Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Republic vs Democracy and Other Drugs

The question of how much weight to give individual votes vs regional concerns is an important one on which reasonable people can differ. But the notion that America is either a democracy or a republic is irrelevant to that question (and to pretty much everything else). Worse, these labels, like so many others, while shedding virtually no light also shed a ton of heat.

Not asking for anyone to take my word for it. Just Google “America Democracy Republic” and see where it takes you.

A few examples:

“For all practical purposes, and in most contexts, ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ are synonyms. The big difference is that the first comes from Latin and the latter from Greek. To say that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, is like claiming to eat beef and pork but not cows and pigs.”

“To say that the United States is not a democracy is correct if democracy is defined in a way that no government on Earth, past or present, qualifies as one. It is as useful to say, ‘The Vietnam War wasn’t a war, because Congress didn’t declare war.’”

“I often hear people argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of ‘republic’ is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them’ — we are that. A common definition of ‘democracy’ is, ‘Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives’ — we are that, too.”

“If there’s substance behind ‘We’re a republic, not a democracy,’ it’s not as a description of American government. There’s really no difference, in the present, between a ‘republic’ and a ‘democracy’: Both connote systems of representation in which sovereignty and authority derive from the public at large.”

If the concern is over how much weight to give individual votes vs regional concerns, why not just talk about that?

There are tons of other topics poisoned by an addiction to nomenclature. For example, instead of a Manichean death match over capitalism vs socialism (as though there’s a single example of either/or anywhere on earth), why not discuss what services are best provided by the government, and what services are best left to the private sector? An important topic on which reasonable people can disagree, and probably one we could discuss with less shouting, if we could get past our love of labels.

So many labels shed more heat than light. I can’t decide if people are attached to them despite this, or because.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Red Pill

At a party this past Saturday, I got to talking to a couple people about politics. They asked for my recommendations on what they ought to be reading, so I followed up with an email. And because the thoughts in the email might be useful to others, I thought Id publish them here, as well.


Hi B&D, great talking the other night and I hope I didn’t rant too much…!

If you want to take the red pill, here’s what I’d recommend as a start:

1. Left/Right/Center. We’re constantly fed a framework of left/right/center. But how useful is that framework for understanding what’s going on in our society? I’d argue that powerful/disempowered; insider/outsider; 1%/99%; front-row/back-row (hat tip to Chris Arnade for that terminology); establishment (what we call in other countries “oligarchy, but thankfully we don’t have oligarchs, at worst we have only billionaires)/everyone else) is a far more accurate and useful framework.

You mentioned Axios, for example. Beyond the curious notion that a self-declared cross between The Economist and Twitter could on balance offer anything beneficial, what does the sites funding suggest about its ideology (hint: think corporate and establishment)? Not saying funding is necessarily dispositive (The Intercept, which I think is great, was founded by Pierre Omidyar, and does good work in bringing transparency to America’s powerful factions (we have factions, remember; only primitive, dark-skinned countries have tribes)). But I think it’s sensible to ponder what Axio’s (or anyone’s) funders, all of whom are presumably smart, sophisticated people, are hoping to get out of their investment.

Also note that Axios’s founders came out of Politico, the world’s premier media for insider baseball and vapid horserace coverage—what NYU media professor Jay Rosen calls “savvy” journalism. I’d argue that the “savvy” ideology is far more consequential in America than left/right. Certainly it’s more insidious. Listen to political conversations among citizens—how much do we discuss substance, such as “X program would be good or bad for society,” and how much have we been trained to focus on “Oh, X program was a smart/dumb move by Y candidate, it will fire up/disappoint the base, provide difficult/easy attacks for her opponents…”

But “savvy” is barely recognized as a journalistic style or means of political discourse, much less an ideology.

2. Bias. The notion of “bias” in media is bullshit and inherently propagandistic. Bias is just the bad word for worldview—that is, “worldview I don’t agree with.” But everyone has a worldview, so “X is biased” is a truism that conveys zero useful information. What we should be asking instead is, “Is this coverage coherent and defensible, is the journalist aware of and open about her biases, does she show her work?” Again, Jay Rosen, linked to above, is terrific on this.

More on the “bias” dodge in The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled. With some links to writers to follow if you’re curious.

