A Pandemic of Ignorance

The main failure in this COVID-19 pandemic has been about knowledge. The United States government was unprepared for dealing with a pandemic, specifically in being unprepared for quickly gathering the data, analyzing it, basing official policies on it, and communicating it to the public. We were blindsided and slow to respond.

We not only have lacked necessary info but, more importantly, lacked leadership in relationship to what we needed to know. Government positions and corporate practices for the most part have not been dependably based on good data nor did those making the decisions emphasize the importance of getting good data. Instead, we’ve too often been handed partisan politics, campaign rhetoric, and slogans.

Unlike in some other countries, US government and major businesses have failed to do mass infection testing, temperature scanning, contact tracing, and app tracking. All of this would’ve offered useful data for controlling the spread of infections and making informed decisions about which actions to take. Compare companies that kept running in the US to some in other countries.

In the US, meatpacking plants that have close working environments weren’t even requiring employees to wear masks and that is insane, as quickly became apparent. A German company, on the other, managed to keep infections down using not only masks but data collection to quickly determine the infected so as to isolate them. The same pattern was seen in how many Asian countries were much more systematic in their control measures. Why did those other places seek out knowledge early on and acted on it while the US decision-makers embraced willful ignorance in hoping everything would be fine?

Even when US leaders had info, they would sometimes keep it a secret, instead of sharing it in a way that could’ve helped. For example, health officials were apparently afraid of their being a run on medical masks and so, instead of being honest with the public, they intentionally lied to us by stating masks offered no protection. This led many to not take the protective gear seriously, including in extended care facilities that weren’t using protective gear.

This lack of transparency and accountability has continued. Governor Reynolds of Iowa has continually repeated that she is basing all her decisions on careful and regular analysis of detailed metrics, but she has never shared any of the supposed data and instead just makes declarations. Or consider how the Trump administration has silenced the CDC by disallowing their official report to go public. Are these officials worried what the public would do or demand if they had full knowledge?

Even now, decisions are being made about reopening businesses, schools, etc without any clear basis on data, at least not data that is being shared with the public. Almost no one in media or government is talking about how the second wave in fall will likely be far worse than anything we’ve seen so far. Many officials are acting like the pandemic is coming to an end and that now it’s time for everything to go back to normal, even as the reality is that waves of infections could continue for years.

Obviously, we still lack the knowledge we need. It’s true we know that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as first thought, although it still is far more deadly than the common flu. All these months after the pandemic began spreading globally, there is no mass infection testing in the US nor are places of business implementing the basic tools like temperature scans used elsewhere from the beginning.

So, we aren’t sure how many Americans have been infected. On top of that, despite some hoping herd immunity will save us, our knowledge about immunity to this novel coronavirus is next to nothing. There might be some short term immunity, but even then it might not last long enough to prevent the same people getting infected again with the second wave. And no one knows if we will have a vaccine soon or ever.

Why is the US economy being reopened when even the most basic message of mask-wearing hasn’t been consistently and effectively communicated to much of the population? Instead, most of the major leaders are refusing to wear masks while speaking in public and so are modeling to Americans that they shouldn’t wear masks. Are we still at the level of not even agreeing on masks?

What lesson have we Americans learned from our mistakes during this pandemic? Have we learned any lessons? Would our leadership respond differently if the same situation happens again? When this pandemic began, we were in a state of collective ignorance and we were caught without even the capacity to ameliorate our ignorance. So, we acted blindly. In the same state of collective ignorance, we’d be forced to respond in the same way again or something similar.

The worst part is that this demonstrates the culture of ignorance that dominates in the US, as part of a broader failure of democracy. Much of the American leadership is brazen in pushing ignorance and much of the American public is apathetic in accepting it. There has been little political will to pursue data-driven policy and to put respect for knowledge front and center. Sadly, in the understandable mistrust by the public, those officials and experts worthy of trust are equally dismissed as the rest.

Our response in American society has been based primarily on ideology. The related problem in the US is that, in our reactionary hyper-individualism, a large part of the American population is dismissive to the very concept of public health, as if no individual should ever sacrifice the slightest freedom to save the lives of others. No healthy society can function that way.

Some of the most successful methods, besides masks, have been contact tracing and tracking apps. But many Americans would call that authoritarianism. It’s understandable that we should be cautious about what we allow in a society that aspires to democracy (aspires, if rarely succeeds). The problem is when paranoia destroys the culture of trust that is essential to a democracy. By promoting mistrust, the sad result is that authoritarianism becomes inevitable. Truth becomes whatever is declared by those with the most power and influence, by those who control the media and other platforms.

That is exactly what President Donald Trump has taken advantage of, in his own brand of authoritarianism. He loves to play on people’s fears, to scapegoat and attack all sources of authority other than himself so as to muddy the water. In his authoritarian worldview, US workers should be forced to go back to work with nothing in place to protect their lives because to an authoritarian workers are expendable and replaceable. This was his position from the beginning and no new data was ever going to change this position.

Yet most Americans are opposed to fully reopening the economy. That is largely because the top US leadership has utterly failed in the most basic test of human decency, even ignoring all of the deception and demagoguery. Americans don’t trust Trump or many other figures of authority, including the capitalist class asking for Americans to sacrifice their lives for the profit of others, and they aren’t sure who to trust. If some basic protections were put into place as is done in certain other countries, we could begin to rebuild some public trust.

The American public health crisis first and foremost is a public trust crisis. And it is a crisis that has been a long time coming. If not remedied, it could become an existential crisis. And the only remedy would be democratic reform through an informed public. That means the public will have to demand knowledge or, failing that, will have to educate themselves. A functioning democracy with transparency and accountability is the best preparation for any crisis, but that would require nurturing a culture of knowledge and learning, a shared respect for intellect and expertise.

A Culture of Propaganda

“Contrary to previous readings by historians of the 20th century, which typically described propaganda films as glaringly biased and crude, contemporary historians have argued that filmmakers in propaganda’s coming of age were already educated in the power of subtle suggestion.”
~Christopher Maiytt, A Just Estimate of a Lie

“During the Cold War, it was commonplace to draw the distinction between “totalitarian” and “free” societies by noting that only in the free ones could groups self-organize independently of the state. But many of the groups that made that argument — including the magazines on this left — were often covertly-sponsored instruments of state power, at least in part.”
~Patrick Iber, Literary Magazines for Socialists Funded by the CIA, Ranked

“[Bernd] Scherer said he found fault with the CIA’s cultural programme for the way in which it “functionalised and thus corrupted the term ‘freedom’”, pointing out the paradoxes of an intelligence agency funnelling money to anti-apartheid organisations abroad while helping to sabotage the Black Panther movement at home.”
~Philip Oltermann, Berlin exhibition questions CIA’s influence on global art scene

The subjects of the American Empire are among the most propagandized in the world. And there is a long history of it. Propaganda during World War II was brought back home to be used in the United States, as were counterinsurgency techniques from Southeast Asian wars and covert operations. But few recognize it for what it is, as it filters our entire sense of reality, seeping into every crack and crevice of culture. It’s not merely disinformation. It’s a master narrative that rules our mind as the structures of power rule our lives.

There is a basic truth. In order to maintain the appearance of democracy in a banana republic, it requires maintaining basic levels of comfort so that people don’t question the world around them. This is why a minimal welfare state is necessary, to keep the population barely treading water and so keeping them from outright revolution. It’s the first part of carrot and stick, bread and circus.

Propaganda, as a vast circus, is all the more important to smooth over the bumps and divides. In a democratic society, Jacques Ellul argues in Propaganda, “as the government cannot follow opinion, opinion must follow the government. One must convince this present, ponderous, impassioned mass that the government’s decisions are legitimate and good and that its foreign policy is correct.”

A more blatantly authoritarian society is less reliant on propaganda since violent force maintains control and order. For example, the North Korean regime has little use for extensive and sophisticated methods of mind control and public perception management, since anyone who doesn’t conform and follow orders is simply imprisoned, tortured, or killed. But even in a banana republic such as the United States, violence always is a real threat, the stick for when the carrot fails.

There is a reason the American Empire has the largest military and prison system in history, a reason that it is the only country that has dropped atomic bombs on a human population, a reason it regularly supports terrorist groups and authoritarian regimes while overthrowing democracies. The authoritarian threat is not theoretical but quite real and carried out in punishing vast numbers of people every day, making them into examples — comply or else. Ask the large numbers of Americans who are locked away or ask the populations targeted by the military-industrial complex.

