There is an excellent Tweet thread from the consistently insightful Alexandra Erin here:
She finishes with this observation:
‘the way Trump will deprive us of democracy is by two years of his collaborators sitting here and saying “But surely you wouldn’t suggest that he is.”‘
It’s an alarming thought and some might say it is itself alarmism. Afterall, I’ve heard (and considered) whether numerous leaders would somehow rig or cancel elections to stay in power permanently. I thought Margaret Thatcher would do that, I was worried that George W Bush might do that – I certainly read worried rightwingers who thought Bill Clinton or Brack Obama might do that. Notably, none of them did. Power shifted using normal means. Phew!
Yeah but…Vladimir Putin? Robert Mugabe? Or we cast the net wider and think of leaders who had to be forced from power by more assertive means such as Alberto Fujimori of Peru who ran for a third term as President when the role was limited to two terms (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberto_Fujimori#Third_term ). The point being is that leaders in recent history have found ways to cling to power by authoritarian, corrupt and anti-democratic means. There is no shortage of cases and the leader subverting democracy doesn’t need to be a literal Hitler to do it. That’s not to say the Hitler comparisons are in-apt or a case of Godwin’s law – that Hitler came to ultimate power in Germany by quasi-constitutional means *is* a highly relevant example, it’s just that it is one of many.
So why aren’t we in the fifth term of a George W Bush presidency? I think two factors are in play:
- George W Bush really wouldn’t want to be President for life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not joining the rehabilitate-George campaign — his presidency damaged the world and damaged American democracy — I just don’t think he was ever really the sort of person who would want to cling to power. The key point being character. It takes a particular kind of paranoid narcism to want to hold on. It requires fear of your enemies gaining control and unwillingness to accept anybody else can rule.
- Civic society and institutions. Power requires societal co-operation. It requires generals to carry on running the army and the army to carry on following the orders of generals. It requires courts to continue functioning. It requires the police to carry on policing. It also requires people to literally carry on turning up for work each day.
For the kind of slow-coup to happen, where a leader can move beyond constitutional/formal limits and effectively suspend democracy both elements need to exist. You need somebody willing and eager to take control and weak institutions who won’t provide adequate resistance.
This latter point isn’t even one requiring powerful entities to be progressive or pro-democracy. What is required is that there are powerful groups who an aspiring dictator needs for his rule to proceed who would refuse to cooperate for reasons that could be cynical or high minded. The armed forces are the most obvious example and is why the slow-coup scenario is more likely to be of a rightwing nature (counter-examples would be when the military was born from a revolutionary movement in the first place).
So how do those two conditions apply now?
- I can’t say I understand Trump’s character. I openly wondered prior to the election whether he even wanted to be President. However, whatever his motives are they clearly aren’t uncynical or motivated by a desire to provide good stewardship. There are good reasons to think that by being President he avoids deep financial troubles and possible criminal prosecution — both of which are reasons that he wouldn’t want to stop being President. He really wouldn’t want to lose in 2020 either just in terms of ego.
- US institutions have been actively weakened. Congress is not holding the President to account. The courts and federal agencies have been politicised in the sense that any actions they take are cast in party-political partisan terms by the GOP and the wider right. The press is economically and institutionally weak and news media is fractured and distorted.
Niether of those mean that Trump will attempt to remove democracy but it is more than fair to say that:
- he has no deep attachement to democracy as a principle
- the GOP has been acting anti-democratically with regard to a whole host of issues for some time (covered in Alexandra Erin’s thread above, i.e. ‘voter fraud’ fakery, gerrymandering & voter supression
- US civic institutions are weaker in various ways and being actively weakened.
In other words, the concerns are real and the risks higher than they have been for a long time.
I got hold of a copy of Vox Day’s new ‘book’ with the intent of reviewing it for you all but an odd thing happened on several occasions. I fell asleep. It isn’t that the prose construction is worse than usual – Vox Day puts non-fiction sentences together better than he does with the sentences in his novels. With the fiction there’s that clunk, clunk, clunk effect that is reminiscent of somebody pushing a wheel barrow whose wheels have been replaced by squares. The non-fiction tends to trip itself up on its own ideas rather than sentence structure. So I didn’t anticipate quite how dull this book would be. You would think it would contain a mix of things either provocative or inadvertently funny but it is just a rehash of the previous SJW book with different examples.
You probably know somebody with a limited range of social anecdotes. They may tell you a story in some social setting and you listen politely. Then in another setting they tell you either the same story or one very like it. Then on a third occasion the conversation is the same story again and then again. That’s pretty much this book. It is hardly the first book that has sent me to sleep but I would have expected something more like a general feeling boredom rather than unconsciousness.
