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Why have our movies have become so dark, showing a government so evil?

15 December 2014

Summary: The evolution of America has accelerated as we slide down the long-feared slippery slope leading to the end of the Second Republic (founded on the Constitution). Each event appears clear in the news, but the cumulative effect — the rise of a New America — is too large for us to see. For perspective let’s look at our heroes in print and on screen. Their foes display our fears; their relationship to the government reflects our relationship to it. We might pretend not to see what’s happening, but our mythical heroes see the darkness falling on us — and have changed accordingly in ways that reflect our weakness. When we decide to become strong again, we’ll find new myths (or reclaim the old ones).  {First of two posts today}

“People need stories, more than bread, itself. They teach us how to live, and why. … Stories show us how to win.”
— The Master Storyteller in HBO’s “The Arabian Nights”

Superman in handcuffs

“Man of Steel” (2013)

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Our fictional heroes reflect our dreams of individual empowerment, along a gamut from James Bond to Superman. Less often remarked, some of our myths show our awareness that only through collective action do we have strength. In the real world unions, associations, and governments created the middle class and brought full civil rights to women and minorities. Many of our stories feature heroic organizations — such as the British Secret Service, Triplanetary, U.N.C.L.E, GI Joe, and S.H.I.E.L.D. Heroic individuals and organizations protected us against criminals and foreign powers.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E

No longer. The war on terror has revealed that our government might have become our greatest foe. On TV we see stories with ample precedents in history, but unimaginable to most Americans. President Obama personally selects America citizens for assassination, without formal charges or trial. The NSA taps our phones and monitors our emails. Police patrol our streets with military equipment (just like Fallujah), eager to use force (e.g., SWAT teams killing when delivering summonses).

Fiction often mirrors our fears and our view of the world. As do our films today. Soldiers take Superman away in handcuffs. SHIELD launches helicarriers equipped for surveillance and assassination. Government agents attack Captain America. Action adventures routinely feature government officials as the bad guys. The next sequence of Marvel films feature the Civil War series, in which the government regulates — forcibly enlists — mutants in its service.

The GI Joe team

In this world trust becomes rare. Heroes in TV and films are often told to “trust nobody” (e.g., in “The X-Files” TV show, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, and “Captain America: Winter Soldier”). Sometimes the moral of the story is the even more extreme “trust nothing”, with the usual exceptions of love — or friends and family. It’s excellent advice for peons. Taken seriously this prevents people from working together through existing organizations, which shatters even the strongest people into powerless shards. We become individuals and families helpless before the mega-corporations and government agencies that run our world, and helpless before the 1% that own it.

Movies and TV are our myths. Today they give us nothing to inspire people to work for social and political reform.

The missing link

Read more…

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Our leaders justify torture in ways that justify its future use on their foes (including Americans)

14 December 2014

Summary:  On Friday I said that we would torture again., despite the evidence in the Senate’s report.  This weekend former and current high officials of the US government confirmed that guess. Defenders of torture dispute the evidence, deny that torture was torture, and offer bold affirmations that they would torture again.

For I doubt not but, if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, ‘that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square,’ that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.

— Thomas Hobbs in The Leviathan

Shining City Upon a Hill

By Hawk862

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The Bush and Obama administrations have put torture into our national DNA.  In the past Americans supporting (or enjoying) torture spoke quietly, least they (rightly) get compared to torturers of the NAZI Gestapo, Soviet KGB, and the many lesser known secret police of 3rd world nations (many of whom learned their craft at the US Special Forces’ School of the Americas).

Now come the propos to convince the American people that this is business as usual, that we’re still an exceptional City on a Hill (Matthew 5:14).

So closes the next chapter in America’s fall. We’ll use torture again. Read Republican’s justification of torture. Hear the echos from the past. As so many have said before, Hitler was just early (hence Godwin’s Law). Listen closely — their words justify torture of Americans (when designated as bad guys by the government). That shouldn’t surprise us after so many tools of the war on terror appear on America’s streets. (plus, of course, Obama’s assassination of American citizens).

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

His word salad clearly communicates that our rights mean nothing to him. CNN about Scalia’s interview on December 12 on Swiss National Radio:

The justice who’s been a mainstay of the high court’s conservative wing for 28 years condemned the “self-righteousness of European liberals” who oppose torture “so easily” Friday in an interview with Swiss National Radio.  “I don’t think it’s so clear at all,” Scalia said. “I think it is very facile for people to say ‘Oh, torture is terrible,'” he said. “You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. “You think it’s an easy question? You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?”