The trick is to turn public attention away from the brutality of raw power. Propaganda offers a story, a pleasant form of indoctrination. All Americans, on some level, know we are ruled by violent authoritarians and homicidal psychopaths. A good story makes us feel better about why we don’t revolt, why we stand by in complicity as millions suffer and die at the hands of the ruling elite, why we allow the theft of hundreds of trillions of dollars and the poisoning of the earth, leaving a horrific inheritance to our children and grandchildren.

Propaganda comes in many forms such as the daily mindless experience of the propaganda model of news or the invasive nature of corporate astroturf. But it has often been implemented as straightforward political rhetoric, propaganda campaigns, and psyops — see COINTELPRO and Operation Mockingbird. And look at the involvement of the CIA and Pentagon in education, art, literature, movies, video games, music, magazines, journals, and much else; even or especially philosophy and literary criticism — see the CIA obsession with postmodernism (CIA and the Cultural Cold War). Not to mention the CIA and FBI infiltration of organized labor, student groups, church organizations, and much else.

Also, one has to wonder about scientific fields as well, the social sciences most of all. Take anthropology (David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence), such as with the career of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Or think of the less clear example of how the linguist Noam Chomsky criticized the military-industrial complex while essentially being on the payroll of the Pentagon (The Chomsky Problem); this is explored in Chris Knight’s book Decoding Chomsky. Be patient for a moment while we go off on a tangent.

* * *

One interesting detail is how consistent Chomsky has been in denying “conspiracy theories”, despite the fact that much of his own writing could only accurately be described as conspiracy theory, in that he analyzes the history of those who have conspired with various agendas and to various ends. Like many academics today, he seeks to be respectable. But how did alternative thinking become disreputable, even among alternative thinkers?

Although the term “conspiracy theorist” has been around since the 1800s, it was rarely used in the past. This changed following a 1967 CIA memo, in response to the Warren Commission Report, that conspired to control the narrative and manipulate public perception about the John F. Kennedy assassination: “The aim of this dispatch is to provide material for countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists” (declassified CIA memo# 1035-960, “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report“; for more detailed info, read the book Conspiracy Theory in America by Prof. Lance deHaven-Smith).

In overtly advocating for the government to conspire against the public, the memo’s anonymous author directs CIA operatives to, “employ propaganda assets to answer and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose.” Who were these propaganda assets? And why was there such confidence in their power to carry out this conspiracy? Let’s put this in context.

That same year, in 1967, a Ramparts article exposed the CIA funding of the National Student Association. The following decade would lead to the revelations, in the Congressional investigations and reports, that the CIA was working with journalists in the mainstream media, along with connections to civic groups. At around the same time, the CIA Family Jewels report was compiled and, upon its declassification in 2007, it was shown that the CIA had a propaganda program called Operation Mockingbird that involved the media with operations going at least back to the 1960s. This was an extensive covert operation (AKA conspiracy), linked to major news outlets and influential journalists and editors in both the foreign and domestic media — from the Wikipedia article on Operation Mockingbird:

In a 1977 Rolling Stone magazine article, “The CIA and the Media,” reporter Carl Bernstein wrote that by 1953, CIA Director Allen Dulles oversaw the media network, which had major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies.[2] Its usual modus operandi was to place reports, developed from CIA-provided intelligence, with cooperating or unwitting reporters. Those reports would be repeated or cited by the recipient reporters and would then, in turn, be cited throughout the media wire services. These networks were run by people with well-known liberal but pro-American-big-business and anti-Soviet views, such as William S. Paley (CBS), Henry Luce (Time and Life), Arthur Hays Sulzberger (The New York Times), Alfred Friendly (managing editor of The Washington Post), Jerry O’Leary (The Washington Star), Hal Hendrix (Miami News), Barry Bingham, Sr. (Louisville Courier-Journal), James S. Copley (Copley News Services) and Joseph Harrison (The Christian Science Monitor).

This was admitted the year before, in 1976, by the Church Committee’s final report. About foreign media, it stated that, “The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets” (Church Committee Final Report, Vol 1: Foreign and Military Intelligence, p. 455).

In our cynicism and passive complicity, we Americans expect that the CIA would be tangled up in all kinds of foreign organizations and many of us support these covert operations, maybe even feeling some pride in the greatness of American imperialism. But the shocking part is that the CIA would do the same in the United States and, sadly, most Americans have been intentionally kept ignorant of this fact (i.e., not typically taught about it as part of American history classes nor often mentioned in the news media and political debates). Read the following and let it sink in.

“Approximately 50 of the [CIA] assets are individual American journalists or employees of U.S. media organizations. Of these, fewer than half are “accredited” by U.S. media organizations … The remaining individuals are non-accredited freelance contributors and media representatives abroad … More than a dozen United States news organizations and commercial publishing houses formerly provided cover for CIA agents abroad. A few of these organizations were unaware that they provided this cover.”

Let’s get back to the CIA pushing the slur of “conspiracy theorists” through these assets. Just because a conspiracy is proven beyond a mere theory, that doesn’t mean it was effective and successful. So, what were the measurable results that followed? Kevin R. Ryan lays out the facts in showing how pivotal was that CIA memo in shifting the media framing — from Do we need another 9/11 conspiracy theory?:

“In the 45 years before the CIA memo came out, the phrase “conspiracy theory” appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times only 50 times, or about once per year. In the 45 years after the CIA memo, the phrase appeared 2,630 times, or about once per week.

“Before the CIA memo came out, the Washington Post and New York Times had never used the phrase “conspiracy theorist.” After the CIA memo came out, these two newspapers have used that phrase 1,118 times. Of course, in these uses the phrase is always delivered in a context in which “conspiracy theorists” were made to seem less intelligent and less rationale than people who uncritically accept official explanations for major events.”

Here is the sad irony. The CIA was always talented at playing two sides against each other. So, as they were using propaganda to weaponize “conspiracy theory” as an attack on critics of authoritarian statism and military imperialism, they were also using propaganda elsewhere to actively push false conspiracy theories to muddy the water. Kathryn S. Olmstead, a history professor at UC Davis, concluded that (Real Enemies, pp. 239-240, 2011),

“Citizens of a democracy must be wary of official and alternative conspiracists alike, demanding proof for the theories. Yet Americans should be most skeptical of official theorists, because the most dangerous conspiracies and conspiracy theories flow from the center of American government, not from the margins of society.

“Since the First World War, officials of the U.S. government have encouraged conspiracy theories, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. They have engaged in conspiracies and used the cloak of national security to hide their actions from the American people. With cool calculation, they have promoted official conspiracy theories, sometimes demonstrably false ones, for their own purposes. They have assaulted civil liberties by spying on their domestic enemies. If antigovernment conspiracy theorists get the details wrong—and they often do—they get the basic issue right: it is the secret actions of the government that are the real enemies of democracy.”

[See my post Skepticism and Conspiracy.]

In respect to Chomsky, it was asked how alternative thinking became disreputable. This was not always the case. Chomsky is the most well-known left-winger in the world, but he often plays the role of guarding the boundaries of thought and shepherding loose sheep back into the fold, such as in recent elections repeatedly telling Americans to vote for corporatist Democrats. What in the hell is a supposed anarchist doing promoting corporatism? And why is he repeating a CIA talking point in dismissing conspiracy theories and acting condescending toward those he labels as conspiracy theorists?

One insightful answer is suggested by Chris Knight in Decoding Chomsky and it is highly recommended. The argument isn’t about claiming Chomsky is a CIA asset, but let’s remain focused on the point at hand. Left-wingers, earlier last century, were far less concerned about respectability, that is to say they were far more radical. “Around the time of the Second World War,” writes Ron Unz, “an important shift in political theory caused a huge decline in the respectability of any “conspiratorial” explanation of historical events” (American Pravda: How the CIA Invented “Conspiracy Theories”). He goes on to say that,

“For decades prior to that conflict, one of our most prominent scholars and public intellectuals had been historian Charles Beard, whose influential writings had heavily focused on the harmful role of various elite conspiracies in shaping American policy for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, with his examples ranging from the earliest history of the United States down to the nation’s entry into WWI. Obviously, researchers never claimed that all major historical events had hidden causes, but it was widely accepted that some of them did, and attempting to investigate those possibilities was deemed a perfectly acceptable academic enterprise.”

Following Charles Beard, a new generation of intellectuals and scholars felt the walls closing in. They either quickly learned to submit and conform to the hidden demands of power or else find themselves shut out from polite society or even out of a job. It was the beginning of the era of respectability politics. In controlling the terms of debate, the CIA and other covert interests controlled public debate and hence public perception. The American ruling elite won the Cold War culture war, not only against the Soviet commies but also against the American people.