3. American Violence Is Always A Force For Good. Of course we don’t call it “American violence.” We don’t even have wars anymore, with “military interventions” more the done thing. Here’s me trying to explain to a Martian why American violence is good and indeed exceptional (how could it not be, given American Exceptionalism? A phrase well worth pondering). I did my best, but I think the Martian was more persuasive.

I think it’s critical to remember that we’re all wired to cut ourselves (and, by extension, our in-groups) enormous slack. See, for example, the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is why Ken Burns could conclude that America’s war in Vietnam—where we killed as many as two million civilians and another million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters was a “tragedy,” like a hurricane or cancer or other act of God that isn’t subject to human policymaking and deliberate decisions. And why no western journalist would ever describe, say, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in similar terms.

But what should we say about a country that goes all the way to the other side of the world and kills three million people to spread its ideology (I know, I know, all our wars are about defending, never about spreading, only Putin spreads;)) if we didn’t know the country in question was us? Would we say, “Oh, they meant well, and sure, maybe mistakes were made, but only with good intentions, and when they kill three million people in pursuit of their geopolitical objectives, on balance they’re always a force for good, thank God for that country and we should absolutely trust them with thousands of nuclear weapons, because on balance we’re all safer because of those weapons…?”

(Especially when you consider that the country in question is the only one to have used nuclear weapons in anger, ever. And that’s leaving aside the long and terrifying history of nuclear mistakes and terrifying current vulnerabilities. But I digress.)

Or would we reserve that narrative exclusively for ourselves?

4. Chomsky. The ultimate red pill is Chomsky. Here’s a five-minute cartoon primer on his seminal book, Manufacturing Consent. Note the need for an external enemy, which by amazing coincidence, we always seem to have.

5. Democracy Now! The Chomsky video above is narrated by Amy Goodman of Democracy NowThis is a great general news program. It’s easy to understand DN as leftist media, but again, consider whether left/right is the most useful and accurate framework for understanding what DN is doing, or whether there is something more relevant and important about their priorities.

6. Socialism. I know, I know, the bogeyman! Almost literally, in the sense that the bogeyman doesn’t exist and was invented as a means of scaring powerless children into compliance. America is so massively a corporatist society (but how often do you hear about corporatism in establishment media?) that the notion of socialism as something we should fear actually happening here would be hilarious if the demonization of this word hadn’t been so effective at shutting down conversation about what programs the government can and should sensibly provide, and which are better left to the private sector. Instead, anything America’s oligarchy doesn’t want, it can just label with the fear word “Socialism!” and the conversation is over. In fact, politicians have traditionally been so afraid of being branded socialist that the conversation never even gets started.

Thank Bernie for changing that, BTW. :)

And remember, it’s worth considering “But how can we afford that?” is only asked of social programs, never of our endless wars and trillion-dollar annual war budget. Medical insurance for all? How can we afford that? Space Force? No questions even asked!

Why would that be? Where does it come from?

“We can’t afford X” simply means “X is not a priority.” The same as, “I don’t have time for X” means “X is not a priority.” We’ve all had relatives die of cancer. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether, if we diverted a bit of our annual near trillion-dollar war spending orgy—in which we spend more on the military than the next seven countries on earth, five of whom are our allies—to cancer research, whether it might have helped my mother. No way to know, of course. But it couldn’t have hurt.

Still, no matter how you cut it, there’s no way anyone can dispute that America cares more about maintaining a grotesquely bloated military than it does about curing cancer. And pretty much everything else. That’s not because we can’t afford those other things. It’s because we’ve decided spending money on war (oops, I meant to say defense!) is more important.

Anyway, given how effective America’s various power brokers have been in demonizing the S word, and given how marginalized the concept is in America, it stands to reason that an avowedly socialist magazine could be a useful antidote for the nonstop western self-congratulation and endless cheerleading for western wars (sorry, interventions) you’ll find in, say, The Economist. In this regard, I recommend Current Affairs.

The main thing is, whatever flavor of establishment media you might be consuming, you’re still consuming an establishment ideology. The Wall Street Journal isn’t a meaningful balance to the New York Times. Likewise MSNBC and Fox. If you want balance, you have to look beyond the obvious, which is what’s most readily available. And all we’re supposed to see.

A final thought:

As a species, we’re hardwired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. It follows that we would tend to consume news that comforts us by supporting background assumptions rather than news that discomforts us by calling those cherished assumptions into question. If I’m right about this, it follows that we should probably discount the comforting news, knowing our attraction to it is probably more a function of our internal emotional and psychological longings than of its inherent accuracy or utility as anything more than a kind of security blanket.