… “What are human rights is not written up in the sky, and if it were written up in the sky, it would not be up to judges, lawyers, just because they’ve gone to law school, to know what human rights ought to be and therefore are,” Scalia said.

“And therefore each society’s perception of what it believes human rights should be ought to be up to that society, and I think it’s very foolish to yield that determinations not only to a foreign body but to a foreign body of judges,” he said. “I don’t know why anyone would want to do that.”

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Requiem for fear. Let’s learn from past failed predictions and have confidence in ourselves & our future

13 December 2014

Summary: If journalists find it difficult to fill the spaces between ads, they might run articles debunking past popular predictions of doom. They could easily do so monthly. This week brought an unusually large harvest of evidence disproving the doomsters. We should ask ourselves why were we so credulous, even gullible, to believe these stories? What might be the consequences if we continue like this? I haven’t a clue to the former; at the end below is a guess about the latter.

New Scientist: collapse

Click to enlarge

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The Ebola pandemic: millions will die!

Predictions of a global Ebola pandemic swept America before the election, revealed as conservative fear-mongering for political gain as they mysteriously disappeared on November 5. Like peak oil, there were ludicrously weak reasons given for these strident warnings. The WHO’s December 3 weekly status report shows that it has been eliminated from all but three poor African nations: “Case incidence is slightly increasing in Guinea, decreasing in Liberia, and may be increasing or stable in Sierra Leone.” No mea culpas from the fearmongers.

Hyperinflation! The dollar becomes worthless!

Every decade conservatives confidently forecast imminent doom from one or both of these. Always wrong. This year inflation continues at uncomfortably low levels (not much of a cushion against deflation, lethal in a high-debt economy like ours). The dollar continues to strengthen, so depressing exports and corporate profits (destabilizing many emerging nations).

Peak Oil — The end of civilization!

During the years 2005 – 2008 predictions that the end was nigh rang throughout the nation, a tune joyously played by Leftists certain they this proved the folly of capitalism. On 3 July 2008 WTI oil was $145, a record. This week it closed below $60, brought down by a combination of factors long discussed here: slower global growth, increased supply, and improved efficiency. “The cure for high prices is high prices.” Free markets at work. No mea culpas from the fearmongers.

That doesn’t prove the cornucopians’ dreams of cheap oil returning; $60 oil will force rapid slashing of capital investments and slowly return oil to their $80 – $100 range. Nor does that disprove the research warning that eventually this price reign will end with prices breaking higher into a new range, much as the 20 year range of $10 – $20 ended in 1999.

What matters is that there was never any basis for the predictions of imminent disaster, despite the applause for doomsters articles at websites such as The Oil Drum (not in the dustbin of history).

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The news as a series of hysteric fits by America. Why? How can we get a grip on ourselves?

12 December 2014

Summary: Modern American news is best seen as a helix of semi-serious hysteric fits. That’s why our thousand and one reform movements accomplish so little; why we have almost no influence on public policy. This suggests a different path for those working to make a better nation. Post your thoughts on this in the comments. This is the second of two posts today.

Fear by Van Gogh

Swine flu, global cooling, famine, resource exhaustion, Alar on apples, Avian Flu, North Korea, crack, Iran’s nukes, Swine Flu, Al Qaeda, Saddam’s nukes, peak oil, NSA scandal, hyperinflation, Yemen as America’s greatest threat,  China controls all our rare earths, the Taliban, global warming, Ebola, now ISIS and torture and the campus rape epidemic. Some were repeated every decade: the government is going broke, the dollar is becoming worthless, Iran will have nukes soon.

Some of these were exaggerated by experts. Some were correctly debunked by experts.

Some of these were minor threats, exaggerated into dire threats. Some were largely imaginary. Some might become serious threats in the future, warranting modest sustained action today.

Each has its day in the news as the greatest crisis, then disappeared like a pebble dropped into the sea.

In few of these did the news media provide useful context for these at a useful moment; rather they stoked public hysteria — often too late for it to mean anything. Journalists need clickbait to get readers; news media companies need content to fill the space between ads.  “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Peter Moore wrote about this in the March 1987 Playboy as ”The Crisis Crisis”. It’s become more worse since then.

