Posts Tagged ‘Geopolitics’

I often review my past posts when one receives a reader’s attention, sometimes adding tags and fixing typos, grammar, and broken links. One on my greatest hits (based on voting, not traffic) is Low Points in Education. It was among the first to tackle what I have since called our epistemological crisis, though I didn’t begin to use the epistemology tag until later. The crisis has caught up with a vengeance, though I can’t claim I’m the first to observe the problem. That dubious honor probably goes to Stephen Colbert, who coined the word truthiness in 2005. Now that alternative facts and fake news have entered the lingo as well (gaslighting has been revived), everyone has jumped on the bandwagon questioning the truthfulness or falsity behind anything coughed up in our media-saturated information environment. But as suggested in the first item discussed in Low Points in Education, what’s so important about truth?

It would be obvious and easy yet futile to argue in favor of high-fidelity appreciation of the world, even if only within the surprisingly narrow limits of human perception, cognition, and memory (all interrelated). Numerous fields of endeavor rely upon consensus reality derived from objectivity, measurement, reason, logic, and, dare I say it, facticity. Regrettably, human cognition doesn’t adhere any too closely to those ideals except when trained to value them. Well-educated folks have better acquaintance with such habits of mind; folks with formidable native intelligence can develop true authority, too. For the masses, however, those attributes are elusive, even for those who have partied through earned college degrees. Ironically worse, perhaps, are specialists,¬†experts, and overly analytical intellectuals who exhibit what the French call a d√©formation professionelle. Politicians, pundits, and journalists are chief among the deformed and distorted. Mounting challenges to establishing truth now destabilize even mundane matters of fact, and it doesn’t help that myriad high-profile provocateurs (including the Commander in Chief, to whom I will henceforth refer only as “45”) are constantly throwing out bones for journalists to chase like so many unnourishing rubber chew toys.

Let me suggest, then, that human cognition, or more generally the mind, is an ongoing balancing act, making adjustments to stay upright and sane. Like the routine balance one keeps during locomotion, shifting weight side to side continuously, falling a bit only to catch oneself, difficulty is not especially high. But with the foundation below one’s feet shaking furiously, so to speak, legs get wobbly and many end up (figuratively at least) ass over teakettle. Further, the mind is highly situational, contingent, and improvisational and is prone to notoriously faulty perception even before one gets to marketing, spin, and arrant lies promulgated by those intent on coopting or directing one’s thinking. Simply put, we’re not particularly inclined toward accuracy but instead operate within a wide margin of error. Accordingly, we’re quite strong at adapting to ever-changing circumstance.

That strength turns out to be our downfall. Indeed, rootless adjustment to changing narrative is now so grave that basic errors of attribution — which entities said and did what — make it impossible to distinguish allies from adversaries reliably. (Orwell captured this with his line from the novel 1984, “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.) Thus, on the back of a brazen propaganda campaign following 9/11, Iraq morphed from U.S. client state to rogue state demanding preemptive war. (Admittedly, the U.S. State Department had already lost control of its puppet despot, who in a foolish act of naked aggression tried to annex Kuwait, but that was a brief, earlier war quite unlike the undeclared one in which the U.S. has been mired for 16 years.) Even though Bush Administration lies have been unmasked and dispelled, many Americans continue to believe (incorrectly) that Iraq possessed WMDs and posed an existential threat to the U.S. The same type of confusion is arguably at work with respect to China, Russia, and Israel, which are mixed up in longstanding conflicts having significant U.S. involvement and provocation. Naturally, the default villain is always Them, never Us.

So we totter from moment to moment, reeling drunkenly from one breathtaking disclosure to the next, and are forced to reorient continuously in response to whatever the latest spin and spew happen to be. Some institutions retain the false sheen of respectability and authority, but for the most part, individuals are free to cherry-pick information and assemble their own truths, indulging along the way in conspiracy and muddle-headedness until at last almost no one can be reached anymore by logic and reason. This is our post-Postmodern world.

So the deed is done: the winning candidate has been duly delivered and solemnly sworn in as President of the United States. As I expected, he wasted no time and repaired to the Oval Office immediately after the inauguration (before the inaugural ball!) to sign an executive order aimed at the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare), presumably to “ease the burden” as the legislative branch gets underway repealing and replacing the ACA. My only surprise is that he didn’t have a stack of similar executive orders awaiting signature at the very first opportunity. Of course, the president had not held back in the weeks up to the inauguration from issuing intemperate statements, or for that matter, indulging in his favorite form of attack: tweet storms against his detractors (lots of those). The culmination (on the very short term at least — it’s still only the weekend) may well have been the inaugural address itself, where the president announced that American interests come first (when has that ever not been the case?), which is being interpreted by many around the globe as a declaration of preemptive war.

