The Myth of North Korean Aggression

China just offered United States a fig leaf by making it clear that if North Korea strikes the first blow, China will not interfere with plans for retaliation. However, China did draw a line at invasion, saying through a state-run newspaper, that if America ever tried to invade to change the geopolitical landscape of that region, it would step in to prevent it.

This, as we would say, is not our first rodeo. In fact, this has happened many, many, many times before. North Korea issues a threat, the United States counters. So how is the new threat by the rogue nation to strike Guam in August any different?

For one, they now have the capability to actually do it.

Since the signing of the 1953 armistice and the cementing of the Kim regime, North Korea has threatened destruction for the United States. A laughable proposition that became less funny as time went on. And although North Korea possesses nowhere near the amount of fire-power it would need to match the U.S. in a fair fight, the attempt would cause an international crisis, as Trump would say, “the likes of which we haven’t seen before,” or at least since WWII.

Secondly, China’s dual strategy, as far as I know, has never been revealed before. For decades the United States assumed that if a fight ever broke out with North Korea, China would remain neutral in that conflict to an expected degree. The details of that strategy of course remain classified. But basically what China just asserted, is, in effect, the best option the U.S. has at the moment. The chance to obliterate the small totalitarian regime, while China referees the conflict, only as long as N.K. attacks first.  We are certain the alternate scenario, one in which the U.S. makes the first move, would have been untenable. Something the United States has considered in every single conflict-scheme ever conceived.

The third reason why the North Korean threat is different this time is simply Donald Trump. In Trump we find a predictably unpredictable character. Predictable in the way any president would act faced with the same threat. Unpredictable in that he’s a wild card, an unreliable actor who’s reliably uninformed about what his options are.

Critics of that assessment would make three proposals to counter. One is that crisis-time Trump is sly, an adaptable animal who knows which strategies to use to win. Two, that in this case unreliability is an asset. And three, that at the very least, we should take comfort in knowing that he’s surrounded by military professionals, by far one of his most competent decisions. To an extent, I would agree with all of that. Whether Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Trump are strategically disagreeing (as Trump publicly often does with his own staff), or whether they’re playing good cop-bad cop, there is a plan in place.

However, it’s been public knowledge that Trump cannot be trusted to keep a lid on the details. And embarrassingly, as reported, doesn’t have the attention span required to even learn them. Which makes whatever approach already in place vulnerable.

For years we’ve talked about North Korean aggression as a destabilizing force in the world. As it turns out, North Korea is just one more country in a short list of lost battles who’s found in nuclear power the only deterrent to an American invasion. The key differences between North Korea and all other American contenders to date, excluding Russia, are that unlike Iran or Libya, the North Koreans are not only backed by very powerful entities (China and Russia) but they have also never abandoned their nuclear plans in favor of concessions.

This myth is propagated by the frustration of an unbalanced Asian continent where the American doctrine–one which accepts Chinese and Russian spheres of influence to flourish due in part by their nuclear deterrents and in part by free-market Capitalism–cannot fully penetrate. It’s a historical thorn that the United States has not been able to pry out. The only solution so far has been to decry North Korean aggression, which is real, and act with a strange combination of soft-diplomacy and less-than-hard diplomacy.

The reality is that there were never good options on the table regarding North Korea. As a Chinese, and to a lesser degree Russian, protectorate, North Korea is a key player in that corner of the world. As a reckless partner, China has found the plausible deniability it needs to keep American militarism in check by way of South Korea and Japan. But by imposing the sanctions recommended by the rest of the security council, of which China has extraordinary veto power, China is telling the world that it will remain centered and neutral by not letting its dog off its leash.

This approach gives the impression that China can be pressured to comply with American wishes while having the added advantage of pushing back against the U.S. for the South China Sea dispute, by being willing to bring nuclear deterrence back on the table. It’s a way to maintain a leveled American influence while cooperating with its biggest trading partner. This strategy works in multiple levels until it doesn’t, for North Korea is now outside of China’s reach. Or eventually will be.

But even that is an illusion.

China’s significant trading partnership with North Korea is all that the small country has outside its few nuclear devices, the majority of which haven’t been adapted to their newly donned ICBMs, for protection. Besides that, it can only rely on the destruction of South Korea, and perhaps Guam, before it’s relegated to the stone age should it decide to provoke a war. That is something that even Russia could understand. The truth is that if China truly decided to rein in North Korea, it would have done so by decimating their partnership.

As for the options the U.S. has in dealing with N.K., that time has passed–if there was ever a time. Risking a war with China, and possibly Russia, the optimal time to attack North Korea would’ve been before they produced nuclear weapons. Something that past presidents, both Republicans and Democrats never seriously contemplated.

So why is this worrisome?

Well it isn’t. The myth of North Korean aggression follows a very standard pattern. Its trajectory starts when the regime is starved (quite literally) and usually ends with some kind of arrangement where the U.S. promises aid in exchange for a reduction, or discontinuance, of nuclear proliferation. The fact that the triumvirate (U.S., South Korea and Japan) are constantly conducting military exercises just outside North Korean waters, and the addition of the newly-developed THAAD system (which even South Korea doesn’t want), doesn’t help.

In Kim Jong Un we find someone who is much more despicable than Trump. The man has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in turning his entire country into a gulag through terror and starvation, an Orwellian dystopia where the state reigns supreme over everything and everyone. But the young dictator isn’t stupid. He’s well aware of the consequences of angering the United States to the point of war. He knows that if there is a confrontation, he would loose every time. So how much is Kim Jong Un willing to sacrifice to stay in power?

It’s certain that he would sacrifice his own population if it meant the continuation of his regime. But the real question is, would Trump sacrifice Seoul for the continuation of his government?

I’ve spoken before about how war (with anyone) would be advantageous to Trump. Not only would it provide him all the political capital he’s lost since the election by consolidating his power among all the different factions, but it would also force America’s allies to fulfill their duties should the conflict get out of hand. Not something overly reassuring since it would most certainly unleash a third world war.

To be sure, a conflict with North Korea would be a decisive, albeit difficult project. It would claim hundreds of thousands of lives–none of which are highly important to Trump–and it would detract enough attention to indefinitely postpone the, comparatively minor, crisis that is the Russian investigation.

But the question is, would a war with North Korea that threatens the instability of an entire region and a consequential one to the balance of world security between the world’s most powerful nations, be worth the political capital? The answer will tell us what kind of man Donald Trump really is– is he a showboat, a grandstander, a fraud or will he follow in the footsteps of previous presidents and do nothing; will he seek to advance his own agenda as previous presidents have also done or will he remain rational?

For the foreseeable future the only peaceful resolution is diplomacy. There’s no other way about it. Just as the world has done, it seems the United States will have to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that we have our hands tied and accept a nuclearized North Korea. The upside is that China has agreed to remain neutral in a conflict, which is good to say the least. As a nation, we must learn to have a more nuanced view of this particular situation and recognize the motivations of the players, and not their rhetoric. What do they intend to do given the opportunities afforded? In this case, if Trump can be persuaded by the professional opinions of the men he’s hired, then I’m confident the status quo is the best we can hope for. But if we are to rely on Trump’s decision-making alone, then I’m afraid the answer to those questions are very grim and worrisome indeed.

 

 

The Success of Failure: How Trump’s Antics Are Good For America

It has been a revealing week. Then again the same can be said about any other week in Trump’s young presidency.

A few days ago his agenda took a major hit when the ACA’s skinny-repeal attempt by the Republicans died on the floor with a single “no” vote by McCain. Afterwards, Trump predictably disowned the effort with his usual twitter-fingers, dismissing it by claiming we should just let Obamacare die on its own. A usual course of action for the president.

The defeat of the health care law repeal is just the latest in a series of legislative failures for his half-year administration and for Republicans. And although these are just procedural hurdles, they are joined at the hip by many other actual scandals with a range of flavors which span from the political to downright petty.

