fire – what would have happened?

Wouldn’t the UK have exploded in a storm of anger and disgust?

Wouldn’t the Queen have expressed her outrage?

Wouldn’t the Prime Minister have rushed to the home of the bereaved family to apologize on behalf of the entire nation?

Wouldn’t the leadership of the neo-Nazis, their active supporters and brain-washers be indicted and condemned?

Perhaps in the UK. Perhaps in Germany.

Not here.

This abominal atrocity took place in Jerusalem. A Palestinian boy was abducted and burned alive. No racist crime in Israel ever came close to it.

Burning people alive is an abomination everywhere. In a state that claims to be “Jewish”, it is even worse.

In Jewish history, only one chapter comes close to the Holocaust: the Spanish inquisition. This Catholic institution tortured Jews and burned them alive at the stake. Later, this happened sometimes in the Russian pogroms. Even the most fanatical enemy of Israel could not imagine such an awful thing happening in Israel. Until now.

Under Israeli law, East Jerusalem is not occupied territory. It is a part of sovereign Israel.

The chain of events was as follows:

Two Palestinians, apparently acting alone, kidnapped three Israeli teenagers who were trying to hitchhike at night from a settlement near Hebron. The objective was probably to use them as hostages for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The action went awry when one of the three succeeded in calling the Israeli police emergency number from his mobile phone. The kidnappers, assuming that the police would soon be on their tracks, panicked and shot the three at once. They dumped the bodies in a field and fled. (Actually the police bungled things and only started their hunt the next morning.)

All of Israel was in an uproar. Many thousands of soldiers were employed for three weeks in the search for the three youngsters, combing thousands of buildings, caves and fields.

The public uproar was surely justified. But it soon degenerated into an orgy of racist incitement, which intensified from day to day. Newspapers, radio stations and TV networks competed with each other in unabashed racist diatribes, repeating the official line ad nauseam and adding their own nauseous commentary – every day, around the clock.

The security services of the Palestinian Authority, which collaborated throughout with the Israeli security services, played a major role in discovering early on the identity of the two kidnappers (identified but not yet caught). Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, stood up in a meeting of the Arab countries and condemned the kidnapping unequivocally and was branded by many of his own people as an Arab Quisling. Israeli leaders, on the other hand, called him a hypocrite.

Israel’s leading politicians let loose a salvo of utterances which would be seen anywhere else as outright fascist. A short selection:

Danny Danon, deputy Minister of Defense: “If a Russian boy had been kidnapped, Putin would have flattened village after village!”

“Jewish Home” faction leader Ayala Shaked: “With a people whose heroes are child murderers we must deal accordingly.” (“Jewish Home” is a part of the government coalition.)

Noam Perl, world chairman of Bnei Akiva, the youth movement of the settlers: “An entire nation and thousands of years of history demand: Revenge!”

Uri  Bank, former secretary of Uri Ariel, Housing Minister and builder of the settlements: “This is the right moment . When our children are hurt, we go berserk, no limits, dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, annexation of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), execution of all prisoners who have been condemned for murder, exile of family members of terrorists!”

And Binyamin Netanyahu himself, speaking about the entire Palestinian people: “They are not like us. We sanctify life, they sanctify death!”

When the bodies of the three were found by tourist guides, the chorus of hatred reached a new crescendo. Soldiers posted tens of thousands of messages on the internet calling for “revenge”, politicians egged them on, the media added fuel, lynch mobs gathered in many places in Jerusalem to hunt Arab workers and rough them up.

Except for a few lonely voices, it seemed that all Israel had turned into a soccer mob, shouting “Death to the Arabs!”

Can anyone even imagine a present-day European or American crowd shouting “Death to the Jews?”

The six arrested until now for the bestial murder of the Arab boy had come straight from one of these “Death to the Arabs” demonstrations.

First they had tried to kidnap a 9-year old boy in the same Arab neighborhood, Shuafat. One of them caught the boy in the street and dragged him towards their car, choking him at the same time. Luckily, the child succeeded in shouting “Mama!” and his mother started hitting the kidnapper with her cell phone. He panicked and ran off. The choking marks on the boy’s neck could be seen for several days.

The next day the group returned, caught Muhammad Abu-Khdeir, a cheerful 16-year old boy with an engaging smile, poured gasoline in his mouth and burned him to death.

(As if this was not enough, Border Policemen caught his cousin during a protest demonstration, handcuffed him, threw him on the ground and started kicking his head and face. His wounds look terrible. The disfigured boy was arrested, the policemen were not.)

The atrocious way Muhammad was murdered was not mentioned at first. The fact was disclosed by an Arab pathologist who was present at the official autopsy. Most Israeli newspapers mentioned the fact in a few words on an inner page. Most TV newscasts did not mention the fact at all.

In Israel proper, Arab citizens rose up as they have not done in many years. Violent demonstrations throughout the country lasted for several days. At the same time, the Gaza Strip frontline exploded in a new orgy of rockets and aerial bombings in a new mini-war which already has a name: “Solid Cliff”. (The army’s propaganda section has invented another name in English.) The new Egyptian dictatorship is collaborating with the Israeli army in choking the Strip.