* * *

“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
~Sally Kempton, Ben Price’s None Dare Call It Propaganda

“Power is the ability to rule the imagination.”
~Jacques Necker, from Guillaume de Sardes’ Against the hegemony of American art

Pseudo-radicals were allowed to go through the motions of freedom, as long as they toed the line, as long as they demonstrated a properly indoctrinated mind. Then they could be successful and, more importantly, respectable. They simply had to make the Devil’s Bargain of never taking radical action.  Other than that, they could talk all they wanted while remaining safely within the system of the status quo, such as Chomsky regularly appearing on corporate media — he has admitted that the system maintains control of what he is allowed to communicate.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient,” Chomsky fully understood, “is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” This how a system of propaganda becomes internalized with barriers erected in the mind. “With the help of propaganda,” Jacques Ellul writes,

“one can do almost anything, but certainly not create the behavior of a free man or, to a lesser degree, a democratic man. A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself – of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas make the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a ‘totalitarian man with democratic convictions,’ but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely ‘the sacred formulas of democracy’ while acting like a storm trooper.”

So, there was a closing of the American mind and a silencing of radical thought during the early Cold War. That is no surprise, but what is surprising is how leading radicals were not eliminated so much as neutered and house-trained. The conspiracy theory is that this was an intentional outcome, what the CIA was hoping to achieve. So, was that 1967 CIA memo part of a propaganda campaign? It would be hard to absolutely prove in terms of what specific actions were taken, even as the memo itself seems to admit to it and even as we know the CIA was using every dirty trick in the book. We will never fully and exactly know what were all those CIA assets doing within the world of media and culture.

Besides, it’s not always clear what is or is not propaganda, as the deep state has its hands in almost every aspect of society with its influences being pervasive if often subtle. But what can’t be denied is that, both when intentional or as a side effect, this has a propagandastic-like effect in shaping thought in the public mind and among intellectuals, writers, and artists. We are talking about immense amounts of money (and other resources) sloshing about determining which research gets funding, which articles get into journals, which books get published, which movies get made.

This is subterfuge at the highest level. One has to wonder about entirely other areas. Consider plutocratic and corporatist philanthropy, often combined with greenwashing and control of food systems, overlapping with big ag, big oil, and, of course, big food. Think about why the government and corporations have been so interested in manipulating the American diet since the world war era, coinciding with agricultural subsidies to artificially create cheap agricultural products (refined flour, corn syrup, etc) to be used as ingredients in mass-produced and industrially-processed foods.

Then look to something recent like the propagandistic EAT-Lancet report that argues for the need of authoritarian measures to control the global diet for reasons of ‘environment’ and ‘health’; and when one looks to the backers of this agenda, one finds transnational corporations, not only big farm and big food but other industries as well. It is a corporate narratizing to co-opt the environmentalist left, but it is being done through a respectable and powerful scientific institution, The Lancet Journal, that informs government policies.

In the American Empire, this has been a shared project of business and government. Ever since the early modern revolutionary era, the reactionaries — not only right-wing authoritarians and conservatives but also right-wing bourgeois liberals — have incessantly co-opted left-wing rhetoric, tactics, and cultural image (The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind; & Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter). They simultaneously co-opt the left as they attack the left, essentially playing both sides and determining the field of play so as to control the game; and hence controlling the outcome, choosing the winners.

This has particularly been true of reactionaries in power. For an obvious example, think of president Donald Trump speaking the progressive language of the New Deal and so co-opting the public outrage of economic populism. Or worse still, look back to Joseph Stalin who, as a right-wing ultra-nationalist, co-opted the communist movement in Russia and used it to rebuild the Russian Empire; and in the process silenced radical leftists (unionsts, syndicalists, Trotskyists, Marxists, feminists, etc) by imprisonment, banishment, and death.

The American Imperialists didn’t necessarily oppose Stalin because of ideology, as they opposed those same radical leftists, but because the Soviet Union was seen as a competing global superpower. As for Stalin, he had no aspirations to attack the West and, instead, hoped to become trading partners with his wartime allies (Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies). The problem is, with the Nazis gone, the American Imperialists needed a new boogeyman for purposes of domestic social control, as authoritarian oppression at home always needs an externalized rationalization, a group to be scapegoated or an enemy to be fought — then again, many American oligarchs were pro-Nazi before the war and remained so afterwards. The Cold War right from the start was a propaganda campaign, albeit one that got out of control and nearly turned into a nuclear holocaust.

As one person put it, “It took a lot of mental gymnastics to transform the Soviet Union from an anti-fascist ally into an enemy, and CIA was created in part to do a lot of the heavy lifting” (comment by rararoadrunner). To create and maintain political power and social control requires narrative dominance combined with mass spectacle. The Cold War was better than a real war, in that it could be drawn out for decades. It helped to politically justify the immense money going into the deep state. The first purpose of propaganda is to persuade the public that the propagandists are necessary.

Most propaganda, though, has been so successful because it remains hidden in plain sight, influencing us without our awareness — framing and precluding what we think, and so not overtly appearing to tell us what to think. Sure, there was plenty of silencing going on during the Cold War witch hunts, from McCarthyism to corporate blackballing, but the CIA played the long game of instead making certain voices louder, to drown out all else. Controlling and co-opting the political left has turned out to be a much more effective strategy in castrating opposition and replacing it with a controlled opposition. It was ideological warfare as cannibalism, taking on the power of one’s enemies by consuming them.

The radical became tainted by this masquerade of con men manipulating and posing as what they are not. Combined with outright infiltration and sabotage on American soil (e.g., COINTELPRO), not to mention assassinations (e.g., Fred Hampton), this multi-pronged approach to social control and perception management has had a devastating effect. Reactionary forces and mindsets successfully infiltrated the political left and have maintained their hold, creating conflict and division with the left turned against itself. This took the punch out of leftist critique and organizing — the demoralization has lingered ever since. From The CIA Reads French Theory, Gabriel Rockhill writes:

“Even theoreticians who were not as opposed to Marxism as these intellectual reactionaries have made a significant contribution to an environment of disillusionment with transformative egalitarianism, detachment from social mobilization and “critical inquiry” devoid of radical politics. This is extremely important for understanding the CIA’s overall strategy in its broad and profound attempts to dismantle the cultural left in Europe and elsewhere. In recognizing it was unlikely that it could abolish it entirely, the world’s most powerful spy organization has sought to move leftist culture away from resolute anti-capitalist and transformative politics toward center-left reformist positions that are less overtly critical of US foreign and domestic policies. In fact, as Saunders has demonstrated in detail, the Agency went behind the back of the McCarthy-driven Congress in the postwar era in order to directly support and promote leftist projects that steered cultural producers and consumers away from the resolutely egalitarian left. In severing and discrediting the latter, it also aspired to fragment the left in general, leaving what remained of the center left with only minimal power and public support (as well as being potentially discredited due to its complicity with right-wing power politics, an issue that continues to plague contemporary institutionalized parties on the left).”

Then again, this is a positive sign of potential power. The OSS before and the CIA later on would not have spent so many resources for something that was not of an ultimate threat. The ideals and principles of leftist radicalism is inherently anti-authoritarian and the the intelligence agencies are inherently authoritarian; those are the terms of the fight. Even as the political left appears weak and has lost confidence, it remains a potent danger to authoritarian regimes like the American Empire. The culture war continues, the war over hearts and minds.

* * *

In this concluding section, let’s look further into the (socio-)cultural aspect of the propagandistic culture wars. We’ll start with a personal or rather familial example and an interesting historical note.

Our father grew up in Alexandria, Indiana. It’s a small farm community that once was a small bustling factory town. There used to be many towns like it. That is why it was chosen to be designated, “Small Town USA“. This was part of a propaganda program set up by the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. Pamphlets were made of life in Alexandria as the utopian ideal of American-style capitalism. During the Second World War, these pamphlets were distributed throughout Europe. So, the so-called Cultural Cold War had begun before the Cold War itself.

By the way, Alexandria has remained true to being representative of the United States. It has declined into poverty and unemployment, having gone from a labor union town that was a Democratic stronghold to more recently supporting Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential victory. The sense of pride once elicited by that propaganda campaign became a point of shame that Trump was then able to take advantage of with his own rhetoric, Make American Great Again. The myth of the American Dream, even if a fantasy and often a nightmare, remains powerful capitalist propaganda in how it echoes across the generations. The Cold War lives on.