For all of them the American public policy debates consist of sequential bouts of hysteria unconnected to actual public policy. I doubt events would have run differently if there had been a news black-out so that the public knew nothing of these things, and TV news was replaced by episodes of “South Park” and “Phineas and Ferb” (the first for insights about ourselves, the second for inspiration). Perhaps we’d be better off having done so. We don’t seem to have gained anything by our attention to the vast flow of information on these issues. Consider the man-years — the person-centuries — burned uselessly.

We are led like sheep by our fears, easily aroused because we credulously accept what we’re told by our tribal leaders — and because we feel so weak. Meanwhile our serious problems go unaddressed, often unnoticed until too late (e.g., rising inequality and falling social mobility). We’ve forgotten that we’re strong when we stand together.

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Close this chapter of America’s use of torture (it’s over). Look ahead to the next chapter.

12 December 2014

Summary: Here’s the last thing you need read about America’s WOT use of torture, unless you enjoy reading about such things. This ends with a transition to the next chapter, our future use of torture — and a song by Justin Timberlake about our long and rocky relationship with the CIA.  (This is the first of two posts today)

” I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture, and I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture.”

— President-elect Barack Obama on CBS “60 Minutes”, 11 November 2008. We elected him to tell us pretty lies.

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Dreamland

Dreamland: the alternative to learning

The debate has ended. Next comes the squawking by politicians and policy gurus, which serves important purposes. Members of the outer party (i.e., the kind of people that write and read these kind of posts) need entertainment and a sense of participation. The news media need clickbait to get readers, and content to fill the space between ads.  “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Cut to the chase; this summary can help us remember the key points:

  1. Under Bush Jr our high government officials authorized torture.
  2. The CIA tortured (incompetently) but gained little or nothing of use.
  3. Medical and legal professionals violated the canons of their profession to assist.
  4. We, the citizens of America, knew about it but did nothing (a large fraction applauded).
  5. Our leaders stopped torturing at their discretion, and remain unapologetic about it.
  6. The only person punished was John Kiriakou, the CIA operative who blew the whistle (and went to jail for it).
  7. President Obama approved it by hiring those responsible for high office (e.g., John Brennan) and shielding everyone responsible from punishment.

To see the future we turn to John Brennan — senior CIA officer under Bush and Obama, vocal advocate of torture, who ran the “extraordinary rendition” program that sent people to be tortured abroad. A man who knows about these things. When asked about future use of torture at his December 11 press conference, he gave us a word salad — with a clear meaning.

And then finally, as far as what happens if, in the future, there is some type of challenge that we face here, the Army Field Manual is the established basis to use for interrogations. We, CIA, are not in the detention program. We are not contemplating at all getting back into the detention program using any of those EITs. So I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to be able to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar type of crisis.

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Our love for gun play grows as our trust in ourself wanes. Logical, mad, sad.

11 December 2014

Summary:  Polls are our mirrors in which we see who we are and how we’re changing. The new Pew Poll showing our increased trust in gun-play reflects several obvious but grim trends in America. Let’s examine them. Always stare at the news; never ask for the blindfold. {This is the second of today’s posts}

“Well in the first place, an armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life. For me, politeness is a sine qua non of civilization.”

— From Beyond this Horizon, a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein (1942). Fun fiction, although quite false.

Americans trust in themselves

The saddest of graphs, from Gallup

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As you see in this graph, each year we have less confidence in ourselves, collectively. So, quite logically, we have less confidence in the officials we elect to run America. That makes us weak (we have power only when acting together), and strengthens those people with the resources and confidence to rule America. Worse, we are losing our ability to clearly see the world — and become more credulous in accepting things told to us by people we trust. This makes us easy to manipulate.

PEW poll on guns

Nowhere is this clearer than with gun rights. We have gone from several generations of moderate regulation to allowing widespread concealed carry to increasing agitation for open carry (something forbidden in most towns in the Wild West). It’s logical, in a mad way, that we’d turn to personal weapons for a sense of control and security (unraveling several centuries of social progress).

