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Highlights from In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

You may know of Erik Larson from his excellent book on the 1893 World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City. Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin was published in 2011 and tells the story of William Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, roughly from the time of his appointment in 1933 to the events of the Night of the Long Knives, the July 1934 purge that consolidated Adolf Hitler’s power.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but notice several parallels between what was happening in 1933 & 1934 as Hitler worked to establish an authoritarian government in Germany and some of the actions of our current government and its President here in the US. If you think that sort of statement is hyperbolic, I urge you to read on and remember that there was a time when Nazi Germany and its rulers seemed to its citizenry and to the world to be, sure, a little extreme in their methods, fiery in their rhetoric, and engaged in some small actions against certain groups of people, but ultimately harmless…until they weren’t and then it was too late to do anything.

Here’s everything I highlighted on my Kindle presented with some light commentary…much of it speaks for itself and the parallels are obvious. I apologize (slightly) for the length, but this book provided a very interesting look at the Nazi regime before they became the world’s canonical example of evil.

Page 19 (The practiced good cop/bad cop of the tyrant.):

And Hitler himself had begun to seem like a more temperate actor than might have been predicted given the violence that had swept Germany earlier in the year. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi Party burned unwelcome books — Einstein, Freud, the brothers Mann, and many others — in great pyres throughout Germany, but seven days later Hitler declared himself committed to peace and went so far as to pledge complete disarmament if other countries followed suit. The world swooned with relief.

Page 28 (There is much in the book about anti-Semitic attitudes in the US in the 1930s and the indifference to what was happening to the Jews in Germany.):

But Roosevelt understood that the political costs of any public condemnation of Nazi persecution or any obvious effort to ease the entry of Jews into America were likely to be immense, because American political discourse had framed the Jewish problem as an immigration problem. Germany’s persecution of Jews raised the specter of a vast influx of Jewish refugees at a time when America was reeling from the Depression. The isolationists added another dimension to the debate by insisting, as did Hitler’s government, that Nazi oppression of Germany’s Jews was a domestic German affair and thus none of America’s business.

Page 29 (After reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the US might not have entered the war against Germany and may have gone down an isolationist path that led towards fascism.):

Indeed, anti-immigration sentiment in America would remain strong into 1938, when a Fortune poll reported that some two-thirds of those surveyed favored keeping refugees out of the country.

Page 38:

When the conversation turned to Germany’s persecution of Jews, Colonel House urged Dodd to do all he could “to ameliorate Jewish sufferings” but added a caveat: “the Jews should not be allowed to dominate economic or intellectual life in Berlin as they have done for a long time. “In this, Colonel House expressed a sentiment pervasive in America, that Germany’s Jews were at least partly responsible for their own troubles.

Page 40 (This is in reference to Dodd’s daughter Martha, who was 24 when he was named ambassador and accompanied him to Berlin.):

She knew little of international politics and by her own admission did not appreciate the gravity of what was occurring in Germany. She saw Hitler as “a clown who looked like Charlie Chaplin.” Like many others in America at this time and elsewhere in the world, she could not imagine him lasting very long or being taken seriously.

Page 41:

In this she reflected the attitude of a surprising proportion of other Americans, as captured in the 1930s by practitioners of the then-emerging art of public-opinion polling. One poll found that 41 percent of those contacted believed Jews had “too much power in the United States”; another found that one-fifth wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States.” (A poll taken decades in the future, in 2009, would find that the total of Americans who believed Jews had too much power had shrunk to 13 percent.)

Page 54 (The “if it’s not happening to me, it must not be happening” response to injustice.):

When Martha left her hotel she witnessed no violence, saw no one cowering in fear, felt no oppression. The city was a delight.

Page 56 (Read more about Coordination):

Beneath the surface, however, Germany had undergone a rapid and sweeping revolution that reached deep into the fabric of daily life. It had occurred quietly and largely out of easy view. At its core was a government campaign called Gleichschaltung — meaning “Coordination” — to bring citizens, government ministries, universities, and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes.

Page 56 (This paragraph, and the one that follows below, about “self-coordination” was one of the most chilling I read…I had to put the book down for a bit after this.):

“Coordination” occurred with astonishing speed, even in sectors of life not directly targeted by specific laws, as Germans willingly placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule, a phenomenon that became known as Selbstgleichschaltung, or “self-coordination.” Change came to Germany so quickly and across such a wide front that German citizens who left the country for business or travel returned to find everything around them altered, as if they were characters in a horror movie who come back to find that people who once were their friends, clients, patients, and customers have become different in ways hard to discern.

Page 57:

The Gestapo’s reputation for omniscience and malevolence arose from a confluence of two phenomena: first, a political climate in which merely criticizing the government could get one arrested, and second, the existence of a populace eager not just to step in line and become coordinated but also to use Nazi sensitivities to satisfy individual needs and salve jealousies. One study of Nazi records found that of a sample of 213 denunciations, 37 percent arose not from heartfelt political belief but from private conflicts, with the trigger often breathtakingly trivial. In October 1933, for example, the clerk at a grocery store turned in a cranky customer who had stubbornly insisted on receiving three pfennigs in change. The clerk accused her of failure to pay taxes. Germans denounced one another with such gusto that senior Nazi officials urged the populace to be more discriminating as to what circumstances might justify a report to the police. Hitler himself acknowledged, in a remark to his minister of justice, “we are living at present in a sea of denunciations and human meanness.”

Page 58:

“Hardly anyone thought that the threats against the Jews were meant seriously,” wrote Carl Zuckmayer, a Jewish writer. “Even many Jews considered the savage anti-Semitic rantings of the Nazis merely a propaganda device, a line the Nazis would drop as soon as they won governmental power and were entrusted with public responsibilities.” Although a song popular among Storm Troopers bore the title “When Jewish Blood Spurts from My Knife,” by the time of the Dodds’ arrival violence against Jews had begun to wane. Incidents were sporadic, isolated. “It was easy to be reassured,” wrote historian John Dippel in a study of why many Jews decided to stay in Germany. “On the surface, much of daily life remained as it had been before Hitler came to power. Nazi attacks on the Jews were like summer thunderstorms that came and went quickly, leaving an eerie calm.”

Page 66 (LOL, a “moderate nationalist regime”):

Neurath saw himself as a sobering force in the government and believed he could help control Hitler and his party. As one peer put it, “He was trying to train the Nazis and turn them into really serviceable partners in a moderate nationalist regime.”

Page 68:

It was a problem Messersmith had noticed time and again. Those who lived in Germany and who paid attention understood that something fundamental had changed and that a darkness had settled over the landscape. Visitors failed to see it.

Page 81:

Dodd reinterated his commitment to objectivity and understanding in an August 12 letter to Roosevelt, in which he wrote that while he did not approve of Germany’s treatment of Jews or Hitler’s drive to restore the country’s military power, “fundamentally, I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes.”

Page 84 (Yeah, where did all those nice houses come from?):

The Dodds found many properties to choose from, though at first they failed to ask themselves why so many grand old mansions were available for lease so fully and luxuriously furnished, with ornate tables and chairs, gleaming pianos, and rare vases, maps, and books still in place.

Page 85 (Dodd’s Jewish landlord, who lived in the attic, rented his house to Dodd at a significant discount to gain protection from state persecution of Jews.):

Panofsky was sufficiently wealthy that he did not need the income from the lease, but he had seen enough since Hitler’s appointment as chancellor to know that no Jew, no matter how prominent, was safe from Nazi persecution. He offered 27a to the new ambassador with the express intention of gaining for himself and his mother an enhanced level of physical protection, calculating that surely even the Storm Troopers would not risk the international outcry likely to arise from an attack on the house shared by the American ambassador.

Page 94 (Nazi forces would often beat people who failed to “Heil Hitler!”, even non-Germans. This order did not stop the beatings.):

The next day, Saturday, August 19, a senior government official notified Vice Consul Raymond Geist that an order had been issued to the SA and SS stating that foreigners were not expected to give or return the Hitler salute.

Page 97:

She too had been shaken by the episode, but she did not let it tarnish her overall view of the country and the revival of spirit caused by the Nazi revolution. “I tried in a self-conscious way to justify the action of the Nazis, to insist that we should not condemn without knowing the whole story.”

Page 105:

Messersmith met with Dodd and asked whether the time had come for the State Department to issue a definitive warning against travel in Germany. Such a warning, both men knew, would have a devastating effect on Nazi prestige. Dodd favored restraint. From the perspective of his role as ambassador, he found these attacks more nuisance than dire emergency and in fact tried whenever possible to limit press attention.

Page 108:

Göring too seemed a relatively benign character, at least as compared with Hitler. Sigrid Schultz found him the most tolerable of the senior Nazis because at least “you felt you could be in the same room with the man,” whereas Hitler, she said, “kind of turned my stomach.” One of the American embassy’s officers, John C. White, said years later, “I was always rather favorably impressed by Göring. … If any Nazi was likeable, I suppose he came nearest to it.”

Page 115:

Martha’s love life took a dark turn when she was introduced to Rudolf Diels, the young chief of the Gestapo. He moved with ease and confidence, yet unlike Putzi Hanfstaengl, who invaded a room, he entered unobtrusively, seeping in like a malevolent fog.

Page 117:

Yet under Diels the Gestapo played a complex role. In the weeks following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Diels’s Gestapo acted as a curb against a wave of violence by the SA, during which Storm Troopers dragged thousands of victims to their makeshift prisons. Diels led raids to close them and found prisoners in appalling conditions, beaten and garishly bruised, limbs broken, near starvation, “like a mass of inanimate clay,” he wrote, “absurd puppets with lifeless eyes, burning with fever, their bodies sagging.”

Page 118:

During a gathering of foreign correspondents at Putzi Hanfstaengl’s home, Diels told the reporters, “The value of the SA and the SS, seen from my viewpoint of inspector-general responsible for the suppression of subversive tendencies and activities, lies in the fact that they spread terror. That is a wholesome thing.”

Page 130 (“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” -Maya Angelou):

Dodd said, “You cannot expect world opinion of your conduct to moderate so long as eminent leaders like Hitler and Goebbels announce from platforms, as in Nuremberg, that all Jews must be wiped off the earth.”

Page 134 (“A kind of daily suspense” is definitely a tool in the political toolbox today. The news media practices this as well.):

Klemperer detected a certain “hysteria of language” in the new flood of decrees, alarms, and intimidation — “This perpetual threatening with the death penalty!” — and in strange, inexplicable episodes of paranoid excess, like the recent nationwide search. In all this Klemperer saw a deliberate effort to generate a kind of daily suspense, “copied from American cinema and thrillers,” that helped keep people in line. He also gauged it to be a manifestation of insecurity among those in power.

