Thoughts on Independence Day, 2018

Thoughts on Independence Day, 2018

On this Fourth of July, 2018, a brief check-in on the state of our nation’s independence seems in order:

  • In March of 2016, Paul Manafort became Chairman of the Trump Campaign. Manafort’s most recent job was working for pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.
  • In May of 2016, a foreign policy advisor to the Trump Campaign boasted in a London bar to an Australian diplomat that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
  • In June of 2016, a respected former British intelligence agent, serving as a subcontractor doing opposition research on Donald Trump (which was ultimately paid for by the Clinton Campaign), uncovered an unthinkable plot by Russia to help elect Donald Trump, who the Kremlin believed they could blackmail. Out of a sense of responsibility to a British ally, he reported his findings to the FBI.
  • After hacked Clinton e-mails were made public leading into the July 2016 Democratic Convention, Australia told U.S. intelligence of the conversation between George Popadopoulos and their diplomat.
  • In 2017, the FBI, CIA, and NSA determined that Russia had in fact interfered in the 2016 election, with the goals of sowing discord and chaos, dismantling western alliances, and electing Donald Trump President.
  • On April 27, 2018, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee concluded its investigation into Trump-Russia, asserting that there was no evidence of cooperation between the Trump Campaign and the Kremlin. Democrats on the Committee issued a rebuttal, stating that no such conclusion could be drawn and that the committee leadership had avoided pursuing key evidence and witnesses.
  • Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, led by Devin Nunes, are continuing to investigate the possibility of inappropriate or illegal behavior by the agencies investigating Trump-Russia.
  • The President has acted in ways that alienate our western allies, has urged that Russia be brought back into the G7, and has expressed little more than a lukewarm willingness to continue in NATO (after previously declaring it obsolete). The only time that NATO has taken military action was to help the U.S. after we were attacked on 9/11.
  • To date, President Trump has done little to solicit, require or authorize actions that could prevent Russia from meddling in the 2018 midterm elections.
  • As recently as June 28, 2018, the President tweeted “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! “
  • President Trump regularly calls the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller a “witch hunt.” In a little over a year, the investigation has produced five guilty pleas and 17 indictments, including Paul Manafort.
  • Yesterday, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee announced its agreement with U.S. intelligence that Russia did interfere in the 2016 to help elect Donald Trump.
  • Fox News, Alex Jones, and numerous other right wing news sources use their freedom of speech/freedom of the press to put out a daily diet of “alternative facts” in which the President can do no wrong, and in which the FBI, the U.S. intelligence community, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are part of a “deep state” conspiracy to destroy the President – and along with him all hope of an American government that truly serves the people.
  • Our nation is deeply divided and misinformation is rampant.
  • Currently, seven Senators from the Appropriations Committee (responsible for allocating tax dollars to U.S. government agencies and departments) and one House Appropriations Committee member – all Republicans – are in Moscow. No Democrats have been invited. The extent to which these legislators have addressed election meddling has been a brief, passing, and milktoast “one should not interfere in elections.”
  • On July 16, 2018, President Trump will meet alone with Vladimir Putin.

Today, we Americans celebrate our independence.

– rob rünt

America’s Cult Culture

America’s Cult Culture

Cults absolutely fascinate me: Scientology, the Manson family, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Zendik Farm, Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, Warren Jeffs, Heaven’s Gate. Part of the draw is marveling at the wacked out belief systems and blind loyalty, and part of it is a lingering question in the back of my mind: could I ever be susceptible to something like that? I have thrown myself passionately into causes and felt a strong loyalty to charismatic individuals. What separated those periods in my life from the kind of personality capable of joining a cult has, in retrospect, at times seemed like a very thin line.

Things that cults tend to have in common include:

  • Passionate and unquestioning loyalty to the leader
  • The leader’s words and beliefs are seen as the absolute truth, even when evidence is presented to the contrary
  • Doubt or dissent are discouraged
  • Members are isolated: communications with friends and family who might raise questions about the new beliefs are ended or severely limited
  • Members have a sense of superiority over nonmembers and outsiders, often viewing them through an us-versus-them filter
  • Leadership is unaccountable
  • The cult’s goals and beliefs can be used to justify actions and events that members would otherwise see as unacceptable or unethical

Looking from the outside at the bizarre beliefs and practices of a cult, it can be easy to dismiss cult members as dumb, gullible, crazy, or weak in character. Yet many intelligent, well-educated, reasonable people join cults. What would cause an otherwise sane person to come under the sway of something so illogical?

Nearly every human being is motivated by a desire for belonging, significance, and meaning. A cult fills those needs, and provides something else that can be intoxicating for many: a sense of moral, spiritual or intellectual superiority. Cult members believe that they are privy to a level of understanding and truth that the rest of the world is oblivious to. They are special. And challenges to that truth are by extension challenges to their specialness. When self-esteem is low, such challenges can feel deeply threatening and cause cult members to double down on the beliefs that have given them such a self-satisfying feeling of being special.

