Saturday, February 22, 2020

Why Biden is Down and Sanders is Up

A theory:

A year ago, Biden was polling nationally in first place. But a significant amount of his support was coming from people who supported him because of a belief in his “electability.” As soon as the myth of Biden’s electability was punctured, the bubble burst, and Biden’s polling numbers collapsed.

Sanders is the opposite phenomenon. For substantive reasons, a lot of people wanted to support Sanders, but hesitated because they were afraid he wasn’t sufficiently electable. And as Sanders began to raise unprecedented amounts of money from small-dollar donations, rise in the polls, perform strongly in debates, and win the popular vote in Iowa and then in New Hampshire, people who previously doubted his electability began to support him.

If I’m right about this phenomenon, Sanders is only at the beginning of a virtuous cycle. His massive win in Nevada—despite all establishment attempts to stop him—is going to draw even more supporters who had previously hesitated because of electability concerns. And as electability concerns are increasingly replaced by a belief that “Sanders could actually win this,” and as “Sanders could actually win this” is replaced by “Sanders is going to win this,” he is going to become unstoppable, no matter how much the Democratic establishment and the establishment media throws at him.

Of course I could be wrong; having watched innumerable television “experts” humiliate themselves prognosticating, it’s best to be humble about how much one might be missing.

But at this point, this is how I see it.

By the way, I got some of the idea for this post by a fascinating business book I read years ago—Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers—about how a new technology first attracts early adopters before crossing over to mass-market appeal.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Eminent Monsters

Last night I attended a screening of the documentary Eminent Monsters: A Manual for Modern Torture. This is a horrifying account of how various western psychologists devised the “mind-control” techniques of MKUltra, and how those techniques were then deployed against the “Hooded Men” in the UK, and revived yet again in America’s torture of prisoners at Guantanamo.

I’ve been writing about torture for 16 years. My initial attempt to grapple with the issue was, I realize now, emotional and ignorant. What I’ve learned since then is that the impulse to torture is a product of emotional urges: the rush of utter dominance over another human being; the satisfaction of instilling fear into a population; the comfort of a talisman. It’s also an outstanding way to produce false confessions. And because we humans are so superbly designed to provide intellectual rationalizations for actions that are in fact driven by emotion, we invent fantasy scenarios like “ticking time bombs” to explain actions we could never honestly justify.

Consider these quotes:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality.
  —Reinhold Neibuhr

From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence—and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.
  —Gloria Steinem

What makes torture eternally tempting isn’t that it “works.” It’s that humans are drawn to it for emotional reasons, and are extraordinarily adept at rationalizing.

(For more, consider the long and horrifying history of unwitting human experimentation in America. This isn’t a topic on any school curriculum I’m aware of. Which in one sense is unsurprising, because what society wants to look in the mirror and see something so hideous staring back? But which in another sense is both tragic and dangerous, because to pretend that atrocities are a product of culture and not of human nature—that is, to pretend that we good people could of course could never do such thingsis the best way to guarantee their return.)

Which is why President Reagan’s signing of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment—and the Senate’s ratification, which by Article VI of the Constitution made the UNCAT the law of the land in America—was such a remarkable achievement. The treaty is a triumph of logic and morality over powerful and ever-present base emotional impulses. It’s also why the bipartisan conversion of torture from a crime to be prosecuted to a policy choice to be argued about is such a setback.

In the face of that setback, I fear our last line of defense against a torture recrudescence is to try to raise consciousness by telling the truth about torture. Eminent Monsters is a worthy contribution in that fight.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Not long ago I wrote a blog post about how the best way to talk about socialism was to not talk about socialism. This Nathan Robinson article from Current Affairs is a good example. Rather than cheering for Socialism! or Capitalism! (words that, in my experience, are so charged in America that they tend to prevent rather than foster meaningful thought and discussion), it simply poses a question. Which is:

Why are publicly financed fire departments good, while publicly financed health insurance is bad?

Of course there may be excellent reasons for why one is good and the other is bad! But in my opinion, this is the right way to approach questions of policy. Declaring Socialism! and Capitalism! is about as substantively meaningful as cheering for your favorite football team.

