Category Archives: free speech

We are all High Risk now

I’ve heard it all about Trump. I agree with much of it. He is all the bad things you think he is. He is a whirlwind of incompetence. All true. Not in dispute on my end. And yes, we should be very vigilant and very involved, because what he seems to be doing, primarily, is making people very uneasy about the future. But enough of the hot-takes and put-downs and emperor-has-no-clothes memes. It is time to put away the childish things. All the rants, all the ridicule, all the facepalm… all of it. Even if it is just for a minute.

 

Try this: Think about Trumpworld like you were having it explained to you by a financial advisor. Maybe your financial advisor, if you have one. He/She is likely very serious, very focused, and not a political blowhard. He can chat about either party with equal ease. He knows that filtering out the political background noise is essential to making good financial decisions. What would the Trump administration look like if you filtered out the stadium-volume politics? That is what good financial advisors do. The good ones are good because they can look at a proposition without getting too wrapped up in the writ-large politics of it. Trump is not a politician. He has no political background, skills, or even firm political beliefs. What he has done with his life is amass a personal fortune, and a key part of amassing a fortune is learning to lay off risk. If you play with big numbers and you can get someone to reliably take more risk than you take, you will reliably amass wealth at their expense. That’s how a guy who couldn’t make a casino work; who rolled craps on bottled water, vodka, and steaks (I guess American’s couldn’t get on board with those things); a guy who has cratered and declared bankruptcy at least four times (plus other sell-offs and bail-outs); managed to become the President of The United States of America: Laying off risk on potential voters.

 

That’s not all of it, of course. The other part of the Trump mystique is getting people to ignore or minimize the risk he are asking them to take. To make this sleight-of-hand work you have to either misdirect them about the degree of the risk, or you have to get them very focused on some other risk. The mark has to be so focused on that other risk that they overlook the obvious risks they are being asked to take by Trump. That is how you get investors to buy in, and it extends executives, staff, regulators, and whole governments. Reading the room and having a feel for what token of misdirection will be most effective is probably the one thing Trump is really good at. He proved it during the 2016 campaign. He routinely clobbered people with better, or better-formed, political platforms because he could play an arena full of potential voters in a way they couldn’t dream of. Prairie Home Companion, meet Tony Montana fronting Led Zeppelin.

 

The last tie-in to Trump’s success in 2016 is evangelism. Not just Christian Evangelical evangelism, but also the idea of a true believer who is all-in. Apple was showing their understanding of the concept’s power when they added “Mac Evangelist” to their org chart. Trump is a Trump Evangelist. The Best. The Smartest. The King of Deals. And so on… And that nauseating passage aside, Trump is pulling from both flavors of the word, almost equally. In a religious setting the risk is always outside, facing in, threatening the audience. The unbeliever. The heavy metal music. The gangsta rap lyrics. The [insert your favorite secular pleasure here]. The reward the religious evangelist offers is the safety of being inside, away and apart from the external menacing force. Trump knows this play like he knows the buttons on his TV remote. All he had to do is sprinkle in the barest soupçon of old time religion and the audience understood. Inside Good. Outside, Bad. Prosperity Gospel Politics brought to the Presidency.

 

And yet again, there is a huge risk component in Religious Evangelism. [“Again with the risk?” you ask? Yes. Stick with me for a sec] Think about it like your somewhat boring and outwardly apolitical finance guy would. Guys like Joel Osteen are just laying off huge amounts of risk on their flocks, and the house always wins. Trump is doing the same thing, but in his case the flock absorbing the risk is 350 million US citizens who are now finding out that the risks are high, they are real, and there is no way to mitigate them.

You want an example of what kinds of risk I am thinking of? Here ya go: You have rank amateurs running the departments of Housing, Energy, and Education. How do you feel about those three things? Pretty strongly, I’d imagine. If there is a bedrock to western civilization it is housing, energy and education. So who were “the best people” to guide these bedrock agencies? You have a guy who initially refused the job because he admitted not having any pertinent experience (aside from having lived in a house, I shit you not), running Housing. You have a guy with an Ag degree [full stop] in charge of our nation’s nuclear weapons and fissionable materials over at DOE. And lastly you have a woman with no professional education or education policy background in charge of Education… but who’s brother (Eric Prince of Blackwater fame) made a cool billion(z) leveraging the US population’s concept of risk in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, oh yeah, this: did anyone notice that her husband is the founder of Amway. Amway is basically a peak-risk-distribution effort. The company always takes on less risk than their franchisees. Always. The house always wins. Always.