Case in point. Just last night Trump twitter-fired Reince Priebus, the White House Chief-of-Staff and the person in charge of baby-sitting Trump, and replaced him with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly–while Priebus was still on the plane. Who knows if either man was informed of the decision beforehand. According to Reuters (where I first read the report), Trump and Priebus had been in talks for weeks about the exit. Although that in itself could be a lie.

At the same time the drama at the White House was reaching pornographic proportions, North Korea test-launched another missile and the Kremlin suspended hundreds of American diplomats in retaliation for sanctions imposed.

This is the drama that’s been unfolding at the White House. One that gives the appearance that Trump’s administration is a complete disaster. Okay, it is a complete disaster. But that also depends on whom you ask.

For the slice of the American public that does not comprise the 36% who approve of Trump’s job, there is no silver lining. In fact, it’s safe to say that this reality TV show we’re living through is an utter embarrassment before the eyes of the world. We certainly feel it at home. But looked from the angle of those in power, what’s been happening is better than any opposition group could’ve planned given the circumstances.

In the six months that Trump’s been president few pieces of Republican-backed legislation have become law, and the president’s biggest accomplishment so far has been inducting a new Supreme Court Justice. Even Trump’s extensive executive orders have failed to be implemented partly due to Republicans’ in-fighting, not to mention the sloppiness with which the Commander-in-Chief operates. In many of these pieces of legislation–some could even be considered Trump-musings–it is the semblance of civility and morality that have stopped Republicans from going along for the ride. Mind you, the overwhelming majority still approves of the president and his agenda (really their agenda for the most part), or have been cowered by their constituencies’s wrath to support him. However, this conditional loyalty seems to be wearing thin.

The break between the White House and the Republicans could not come soon enough for Trump, as this Atlantic article suggests. And it seems that if that break does eventually happen, perhaps there will be more harmonious cooperation as separate entities. At the very least, there won’t be this disingenuous attempt to appear united. It’s clear Trump under Bannon wants to carve his own way, and the Republicans under Ryan and, now less-influential, McConnell want to carve theirs. And all of it couldn’t work out better for the American public.

Consider the legislation that’s already been passed concerning immigration, the environment, Wall Street, and defense. These are all Republican positions that Trump happened to share. Where they found common ground, they work together fairly well. Now take the bewildering positions Trump has put “his” party in. On topics like NATO, the intelligence services’ assessment of Russia’s involvement in the election, or distractions like voter fraud, when push comes to shove, Congress has had no reservation in flexing its muscles.

So far the few pieces of legislation that have been agreed upon, have decimated years of progress. Pulling out of the Paris Accord is just an example of the colossal mistake that Trump and the whole of the rogue Republican Party have deviously agreed to. But even if it looks like an infant fumbling through his steps, when Trump seeks to extend his power either through intimidation or coercion, to him it’s a very serious matter. There doesn’t exist a doubt in my mind that Trump absolutely believes in what he professes, especially when he knows he’s factually wrong. In an Orwellian context we call that doublethink.

There’s only a silver lining to Trump’s presidency because of his incompetence for discretion–rather his affinity for indiscretion. Which is why the priority seems to be in quashing insurrection. Stopping the leaks. And revamping the entire cabinet. Even if it means firing every single detractor that at any time publicly derided Trump. It only makes you wonder just how long Scaramucci has left on his post.

In light of that revelation, we’ve been forced to root against the president. The more he fails, the longer he golfs, and the more incompetent he seems at his job while still being president, the less time he has to tweet legislation or hiring another demagogue. In essence, the better off we are. The White House doesn’t have a shortage of loyalists ready to man the many battlefronts, but the top of the pyramid does. Of course this frees up Republicans from the burden of responsibility and provides them the room to implement their own agendas. But without the legitimacy of the West Wing, those efforts can sometimes be a hard sell, as it was the infamous case of the little engine that couldn’t pass healthcare legislation.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Mueller and his hounds should call off their investigation. But every day that Trump is still in office buys us time. And we need it now more than ever.

Trump has opened the floodgates to a bevy of ideologues to take positions of power. Or slightly worse, positions of influence. While Bernie was inching the Democrats to the left, Trump violently jerked the entire apparatus of government to a hard right. Now, it’s the fringe who’s in control: hard-leaning Tea Party-ers, demagogues, and the occasional white supremacists. All the while the respected professionals have become the minority and have grown increasingly frustrated with Trump’s antics.

The success of failure rests solely in Trump’s inexperience in governing. But this model is unsustainable. Eventually Trump will learn the ins and outs of his position. He’ll know which levers to pull and what buttons to push and when. Already he’s adept at the changing tide, shifting positions on virtually every issue that’s gone sour and taking the base with him. Now imagine for a second if Donald Trump were as organized as Maduro, or Duterte, or Putin? He certainly praises those characters and even talks like them. Ponder for a second the implications of his ambition coupled with a willingness to learn. With his level of alleged corruption and a masterful expertise in politics, his administration could wreak havoc on the nation at a level that would shadow Nixon’s.

For the moment, other world leaders friendly to the US pass this off as rookie ineptitude. Certainly they believe that nearly seven decades of diplomatic relations cannot be undone in the course of six months as is the case with NATO. But then again, heeding the lessons of Brexit, they are more than cautious as to the president’s latest shenanigans and rhetoric. They know what he’d like to do, but they’re also thankful that Congress is more or less united in what he can do.

As for the ability to wage war, that’s a separate assumption. That is entirely a failure of the process. A failure that grants presidents too much power and the ability to bolster their support when they needed it the most. Arguably, one of the best things that could have happened for Bush’s presidency was 9/11. I know this will come off as an unpopular, if even hyperbolic, statement, but all the romanticism we’ve acquired over these 16 years hasn’t changed the fact that the “Patriot Act” reached much further than it should have. The fact is that war-time presidents are hardly ever opposed by their party, and only to a manageable degree by the opposition. Once Trump figures out this is really the only card he has to play, it’s inevitable that he’ll play it.

Now be sure that there are scores of people waiting in line who are equally ambitious and just as knowledgeable and cooperative without the volatility and baggage. People who share the same Conservative agenda and are able to navigate the torrid waters of politics. People like Mike Pence, a party-liner, a swamp politician, who won by default.

The sole reason why most of the public is involved in politics to an alarming degree is because the situation is too fucked up to ignore. Not a week goes by where there isn’t some crisis. There isn’t a single news cycle where one of the headlines is not something related to Trump or his cabinet, most of which is factual gossip or unavoidable scandal. I surmise that much of our involvement would vanish were we to have a more competent president. Note I didn’t say a more moral president, but a more competent one.

Trump is really only as powerful as his ignorance allows him to be. He’ll only be president as long as his scandals hold. And he’ll only be given as much latitude as Congress allows him to have for as long as he (and as an extension his base) can be controlled. But only until then.

There’s no doubt that in time Trump will fire himself. The question is how much will he learn, and simultaneously how much chaos will he sow, before he does. The citizens of this country are doing their part. But we can only trust on the fail-safe of mid-terms for so long before our confidence crumbles apart.

It’s a difficult thing to admit that you want your government to fail. But given how ineptitude doesn’t equate with innocence, it’s imperative that Trump and his cabinet fail as much as they can. We need to take a nuanced view of the situation and realize that there are failures and then there are failures. And what Trump might consider a success is not necessarily, and most likely isn’t, a win for us. In that regard when he promised on the campaign trail that there would be so much winning we would get tired of it, for once he wasn’t lying. We are tired of winning.

I remember not long ago we, myself included, wished that Trump succeeded as president. Today, it’s safe to say that is no longer the case. At 70 years old it’s proven very difficult to teach this old dog new tricks. So for as long as the kids love him, leashed and rabid, we’ll keep him. But only as long as we understand that a man of his psychological profile in such a position of power is much more dangerous teaching other dogs the tricks he knows, than learning from them.