There are no new observations about Vox Day here. The formula is the same, a constant note of misogyny with sporadic racism and fear mongering. There is more to write about from my end in the later chapters as these hit the bits of bat-shit accounts of Aristotle and Rabid Puppies that readers may expect from my blog
Let’s dive in. You might need coffee.
The US Attorney General and living cliche Jeff Sessions has ramped up the failed and counter-productive war on drugs: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/12/528086525/sessions-tells-prosecutors-to-seek-most-serious-charges-stricter-sentences
There have been many reactions to this but part of the left-leaning reaction has been a competition between two perspectives:
- That this move is Sessions trying to distract from Trump’s and his own entanglement with Russia and the recent sacking of the head of the FBI.
- That point 1. is missing the point that this is something Sessions has been wanting to do his whole career and is an example of his overall nastiness and, given the skewed way in which the War on Drugs falls on different communities in the US, his overall racism.
Sure both could be true at the same time without creating a logical contradiction but we really should aim for parsimonious explanations of events. Yet this kind of duplication of interpretations of the Trump regime’s acts makes simple motives hard to pin down. Is policy X because Trump is evil/incompetent/corrupt or is X simply a ‘distraction’ from some previous thing?
Whether by intent or happenstance, the Trump electoral campaign often succeeded in pushing past scandals by simply moving on to some new kind of outrage. As a kind of denial-of-service attack on normal news media processes, Trump could shift the news cycle onto a new topic (I assume often inadvertently) by saying or doing something else that would capture the headlines. So it is reasonable to see such things as Sessions’s new drug enforcement policy as fitting that model: something intended to outrage those who oppose Trump so we’ll be talking about that rather than the growing constitutional crisis.
Unfortunately for parsimony, we have to accept that it is both a distraction and an evil thing in itself. I’ve no doubt that Session will try to get away with as many regressive, racist and authoritarian policies as he can regardless of how it may aid the regime’s management of the news cycle. However, Sessions isn’t an idiot and he (and others in the regime) will continue to use other scandals as cover and as distractions to push their agenda. This is why generic obstruction is a wise tactic: the various people under Trump pushing their own nasty agendas aim to do as much harm as they can as quickly as they can while they still can. Put another way: Sessions always intended to try this move but he can’t be oblivious to the fact that the Comey-sacking scandal is a distraction from his actions and that his actions serve as a distraction to the Comey-sacking scandal.
The difference here from a normal executive is that Trump’s regime is not scandal-averse in a normal way. Any normal government would seek to minimise scandals (often unsuccessfully) in terms of number, length and intensity. Trump now sits at the top of a kind of scandal Ponzi scheme – a pyramid selling model of scandal but with more sustainability due to a substantial supply of neo-Nazis, unreformed Confederates and omnifallacious right-wing policies that have been floating around pseudo-think tanks since the 1990s.
So yes, it’s both and you can’t let it distract from the Russian scandal nor can you let the Russian scandal distract from the genuine harm Sessions will inflict on many, many people and communities with this policy.
OK, that’s a depressing conclusion, particularly for US readers. Sorry. The positive side? Every shitty, nasty move pushes somebody, somewhere from unsure-about-Trump to opposed-to-Trump. Moves like this don’t expand Trump’s base but only inspire the narrow core of his support. I know that is small comfort to the families that will bear the brunt of these policies.
So one down in Trump’s clique and it seems the intelligence community/Deep State/CIA had a hand in it. Naturally, the left is cheering (yay!) but holy effin shit: the CIA? The CIA helping topple governments is the thing we in particular hate.
Yeah but…let’s take a moment to reflect.
Flynn was compromised. When the content of his discussions with Russia were revealed, he had to resign. Russia and domestic intelligence services in the US knew about this. US intelligence services passed on the information to the DoJ (as they should) and the Whitehouse did nothing. That left Flynn in a position of power but open to blackmail.
So three choices:
- do nothing – not viable because Flynn’s f*ck-up left open to blackmail from Russia.
- use the information as a threat against Flynn – i.e. US intelligence services blackmail/pressure Flynn and thus gain power over the Whitehouse.
- leak information so Flynn has to resign.
The best outcome would have been the Whitehouse doing something about Flynn but without that, the only ethical option was the last one. That’s pretty much how ethical whistleblowing should function – revealing information that exposes serious wrong doing.
The worry is the middle option. We don’t want a US government being effectively blackmailed by Russia but we don’t want a US government being effectively blackmailed by the CIA either. That is a worse precedent.