The names of the six suspects of the murder-by-fire – several of whom have already confessed to the appalling deed – are still being withheld. But unofficial reports say that they belong to the Orthodox community. Apparently this community, traditionally anti-Zionist and moderate, has now spawned neo-Nazi offspring, which surpass even their religious-Zionist competitors.

Yet terrible as the deed itself is, to my mind the public reaction is even worse. Because there isn’t any.

True, a few sporadic voices have been heard. Many more ordinary people have voiced their disgust in private conversations. But the deafening moral outrage one could have expected did not materialize.

Everything was done to minimize the “incident”, prevent its publication abroad and even inside Israel. Life went on as usual. A few government leaders and other politicians condemned the deed in routine phrases, for consumption abroad. The soccer world cup contest elicited far more interest. Even on the Left, the atrocity was treated as just another item among the many misdeeds of the occupation.

Where is the outcry, the moral uprising of the nation, the unanimous decision to stamp out the racism that makes such atrocities possible?

The new flare-up in and around the Gaza Strip has obliterated the atrocity altogether.

Sirens sound in Jerusalem and in towns north of Tel-Aviv. The missiles aimed at Israeli population centers have successfully (up to now) been intercepted by counter-missiles. But hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are running to the shelters. On the other side, hundreds of daily sorties of the Israeli Air Force turn life in the Gaza Strip into hell.

When the cannon roar, the muses fall silent.

Also the pity for a boy burnt to death.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/11/the-atrocity/

 

Wealthy venture capitalist Tom Perkins is nostalgic for the old Silicon Valley

 — whorehouses and all

The venture capitalist was made infamous for warning of a “progressive” Kristallnacht

Wealthy venture capitalist Tom Perkins is nostalgic for the old Silicon Valley -- whorehouses and all
Tom Perkins (Credit: Bloomberg TV)

Tensions between the wealthy tone-deaf tech world and folks being priced out of San Francisco have been mounting — protests, evictions, Google glass altercations — and they’re the subject of a feature in this week’s New Yorker.

In it writer Nathan Heller interviews a man who has spouted infamous and offensive opinions about these issues: venture capitalist Tom Perkins.

Perkins, as you may recall, wrote a letter to the editor published in the Wall Street Journal, saying this:

“Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

“From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

“This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?”

In the New Yorker piece, titled “California Screaming,” Perkins seems to have changed his tune a bit. He reminisced about the artists, the Beats, the jazz, the spirit, and yes, the whorehouses of the Silicon Valley he first knew. Here it is below via ValleyWag:



“Perkins considers Ron Conway a friend, and admires the pro-business policies that Conway and Sf.Citi have pushed through [in San Francisco]. He also admires the country of Australia, which he believes approaches the free-wheeling, entrepreneurial bliss of Northern California at the time he arrived, in 1957. ‘I was twenty-two, twenty-three,’ he explained. ‘I lived in Sausalito, which back then had a functioning whorehouse—one of the last ones in the Bay Area. It was a loose town where anything went, and I loved it. San Francisco was that way. It was artistic, outrageous. The gays had a lot to do with that.’ Perkins had brought his forehead to rest on his fingertips and closed his eyes, smiling. ‘I knew writers and artists. North Beach. The Beats. The jazz. It’s still a great city, but I think it was better then.’”

While it’s still not a full admission of understanding why people are so outraged by the rising inequality in the city, he does seem to miss some of the aspects that protesters are trying to keep from disappearing in a city known for its beautiful counterculture. ValleyWag points out that both Perkins and the protesters see the importance of “artistsmusicians, and, yes, sex workers” that the tech world is pricing out of the city.

Though he may long for days gone by, Perkins doesn’t think the culture can be saved. (Thus, revealing his bias: He may love the olden days, but still he makes his massive earnings from the tech world):

“I asked Perkins whether he saw a way to preserve communities of writers and artists in town. He sighed and thought for several long moments. ‘I don’t see how,’ he said at last.”

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/02/tom_perkins_is_nostalgic_for_the_old_silicon_valley_whorehouses_and_all/?source=newsletter

Exploring Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch

By Jules Suzdaltsev

On November 18, 2003, Michael Jackson’s 3,000-acre primary residence, Neverland Ranch, was searched by 70 police officers from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department after accusations that Jackson had molested some children (The People of the State of California v. Michael Joseph Jackson). Following this, Jackson abandoned his estate, saying it had been “violated,” and three years later the property went into foreclosure.

While the Ranch floated in real estate limbo, a group of photographers snuck onto the grounds and explored the abandoned kingdom, returning several times between December 2007 and March 2008. I spoke to the photographers to see what they saw. (Because tresspassing is illegal and I was feeling nostalgic for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they will be referred to as Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello. A fourth member contributed photography and was not interviewed.)