Page 135:

Persecution of Jews continued in ever more subtle and wide-ranging form as the process of Gleichschaltung advanced. In September the government established the Reich Chamber of Culture, under the control of Goebbels, to bring musicians, actors, painters, writers, reporters, and filmmakers into ideological and, especially, racial alignment. In early October the government enacted the Editorial Law, which banned Jews from employment by newspapers and publishers and was to take effect on January 1, 1934. No realm was too petty: The Ministry of Posts ruled that henceforth when trying to spell a word over the telephone a caller could no longer say “D as in David,” because “David” was a Jewish name. The caller had to use “Dora.” “Samuel” became “Siegfried.” And so forth.

Page 136 (George Messersmith was the head of the US Consulate in Germany from 1930 to 1934 and was one of the few people at the time who properly diagnosed the Nazi threat. In a 1933 letter to the US State Department, he called Hitler and his cronies “psychopathic cases” that would “ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere”.):

Messersmith proposed that one solution might be “forcible intervention from the outside.” But he warned that such an action would have to come soon. “If there were intervention by other powers now, probably about half of the population would still look upon it as deliverance,” he wrote. “If it is delayed too long, such intervention might meet a practically united Germany.” One fact was certain, Messersmith believed: Germany now posed a real and grave threat to the world. He called it “the sore spot which may disturb our peace for years to come.”

Page 148 (On a speech Dodd gave in Berlin in October 1933 in front of an audience that included Joseph Goebbels.):

He gave the talk the innocuous title “Economic Nationalism.” By citing the rise and fall of Caesar and episodes from French, English, and U.S. history, Dodd sought to warn of the dangers “of arbitrary and minority” government without ever actually mentioning contemporary Germany. It was not the kind of thing a traditional diplomat might have undertaken, but Dodd saw it as simply fulfilling Roosevelt’s original mandate.

Page 149 (The reaction to Dodd’s speech):

“When the thing was over about every German present showed and expressed a kind of approval which revealed the thought: ‘You have said what all of us have been denied the right to say.’” An official of the Deutsche Bank called to express his own agreement. He told Dodd, “Silent, but anxious Germany, above all the business and University Germany, is entirely with you and most thankful that you are here and can say what we can not say.”

Page 154 (Hanfstaengl, a confidant of Hitler, tried to set up Hitler with Martha Dodd as a moderating influence.):

Putzi Hanfstaengl knew of Martha’s various romantic relationships, but by the fall of 1933 he had begun to imagine for her a new partner. Having come to feel that Hitler would be a much more reasonable leader if only he fell in love, Hanfstaengl appointed himself matchmaker.

Page 154 (Shocker that Hitler was controlling and abusive when it came to women.):

Hitler liked women, but more as stage decoration than as sources of intimacy and love. There had been talk of numerous liaisons, typically with women much younger than he — in one case a sixteen-year-old named Maria Reiter. One woman, Eva Braun, was twenty-three years his junior and had been an intermittent companion since 1929. So far, however, Hitler’s only all-consuming affair had been with his young niece, Geli Raubal. She was found shot to death in Hitler’s apartment, his revolver nearby. The most likely explanation was suicide, her means of escaping Hitler’s jealous and oppressive affection — his “clammy possessiveness, “as historian Ian Kershaw put it.

Page 157 (The banality of evil…):

Apart from his mustache and his eyes, the features of his face were indistinct and unimpressive, as if begun in clay but never fired. Recalling his first impression of Hitler, Hanfstaengl wrote, “Hitler looked like a suburban hairdresser on his day off.”

Page 159 (On Dodd’s meeting with Hitler):

Though the session had been difficult and strange, Dodd nonetheless left the chancellery feeling convinced that Hitler was sincere about wanting peace.

Page 159:

“We must keep in mind, I believe, that when Hitler says anything he for the moment convinces himself that it is true. He is basically sincere; but he is at the same time a fanatic.”

Page 161 (Martha Dodd met Hitler once briefly):

At this vantage, she wrote, the mustache “didn’t seem as ridiculous as it appeared in pictures — in fact, I scarcely noticed it.” What she did notice were his eyes. She had heard elsewhere that there was something piercing and intense about his gaze, and now, immediately, she understood. “Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable — they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”

Page 165 (I didn’t highlight this, but at several points in the book, officials from the US and other countries acknowledged that they also had a “Jewish problem”, i.e. the Jews had too much power, money, and influence.):

Dodd believed that one artifact of past excess — “another curious hangover,” he told Phillips — was that his embassy had too many personnel, in particular, too many who were Jewish. “We have six or eight members of the ‘chosen race’ here who serve in most useful but conspicuous positions,” he wrote. Several were his best workers, he acknowledged, but he feared that their presence on his staff impaired the embassy’s relationship with Hitler’s government and thus impeded the day-to-day operation of the embassy.

Page 186 (Again with the belief that you can control an irrational & psychopathic nationalist.):

Papen was a protege of President Hindenburg, who affectionately called him Franzchen, or Little Franz. With Hindenburg in his camp, Papen and fellow intriguers had imagined they could control Hitler. “I have Hindenburg’s confidence,” Papen once crowed. “Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.” It was possibly the greatest miscalculation of the twentieth century. As historian John Wheeler-Bennett put it, “Not until they had riveted the fetters upon their own wrists did they realize who indeed was captive and who captor.”

Page 189 (Relevant to this are Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on lies. See also Donald Trump’s “fanciful thinking” about 9/11 and his continuing condemnation of the Central Park Five.):

An odd kind of fanciful thinking seemed to have bedazzled Germany, to the highest levels of government. Earlier in the year, for example, Göring had claimed with utter sobriety that three hundred German Americans had been murdered in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia at the start of the past world war.

Page 213 (Subtle oppression is still oppression and sets the stage for the later acceptance of overt & violent oppression.):

But Schweitzer understood this was in large part an illusion. Overt violence against Jews did appear to have receded, but a more subtle oppression had settled in its place. “What our friend had failed to see from outward appearances is the tragedy that is befalling daily the job holders who are gradually losing their positions,” Schweitzer wrote. He gave the example of Berlin’s department stores, typically owned and staffed by Jews. “While on the one hand one can observe a Jewish department store crowded as usual with non-Jews and Jews alike, one can observe in the very next department store the total absence of a single Jewish employee.”

Page 223 (Even rumors are enough to change behavior when dealing with an authoritarian regime.):

A common story had begun to circulate: One man telephones another and in the course of their conversation happens to ask, “How is Uncle Adolf?” Soon afterward the secret police appear at his door and insist that he prove that he really does have an Uncle Adolf and that the question was not in fact a coded reference to Hitler. Germans grew reluctant to stay in communal ski lodges, fearing they might talk in their sleep. They postponed surgeries because of the lip-loosening effects of anesthetic.

Page 225:

You lingered at street corners a beat or two longer to see if the faces you saw at the last corner had now turned up at this one. In the most casual of circumstances you spoke carefully and paid attention to those around you in a way you never had before. Berliners came to practice what became known as “the German glance” — der deutsche Blick — a quick look in all directions when encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street.

Page 226:

An American professor who was a friend of the Dodds, Peter Olden, wrote to Dodd on January 30, 1934, to tell him he had received a message from his brother-in-law in Germany in which the man described a code he planned to use in all further correspondence. The word “rain,” in any context, would mean he had been placed in a concentration camp. The word “snow” would mean he was being tortured. “It seems absolutely unbelievable,” Olden told Dodd. “If you think that this is really something in the nature of a bad joke, I wonder if you could mention so in a letter to me.”

Page 229 (Hitler had been saying this shit since the 1920s and no one took him seriously.):

First Hitler spoke of broader matters. Germany, he declared, needed more room in which to expand, “more living space for our surplus population. “And Germany, he said, must be ready to take it. “The Western powers will never yield this vital space to us, “Hitler said.”That is why a series of decisive blows may become necessary - first in the West, and then in the East.”

Page 241 (A reminder that the US was also treating millions of people as second-class citizens at this time.):

After studying the resolution, Judge Moore concluded that it could only put Roosevelt “in an embarrassing position.” Moore explained: “If he declined to comply with the request, he would be subjected to considerable criticism. On the other hand, if he complied with it he would not only incur the resentment of the German Government, but might be involved in a very acrimonious discussion with that Government which conceivably might, for example, ask him to explain why the negroes of this country do not fully enjoy the right of suffrage; why the lynching of negroes in Senator Tydings’ State and other States is not prevented or severely punished; and how the anti-Semitic feeling in the United States, which unfortunately seems to be growing, is not checked.”

Page 265:

He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small bag of candy fruit drops. Lutschbonbons. Bella had loved them as a child.” Have one,” Hanfstaengl said. “They are made especially for the Führer.” She chose one. Just before she popped it into her mouth she saw that it was embossed with a swastika. Even fruit drops had been “coordinated.”

Page 270 (Wow, “inner emigration”.):

In the months following Hitler’s ascension to chancellor, the German writers who were not outright Nazis had quickly divided into two camps — those who believed it was immoral to remain in Germany and those who felt the best strategy was to stay put, recede as much as possible from the world, and wait for the collapse of the Hitler regime. The latter approach became known as “inner emigration,” and was the path Fallada had chosen.

Page 273:

Even so, Fallada made more and more concessions, eventually allowing Goebbels to script the ending of his next novel, Iron Gustav, which depicted the hardships of life during the past world war. Fallada saw this as a prudent concession. “I do not like grand gestures,” he wrote; “being slaughtered before the tyrant’s throne, senselessly, to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of my children, that is not my way.” He recognized, however, that his various capitulations took a toll on his writing. He wrote to his mother that he was not satisfied with his work. “I cannot act as I want to — if I want to stay alive. And so a fool gives less than he has.” Other writers, in exile, watched with disdain as Fallada and his fellow inner emigrants surrendered to government tastes and demands. Thomas Mann, who lived abroad throughout the Hitler years, later wrote their epitaph: “It may be superstitious belief, but in my eyes, any books which could be printed at all in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are worse than worthless and not objects one wishes to touch. A stench of blood and shame attaches to them. They should all be pulped.”

Page 279 (Nazi leaders had already begun using their power to amass opulent wealth.):

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Göring said, “in a few minutes you will witness a unique display of nature at work.” He gestured toward an iron cage. “In this cage is a powerful male bison, an animal almost unheard of on the Continent. … He will meet here, before your very eyes, the female of his species. Please be quiet and don’t be afraid.” Göring’s keepers opened the cage. “Ivan the Terrible,” Göring commanded, “I order you to leave the cage.” The bull did not move. Göring repeated his command. Once again the bull ignored him. The keepers now attempted to prod Ivan into action. The photographers readied themselves for the lustful charge certain to ensue. Britain’s Ambassador Phipps wrote in his diary that the bull emerged from the cage “with the utmost reluctance, and, after eyeing the cows somewhat sadly, tried to return to it.” Phipps also described the affair in a later memorandum to London that became famous within the British foreign office as “the bison dispatch.”