The convention with each new presidential administration is to focus on the first hundred days. Back in November 2016, just after the election, National Public Radio (NPR) fact-checked the outline for the first hundred days provided by the campaign at the end of October 2016. With history speeding by, it’s unclear what portion of those plans have survived. Time will tell, of course, and I don’t expect it will take long — surely nowhere near 100 days.

So what is the difference between fulfilling one’s destiny and meeting one’s fate? The latter has a rather unsavory character to it, like the implied curse of the granted genie’s wish. The former smells vaguely of success. Both have a distinctly tragic whiff of inevitability. Either way, this new president appears to be hurrying headlong to effect changes promised during his campaign. If any wisdom is to be gathered at this most unpredictable moment, perhaps it should be a line offered today by fellow blogger the South Roane Agrarian (which may have in turn been stolen from the British version of House of Cards): “Beware of old men in a hurry.”

Aside: I was going to call this post “Fools Rush In,” but I already have one with that title and the slight revision above seems more accurate, at least until the bandwagon fills up.

Addendum: Seems I was partially right. There was a stack of executive orders ready to sign. However, they’ve been metered out over the course of the week rather than dumped in the hours shortly after the inauguration. What sort of calculation is behind that is pure conjecture. I might point out, though, that attention is riveted on the new president and will never subside, so there is no need, as in television, to keep priming the pump.

I watched John Pilger’s excellent documentary film The War You Don’t See (2010), which deals with perpetual and immoral wars, obfuscations of the governments prosecuting them, and the journalistic media’s failure to question effectively the lies and justifications that got us into war and keeps us there. The documentary reminded me of The Fog of War (2003), Robert McNamara’s rueful rethinking of his activities as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (thus, the Vietnam War). Seems that lessons a normal, sane person might draw from experience at war fail to find their way into the minds of decision makers, who must somehow believe themselves to be masters of the universe with immense power at their disposal but are really just war criminals overseeing genocides. One telling detail from Pilger’s film is that civilian deaths (euphemistically retermed collateral damage in the Vietnam era) as a percentage of all deaths (including combatants) have increased from 10% (WWI) to 50% (WWII) to 70% (Vietnam) to 90% (Afghanistan and Iraq). That’s one of the reasons why I call them war criminals: we’re depopulating the theaters of war in which we operate.

After viewing the Pilger film, the person sitting next to me asked, “How do you know what he’s saying is true?” More fog. I’m ill-equipped to handle such direct epistemological challenge; it felt to me like a non sequitur. Ultimately, I was relieved to hear that the question was mere devil’s advocacy, but it’s related to the epistemological crisis I’ve blogged about before. Since the date of that blog post, the crisis has only worsened, which is what I expect as legitimate authority is undermined, expertise erodes, and the public sphere devolves into gamification and gotchas (or a series of ongoing cons). If late-stage capitalism has become a nest of corruption, the same is true — with unexpected rapidity — of the computer era and the Information Superhighway (a term no one uses anymore). One early expectation was that enhanced (24/7/365) access to information would yield impressive educational gains, as though the only thing missing were more information, but human nature being what it is, the first valuable innovations resulted from commercializing erotica and porn. Later debate and hand-wringing over the inaccuracy of Wikipedia and the slanted results of Google searches disappeared as everyone simply got used to not being able to trust those sources any too much, just as everyone got used to forfeiting their privacy online.

Today, everything coughed up in our media-saturated information environment is understood either with a grain of salt mountain of skepticism and held in abeyance until solid confirmation can be had (which often never comes) or simply run with because, well, what the hell? Journalists, the well-trained ones possessing integrity anyway, used to be in the first camp, but market forces and the near instantaneity of (faulty, spun) information, given how the Internet has lowered the bar to publication, have pushed journalists into the second camp. As Pilger notes, they have become echo chambers and amplifiers of the utterances of press agents of warmongering governments. Sure, fact checking still occurs, when it’s easy (such as on the campaign trail), but with war reporting in particular, which poses significant hurdles to information gathering, too many reporters simply repeat what they’re told or believe the staging they’re shown.

The U.S. election has come and gone. Our long national nightmare is finally over; another one is set to begin after a brief hiatus. (I’m not talking about Decision 2020, though that spectre has already reared its ugly head.) Although many were completely surprised by the result of the presidential race in particular, having placed their trust in polls, statistical models, and punditry to project a winner (who then lost), my previous post should indicate that I’m not too surprised. Michael Moore did much better taking the temperature of the room (more accurately, the nation) than all the other pundits, and even if the result had differed, the underlying sentiments remain. It’s fair to say, I think, that people voted with their guts more than their heads, meaning they again voted their fears, hates, and above all, for revolution change. No matter that the change in store for us will very likely be destructive and against self-interest. Truth is, it would have had to end with destruction with any of the candidates on the ballot.

