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Amor Mundi: February 5th, 2017

Apocalyptic Thinking

The cover to Steve Bannon’s 2010 film, Generation Zero.

David Kaiser writes about his experience being interviewed by Steve Bannon for Bannon’s film Generation Zero, a documentary about the financial crisis. Kaiser is a historian who looks at the moments of crisis in American history, moments that can serve as transformational periods. Kaiser writes that Bannon’s own interpretation of the present crisis has a dangerous apocalyptic vision.
“My own interpretation of it is that the death of an old political, economic and social order creates an opportunity for any determined movement or leader to put a new vision in place. To use the most striking example, both the United States and Germany were in the midst of a terrible economic and political crisis in 1933. The United States turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal; Germany turned to Adolf Hitler and National Socialism…
Since at least 2000, in my opinion, the Republican Party has managed to seize and generally keep the initiative during our current crisis precisely because it is the revolutionary party of change, while the Democrats are essentially the party of the status quo. The Republican stance goes back, of course, to the early career of Newt Gingrich in the 1980s.”
Kaiser’s account of how Bannon framed the story of the financial crisis is fascinating and well worth reading. So too is his final warning.
“A second, more alarming, interaction did not show up in the film. Bannon had clearly thought a long time both about the domestic potential and the foreign policy implications of Strauss and Howe. More than once during our interview, he pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.
I did not agree, and said so. But, knowing that the history of international conflict was my own specialty, he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused. Apocalyptic rhetoric and apocalyptic thinking flourish during crisis periods. This represents perhaps the biggest danger of the Trump presidency, and one that will bear watching from all concerned citizens in the months and years ahead.”

Politically Incorrect

President Ronald Reagan greeting Trump at a White House reception in 1987

Roger L. Martin approaches the victory of Donald Trump as a business strategist. He argues that Trump won because of his unceasing rejection of political correctness—which set him apart from all other outsider candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson.

“When he entered the race, Trump had zero political experience and was reviled by the Republican establishment. The normal thing to do was to follow the path of a typical “outsider” candidate, accepting the boundaries of the category and attempting to be sufficiently distinctive within that category to overcome the outsider disadvantages. For example, see Bernie Sanders: “I am a Democrat, but I bring a much more compelling liberal view than my establishment opponent.” Or Ben Carson: “I am a Republican candidate, but as a successful surgeon, I bring a fresh perspective.” In fact, this was such expected behavior from Trump that during the primary the media largely covered him as a classic outsider candidate, even though he was doing something radically different.

What he was doing was creating with precise and relentless consistency an entirely new category in the minds of voters: the politically incorrect candidate. He has since monopolized that new category.

To establish the legitimacy of the category, he made a consistent and devilishly tautological argument: In the category of traditional presidential candidates, the politicians are all politically correct. When they get in power, they fail you. Hence you don’t want a leader in that category — you want one in a new category called politically incorrect presidential candidates. I have been a huge success in business by being politically incorrect. Therefore: political correctness = failure, and political incorrectness = success.

It doesn’t matter whether he consciously set out to pursue that strategy or whether it was the result of his personality and instincts. The outcome is the same in either case.

Trump used an approach to attract primary and general election voters that businesses use to attract customers. Customers create categorical boundaries in their minds – e.g., Chinese restaurants, sporty cars, blue jeans – and within those boundaries they are disproportionately inclined to choose the product that feels the most natural, familiar, and comfortable to them. Because the mind craves simplicity and consistency, the product that feels most comfortable tends to be the one with which people have a long and dependable experience. For example, someone’s favorite Chinese restaurant is their favorite because they have gone there the most often and know the people and the menu and the layout best. Former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley and I have termed this “cumulative advantage,” and it is an underappreciated way of attaining sustained leadership in a market.

It’s also why every time Trump acts politically incorrectly — which he often points out, in case anyone missed the fact that he was acting politically incorrectly — he demonstrates that he is in a different category from other politicians. And because he did it continually during the campaign, he helped voters find him increasingly comfortable and familiar. This is why he never apologizes for his political incorrectness: It would undermine his consistency and be a disaster for him.