Page 282:

The next day Phipps wrote about Göring’s open house in his diary. “The whole proceedings were so strange as at times to convey a feeling of unreality,” he wrote, but the episode had provided him a valuable if unsettling insight into the nature of Nazi rule. “The chief impression was that of the most pathetic naivete of General Göring, who showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoilt child: his primeval woods, his bison and birds, his shooting-box and lake and bathing beach, his blond ‘private secretary,’ his wife’s mausoleum and swans and sarsen stones. … And then I remembered there were other toys, less innocent though winged, and these might some day be launched on their murderous mission in the same childlike spirit and with the same childlike glee.”

Page 306 (during the aforementioned Night of the Long Knives purge):

In Munich, Hitler read through a list of the prisoners and marked an “X” next to six names. He ordered all six shot immediately. An SS squad did so, telling the men just before firing, “You have been condemned to death by the Führer! Heil Hitler.” The ever-obliging Rudolf Hess offered to shoot Röhm himself, but Hitler did not yet order his death. For the moment, even he found the idea of killing a longtime friend to be abhorrent.

Page 321 (in the aftermath of the purge):

As the weekend progressed, the Dodds learned that a new phrase was making the rounds in Berlin, to be deployed upon encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street, ideally with a sardonic lift of one eyebrow: “Lebst du noch?” Which meant, “Are you still among the living?”

Page 328:

Throughout that first year in Germany, Dodd had been struck again and again by the strange indifference to atrocity that had settled over the nation, the willingness of the populace and of the moderate elements in the government to accept each new oppressive decree, each new act of violence, without protest. It was as if he had entered the dark forest of a fairy tale where all the rules of right and wrong were upended.

Page 333:

Hitler’s purge would become known as “The Night of the Long Knives” and in time would be considered one of the most important episodes in his ascent, the first act in the great tragedy of appeasement. Initially, however, its significance was lost. No government recalled its ambassador or filed a protest; the populace did not rise in revulsion.

Page 334 (Hitler cracked down on the Storm Troopers because their leadership was against him, but their doing of bad deeds were soon replaced by the SS.):

The controlled press, not surprisingly, praised Hitler for his decisive behavior, and among the public his popularity soared. So weary had Germans become of the Storm Troopers’ intrusions in their lives that the purge seemed like a godsend. An intelligence report from the exiled Social Democrats found that many Germans were “extolling Hitler for his ruthless determination” and that many in the working class “have also become enslaved to the uncritical deification of Hitler.”

Page 336 (on the good treatment of horses in Germany):

“At a time when hundreds of men have been put to death without trial or any sort of evidence of guilt, and when the population literally trembles with fear, animals have rights guaranteed them which men and women cannot think of expecting.”

Page 340 (Dodd eventually came to see the danger of Nazi Germany):

He became one of the few voices in U.S. government to warn of the true ambitions of Hitler and the dangers of America’s isolationist stance. He told Secretary Hull in a letter dated August 30, 1934, “With Germany united as it has never before been, there is feverish arming and drilling of 1,500,000 men, all of whom are taught every day to believe that continental Europe must be subordinated to them.” He added, “I think we must abandon our so-called isolation.” He wrote to the army chief of staff, Douglas MacArthur, “In my judgment, the German authorities are preparing for a great continental struggle. There is ample evidence. It is only a question of time.”

Page 351:

Dodd’s sorrow and loneliness took a toll on his already fragile health, but still he pressed on and gave lectures around the country, in Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio, always reprising the same themes — that Hitler and Nazism posed a great risk to the world, that a European war was inevitable, and that once war began the United States would find it impossible to remain aloof. One lecture drew an audience of seven thousand people. In a June 10, 1938, speech in Boston, at the Harvard Club — that den of privilege — Dodd talked of Hitler’s hatred of Jews and warned that his true intent was “to kill them all.”

Dodd died in February 1940. He lived long enough to witness the start of Hitler’s war on Europe but not long enough to see America’s isolationist come to an end or Hitler’s attempt to kill all the Jews.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Conversation with Greta Thunberg

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2019

Aoc Thunberg

Late last month, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and climate activist Greta Thunberg had a lengthy conversation over video chat about leadership, climate change, politics, and activism.

GT: Many people, especially in the US, see countries like Sweden or Norway or Finland as role models — we have such a clean energy sector, and so on. That may be true, but we are not role models. Sweden is one of the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to the highest ecological footprints, according to the WWF — if you count the consumer index, then we are among the worst per capita.

In Sweden, the most common argument that we shouldn’t act is that we are such a small country with only 10 million inhabitants — we should focus more on helping other countries. That is so incredibly frustrating, because why should we argue about who or what needs to change first? Why not take the leading role?

AOC: We hear the same exact argument here. And this is the United States of America! People say, “Well, we should wait for China to do something.” There’s this political culture of people trying to say America First — that the US is the best nation in the world, yet at the same time they’re saying, “Well, China’s not doing it, why should we?”

And I think it’s the same argument: are we going to choose to lead, or are we going to sit on our hands? It seems as if they take pride in leading on fracking, on being the number one in oil, in consumption, in single-use plastics. But they don’t seem to want to take pride in leading on the environment and leading for our children.

Early on in the conversation, they touched on something that’s always bothered me in news stories about or criticism of Thunberg: her age.

AOC: One of the things I’m interested in hearing from you is that often people say, “Don’t politicise young people.” It’s almost a taboo. That to have someone as young as you coming out in favour of political positions is manipulative or wrong. I find it very condescending, as though, especially in this day and age with the access to information we have, you can’t form your own opinions and advocate for yourself. I’m interested in how you approach that — if anyone brings that up with you?

GT: That happens all the time. That’s basically all I hear. The most common criticism I get is that I’m being manipulated and you shouldn’t use children in political ways, because that is abuse, and I can’t think for myself and so on. And I think that is so annoying! I’m also allowed to have a say — why shouldn’t I be able to form my own opinion and try to change people’s minds?

But I’m sure you hear that a lot, too; that you’re too young and too inexperienced. When I see all the hate you receive for that, I honestly can’t believe how you manage to stay so strong.

In disciplines as varied as academics, athletics, chess, and art, the achievements of young people are celebrated, but Thunberg expresses her ideas and opinions about how to address climate change and starts a massive movement of young people around the globe and suddenly 16 is too young to participate in our culture and political process? Bullshit.

The Forgotten Power of Government

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2019

David Remnick recently interviewed Robert Caro and if you’ve read Caro’s book, Working, or the New Yorker article based on the book, there’s not much new here, but this exchange at the end is worth highlighting:

Remnick: We are living in a political moment, and when you watch the current President it seems that one of the saving graces is that, for all his erratic thinking, insulting thinking, his insults directed at minority groups — and, well, practically everyone — that he’s not that good at the exercise of power. He won the election, but if he had Johnsonian capacities in terms of the exercise of power, we might be even in deeper trouble than we already are.

Caro: Well, I think that that’s correct. And I think, [what] you say about Johnson, what does it mean to [be like] Johnson? You say, well, he wins election over Barry Goldwater, in 1964, by this tremendous majority. So the next morning he’s on the phone — or the morning after, he’s still hoarse the day of the election — calling the House Majority Leader and saying, “You know, the only thing that can hold this up here is the Rules Committee. Now is the moment to change the Rules Committee. Here’s how to do it.” And in the next couple of months he passes Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the voting-rights bill… I’m forgetting the rest of it. The most amazing — he could seize a moment because of this political genius that he has, and change, really, the face of America. It’s hard to remember a day when there wasn’t Medicare or Medicaid.

Remnick: You write in “Working” that there is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power. But there’s also great good that can come out of it. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this, you write. Why have we forgotten it?

Caro: You ask very good questions. I think we’ve forgotten it because we’ve had too many Presidents who don’t use political power — you say, what are things that change people’s lives? In the last century, Social Security, Medicare-like, right now I’m working on a section that, you could say, if I wanted to call it this, is what it was like to be old and sick in America before Medicare. And as I’m doing this I’m thinking, People aren’t even going to be able to imagine this. What was it like to be old in America before Social Security? People can’t imagine it. The power of government to do good for people is immense. And I think we have forgotten that power.

The (Continuing) Case for Reparations

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2019

Five years after The Atlantic published his The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke before a House committee and once again made the case for the United States government making reparations for slavery. Here is Coates’ full opening statement, a succinct & powerful 5 minutes:

The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.

The Atlantic has the full text of his statement.

How Do You Feel About the American Flag?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2019

In Flag Code, Karen Good Marable shares her experience of the American flag growing up and in the wake of the 2016 election. This paragraph in particular resonated with me unexpectedly:

Perhaps it was in this moment I happened upon the house, unremarkable but for a small American flag jutting out of its frame like a rhinoceros horn. I hesitated at the sight of the banner so close to my home and was suddenly wary. Weary. I saw the flag and without thinking thought it code: Patriot. MAGA. Make everything white again. Even with all I know about the history of Black people in this country, I’ve never been afraid of the flag. On this day, however, I felt how I feel when I see the Confederate flag: Unsafe. My breath shallowed. When did this happen? When did the sight of an American flag flying from a private residence become something that gave me pause? Perhaps it was the untrusted whiteness of my new neighborhood. Perhaps my reaction was a kind of PTSD, a result of that summer’s back-to-back televised police killings of unarmed Black men or the murders at Mother Emanuel the year before. Perhaps it was the ridiculous victory of Trump. I saw the flag and remembered what I had been warned time and again about “progressive” Atlanta: Drive thirty minutes outside of the perimeter in any direction and it’s a whole different story.

While I share little of Marable’s life experience, I realized while reading her piece that I’ve developed a similar unsafe feeling about the flag. It’s not a voluntary thing — it’s something that has built up over two+ years of seeing American flags in photos of MAGA rallies & white nationalist marches but not so much at Black Lives Matter marches or pro-choice rallies. I’m sure you’ve also noticed the correlation between seeing an American flag emoji in someone’s Twitter bio next to the MAGA hashtag and the tendency of that person to act like a misogynist asshole. While it’s hardly a new thing, the aggressive, intolerant, nationalistic right has been particularly effective in visibly wrapping themselves in the flag lately. It’s great branding for them, but it’s not doing the flag any favors.