 

So stop thinking about what a braying jackass Trump is. He was one before all of this started. Nothing will change. He will always be a braying jackass. Get over it.

 

I am making the case that we start thinking about Trump as the guy who sees the entire US population as a risk-soak. His presidency is just like every other Trump deal: The less equity you have at buy-in, the more risk you gotta take. And over 95% of the US population does not have the required equity to hedge against Trump. We are faced with the prospects of backsliding on worker protections, civil rights, air and water quality, Social Security, healthcare, foreign relations, foreign economics, domestic economics, and the feeling that a world war is imminent. At the same time we are seeing Wall Street deregulated, energy corporations take over the EPA, and a massive increase in military posture and spending. The payoff is supposed to be a period of sustained economic resurgence. Last I checked the DOW was over 20,000. That was pre-Trump. At the end of eight years of G W Bush it was around 6,500. Talk about selling ice cubes to eskimos! There has been plenty of economic growth in the past 10 years, but it all stayed out in shareholder-land. The money was not used to create jobs, build factories, build coal-fired power plants, and club baby seals for fun and profit. It was used to pay the guys who had been exposed to the least risk in the first place. They are the people who bear the least risk of being without good housing, good healthcare, good education, clean water, affordable energy and good nutrition.

 

While the US Senate deliberates in secret over what version of Trumpcare can get 51 votes, think about the risk you are being asked to take on. Guys like Trump use risk as the basic measuring stick for every major decision. Maybe it’s time we all started doing the same.

America gets a real-time IQ test

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I’m going to assume that some moderate percentage of the US population could either describe an oligarchy or identify one if they saw one. I don’t think it is anywhere near 50%, but let’s say it is greater than 25%. (But read the Wiki. It’s a good primer on what tipping-point we just crossed)

Now what percentage of them could identify an emerging oligarchy? It would be like saying you can ID an oak tree, but not an oak sapling. Lots of people fall into that category.

What just happened in the US is that an oligarchy sapling just broke through the forest floor, is getting lots of nutrients and sunlight, and before you know it, son, you got yourself a mature oligarchy growing right there in the front lawn. And the bigger it gets the harder it will be to get rid of. How do we know if we have a real oligarchy, and not just a playboy-type with delusions of grandeur? The dichotomous key to political systems will get you close:

You have a billionaire as president-elect. He became a billionaire by extracting moderate sums of money from thousands of people at a time, and then doing it again, and again. What billionaires care about it not whether the Dallas Cowboys are looking good (That’s Jerry Jones’ issue, and he is “special”), or whether their bills are getting paid. They mainly care about other billionaires, their money, and how they stack up against them. So we can check that box. They play “Fantasy Billionaire” the way Joe Six Pack plays Fantasy Football. But with piles of other people’s money. No other billionaires have been elected to the presidency of the US. That is a big bragging point right there. That goes over real big when he gets on the phone with other billionaires AND with other heads-of-state. It’s a win-win. And don’t he know it? It’s Trump, Putin, and a few guys in the UAE. That, as they say, is the list of billionaire heads-of-state. Don’t go looking for their free press or their sterling record on human rights.

And in the case of our current president-elect, Donald Trump, he is demonstrating his incuriosity, thin skin, and sub-par intellect at every damn turn. We don’t have a super-genius billionaire, or even a really smart billionaire. We have a whiny douche from Queens who inherited more money from his daddy than the average American makes in a lifetime. He is accustomed to outsourcing virtually everything. He hires “the best”. (More on that, and how he only hires the best for himself and hires the worst when it comes to protecting the American citizenry, later.) How does a guy like this plan to run a country?

Glad I asked! First, you put military lifers in positions where you want chain-of-command respected, not a bunch of smart-ass sass-back. You only want to hear “how high?” when you yell “Jump”. So you stock Defense, Homeland Security, and Intel with guys who will throw their mother in front of the L-train in the name of chain-of-command. It helps if you have conspiracy theorists with itchy trigger-fingers and an axe to grind. Less motivational work and coercion to waste Trump’s time.

Next, you recruit fellow billionaires who you know will put other billionaires (like the president-elect. just sayin’) first, and pretty much fuck the little guy all day long. That is how they got there. When you find anyone who ever called Rex Tillerson “human rights champion” please let me know. Trump himself has *never* gone on the record regarding human rights (I looked, and if you find something I am all ears). It is safe to say he has never though about the concept other than as a way to tar a “loser” who put humanity over making a dollar. Go find the country that Rex Tillerson has staked out where you have a thriving middle class, lots of manufacturing jobs, cheap top-flight health care… Good luck. If that model was successful they would be like Johnny Appleseed, as opposed to Joey Goebbels.