New American Tribalism and the Rise of Trump

It would generally be unfair to say that a Donald Trump presidency will be the end of the world barely a couple of weeks into his administration. Traditionally we would reserve this hyperbole until after the first hundred days. And to rush for the hills before he’s had the opportunity to showcase his presidential side, separate from his campaign persona, would not only reduce our credibility, but it would also make most of us look naively partisan, or worse, Donald Trump.

But if we are to move past the animosity in today’s America, a country deeply divided in mostly everything including what the definition of truth is, and begin the “peace talks” that will hopefully lead to a reunification of the country—an outlandish sentence that would fit better in a Korean or Israeli-Palestinian context—we must, first of all, be sincere about the source of the rift. This is a noble endeavor, necessary for world stability. But it’s a process that will be slow and painful. And one that will most likely worsen our situation before improving it.

The absurdity of this past year’s presidential campaign has left many wondering if everything we know about the world is wrong. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the narrative of experts like Nate Silver and institutions like the New York Times prepared us for a monumental win that would never come.

To the awe of pollsters, scientists, journalists, behavioral experts, politicians, and three million more people than those who voted for Trump, he not only managed to walk away with the grand prize, but Republicans took every piece of the government with them. The result was a humiliating defeat that banished every Democrat from the local-party level up into the cold, with their tail between their legs and licking their wounds. An outcome we’d all been assured was next to impossible. Instead of hopeful, that depressing narrative we remember would come to serve as a cautionary tale for the future.

So was Trump’s upset-win a failure of statistical math or an over-dependence on “predictive” polls? Was it a big “fuck you” from an estranged lower-middle class; or was it a highly organized ruse to exploit the weaknesses in our political system?

It’s painfully obvious now from our obstinacy to consider unlikely outcomes that we can’t discount any possibility, no matter how improbable. Thus, if Trump truly is some sort of Machiavellian savant who concocted an airtight plan to disestablish the establishment, then it’d be more than fair to say that he succeeded magnanimously not only in fooling the opposition, but even many of his supporters as well.

However, with the benefit of hindsight in mind, it seems that the “Trump Phenomenon” offers a much simpler and much more sinister explanation. One that is grounded in years’ worth of evidence about who Donald Trump is, about changing social attitudes, and about deep political divisions that are wider now than ever before. This analysis is not meant as a standalone post-mortem. It’s written as a supplement to everything we already know: the Democrats’ failure with the lower-middle class population, Russian intrusion, political corruption, etc.

Whether you’re skeptical to Trump’s abilities in either direction, it’s the past few weeks, and specifically the past few days, that tells us the most about what this presidency will be like. It’s in these few days that his moderate-supporters are now realizing what his opponents are being reasserted about, that Trump has no dimension other than the one he displayed on the trail.

Starting with his cabinet picks—which seem more like a concerted effort to undermine the very institutions they are appointed to serve—to his infantile Twitter rants, to his micro-management of every battle no matter how insignificant, to the petty, incessant lies, the choices the president has recently made point to a trend that is much more likely to continue. Aside from the few campaign promises he’s managed to enact into legislation through executive orders (the most of any incoming president on the same time period), there’s a more obscure aspect to his presidency that is worrying, specifically his disregard for expert opinion, his obsessive preoccupation with his popularity, and his readiness to spar with whomever disagrees with him in the slightest degree.

In a bizarre turn of events, Trump has even managed to briefly alienate the same intelligence community that he’ll have to rely on to expand the powers that his predecessor established, which more than likely he will. Admittedly to see two traditionally reciprocal institutions so publicly at odds is worrisome to say the least. It seems clear now that the strong-arming of Trump by the 17 different intelligent agencies and governmental departments involved in the Russian-hacking investigation, was meant as a message that Trump continually failed to grasp or resisted to do, which was simply to read between the lines and roll with the punches to put the whole thing to rest. In the end, in order to maintain his baseline support, he caved.

The aim of investigations, headed by the same institutions that failed to protect American autonomy in the first place, were not meant to change anything, and until now have been only slightly revelatory. Of course, it’s not the job of the intelligence agencies to change public policy. But it’s the nature of the investigations that do reveal a lot. First, by being primarily a product of public outcry, not of internal inquiry. And second, by exposing Trump’s demagoguery.

Now, ten days into his administration—predictably the most unpopular in record time—he continues to defy the logic of presidential governance by appointing White House Chief-Strategist Stephen Bannon to head the National Security Council, a post usually reserved for high military roles, such as the Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. Whereas before any intention to reorganize this cabinet-level department was widely criticized, this time the voices of opposition are silent. However, as reviled as Bannon is by nearly everyone who knows him, he does share the same qualifications to chair the NSC as Donald Trump does to the presidency.

These moves fly over the heads of the fiscally responsible Christian Republicans who just approved a wall that would cost anywhere from $15-25b, and who are more than content to deny entry to visa-holding travelers from Muslim majority countries, excluding Muslim countries Trump has business ties to. After all, he did just win them all three branches of government.

But what does this say about the American public who voted for an”unconventional guy”? It matters to know for two important reasons. One, because unconventional is not necessarily a good thing. Especially in a job, like the presidency, where predictable conventionality is mostly always an asset not a liability. And two because these conclusions say even more about Trump’s base than they do about him.

We can guess as to how the establishment will react. However, for his most ardent supporters, which compose a little less than half the country, the ends, necessarily, justify the means. The irony is lost in some of them when they are confronted by the reality of his style, much in keeping with the opposition and establishment they abhor, which seems, as always, diametrically opposed to people’s attitudes.

A scary-enough prospect considering that in order to pass a lie as truth, truth has to mean absolutely nothing.

This behavior doesn’t grow out of nowhere. It is directly the byproduct of manufactured convictions, the same which have been employed by religious extremists for thousands of years. Unfortunately, in this climate we currently live in, where untruths are allowed to fester and grow like bacteria in the petri dish of ideological bubbles, no one wins. And although one side bears most of the fault, both camps are guilty of this behavior.

Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher has said as much in his show Real Time, noting that Liberals like himself had done the country a disservice by yelling wolf one-too-many times in accusing Republicans and Conservatives of being the harbingers of doom. Equally, Republican and Conservative commentators like Glenn Beck have accused Democrats and Liberals of the same. Now, in light of the potential danger that Donald Trump signifies for the democratic process, both commentators have expressed regret about the role they’ve played and agree that in the end it is the American people who will, once again, suffer the most. But they come too little too late. The American people are through listening.

The end-result is that the country has become desensitized at a very critical moment. Years of mistreating the truth has caused tribal polarity among those who ascribe their allegiance to a group or party, rather than country; and, it has caused people to be much more cynical, more fundamentalist, more unprincipled, and less inclined to search for the truth. This means that seasonal societal clashes that a healthy nation needs to advance progress, are not happening due to the safe-spaces that both sides have created for themselves. Bubbles of animosity that are already bursting with disastrous consequences. In short, we’re fighting each other and disengaging from reality at the same time.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ideological conflicts have always occupied a space where strong claims exist, which politicians have always been willing to exploit. The difference between today and say, 1930s Germany (a time many compare to today) is that the abundance of information has made it much harder for anyone to excuse their ignorance on lack of resources. But with new solutions come new problems. The main factor being that sifting through the mud to find the gold-nugget of truth is now proving to be more time-consuming than ever due to misinformation. Add in the eternal unwillingness of people to engage in conversation or even agree on the basic rules of public discourse and it makes the situation worse. Conversations of unanimity depend largely on a compromise to define truth in a post-truth world. The good news is that post-truth can easily be eradicated if we are willing to. The bad news is that we can’t even agree on this compromise.

Unfortunately tribal polarity is not the only side-effect of vilifying the opposition. Acclimation to hate rhetoric is an even more corrosive adverse effect.

As of November 2016, 77% of Americans were convinced that the country was divided. Comically enough, respondents in that same poll were just about evenly split on whether Trump would be a uniting or dividing force.