Deepfakes: Imagine All the People

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 13, 2019

Here is a video of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Kim Jong Un, and other world leaders lip-syncing along to John Lennon’s Imagine:

Of course this isn’t real. The video was done by a company called Canny AI, which offers services like “replace the dialogue in any footage” and “lip-sync your dubbed content in any language”. That’s cool and all — picture episodes of Game of Thrones or Fleabag where the actors automagically lip-sync along to dubbed French or Chinese — but this technique can also be used to easily create what are referred to as deepfakes, videos made using AI techniques in which people convincingly say and do things they actually did not do or say. Like this video of Mark Zuckerberg finally telling the truth about Facebook. Or this seriously weird Steve Buscemi / Jennifer Lawrence mashup:

Or Bill Hader’s face morphing into Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face every time he impersonates him:

What should we do about these kinds of videos? Social media sites have been removing some videos intended to mislead or confuse people, but notably Facebook has refused to take the Zuckerberg video down (as well as a slowed-down video of Nancy Pelosi in which she appears drunk). Congress is moving ahead with a hearing on deepfakes and the introduction of a related bill:

The draft bill, a product of several months of discussion with computer scientists, disinformation experts, and human rights advocates, will include three provisions. The first would require companies and researchers who create tools that can be used to make deepfakes to automatically add watermarks to forged creations.

The second would require social-media companies to build better manipulation detection directly into their platforms. Finally, the third provision would create sanctions, like fines or even jail time, to punish offenders for creating malicious deepfakes that harm individuals or threaten national security. In particular, it would attempt to introduce a new mechanism for legal recourse if people’s reputations are damaged by synthetic media.

I’m hopeful this bill will crack down on the malicious use of deepfakes and other manipulated videos but leave ample room for delightful art and culture hacking like the Hader/Schwarzenegger thing or one of my all-time favorite videos, a slowed-down Jeff Goldblum extolling the virtues of the internet in an Apple ad:

“Internet? I’d say internet!”

Jon Stewart’s Defense of 9/11 First Responders

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2019

If you didn’t have the opportunity yesterday to watch Jon Stewart’s scathing and powerful opening statement before a House subcommittee about providing health benefits for surviving 9/11 first responders, you really should; it’s quite something:

As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting healthcare and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to. Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders and in front of me a nearly empty Congress.

Shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country and it is a stain on this institution. You should be ashamed of yourselves, for those that aren’t here, but you won’t be. Because accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber.

On Twitter, archivist Jason Scott shared a cache of over 2300 photos taken by a worker at Ground Zero during the cleanup process in September & October 2001. These photos provide a unique and documentary view of the work being done there, work on behalf of Americans everywhere that this worker, and many others, paid for with his life. Scott:

So, it would probably be useful to interview the worker who took all these photos, who walked around the grounds, who captured these unique images of Ground Zero from all over the space, showing the effort being done to clear the wreckage.

Except we can’t.

He’s dead.

Ground Zero Photos

Ground Zero Photos

The parallels of all this to HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries is left as an exercise to the reader.

Update: The House subcommittee approved extending the compensation fund for 9/11 first responders until 2090. The bill is expected to pass a full House vote but the Senate is anyone (but Mitch McConnell’s) guess.

Update: For his efforts, one of the first responders gifted Stewart a firefighter’s jacket that belonged to a good friend of his, now deceased:

America Doesn’t Care About Its Children

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2019

Annie Lowrey writing for The Atlantic last summer, How America Treats Its Own Children.

This is a country that professes to care about children at their youngest and most fragile. But here, for every 100,000 live births, 28 women die in childbirth or shortly thereafter, compared with 11 in Canada. This ratio has more than doubled since 1990, despite the medical advances made in those decades, where it has gone down in other high-income countries. Black women are three times as likely to die giving birth or shortly after birth as white women. Black women in the United States die having a child at roughly the same rate as women in Mongolia.

It is a country that professes to care for babies. But in the United States, the infant death rate is twice as high as in similarly wealthy countries. Premature birth and low birth weight are common ailments, with lifelong and even intergenerational effects.

This is a country that attempts to support low-income mothers with tax benefits, food stamps, health insurance, and the Women, Infants, and Children program. Still, it spends less of its gross domestic product on family benefits than all other OECD countries, save for Mexico and Turkey, which are far, far less wealthy. It spends less than half as much as Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Sweden.

Higher rates of incarceration, lack of access to medical care, little or no parental leave for child birth, poor education, low government spending on children…the list goes on and on. Wealthy and middle-class parents can afford to provide many of these things for their children, but if you’re poor, forget about it. This is shameful…America’s “every person for themselves” ethos should not extend to our children.

Bill Nye to Climate Change Naysayers: “Grow the Fuck Up”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

In the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver discusses the Green New Deal and carbon pricing. Oliver invited beloved children’s science educator Bill Nye to help him explain a few things and Nye delivered a short but passionate speech about what’s at stake in the political battle over climate change:

I’ve got an experiment for you. Safety glasses on. By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on earth could go up another four to eight degrees. What I’m saying is: the planet’s on fucking fire!

There are a lot of things we could do to put it out. Are any of them free? No, of course not. Nothing’s free you idiots! Grow the fuck up, you’re not children anymore. I didn’t mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were 12. But you’re adults now and this is an actual crisis, got it? Safety glasses off, motherfuckers.

The entire segment is worth watching (particularly if you haven’t been keeping up on what the Green New Deal actually is) but Nye’s closing remarks are at ~18:30 for the impatient.

Balanced Anarchy or Open Society?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2019

A clip from 1985 of James Burke talking about how microchips will change politics by making it possible for everyone’s opinion about the nature of the world to be heard and tallied. This slightly longer version of the same clip is worth watching:

You can also watch the entire episode from which it was taken.

Personal computing and the internet changed (and continues to change) the balance of power in the world so much and with such speed that we still can’t comprehend it. Ordinary people have more power today than they have ever had in history, but already powerful people have seen their potential reach and influence grow even more quickly. The system enabled by connected microchips can make everyone heard, but it can also make a reality TV star President of the United States. And this dynamic is still very young…we’re in for a wild ride, folks.

A Short Summary of the Contemporary Republican Party’s Strategy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2019

In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky gave a short summary of how the modern Republican Party coalition between the rich and the religious, white working class was built, decade by decade.

They have a primary constituency, a real constituency: extreme wealth and corporate power. That’s who they have to serve. That’s their constituency. You can’t get votes that way, so you have to do something else to get votes. What do you do to get votes? This was begun by Richard Nixon with the Southern strategy: try to pick up racists in the South. The mid-1970s, Paul Weyrich, one of the Republican strategists, hit on a brilliant idea. Northern Catholics voted Democratic, tended to vote Democratic, a lot of them working-class. The Republicans could pick up that vote by pretending — crucially, “pretending” — to be opposed to abortion. By the same pretense, they could pick up the evangelical vote. Those are big votes — evangelicals, northern Catholics. Notice the word “pretense.” It’s crucial. You go back to the 1960s, every leading Republican figure was strongly, what we call now, pro-choice. The Republican Party position was — that’s Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, all the leadership — their position was: Abortion is not the government’s business; it’s private business — government has nothing to say about it. They turned almost on a dime in order to try to pick up a voting base on what are called cultural issues.

Same with gun rights. Gun rights become a matter of holy writ because you can pick up part of the population that way. In fact, what they’ve done is put together a coalition of voters based on issues that are basically, you know, tolerable to the establishment, but they don’t like it. OK? And they’ve got to hold that, those two constituencies, together. The real constituency of wealth and corporate power, they’re taken care of by the actual legislation.

Cory Doctorow’s translation of Chomsky’s remarks is even shorter and, not surprisingly, much more entertaining:

Chomsky lays out the history of the GOP from Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when the party figured out that the way to large numbers of working people to vote for policies that made a tiny minority of rich people richer was to quietly support racism, which would fuse together a coalition of racists and the super-rich. By Reagan’s time, the coalition was beefed up with throngs of religious fanatics, brought in by adopting brutal anti-abortion policies. Then the GOP recruited paranoid musketfuckers by adopting doctrinal opposition to any form of gun control. Constituency by constituency, the GOP became a big tent for deranged, paranoid, bigoted and misogynist elements, all reliably showing up to vote for policies that would send billions into the pockets of a tiny rump of wealthy people who represented the party’s establishment.

Appealing to those fears and issues has been very effective and has been joined in recent years by conservatives and conservative media eroding trust in many of America’s familiar institutions, such as the scientific community, journalism, and government (some of which erosion, to be fair, has been self-inflicted). Keep in mind that as recently as 10 years ago, Republicans believed in climate science until their constituency (aka the wealthy industrialists) steered them away from that path.

What’s the corresponding explanation for the Democratic Party? It seems to me that their strategy over the past 40 years, aside from a blip or two here and there, has mainly been in reaction to the much more organized and single-minded Republican strategy.

Only Mass Protests Can Prevent “an Ecological Apocalypse”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2019

In an opinion piece for the Guardian, George Monbiot argues that mass protests are “essential” to force a political response to climate change.

As the environmental crisis accelerates, and as protest movements like YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion make it harder not to see what we face, people discover more inventive means of shutting their eyes and shedding responsibility. Underlying these excuses is a deep-rooted belief that if we really are in trouble, someone somewhere will come to our rescue: “they” won’t let it happen. But there is no they, just us.

The political class, as anyone who has followed its progress over the past three years can surely now see, is chaotic, unwilling and, in isolation, strategically incapable of addressing even short-term crises, let alone a vast existential predicament.

This paragraph neatly summarizes a bunch of important points about climate change and our current system (italics mine):

Every nonlinear transformation in history has taken people by surprise. As Alexei Yurchak explains in his book about the collapse of the Soviet Union — Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More — systems look immutable until they suddenly disintegrate. As soon as they do, the disintegration retrospectively looks inevitable. Our system — characterised by perpetual economic growth on a planet that is not growing — will inevitably implode. The only question is whether the transformation is planned or unplanned. Our task is to ensure it is planned, and fast. We need to conceive and build a new system based on the principle that every generation, everywhere has an equal right to enjoy natural wealth.

As I wrote several years ago, “nonlinear systems, man”.

The Notre Dame Fire and the Invisible Tragedy of the Everyday

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2019

In the aftermath of the fire that ravaged the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, two French billionaires stepped in to pledge €300 million for the restoration of the historic building. Carl Kinsella writes that the reaction of the rich to the Notre Dame fire teaches us a lot about the world we live in.

It would be incredibly cheap to suggest that it is in some way wrong to give money for the restoration. There is a value that transcends simple economics in restoring testaments to civilisation. Better that Notre Dame remains a symbol of European history than €300 million rests in a billionaire’s bank account.

But the immediacy and magnitude of their response tells us something very important about the society we live in.