When he was excoriated for doing extremely politically incorrect things, like criticizing John McCain for being a POW, lambasting a Gold Star family, mocking a reporter with a disability, maligning Megyn Kelly, repeatedly refusing to release his tax returns, or, more recently, causing international incidents with China and rebuffing intelligence briefings on Russian hacking, the politically correct thing to do would have been to apologize and attempt to retreat diplomatically from his faux pas. Nope. Instead of showing remorse, he has gone on the attack.

Apologizing would have tossed him back into the “traditional” category, where he would have been an ineffective player, like Carson or Sanders. Instead, political incorrectness piled on top of political incorrectness reinforces the fact that he is in a different category and makes him an ever more familiar member of that category.”


Demonstrators on the UC Berkeley campus on 02/01/17

Students in Berkeley protested and demanded that Milo Yianoppoulous not be allowed to speak on campus, after he was invited by a student group. This illiberalism fed a group of anarchists—black clad and masked—who violently broke windows, set fires, and prevented the speech. Styling themselves as anti-fascists, these hoodlums of course raise, the question, who are the fascists. DD. Guttenplan interviewed Milo Yianoppoulous in The Nation last year. Here is what he might have said if he’d been allowed to speak.

“For the last three decades, the left has been conflating culture with race. If you say you like a particular culture, they can call you a racist. I think the electorate is rejecting that on both the right and the left. This is, for me and I think the majority of the alt-right, a cultural and not a racial argument. There are some racial elements to it, some racial overtones, but this is primarily a cultural argument. The alt-right believes that Western culture is currently imperiled and that the elites on both sides of the political divide are not doing enough to protect it. In that analysis, I think they’re right. Whether that is from mass immigration from backward cultures into rich nations, whether it is, in my case, I care more about Islam. I don’t want it here.

I think the West is in decline and I would like to see that decline arrested as forcibly as possible by the people who lead us. I would like to see our civilization preserved. I think that kind of apocalyptic language would have sounded ridiculous 10 years ago, but with ISIS I don’t think it does. Syria is not that far away. And Orlando, 9/11, 7/7, this stuff is happening on our own shores. Munich, Nice, whatever the other one was. This stuff isn’t just over there now. It’s here, too, and we welcomed it in. Many people would like to see it expelled….

You object to people because of values, which is why Trump’s values test was so popular a few weeks ago. That’s exactly what his voters want. They don’t care about skin color. They want somebody to come over and believe in America. They want the kind of immigrants that came two, three generations ago who came to participate in the American dream, not the kind of immigrants that are coming now to destroy it.”

Freedom and Justice

Sam Dresser recalls the midcentury split between the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and the absurdist Albert Camus over the question of freedom:

“‘Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate,’ Camus wrote, while ‘absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom.’ The conflict between justice and freedom required constant re-balancing, political moderation, an acceptance and celebration of that which limits the most: our humanity. ‘To live and let live,’ he said, ‘in order to create what we are.’

Sartre read The Rebel with disgust. As far as he was concerned, it was possible to achieve perfect justice and freedom – that described the achievement of communism. Under capitalism, and in poverty, workers could not be free. Their options were unpalatable and inhumane: to work a pitiless and alienating job, or to die. But by removing the oppressors and broadly returning autonomy to the workers, communism allows each individual to live without material want, and therefore to choose how best they can realise themselves. This makes them free, and through this unbending equality, it is also just.

The problem is that, for Sartre and many others on the Left, communism required revolutionary violence to achieve because the existing order must be smashed. Not all leftists, of course, endorsed such violence. This division between hardline and moderate leftists – broadly, between communists and socialists – was nothing new. The 1930s and early ’40s, however, had seen the Left temporarily united against fascism. With the destruction of fascism, the rupture between hardline leftists willing to condone violence and moderates who condemned it returned. This split was made all the more dramatic by the practical disappearance of the Right and the ascendancy of the Soviet Union – which empowered hardliners throughout Europe, but raised disquieting questions for communists as the horrors of gulags, terror and show trials came to light. The question for every leftist of the postwar era was simple: which side are you on?”