VICE: What inspired you guys to explore Neverland Ranch?
Leonardo: It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was aware that the park had been abandoned for quite a while, and I knew that Jackson was in Dubai at the time and that he wasn’t able to pay his electric bills. So, my understanding was that it would be a short-lived opportunity. I usually drive along the 101 freeway, and I decided, I have a few extra hours, I’m just going to go check it out. It just so happened that the day I was out there, it was pretty windy. It was a good cover because there were guards on-site, and the wind sort of blocked out my noise. I was able to sneak in without being heard. I had no expectation to make it in, but I just wanted to see.

What was the weirdest shit you saw?
Raphael: [Laughs]
Leonardo: Raphael is laughing because everything we saw was pretty weird. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of Michael Jackson, but I knew that he was an important American historical figure. At the time, most people probably didn’t realize that he was part of history, and I knew that there was the potential for everything that was associated with him to be quickly lost. Without our documentation, I think it would’ve been a huge loss. So, I thought it was important to do that as quickly as we could, before it was gone.
Raphael: Are we talking about going into his house? Is that part of the story?

Please.
Raphael: We haven’t really told anyone about it… OK, the strangest thing to me was the little boy in pajamas sitting on the moon logo, everywhere. Like, it amazes me how much it resembles the DreamWorks logo. That thing was painted on the ground, like, 60 feet wide. It was on the signs, on the bumper cars, it was on the coach station where they parked the coach, one on the ground.
Donatello: That’s his creepy logo, right?
Raphael: It’s got a little boy sitting on it in those footie pajama things. Isn’t the back open, or is that only on some of the paintings? [Laughs]

Oh my God.
Donatello: The other thing was that he collected memorabilia that had his likeness on it. He had Pepsi bottles and books and other promotional material in boxes. He also had stacks and stacks of fan mail, and one piece that really grabbed me was the prosecuting attorney of his molestation case with devil’s horns drawn on. That was just laying on a tabletop—maybe a Pac-Man table?
Raphael: You read his fan mail?
Donatello: We were flipping through some of it.

How did you guys get into his house?
Raphael: We probably don’t want to talk about the details about how we entered.

Was it difficult?
Leonardo: We didn’t have to break any laws, because it was open. It was all open. The house was open.

Wow.
Raphael: One thing that really sticks out in my memory was drinking his grape soda from that walk-in kitchen storage area and then very carefully wiping the fingerprints off the bottle and hiding it in the bushes.

Wait, you drank his juice?
Raphael: I was thirsty and he had all of this grape soda, and I thought I’d just drink something from his house.

Was it actual grape soda?
Raphael: Yeah! It was actual grape soda. In the kitchen there was this “Children of the World” menu. Everything in there was geared toward children. I’m not sure he had any, but…

He did.
Raphael: That menu, on a permanently-printed chalkboard with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, that sticks out in my mind. And the strange hodgepodge of shit that he had bought that didn’t have any relation to his house. His entire house was filled with these expensive looking, one-off, semi-artistic things.

Semi-artistic?
Raphael: These weird mirrors on this four-foot by four-foot platform. And that would be next to some Roman statue-looking thing. Next to that would be an eight-foot-tall oil painting of Michael Jackson himself. There were all of these paintings inside the house.
Donatello: There’s one where he’s leading a procession of children.

What was the vibe in the house?
Donatello: I was really on-edge and uncomfortable, mostly because I was worried that someone might find us in there and I think it’s just such a breach of privacy. It was so compelling to do it; I couldn’t not go in because the opportunity was there. But at the same time, it just felt wrong. It was this constant friction between fascination and, I’ve got to get the fuck out of here, I shouldn’t be in here.
Leonardo: That’s true. We all felt that way. We [as urban explorers] don’t normally ever go in peoples’ houses.
Raphael: It’s all usually industrial, or old schools, or things that aren’t people’s personal residences. At one point, I got so fed up with the weirdness that I went outside and I tried to loosen them up by banging on the door. I had a flashlight in my hand, and made it look like I was busting them. We fuck around with each other quite a bit, but Donatello was furious that I did that.

That’s ridiculous.
Donatello: I don’t remember that. It must’ve been such a bad memory.
Raphael: I scared the shit out of you.
Leonardo: I remember that vividly, actually. I didn’t find anything that creepy about the whole thing. I found it really odd and different, but I wasn’t scared at any moment. I think none of us were really scared. Mostly we felt like we shouldn’t be invading the privacy of someone else. But I never felt like I was afraid of any of the things that he put out there. It just seemed really exotic and different. There are far more odd things in this world than what Michael Jackson was.
Raphael: The whole thing was just really an adventure, and going somewhere that nobody’s ever seen, and seeing all of this stuff, it was right after he left the country because of the molestation charges. So in our mind, it was like looking at everything more from that angle. There’s the kids’ stuff, there’s toys everywhere, there’s the huge arcade—a giant child-magnet.
Donatello: I don’t know. I don’t want the whole gist of this interview to back up those allegations toward the guy.