If two men in a world of more than 7 billion people can provide €300 million to restore Notre Dame, within six hours, then there is enough money in the world to feed every mouth, shelter every family and educate every child. The failure to do so is a matter of will, and a matter of system.

The failure to do so comes from our failure to recognise the mundane emergencies that claims lives all around us every single day. Works of art and architectural history and beauty rely on the ingenuity of people, and it is people who must be protected above all else.

Executive director of the World Peace Foundation Alex de Waal says that almost all the famines that occur today are political decisions, a “matter of system” as Kinsella puts it. In the modern world, hunger, homelessness, lack of proper healthcare, and lack of access to education are all political decisions as well. The simple truth is that we can take care of everyone on Earth, but we choose not to.

Today in female representation

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 04, 2019

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Knock Down The House follows four grassroots female candidates through their mission-driven campaigns to unseat incumbents during the 2018 midterm elections. The documentary, which won Festival Favorite at Sundance this January, will be released by Netflix on May 1. New Yorkers will be able to see it in an advance screening (including a Q&A with director Rachel Lears) at IFC Center on April 23.

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Audrey Gelman takes us into the NY Times photo archives to tell the story of the women who brought power and voice to representative democracy long before AOC was a glimmer of hope for New Yorkers.

Time and again, women candidates have been met with derision or dismissed as “long shots” — in many cases, both. Take Elizabeth Holtzman: In 1972, the then-31-year-old stunned the whole of Washington when she upset a powerful 50-year male incumbent in the Democratic primary, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. (Sound familiar?)

And, of course, you can’t talk about women in politics without talking about Shirley Chisholm, a once-in-a-generation force for change who represented her Brooklyn district from 1969 to 1983. As she put it, “My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency.” Despite her fearlessness — or, more aptly, because of it — opponents dismissed her, she said, as just a “little schoolteacher.” (She had been an educator before taking office.)

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The photos alone are worth the click, but don’t miss Gelman’s sharp born-and-bred New Yorker observations.

Wall Disease - How Do Walls Affect How We Feel?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2019

Jessica Wapner writes in the New Yorker about the research into how border walls affect the people living near them.

In the nineteen-sixties, Dietfried Müller-Hegemann wrote as though the physical presence of the Berlin Wall were itself the cause of wall disease. But most psychologists who study borders today see a more abstract relationship between those structures and mental health. Christine Leuenberger, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied walls around the world, says that barriers are best thought of as part of a “wall system.” That system includes both physical markers, such as no-go areas and checkpoints, and ripple effects, such as job loss and the breakdown of social networks.

Leuenberger remembers meeting a Palestinian man in Bethlehem, near the West Bank barrier. He had been a nurse with a job in Jerusalem, but could no longer travel there for work. “I’m in prison in my own land,” she recalls him saying; he had resorted to selling soda by the roadside. Before the barrier, Israelis crossed the Green Line to buy produce in Palestinian towns, and Palestinians sewed fabric for Israeli textile companies. But an attempt to create a market at the border was stopped when the barrier went up. In this straightforward sense, walls can cut people off from sources of stability and happiness.

(thx, meg)

The Legend of Nixon, a Data-Driven NES Soundscape

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2019

Brian Chirls took the approval ratings for Richard Nixon’s presidency and using sounds from The Legend of Zelda’s classic Dungeon Theme, he made a data-driven soundscape of the public perception of Nixon’s tenure in the White House. Here’s what his approval rating looked like:

Richard Nixon Approval

And here’s the resulting audio track:

The sound effects mostly represent actions the protagonist Link takes like the “sword slash”, things that happen to him like a grunt when he gets hurt, or the status of the game like the low health alarm that beeps when Link has only half a “heart container” left and can only take one or two more hits before he dies and the game is over. The goal of this project is to create a piece of audio that sounds like a typical playthrough of the game and also accurately tells the story of Nixon’s fall as represented by the data.

What a cool example of using the familiar to explain or illustrate the unfamiliar. If you’ve ever played Zelda, you can clearly hear Nixon doing more and more poorly as the track goes on — he’s taking damage, the dungeon boss sound chimes in right around when Watergate is ramping up, and he’s gaining fewer hearts. It’s like he’s a novice player armed only with the wooden sword trying to defeat the level 3 dungeon without a potion…the end comes pretty quickly.

Stacey Abrams, Star Trek Superfan

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 08, 2019

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Georgia politician, almost-Governor, and Democratic superstar Stacey Abrams has a secret to her success: she loves Star Trek. In particular, she loves my favorite Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In explaining her approach to politics as a black Democratic woman in a state controlled by white Republican men, she devotes several pages to a pivotal scene from “Peak Performance,” an episode from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In the episode, Data, the preternaturally pale android with a greenish cast to his skin, is playing Strategema, a game that appears to be some incredibly complicated form of 3-D holographic chess, against a humanoid grandmaster named Kolrami. Data cannot defeat Kolrami, he discovers, but he can outlast him, drive him into a rage and force him to quit the game, which is itself a kind of victory.

Ms. Abrams writes that this has helped her focus her own thinking. “Data reframed his objective — not to win outright but to stay alive, passing up opportunities for immediate victory in favor of a strategy of survival,” she says in the book. “My lesson is simpler: change the rules of engagement.”

Stacey Abrams

This sparked some predictably joyous reactions among Star Trek fans:

And the following thoughtful thread from Manu Saadia (@trekonomics) on the history of progressive politics, as modeled in the Star Trek universe:

It actually is possible to overthink this. All of this about politics and the imagination and utopian possibilities is true. But at the same time, ultimately, it’s just a really cool show. It’s one we grew up with. And as politicians get younger, it’s one we’ve always had with us, framing our background on entertainment, war, morality, politics, economics — everything.

The world the original Star Trek entered was one where space was only beginning to open, as a direct consequence of the nuclear and geopolitical crisis than enveloping the planet. Now, we have all new geopolitical crises to deal with. Star Trek offers a surprisingly resilient fictional framework for understanding most if not all of them. That’s a powerful tool. It’s foolish to pass it up.

Oh, and Ms. Abrams — keep bustin’ ‘em up.

The Partisan States of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2019

The Atlantic recently teamed up with polling and analytics company PredictWise to build a county-by-county map of political open-mindedness in America.

US Map of Political Prejudice

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives, as Mutz describes in her book Hearing the Other Side.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.

We see this dynamic in the heat map. In some parts of the country, including swaths of North Carolina and upstate New York, people still seem to give their fellow Americans the benefit of the doubt, even when they disagree. In other places, including much of Massachusetts and Florida, people appear to have far less tolerance for political difference. They may be quicker to assume the worst about their political counterparts, on average.

If you click through to the article, the interactive map will let you see how prejudiced your county is. There are also maps for Republican on Democratic prejudice and Democratic on Republican prejudice.

This map is a little bit bonkers…I can’t wrap my head around some of the results. Why are Florida and South Carolina so polarized while the states surrounding them are not? And look at New York…aside from NYC, there’s relatively little polarization right up against a very polarized New England and Pennsylvania. Utah sticks out among western states but you can probably chalk that up to Mormonism. Is this a methodology problem or is it due to something fundamentally different about the states and/or their governments?

How the KGB Weaponized Fake News (and How It’s Still Hurting Us Today)

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2019

The US government created HIV. The CIA killed Kennedy. The KGB deliberately spread disinformation designed to hurt the US and its allies for decades. In this excellent three-part video series from the NY Times, they show how this KBG program worked and how, under Vladimir Putin, it continues to affect world politics.

The first installment is an introduction to how the KGB wielded disinformation as well as a profile of one of their most successful operations: convincing the world that the US government created the AIDS epidemic. It took almost 4 years, but an article planted by the KGB in an Indian newspaper was eventually reported by Dan Rather on the CBS evening news, embraced by anti-AIDS activists, and believed by many foreign governments.

In the words of a KGB agent that defected to the US, the goal of Soviet disinformation was “to change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interests of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.” It was a denial of service attack on the truth.

Fast forward through the end of the Cold War and to the rise of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Now Russia is creating fake news stories like Pizzagate which now form the basis of US domestic and foreign policy because our President watches Fox News every morning. In the second segment, the Seven Commandments of Fake News are introduced:

The commandments are:

1. Find the cracks in the fabric of society, the social, demographic, economic, and ethnic divisions.
2. Create a big lie, something that would be very damaging if you could get people to believe it.
3. Wrap the lie in a kernel of truth.
4. Conceal your hand, make it seem like the story came from somewhere else.
5. Find yourself a useful idiot.
6. Deny everything, even if the truth is obvious.
7. Play the long game.

In the third video, they look at what can be done to combat Russia and other players in this war of disinformation, and how ineffective the response has been on the part of the US government (including the Obama administration) and social media companies:

There are certainly no shortage of useful idiots for Putin to exploit. Fox News and Trump top the list along with the alt-right media charlatans, but YouTube’s algorithms, Facebook’s business model, and the everyday American citizens like you and me are also to blame. Add into the mix that Trump is also waging his own disinformation campaign against the American public, and there’s a lot to ponder and despair.

See also Putin’s Playbook for Discrediting America and Destabilizing the West.

The Best Thing Ever Written About Politics and Art

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 22, 2019

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Tomorrow, February 23, is William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s birthday. Du Bois was born in 1868 and died in 1963. In fact, Du Bois died, in Ghana, the day before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Roy Wilkins and hundreds of thousands of marchers observed Du Bois’s death with a moment of silence.

Du Bois is one of the most influential and important thinkers in American history. He wrote many, many speeches, essays, and books that are essential to understanding American culture, society, labor, and politics, particularly as they affected and were affected in turn by black people.

My favorite Du Bois essay, and one of the first I ever read, was and probably still is “Criteria of Negro Art.” It was written and published in 1926, and first presented as a speech in honor of Carter Woodson. I have in the last few years met otherwise extremely well-read people who knew nothing of this essay and have since sworn an oath to remedy that wherever possible. So you get to read some excerpts from it now.

The Big Idea of the essay is really formulated in the fourth paragraph:

What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. But is that all? Do we want simply to be Americans? Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?

The answer to this first question “What do we want?” is Art, the proper appreciation of Beauty and Freedom; and the answer to the last question, “are we satisfied with [America’s] present goals and ideals?” is, of course, No.

In the twelfth paragraph, Du Bois argues that the lives of black Americans, not just the emerging intellectual bourgeoisie of the 1920s, but the lives of all black Americans, for their entire history, are the proper subject of this new kind of Art:

This is brought to us peculiarly when as artists we face our own past as a people. There has come to us — and it has come especially through the man we are going to honor tonight — a realization of that past, of which for long years we have been ashamed, for which we have apologized. We thought nothing could come out of that past which we wanted to remember; which we wanted to hand down to our children. Suddenly, this same past is taking on form, color, and reality, and in a half shamefaced way we are beginning to be proud of it. We are remembering that the romance of the world did not die and lie forgotten in the Middle Age [sic]; that if you want romance to deal with you must have it here and now and in your own hands.