Much of the Cold War propaganda was about branding. And it’s interesting to note that the rhetoric used by the United States and the Soviet Union were often so similar, in both presenting an image of freedom. The Soviets loved to point out that the poor and minorities in America experienced very much the opposite of freedom, especially in the early Cold War when there were still lynchings, sundown towns, redlining, and Jim Crow. And much of that prejudice targeted not only blacks but also Jews, Catholics, and ethnic Americans (e.g., along with Japanese-Americans, innocent Italian-Americans and German-Americans were likewise rounded up into internment camps).

Think about what propaganda is in terms of branding. Sure, the American ruling elite were attempting to gain cultural influence, especially in Western Europe. That was important, but more important was creating a new American identity and to uphold an ideal of American culture. That was the problem since prior to the world war era the United States was not seen as having its own distinct culture. This is why American Studies was created in colleges involving professors who worked for the CIA, sometimes as spymasters (Early Cold War Liberalism), largely to indoctrinate American students, if also to spy on foreign students and to do other work such as textual analysis.

We tend to think of branding, in the corporate world, as targeting customers and prospective customers. But Nick Westergaard, in Brand Now, argues that only represents the outer layer of targeted influence. First and foremost, branding needs to become an identity that employees internalize, from entry-level workers to upper management. Our father worked in factory management and later became a professor in the same. He did some consulting work in later years, as did an associate of his. This associate told him that this was the primary purpose of the 1980s Ford advertising campaign, “Quality is Job #1” in that it was primarily intended to inculcate an image of employee identity. It’s about corporate culture, essentially no different than the patriotism of nationalistic culture that is promoted by government propaganda. The point is to make people into true believers who will defend and embody the official dogma, whether to be good workers or good citizens.

It’s only after creating a culture as a self-contained and self-reinforcing worldview that those in power can then extend their influence beyond it. But here is the thing. Those in power are the greatest targets of propaganda, as they are the influencers of society (Hillsdale’s Imprimis: Neocon Propaganda). If you can get them to truly believe the ruling ideology or else to mindlessly repeat the talking points for personal gain, those propaganda messages and memes will spread like a contagious disease. And they get others to believe them by acting as if they believe — the con man first has to con himself, as Jack Black (the early 20th century author, not the actor) observed in his memoir You Can’t Win. C. J. Hopkins writes (Why Ridiculous Official Propaganda Still Works):

“Chief among the common misconceptions about the way official propaganda works is the notion that its goal is to deceive the public into believing things that are not “the truth” (that Trump is a Russian agent, for example, or that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or that the terrorists hate us for our freedom, et cetera). However, while official propagandists are definitely pleased if anyone actually believes whatever lies they are selling, deception is not their primary aim.

“The primary aim of official propaganda is to generate an “official narrative” that can be mindlessly repeated by the ruling classes and those who support and identify with them. This official narrative does not have to make sense, or to stand up to any sort of serious scrutiny. Its factualness is not the point. The point is to draw a Maginot line, a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative.”

It’s a similar methodology for why corporations spend so much money on astroturf and lobbying, especially in influencing doctors, health experts, government officials, academic researchers, etc (Sharyl Attkisson, Astroturf and manipulation of media messages). A lot of corporate funding goes to scientific journals, scientific conventions, and further education for professionals. Even more money gets thrown around to pay for fake news articles, fake positive reviews, fake social media accounts, etc. All of this to create an image and then to discredit anyone who challenges this image. Between the private and public sectors, this is an all-out propaganda onslaught from hundreds, if not thousands, of government agencies, corporations, lobbyist organizations, special interest groups, think tanks, and on and on.

“I am an intellectual thug who has slowly been accumulating a private arsenal with every intention of using it. In a mindless age, every insight takes on the character of a lethal weapon.”‬

‪Marshall McLuhan to Ezra Pound,‬ ‪letter, June 22, 1951‬.

* * *

Let me give an example of private censorship by powerful corporations, as a type of negative propaganda where public perception is shaped not only by what Americans were allowed to see but by what was omitted and eliminated from view. It’s often forgotten that most of the oppressive actions during the Cold War were taken by big biz, not big gov, including but not limited to blackballing. In the documentary Red Hollywood, there is discussion of the 1954 independent film Salt of the Earth. It was written, directed, and produced by three men on the Hollywood blacklist in being alleged Communists. The narrator of the documentary described its groundbreaking significance:

“But only after the blacklist had forced them outside the studio system could Hollywood Communists make a film in which working-class women stood up and demanded equality. No Hollywood film had ever shown a strike from the workers’ point of view. No Hollywood film had ever portrayed a strike as just and rational. No Hollywood film had ever given Chicanos the leading parts and put Anglos in subordinate roles. No Hollywood film had ever shown women courageously and effectively taking over the work of men. Salt of the Earth broke all these taboos, but it never reached its intended public.”

Then the documentary cuts to an interview with Paul Jarrico, the producer of Salt of the Earth. He explained that,

“After the opening in New York where the picture was well-received, not only by an audience who packed the theater for nine weeks, I think, or 10, but by good reviews in the New York Times, and Time magazine, and other journals. And a number of exhibitors said they wanted to play the picture, and then one by one they were pressured by the majors: ‘You play that picture and you’ll never get another RKO picture.’ ‘You play that picture, you’ll never get another MGM picture.’ And one by one, they backed out. The original intent when we formed the company was to make a number of films using the talents of blacklisted people. But we lost our shirts on Salt of the Earth and that was the end of that noble experiment. In a way, it’s the grandfather of independent filmmaking in the United States. I mean, there’ve been a lot of independent films since, but we didn’t make them.”

This is how alternative voices were silenced, again and again. In their place, films that toed the line were promoted. Through control of the film industry and backing by government, the major film companies were able to have near total control of the indoctrination of American citizens. That is but one example among many.

* * *

Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
by David Kaplan

A Lost Opportunity to Learn Lessons from the Cultural Cold War
by Steve Slick

How the CIA Really Won Hearts and Minds Naïve
by J.P. O’Malley

The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited
by James Petras

The CIA and the Media
by Carl Bernstein

A Propaganda Model
by Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky

The CIA and the Press: When the Washington Post Ran the CIA’s Propaganda Network
by Jeffrey St. Clair

Murdoch, Scaife and CIA Propaganda
by Robert Parry

Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’
by Frances Stonor Saunders

The CIA as Art Patron
by Lenni Brenner

Washington DC’s role behind the scenes in Hollywood goes deeper than you think
by Matthew Alford

Hollywood and the Pentagon
by Jacobin Editors

EXCLUSIVE: Documents expose how Hollywood promotes war on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA
by Tom Secker

ROI: Does the Pentagon Fund Movies?
from Spy Culture

How Many Movies has the Pentagon Prevented from Being Made?
from Spy Culture

CIA helped shape ‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’ series into bigoted Venezuela regime change fantasy
by Max Blumenthal

How the Pentagon and CIA push Venezuela regime-change propaganda in video games
by Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton

“Invading Your Hearts and Minds”: Call of Duty® and the (Re)Writing of Militarism in U.S. Digital Games and Popular Culture
Frédérick Gagnon

Arts Armament: How the CIA Secretly Shaped The Arts in America
by Theodore Carter

The CIA-Soviet Culture Wars That Shaped American Art
by Juliana Spahr

Was modern art a weapon of the CIA?
by Alastair Sooke

Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’
by Frances Stonor Saunders

Modern art is a sham
by Arthur B. Alexi

The Occult War of Art
from Cult Of Frogs

The battle for Picasso’s mind
by Matthew Holman

Picasso and the CIA
by Susan Adler

How Jackson Pollock and the CIA Teamed Up to Win The Cold War
by Michael R. McBride

Postmodern philosopher Judith Butler repeatedly donated to ‘top cop’ Kamala Harris
by Ben Norton

The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985
by Josh Jones

Why the CIA Cares About Marxism
by Michael Barker

Why the CIA Loved French New Left Philosophy, and Why They Were Wrong
from Spy Culture

Is Literature ‘the Most Important Weapon of Propaganda’?
by Nick Romeo

Literary Magazines for Socialists Funded by the CIA, Ranked
by Patrick Iber

The CIA Helped Build the Content Farm That Churns Out American Literature
by Brian Merchant

How Iowa Flattened Literature
by Eric Bennett

Hijack: The CIA and Literary Culture
by Antony Loewenstein

How the CIA Infiltrated the World’s Literature
by Mary von Aue

How the CIA Helped Shape the Creative Writing Scene in America
by Josh Jones

‘Workshops of Empire,’ by Eric Bennett
by Timothy Aubry

Silent Coup: How the CIA is Welcoming Itself Back Onto American University Campuses
by David Price

The science of spying: how the CIA secretly recruits academics
by Daniel Golden

Propaganda and Disinformation: How the CIA Manufactures History
by Victor Marchetti

The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America – Part 1 & Part 2
by Nancy Hanover

These are the propaganda ad campaigns that made socialism seem un-American
by Oana Godeanu-Kenworth

FBI Uses “Cute” Propaganda Campaign to Justify Civil Asset Forfeiture
by Jose Nino

Americans Can’t Afford Kleptocracy

“While countries have shown aspirations to reduce emissions, the reality is far more bleak and complicated. The global economy is currently hardwired to run on fossil fuels. As incumbents, the multibillion corporations that extract gas and petroleum have a huge built in advantage over upstart renewable companies. In addition, fossil fuels enjoy $5 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies, and there’s ample infrastructure to extract and burn them. As a result, the levers of policies are pulled largely in favor of preserving this status quo despite the existential risk it poses.”