As we slip further into this timeline, I’ve noticed that both fictional dystopias and real-life accounts of authoritarian regimes are doing a good job at pointing at both specifics (the denial of reality) and general trends (people falling for a fake populism out of fear and uncertainty. However, I’m not sure there is a figure who quite matches Trump.
While the USA has a long way to go before it meets the full horrors of 1984’s Oceania, people are still managing to find many active parallels with Orwell’s political horror story. The Fox News Right have already nominated George Soros to be their Emmanuel Goldstein for example. Indeed, I can imagine in a century hence, when post-WW2 history is seen as all sort of smooshed together as one time period (as we tend to now with the Victorian/Edwardian periods), that people might anachronistically think Orwell’s invention was based on the panicked hatred of Soros rather than Trotsky. But while 1984 allusions are handy, Trump is no Big Brother.
Perhaps some of this is time. Charlie Chaplin’s portrait of Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel is an absurd man with an over-inflated ego. While searing satire at the time, our full understanding of the horrors of Nazi Germany make Chaplin’s film seem understated – almost trivialising of the brutality. Not Chaplin’s fault (and still a magnificent film) but The Great Dictator was overtaken by history. Chaplin does neatly capture though the need for self-importance and constant praise of the would-be authoritarian.
For a recent post, I’d dug out my copy of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man which is bound with the sequel The Truce, which describes his survival and journey home after surviving Auschwitz. In The Truce there is a magnificent description of the self-appointed leader of the Italian section of a Soviet refugee camp in Poland:
But the camp leader of the Italians, to whom I was directed to be ‘enlisted’, was very
different. Accountant Rovi had become camp leader not by election from below, nor by
Russian investiture, but by self-nomination; in fact, although he was an individual of
somewhat meagre intellectual and moral qualities, he possessed to a notable degree
that virtue which under any sky is the most necessary to win power — the love of power
for its own sake.
To watch the behaviour of a man who acts not according to reason, but according to his own deep impulses, is a spectacle of extreme interest, similar to that which the naturalist enjoys when he studies the activities of an animal of complex instincts. Rovi had achieved his office by acting with the same atavistic spontaneity as a spider
spinning its web; like the spider without its web, so Rovi did not know how to live
without his office. He had begun to spin immediately; he was basically foolish, and did not know a word of German or Russian, but from the first day he had secured for
himself the services of an interpreter, and had presented himself in a ceremonial
manner to the Soviet Command as plenipotentiary for Italian interests. He had
organized a desk, with official forms (in beautiful handwriting with ﬂourishes), rubber stamps, variously coloured pencils and a ledger; although he was not a colonel, in fact not even a soldier, he had hung outside his door an ostentatious placard ‘Italian Command — Colonel Rovi’; he had surrounded himself with a small court of scullions, scribes, acolytes, spies, messengers and bullies, whom he paid in kind, with food taken from the rations of the community, and with exemption from all jobs of common interest. His courtiers, who, as always happens, were far worse than he, ensured (even by force, which was rarely necessary) that his orders were carried out, served him, gathered information for him and ﬂattered him intensely.
Levi is a powerful observational writer both in this pair of harrowing memoirs but also in his science & science-fictional writing. We’ve never met ‘Colonel Rovi’ but he is instantly recognisable: the man who acts not according to reason but to his deep impulses. As it happens Levi goes on to describe how Rovi’s quasi-authority was relatively benign. Yet, in his description, there is the notion of a man who seeks power for the sake of sycophancy rather than the sycophancy being a by-product of a quest for power.
Moving rapidly from great literature to low comedy, I find myself frequently reminded of Blazing Saddles over the past few months. Of course, this is in part due to the sad death of Gene Wilder but also Mel Brook’s unsubtle side character Governor William J. Le Petomane. Brook’s himself is no stranger to portraying Nazism as absurdity but the Governor in the film is far too self-absorbed to be a tyrant. Instead, Brook plays a lecherous, racist, incompetent politician, who sees himself as a great popular leader but is actually little more than a puppet for the Machiavellian Hedley Lamarr. The Trump/Bannon parallels write themselves.
Brooks and Chaplin have both attempted, to varying degrees of success to capture the inherent comedy of the absurd trumped up figure – the spectacle of extreme interest of the man who acts not according to reason but according to his own deep impulses. I’m not sure either work in general or capture what we have in Trump.