Du Bois, after all, was a sociologist, and knew how to mobilize facts and figures; he does so in this anecdote, about black soldiers who fought in the Great War:

Have you heard the story of the conquest of German East Africa? Listen to the untold tale: There were 40,000 black men and 4,000 white men who talked German. There were 20,000 black men and 12,000 white men who talked English. There were 10,000 black men and 400 white men who talked French. In Africa then where the Mountains of the Moon raised their white and snow-capped heads into the mouth of the tropic sun, where Nile and Congo rise and the Great Lakes swim, these men fought; they struggled on mountain, hill and valley, in river, lake and swamp, until in masses they sickened, crawled and died; until the 4,000 white Germans had become mostly bleached bones; until nearly all the 12,000 white Englishmen had returned to South Africa, and the 400 Frenchmen to Belgium and Heaven; all except a mere handful of the white men died; but thousands of black men from East, West and South Africa, from Nigeria and the Valley of the Nile, and from the West Indies still struggled, fought and died. For four years they fought and won and lost German East Africa; and all you hear about it is that England and Belgium conquered German Africa for the allies!

In the 18th paragraph, he demolishes the premise that the success of black artists in and of itself is evidence of racial progress as such:

With the growing recognition of Negro artists in spite of the severe handicaps, one comforting thing is occurring to both white and black. They are whispering, “Here is a way out. Here is the real solution of the color problem. The recognition accorded Cullen, Hughes, Fauset, White and others shows there is no real color line. Keep quiet! Don’t complain! Work! All will be well!”

And beginning in the 21st paragraph, he quickly, and with startling beauty, poses the real problem for black artists working in America:

There is in New York tonight a black woman molding clay by herself in a little bare room, because there is not a single school of sculpture in New York where she is welcome. Surely there are doors she might burst through, but when God makes a sculptor He does not always make the pushing sort of person who beats his way through doors thrust in his face. This girl is working her hands off to get out of this country so that she can get some sort of training.

There was Richard Brown. If he had been white he would have been alive today instead of dead of neglect. Many helped him when he asked but he was not the kind of boy that always asks. He was simply one who made colors sing.

There is a colored woman in Chicago who is a great musician. She thought she would like to study at Fontainebleau this summer where Walter Damrosch and a score of leaders of Art have an American school of music. But the application blank of this school says: “I am a white American and I apply for admission to the school.”

We can go on the stage; we can be just as funny as white Americans wish us to be; we can play all the sordid parts that America likes to assign to Negroes; but for any thing else there is still small place for us.

I first read this essay at least twenty years ago, but I swear I’ve thought about “when God makes a sculptor He does not always make the pushing sort of person who beats his way through doors thrust in his face” every day since. Every day. I think about it for black artists, for gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer artists, for women who put up with harassment and abuse from the very people who’ve promised to help them pursue their art. And I think about it even more when I think about the thousands if not millions of people who were turned away from ever becoming artists, writers, musicians, actors, sculptors, dancers, engineers, designers, programmers, or any other critical or creative field where doors are so often thrust in your face.

Yes, push through those doors. But hold them open after you. Because the next person, God may not have made to be one whose first inclination is to push.

All art, Du Bois argues, and in particular the art of black people, relies on not just Beauty, but Truth and Goodness, “goodness in all its aspects of justice, honor and right — not for sake of an ethical sanction but as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest.” Art that seeks to restore the balance of truth and goodness, on a subject like the lives of black people, which is prone to so much distortion and misunderstanding, necessarily relies on an ideal of Justice. This leads to maybe the most famous quote of the essay:

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

What America is getting from its white artists, is propaganda that shames and distorts the lives of black people, in order to show them to be sinister and/or servile.

In other words, the white public today demands from its artists, literary and pictorial, racial pre-judgment which deliberately distorts Truth and Justice, as far as colored races are concerned, and it will pay for no other.

But respectability politics is almost as dangerous, when it comes to art.

On the other hand, the young and slowly growing black public still wants its prophets almost equally unfree. We are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as second-hand soul clothes of white patrons. We are ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people will talk of it. Our religion holds us in superstition. Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.

And here is the bind, the contradiction which even Du Bois cannot completely unravel. Until black artists produce great art, black people will not be registered by white people as fully human. And once those great artists appear, their blackness will be erased away, in favor of a false universality and sham humanism.

And then do you know what will be said? It is already saying. Just as soon as true Art emerges; just as soon as the black artist appears, someone touches the race on the shoulder and says, “He did that because he was an American, not because he was a Negro; he was born here; he was trained here; he is not a Negro — what is a Negro anyhow? He is just human; it is the kind of thing you ought to expect.”

I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compells [sic] recognition they will not be rated as human. And when through art they compell [sic] recognition then let the world discover if it will that their art is as new as it is old and as old as new.

Du Bois closes the essay with one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read. It’s also the most personal. It’s about his friend and classmate William Vaughan Moody.

I had a classmate once who did three beautiful things and died. One of them was a story of a folk who found fire and then went wandering in the gloom of night seeking again the stars they had once known and lost; suddenly out of blackness they looked up and there loomed the heavens; and what was it that they said? They raised a mighty cry: “It is the stars, it is the ancient stars, it is the young and everlasting stars!”

There are other great essays about the relationship between politics and art. Some of them are subtler than Du Bois’s. Some take on more directly the nature of politics or art itself. Some have a more politically radical intent. Some name more names, and pick more fights. But nobody but Du Bois, working with the economy he’s working with, states as directly the political problems facing art, artists, art critics, and the art-loving public. Nobody gets to the root of things as squarely as he does.

It’s the best essay on art and politics ever written. And if you don’t agree, I want to see your candidate. That’s all.

“Freedom River”, an Animated Parable about the Erosion of Freedom

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2019

In 1971, director Sam Weiss released this short animated parable narrated by Orson Welles.

Concentrating on an area of growing concern in our society — the indifference that makes people blind to the injustices around them — this animated parable traces how the erosion of freedom, like the pollution of natural resources, can occur so gradually that both evade the attention of a busy and preoccupied nation.

Produced back in the era of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration, the lessons of this film still resonate today. (via open culture)

The Case for Impeaching Donald Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2019

In the cover story for the March 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum clearly and methodically lays out the case that Congress should begin the impeachment process against Donald Trump.

The oath of office is a president’s promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the “Winter White House,” as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.

More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.

Trump has evinced little respect for the rule of law, attempting to have the Department of Justice launch criminal probes into his critics and political adversaries. He has repeatedly attacked both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His efforts to mislead, impede, and shut down Mueller’s investigation have now led the special counsel to consider whether the president obstructed justice.

Appelbaum’s article has already swayed the impeachment opinions of James Fallows (“this piece…changed my mind”) and Stewart Brand. This short video is a good overview of the piece (which you should read in full anyway):

This, for me, is the critical part of Appelbaum’s argument (emphasis mine):

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

With a newly seated Democratic majority, the House of Representatives can no longer dodge its constitutional duty. It must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs.

Reading this, I was struck by a real sadness. What a massive waste of time the Trump presidency has been. America has urgent challenges to address on behalf of all of its citizens and they’re just not getting much consideration. Instead, we’ve given the attention of the country over to a clown and a charlatan who wants nothing more than for everyone to adore and enrich him. Meanwhile, the US government and a populace bewitched by breaking news is stuck in traffic, gawking at this continually unfolding accident. And we somehow can’t or won’t act to remove him from the most powerful job in the world, this person that not even his supporters would trust to borrow their cars or water their plants while on vacation. What a shame and what a waste.

The Effect of Populist Leaders on Democracies

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2018

In an effort to discover what effect populist leaders have on democratic institutions, a pair of researchers, Harvard’s Yascha Mounk and Jordan Kyle of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, compiled a list of 46 populist leaders & parties that have been in power in democracies from 1990 until now. Then they looked at how those leaders affected those governmental systems in those countries. Their conclusions were not encouraging: “Populists are highly skilled at staying in power and pose an acute danger to democratic institutions.”

Populists aren’t just more likely to win reelection once or twice; they are also much more likely to remain in power for well over a decade. Six years after they are first elected, populist leaders are twice as likely as non-populist leaders to still be in power; twelve years after they are first elected, they are more than five times as likely.

Arguably, these findings are not, in themselves, all that concerning: The longer survival rate for populists may simply reflect their efficiency or popularity. But among populist leaders who entered office between 1990 and 2015, only a small minority left office as a result of the normal democratic process.

In fact, only 17 percent of populists stepped down after they lost free and fair elections. Another 17 percent vacated high office after they reached their term limits. But 23 percent left office under more dramatic circumstances — they were impeached or forced to resign. Another 30 percent of all populist leaders in our database remain in power to this day. This is partially a function of the recent rise of populism: Thirty-six percent of those populist rulers who still remain in power were elected over the past five years. But even more of them have been in office long enough to raise serious concerns: About half have led their country for at least nine years.

The most important issue, however, is neither how long populists stay in office nor even how they ultimately leave, but what they do with their power-and, in particular, whether their tenure causes what political scientists call “democratic backsliding,” a significant deterioration in the extent to which the citizens enjoy basic rights.

Here, too, our findings were sobering, to say the least: In many countries, populists rewrote the rules of the game to permanently tilt the electoral playing field in their favor. Indeed, an astounding 50 percent of populists either rewrote or amended their country’s constitution when they gained power, frequently with the aim of eliminating presidential term limits and reducing checks and balances on executive power.

Their full paper is available here, which shows that left-wing populism is almost as bad as right-wing populism:

Between 1990 and 2014, 13 right-wing populist governments were elected; of these, five have significantly curtailed civil liberties and political rights, as measured by Freedom House. Over the same period, 15 left-wing populist governments were elected; of these, the same number reduced such freedoms. (Over the same period, there were also 17 populist governments that cannot easily be classified as either right- or left-wing; again, five of these governments diminished civil liberties and political rights.) Although this indicates a slightly higher rate of backsliding among right-wing populists than left-wing ones (38 per cent vs. 33 per cent), these data clearly contradict the belief that left-wing populism does not pose a threat to democracy.