That’s OK. I was actually going to ask how much of the property you ended up being able to see?
Donatello: We pretty much saw everything except for the petting zoo area. We went to the arcade, the mansion, the amusement park rides, the railroad train station, all of the statue areas…

I’m shocked that you guys weren’t caught.
Donatello: We’re kind of professionals. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but… We do this a lot. We do a lot of research and recon. But also, it’s surprisingly low-key because there’s a guard truck down by the road, and we just avoided that guard truck, and once you’re past that, you’re in the valley, and you’re on your own, and it’s pretty desolate.
Raphael: Surprisingly, we just roamed about the grounds. Casually.

It’s a pretty huge space, isn’t it?
Raphael: Really big. We didn’t even get to the zoo, because it’s so far away.
Donatello: One other interesting thing—we did go in Michael’s room, but both of the kids’ rooms were locked from the outside.
Raphael: We decided not to get into the kids’ rooms, because it didn’t seem right.

What about his toy room?
Raphael: It was maybe 60 feet by 30 feet, and filled with every toy you could imagine. Life-size Lego models, Darth Vader—all sorts of awesome toys.
Donatello: The other thing I remember is that there were game stations set up all around the house. Imagine those consoles for Super Nintendo that you might find at the Best Buy store, but set up with all different systems.

Was there anything adult in there? It all sounds like mostly kids’ stuff. And weird art.
[Laughter]
Raphael: There were a lot of big, lounge-y spaces with couches and all the strange art objects.
Donatello: I remember seeing really normal things, change lying on a coffee table and a little office space with a computer and typical home stuff.

Roughly how many rooms did he have? It’s a mansion. It must’ve been fucking huge.
Leonardo: He probably had ten rooms, I would say. The mansion itself was not as huge as you’d think, but there were all of these other smaller buildings that we didn’t really go in.

Isn’t there a massive clock in the garden?
Donatello: Oh, dude, there’s all kinds of crazy shit in the garden.
Leonardo: Didn’t you take a picture of the clock with the hands stuck, and then you realized later on that you took the picture within three seconds of what the hands were stuck at?
Donatello: I did! There’s this clock that’s stopped around 2:55, and I just happened to snap the shot almost exactly at that same time, without even realizing it until a year later.

Pretty serendipitous. Although, how did you know that it had been stopped?
Donatello: The power had been cut off, and the hands weren’t moving.

The house didn’t have any power?
Donatello: If I remember correctly, there was no power in the mansion but the water was working.

Did you guys use the bathroom?
[Laughter]
Donatello: I think we checked the water or something because we were just curious if it worked. What’s weird is that within his house, there was no dust. It was immaculate. The carpet was vacuumed, and there was no dust on any of those crazy sculpture or statues. That’s kind of why we were on edge—like, people are here. A lot of things were covered in vinyl-type tarps to protect them. But it was obvious that someone was in there cleaning, I would say, at least once a week, by how clean it was.

But he hadn’t lived there for a while…
Raphael: I think that’s what signified to Leonardo that he was OK to go in there.
Leonardo: The house is foreclosed, it’s basically derelict, defunct. That’s when it hit my radar.
Raphael: It’s probably obvious that we really only go to abandoned and defunct sites.

You don’t seem like paparazzi.
Raphael: We’re paparazzi of bridges, maybe.

Thanks, guys. 

 

http://www.vice.com/read/exploring-michael-jacksons-abandoned-neverland-ranch-760?utm_source=vicenewsletter

Is American Capitalism in Profound Trouble?


Author Gar Alperovitz proposes a solution: a cooperative economic model that puts workers first.

http://media.economist.com/images/20090530/2209LD1.jpg

This article first appeared at Orion Magazine under the title “The Cooperative Economy.”

In the mid-1960s, when author, historian, and political economist Gar Alperovitz was working as legislative director for Senator Gaylord Nelson, change was in the air. Ink had dried on an early version of the Clean Air Act, the civil rights movement had won major victories, and the first Earth Day was in the works. The U.S. still faced plenty of serious challenges, but many Americans felt their country was capable of dealing with them successfully.

Today, things feel very different. “From climate change to a medieval level of wealth disparity, what we face in this country is no longer a regulatory crisis,” says Alperovitz. “We face a systemic crisis. And if you begin there, you begin to wonder: Is capitalism itself in profound trouble?”

Alperovitz believes it is. The author of several books on the subject, including America Beyond Capitalism, and a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, he points to capitalism’s increasing dysfunction as the impetus for the rise of another economy, one built from the ground up by democratically owned organizations like cooperatives, community land trusts, and municipal institutions.

Orion editor Scott Gast spoke with Alperovitz after the publication of his most recent book, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, which explores whether the cooperative economy can provide the seeds for a system that isn’t capitalism and isn’t socialism, but something entirely new.

* * *

SCOTT GAST: You’ve been thinking, writing, and speaking about alternatives to capitalism for a long time. Where did your interest in cooperatives begin?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: My interest began back in 1977, when a big steel company, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, went out of business. Five thousand people in Youngstown, Ohio lost their jobs in one day, which was disastrous. Layoffs of that size are common today—especially when multinational corporations shift capital around—but in 1977 that was front-page, national news. It was a big, big deal.