So please…if you want to comment on this link, don
t offer definitions, dont shout Venezuela!…just try to consider how publicly financed fire departments and publicly financed health insurance might be similar, how they might be different, and what those similarities and differences might suggest for policy.

No society has ever, or will ever, be built on agreement about substantive conclusions. But there are better ways to reach disagreement, and worse ones. Ways that leave the disagreeing people respecting each other and open to further discussion. And ways that degenerate into pathological antagonism and tribal warfare.

I think the Robinson article is one of the better ways. Here’s hoping it will provide an example…and some inspiration, too.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Best Way to Talk About Socialism is to Not Talk About Socialism

Updated Below

Why do most discussions of socialism shed so much heat and so little light? Because they’re about socialism! A word that has been so demonized in America (just as the word capitalism has been deified) that it prevents thought and discussion, rather than encouraging it.

For the record, I should say that I myself am not a socialist. Nor am I a capitalist. And the same is true of America, and of every other country and system on earth. There’s no pure one or the other, and discussing the two concepts as though they’re some sort of Manichean binary either-or choice is at best a misleading and sterile approach to the topic.

May I propose something I think would be better?

Here are some things we have in America that are taxpayer-funded for everyone’s benefit and apparently not socialism:

1.  Roads and highways.
2.  K-12 education.
3.  Parks
4.  Police.
5.  Fire departments.
6.  The military.
7.  The postal service.
8.  Catastrophe planning and response (National Guard, FEMA, etc).

Do you see what I’m getting at? To use just one of the foregoing examples, I think a useful framework for discussion would be, “Why is public K-12 education not socialism, but public college education is socialism?” Or, to put it more broadly while avoiding scare words entirely, “Why is public K-12 education good, but public college education (which in any event already exists at the state level) is bad?”

I have my opinions about such matters, naturally, but I care less about my (or anyone else’s) conclusions than I do about using a proper framework. There might be excellent, defensible reasons to distinguish between the costs and benefits of public K-12 education and those of public college education. That’s a discussion worth having. But reflexively looking at the first as the embodiment of the American Capitalist Way and the latter as Evil Foreign Socialism! isn’t likely to lead anywhere productive.

The same applies to taxpayer-funded health insurance for everyone’s benefit. If Medicare and Medicaid are good, and if free healthcare to soldiers and veterans is good, and if free or subsidized health insurance for congresspeople is good, what is it about taxpayer-funded health insurance for everyone that would be different or bad?

FWIW, my ideal society would be one where no one has to fear being homeless, or being hungry, or of being bankrupted by a medical emergency. And where everyone would have equal access to decent public transportation and to the kind of education that would offer the best chance of stable employment. My personal ideal is an outgrowth of my view (which I grant could be wrong) of human nature—I think humans are adequately motivated by hope, and generally don’t also need to be motivated by fear.

Now it’s possible that my ideal society is some sort of fantasy socialist utopia. But before anyone dismisses it as such, may I ask: how is my ideal so different from what we already believe with regard to crime? That is, I think most Americans would agree that in an ideal society, no one would fear being victimized by crime. No one would be reluctant to leave the house, or visit a park, or walk down the street out of fear of being mugged or worse. And we devote public resources—police, the judicial system, etc—in the service of that goal.

So I think a productive framework to considering my ideal society would be, “How is creating a society where no one has to fear being homeless different from creating a society where no one has to fear being victimized by crime?”

There might be important differences—differences so significant that in the end, you might decide that public resources devoted to freedom from fear of crime are good while public resources devoted to freedom from fear of homelessness are bad. And that opinion, even though I would disagree with it, is okay with me. I just want us to be able to have a productive conversation.

Itinteresting to consider what prevents us from approaching things by asking, “How is this new thing similar to and different from what we already have,” and instead shutting down the whole inquiry by invoking scare words, instead.