That is part of a damning critique by Brian Kahn over at Gizmodo (Building All the Fossil Fuel Projects Already in the Pipeline Would Wreck the Climate). The argument he is making there is about why it is hard to make rational changes everyone knows we have to make when there are so many vested interests. It’s an entire system of wealth and power, as always. That is the point I made in looking at California’s environmentally-unsustainable economy (Is California a Canary in the Coal Mine?). But that isn’t why I decided to quote the above.

What disturbs me is that the US ruling elite throw around trillions of dollars as if it were chump change. That is trillions of dollars every year (quite possibly an undercount at that, as not only is wealth given away but resources, opportunities, and access are given away before they are measured as wealth in any accounting, all of it defended and enforced by a military empire that is costly beyond imagination, costly also in terms of lives and human potential callously sacrificed). And we are talking about only one industry. They also waste trillions of dollars in selling other natural resources below market prices, in no-bid contracts for the defense industry, in all that goes into big ag, and much else. A few trillion here, a few trillion year, and on and on, in every sector of the economy every year, repeat ad nauseum for decades and generations on end. Yet we are told we don’t have enough money for basic needs of survival for Americans, that we can’t afford even to raise minimum wage for those who don’t earn enough to pay the bills, despite working multiple jobs. There are millions of Americans without affordable healthcare, sometimes without homes even, and going without food on a regular basis. But we can’t afford to ensure the public good. Well, I’m pretty sure those trillions upon trillions multiplied over a lifetime or longer could have gone a long way in investing in housing for all, universal healthcare, good schools even for the poor, clean water that is free of lead, and on and on.

Compare that to another country rich in natural resources, Iceland. They used a public company to sell their oil on the market and they sold it at market prices. The oil is still part of the same environmental problems, but at least the profits went to create a massive national surplus in preparing for the future. That surplus equates to millions of dollars per citizen and it can only be used for the public good, such as funding their large social safety net. That is what a functioning democracy looks like. Instead, what we Americans have is kleptocracy. What is going on is outright theft of the commons. The fact that such theft is part and parcel of the destruction of the world makes it all the worse. But even ignoring that, I want back the millions of dollars that were stolen from me. How about you? Do you want what was wrongfully taken from you? Or would you rather remain a slave?

What we’re talking about is reparations, not only for African-Americans descended from slaves and Native Americans whose ancestors survived genocide. This would be reparations for all Americans who have had wealth, resources, and opportunities stolen from them. Think about those who died young because of a lack of healthcare. Those are years of life stolen, loved ones taken from us too soon. How does one repay that? There is no amount of money that can undo the harm caused by the evil from generations of theft, corruption, and injustice. Even if we took all the wealth from the rich, it still couldn’t offset the harm caused to individuals and to society. The plutocrats have already wasted most of that wealth and so it’s gone. That is what psychopaths and authoritarians tend to do with other people’s money. They waste it. Yet they still have some of the wealth they sole from us Americans. Getting recompense for a fraction of what they stole is better than nothing. We only want what is rightfully ours. The kleptocrats took it from us and we want it back.

The ruling elite say we can’t steal from the rich because they only have so much money. I don’t want to steal from them. I want back at least some of the wealth they stole from me and my fellow Americans (easily hundreds of trillions of dollars over the past generation alone), not to mention what they stole from foreign populations. It should be given back because it is the right thing to do. It’s that simple. How do the police retrieve stolen property? Well, there is a well established protocol for enforcing justice in cases of theft. It’s done by the police pointing a gun at the robber, arresting them, placing them in jail, and then putting them on trial. All we Americans are asking for is justice, that our our free society be defended and our rights protected. Why aren’t the police doing their job? That is their job, right? If not, maybe others should do the job for them. Fear of violent oppression can only maintain the social order for so long.

Why do we accept this, allow this? As the American founders made clear, it has always been in our hands to choose our own government, our own constitution, and it has always been our right and responsibility to demand it by any means necessary, even revolution as our country was founded*. In dealing with this existential crisis humanity is facing, we are going to need all of our wealth to re-invest in a better society. We never should have tolerated kleptocracy, corporate welfare, and socialism for the rich. We can’t afford it.

* * *

*Whether revolution will be non-violent or violent would depend on the response of the government and ruling elite. If they choose violence, it will be violent. But I’m sure the American people would prefer a peaceful transition, if that is allowed by the powers that be. That is what Bernie Sanders is asking for when he speaks of revolution. And there is historical precedence for this, such as Portugal’s Carnation Revolution.

Either way, know this. Revolution will happen. It cannot be stopped. That is because the system is unsustainable. As I said, it’s simply unaffordable. The costs are too high. Shifting those costs onto the poor and future generations, shifting the costs onto foreign populations and the environment… that doesn’t solve the problem. It only delays it for a while. Now we are at the end point. No further delays are possible. The bill has come due. We can do this the easy way or the hard way.

As Ralph Nader put it, “there’s always a party before the party’s over.”

* * *

Cookie Cutter corporate media hack trying to defend plutocracy:

“Do you then ultimately believe that the most ultra-wealthy of us should give back in this way by being taxed in this way? I know you wrote a book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! Do you really believe that that’s their duty and they should do it through a wealth tax of this sorts?

Ralph Nader:

“Well, definitely Warren Buffett and Lawrence Fink of Blackstone and Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and others have talked about a reset in terms of corporate response and in response to the wealthy. But look. After years of political campaign cash and sending their candidates into high office, the super-rich have got huge tax escapes; they have huge subsidies, bailouts, giveaways, Wall Street, General Motors; they have huge antitrust protection, monopolistic prices; they’ve stalled or frozen wages.

“These are trillions and trillions of dollars that come from people who work hard every day, but have not received what they should have received given their earned effort. So this is like a restoration of fair play. And let me tell you. You’ve heard the old saying, there’s always a party before the party’s over. And some good guys in Wall Street and some of the more responsible corporate executives know they’re pushing that envelope too far in the face of the American people. And that’s why they’re huge polls supporting a lot of Sanders and Warren’s measures and they include quite a few conservative voters. You can’t have 65, 70, 75 percent vote for cracking down on corporate abuses, for a living wage, for universal health care unless you have quite a bit of conservative voters as well, right?”

“Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

There is “a large group of people who feel that they no longer have any effective stake or a just share in a particular system of economic or social relations aren’t going to feel any obligation to defend that system when it faces a crisis, or any sense even of belonging within it.” Scott Preston writes about this in Panem et Circenses.

When people feel disenfranchised and disinvested, disengaged and divided, they are forced to fall back on other identities or else to feel isolated. In either case, radicalization can follow. And if not radicalization, people can simply begin acting strangely, desperately, and aggressively, sometimes violently as they react to each new stressor and lash out at perceived threats (see Keith Paynes’ The Broken Ladder, as written about in my posts Inequality Means No Center to Moderate TowardOn Conflict and Stupidity, Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied, Connecting the Dots of Violence, & Inequality in the Anthropocene).

We see this loss of trust in so many ways. As inequality goes up, so do the rates of social problems, from homicides to child abuse, from censorship to police brutality. The public becomes more outraged and the ruling elite become more authoritarian. But it’s the public that concerns me, as I’m not part of the ruling elite nor aspire to be. The public has lost faith in government, corporations, media, and increasingly the healthcare system as well — nearly all of the major institutions that hold together the social fabric. A society can’t survive long under these conditions. Sure, a society can turn toward the overtly authoritarian as China is doing, but even that requires public trust that the government in some basic sense has the public good or national interest in mind.