But the community leaders and steel workers in Youngstown decided that they didn’t have to go down without a fight. They got together and built a coalition to buy the steel mill back and run it themselves, under worker-community ownership. They began organizing locally and statewide, and soon the Carter administration agreed to provide funds to hire experts who could help them with the mill’s technical designs.

Things were looking up until the mid-term election of 1978, after which the Carter money disappeared and the project fell apart. It was a serious blow—but everybody involved in the coalition knew it might happen. They understood that part of their job was to educate people about this alternative form of ownership, because what happened in Youngstown was going to happen to other communities, and at some point, they might win the battle. So they launched an educational campaign throughout Ohio, and they began talking about worker and community ownership as a means of rescuing cities and towns from decay.

So even though the Youngstown experiment failed, it succeeded in a much larger sense: Some thirty-five years later, there are now a great many worker-owned businesses in the state of Ohio, and the support system for building them is one of the best in the nation. We don’t know the exact number, but very large numbers, per capita, in Ohio, are traceable to this education effort.

SG: What exactly is a worker-owned company? What makes them different from conventional businesses?

GA: A worker-owned company, or cooperative, is essentially a one-person one-vote, member-owned and -controlled economic institution or business. Included in the American cooperative experience are agricultural co-ops, insurance co-ops, food co-ops, housing co-ops, health-care co-ops, artist co-ops, electrical co-ops, credit unions, and many more. Large retail co-ops many Americans are familiar with include REI, the outdoor clothing and supply company, and ACE, the hardware-purchasing cooperative.

The modern cooperative form is often dated back to the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers founded in England during the 1840s, although other cooperative economic arrangements have existed throughout human history. At roughly the same time, in the United States, cooperatives were being formed by both the National Trades’ Union and the associationist movement. And many farm co-ops date from the 1930s and the New Deal.

But aside from being owned by members rather than by shareholders or individuals, cooperatives differ from many traditional businesses in their values and motives. Also, they’re not required to grow, but they can and do, which is important in terms of designing an alternative to capitalism, because we need to get beyond the existing economy’s drive to use resources and produce waste, including carbon emissions, in ever-increasing quantities.

SG: Does worker and community ownership exist in forms other than cooperatives?

GA: Yes, these institutions come in several varieties—from employee stock ownership plans to municipal enterprises and community land trusts.

In employee stock ownership plans, voting rights are retained by a trust, not by the workers. These organizations commonly create worker ownership via special tax incentives given to the companies’ heads, who then decide to sell the company to their employees. These are by far the most prevalent form of worker ownership in the United States; there are now roughly eleven thousand of them. More than 10 million people are involved as owners in virtually every sector; some firms are very large and sophisticated, such as Publix Super Markets, while others are more modest in size.

Municipal enterprises—or businesses owned by local governments—are a larger-scale form of democratized ownership. Local governments often operate utility companies, help build telecommunications and internet infrastructure, and invest in mass transit. Increasingly, city governments have turned to these enterprises to promote local jobs and economic stability.

Land trusts are a third form. Essentially nonprofit corporations, they own housing and other property in ways that prevent destructive gentrification and support low-income housing. In 2012, 255 community land trusts were operating in forty-five states and the District of Columbia.

SG: You mentioned earlier that in the wake of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube collapse, there are a great many worker-owned companies in Ohio. Can you describe one of them?

GA: In Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood—which is a poor, mostly black neighborhood with high unemployment and an average income of about $20,000—there exists a complex of worker owned companies called the Evergreen Cooperatives.

Evergreen is not a collection of small co-ops; these are significant scale companies linked together with a nonprofit community corporation, and they employ many local people. The largest urban greenhouse in the United States, Green City Growers Cooperative, is one of the companies in the complex, and it’s capable of producing 3 million heads of lettuce a year, plus other greens. There’s also Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which is an industrial scale laundry serving hospitals and nursing homes in the area; they’re housed in a LEED-certified building and use about a third of the heat and a third of the water of ordinary laundries. And there’s a solar installation company, Evergreen Energy Solutions, which employs men and women from inner-city Cleveland and recently installed a forty-two-kilowatt solar unit on the roof of the Cleveland Clinic.

But what makes this complex particularly interesting is the way it’s anchored to its community: In the middle of this very poor neighborhood, there are two major hospitals. The Cleveland Clinic is one; University Hospitals, the other one, is attached to Case Western Reserve University. Together, those institutions purchase about $3 billion—that’s billion with a b—in goods and services a year, which, until recently, were purchased almost entirely outside the community. Now, though, they’ve begun to direct some of that purchasing power at this complex of cooperatives.

In this model, those big, quasi-public institutions are called “anchor institutions.” Unlike major corporations, they don’t get up and leave; they’re anchored to their neighborhoods, and they drive the local economy.

SG: Surely, though, those anchor institutions are looking to purchase goods and services at a low price. What’s to prevent a corporation—like Walmart—from moving to the edge of town and undercutting the local cooperatives by selling the same stuff for less? In other words, how can a cooperative economy survive the mainstream market economy?