Gritty, the Philly Sports Messiah

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 14, 2018

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Like any once-and-hopefully-future resident of the great city of Philadelphia, I’m entranced by Gritty, the new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers. Now, full disclosure: the Flyers were not one of the teams I initially adopted when I moved to Philadelphia, because my hometown Detroit Red Wings were still great in 2002, and so I was all set, hockey-wise. I picked up the New York Rangers when I moved to New York in 2012, when Henrik Lundqvist was winning Vezinas and stunting on fools. But Gritty is sufficiently compelling that I might have to add the Flyers to the Eagles, Phillies, and Sixers, becoming a full Philadelphia sports fan.

Why is Gritty captivating the world? Is it because or despite of his muppet-like googly eyes and shaggy appearance? I mean, when you really dig into it, it’s not like there’s a whole lot there. But a sufficiently advanced cipher can become a multilayered text to the devout, and that’s what’s happened with Gritty. Fans turned what was briefly an object of ridicule into an icon of devotion. And a legend was born.

For a deeper look into the Gritty phenomenon, seek no further than The Ringer, the website that was designed from its origins in the late, beloved Grantland to get to the bottom of sports questions like this. Michael Baumann’s “The Monster In The Mirror” is insightful, and nearly exhaustive, in answering why people inside and outside of Philadelphia have taken to Gritty so strongly. It also doubles as a psychological profile of one of my favorite cities and their sports fans.

Some excerpts:

In the past two and a half months, Gritty has proven to be an overwhelming success as a mascot. More than that, he’s become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, a weird and scary avatar for a weird and scary time. He is all things to all people.

“Gritty is fairly appalling, pretty insurrectionary for a mascot, and I don’t think there’s any question that that’s our kind of symbol,” says Helen Gym, an at-large member of the Philadelphia City Council. “There’s nothing more Philly than being unapologetically yourself.”

And:

The Flyers, Raymond says, had long resisted the idea of creating a mascot, at the insistence of founding owner Ed Snider, whom Raymond calls “old-school.” The Flyers unveiled a furry mascot called Slapshot in 1976 but quickly shelved it, leaving the team without a mascot for more than 40 years. But after Snider’s death in 2016, the team’s marketing department pushed ownership to reconsider, Raymond says, and after overcoming so much institutional inertia, they weren’t going to be half-hearted about their new mascot.

One part of doing a mascot right, Raymond says, is sticking to the bit no matter what, rather than submitting the mascot to the public for approval, a lesson learned from the Sixers’ failed mascot vote in 2011. Philadelphians, and people on the internet in general, can sense uncertainty and will punish it.

On Gritty’s Hensonian roots:

Mascots are always at least a little silly and ridiculous because at their core, they’re created more for children than adults. Gritty is no exception. His hands squeak, and his belly button—which Raymond calls a “woobie”—is a brightly colored outie. The woobie, says Raymond, was the brainchild of Chris Pegg, who plays Rockey the Redbird for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds and is a mutual friend of Raymond and Flyers senior director of game presentation Anthony Gioia.

When the Flyers unveiled such a weird, menacing mascot, it brought to mind something Frank Oz said about his longtime collaborator and Muppets creator Jim Henson: “He thought it was fine to scare children. He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.” According to Raymond, in any sufficiently large group of children, a mascot, even a familiar one, will make at least one of them cry. Not Gritty.

“I’d never seen a mascot rollout anywhere where I didn’t see at least one kid running, crying in terror, trying to grab on to their mother’s legs,” Raymond says of the Please Touch Museum rollout. “I didn’t see any of that [with Gritty]. The kids were dancing and hollering and calling for him to come over, but no kid looked terrified.”

And on Gritty’s additional incarnation as the subject and vehicle for leftist political memes:

Some Gritty memes, however, are not just funny or scary, but overtly political. Gym’s resolution addressed this issue head-on; “non-binary leftist icon” was one of the descriptions quoted in the resolution. The resolution itself goes on to praise Gritty for his status as a political symbol: “Gritty has been widely declared antifa, and was subject to attempted reclamation in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. It has been argued that he ‘conveys the absurdity and struggle of modern life under capitalism’ and that he represents a source of joyful comic respite in a time of societal upheaval.”…

“The great thing about memes—as ridiculous as this sounds—is they create an instant mass internet mobilization,” FWG says. “Memes can be used to perpetuate systematic oppression, or they can be used to burn down the prison-industrial system or talk about police brutality.”

This identity is independent from — this is to say, it has been thoroughly stolen from — Gritty’s original role as a corporate sports mascot.

There’s a danger to wrapping up one’s identity in anything one can’t control, whether it’s an artist, a sports team, or a fuzzy orange monster. And if Gritty played it safe, he’d stop being worth investing in; the reason Gritty is so popular is because he’s weird and unpredictable in a way that isn’t cultivated to be “edgy.” Fear of being let down might just be the price of trying to live with empathy in a society that frequently elevates the cruel. It’s worth thinking about something FWG said: that their Gritty is not the same thing as the Flyers mascot.

“I think that the spirit of Gritty will be fulfilled through the proletariat,” FWG says. “As the spirit of Gritty moves people, that’s how the people will act.”

This is serious business! But as Walter Benjamin wrote, in a time of crisis, the here-and-now becomes shot through with messianic time. Gritty recalls the Phillie Phanatic, Sesame Street’s muppets, and Blastaar from the Fantastic Four, but puts all of their energy to use in a sense of futurity, that hope for the future that sports fandom echoes, however dimly. To quote Benjamin again:

It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.

It’s ridiculous to see Gritty, the googly-eyed, outie-bellybuttoned Philadelphia Flyers mascot, as a messianic figure of the revolutionary left. But is that any more ridiculous than everything else that is happening in our fucked-up present? No. No, it is not.

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Climate Change Is Stealing Our Children’s Futures

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2018

On Wednesday, 15-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the UN plenary meeting at the COP24 climate talks in Poland. In it, she blasted world and business leaders for their political inaction on climate change, calling them immature (italics mine).

But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.

But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.” Damn. Thunberg has been leading school strikes for climate justice in Sweden and is calling for worldwide strikes in schools today. She recently gave a talk at TEDxStockholm about her climate activism.

In October, Masha Gessen profiled Thunberg for the New Yorker.

Thunberg developed her special interest in climate change when she was nine years old and in the third grade. “They were always talking about how we should turn off lights, save water, not throw out food,” she told me. “I asked why and they explained about climate change. And I thought this was very strange. If humans could really change the climate, everyone would be talking about it and people wouldn’t be talking about anything else. But this wasn’t happening.” Turnberg has an uncanny ability to concentrate, which she also attributes to her autism. “I can do the same thing for hours,” she said. Or, as it turns out, for years. She began researching climate change and has stayed on the topic for six years. She has stopped eating meat and buying anything that is not absolutely necessary. In 2015, she stopped flying on airplanes, and a year later, her mother followed suit, giving up an international performing career. The family has installed solar batteries and has started growing their own vegetables on an allotment outside the city. To meet me in central Stockholm, Thunberg and her father rode their bikes for about half an hour; the family has an electric car that they use only when necessary.

Update: Thunberg does not mince words. At a lunchtime panel at Davos (featuring Bono and Jane Goodall), she told the room:

Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we all have created. But that is not true, because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame. Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Reviewed

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2018

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Isabel Wilkerson, writing for The New York Times, has the definitive review of Michelle Obama’s juggernaut of a book:

One of the great gifts of Obama’s book is her loving and frank bearing-witness to the lived experiences of the black working class, the invisible people who don’t make the evening news and whom not enough of us choose to see. She recreates the dailiness of African-American life — the grass-mowing, bid-whist-playing, double-Dutch-jumping, choir-practicing, waiting-on-the-bus and clock-punching of the ordinary black people who surrounded her growing up. They are the bedrock of a political party that has all too often appeared to take their votes for granted in the party’s seeming wistfulness for their white equivalents (for whom the term “working class” has come to stand in public discourse).

Like many Americans, Obama’s parents made do with what they had and poured their energy into their children, who they hoped would fulfill the families’ as yet unrealized aspirations. The parents bought them a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and insisted on proper diction. They went on Sunday drives to a richer neighborhood known as Pill Hill (after the number of black doctors living there) in her father’s Buick Electra, looking at houses they could only dream of. Michelle’s father suffered from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease, and his beloved Buick gave him mobility that his legs alone could not. He never complained and rarely spoke of his condition, she says, but it was a daily consideration. “Our family was not just punctual,” she writes. “We arrived early to everything.” This was in part to allow time for any contingency, given her father’s declining strength, a habit that instilled in her the value of planning and vigilance in one’s life. Her mother kept their cramped apartment in such good order that years later Obama would remember how it smelled: “It’s because of my mother that still to this day I catch the scent of Pine-Sol and automatically feel better about life”…

We see her father’s diminishing health and his uncompromising work ethic. At one point, he used a motorized scooter to get from boiler to boiler. “In 26 years, he hadn’t missed a single shift,” she writes. We feel her heartbreak as she loses her father to the disease he refused to let define him. By then, Obama was a grown woman, grieving and even more appreciative of her parents’ sacrifices for her sake. Her parents had never taken trips to the beach or gone out to dinner. They didn’t own a house until Aunt Robbie bequeathed them hers when Michelle was halfway through college. “We were their investment, me and Craig,” she writes. “Everything went into us.”

It also includes a tidy capsule of her and Barack’s unusual, unlikely-yet-inevitable courtship:

How their office relationship turned into a quick-moving romance that summer, how the box-checking pragmatist warmed to the loose-limbed free spirit, is a delight to read, even though, or perhaps because, we know the outcome. His cerebral intensity was clear from the start. One night, soon after they had become a couple, she woke to find him staring at the ceiling, apparently troubled. She wondered if their new relationship was on his mind, or perhaps the death of his father. “‘Hey, what are you thinking about over there?’ I whispered. He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about income inequality.’”

He struck her as a visionary with no material interests. The first time she visited him in Cambridge during the long-distance phase of their young relationship, he picked her up in a “snub-nosed, banana-yellow Datsun” with a “four-inch hole in the floor” and a tendency to spasm “violently before settling into a loud, sustained juddering.” She knew then that “life with Barack would never be dull,” she writes. “It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising.”

And her lack of interest in politics:

After a series of unlikely events, among them scandals forcing one opponent after another to drop out of the race, Barack won. Michelle, against the advice of a veteran Senate wife, chose not to move their family to Washington. “None of this had been my choice in the first place,” she writes of the stress of being a politician’s wife and managing a household while her husband commuted from the capital when he could. “I didn’t care about the politics per se, but I didn’t want to screw it up.” When Barack began mulling a run for the White House and consulting trusted advisers, “there was one conversation he avoided having,” she writes, “and that was with me. He knew, of course, how I felt.”