So most people agree that America is in terrible conflict. But in trying to analyze the situation most people can’t seem to agree where the problem is. Most Democrats agree that the problem starts from the top-down, with our politicians and financial institutions being too powerful and oligarchic. Most Republicans think it’s from the bottom-up with people not being willing to accept personal responsibility and by blaming their problems on others. But as Americans, people seem to be incapable of accepting uncomfortable truths when they see them, or unwilling to compromise their views when they don’t serve their interests. When confronted, most people retract to what they know instead of inspecting the claim. And really who could blame them when it has become increasingly difficult to stay objectively informed.

This doesn’t mean there are no reputable sources to follow, only that they’re hard to find. It’s only logical to assume that in the absence of a trustworthy solution people will resort back to what their familiar with, their tribes.

Donald Trump found a behavioral loophole in our social construct and benefited from it. His opportunistic nature to seize on weaknesses, which has made him a very successful businessman, has also given him the tools to create a narrative right out of a mediocre political thriller. Whether he believes it’s in his own interests or the country’s, his imaginative, although simple, mind devised all the plot-elements necessary to make it work. He created an antagonist and a conflict, and then he alone provided the hero and the solution. Sadly, it is the very real weakness of an antiquated system that provided the twist, and people abandoned by the system bought into this narrative wholesale.

It is an absolute truism that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Yet now he claims, without any factual basis, that he lost it because of staggering voter fraud. As embarrassed as we are to have to watch his tantrums on national TV, there’s no doubt that the king believes his case wholeheartedly. And who are we to contradict him?

From the actions taken during his first days in office, it is obvious that the president is more than willing to use his powers against those who swim against the tide of the official line. The imposed gag-orders on all federal agencies even remotely opposed to the president’s philosophy, especially on environmental matters, and the convenient “alternative facts” provided by the administration point to that direction.

Yet even still, no one seriously wants Trump to fail in the general sense just to spite him or his supporters. What the country also doesn’t want is for Trump to succeed in abandoning reasonable governance for the benefit of the doubt—or the ruling party’s interests. Nonetheless, this is the direction we’re headed.

Paradoxically enough, the virulently obstructionist actions of this new administration are now motivating Republicans, the party of small government, to exert more government control, while forcing Democrats to fight to reduce its size. An ideological flip that hasn’t happened since the early 20th century.

In the end it’s up to the people to be cognizant of the fact that representatives are a product of their communities. And we, and we alone, are responsible of forming our own criteria by analyzing opposing and supporting points of view. This makes the very important point that to resist the power of the president is not un-American. It’s perhaps the most American thing there is.

To pre-emptively trash Trump based on nothing but personal convictions is both wrong and irresponsible. To resist him based on established behavior is wise and necessary. It’s possible that this falling plane will stabilize as time goes by. But based on what we’re witnessing today, we wouldn’t be wrong to predict a recurring pattern, one in which Trump creates monsters out of kittens to frighten the children who will in turn hand him all the power he needs, just as we did with Bush. Whatever the future holds, the answers  will never be found in the comfort of tribalism. As a society, Americans would benefit from using distress as a scaffold toward rationality and political centrism.

So to say that Trump is the worst thing that can happen will undoubtedly turn away people who might just be willing to have an honest conversation. But seeing the alternative to a rational presidency, we would be remiss not to be at least a little worried for the future. A future that while we may be inaccurate to classify as dystopian, it’s also now a bit less utopian than what we’d been working for.

Many, including myself, still hold out hope that Trump will find wisdom behind the same desk where Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt sat. His supporters already see him as one of the greats, though obviously with a different set of problems. His opponents, however, remember that the presidency has also produced the likes of Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. Two of the most flawed and unpopular presidents in American history who were not only socially closer to their constituents than Trump is to his, but also much more learned in political theory than Trump is.

Whatever our destiny may be, it’s in everyone’s interest to heed the wise words of author and inspirational speaker Denis Waitley, “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised”.

American Choices

Noam Chomsky once wrote that the United States is a one-party political system called “The Business Party” divided by two factions which we call the Democrats and the Republicans. This Business Party is called so because despite the wide ideological divides concerning many social, political, economic, and philosophical issues, both factions essentially cater to interests that finance them to secure special favors which often times work against the collective benefit. These special interests place profit in the highest of pedestals, far above any other material thing including and especially the environment and, not controversially, life itself.

Although the fringes are easy to identify, it is the conventional that we should be worried about. Not because they make bad choices difficult to see, but because they make them easy to pick. These choices stand before us in the form of our two current contenders for the presidency, the most unpopular in decades.

A few days ago 80 million Americans tuned in to watch the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Although Clinton currently holds a small lead over her Republican rival, the country seems to overwhelmingly disapprove of both by historical margins. But despite American bewilderment as to how we have to come to be in this situation, and the public’s reluctance to elect what they believe is “the better of two evils,” there is a very logical narrative that explains just how we ended up in this debacle.

Unfortunately to say that it’s the work of ‘power’ is too broad an explanation to properly cover the specific complexities that make this system what it is. So to try to understand these choices, I will try to narrow this diagnosis into five main points of contention.

At first it might be difficult to see how this ties to our candidates. But what you must realize is that to understand the background and the motivations behind the systems that cultures these choices, and the systems that benefits from it is to understand the candidates themselves, where they came from, and what they represent. And what they represent is more than the parties they are part of and the people they claim to fight for. The reality is that they are working parts in a dysfunctional system that no one can fix because no one truly understands.

Capitalism and Democracy: A Marriage of Convenience

A good place to start is by defining Capitalism as it pertains to our way of life politically, socially, and economically. Since Capitalism currently controls how we live, perhaps it’s a good idea to properly know what it is and what it does.

Capitalism is a term best defined by comparing it to current competing economic systems, and more importantly against the best elements of itself. Placed in a political context however, it’s easier to see the many ways, and the few important ones, in which the system has influenced, in this case negatively, the politics of a nation.

I am well aware of how socially expensive it can be to talk critically about Capitalism in the United States, especially considering the near-religious fervor it still carries from the days of the Cold War, a time when it was absolutely imperative to defeat Communism, a system just as exalted by the other half of the world. Therefore, to start a conversation about the failings of Capitalism in the context of American politics I ask that you do two things: know that there is a difference between Capitalism and Democracy, and that you suspend your biases and prejudices to allow for a more open and rational conversation.

Having said all that, let it be known that I’m neither a Communist nor a Capitalist. I espouse certain Socialist principles only within the parameters of a free society, such as the one that, admittedly, Capitalism and the Constitutional Democracy in which we live have formed. But I also recognize that Capitalism, like everything else, operated unchecked and without any sort of regulation will eventually turn from a deliverance of tyranny into a tyranny itself by means of economic slavery.

Capitalism is a system of economy that places the means of production in private hands rather than the state. The vast differences between Capitalism and Communism are many and obvious. The main one being that Communism, although logical in theory is impossible in practice. If properly defined, Communism could only work if society willingly agrees to become a united global community in all its aspects. Any other form of Communism that is not its true form will inevitably cause it to become overly restrictive to the point of infringing on personal rights and freedoms. We saw it with Communist Russia in its 70-year failed experiment and we see it now with Communist China where Capitalism in the country has become the de facto economic system while remaining politically Communist.

Although it sounds like Capitalism should be a threat to the state because of its purchasing power, it’s in fact a threat to society itself. Instead of rivaling state power, Capitalism is rather a marriage of convenience between markets and the state. In this union everyone  who can afford to play wins, provided that markets are allowed to operate freely with minimal state intrusion. While everyone else loses.

But given that both Capitalism and Democracy share the ethos of political and economic freedom, to draw a line between the two is a much harder thing to do. The problem is not semantics. It is rather the innate talent of Capitalism to take advantage of the human condition that humans will seek freedom where there is restriction, even if there is a structured system already built in place. The talent here is that it sells economic freedom with the caveat that social freedom should not infringe on markets. This makes “freedom” an expensive proposition–hence the “freedom is not free” apothegm–to the very people who can’t afford it. It’s no surprise to see then than even in Capitalist utopias there have been a variety of labor movements against corporate power and state intervention that have ended up imposing regulations on both corporate power and the state.