The reason we tell ourselves for this confidence in guns range from false to delusional, while the astonishing toll in blood astonishes people in other developed nations (subscribe to Robert Waldman on Twitter for horrific real time reports: @KagroX).

The latest Pew Poll about Americans attitudes about guns makes grim reading. Support for gun regulation has dropped significantly among most groups during the past ten years. Among Black Americans, the group suffering the most from gun violence, belief that guns protect them from crime almost doubled in two years (29% to 54%). It’s “the hair of the dog that bites” them; massive evidence proves this false. See the posts at the end for detailed debunking of the major myths about guns.

This reaching for guns oddly accompanies a long-term decline in the crime rate. The hysteria about 9-11 and Benghazi matches contrasts with our far larger annual death toll from mass shootings.

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Connect the dots to see why wages aren’t growing for most Americans

11 December 2014

Summary: America has become increasingly destabilized during the few decades, as the 1% grows stronger and seizes resources to grow still stronger. This post shows them at work shifting income from workers’ wages to corporate profits. Inequality doesn’t just happen; it results from people making decisions under a specific political and social conditions. In the past we reversed this process. This ended the Gilded Age, creating a broad middle class and the society we think of as America (quite unlike the nation of the previous century). We can do so again.

Innovation of new forms of society and technology. It is the key to our progress. It has allowed us to evolve from naked hunter-gatherers to the dominant species on this planet. This process is slow, normally taking hundreds or even thousands of years. But occasionally evolution leaps forward.

— A slight tweak of Professor Xavier’s words from the title sequence of the movie “X-Men” (2000)

Growing inequality: "Piketty Split", The Economist, 18 November 2014

From “Piketty Split“, The Economist, 18 November 2014

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Homeostasis (aka negative feedback) rules “normal” life, defeating the predictions of doomsters who extrapolate current trends to collapse. Instead countervailing forces, including intelligent collective action through political, business, and social organizations, find new ways to maintain stability and growth. But sometimes we get positive feedback, when a change produces conditions that continue and accelerate the trend — and the mechanisms break that should maintain balance.

Marx saw such a process at work in 19th century industrialization. He forecast revolution for western nations as the inevitable outcome of the Gilded Age, as the flow of national income shifted from workers to those who own the means of production. He was wrong then, as — after much conflict — we found ways to more equitably distribute income without civil war. Perhaps Marx was not wrong, just early. Again we face the same challenge, as the 1% works to reshape America into a plutocracy.

During the past few years many economists confidently have predicted an acceleration in wage growth. But wage growth for most Americans (below the top quintile) remains only slightly above inflation. We see the reason every day in the news, as the 1% uses their power to boost their profits at their workers’ expense. The process accelerates as they grow stronger — and seize more — while we grow weaker.

Here are nine of our stories, stories describing the birth of a New America. Connect the dots to see the explanation of why most of the gains in America’s national income since 1980 have gone to the 1%. If continued, this trend will create a New America.

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Consequences of US torture. A snapshot of a tottering Republic going through the motions of “debate”.

10 December 2014

Summary:  What are the consequences for the US from its use of torture on a scale with few precedents among developed nations in the modern era (and those examples considered shameful)? We can only guess, but there are some obvious ones — although seldom mentioned. Also, here are a few interesting notes from the “debate”.  This is a follow-up to this morning’s post, The protests start about CIA torture as the echoes die on protests about NSA surveillance. Expect the same result.

“indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement” (1972)

Contents

  1. Consequences of using torture
  2. Growls about accountability
  3. A rare note of realism
  4. The experts counter-attack
  5. The Right counter-attacks
  6. Fox News sees the torture debate
  7. Posts in this series about CIA torture
  8. A last note, about brothers in arms

(1)  Consequences of using torture

What’s the bottom line of these repeated revelations about US torture? Other than welcoming evil into our hearts, the long-term price of which will prove large beyond imagining.  Consider the factors involved in Realpolitik. Owning the moral high ground often provides substantial advantages in mobilizing support, both domestic and foreign. Sometimes owning the moral high ground provides a decisive advantage.

Americans should know this better than most. The Founders carefully cultivated support in Britain, explaining that we were fighting for our rights as “Englishmen” — such as no taxation without representation. That paid off big after Yorktown, with a collapse of support in Britain and eventually a peace treaty highly favorable to us.