American politics has evolved into something that powerfully and dangerously combines many traits of the cult mentality – on both sides, but particularly for Trump supporters. In a recent CNN interview, a very articulate entrepreneur stated emphatically that if Jesus Christ came down from the cross and told him that the President had colluded with the Russians, he wouldn’t believe it unless Donald Trump verified that it was true. While this is an extreme example, Trump’s “I could shoot someone on 5th Avenue” statement is not far off base for many of his supporters.

The information age promised to enrich our minds, offering us whole worlds of knowledge and ideas previously inaccessible or difficult to access. Instead, what we have ended up with is a country divided into factions, each of which has largely chosen for itself one “world,” where they stay firmly cloistered within their own silo of information and ideas. Cable news shows, talk radio shows, blogs, social media connections, and personal connections can all be selected to provide daily tailored reinforcement for the ideas and facts that we already want to believe – and deselected to shut out contrary views and information. Spiked by the interpersonal animosity towards differing views that intensified during the 2016 election, many of us have evolved the same sort of self-selected isolation from “outsiders” (i.e., differing views) that takes place in a cult, but on a mass scale, and in a context that feels like we are simply continuing about our normal lives.

That isolation and us-versus-them feeling is bolstered by a smug sense of superiority. Many who oppose Trump look down their noses at Trump supporters as ignorant, racist, hypocritically possessing a warped and selective moral compass, willfully blind to the dangerousness, corruption and self-centered motivations of the President, and easily duped by a compulsively lying charlatan. Trump supporters feel a sense of snickering superiority to those who oppose the President, seeing them as completely disconnected from any meaningful awareness of the hardships endured by rural and working class Americans, willfully blind to the deep systemic flaws that are crushing the American dream for so many, gullibly guzzling fake news from the mainstream media, and hypocritically preaching love and tolerance in the same breath as they hate and shun those who dare not buy into every nuance of their increasingly rigid and narrow liberal ideology. Both worldviews nurture an uncompromising sense of being “better than the other side” – and a growing belief in an inferior, less-than-human mass of “others” living in the same country.

We are in the midst of a perfect storm for something potentially very frightening in America: a powerful, nuclear-armed nation technologically wired for totalitarianism as never before, with a weak-kneed political class of corporate sycophants and a dimly recalled set of Constitutional rights, checks and balances being the only things standing in the way of losing our democracy entirely. Our charismatic leader is seen by his followers as irrefutably having “the truth,” and his reckless, dangerous and impulsive behavior is met with an uneasy shrug from a timid Congress, rather than being met with any real accountability. His supporters seem willing to rationalize anything that he says or does, even if it clearly and directly conflicts with values that they claim to hold dear. The President hardens their faith in him by discounting any uncomfortable facts as “fake news.” Relatives and long-time friends are disconnecting socially and online in favor of those whose beliefs are more in line with their own. Large segments of the population now consider themselves superior to the out-of-touch “others.” And unlike all but the most insulated cults, most Americans immerse themselves daily  in multiple channels of information and ideas that all confirm the chosen reality they want to believe in. In short, many Americans are now part of the foundations of a massive, potent, and self-contained cult.

Lest those who oppose Trump start feeling too smug about all this, look no further than that smug feeling to realize that, under the right circumstances and with your own self-selected relationships and channels of information, you are just as susceptible to this mentality. You are not superior. You just didn’t fall for this particular dogma and misinformation.

There is no easy answer to the situation in which we find ourselves. Attitudes and beliefs have become largely solidified. Impeachment looks unlikely in the near term, and realistically would not address the conditions that have landed us here. A large number of bloggers and news outlets have found a reliable money stream from churning out appealing misinformation, selective facts and innuendo. And our culture and political system are so massive and clumsy as to be capable of changing course with the nimbleness and speed of an ocean liner.

But the path that we are on is unsustainable. If we continue to isolate from one another and dehumanize one another, it can lead nowhere good.

When a loved one is in a cult, one solution is “deprogramming” – kidnapping the cult member, holding them against their will, educating them about the techniques used by cults, encouraging and praising them when they engage in critical thinking, and working to restore an emotional connection with people from their past outside the cult. Given the large swath of the country under Trump’s spell, a deprogramming approach is not practical – much less ethical or legal.

What little solution that I can visualize to America’s current plight is this. Reconnect with people with whom you disagree. Listen to their concerns, their fears, their dreams, and try to understand what in their life experiences make that so important to them. Be humble. Assume the best of them as your fellow human beings, and avoid judging or shaming them, even as you hang on firmly to your values. Frequently and continuously seek out news sources that you know you’ll disagree with – not because they will give you facts, but because they will help you understand what is animating the passions of others, and because it will help you in your conversations with them. And remember that there are many flavors of Kool Aid out there: be sure that you aren’t drinking any yourself.