And Trump has Bannon, who jerks off to photos of Goebbels, so another base covered. This guy is a “strategist” in only the broadest way. He seems to be the worst kind of political apparatchik. The kind who will never be seen in public, or grant interviews, or take any real responsibility. He has his hand up Trump’s ass and it looks like Trump is talking, but you are really hearing Bannon throwing his voice. THAT is this dude’s “strategy”. And as usual, when “strategy” is next separated from “propaganda” it will be the first time.

Next, Lackeys. You cannot have a functioning oligarchy without lackeys. You need dopes who are so far over their skis that they will take whatever direction they get because what the fuck does Rick “Dancing with the Stars” Perry know about nuclear warheads? Nothing. And he ain’t gonna learn anytime soon. The steady stream of agency heads who are incompetent or outright hostile to the charters of the agencies they are being tapped to head is not a coincidence. You want a nice mix of incompetence and hostility. Both is nice.

Like an exterminator examining the mud casings in the footings of your democracy, I hate to tell you this, friend: you got a colony of oligarchs, military stooges and lackeys setting up shop in your house. The fix is to get at it early and maybe in short order you’ll have a problem you can fix with a can of RAID. But for now you gotta be ready to do the hard work to knock this oligarch colony down to size.

 

A observation on Close Up Magic

When Trump was mowing down the seemingly endless pool of rivals for the GOP nomination he was pulling off a very simple con: Whatever the opponent’s strength is, that is a bad strength to have.

Trump never had to back up his self-aggrandizement because he had a very public brand and he maintained a drumbeat of labeling his opponents with simple, easy to comprehend nicknames.

The youth movement of the GOP, Marco Rubio: Little Marco

The reality-challenged but politically powerful Ted Cruz: Lyin’ Ted

and so on… There was no time to be asking serious questions about Trump’s policy goals because “hey, look over there, it is a new target for my grade-school bully act.” At no point does anyone in the press (I have looked, but maybe I missed someone) call him out on this. They are falling for this “got your nose” level scam, and falling hard. And it works, and as one after another falls to this trick he wins the GOP nomination.

To the press it all seems like a lark, because, you know, he’s a hack and has burned much of his needed support base by humiliating them in a very public way. All of the living former US Presidents are telling American’s that Trump is not acceptable and a danger to the core principles of the nation. And there it is again. Got yer nose! Two-term Republican President George W. Bush?A two-term Republican President, leaving office, zero live appearances at a national convention. Well, you gonna listen to a guy who was photoshopped out of the GOP family picture for two straight GOP Conventions? What about his dad? A one-termer. Probably senile. Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? Who in the GOP is listening to them on anything, ever? People who have held the office were discredited out of hand.

On the other hand, people with zero experience, or negative experience, are showing up alongside Trump and getting free rides. Nigel Farage buggered off to who knows where when his Brexit ambitions were realized. He had no plan because he never thought he’d win. (maybe that makes him a perfect role model for Trump now?) He shows up alongside Trump on the campaign trail? Aside from being a major no-no in US election protocol, he was given a free pass on his cowardice. These sort of free-rides might be explained by a simple “cult of personality” effect. But the silence that greeted people with real job experience? That is a straight-up con job.

So what happens when he is facing Hillary Clinton, a very experienced, very politically savvy opponent with top-level foreign policy credentials and a AAA-rated philanthropic foundation? Experience is bad. It’s a code-word for “beltway-insider”. Experience in the US Senate, and having run the gauntlet of those elections? Generic claims of how bad she was, no supporting evidence needed. Again, experience is a negative. Service as Secretary of State? Again, that experience is turned into a negative. The GOP spent tens of millions of dollars on congressional investigations and found nothing of substance. That should be a point to Clinton. Nope. Regarding Benghazi Colin Powell says (I paraphrase) rightly that Christopher Stevens made a decision to operate with a minimal security detail and it came up snake-eyes. Again, a GWB-guy, and we don’t like him anymore. Plus Powell has always been too cozy with the Dems. Regarding the so-called email scandal, again, nothing of substance. The power of the FBI applied to a small pile of emails (ask GWB who deleted 2.2million at the height of the Iraq war, when serious questions of who knew what and when were being asked, if 30,000 emails is a lot of emails) finds nothing. Still, it is turned into a negative for Clinton. This charade is now in full-on snowball mode. And then the director of the F B fucking I piles on for no apparent reason two weeks before the election.