Business and Ethics: Incompatible Partners

When I use the phrase “freedom is not free,” my intention is not to conjure images of soldiers fighting off enemy troops in foreign soil to protect our rights. Rather I speak of developing nations whose politics are not fertile enough to accept Capitalism such as we’ve adopted it in the industrialized world, but whom, through coercion, are forced to accept the system to align themselves with the Western-style Democracy. Historically–meaning during the Cold War–this pressure was applied in two forms, militarily and/or economically. But the same meaning can be applied in our own land where citizens have been conditioned to believe that the alternative to Capitalism, whatever that may be, is worse. Ironically the effect is more pronounced in some of the most impoverished communities in the country where local economies are not just lacking, but in some places nonexistent. The pressure in these communities is applied a bit differently though, in the form of politics. But I’ll come back to this.

Due to the nature of free enterprise, profit is the justification for the evils of Capitalism, be it environmental destruction, economic disparity or classism, and even gross disregard for human rights.

In the case of the physical state of the world, the environment is on the brink of collapse. Unfortunately there are very few in positions of power that will touch on the issue head on. As for the rest, this conversation is put in the backburner or not even discussed at all in fear of losing profit and corporate support. In the U.S. is what we refer to as a “football issue,” or an issue that gets passed back and forth without any significant advantage. Despite the fact that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the fact that the Earth is warming faster now mostly as a result of human-made causes, this is one of the most controversial subjects to discuss in a legislative capacity. Both Republicans and Democrats, mainly Republicans but also Democrats in a lesser degree, are fiercely adamant to enact legislation to curb greenhouse gases, regulate the fracking and fossil fuels industries, and support alternative-fuel initiatives.

I make a slight distinction between the parties here because Republicans are the main beneficiaries of fossil-fuel money and climate-denying industries and individuals. Their Conservatism, which is aligned with absolutist free-trade philosophies has created a party that is not concerned at all with environmental issues.

If the U.S. is behind most of the industrialized world in the race to slow down global warming is only because fossil fuel industries spend billions yearly in well-crafted strategies to lobby Congress to roll back regulations, while simultaneously preventing alternative-fuel industries from ever developing.

The gist is that dividends will be paid to workers, stockholders, and the local and national economies, in payment of social and environmental deterioration. And in many cases even economic, which is counterproductive to the whole ideal. Basically short-term profit is the end-game.

It’d be fair at this point to note that Capitalism does promote competition and progress. But in the erosion of an equally free society protected by a political system such as a strong Constitutional Democracy, this fair competition will eventually erode into economic feudalism.

Although Democracy encourages change and the adoption of the best principles of economic and social security with the precondition that all members of its society be able to practice their rights freely, in some Democratic countries Democracy itself gets in the way of Capitalism when it is restricted to act naturally. That’s what makes Capitalism, in all its glory, so depressing to accept. In a comical twist of fate, generational ideologies will allow markets, free enterprise, and profit to affect the very freedoms that protect those ideologies to the point that they are limited. And again, it is the ardently loyal who will be the most affected.

In a few words, Democracy is not synonymous with Capitalism. In fact it is in the best interest of Democracy to restrict Capitalism in order to survive in the long run.

I am obviously generalizing and condensing a lot of complexities that go into forming a viable society out of chaos, especially with the fusion of two revolutionary governing and economic systems that sparingly existed in one form or another throughout history, e.g. Democracy and Capitalism.

But strictly speaking  in the context of the second half of the 19th century and all of the 20th century, after regulations were imposed by Roosevelt and subsequent presidents, Capitalism in the 1970s and 80s was given a gift in the form of economic and political deregulationThe erosion of the latter then caused the erosion of the former. A barrier that clearly cataloged and separated political contributions made by corporations was torn down and allowed public servants, who would otherwise be entirely accountable to their constituents, to be accountable only to their financiers.

This obviously added pressure and had an adverse effect on communities, large and small, but mostly on the most impoverished communities I spoke about earlier, by applying a combination of predatory economics, local political forces through vested interests, religious alliances, campaigns of fear, and other political maneuvers.

For example, in the poorest areas in the nation, mainly in the Southern part of the United States (colloquially known as the “Bible Belt”) local Republican policies have decimated the region economically. And yet, despite the damage that the fusion of powerful religious interests that aligned with the party in the 90s and unhealthy free-market and Conservative ideologies astoundingly, the South continues to elect Republican candidates to public office.

Although Democratic-held states tend to fare better socially, Democratically-run cities do see a mixed view of income inequality. Nevertheless, very powerful interests that sell to both parties continue to influence policy at every level of government. At the moment we can see it in president Obama’s push to pass the newest trade agreement, the TPP, which if adopted by all twelve signatories, would give unprecedented power to global corporations. The fact that both presidential candidates, as unpopular as they are, consider the TPP to be a very imperfect form of legislation can tell us that this isn’t just politics, it’s a reflection of the public’s fears.

Adding insult to injury, not only have wealthy donors and individuals been allowed to tip the scales with their contributions, but their industries have been bulking up with the ranks of politicians who act on capacity of mediators between them and Congress, consultants, or executives. Even worse still are the appointments of industrialists and executives as department-heads to regulate the very industries they are part of and lobby for.

One could make the argument that as a free society people can be allowed to serve on public office if they so choose to, if they have the capacity to, and if they are elected democratically. Furthermore, as experts in their industries they add specific inside knowledge. But as it turns out, departmental appointments are not elected by the people and in many cases they present concerning conflicts of interest. And although they are perfectly legal, the guidelines to abide by are not enforced and even less revised.

Over the last four decades the rate of the “revolving-door” phenomenon that exists between corporations and politics has also increased exponentially. The problem is so prevalent that it almost seems as if politicians are being manufactured right out of the conveyor belts of this system to work interchangeably for state and industry, and not specifically in that order. This is where the marriage between Capitalism and Democracy is made. It is this union and the lucrative investments in politics that assure a permanent and endless supply of candidates for hire. Those who toe the line are often rewarded handsomely, while idealists are usually scrapped and replaced.

Keep in mind that as Capitalism grows so does its power to overtake Democracy. When it happens, rule-free enterprise ensures that financial interests water-down regulation and eventually these enterprises begin to grow out of the government’s control. A prime example are the many American companies which have been incentivized by the government to evolve from local enterprises into little nations of their own. Today, with the help of governments, these conglomerates are now edging closer to become autonomous states with economies and rules completely independent of the places in which they operate, mainly through free-trade agreements and tax maneuvers. No borders exist for these pseudo-countries. They exist solely in the virtual space where their money is collected, and coincidentally, wherever their executive boards happen to meet.

These pseudo-nations, with some having economies large enough to compete with actual nations, are still bound to U.S. supremacy through legal and financial obligations, which are then eased by the various personal relationships kept with government representatives. Representatives that rely on corporations and industries to fund their campaigns and political parties.

In the past, regulatory restrictions used to [legally] prevent industries from funding political campaigns by injecting more than the allowed funds. Used to. Today, by allowing corporations to attain personhood and be considered single entities, they can weight in on political matters through their virtually unlimited contributions which have been redefined by the Supreme Court as a form of speech. By this rationale if money is a form of speech, then corporations have the loudest voices.

But personhood doesn’t exactly mean what you think it means in the case of corporations. Because these organisms are composed of tens of thousands of individuals that think differently from each other and share different responsibilities and ideologies, and whose only common trait might be to work as an organism, it’s sometimes difficult to determine individual culpability. Thus, the culture that is built on immoral behavior cannot be equally culpable or financially liable as single individuals might be, and the cycle continues. In the case of high financial crimes where heads of industries have ties to government officials, corporate heads rarely pay their dues or even so much as get their day in court. This is the point where the scales of justice get tipped in power’s favor.