– rob rünt

The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump

The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump

 


The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump

It goes without saying that we are living in a crazy, unprecedented time in America right now. Trump’s surrogates, either as a result of internal Administration chaos and confusion, or as a deliberate strategy to test ideas and keep everyone off balance, have regularly conveyed positions of Trump’s that he later denies are his actual positions. Trump himself expresses positions or versions of reality and later denies having said them. And federal employees, likely to experience dramatic changes in their duties, missions, salaries or employment, are reasonably assuming the worst and reacting accordingly –at times contacting the press to spread the word. Everyone in the country (who is paying any attention) is on pins and needles.

In such an atmosphere, it is profoundly difficult for the news media to be completely certain that they are always getting the story right. They are expected to be first with a story, and bear the weight of being the first line of defense in guarding our democracy. We all need to be very critical, now more than ever, as we take in information – through social media, in conversations with friends and family, and even when we look to long-established reputable news sources. We need to thoroughly evaluate the legitimacy of any “facts” before we take them in as actionable, and we need to be prepared to continually watch for updates or changes to those facts based on better information.

This is the America in which we live today – a country where a DC pizza joint can find itself the center of a bizarre YouTube-fueled horror story about a Hillary Clinton-run pedophile ring, where a gunman ultimately shows up on the doorstep demanding to see the underground tunnels where the children are being imprisoned.

Fake news is not just the realm of the right wing. The left will begin to see more and more of it as well, and we must be wary of what we take in. Trump is erratic and seems emotionally unstable, and the craziest news about him can seem thoroughly believable. Many of us are deeply worried about what his Administration will mean for us, those we love,our country and the world, and are ready to believe the worst.

But running with misinformation is not what we need right now. We need vigilance and a deep passion for justice paired with strong critical-mindedness and clear-eyed sobriety. I am doing my best to double- and triple-check everything that I post and run it through the best filters of logic and reason that I can, but I will be guilty of posting incorrect information from time to time too. My apologies in advance for any times that I may get the story wrong.

At the very least, Snopes can be a good (though also imperfect) preliminary resource for fact-checking some of the most outrageous online information that you may come across.

– rob rünt


Kindling

Kindling

Kindling

In the early morning hours of February 27, 1933, a fire rapidly engulfed the German Parliament, known as the Reichstag. The building was gutted, and firefighters found several bundles of what they determined to be fuel sources. A young communist named Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested nearby and was sentenced to death for setting the fire.

Less than a month earlier, Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Historians widely credit the fire – and the resulting anti-communist and anti-immigrant hysteria that Hitler stirred in the German population – with Hitler’s ability to quickly consolidate power. The day after the fire, he convinced German President von Hindenburg to indefinitely enact an emergency decree suspending civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the ability to communicate by mail or phone without government intrusion. Historians still debate whether the Reichstag fire was actually set by Nazis or communists. It should also be noted that Hitler did not rise to power advocating the mass extermination of human beings.

In the United States, on September 11, 2001, 21 terrorists used commercial airlines to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with an additional plane crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. As the day wore on, news anchor Tom Brokaw, struggling for something new and profound to say after hours of nonstop coverage, called the attack “an act of war, nothing less than that” and likened it to Pearl Harbor. After the attack, America responded militarily against an entire country, Afghanistan, for a criminal terrorist act committed by 21 individuals.

President Bush later turned his attention to Iraq as a potential source of terrorism that needed to be responded to “preemptively,” warning that we could not “wait for the final proof – the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” So we went to war with Iraq over what most Americans now acknowledge (and what critical thinkers at the time recognized) as flimsy evidence.

In the meantime, Americans had quickly come to accept things previously unacceptable: government intrusions into electronic communications without judicial authorization, torture of suspects, indefinite detainment, secretly authorized executions by American drones overseas – which sometimes killed innocent people, and which continued even into the final months of the Obama Administration.

The number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 has been small, even with many of the above measures reversed under Obama.

Last week, in response to Federal Judge James Robart putting a temporary nationwide  hold on the executive order on immigration, Donald Trump tweeted “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” The Trump Administration then asked an appeals court for an emergency stay of Judge Robart’s order.

170212-16

What follows from this point is purely speculation and should be taken as such.

I call your attention to the language used above: “emergency” stay; “If something happens blame him.” Given how few terrorist attacks have happened in the past 15 years, such imminent crisis-oriented language from the White House sounds very dire (Full Article – New York Times). Terrorist attacks are horrible, but they also account for far fewer deaths in America than many other obscure causes (Source: START). And if the goal is to prevent needless American deaths, thousands of times more Americans die each year from smoking (Source: Center for Disease Control), which is preventable, or heart disease (Source: Center for Disease Control), which is also preventable.