The comedic quality to Trump was employed long before his campaign for the presidency was taken seriously (John Oliver, infamously pleading with Trump in 2o13 to run for president http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/john-oliver-donald-trump-president-944682 ). What Brooks fails to manage and which Chaplin captured better was the mix of both menace and absurdity. Le Petomane, not distracted by a paddle ball but by Tweets that might crash the stock market or start a war. Confronting the abuse of power with its absurdity hides that part of the horror is the absurdity. Closest to this is Chaplin’s dance in character as Hynkel with a globe that is also a balloon.
For awhile Hynkel has complete control of the world until…it bursts and Hynkel is left with a childish expression of disappointment. The burst balloon is most obviously his ambitions but there is a horrific element of world destruction equally in the image.
When I think of that combination of horror from absurdity, that encompasses both the denial of reality forced upon people in 1984 *and* this notion of the dictator as childishly self-absorbed I can’t help but think of the Twlight Zone: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It’s_a_Good_Life_(The_Twilight_Zone)
In this episode, a town is controlled by a child (Bill ‘Lost in Space’ Mumy) who, for reasons unexplained has extraordinary powers. The horror is absurd and it is horrific because it is absurd and because fear prevents the adults from acknowledging the absurdity.
“You’re a bad man. You’re a very bad man and you keeping thinking very bad thoughts about me.”
I’ll stop there I think.
Back in December, then President-elect Donald Trump established a forum “composed of some of America’s most highly respected and successful business leaders” https://www.blackstone.com/media/press-releases/article/president-elect-trump-establishes-the-president-s-strategic-and-policy-forum
The members of the Forum include:
- Stephen A. Schwarzman (Forum Chairman), Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder of Blackstone; [Gateway One Macquarie Place, Suite 3901 Sydney NSW 2000, Australia]
- Paul Atkins, CEO, Patomak Global Partners, LLC, Former Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission; [not in AU]
- Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO, General Motors; [Holden Ltd: PO Box 1714, Melbourne, Victoria, 3001]
- Toby Cosgrove, CEO, Cleveland Clinic; [not in AU]
- Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co; [ Sydney, Australia: +612 9003 8888]
- Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO, BlackRock; [37, Chifley Tower, 2 Chifley Square, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia +61 2 9272 2200]
- Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company;
- Rich Lesser, President and CEO, Boston Consulting Group; [Level 41, 161 Castlereagh Street Sydney, NSW 2000 Australia +61 2 9323 5600 ]
- Doug McMillon, President and CEO, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; [not in AU]
- Jim McNerney, Former Chairman, President, and CEO, Boeing; [Boeing – Australia & South Pacific Boeing Australia Level 10, Exchange House 10 Bridge St Sydney NSW 2000 AUSTRALIA Tel: +61-2-9086 3300 ]
- Adebayo “Bayo” Ogunlesi, Chairman and Managing Partner, Global Infrastructure Partners; [Global Infrastructure Management Australia Pty Limited (affiliate), Level 30, Deutsche Bank Place, 126 Phillip Street, Sydney, NSW 2000 Phone: +61 2 8259 4229 ]
- Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President, and CEO, IBM; [Australian Head Office
IBM Australia Ltd Level 13 IBM Centre 601 Pacific Highway St Leonards NSW 2065]
- Kevin Warsh, Shepard Family Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Economics, Hoover Institute, Former Member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System;
- Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO, Ernst & Young EY; [EY The EY Centre Level 34 200 George Street 2000 Sydney phone: +61 2 9248 5555 fax: +61 2 9248 5959]
- Jack Welch, Former Chairman and CEO, General Electric; [Multiple separate businesses in Australia]
- Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Vice Chairman of IHS Markit; [not in AU?]
- Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber (joined Dec 14)
- Elon Musk, CEO Space X, Tesla (joined Dec 14)
Of those, Elon Musk has now spoken out against Trump’s attack on the US constitution & rule of law using his ban on people from selected middle east countries.
- Investment bank, Goldman Sachs is not represented on the forum but Trump’s administration is replete with ex-Goldman Sachs employees, including Steve Bannon Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin, National Economic Council Chairman-appointee Gary Cohn and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman nominee Jay Clayton. [Goldman Sachs Australia Pty Ltd Level 46 Governor Phillip Tower 1 Farrer Place Sydney NSW 2000 Australia +612 9321 8777 ]
Many of those companies operate in multiple nations. Those companies have twitter accounts, some of them (e.g. Disney, Uber) market directly to ordinary people. We can challenge what they are doing. Sure, there is an argument that they are trying to engage with Trump for better outcomes for everybody – but if they can’t speak out against gross attacks on basic principles common to all democratic societies then they aren’t ‘engaging’ they are collaborating with hatred.
Many, many reasons to put some thought into the ethics of email hacks and leaks currently.