And speaking of strange bedfellows, Trump starts off his campaign with Paul Manafort fresh off a Ukraine PR campaign for Putin, and seemingly still running errands back to the Kremlin. Nothing. No alarm bells. One day of warm press and he is replaced. Nobody ever asks if he is still working in any capacity. The Kremlin is thought to be behind a stream of leaked emails from the DNC. Most of these are beyond vanilla. And despite playing an open wink-and-nod game with Putin during the campaign, Trump gets a free pass. Again, The Kremlin Is Openly Hacking US Assets to Support A Candidate For U. S. President. The CIA knows this. Crickets. Oh, And Manafort shows up again at the tail end of the campaign. Not a peep about how a guy who … “returned to Ukraine in September 2014 to become an advisor to Yanukovych’s former head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine Serhiy Lyovochkin. In this role he was asked to assist in rebranding Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Instead, he argued to help stabilize Ukraine, Manafort was instrumental in creating a new political party called Opposition Bloc. According to Ukrainian political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky, “He thought to gather the largest number of people opposed to the current government, you needed to avoid anything concrete, and just become a symbol of being opposed”. Sound like a familiar strategy? You can read his Wiki if you want to see how this guy operates.

My point here is this: A very simple tactic of finding your opponent’s strengths and ridiculing them was allowed to create a wave of public apathy that Trump rode to the Oval Office. We now have four years to decide whether we are collectively willing to both hold Trump to the best of his promises and prevent him from following through on the worst. On top of that we have to depend on the same ass-clowns who obstructed Obama for eight years to reign in Trump’s worst impulses, as well as not hop on board and stoke the engine. And I do mean collectively. Gutting Medicare will not spare Trump-voting grandparents. Gutting environmental protections will not target left-leaning lungs. Trade wars will not be surgical.

The best leaders actively seek out contrary opinions, actively engage them, often hire them. It allows them to see new opportunities, identify flaws in their original plans, and build solutions that create the most benefit in both the short and long term. Trump has NONE of that. He is building a sycophantic echo chamber of politi-ghouls who will tell him whatever they have to in order to preserve the Presidential Illusion. We the People need to work together to breach that information fortress. May we find the strength.

We’re Back, and Madder Than Ever

The election is over and some large part of America has just realized that we are now trapped in a four-year-long timeshare presentation, and there is no exit door. Reality TV filtered through Kafka and directed by Louis Buñuel.

Like many Americans I am watching the emergence of a kakistoscracy, one of many words we are now using with regularity that were unknown just weeks ago. Government by the worst people. The qualifications for the Trump cabinet and high-level appointees appear to be stolen from the Oakland Raiders’ Playbook: Salvage Projects with a Criminal Record and Anger Management Issues get first crack at the starting lineup. If you are just an unrepentant sociopath hell-bent on the destruction of our social fabric, you can count on a spot on the scout team, and maybe kick returns.

But I am getting out ahead of myself. It is becoming very apparent that one opinionated blogger, one journalist, one humorist, cannot keep up with the pace of truly horrifying behavior we are witnessing. For non-pros like me, I think it is best to try to stick to what I know, and maybe take a flyer on something that catches my eye from time to time. To me, what we have been put through is a psy-ops project where objective truth, provable facts, and first-person evidence are losing out to unfounded conspiracy theories and distraction tactics (I hesitate to say tactics because that implies intelligence, but I don’t have a cool word like kakistocracy to use here). So my bag will be to root, root, root for my home team: FACTS.

I have a few items in the hopper, and I hope to be turning them out on a regular basis. Until then, Keep Looking to the Skies! That’s where incoming ICBMs will be.

 

Sorry, Charlie…

It has been a very shaky start to the new year. My groaner of a first 2015 post was symbolic of the way the year kicked off. And things may have been looking up until a mass murder in France took the lives of some of the greatest satirical minds of my generation, along with their friends, co-workers and protectors. Charlie Hebdo. I saw this weekly paper on my trip to France in 2011, and it stirred my desire to learn the French language a little. (I got carried away, and am still learning the language, albiet slowly, in fits and starts). The cover of an issue of Charlie Hebdo stood out like a beacon from a newsstand. Whatever that was, I wanted some. I was not disappointed. One reason for the fascination was that Charlie Hebdo destroyed my notion that the French people were not funny. Maybe I was blinded by their appreciation of Jerry Lewis, or the deeply un-funny Gerard Depardieu. Maybe I was just ignorant. But my highly-tuned cartoon radar saw immediately that these French were not only funny, they were hard-core funny. They were not fucking around. No punches pulled. You were being told to get the joke even if you WERE the joke. I was in France to pay homage to Frank Zappa, and he had prepared me well to appreciate the genius of Charlie Hebdo.