Deregulation makes it easier for corporate investments to be made into politics, and for politicians to deliver on those investments ahead of everything else. This colluding will inevitably result in a conglomerate of power that in all cases will protect its own interests in whatever way they see fit, even at the expense of Democracy itself.

The 2008 financial meltdown is evidence that powerful interests who are allowed to operate as they naturally would in the wide latitudes of Capitalism often go unpunished and continually cause a great deal of harm. In this case when the very system they bet against collapsed nearly bankrupting the entire world economy, and leaving a trail of damage hundreds billions of dollars wide and decades long. Eventually the money provided by Congress through TARP (Trouble Asset Relief Program) was mostly eventually paid back. But not before corporations made off with a profit and high executives gave themselves multi-million dollar bonuses–you know, for their hard work. However, the way things transpired opened up an old precedent that if it’s “too big to fail” it’s also too big to be regulated. And of course there’s also the moral aspect to consider.

The aftermath of the crisis left everyone content, except homeowners and investors of course. And up to this day huge investment corporations continue to gamble away the people’s money in the huge casino that is the world economy with chips provided by the federal government.

This is true of any industry that is too big to be contained. Recently, medical insurance behemoth Aetna threatened the DOJ (Department of Justice) that it would pull out of the ACA, colloquially known as Obamacare, if their merger with healthcare giant Humana was not approved by Congress, a deal that if approved would violate old anti-trust laws designed to break up monopolies. Meanwhile we are still waiting on deliberation.

But Big Pharma is not the only industry that has the power to undermine the government should a collaboration fail, especially one that favors profit over the public interest . This goes for any industry ranging from energy (oil, coal, nuclear, even solar and wind) to information (media, news, satellites, Internet entities) to manufacturing of any kind (weapons, infrastructure, vehicles), banking, and curiously also, religion.

Although the public shares interests in many of these industries it seems that from public-opinion polls and attitudes mapped out over several decades, policy definitely does not match public attitudes.

Of course if we consider the government as an entity struggling for its own survival, it’s entirely logical to assume that as an entity it will protect its interests. But the fact of the matter is that the government is an entity composed of public power. Power shared by the many not the few and privileged. I agree that it’s not the government’s job to advance progress, but it should definitely not be its job to actively impede it.

As I explained before, in the U.S. power is exercised through political pressures. Abroad, a combination of shared interests and diplomacy is used. However, military force is never off the table. A quick Google search on the United Fruit Company will give you a glimpse of how colonialism established a firm bellicose-Capitalist American system in the world at the start of the industrial revolution. It is this trend that developed early when the U.S. was a nascent nation and that continues on to today in some form or another. Slavery, for example, is to this day the great stain in the history of the United States. For even as the American Revolution was raging on in defense of human liberty, our forefathers never got around to discussing the worth of a human being until nearly a century later. The same could be said about the Native American holocaust and the mass deportation of American Indians out of their own lands. And yet, from an economic point of view, without these two events the American economy would not be what it is today. So we are, in one way or another, still reaping the benefits of two of the greatest tragedies in human history.

Of course, from a moral point of view there is nothing beneficial about these two terrible events. Quite the opposite. But it demonstrates from historical accounts, just how power if presented with a dilemma where economic and moral pressures are at odds, it will always choose to resolve the former first.

In the near-past and in the the present, our national shame manifests itself in our interests abroad. In recent history in the shameful alliances throughout the world which suspend Democracy and overlook severe human-rights abuses in favor of national security or profits. In South America and the Caribbean for example, Democratically elected governments were forcibly replaced with brutal dictatorships and Banana Republics with the help of the United States to attain some political, economic, or ideological goal. More of the first two than the last.

These actions decimated entire regions ecologically and economically and displaced millions. In addition it created a deep-seeded anti-American hatred that worked counter to what the United States believed Democracy was, and what it was trying to achieve. Not to mention that the effects of these early interventions are still being felt today in the mass migrations of South Americans, specifically Guatemalans, who have fled their home countries as a result of bloody civil wars in some part perpetuated by American interventionism.

Today this support continues in countries like Saudi Arabia, a nation that is as close as any brutal tyranny can become. Our alliance with the Saudis could not be any more confusing. The official position is that the Saudis provide valuable intelligence to secure the stabilization of the region, which coincidentally was partly destabilized by anti-American, pro-Wahhabi propaganda that is much closer to ISIS than to Democracy. We then purchase billions of dollars worth of oil from the very country who is, in some capacity or other, pushing radical Islamist propaganda and sponsoring world-wide terrorism with our money. Propaganda that fueled terror that culminated in tragedies like 9/11 and which we then fight by invading  and destabilizing the region even further.

To this day, Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the major human-rights violators, and we continue to do business with them.

Of course, in recent history these global pressures can be, and are, explained in some relatable context or other: defense against Communism, regional stabilization, business, etc. As they say, the ends always justify the means.

Education vs. Information: Roots of the Problem

There is little that disenfranchised foreign populations can do against American-style Capitalist hegemony, especially in collusion with their own governments. But in the United States the population still has enough stakes in the Democratic process to hold their government responsible for its failures. That we don’t–or at least that we don’t in large numbers–is a failure of magnifying proportions. I’ll explain why.

The failure starts at several points in the socioeconomic ladder. Disenfranchised and dismayed voters will not commit because they don’t believe in the political and economic process that has eroded the middle class over the decades. Ironically, politicians turn to those who do vote and favor them, which causes those already disenfranchised to become even more so. By way of restrictive voting laws, gerrymandering, and resource allocation, local governments can concentrate power and maintain numbers. While the demand for political participation exists, supply is low or impeded.

But the problem is actually worse than it seems, because most poverty occurs where there is a history of suppression and current limited education. Mistrust brews into hatred for one’s own government, even when economic situations are favorable. In turn, the government, along with other powerful agents, see these areas as economically ineffective and as a result become areas that can be easily dismissed. The issue is that when something is not adding to the pie it’s considered worthless or low priority. While underlying problems like education and the allocation of resources gets lost. As these areas grow, power then becomes concentrated into smaller and smaller circles and a destabilization of justice, accountability, and economy ensues.

It’s not difficult then to turn people against each other. In fact, the old strategy of divide and conquer functions much more efficiently when there’s a scarcity of education than by using violence. Not only does it effectively segregates and subdivides communities and races for generations, but it turns them into surrogates. All without the need to spill blood.

The result is where we are headed as a nation. A modern feudal kleptocracy where the choices and opportunities of the powerless are reduced and where the need for education in all areas of a person’s life become more pronounced. This lack of education among the population is without a doubt the root of the problem.

Although power is the staple of every government however, these American choices cannot entirely be blamed on them or even on the rich.

At a time when political education is a responsibility left more up to individuals rather than news sources, which have become increasingly partisan, people, and specifically the newer generations, now have a great burden to carry, that of searching and making sense of information for themselves. A task that requires an immense amount skepticism and judgement good enough to separate noise from content.

The fact that in this highly competitive world, where the space for information is limited and expensive, even noble pursuits like journalism are starting to become liabilities instead of assets for the consumer, and the opposite for those that own them. Whereas in the past the news were seemingly less biased and more objective, today journalistic integrity can now serve a purpose–profit for the company, a spin for the government. Of course this was always true of the latter. However, it seems that in recent years this old façade has been cynically abandoned depending on who happens to be in power.

It is a sad reality that, in the United States at least, all major news come from privately owned corporations. Corporations that not only compete against each other, but also with information that travels literally at the speed of light. And occasionally against truth itself.

It seems now that independent journalism is set to become the only objective source of unadulterated news for future generations.