This was where their temperaments and upbringing were at odds. She wanted the kind of family stability she had grown up with. “Barack had always had his eyes on some far-off horizon, on his notion of the world as it should be,” she writes. “Just for once, I wanted him to be content with life as it was.” By then, they had been through five campaigns in 11 years. “Each one had put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage,” she writes. Bottom line: She didn’t want him to run for president, especially not then. They talked about it over and over. She agreed to support him, she writes, because “I loved him and had faith in what he could do.” Speaking in London in early December, she was more candid, saying “deep down” she believed “there’s no way he’s going to win. And we can just sort of get this out of the way. … That was my whole plan.”

Funny story! Barack Obama won the nomination and then the Presidency, becoming the first black President of the United States and winning two terms, thrusting Michelle into a role she never wanted but seemed to be made for.

As a young girl, she had modest aspirations: a family, a dog and “a house that had stairs in it — two floors for one family.” She had grown up in a 900-square-foot attic apartment. Now, at the end of Inauguration Day, she was the first lady, moving into a home with “132 rooms, 35 bathrooms and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors,” and a staff of ushers, florists, housekeepers, butlers and attendants for her every need. Three military valets oversaw the president’s closet. “You see how neat I am now?” he said to her one day. She had seen, she said, smiling back, “and you get no credit for any of it.”

It’s a shame that Michelle dislikes politics so much. I think if she chose, she could be an even better President than her husband. And I liked him a lot.

Blame Fox News for Fake News, Not Facebook

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2018

In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell interviews Yochai Benkler, whose recent book with co-authors Rob Faris and Hal Robert, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, presents evidence that right-wing media functions in a completely different way than the rest of the media does.

On the right, audiences concentrate attention on purely right wing outlets. On the left and center audiences spread their attention broadly and focus on mainstream organizations. This asymmetric pattern holds for the linking practices of media producers. Both supply and demand on the right are insular and self-focused. On the left and center they are spread broadly and anchored by professional press.

These differences create a different dynamic for media, audiences, and politicians on the left and right.

We all like to hear news that confirms our beliefs and identity. On the left, outlets and politicians try to attract readers by telling such stories but are constrained because their readers are exposed to a range of outlets, many of which operate with strong fact-checking norms.

On the right, because audiences do not trust or pay attention to outlets outside their own ecosystem, there is no reality check to constrain competition. Outlets compete on political purity and stoking identity-confirming narratives. Outlets and politicians who resist the flow by focusing on facts are abandoned or vilified by audiences and competing outlets. This forces media and political elites to validate and legitimate the falsehoods, at least through silence, creating a propaganda feedback loop.

The authors also argue that Fox News is doing much more harm to our democracy in spreading false information than Facebook or Twitter.

The highly asymmetric pattern of media ecosystems we observe on the right and the left, despite the fact that Facebook and Twitter usage is roughly similar on both sides, requires that we look elsewhere for what is causing the difference.

Surveys make it clear that Fox News is by far the most influential outlet on the American right — more than five times as many Trump supporters reported using Fox News as their primary news outlet than those who named Facebook. And Trump support was highest among demographics whose social media use was lowest.

Our data repeatedly show Fox as the transmission vector of widespread conspiracy theories.

I’ve been beating this drum for awhile and still don’t know why this 2017 study that showed compelling evidence that Fox News moved the 2008 presidential election Republican vote share by 6.3% to the right all by itself isn’t a much bigger deal.

In other results, we estimate that removing Fox News from cable television during the 2000 election cycle would have reduced the overall Republican presidential vote share by 0.46 percentage points. The predicted effect increases in 2004 and 2008 to 3.59 and 6.34 percentage points, respectively. This increase is driven by increasing viewership on Fox News as well as an increasingly conservative slant.

In keeping with Benkler et al’s findings regarding media asymmetry, the study did not identify a similar swing to the left for MSNBC or CNN viewers.

The question is, what the heck do we do about Fox News? Shun Rupert Murdoch? Sleeping Giants and other groups have been effective in hamstringing other right-wing media sources like Breitbart (as well as some Fox News shows), but Fox News has worked hard to position itself as mainstream, so pressuring advertisers would be tough to muster support for. What about a boycott of other Fox properties? If the Disney sale goes through, those properties would include the Fox channel (home of The Simpsons, NFL games, college football, etc., The World Series), Fox Business News, and a number of sports channels (Fox Sports 1 & 2 and Fox Soccer Plus). Are people going to be willing to give up watching The World Series and The Super Bowl to put financial pressure on Fox? And my pals who do startups…are they going to refuse to go on Fox Business News promote their businesses? I have my doubts about that.

Network Propaganda is available on Amazon and also as a free PDF download here.

Facebook’s Tipping Point of Bad Behavior?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

The NY Times has published a long piece about how Facebook has responded (and failed to respond) to various crises over the past three years: Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis. It does not paint a very flattering portrait of the company. This part is particularly damning (italics mine):

When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and it faced a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack.

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

Are you fucking kidding me? Facebook paid to promote the right-wing & anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that George Soros pays protestors? Shame on you, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the rest of Facebook leadership team. Legitimizing this garbage actively hurts our democracy. On Twitter, The Guardian’s senior tech reporter Julia Carrie Wong gets at what is so wrong and different about this behavior:

There’s something about this Soros story that feels significantly different than the usual Facebook scandal. Most recent negative Facebook stories are issues relating to challenges of scale and a tendency toward passivity.

Facebook’s standard playbook is to admit that they made a mistake by being slow to react, remind us of their good intentions, then promise to do better. It’s the aw geez who woulda thought in the dorm room that we would have to deal with all these tricky issues defense.

This has been very effective for a company that still gets the benefit of the doubt. No one would ever suggest that Facebook *wanted* to bring about the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya or lynchings in rural Indian villages. They just were in a little over their heads.

But this Soros thing is different. This is no passive failure. It’s a malevolent action taken against groups who criticize Facebook for things that Facebook admits it has failed at. It takes advantage of and contributes to the most poisonous aspects of our public discourse.

It makes you wonder if the “ah geez” thing has just been an act all along. Mike Monteiro, who speaks and writes about ethics in the design profession, is surprised that Facebook’s employees haven’t spoken out more.

What surprises me is that Facebook employees are still at their desks after finding that their company was actively attempting to discredit activists. No doubt some of them are shook. No doubt some of them will make public statements against their company’s policy. And those are needed. No doubt there will be internal spirited conversations within the company. And those are needed as well. But there won’t be a walk-out. I say this hours after the article was released. But I doubt that I’ll have to come back to this paragraph and revise it. I wish I wasn’t so sure of that. But I am.

The Ubiquitous Collectivism that Enables America’s Fierce Individualism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2018

Forbes recently released their 2019 “30 Under 30” list of “the brashest entrepreneurs across the United States and Canada” who are also under 30 years old. A persistent criticism of the list is that many of the people on it are there because of family or other social advantages. As Helen Rosner tweeted of last year’s list:

My take is: all 30 Under 30 lists should include disclosure of parental assets

In a piece for Vox, Aditi Juneja, creator of the Resistance Manual and who was on the 30 Under 30 list last year, writes that Forbes does ask finalists a few questions about their background and finances but also notes they don’t publish those results. Juneja goes on to assert that no one in America is entirely self-made:

Most of us receive government support, for one thing. When asked, 71 percent of Americans say that they are part of a household that has used one of the six most commonly known government benefits — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, or unemployment benefits.

And many people who benefit from government largesse fail to realize it: Sixty percent of Americans who claim the mortgage-interest deduction, which applies to homeowners, say they have never used a government program. If you’ve driven on public roads, gone to public school, or used the postal service as part of your business — well, we all rely on collective infrastructure to get ahead.

And then she lists some of the ways in which she has specifically benefitted from things like government programs, having what sounds like a stable home environment, and her parents having sufficient income to save money for her higher education.

I went to public schools through eighth grade. My parents were able to save for some of my college costs through a plan that provides tax relief for those savings. I stayed on my parent’s health insurance until I was 26 under the Affordable Care Act. I have received the earned income tax credit, targeted at those with low or moderate income. I took out federal student loans to go to law school.

Juneja’s piece reminds me of this old post about how conservatives often gloss over all of the things that the government does for its citizens:

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issed by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

And also of mayor Pete Buttigieg’s idea of a more progressive definition of freedom:

Or think about the idea of family, in the context of everyday life. It’s one thing to talk about family values as a theme, or a wedge — but what’s it actually like to have a family? Your family does better if you get a fair wage, if there’s good public education, if there’s good health care when you need it. These things intuitively make sense, but we’re out of practice talking about them.

I also think we need to talk about a different kind of patriotism: a fidelity to American greatness in its truest sense. You think about this as a local official, of course, but a truly great country is made of great communities. What makes a country great isn’t chauvinism. It’s the kinds of lives you enable people to lead. I think about wastewater management as freedom. If a resident of our city doesn’t have to give it a second thought, she’s freer.

Lists like 30 Under 30 reinforce the idea of American individualism at the expense of the deep spirit & practice of collectivism that pervades daily American life. America’s fierce individuals need each other. Let’s celebrate and enable that.

How Fascism Works

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

Yale philosopher Jason Stanley recently published a book called How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Sean Illing interviewed him for Vox about what fascism is and isn’t and whether Trump is practicing fascist politics (spoiler alert: yes). I found this bit about how America is particularly susceptible to fascism interesting (italics mine…that is an amazingly succinct paragraph about American culture):

Well, the Ku Klux Klan deeply affected Adolf Hitler. He explicitly praised the 1924 Immigration Act, which severely limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the US, as a useful model.

The 1920s and the 1930s was a very fascist time in the United States. You’ve got very patriarchal family values and a politics of resentment aimed at black Americans and other groups as internal threats, and this gets exported to Europe.

So we have a long history of genocide against native peoples and anti-black racism and anti-immigration hysteria, and at the same time there’s a strain of American exceptionalism, which manifests as a kind of mythological history and encourages Americans to think of their own country as a unique force for good.

This doesn’t make America a fascist country, but all of these ingredients are easily channeled into a fascist politics.

This has been on my mind lately; here’s what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, reflecting on a trip to Berlin:

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

See also Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism.

Update: In a video for the NY Times called Is President Trump Fascist?, Stanley goes over the three elements that are always present when fascism takes hold of a country.

Open Culture has a good summary of the video if you prefer to read.

Fascist leaders sow division; they succeed by “turning groups against each other,” inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatreds for their own advantage. Social divisions in themselves-between classes, religions, ethnic groups and so on-are what we might call pre-existing conditions. Fascists may not invent the hate, but they cynically instrumentalize it: demonizing outgroups, normalizing and naturalizing bigotry, stoking violence to justify repressive “law and order” policies, the curtailing of civil rights and due process, and the mass imprisonment and killing of manufactured enemies.