If you’re still reading, thank you for listening. And of course feel free to disregard. Theres always the blue pill, and in fairness it is much easier to swallow.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

If you read my books, you’ve heard of Gavin de Becker, because in my author notes I frequently cite his excellent book The Gift of Fear.

And if you read the news, you’ve heard of him because he’s working with Jeff Bezos in connection with the National Enquirer’s blackmail attempt.

This morning, I came across the following open letter de Becker wrote years ago to Hollywood talent agent Ari Emmanuel in connection with Mel Gibson’s infamous drunken tirade. It is so worthwhile—and so applicable to our toxic social media zeitgeist, in which the common default setting is to assume (and accuse) the worst of anyone we disagree with—that I’m posting it here. I hope it will be widely read. If you agree that it’s worth considering, please share it.


Dear Ari:

My comments here are not personal; I don’t know you, and Mel Gibson is not a client. Rather, I’m writing about ideas. I read your letter urging the industry to take action “by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him.” I expect you will one day forgive him—at that moment, you’ll see firsthand that words spoken in the heat of one situation don’t always retain their meaning over time.

About his alleged anti-Semitism, you wrote, “Now we know the truth.”

I haven’t found a lot of truth in drunken tirades. A drunken spouse spits out the words, “I never loved you anyway!” Is that truth? A drunken idiot boasts that he can “take on the whole goddamn bunch of you, you bastards, come on, I’ll kick your asses.” Is that truth?

Mel also reportedly said, “I’ll f*ck you” to the Sheriff’s deputy and that he’d spend all his money to get even with the deputy, but you probably don’t believe he’ll retain those ideas over time. You see, we pick and choose which words to invest with credibility. We project motives onto people based upon what their words mean to us, because it’s very difficult to reliably know what their words meant to them at the moment they were spoken (particularly when they’re out of their minds drunk). And we’ve all learned that words don’t reliably represent beliefs. Some people have probably learned that on phone calls with agents, Ari (“You should be getting double what your agents have been getting you; you’re my most important client; I’d never suggest anyone else for that part!”).

After thirty years of predicting intent through assessing words and context, I can tell you if we start taking the things people say when very drunk or very high or very angry as their enduring truth, we’re all going to have to reassess many relationships. Not long ago, one of my sons told me, “I hate you, Man!” I decided he didn’t mean it. Under the Ari-rule, my forgiveness came too easy.

I recognize there is also some history in this situation. People had already speculated on Mel’s views about Jews, so words he might choose could be clues to those views—as we’ve seen on the news. (Do the rhymes represent flippancy about anti-Semitism? No, but it’s hard to tell what’s in someone’s heart, isn’t it?) If one honors the larger context of Mel’s words playing into a preconception some people had, then one must also honor the smaller context: This was crap he said while very drunk, while being arrested, while scared, upset, out of his mind. Is anybody really able to enter that mind and identify “the truth” within all the raw humanness?

You wrote that “alcoholism does not excuse anti-Semitism,” which is obvious. Also true is that alcoholism cannot be used to prove anti-Semitism. You describe your position as “standing up against bigotry.” I suggest that your position is bigotry, bigotry about alcoholism. And more than that, it’s bigotry about humanness itself, for every one of us has said terrible things.

I’ve heard (sober) agents say things so hateful and unkind that even Deputy Mee wouldn’t jot them down. Speaking of stenography during drunk driving arrests, that’s happened all of one time in the history of the planet earth, because cops don’t give much credence to the crap drunk people say. Even the man who was most abused, Deputy Mee himself, even he says, “That stuff is booze talking.” And he says, “I don’t want to ruin his career,” while you advocate ending Mel’s career outright. A list of people who can’t work in this town based on what someone assumes they believe—didn’t Hollywood already suffer that experience?

Your standard would be very tough to apply fairly. If there were suddenly a public transcript of all the thoughts that ran through our heads on our worst days, we’d have trouble finding anyone we’d want to work with—including ourselves.

You refer to “tragically inflammatory statements”—as if Mel had said this stuff while addressing the U.N. You take words that were sputtered in the back of a police car and link them to “escalating tensions in the world.” That’s inflammatory. And the phrases in your letter are the ones long used to inflame: “standing up against; times in history; how much is at stake; cannot stand idly by.”