GA: Well, in addition to their relationships with anchor institutions, some co-ops are beginning to buy from each other in order to widen and stabilize their markets. For instance, I’ve just been down to Texas, where there’s work being done to build a system of co-ops that buy from other co-ops, which in turn sell to regional public school systems. In general, as these co-op complexes group together, and get more sophisticated, they also become better able to withstand pressure from the market economy.

A stable market also means that growth isn’t a requirement, which is important in terms of environmental sustainability. Usually, it’s fear of instability or being undercut that drives a firm’s desire to grow: if somebody else invests in a new machine that makes things a little bit cheaper than you can, you either invest and grow enough of your market to pay for the machine, or you’re out of business. What that means is companies eat each other up; the winning company displaces the losers, and the losers are thrown away.

SG: But isn’t some degree of competition between companies healthy?

GA: Absolutely—to a point. But community stability is important too. And the current economy isn’t providing it. Which has been disastrous for many reasons. For instance, Cleveland was once home to more Fortune 500 corporation headquarters than perhaps any city other than New York. Today, almost all of them are gone. The city’s population has gone from 900,000 to under 400,000, all because the economic decision making power was left to corporations, leaving the city vulnerable. It’s a wasteland now—we’ve thrown away the houses, schools, and local businesses for 500,000 people. Which comes with huge carbon costs. It’s even worse in Detroit, where a million people have been forced out. And people don’t disappear; they need houses and hospitals and schools someplace else.

All of this is very, very costly to people and places, which means that there is an incentive, if you do it the right way, to begin stabilizing these communities and their local economies.

SG: What’s going on in Cleveland seems to represent something more sophisticated than the traditional corner-store grocery co-op. These businesses are nurturing a set of ideas as well as providing products and services.

GA: That’s right. Taken together, these efforts are beginning to address one of the fundamental questions at the heart of our many crises, which is, who controls wealth?

Throughout history, controlling wealth is a big part of controlling politics and, as a result, making decisions about the future. And the richest four hundred people in America have more wealth than the bottom 180 million. So the efforts in cities like Cleveland to change patterns of wealth ownership at small and medium scales, local and regional scales, are very important in terms of building political power. They’re doing it at the neighborhood scale, through cooperative forms, and within an ecologically intelligent context.

In contrast to corporations, which have every interest in cutting costs wherever possible, locally rooted cooperative institutions are inherently responsible to people and place. They give local people a stake in the enterprise, which means that the health of the community comes first. Local people have good jobs, and the land, air, and water are treated with care.

SG: Why are these forms proliferating now? What’s driving the experimentation?

GA: In a word, pain. Many communities are simply not able to deal with their employment problems. In a city like Cleveland, or in any major city for that matter, the typical pattern for employment is, “Major corporation seeks major subsidies to come into the city, while attempting to avoid regulation wherever possible because it’s costly.” The city’s in a box, because it needs to provide jobs, and so it’s forced to cut corners and make a deal.

Communities need alternatives to these difficult confrontations with corporations. Without them, many are simply decaying, and unless they try something new, things are likely to get worse. And so we’re finding, all over the country, attempts to draw on the experience of cities like Cleveland and its experiment with worker-owned complexes.

SG: What are some examples of this kind of thing—the Cleveland model—at work elsewhere in the country?

GA: In Boulder, Colorado, there is a major city effort to take over a large electric utility, which up to this point has been run by a private energy corporation. It’s part of an effort to move away from polluting forms of energy and toward solar and other renewables. So far, the successes have been hard fought. Activists in Boulder realized corporate regulation was hopeless, so they’ve helped their city fight for ownership of the utility. They recently won by a large majority in a second referendum and, as a result, are continuing to move away from fossil fuels.

People in Boulder have recognized that attempting to regulate corporations while leaving ownership in their hands also leaves the power in the hands of that institution. But making their utility municipal—which is a form of democratization—gives decision-making power back to the community.

There are literally hundreds of experiments going on at different levels that point to changes in ownership as a way to build new institutions—institutions that emerge from a more locally minded set of values. The Cleveland model is proliferating all over the country—there’s an effort like it in Atlanta, three in the Washington DC area, one in Pittsburgh, one in Cincinnati, a new one in the Bronx. Most people don’t realize that 25 percent of American electricity is provided by municipal ownership or co-ops, and much of it in the traditionally conservative South.

SG: How many people and how much capital are involved in cooperative institutions?

GA: There are around 130 million Americans who are members of co ops. The credit union sector, which is part of the co op sector, has more or as much capital as any one of the big five New York banks. The nonprofit sector is about 10 percent of the economy. And you can add in employee stock ownership plans, municipal enterprise, and community land trusts.

At a slightly larger level, twenty states have introduced legislation to create publicly owned banks. The Bank of North Dakota, for example, which has been a state owned bank for about one hundred years, puts the public in control of investing, and has been very popular among residents.

All of this is part of a larger movement toward democratically controlled and owned pieces of the economy, which is slowly building new institutions and infusing them with a different culture, ethic, and environmental concern.

SG: If these activities manage to continue, and to keep growing, what’s next? Can some kind of critical mass be reached, at which point an alternative economic system presents itself to average Americans?