Then again, American society has been resilient up to this point. This isn’t the first time that the social order began fracturing. On more than one occasion, the ruling elite lost control of the narrative and almost entirely lost control of the reigns of power. The US has a long history of revolts, often large-scale and violent, that started as soon as the country was founded (Shays’ Rebellion, Whiskey Rebellion, etc; see Spirit of ’76 & The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence). In their abject fear, look at how the ruling elite treated the Bonus Army. And veterans were to be feared. Black veterans came back from WWI with their guns still in their possession and they violently fought back against their oppressors. And after WWII, veterans rose up against corrupt local governments, in one case using military weapons to shoot up the courthouse (e.g., 1946 Battle of Athens).

The public losing trust in authority figures and institutions of power is not to be taken lightly. That is even more true with a country founded on revolution and that soon after fell into civil war. As with Shays’ Rebellion, the American Civil War was a continuation of the American Revolution. The cracks in the foundation remain, the issues unresolved. This has been a particular concern for the American oligarchs and plutocrats this past century, as mass uprisings and coups overturned numerous societies around the world. The key factor, though, is what Americans will do. Patriotic indoctrination can only go so far. Where will people turn to for meaningful identities that are relevant to survival in an ever more harsh and punishing society, as stress and uncertainty continues to rise?

Even if the American public doesn’t turn against the system any time soon, when it comes under attack they might not feel in the mood to sacrifice themselves to defend it. Societies can collapse from revolt, but they can more easily collapse from indifference and apathy, a slow erosion of trust. “Not with a bang but with a whimper.” But maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It’s better than some of the alternatives. And it would be an opportunity for reinvention, for new identities.

* * *

7/26/19 – An interesting thing is that the oligarchs are so unconcerned. They see this situation as a good thing, as an opportunity. Everything is an opportunity to the opportunist and disaster capitalism is one endless opportunity for those who lack a soul.

They aren’t seeking to re-create early 20th century fascism. The loss of national identities is not an issue for them, even as they exploit and manipulate patriotism. Meanwhile, their own identities and source of power has been offshored in a new form of extra-national governance, a deep state beyond all states. They are citizens of nowhere and the rest of us are left holding the bag.

“The oligarch’s interests always lie offshore: in tax havens and secrecy regimes. Paradoxically, these interests are best promoted by nationalists and nativists. The politicians who most loudly proclaim their patriotism and defence of sovereignty are always the first to sell their nations down the river. It is no coincidence that most of the newspapers promoting the nativist agenda, whipping up hatred against immigrants and thundering about sovereignty, are owned by billionaire tax exiles, living offshore” (George Monbiot, From Trump to Johnson, nationalists are on the rise – backed by billionaire oligarchs).

It’s not that old identities are merely dying. There are those seeking to snuff them out, to put them out of their misery. The ruling elite are decimating what holds society together. But in their own demented way, maybe they are unintentionally freeing us to become something else. They have the upper hand for the moment, but moments don’t last long. Even they realize disaster capitalism can’t be maintained. It’s why they constantly dream of somewhere to escape, whether on international waters or space colonies. Everyone is looking for a new identity. That isn’t to say all potential new identities will serve us well.

All of this is a strange scenario. And most people are simply lost. As old identities loosen, we lose our bearings, even or especially among the best of us. It is disorienting, another thing Scott Preston has been writing a lot about lately (Our Mental Meltdown: Mind in Dissolution). The modern self is splintering and this creates all kinds of self-deception and self-contradiction. As Preston puts often it, “the duplicity of our times — the double-think, the double-speak, the double-standards, and the double-bind” (Age of Revolutions). But don’t worry. The oligarchs too will find themselves caught in their own traps. Their fantasies of control are only that, fantasies.

We get what we pay for.

“Switzerland had the highest rate of return for empty wallets and Denmark for wallets with money in them. European countries overall, including Russia, got high marks for honesty.

“China had the lowest rate of return for empty wallets and Peru for wallets with money. I am disappointed that the United States is so far down on the list.”

I don’t feel disappointed about the US ranking. Or at least I don’t feel surprised. On many measures, the US often ranks around the middle. We are a middling country. Yes, above average, but middling. We lead the pack among the mediocre countries.

You see this with measures of culture of trust, democracy, freedom of press, health outcomes, education quality, etc. We tend to be far above the worst countries and well below the best (although specific US states often rank near the bottom in international comparisons). This has been the state of the nation for many decades now. It’s not exactly a new trend, this slipping down the international rankings.

But when older Americans were younger, the US was often the top ranking country in the world on numerous measures. Hence, the disappointment some Americans experience in remembering the country that once was. Sadly, that country hasn’t existed for a while now. We took American ‘greatness’ for granted and lost our sense of aspiration. Without the Soviet Union to compete against, Americans became morally and physically flabby.

Consider height. Americans used to be the tallest population on the planet. Now we share a ranking of 32nd with Israel, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, French Polynesia, Grenada, and Tonga. Height is one of those indicators of the general health of a society and correlates with such things as inequality (and, by the way, high inequality in turn correlates with worse outcomes even for the wealthy, compared to the wealthy in low inequality countries). Trust also falls as inequality rises.

Still, we Americans on average are taller than 82 other countries. So, not bad. But still a major drop compared to the past. We are a declining society in many ways, specifically relative to other countries that are advancing. It’s a sign of the times. It’s also unsurprising that the United States is declining as a global superpower as well. A government’s power is built on the health of the population and the success of the society.

Anyone who dismisses the public good is naive. This is why the most effective social democracies that massively invest the in the public good now lead the world in nearly every ranking. The United States has chosen the opposite path, shifting wealth to the top for short term gains for a minority of the population, not to mention wasting our resources on military adventurism and imperial expansionism. We get what we pay for.

A ranking of countries by civic honesty

American Spirituality

The United States is a religious society. But I don’t know to what degree it is a spiritual society. I’m not even quite sure what spirituality can mean here. There is an Anglo-American history of spirituality: Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Theosophy, etc. The Shakers are an interesting example, specifically of community. They originated from the Quakers, as they were the Shaking Quakers. They were really into communal dancing with the noise they made being heard miles away. They were also really into Spiritualism with their members going into trance states, channeling spirits, doing spirit paintings, etc. The Shakers, by the way, advocated abstinence. That might explain some of their behavior. They needed some kind of outlet. Avoiding sex meant they had to adopt children to maintain their society, which they did over a century. That is what happened to my great grandfather. He was one of the last generation of Shaker children. I would have loved to known about his experience, but apparently he never talked about it.

There were a lot of similar things going on during the revival movements of the Great Awakenings. All kinds of odd behaviors were common, from shaking to talking in tongues. The people believed God or the Holy Spirit came down and essentially possessed them. It’s hard to imagine this happening today in this country. There are still some churches that have such practices, including such things snake handling, though it doesn’t seem to be at the same level as seen in these once massive revivals. Interestingly, the Piraha also do snake handling when possessed, not that they think of it as possession. A possessed Piraha becomes entirely identified with the spirit, such that not even other Piraha would recognize him as anything else. The Piraha, by the way, have no shamanic tradition as such and so no shamans. Possession isn’t part of any formal tradition or rituals and just happens. Because of that, the Piraha might be a good framework for understanding some of the spiritual eruptions in American society.

Then there is the whole phenomenon of UFO sightings and abductee experiences, Mothman and Men in Black. That has developed into numerous UFO and alien cults (some good books have been written on that). Carl Jung considered UFOs to be an expression of a religious impulse, something new seeking to emerge within our society (see a letter he wrote to Gilbert A. Harrison and his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies). Like Jung, others have seen a spiritual/mythological component to this. The biggest name being the astrologer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee who noted the similarity between alien abduction accounts, fairy abduction stories, and shamanic initiations. John Keel wrote about similar things. In a scientific age, it is in a scientific guise that spirituality often gets expressed. This is the unexpected form that the next major religion is likely to take. In the way that the Axial Age religions took ahistorical myths and rewrote them as history, our society will take non-scientific myths and retell them as science. On a personal level, that will be how spirituality will be experienced by many — if not necessarily the rise of UFO cults, then something like it.