The mismanagement of objective news, and the allocation, or rather trickling down, of resources toward education is a major concern in the United States–more than in most industrialized nations. Education in some parts of the country is lacking at best, almost nonexistent at worse. Of course, you can guess which communities are less adept to handle these issues, and which are privileged enough to enjoy the benefits of the best kind of education. This is a problem that affects neither Republicans nor Democrats nor Independents, Conservatives or Liberals or Libertarians, black or white. By virtue of high-quality education communities can be lifted out of poverty, as they reemerge so does the country as a whole.

Today the opposite is true. Educators in the U.S. earn less than in most other industrialized nations. In places like the Bible Belt the problem with education is in the inability for local governments to adopt secular curriculums, especially in the “hard sciences”. In prestigious, mostly Liberal universities, the problem lies in PC (political correctness) culture, which is also a case for concern.  And in the suburbs of major cities, where poverty is rampant, it is in the lack of basic resources such as transportation, school lunches, school supplies, libraries, or even teachers.

As a result of these compounding problems, people have become terribly misinformed about their responsibilities as citizens and that of their government, misinformation that they pass on to their children, mostly those in poor communities, who then grow up ignorant and further disenfranchised.

Political Parties: Divided Loyalty

Taking these factors into consideration we begin to plot a narrative. Suddenly, the names we’ll see on the November ballots are hardly surprising. In part, they are the failure of the American voter to resist the whims of the political machine, which includes loyalty to party rather than nation. But they are also the result of inefficient policy, party bickering, and mistrust in the power of elected officials and outright corruption based on, again, party loyalty. That whole money and politics marriage thing.

It doesn’t take much to alienate the voter as I’ve already said, but parties still rely on votes and a core membership that aligns with their ideologies to survive. However, if voters are able to see past their divisions, it is inevitable that policies that had never aligned with their own views will be questioned.

This stagnation of progress and sincerity in a changing world has begun a mutiny in the ranks of the two main political parties. As a result, both parties have been  forced to adopt and favor outsiders over their rank and file in the form of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic ticket and Donald Trump for the Republican. Under the current system this is a sign of deficient politics. As a whole however, this is more in line with the apparatus of an efficient government. But taking the point the further, this realization of the American voter and its subsequent repercussions, meaning the changing attitudes towards more open candidates, is dialogue between two groups: those in power and those that are not.

Naturally, populist cand  idates will emerge out of this shift. This sends a strong message that since established parties do not carry favorably with the common people, outside parties must be included in mainstream politics. At the moment this is of little consequence to the entities that have built and perfected entire mechanisms to exclude the voter and outside third-parties. Surprisingly, these methodically established systems have met little resistance or have gone entirely unchallenged.

Third-party candidates, treated as a little more than tie-breakers, serve no other purpose in the political arena other than swing votes one way or the other. Or at least that’s how they are seen by mainstream politics and by the majority of people. Most often they are not taken seriously enough to believe they can even come close to winning a presidential election even though their policy alternatives often seriously challenge the views of regular candidates.

Under the current system a third-party candidate has little chance of influencing any national election except to pull a mainstream candidate into the party’s or the people’s ideoleological orbit. Or alternatively to aid the opposition by running a parallel campaign to the party they align with the most.

The parties have been aware of this problem for a long time. Thus, they have mutually deviced ways to legally bar third-party candidates from ever participating in this process, which for many of them is the only way to make themselves and their policies known. One of those is to directly influence the information that is disseminated, literally in the news media. The other is a joint decision between the Democratic and Republican parties to raise a debate embargo to outsiders. The way they do this is by formally requesting that the candidates poll a certain percentage before being invited to a debate. But because third-party candidates have limited means to make themselves known, this is rarely the case.

Bleak as it seems,  the only way to change the game is to change the rules, which can only happen by popular demand.

The Revolutionaries of the new American nation had contrasting views on political parties. Some thought they were inevitable in a free political system, others believed that they would eventually become cause for strife. But everyone agreed that no one’s rights should be infringed upon by the government or the parties themselves. Today’s situation is a sign that old dilemmas die hard. These divisions that are becoming so entrenched into the American psyche are rapidly deteriorating the unity of the nation. We can only hope that the situation that will eventually come to a head will get resolved peacefully rather than not.

Constitutional Requirements vs Political Aptitude: At a Crossroad

As the time comes to choose a new president, there is yet another failure on our part that is more urgent and troubling, that of electing a qualified candidate.

As if the task is not made difficult enough by the issues I mentioned before, it is compounded by the lenient requirements laid out in the Constitution that grants virtually anyone the power to serve the office, provided they are elected democratically.

These outdated requirements complicate the situation further for their leniency rather than their restrictions. They are as follows:

1. Candidate must be at least 30 years of age.
2. Be a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years.
3. Be a natural-born citizen.

There is a logic to this leniency however that the Founding Fathers purposefully allowed when the Constitution was being formulated. They envisioned the new American nation ruled by a government the exact opposite of a monarchy, where just about anyone, provided they had the qualifications, could be elected president. Unfortunately, a current uncompromising complacency to follow a 300-year old document to the letter is deeply concerning for its implications, some of which, in the most extreme scenarios, could end up suspending Democracy for future generations.

The founding fathers were well aware of this problem. Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent for Constitutional revisions. More specifically, he argued that every generation, or roughly every 19 years, the Constitution should be updated for the very logical reason that things change with time, and as a result ancient laws applied to modern times would only hold back progress. Later, these revisions were abandoned in place of the amendment process, which has been used with success and failure throughout our history.

However, considering the choices we have today, if we were to follow Jefferson’s advice, Constitutional amendments to extend the requirements for the presidency would significantly increase the quality of candidates we elect. By explicitly requiring a minimum time of public service and/or verifiable social, political, military, economic, and diplomatic knowledge, at the very least it would leave less of an opportunity for unqualified candidates to make a mockery of the election process; or worse, to allow an unprepared candidate to hold arguably the most powerful office in the world.

As the country has evolved, so has its influence in the world. The role that our country plays in geopolitics is reason enough for the office to demand strict qualifications for any candidate who would fill the seat. The fact that it doesn’t leaves the power to decide the presidency not up to the voters as it should be, but to another obscure system that is now largely useless and ineffective–the Electoral College–but which the founding fathers believed could save the country from, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “the tyranny of the [majority].”

The Constitution of the United States is a near-perfect document unlike any other seen before. It is direct and concise and as least infringing as the framers could make it. However, the framers weren’t naive in their illusions that the presidency would always be occupied by morally incorruptible men. They understood that just as the requirements to occupy the seat were lax, there had to be a system in place to disallow tyrants, even those chosen by the majority, to trade the seat for the throne.

In the early days of the republic, this protective layer between Democracy and bureaucracy was added to quell populists uprisings that might do away with the rights of the minority. The job of the Electoral College was to aid the Constitution to elect candidates who not only met the proper requirements, but who also possessed the constitution and common sense to lead the nation fairly.

Nowadays however the institution is mostly useless. With the advent of high-tech polling methods, and the inability of the Electoral College to look past party lines, it is no longer necessary to have an arbitrary body to weigh in the elections. Most times the commission will vote along with public opinion rather than against it precisely because the EC is there to represent the people. But it is also composed of party loyalists, rather than independent arbitrators. One of the rare instances when the Electoral College did not vote for the most popular candidate was in the 2000 election, when George W. Bush Jr. defeated Al Gore, by a decidedly small margin. And although it has been agreed that Al Gore won the popular vote, we know which of the candidates history favored.

As is explained in this brief article by Factcheck.org, the point of the EC is to vote past party loyalty to protect the interests of the nation not that of the state. Today, a country divided presses even harder the question of how we should elect candidates for the presidency. The Electoral College exists to prevent a “tyranny of the majority.” But if the majority is the tyranny, then how best to prevent it?

It seems more apparent now than ever that popularity, not education, plays a more decisive factor in determining a candidate’s political worth. In the majority of cases this popularity is fueled by political contributions that finance “recognition campaigns” that make the candidate known. It is only a negligible percentage of populist candidates that build grassroots campaigns by appealing to the public with sensible policies and public contributions. It’s even rarer for these candidates to receive country-wide public recognition, which hinders the chances of more progressive bipartisan politicians to ever rise in the ranks.