GA: We’re talking about building a foundation of ideas and culture, which can then begin to command political power. That’s what occurred during the time of the Progressive movement, the women’s movement, the populist movement, and the civil rights movement.

There’s also something very American about the bottom-up process at work here. It doesn’t look anything like the old, state-centric European model. It begins instead by asking, What can you do in your neighborhood? What can you do in your city? Can you build at the neighborhood, city, and state levels a whole culture of institutions that sets the terms of reference for the larger order system?

SG: What you’re describing reminds me in some ways of bioregionalism, the idea that human settlements and economies should be scaled according to distinct ecological regions.

GA: Yes, I think scale is a very important aspect of this. We tend not to remember how gigantic the United States is compared with other countries: you could take the whole of Germany and drop it into the state of Montana. It’s very hard to organize a democratic politics in a system of that scale. Large corporations can dominate the media and dominate the capital city, as we’ve seen.

So the logic does point toward a regional structure of some kind: New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Upper Midwest. Or the state of California, which is itself a giant region. In fact, debates about this took place in the 1930s among liberals, conservatives, and radicals. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, began as a regional body oriented around a river system.

Still, though, we’ve got to think at both small and large scales. For instance, in the future, if anybody still wants to fly an airplane to get across the continent, or take a large train, the work of building planes or trains will likely not be done in one neighborhood. That kind of work requires larger, more sophisticated institutions, and we should be thinking about those, too.

SG: Our country’s size, along with its concentration of political power, seems to inhibit progress on all sorts of issues, including climate change. Should we start small, then, and attempt to address that issue community by community, region by region?

GA: As you’ve probably noticed, my bias is always to start at the smallest scale possible. Ultimately, unless the culture changes from the bottom-up, in a direction favorable to the ecological and community-oriented values we’re talking about—and I think there is movement in that direction—nothing is going to change.

But in terms of climate change, we’ll eventually have to deal with the problem of the giant corporation, because it’s corporate power that’s warped the political system. As we’ve seen, it’s all but impossible to regulate greenhouse gas emissions: corporations make the argument, particularly as the economy worsens, that they can’t sustain the cost of regulation. And so politics fail in this respect; emissions continue to expand.

It’s interesting to note that the economists at the Chicago School of Economics looked at the principle underlying this problem during the 1930s and 40s. The argument was made by the same people who taught Milton Friedman—the famously conservative economist—that in a free market, the power of the giant corporation is simply overwhelming. They are so powerful that they actually distort the market and trample competition. Remember, these were conservatives!

Later economists from the same school of thought argued that if you try to regulate, the large corporations will take over the regulators, because the corporations are more powerful than they are. And, going one step further than they did, we now know that even if the corporations are broken up via antitrust laws, they’ll simply regroup under another name, the big fish will eat the little fish, and pretty soon you’ll be back in the same place—that’s what happened with AT&T and with Standard Oil.

So these economists faced the dilemma directly: If you can’t regulate corporations because they’ll overpower the regulators, and if you can’t break them up, it was argued that the only option left is to make them into public corporations. It’s hard to call Milton Friedman’s teachers socialists, but in fact, that’s what some of them concluded.

In terms of climate change, where corporate power is a primary obstacle to meaningful change, I think we need to face the same answer—return the power concentrated in corporations to communities via public ownership. To get there, we need to build a culture that is less frightened of these ideas, a culture in which people experience, in their own lives, co ops, land trusts, municipal utilities—local, direct, participatory democracy.

SG: Is what you’re describing—the democratization of wealth, beginning at the community level—a kind of socialism? That word, of course, is so loaded these days.

GA: Well, it certainly wouldn’t be accurate to say that coops in their current form—democratically owned economic institutions—are socialist entities. But a municipal utility might be called “socialist.” A neighborhood land trust owned by the neighborhood or controlled by a city could be called “socialist.”

So, yes, that charge can be leveled, but the key difference between what I’m describing and what most people think of as socialism is that, with socialism, ownership of wealth and power is traditionally concentrated within the state and its national government. The vision that’s emerging in these experiments around the country is anathema to that. It begins in neighborhoods and communities, in cities and states. It’s about decentralizing power, changing the flow of power to localities rather than to the center.

But I think the old worries about socialist rhetoric come out of the Cold War. The people under thirty who are going to build the next politics over the next three decades are looking for answers; I don’t think they’re much concerned about that old rhetoric. What’s most important is that the answers be practical. That’s what we’re finding. For instance, in Cleveland, the worker-owned complex is giving people jobs and a stake in the future of their communities.

Even conservatives have turned out to be supportive of these local experiments. People forget this, but Ronald Reagan, for instance, was a great proponent of worker-owned companies and is publicly on the record as believing they’ll be an important part of our future.

SG: In your writing and speaking you’ve used the term “evolutionary reconstruction” to describe the work of the next several decades. What do you mean?

GA: What I’m talking about is the reconstruction of a culture of community in this country. Neither simple reform of old institutions nor “revolution.” And that’s a project that depends not only on local-level work, but also on institution building and long-term cultural change. It’s not just about climate change or any other issue; it’s about re-conceiving ourselves as people who care about the country and want to move it in a different direction. I think younger people get that and understand it instinctively.