There is anti-Semitic violence in the world—and there is Mel Gibson. They are two very different things.

For God’s sake, Ari, Mel hasn’t said, “Forget about it!” He’s owned what he did, called it reprehensible, apologized, said he wants to understand the dark places those words came from, has gone into rehab, and hit his saddest rock-bottom—right in front of the whole world. He’s hardly getting away with anything.

When you do forgive Mel, you’ll be in the good company of many Jewish leaders, and if you wonder why so many have been willing to forgive him, consider that Jews, having been profoundly victimized by intolerance, know the value of tolerance.

We all have our prejudices, our bigotry, and our zealotry. It’s all in all of us. We’re built of the same ingredients, just different recipes. Accepting that truth can help us feel compassion for Mel and his family, right now when they need it. But I understand you’re still angry. I truly do. The whole thing will pass, and I’m sure you won’t be going through your client list identifying the ones who’ve said hateful things, abusive things, racist things—and asking the industry to stop working with them too.

You’re the one who boldly said “standing up against bigotry and racism is more important than money.” It’s a position that would be heroic—except for the hypocrisy. We all fall down. How quickly do we get up and make amends? That’s what endures.

—Gavin de Becker
Author of Bestselling Books about Violence and Words
Bar Mitzvah 1968, Graduated Hebrew School 1969
Never Been Really Drunk
Said Plenty of Regrettable Things When Sober

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Economist: War Is Peace

Two op-eds in this week’s Economist that are doubly interesting side by side. In one, the magazine claims that “America is not at war.” The other castigates Pakistan for impoverishing its people through military spending.

I guess one way of pretending that western military spending doesn’t impoverish westerners is to suggest the phenomenon exists only in exotic, faraway places like Pakistan. And another way is to pretend that America isn’t at war. Not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, not in Syria, not in Yemen, not in Africa or anywhere else.

I don’t think the term “fake news” has a favorable heat-to-light ratio. But if “America is not at war” isn’t fake news, it’s hard to imagine what would be.

If Pravda had written during the Russia’s war in Afghanistan that the country wasn’t at war, it’s a safe bet the Economist would have been quick to denounce the notion as Orwellian propaganda. What should we call it when the claim comes from a western publication?

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Killer Collective, Available Today!

A lot of people have been asking, so here's how to get The Killer Collective TODAY!

If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can sign up for free for Amazon First Reads. AFR gives you early access to The Killer Collective (and much more) all during this January, enabling you to download the Kindle version immediately for free and to order the hardback for one-day delivery at $9.99. Otherwise, the regular releasewith regular prices of $4.99 Kindle and $14.95 hardback—is February 1.

If you’re not a Prime member, you can still sign up for free for AFR, in which case you can download the Kindle version immediately for $1.99 and order the hardback for one-day delivery at $9.99. Again, otherwise, the regular release—with regular prices of $4.99 Kindle and $14.95 hardback—is February 1.

If you already preordered the Kindle version and you download it for free or for $1.99 this month, the preorder will be cancelled and you won't be charged. If you preordered the hardback and order the hardback this month at the reduced price, the preorder will be cancelled and you'll be charged only the reduced AFR price of $9.99.

The program is available in the US, the UK, and Australia. It's not yet available in Canada. Apologies for that; I don’t know why the lag for Canada.

If you were wondering... :)


When a joint FBI-Seattle Police investigation of an international child pornography ring gets too close to certain powerful people, sex-crimes detective Livia Lone becomes the target of a hit that barely goes awry—a hit that had been offered to John Rain, a retired specialist in “natural causes.”

Suspecting the FBI itself was behind the attack, Livia reaches out to former Marine sniper Dox. Together, they assemble an ad hoc group to identify and neutralize the threat. There's Rain. Rain’s estranged lover, Mossad agent and honeytrap specialist Delilah. And Black op soldiers Ben Treven and Daniel Larison, along with their former commander, SpecOps legend Colonel Scot “Hort” Horton.

Moving from Japan to Seattle to DC to Paris, the group fights a series of interlocking conspiracies, each edging closer and closer to the highest levels of the US government.

With uncertain loyalties, conflicting agendas, and smoldering romantic entanglements, these operators will have a hard time forming a team. But in a match as uneven as this one, a collective of killers might be even better.