The Rule of The Civil Servants

Philipp K. Howard has a provocative and counter-intuitive critique of the civil service, that will give pause to anyone who has ever pondered Arendt’s description of bureaucracy as “the rule of nobody.”

“Overhauling the civil service must be the cornerstone of any serious effort to fix broken government. Regulatory reform is otherwise impossible. What replaces red tape? People. Scrapping mindless rules requires empowering humans to take responsibility for results. Real choices—say, to focus environmental review on material impacts—can be practical again. Thick rule books could be replaced by pamphlets. But no one wants to give officials flexibility to use common sense unless they also can be held accountable when they are incompetent or mean-spirited.

Democracy requires an unbroken chain of accountability. Why don’t problems get fixed when a new president rolls into town? One reason is that civil servants keep doing things the way they always have. There’s an acronym for how they deal with incoming administrations: Webehwyg (pronounced WE-be-wig)—“We’ll be here when you’re gone.”

A historical halo hovers over the civil service because it replaced the spoils system, in which public jobs were rewarded to political hacks. As originally designed in the Pendleton Act of 1883, civil service was a system of neutral hiring. Reform leader George William Curtis believed that “if the front door were properly tended, the back door would take care of itself.” Originally civil service did not diminish the president’s power to manage or fire federal employees (other than barring demands for campaign contributions), because that was considered unconstitutional.

The slow dissipation of presidential power over subsequent decades is a story rich with irony. Designed to avoid capture by special interests, the civil service became a special interest of its own. First, public employees got Congress to legislate modest protections against termination. Then JFK, as payback for their support, signed an executive order allowing public unions to collectively bargain. The Supreme Court held that these legal protections made public jobs a property right protected by the Constitution’s Due Process Clause. Then Congress enshrined these protections in statute.

We’ve come full circle: Instead of guarding against public jobs as political property, civil service has become a property right of the employees themselves. Federal workers answer to no one.”

Everything Passed Over in Silence

William Dendis interviews Roger Berkowitz about how Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism can help make sense of our present moment.

“Written in 1951, the book traces the roots of totalitarianism in Europe, particularly in Germany and Russia, to the decay of the nation-state brought on by imperialism and the attendant rise of racism that allowed civilized Europeans to rationalize treating colonial peoples unjustly. Imperialism abroad and pan movements across continental Europe pitted the interests of investors and business, who needed to keep expanding to be viable, against the nationalists, who believed in the nation-state as a self-contained political unit based on a common culture and language. As the imperialists triumphed and the nation-state was weakened, the class system also began to unravel, as well as the interest-based political parties that represented those classes. The result was the birth of the “masses”— a sea of individuals with no strong political associations whose sense of identity had been shaken. This is the group from which the early totalitarian leaders drew support.

Berkowitz sees a parallel in the disruptive effects of imperialism then and globalization now.

“To not take seriously the fact that the entire working-class structure of this country is being threatened not only in their economic livelihood but in their sense of purpose and meaning is to ignore what’s going on,” he says.

During the fake news wave of 2016, topics the mainstream media didn’t cover were, for some readers deeply cynical about the objectivity or corruption of existing institutions, more likely to be believed. Arendt writes:

“Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered with corruption.”

Trump’s constant campaign refrain was “our leaders are stupid.” Arendt writes that the failure of traditional political parties to solve their problems left the masses with the “vague apprehension that…the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.””

Arendt is all over the news these days. Deutsche Welle has an article on Arendt featuring Roger Berkowitz talking about Trump as the leader of a movement. You can read Kathleen Jones on Arendt’s importance in the classroom. And you can listen to a BBC Program that aired this week, “Arendt in Our time.”