I wonder what it would look like in the U.S. if we had a fourth (fifth?) Great Awakening with the large revivals or else along these lines, although not necessarily in Christian dressing. Admittedly, it’s harder to imagine it. But secularism doesn’t alter the underlying yearning for spirituality, for something transcendant or other, something ecstatic and transformative. The hunger is there, obviously. It just gets subverted in our capitalist society. The closest we come is presidential elections when people become a bit mentally unbalanced… still, not the same thing, at least not these days. But according to early American records, elections were more like ecstatic Carnival with truly wild behavior going on. Elections with their group-minded partisanship — combined with cult of personality — can make people lose their individual sense of self into something greater (see Winter Season and Holiday Spirit). That maybe the main purpose of elections in our society, not so much for democracy (as U.S. politics fails on that account) but as a state religion. I sometimes wonder if our entire society isn’t possessed in some sense. That might be a better explanation than anything else. That maybe the difficulty the respectable classes have in coming to terms with President Donald Trump, as he is less of a politician than a religious figure. Heck, maybe he is a lizard person too, as part of an advanced guard of an alien invasion.

* * *

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

A True Story

We Americans are trapped in a cage with a sleeping grizzly bear and a pack of rabid wolves. The DNC careerists hold the keys to the lock.

They keep telling everyone to speak softly and don’t make any sudden moves, for fear of being torn to shreds. When someone suggests they simply unlock the cage door so that we could all safely step outside, they calmly explain that the danger is real but that we need to consider other options first before we go to such extremes.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump punches the bear in the nose and flings his own poop at the wolves, while declaring there is no bear or wolves and even if there were he’d use his business superpowers to make a deal with them. The GOP sycophants defend his bravery in standing up to the libtards telling everyone what to do. Make the Cage Great Again, cheers some in the crowd.

The corporatist news media hacks, a mass of people between them and the now growling animals, with great self-importance fairly report both sides of the disagreement. Meanwhile, the morning talk show hosts halfheartedly debate whether bears and wolves are fake news. Then they cut to an advertisement for a new antidepressant: “Do you feel anxious? Ask your doctor about Xibuprex. Symptoms may include prostate reflux, toenail dysplasia, herniated itching…”

The American people huddle together in separate groups. With passive expectation, their eyes are glued to their smartphones. They watch videos of what is going on around them and scroll through their social media feeds trying to determine which side they agree with by liking the Facebook posts and retweeting the Tweets that align with their preferred ideology or identity politics.

The bear awakens from its slumber. The rabid wolves approach. The cage door remains locked. The crowd nervously shifts this way and then that.

Neoliberal Catastrophism

“It seems like there are an increasing number of areas where the discourse among centrists and liberals follows a fairly similar script. The opening statement is one of unbridled catastrophe: Trump is fascism on the ascendant march! Global warming will destroy us in the next x years! (I’m not making any judgments here about the truth of these claims, though for the record, I believe the second but not the first). The comes the followup statement, always curiously anodyne and small: Let’s nominate Klobuchar. How are you going to pay for a Green New Deal? Don’t alienate the moderates.

“All of these specific moves can be rationalized or explained by reference to local factors and considerations, but they seem like part of a pattern, representing something bigger. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Eric Hobsbawm for a piece I’m working on, but the pattern seems to reflect the reality of life after the Cold War, the end of any viable socialist alternative. For the last quarter-century, we’ve lived in a world, on the left, where the vision of catastrophe is strong, while the answering vision remains inevitably small: baby steps, cap and trade, pay as you go, and so on. Each of these moves might have its own practical justifications, but it’s hard to see how anyone could credibly conjure from those minuscule proposals a blueprint that could in any way be commensurate with the scale of the problem that’s just been mooted, whether it be Trump or climate change.

“I wonder if there is any precedent for this in history. You’ve had ages of catastrophe before, where politicians and intellectuals imagined the deluge and either felt helpless before it or responded with the most cataclysmic and outlandish utopias or dystopias of their own. What seems different today is how the imagination of catastrophe is coupled with this bizarre confidence in moderation and perverse belief in the margin.

“Neoliberal catastrophism?”

Corporate Control, from the EU to the US

There is a recent incident of the EU putting out corporate propaganda. An EU report directly plagiarized a paper written by big ag, in ensuring the public that glyphosate (Roundup) is a healthy additive to your family’s diet and so there is no need to strictly regulate it.

“The BfR [Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment commissioned by the EU] had thus copied Monsanto’s explanation of Monsanto’s approach in evaluating the published literature, yet had presented it as the approach of the authority. This is a striking example of deception regarding true authorship.”
(Joseph Mercola, EU Infiltrated by Pesticide Industry Plagiarizes Safety Study)

Don’t worry about it. Monsanto’s products are safe and good. How do we know? Because Monsanto told us so. It’s amazing they get away this kind of thing. And they do it all the time.

Corporate lobbyists regularly have direct influence over politicians. They even sometimes write the bills that get passed into laws. And that is on top of regulatory capture, revolving doors, legalized bribery, etc. I don’t know why we tolerate this. It’s so often done brazenly, as if they are rubbing our faces in it, daring us to try to stop them, as if to demonstrate to us that we are powerless and so we should just cynically accept our subordinate position.

I’m so often reminded of the actions of the East India Company prior to the American Revolution. They thought they were above all morality and laws, beholden to no one. They began taking on the powers of a government, as they piggybacked on British imperialism. That was the first era when corporatism took hold in the Anglo-American world.

It shouldn’t surprise any of us by now. Think about it.

Western governments on behalf of corporations have regularly harmed and killed millions of innocents through trade agreements, sanctions, wars of aggression, coups, training paramilitary groups, etc in order to ensure for corporations access to trade routes, natural resources, and cheap labor (e.g., Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State intervened in Haiti to drive down wages so as to maintain cheap labor for US corporations, which is why so many Haitian-Americans voted for Trump and helped him to win Florida). A governing body like the EU putting out corporate propaganda is a small act in the big scheme.

Our governments, especially in the US, don’t represent the citizenry. Generations of attempts at reform from within the system have mostly failed, although a few successes here and there. The US government is more corporatist now than at any prior point in history. Yet every election cycle candidates in both parties promise all kinds of things. That doesn’t stop the system from continuing on as before in serving big biz, as scientific studies have shown. If more of the same keeps resulting in more of the same, maybe it’s time we did something different.

The majority of the American public has been steadily moving left in their policy positions for decades. At this point, the average American is to the left of both parties on many major issues. When some political, media, or think tank elite speaks of ‘centrism’ and ‘moderation’, ask yourself what is the defining frame? Well, obviously they mean moderating toward the center of power, not moderating toward the center of majority support. The problem is the majority doesn’t know it is a majority because the propaganda campaign has been so highly effective with near total control of the party system and corporate media.

Cracks are beginning to show, though. In the past, the gatekeepers would have so tightly controlled these issues that the American public would rarely have heard about any of it. But the corporate media stranglehold is beginning to loosen. Or maybe some of the ruling elite are finally coming around to the sense of self-preservation that motivated a born plutocrat like Theodore Roosevelt to reign in corporate wealth and power.

* * *

‘Call It the Oppression of the Supermajority’: Americans Eager for Bold Change, So Why Can’t They Get It?
by Jake Johnson, Common Dreams

Most Americans support Medicare for All, higher taxes on the rich, a Green New Deal, and other major items on the progressive agenda—so why has Congress failed to enact them?

The reason, Columbia University Law School professor Tim Wu argued in an op-ed for the New York Times on Tuesday, is that the influence of corporations and the donor class on the American political system has drowned out the policy desires of the public.

“In our era, it is primarily Congress that prevents popular laws from being passed or getting serious consideration. (Holding an occasional hearing does not count as ‘doing something’),” Wu wrote. “Entire categories of public policy options are effectively off-limits because of the combined influence of industry groups and donor interests.”

To bolster his argument, Wu rattled off a number of policies that—despite polling extremely well among large, bipartisan swaths of the American public—have not garnered enough support among lawmakers to pass Congress.

“About 75 percent of Americans favor higher taxes for the ultra-wealthy. The idea of a federal law that would guarantee paid maternity leave attracts 67 percent support,” Wu noted. “Eighty-three percent favor strong net neutrality rules for broadband, and more than 60 percent want stronger privacy laws. Seventy-one percent think we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada, and 92 percent want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. The list goes on.”

Since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, Congress has in many cases done the opposite of what most Americans want by slashing taxes on the richfailing to restore net neutrality rules, and attempting to strip healthcare from millions of Americans.

“The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues like these,” argued Wu. “Call it the oppression of the supermajority. Ignoring what most of the country wants—as much as demagogy and political divisiveness—is what is making the public so angry.”