Through all of this, we should remember to think of ourselves as historical actors. We are facing systemic problems, like climate change, that are historic in scale. And you don’t change systems without thinking in terms of decades. Remember, big shifts happen all the time in world history: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, even the modern environmental movement. But all of these things were thirty or forty years in development before they exploded. That’s true of the civil rights movement: there were people in the 1930s and ’40s whose names we’ve never heard of who were developing a long-term vision that made possible what happened in the 1960s. Without that kind of a vision, there is no base for a larger change.

Developing a democratically oriented alternative to capitalism can’t be done overnight. This work requires a different sense of time and a deep sense of commitment—the bargaining chips are decades of our lives. But the shifts are already happening in places like Cleveland and Boulder. What we’re seeing is the prehistory, possibly, of the next great change, in which a movement is built from the grassroots that becomes the foundation of a new era.

This article first appeared at Orion Magazine under the title “The Cooperative Economy.” You can enjoy future Orion articles by signing up to the magazine’s free trial subscription program.

Scott Gast is an editor at Orion Magazine. 

GLENN GREENWALD ON PRIVACY

Glenn Greenwald: ‘What I Tell People Who Say They Don’t Care About Their Privacy’

“Those people don’t believe what they’re saying,” the civil liberties-focused journalist says.

Since he obtained and published Edward Snowden’s leaked National Security Agency documents a little more than a year ago, journalist Glenn Greenwald said people have told him over and over that government surveillance does not concern them.

“Those people don’t believe what they’re saying,” he told a sold-out audience last week at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.

To illustrate this, every time someone would come up to Greenwald and say they didn’t mind people knowing what they were doing because they had nothing to hide, he would proceed with the same two steps: first, by giving them his email address and then by asking them to send him all their email and social media passwords — just so he could have a look.

“I’ve not had one single person send me them,” he said, as the room swelled with laughter. “And I check my email box constantly!”

The humorous anecdote, Greenwald said, exemplifies how people instinctively understand how privacy is vital to who we are. Just as much as we need to be social, we need a place where we can go to learn and think without others passing judgment on us.

“Privacy is embedded in what it means to be human and always has been across time periods and across cultures,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald recalled prominent figures who have tried to distance themselves from this fundamental need. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said in an interview in 2009, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” But four years before, Schmidt blacklisted CNET after it published an article on privacy concerns that listed where he lives, his salary, his political contributions, and his hobbies — all obtained from a 30-minute Google search.

Another privacy hypocrite Greenwald mentioned is Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein has been a major supporter of the NSA program, and has maintained it’s “not a surveillance program,” but rather a collection of lists of data. And while Greenwald said the program does regularly spy on people by listening to their phone calls or reading their emails, he said lists of your conversations  — perhaps with a self-help hotline or medical clinic — are just as insidious. After all, he said, Feinstein never responded to a campaign calling on her to publish a list of all the people she emailed and called on a given day.

“Somebody collecting the list of all the people with whom you’re communicating will know an enormous amount about your most invasive and intimate realm,” he said. “Oftentimes even more than they’ll learn if they’re listening to your telephone calls, which could be cryptic, or your email communications which could be quite stunted.”

Greenwald then listed three well-known media figures who have also claimed that they weren’t worried about being targets of surveillance: MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, Washington Postcolumnist Ruth Marcus and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker.

“I started thinking about what those people have in common,” Greenwald said, adding that he realized they all more or less defend the government in their reporting. But if you go into American Muslim communities, or the Occupy movement, or groups who challenge the status quo, he said, you’ll find countless people afraid of being targeted.

In addition, this notion implies that if you don’t challenge the government, you won’t have to worry about being spied on. But “the true measure of how free a society is,” Greenwald said, “is how it treats its dissidents.”

He added, “We should not be comfortable or content in a society where the only way to remain free of surveillance and oppression is if we make ourselves unthreatening and passive and compliant as possible.”

The discontent with the way society operates is starting to ignite change. While the NSA has not closed up shop, because, as Greenwald said, a government isn’t going to limit its own power, there’s no reason to be pessimistic. Greenwald pointed to the countries worldwide that are angered by what the United States is doing and are pushing back. In addition, tech giants like Google and Facebook, which enthusiastically assist the NSA, are threatened by their bottom line, as people can refuse their services and seek other developing platforms that don’t put their privacy up for sale.

Ultimately, the lesson of Snowden’s actions signifies that people can spark change. After all, Greenwald said, Snowden was a 29-year-old high school dropout who grew up in a working-class family.

“And yet, through nothing more than a pure act of a conscience, a choice to be fearless in the face of injustice, Edward Snowden literally changed the world,” Greenwald told the audience. “I’ve come infected by that courage.… All of this should be a personal antidote to the temptation of defeatism.”

Glenn Greenwald will be speaking in other cities in the upcoming week about the NSA, privacy, and his new bookNo Place to Hide.Click here for more info.