Drug Violence

TRIAD CONNECTION. President Rodrigo R. Duterte shows a copy of a diagram showing the connection of high level drug syndicates operating in the country during a press conference at Malacañang on July 7, 2016. KING RODRIGUEZ/Presidential Photographers Division

James Fenton reports from the streets of Manila, where Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, drug users, and drug dealers is extracting a heavy cost in blood:

“There are two chief kinds of carnage taking place here, these wet Manila nights. There is the “buy-bust” operation, in which the targeted criminal attempts to buy some drugs, only to find that he is dealing with undercover police. He panics and reaches for a weapon, a pistol perhaps or a kind of homemade shotgun. Before he can use it (so the familiar script reads) the police shoot him dead. There have been around two thousand of these buy-bust killings since the war on drugs under President Rodrigo Duterte began at the start of July. The dead are both pushers and users. If you’re a user, Duterte’s wisdom has it, then you’re also a pusher. And even if you aren’t a pusher, the users of the drug in question, “shabu” or crystal meth, very soon forfeit their claims to humanity. They lose their souls. The only thing to do with them is kill them.

This is the horror topos. I heard it, without asking for it, on my first day here in the Philippines. The shabu user, deluded and inhuman, looks at his family and what he sees coming at him is a pack of wild beasts. He becomes frantic. It’s him or them, do or die. Don’t talk to us about the human rights of this kind of violent zombie. Get real. Kill him before he kills you.

A rival view: just as Valium was nicknamed “mother’s little helper” in the Rolling Stones’ (actually rather hypocritical) song, so shabu, in modest quantities, helps the poor man a little better to endure a difficult life, and in particular to work longer hours. We heard this at a wake, from the pregnant widow of a pedicab driver. He took shabu once a week on this kind of pretext. His wife, she told us, said to him: If you can do that and still support the children, that’s all right. The calculation depended on his ability to function as a breadwinner. But it was a miscalculation, for the husband fell victim to an EJK.”

Data Revolution

Cambridge Analytics Logo

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus tell the story of a British company, Cambridge Analytica, that was the behind both Donald Trump’s online election campaign and the Leave.EU campaign that led to the Brexit vote.

“Psychometrics, sometimes also called psychographics, focuses on measuring psychological traits, such as personality. In the 1980s, two teams of psychologists developed a model that sought to assess human beings based on five personality traits, known as the “Big Five.” These are: openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), extroversion (how sociable are you?), agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative you are?) and neuroticism (are you easily upset?). Based on these dimensions—they are also known as OCEAN, an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism—we can make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person in front of us. This includes their needs and fears, and how they are likely to behave. The “Big Five” has become the standard technique of psychometrics. But for a long time, the problem with this approach was data collection, because it involved filling out a complicated, highly personal questionnaire. Then came the Internet. And Facebook. And Kosinski.

Michal Kosinski was a student in Warsaw when his life took a new direction in 2008. He was accepted by Cambridge University to do his PhD at the Psychometrics Centre, one of the oldest institutions of this kind worldwide. Kosinski joined fellow student David Stillwell (now a lecturer at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge) about a year after Stillwell had launched a little Facebook application in the days when the platform had not yet become the behemoth it is today. Their MyPersonality app enabled users to fill out different psychometric questionnaires, including a handful of psychological questions from the Big Five personality questionnaire (“I panic easily,” “I contradict others”). Based on the evaluation, users received a “personality profile”—individual Big Five values—and could opt-in to share their Facebook profile data with the researchers…

The approach that Kosinski and his colleagues developed over the next few years was actually quite simple. First, they provided test subjects with a questionnaire in the form of an online quiz. From their responses, the psychologists calculated the personal Big Five values of respondents. Kosinski’s team then compared the results with all sorts of other online data from the subjects: what they “liked,” shared or posted on Facebook, or what gender, age, place of residence they specified, for example. This enabled the researchers to connect the dots and make correlations.

Remarkably reliable deductions could be drawn from simple online actions. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were slightly more likely to be gay; one of the best indicators for heterosexuality was “liking” Wu-Tang Clan. Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts. While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate. “

Posted on 5 February 2017 | 9:00 am

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