Trump is surely aware of how September 11 caused many Americans – even many who had opposed President Bush – to get behind their President. As former news anchor Dan Rather said on September 17, 2001, “wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

And if Trump is not aware of the history of the Reichstag fire, his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon – former executive chair of the alt right/white nationalist news source Breitbart, a man with a thorough knowledge of history, and a man who Trump inadvertently signed an executive order appointing to his National Security Council – certainly is.

Vigilance, perspective and critical thinking are important tools for Americans right now.

– rob rünt

Note: After writing this piece, I discovered that economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece published on Friday indicating that he is of a similar opinion (Full Article – Daily KOS).


“We’re going to have to do things we never did before … that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy.”

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
November, 2015
(Full Article – Huffington Post)


 

Fake News

Fake News

Fake News

On December 4, 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch drove a couple hundred miles to a Washington DC pizza restaurant with an assault rifle and demanded to see the hidden underground tunnels where the children were being kept for a child sex ring with ties to Hillary Clinton and ritual Satanism. He fired three shots during the course of his attempt to “self-investigate,” but thankfully nobody was injured. The well-intentioned man had become enraged after familiarizing himself with a conspiracy theory perpetuated in numerous YouTube videos which all seemed to tell a similar story about the pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong.

The videos claimed that words like “pizza” and “cheese” were undeniable code words for a pedophile’s preferred kind of child. When the owners of the pizza joint wanted to hold a Clinton Campaign fundraiser, and asked Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta to prepare some of the food as a special feature for the event, Podesta’s response – revealed in leaked e-mails – was irrefutably incriminating evidence that he liked young boys: “I’ll do a pasta.”

Pizzagate was an example of “fake news” having unintended consequences. Fake news was a relatively new phenomenon that increasingly emerged during the 2016 Presidential Campaign. After the incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s disgraced National Security Advisor, tweeted his continued belief in the legitimacy of the conspiracy theory:

week-0008-170226-021

Fake news originated from numerous sources during the 2016 Campaign. Some, like the “pizzagate” story, began on alt-right chat rooms and took on a life of their own as different people added to them with YouTube videos laying out their own theories or new clear connections that they were finding to unrelated facts and information. Some fake news stories came from sketchy entrepreneurs in America and abroad who saw that outrageous news about Hillary and Trump was an easy guarantee of web clicks that they could use to sell advertising and make a buck. Some fake news was created and distributed for partisan purposes. And some appears to have been generated and spread with the blessing of the Kremlin in hopes of keeping Hillary Clinton from gaining the Presidency. Many of these stories got traction through social media – particularly Facebook and Twitter, as the incendiary but false headlines generated titillation and outrage and were shared widely.

For whatever one may think of Donald Trump, he is an absolute master at powerful branding – at bluntly redefining things and making those definitions stick through constant repetition. And he has now done that by redefining the term “fake news” and co-opting it for his own use.

Many have long since forgotten what “fake news” meant a whopping four months ago. Now the term is used to constantly call into question the legitimacy of any news story – from reputable journalists – in which undesirable information about the President is brought to the surface. The new definition successfully shifts attention away from blatant fabrications that had successfully helped Trump win the election, and redirects attention to cultivate an overblown degree of skepticism toward the mainstream news media.

Questioning the information we are getting right now is legitimate. The mainstream press see the wellbeing of the nation in general and the sanctity of the First Amendment in particular – their bread and butter – to be under threat, and many are accordingly a bit concerned. They are operating in a crazy-making new landscape in which different supposedly credible representatives of the Trump Administration give them conflicting information, the President is openly hostile toward the press and changes his firmly stated positions on issues sometimes in the course of a week, and rumors and hysteria are flying throughout the government and the nation in general. In such an atmosphere – combined with the already existing 24-hour news cycle where it is important to be first with a story – getting the story right is not always easy, but I believe that journalists are generally doing their best, and are not intentionally trying to present anything “fake.”

What is dangerous about the term “fake news” is the inherent subtext that comes with it: do not trust facts, do not trust your own eyes and ears, do not trust traditional news sources. The only source of information upon whom you can confidently and consistently rely is the President himself.

Demonization of the news media has been used successfully in the past by other authoritarian leaders to help achieve their ends: Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Putin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. The latter branded the media the “lügenpresse,” or “lying press.”

“We must challenge this statement and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people. This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”

William H. McRaven
Retired Four-Star Admiral/former Navy SEAL who organized and oversaw the operation that killed Osama bin Laden
Washington Post – 2/24/17

Is the press “the enemy of the American people,” as President Trump asserted last week? Absolutely not. At a time like this, it is essential that we support the news outlets that we consider the most credible and accurate, so that they can continue steadfastly doing their work that is so vital to our democracy, without the threat of being hamstrung or worse by a President who does not always like what the facts reveal about him.

– rob rünt