I think some of it is just the innate human tendency to be comfortable with the familiar and to fear the new. This is anecdotal, but a few years ago when I read an article about how one day soon drones will deliver packages to our doorsteps, my first thought was, “That’s horrible, what’s going to happen when one of those things crashes into a pedestrian?” And then I laughed at myself, because I realized, “What happens when a FedEx truck crashes into a pedestrian?” As it turns out, there’s a whole body of law on the topic, called Agency Law, and whatever else Agency Law does, outlawing FedEx isn’t part of it.

Anyway, if you think I’m on to something here, give it a try. The next time someone says to you, “Socialism!”, see if you can elevate the conversation by avoiding fraught labels and just comparing and contrasting the new to the existing, instead. It’s been my experience that doing so can lead to some really interesting and satisfying conversations even with people who don’t agree with you. And best of all, at the end you can still disagree, while liking and respecting each other, too. Which, if we could manage it, might not be a bad thing for society as a whole.


This Nathan Robinson article from Current Affairsabout how publicly financed fire departments and publicly financed health insurance might be similar, how they might be different, and what those similarities and differences might suggest for policyis an outstanding example of how to approach the topic productively.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Phoniness and Electability

Updated Below

In September 2015—over a year before Trump was elected president—Rula Jebreal wrote what I think is still one of the most insightful takes ever on Trump’s appeal, comparing him to another rich demagogue, Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Given the current obsession with the electability of whichever Democrat will face off against Trump in the general election, Jebreals article is at least as worth reading now as it was at the time. But the gist: conmen like Berlusconi and Trump make their audience feel in on the joke. “We’re all liars and conmen,” the subtext goes; “the difference is, I’m honest about it!”

The reason Trump—who himself is such an obvious phony—is Kryptonite to other phonies is that subtext. “You can trust me because I’m letting you in on the joke—the other candidates are laughing at you, while I’m laughing with you!”

I recommend Adam Johnson on why so many electability discussions are nothing more than disguised ideological attacks (and from people with breathtakingly bad records on the topic). But it’s also true that electability matters, and if you’re factoring electability into your calculus of who to vote for, I think it’s important to consider the paradoxical withering effect Trump has on other phonies.

Of course I have my opinions about which Democratic candidates are more genuine and which are more phony. But it’s been my experience that as soon as specific politicians become the focus of a political conversation, the conversation’s heat-to-light ratio tends to worsen (in that regard, I regret that if you’re inclined to support Trump, you’ve probably already stopped reading)

That said, because so much support for Joe Biden has to do with notions of electability, I’m going to take a chance and say this:

No matter how much you might like Biden (and in many ways there is a lot to like, and even to admire), if you’re concerned about electability, I think you have to consider Biden’s long history of personal fabrications. Shaun King has compiled a list here, including video, and it’s devastating. On top of which, there’s also Biden’s attempt to rewrite his vote for, and support for, America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and his attempt to revise his long history of attempting to cut social security.

Again, I have my opinions about the 2003 Iraq invasion and about social security, but here the substance of such things isn’t my point. It’s the electability vulnerability of a candidate who is so breathtakingly dishonest about his involvement in themand the related vulnerability of any other candidate with a history of personal and political inconsistencies.

When I’m trying to decide on which candidate to support, I try to focus more on the person’s track record than on electability (though obviously the two topics overlap). But to the extent I’m considering who would be strongest against Trump and who would be weakest, I give a lot of weight to the question of which candidates are most genuine and which are most phony. We have plenty of evidence that other phonies dont do well against Trump. I think the more formidable matchup would be a candidate characterized by genuineness.


This Zephyr Teachout op-ed is related and worth considering.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Report: A Necessary Antidote to Torture Propaganda


Recently I watched Amazon Studios’s The Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns. It’s a superb dramatization of how Senator Dianne Feinstein’s staffer Daniel Jones spent five dogged years ferreting out the truth about the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, and provides an important corrective to Jack Bauer, Zero Dark Thirty, and other such pro-torture fantasy propaganda.

I’ve followed Americas descent into torture closely over the years and lobbied against it with Human Rights First, and in my opinion the movie did admirable work getting the facts right, and presenting them in the context of a gripping story. Given that this was a movie and not an essay, I don’t think Burns could have done much better. But I do think a few thoughts are worth noting as a postscript:

1.  Senator Feinstein’s reaction to the revelation that the CIA had hacked into her staff’s computers is best understood not as at attempt to thwart lawlessness, but as an attempt to protect the system the six-term senator is part of and identifies with.