Wu’s contention that the “combined influence” of the donor class and big business is significantly responsible for Congress’ refusal to enact popular policies matches the conclusion of a 2014 study (pdf) by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who found that in the United States, “the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”

“When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose,” Gilens and Page wrote. “Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

An Empire of Shame

America as an empire. This has long been a contentious issue, going back to the colonial era, first as a debate over whether Americans wanted to remain a part of the British Empire and later as a debate over whether Americans wanted to create a new empire. We initially chose against empire with the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. But then we chose for empire with the Constitution that allowed (pseudo-)Federalists to gain power and reshape the new government.

Some key Federalists openly talked about an American Empire. For the most part, though, American leaders have kept their imperial aspirations hidden behind rhetoric, even as our actions were obviously imperialistic. Heck, an Anti-Federalist like Thomas Jefferson took the imperialistic action of the Louisiana Purchase, a deal between one empire and another. Imperial expansionism continued through the 19th century and into the 20th century with numerous military interventions, from the Indian Wars to the Banana Wars. Not a year has gone by in American history when we weren’t involved in a war of aggression.

Yet it still is hard for Americans to admit that we are an empire. I’ve had numerous discussions with my conservative father on this topic. At times, he has surprisingly admitted we are an empire, but usually he is resistant. In our most recent debate, it occurred to me that the resistance is motivated by shame. We don’t want to admit we are an empire because we are ashamed of our government’s brutal use of power on our behalf. And shame is a powerful force. People will do and allow the most horrific actions out of shame.

Empires of the past tended to be projects built on pride and honor, of brazen rule through force. We Americans, instead, feel the need to hide our imperialism behind an image of benign and reluctant power. The difference is Americans, ever since we were colonists, have had an inferiority complex. It makes us both yearn for greatness and fear mockery. Our country is the young teenager that must prove himself, while not yet having the confidence to really believe in himself. So, we act slyly as an empire with implicit threats and backroom manipulations, proxy wars and covert operations, puppet governments and corporatist front groups. Then, when these morally depraved actions come to light, we rationalize why they were exceptions or why we were being forced to do so because of circumstances. It’s not our fault. We don’t want to hurt others, but we had no other choice. Besides, we were defending freedom and free markets, that is why we constantly intervene in other countries and endlessly kill innocents. It is for the greater good. We are willing to make this self-sacrifice on the behalf of others. We are the real victims.

I regularly come across quotes from American leaders who publicly or privately complained about our government, who spoke of failure and betrayal. This has included presidents and other political officials going back to the beginning of the country. Think of Jefferson and Adams in their later years worrying about the fate of the American experiment, that maybe we Americans didn’t have what it takes, that maybe we aren’t destined to be great. The sense of inferiority has haunted our collective imagination for so long that it is practically a defining feature. Despite our being the largest empire in world history, we don’t have the self-certain righteousness to declare ourselves an empire. That is why we get the false and weak bravado of someone like Donald Trump — sadly, he represents our country all too well. Then again, so did Hillary Clinton represent our country in her suppressing wages in Haiti so that U.S. companies would have cheap foreign labor (i.e., corporate wage slavery), the kind of actions the U.S. does all the time in secret in order to maintain control. We have talent for committing evil with a smiling face… or nervous laughter.

Rather than clear power asserted with pride and honor, the United States government acts like a bully on the world stage. We are constantly trying to prove ourselves. And our denial of imperialism is gaslighting, to make anyone feel crazy if they dare voice the truth of what we are. We tell others that we are the good guys. What we really are trying to do is to convince ourselves of our own bullshit. This causes a nervousness in the public mind, a fear that we might be found out. We are paralyzed by our shame and it gets tiring in our trying to keep up the pretense. The facade is crumbling. Our inner shame has become public such that now we are the shame of the world. That probably means our leaders will soon start a war to divert attention, and both main parties will be glad for the diversion.

There is a compelling argument made by James Gilligan in Preventing Violence. Among other things, he sees as a key cause to interpersonal violence is shame. And that there is something particularly shame-inducing about our society, especially for those on the bottom of society. He is attempting to explain violent crime. But what occurs to me is that our leaders are just as violent, if not more violent. It’s simply that those who make the laws determine which violence is legal and which violence illegal, their own violence being in the former category as it is implemented through the state or with the support of the state. Maybe it is shame that causes our government to be so violent toward foreign populations and toward the American population. And maybe shame is what causes American citizens to remain silent in their complicity, as the violent is done in their name.

The Hidden Lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has returned with a second season. I finished the second new episode. It offers much food for thought. The story itself is wonderfully told, partly because it is based on a fine piece of literature, but credit is due to the screenwriters and main actresses.

Also, it is one of the most plausible and compelling dystopias of the near future. That can’t be doubted. Still, it could be doubted that it is the most probable dystopia, as there are so many other possible dystopias. Some would argue we are already living in a dystopia, the only issue being how bad can it get. That isn’t to say we should fool ourselves that recent events have been as important as they seem in how they loom in our immediate public imagination. The shit storm has been brewing for a long time.

As I watched the beginning of the second season, it occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of a specific demographic. I think it’s an awesome show, but as a working  class white guy I’m not the target audience. It doesn’t speak to my personal fear-ridden fantasies about the world I see around me. Nor does it speak to white working class single mothers, poor rural Christians, homeless veterans with PTSD, recent immigrant families, Native Americans on reservations, young black men targeted by police, etc.

I’ve talked about the haunted moral imagination of the reactionary mind. Well, this show is the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class. To be more specific, I noticed that all the lead roles are professional white women or were before the theocrats took over. Both seasons focus on various professional white women who in the pre-catastrophe world were moving up in the world. The actresses by profession are of the liberal class with most of the main actresses being Millennials and so the show points to their experience.

An older gay guy tries to warn a younger lesbian to be careful at the college where they both work, but she dismisses him as trying to “hide the dykes” and she acts tough. Like most liberal class Americans, she has never lived in a world where there were severely dangerous consequences for people like her. The toughest battles were fought in the past and it was assumed that society was permanently changed and continuously improving, the liberal class’ version of Whig history.

What exists outside of the liberal class moral imagination is the fact that, for many Americans outside of the liberal class, this society has been horrific for a long time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about those suffering the consequences of their complicity in what has been done to others. Minority women and poor white women in the United States have been experiencing continuous oppression, including sterilizations in recent history. Middle-to-upper class white feminists maybe thought, at least prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, that the worst battles have already been fought and won with only some cleanup to eliminate the last of the misogynists in power, but as for other women the worst battles are yet to come and they’ve long known the risks of continuing to lose the fight.

The fear of American theocracy isn’t entirely unrealistic, obviously. Yet the origins of the fear come from within the dark heart of American liberalism itself. All those secular societies that the United States destroyed and replaced with theocracies along with other forms of authoritarianism, that was done with the full support of Democrats like Hillary Clinton who laughed at the suffering of Libyans (and ask Haitian-Americans in Florida why they didn’t vote for Clinton and helped swing the state and hence the entire election to Trump). A vote for the Democrats, no different than a vote for the Republicans, is to support the exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and killing of hundreds of millions of mostly poor brown people in dozens of countries around the world (the war on terror alone has involved the US military in more than 70 countries).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the shadow cast by American actions worldwide, actions supported by both parties for generations. The liberal class has been fine with promoting theocracy elsewhere, just as long as they don’t have to think about it or admit their own responsibility. What is portrayed in this show is not speculation. It is what we Americans have already done to untold numbers of women elsewhere. Within the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class, there is a seething guilty conscience that fears its own moral failure.

What The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show is how a society becomes like that. It never happens with no presentiments and precursors. In a previous post (But Then It Was Too Late), I shared a passage from Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13). Like one of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Mayer’s was a good liberal college professor, someone who meant well but wasn’t a fighter and wasn’t prone to radicalism. He didn’t protest or revolt when he had a chance, waiting and waiting for the right moment to speak out until it was finally too late:

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

That describes America this past century. And economically well off white liberals have been part of the problem. When bad things happened to the poor, they weren’t poor. When bad things happened to rural and inner city residents, they weren’t rural or inner city residents. When bad things happened to minorities, they weren’t minorities. When bad things happened to immigrants, they weren’t immigrants. When bad things happened to foreigners, they weren’t foreigners. And so most liberals did nothing. The liberalism (and feminism) they fought for was one of privilege, but they didn’t realize that once all others had been targeted by oppression they would be next and then no one would be left to stand up for them.

The saddest part of an authoritarian takeover is how easy it is to see coming decades in advance. Radical left-wingers have been warning the liberal class for generations and they would not listen. The Handmaid’s Tale does make the liberal class sit up and pay attention. But do they learn the most important lesson from it? That lesson is hidden deep within the story and requires soul-searching to discern.