Until Wednesday, January 7, that was all there was to it. I sat at my desk, at work, at 7:30am and it was as if I was reading fiction. Two hours after the attack I was reading a headline in complete disbelief. How could this be true? …that kind of reaction. Then the churning stomach, the rage, the sadness, the confusion.

I would see the Charlie Hebdo covers on the internet, sometimes digging a little deeper, and I could understand enough to get the joke. But not being on the scene in France, specifically I am not French and furthermore not Parisian, I could only glimpse the joke. They were playing to the home team. I was watching from afar on a lo-res feed. In Paris, they are heroes. Not “were” heroes. Are Heroes. The French take their satire very seriously. Wine. Charcuterie. Satire. Charlie Hebdo. They were committed to not pulling punches. They were not letting their audience make editorial decisions for them. What is the point in that? Why bother with satire if you are letting the object of the satire tell you what is in-bounds? No. If Le Monde wants to play that game, there is plenty of game for Le Monde. But Charlie Hebdo is the prow of the free speech ship. Taking the brunt of the waves and the weather.

And that, of course, is what will be glossed over as this tragedy is examined by every hack with a microphone or a PhD or a blog (even I am glossing over something, I’m sure). The core concept of free speech, the concept that makes satire and critical commentary possible, is to be free from that kind of sensitivity. The existence of that sensitivity, when it rears its head, is a giveaway to where the next jab should be directed. Like a fighter covering up a bruised rib, that is where you direct the next blow. Charlie Hebdo walked the walk. Their mission was to occupy the deep center of free speech protections and put everyone else to the test. Does the government support free speech? Immigrants to France, knowing full well that they are living in the cradle of free expression? Foreign interests, who may or may not be aiding and abetting by giving quarter to extremist voices? They all stand in some measure as less free than Charlie.

I have made the point that Charlie Hebdo may not have been an outlier as much as the surrounding voices stepped back when called, leaving Charlie exposed and unprotected. The threat of extremist violence is no laughing matter. Not something to be taken lightly. Most people are not dealing with the threat that they will be assassinated for their latest blog post or news article. If you are thinking that I read Tony Barber’s piece in the Financial Times, you are right. When he writes “It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.” Errrr… Tony, they are not purporting to do anything. It is actually free fucking speech, you imbecile. It is not up to the speaker to provide the common sense. Charlie Hebdo was not yelling FIRE in a movie theatre. The common sense is that they have a right to speak and draw and satirize. The offended must have the common sense to respond in kind, with a pen and not a kalashnikov rifle.

But all of that is conjecture. Cabu and Charb are gone. Wolinski, the same. Tignous, silenced. Honoré, snuffed out. This is not an academic exercise. It is the kind of reality we have avoided in the US by sanitizing so much of our public speech (and as Ted Rall points out, by getting out of the political cartoon business, almost entirely). We, Americans, the holders of the flame, stepped back when the call was to step up. We now pull punches as a matter of course, letting the offended set the rules of engagement. We are not alone, but we are a good example. Even the dimwitted David Brooks managed to not make a total hash of this concept in the NYTimes: “Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.”

No. We are NOT Charlie Hebdo. And to maintain otherwise requires proof. What we did is let Charlie Hebdo take the heat while we relax in air-conditioned comfort. That is the truth. Do we want the lives of the good people at Charlie Hebdo, called by name to be slaughtered by maniacs, to mean something in the long term? Can we pay homage to their legacy in a meaningful way?

If the answer is yes then we need to reexamine our lives and our rules and our hysterical reactions. We need to ask ourselves if we are better off living as appeasers or dying as free men. Maybe we will not get all the way there, but if we try then we are at least learning from this sad episode and not just spackling over it like we do with so many other offensive acts. Can we bring ourselves to walk the walk in the face of this aggression? That may very well be the defining question of civilized peoples in the 21st century, and we can thank a group of French “cartoonists” for the lesson.

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Image by Dave Brown, cartoonist at the Independent UK.