The moral high ground proved even more decisive in the Civil War. Both Britain and France saw large gains from a Confederate Victory, but faced internal opposition from those uninterested in even a profitable alliance with evil. The War could easily have ended differently if the South had external support (much as the Revolution would have ended quickly without French support).

Our belief in American moral exceptionalism gains substance from our WWII crusade against fascism, and our almost unprecedented construction of a rights-based international order afterwards. The UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights might be remembered long after the USA becomes a minor entry in history books. Some unknowable part of our world leadership since comes from the moral capital gained then. Now we’ve squandered it. All of it.

Now people will laugh at our pretense of moral superiority, such as the State Department’s list of terrorist states (use of flying death machines doesn’t qualify?) and their endless reports about human rights violations by other nations. Laughter is poison to Empires. Fallen off our pulpit, we’ll have to find another way to relate to the world. Equally absurd has become our assumption that America’s actions must be regarded as inherently benign, unlike those of designated bad guys that get no benefit of the doubt (e.g., Russia, Iran).

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The protests start about CIA torture as the echoes die on protests about NSA surveillance. Expect the same result.

10 December 2014

Summary:  Yet again the protests start. The ink on the placards protesting NSA surveillance has almost dried as the outrage begins about the Senate torture report. We can expect the same result: nothing. The battle over torture was fought and lost by 2009. Our use of torture, the debates about it, and the outcome reveal much about America, about us — and points the way to building a better America. See today’s follow-up post:  Consequences of US torture. And a snapshot of a tottering Republic going through the motions of “debate”.

For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword though the world.

— John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity (1630)

PEW Research: Americans  torture

Source: Pew website

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Consider the futility of the protests about torture sparked by the Senate report. While the details are new, we knew the basic facts in 2007. We had this debate then, and I doubt repeating it will lead to different conclusions.

I did a series of posts about torture in Spring 2009, with hundreds of comments (see here) — most supporting torture (when done by Americans; it’s barbaric when done to Americans). Similar discussions took place on a hundred other websites, with similar results.

The years since then have seen only moral degeneration in America, not renewal. We cheered the fictional success of CIA torturers in “Zero Dark Thirty”. We enjoyed watching “24” on TV, with torture routine and effective — when done by the good guys (i.e., us). Our leaders told us stories of brave government agents gaining essential information by torture.

All lies, as we knew then (if we cared to see), and as the Senate report tells us again now. But with cumulative effect, strengthening our support for torture and alienating us from our history fighting evil in WW2 (I have long feared that Hitler was just early).

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Here’s help to see the truth through the narratives in the news: looking at the jobs numbers

9 December 2014

Summary: We’re flooded with news from the gross over-capacity of that industry, so finding a full balanced story has become difficult. This post takes something that should be simple — the monthly jobs report — and shows how it’s spun to gibberish by Left and Right, and one way to find its core meaning.

“Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is hard to discover and hard to attain.”
— Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic “Weeping Philosopher” of Ionia

Magnify to see

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The news consists largely of narratives dressed up with tidbits from the endless stream of data washing over us. Among its many functions is to assure us that this data has meaning (beyond itself) and can be understood.

Unfortunately, American information sources often divide us into tribes by carefully selecting what to show members, and spinning what they show. So even intelligent well-informed Americans often display amazing ignorance about basic aspects of politicized issues (e.g., that skeptics deny the existence of climate change, or that Obama is not an American citizen). These trends combine to blind us to the complexity and changing nature of our world. Two politicized topics show this clearly: climate change and economics. For a change, let’s look at the latter. Conservatives seek to convince us that the economy remains stagnant, liberals (and Wall Street) that it’s begun to boom. Both have little interest in the boring reality of slow stable growth since the crash.

The first principle of stockbroker economics is that all news is good. … The second principle is that the stock market is always cheap.
— Andrew Smithers, Financial Times, 4 January 2006

The Right points to the weak numbers in the Household report.  Zero Hedge trumpets “Full-Time Jobs Down 150K“!  True, and nice clickbait. But the highly volatile household data tells us little in this form.
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FRED: full-time jobs
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Instead let’s look at it as percent change (which adjusts for the growing population) on a Year-over-Year basis (smoothing the line, but losing resolution of recent change). We see steady but slow growth (but at 119,482,00 still under the Nov 2007 peak of 121,875,000):

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