Firstly, is the current political trajectory of Wikileaks – in the past seen as somewhat anarchic and/or libertarian and now being cast as a tool of authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin. In either case, it is worth asking is there a way of looking at the ethics of what Wikileaks has done beyond comparing the rightness/wrongness of the people who have either benefit or suffered as a consequence?
Secondly, Chelsea Manning remains imprisoned where she has been treated in a way that has been described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading“. Aside from the specific cruelties she has been subject too, should she anyway be pardoned by Obama before he leaves office?
Thirdly is the issue of the ethical culpability of the press or others (such as a rival political campaign) in exploiting revelations from an illegal leak or hack. Currently, the question of press coverage of the leaked DNC emails in the recent election and what electoral benefits the Trump campaign may have gained from those leaks.
There are some easy answers of course:
- The Russian government shouldn’t be trying to manipulate US elections.
- Whatever the rights or wrongs of Chelsea Manning’s acts, she should not be subject to cruel punishments.
- Trump is deeply unethical on multiple levels regardless of whether he benefited from the DNC hacks.
But can we do better than these clearer issues?
Firstly there is an ethical distinction between leaks and hacks. Practically there are blurred lines between the two (e.g. an insider leaking a password to a third party who gains illegal access to a server) but we can still make a distinction between:
- Somebody inside an organisation revealing confidential information to somebody outside an organisation.
- Somebody outside an organisation breaking in (either physically or electronically) and stealing information.
The distinction is related to (but not identical to) the degree of discrimination in the information sought and released.
- Somebody obtaining and disseminating specific information about an organisation, with some awareness of the information they are revealing.
- Somebody obtaining and disseminating bulk information about an organisation, with little knowledge of what that information contains.
There is a sliding scale between the two.
Yet another pair of factors, and again on a scale, there is a question of personal risk.
- The actor responsible for the leak or hack is acting at significant personal risk, either to their career or facing legal sanction or violence.
- The actor responsible for the leak or hack is facing very limited risk and/or may gain financially or professionally from their actions.
Lastly, I’d make one more paired distinction.
- The leak or hack is of a government body or agency.
- The leak or hack is of a non-government body or agency, or of an individual.
In all cases, I’d contend that the default is an assumption of privacy. That is either a leak or a hack of data is, by default, morally wrong without some sort of mitigating factor. Put another way, non-consensual transparency purely for the sake of transparency is not sufficient justification for dissemination either leaked or hacked information BUT there may be times and occasions when other factors can justify both leaks and hacks (and indeed we know that such times and occasions do exist).
Roughly speaking, this is how I am seeing things:
- Leaks are easier to justify ethically than hacks.
- Targetted release of ‘stolen’ data is easier to justify ethically than dumps of data.
- Acts done in the face of personal risk are easier to justify ethically than acts done with low risk or for personal gain.
- The release of government data is easier to justify than the release of non-government data, which is easier to justify than the release of an individual’s data.
Beyond that questions of legitimate public interest and consequence matter.
Scenario 1: Donald Trump is President and a member of Whitehouse staff leaks a very specific email regarding the purchase of ‘adult diapers’. The leaked email is widely disseminated and there is much speculation that the President has some degree of incontinence.
I’d see Scenario 1 as unethical. Although it essentially government data (and hence publically owned data) and although it is targetted and a leak (forgive the pun) and the staff member runs the risk of being sacked (and maybe prosecuted) – it fails ethically because the public interest test is weak (yeah, there is an argument that the state of the President’s health is public business but this is a stretch) and the consequence is the bowel/bladder movements become fair game for judging the worthiness of politicians. Odds are that many effective US presidents have had less than functional bodies with regarded to toilet functions.
Scenario 2: An activist believes (because of persistent but inconclusive evidence) that a private company is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The activist manages to download encrypted backups of emails. Believing that there might be ‘smoking gun’ evidence in the emails that executives knew about the testing, but lacking the resources to decrypt and then examine all the emails, the activist releases all the data in an attempt to ‘crowd source’ an examination of the data.
I’d still lean to this being somewhat unethical action by the activist, but it would really rest on how reasonable their belief was that the company was knowingly engaged in unethical human experimentation.
Scenario 3: A lower level manager believes that the private company they work for is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The manager knows that there are emails that can prove this but doubts that people will believe a single email that anybody could have faked. Instead, they pass on to an activist group a download of encrypted backups of emails. The surrounding emails and the encryption scheme help verify that the emails are really from the company concerned.
I think this is more clearly ethical. The person is acting in the face of clear wrongdoing.