Given the result, my mind wandered to Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village, probably because we, the citizens of the Unites States of America, have effectively elected the village idiot to the nation’s highest office. Slicing and dicing the voting tallies between the popular vote, electoral votes, and states and counties carried will no doubt be done to death. Paths to victory and defeat will be offered with the handsome benefit of hindsight. Little of that matters, really, when one considers lessons never learned despite ample opportunity. For me, the most basic lesson is that for any nation of people, leaders must serve the interests of the widest constituency, not those of a narrow class of oligarchs and plutocrats. Donald Trump addressed the people far more successfully than did Hillary Clinton (with her polished political doubletalk) and appealed directly to their interests, however base and misguided.

My previous post called Barstool Wisdom contained this apt quote from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky:

The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The more stupid one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself.

We have already seen that our president-elect has a knack for stating obvious truths no one else dares utter aloud. His clarity in that regard, though coarse, contrasts completely with Hillary’s squirmy evasions. Indeed, her high-handed approach to governance, more comfortable in the shadows, bears a remarkable resemblance to Richard Nixon, who also failed to convince the public that he was not a crook. My suspicion is that as Donald Trump gets better acquainted with statecraft, he will also learn obfuscation and secrecy. Some small measure of that is probably good, actually, though Americans are pining for greater transparency, one of the contemporary buzzwords thrown around recklessly by those with no real interest in it. My greater worry is that through sheer stupidity and bullheadedness, other obvious truths, such as commission of war crimes and limits of various sorts (ecological, energetic, financial, and psychological), will go unheeded. No amount of barstool wisdom can overcome those.

This is a continuation from part 1.

A long, tortured argument could be offered how we (in the U.S.) are governed by a narrow class of plutocrats (both now and at the founding) who not-so-secretly distrust the people and the practice of direct democracy, employing instead mechanisms found in the U.S. Constitution (such as the electoral college) to transfer power away from the people to so-called experts. I won’t indulge in a history lesson or other analysis, but it should be clear to anyone who bothers to look that typical holders of elected office (and their appointees) more nearly resemble yesteryear’s landed gentry than the proletariat. Rule by elites is thus quite familiar to us despite plenty of lofty language celebrating the common man and stories repeated ad naseum of a few exceptional individuals (exceptional being the important modifier here) who managed to bootstrap their way into the elite from modest circumstances.

Part 1 started with deGrasse Tyson’s recommendation that experts/elites should pitch ideas at the public’s level and ended with my contention that some have lost their public by adopting style or content that fails to connect. In the field of politics, I’ve never quite understood the obsession with how things present to the public (optics) on the one hand and obvious disregard for true consent of the governed on the other. For instance, some might recall pretty serious public opposition before the fact to invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks. The Bush Administration’s propaganda campaign succeeded in buffaloing a fair percentage of the public, many of whom still believe the rank lie that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and represented enough of an existential threat to the U.S. to justify preemptive invasion. Without indulging in conspiratorial conjecture about the true motivations for invasion, the last decade plus has proven that opposition pretty well founded, though it went unheeded.

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I already updated my original post from 2009 once based on Tom Engelhardt’s analysis, adding a few of my own thoughts. I want to revisit the original, provide an addendum to my review of Oliver Stone’s Untold History, and draw attention to Andrew Bacevich’s alternative narrative titled “American Imperium.” This is about geopolitics and military history, which fall outside my usual areas of interest and blogging focus (excepting the disgrace of torture), but they’re nonetheless pretty central to what’s going on the world.

Having now watched the remainder of Untold History, it’s clear that every administration since WWII was neck deep in military adventurism. I had thought at least one or two would be unlike the others, and maybe Gerald Ford only waded in up to his knees, but the rest deployed the U.S. military regularly and forcefully enough to beggar the imagination: what on earth were they doing? The answer is both simple and complex, no doubt. I prefer the simple one: they were pursuing global American hegemony — frequently with overweening force against essentially medieval cultures. It’s a remarkably sad history, really, often undertaken with bland justifications such as “American interests” or “national security,” neither of which rings true. I’ve likened the U.S. before to the playground bully who torments others but can never be psychologically satisfied and so suffers his own private torments on the way to becoming a sociopath. Why does every American president resemble that profile (war criminals all), so afraid to look weak that he (thus far in U.S. history, always a he) must flex those muscles at the expense of ordinary people everywhere? Women in positions of authority (e.g., Sec. of State, National Security Advisor), by the way, exhibit the same behavior: advising striking at weaklings to prove they can wear pants, too.

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