2.  Then-President Obama’s “ban” on torture should be condemned, not praised. By treaty and federal implementing legislation, torture is illegal in America. A president has no more power to prohibit than to permit it, and purporting to do so has the insidious effect of converting torture from criminality into policy--as Obama’s “ban” has indeed done.

3.  To date, none of the architects of America’s torture regime has been prosecuted. It’s worth reflecting on what this failure means with regard our cherished myth that we are a nation under the rule of law and that no one is above the law. It’s worth reflecting on how even as America imprisons more people than any other country on earth, the worst punishment Americas torturers are likely to face will be a negative portrayal in movies like The Report.

4.  To date, the 6,700-page eponymous torture report of the title--The Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agencys Detention and Interrogation Program--has not been released for public review. Only a redacted summary is publicly available. And given the widespread acceptance that a “ban” and a desire to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” would prevent any torture recrudescence, it’s especially important that the full report see the light of day. As Daniel Jones himself notes in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

Still, five years after the release of the torture report’s executive summary, and with many of the details about the CIA program still restricted from public view, former CIA leaders continue to defend the torture program as appropriate and effective. Their influence is felt in movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” and at the International Spy Museum in Washington, where children can climb into a replica of the CIA’s smallest confinement box and hear a former CIA official promote the torture program as “successful,” one that “saved American lives.” This is unacceptable and indicates that declassifying the full torture report is necessary.

I hope The Report will foster greater understanding that torture is illegal, immoral, and counterproductive. For more on this topic, here are some posts Ive written over the years, sadly still relevant today.


Thanks to Geri Danton for linking to a great article about the weirdness of Jones saying, “If it’s going to come out, it has to come out the right way.” It may be that Jones really feels that way. But as I argued in a talk to the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, the notion that whistleblowing isn’t “right is logically and empirically incoherent.

Thanks to Wes V for linking to this great Intercepted podcast interview with Jones.

Finally, a friend emailed me to point out that its not just that Americas torturers havent been punished; many of them have actually prospered, for example with Gina Haspel being promoted to Director of Central Intelligence. A point ably made in the movie but I should have mentioned it myself.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 and Nuclear Annihilation

Below is a copy of a letter I sent today to the judge overseeing sentencing for the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of activists, several of them elderly, who in April 2018 entered the Kings Bay Trident nuclear missile submarine base in St. Mary’s, Georgia to protest the dangers of nuclear weapons. In October they were found guilty of various federal crimes. They now face up to a quarter century in prison; their sentencing is set for early in 2020.

If you’d like to send your own letter in support, you can learn how here.


November 26, 2019

Dear Judge Wood,

As a former CIA officer—these days a novelist, activist against torture, and patriotic American—I’m writing on behalf of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7.

I respect the law and I understand it’s your job to follow it. I would only ask that, to the extent possible, you consider how rare and valuable in America are citizens like the accused.

Our country spends almost a trillion dollars a year on the militarymore than the next seven countries combined, four of whom are our allies. Of this, approximately $626 million per year alone is dedicated to public relations. In addition, the Pentagon and various corporate news networks cooperate to promote scores of retired generals as television talking heads. Yet amid all this spending and marketing and information domination, you would be hard-pressed to ever hear how frequently mistakes and miscalculations have taken the world to within an eyeblink of nuclear Armageddon.

There are obvious and unique dangers inherent in fallible humans possessing weapons that, if ever used, will end human civilization and extinguish almost all human life. Yet the government devotes tremendous resources to preventing discussion of these dangers. In such an unequal contest, I believe that anyone with the conscience, courage, and conviction to engage in civil disobedience intended to increase awareness of how close we are tottering to the edge of a final abyss should be cherished and celebrated, not punished.

Thank you for considering these thoughts as you grapple with what would be just for the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, and best for America and the world.

Sincerely yours,

Barry Eisler