Of course, there are more considerations and unwritten rules that account for a candidate’s competency before being elected to the presidency. But when a population is overwhelmingly under-educated about their role as citizens, the role of their government in relation to them, the social contract to be decent citizens, and the actions, secret or open, that the state contrives, then no amount of preparation will help any leader steer that country in the right direction. This is precisely the kind of tyranny of the majority that Alexander Hamilton wrote about.

There is little however, that any fail-safe system can do against this type of tyranny. Only an overhaul of the educational system to instruct all manners of people can bring about a significant change in any society. This is the reason why there is nothing more threatening to the supremacy of power like an educated population. Our collective national weakness is that we have been convinced that as a society we cannot take care of ourselves and that we require adult supervision from people who know what is better for our future, when in fact this cannot be further from the truth.

But opening our eyes is not merely enough. We must embrace education in its totality to arrive at the best conclusion, and to make the right decisions, and not descend into the pitfalls of past tyrannies.

American Choices: Voting for A Practical Future

If we are to improve the mechanism of the government, we as a coutry must take a very careful look at the ideologies that support these mechanisms and change our way of thinking. Citizens must force elected officials to self-impose regulatory restrictions to limit outside influence. That is to roll-back unlimited campaign contributions and repeal Citizens United. We must forcibly detach by means of civilian regulation the heads of the three branches of government from their party-held positions: the president from his party, the president of Congress and senior leaders from their respective parties, and the Supreme Court justices from their loyalty to their parties.

Capitalism must be held accountable for the irascible focus on its expansion. Production should be limited to a manageable level that the planet itself can sustain. By understanding that material goods cannot ever replace immaterial goods such as knowledge and collaboration, we can limit our consumption. Consumption that also cannot replace the limited amount of resources the planet can provide for us. If we fail in this task, the generations that directly follow us will see themselves regressing to very difficult and dark times.

This is not a plea to change our socioeconomic structure. We must learn to do this without resorting to philosophically and morally corrupt ideas that we do not understand. Democracy has proven to be the best type of government for all citizens. It now falls on us to find an economic system that strikes a balance between a stable government and society, and the environment, so that we don’t bankrupt one or the other.

As a global society, we must advance by adaptation. As a country, we must catch up to the rest of the industrialized world–a term that should change to “technologically advanced world” to signal an evolutionary leap as a global group–in terms of social welfare. By this, I mean that if we have the means, it is our responsibility to raise the means of living for its poorest, most disenfranchised citizens. Not merely because it’s morally correct, but because it will, in time, raise the living standard of the country as a whole and make it a freer, better society.

Ultimately, these choices are ours to make as a free society. If we are to change our way of life for the better, we must first change our political system. By involving ourselves more. By self-educating. By making an honest attempt at understanding the greater social forces that only seem out of our control, but which are intrinsically connected to our reality. There is no need to resort to violent revolution or to wait until that time comes. These are choices that we can make today. But only if we possess the will to do so.

 

 

 

Extra Research:

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/08/c-wright-mills-power-elite-port-huron-new-left/

Sut Jhally “Advertising and the End of the World”

Ignorance Is Not Bliss: How Ignorance Kills Conversations

Last week, rapper B.o.B. made an extraordinary claim that left most of the scientific com–let me rephrase that– most of the world dumbfounded. It turns out that after all his research and years of scientific experimentation, the entertainer finally answered one of humanity’s deepest and most unanswered questions: what is the shape of the Earth? Well, to your unending surprise and amazement it turns that out that our planet is actually flat! Like a pancake. But that’s not all. The entertainer readily took to Instagram to present his mounting evidence. Oh but it doesn’t end there. When confronted by–pretty much–one of science’s greatest minds alive, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the rapper not only defended his point but went on to record a diss track to put the astrophysicist in his place. The consensus is in, the Earth is flat.

Well, you can probably guess how that went. In about fifteen minutes the Internet hilariously did its duty and mopped the flat floor with this guy. Unfortunately, in the world we live in where mass communication makes it incredibly easier for news to spread like wildfire, the message was already traveling the airwaves. The damage had been done.

Although this guy managed to set us back about a thousand years and simultaneously put the American education system to shame (or in its place, depending on your point of view), nobody actually takes him serious enough to change the science books. But still there are many people out there who due to B.o.B’s high(ish) profile and influence, and their own limited knowledge, are willing to believe his incredible claim over someone who happens to be an authority on this particular area, and many others. And it makes you wonder a bit what would motivate someone like B.o.B in this day and age to go against a planet’s worth of evidence and scientific proof with such confidence and swagger. Especially when information is incredibly easy to access.

Well, as it turns out this happens a lot more often than you think. In fact, most of us do it daily, we access the knowledge that we have and apply it wherever it may be needed, sometimes without realizing that we know very little about what we’re talking about. Essentially most of us go through our days believing we know more than we do. But we also underestimate our abilities in certain areas of our lives, and all of that gets compiled into social errors that we make which ultimately affect how we present ourselves to the world, how others see us, and the toll that our credibility takes among our peers.

While it’s perfectly fine to be skeptical and question institutions and established ideals, we must be careful to make claims that we are not sure we can’t back up with hard evidence. In fact, Carl Sagan said it best: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Take note B.o.B.

THE LESS YOU KNOW…

…the more you think you know, the saying goes. Unfortunately, very few people know, or aware, of this fact.

As I understand it what happened with B.o.B. is what the psychologists call “illusory superiority” or the Dunning-Kruger effect where a person with little or no skill in a particular subject or domain believes their skill to be greater than it is, while a person with a high degree of skill usually undermines their own abilities or fails to recognize that others are not at their level. Note that what I’m referring to has nothing to do with intelligence but everything to do with information storage.

Why is this a problem?

If you’ve ever been in an argument that you can’t win, not because of your own incompetence but because of your opponent’s indifference to their very own incompetence and their insistence at their limited evidence, then you understand that frustration firsthand.

In fact we see this problem everyday and everywhere from street corners to scientific conferences. People who know very little are usually the ones making the most noise. There is a certain over-confidence that overrides any reservation of doubt, while those who know a bit more hold more reservations precisely because they know the margin of error they can find themselves in.

In a study conducted psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, they attribute the problem to a miscalibration of people’s abilities due to a “deficit in meta-cognitive skill”, in their own words. The study was done mostly with Cornell University undergraduates, which means that there’s already a certain handicap present. However, it should translate to the rest of the population in certain terms, although the study made no mention of there ever being a replication of it. But whereas Cornell university students are more apt to know their own academic misgivings in certain areas as opposed to the regular high-school graduate, the study does clearly show that–and forgive me for being so blunt about it–the cure for your stupidity is, perhaps paradoxically, for you to not be so stupid about it.

The study they performed revealed that when the bottom percentile of the students (meaning those who were more confident and less competent) out of four percentiles, were given short training sessions to better their logical reasoning skills, basically providing them more information on how to determine their actual level of expertise, almost magically they improved their assessment of their own scores just as well as the top percentile of students had, thus making them experts. Note that the training packet did not make them expert test-takers but simply gave them a guide about how to find their own competence level. How does this translate to the rest of us? The study proves something that should come to no surprise to us, that even if you overestimate your knowledge of something, or underestimate your own abilities, the only way to right the way is to acquire more information! Basically, the more informed you are the less you are willing to overstep your boundaries.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. After all, these students had a helping hand, meaning that they were provided the information necessary to be made aware of their error, whereas for the rest of us we are doomed to come to this realization all on our own.

The Unregulated Market of Information

As it turns out lying is not such a good social currency as some people might think. Others of course reap great benefits by doing it. But unless you are a politician, or have some Machiavellian goal in mind, lying or even spreading partial untruths can have a detrimental effect on your place in society. That is simply because people everywhere in the world recognize sincerity as an unspoken social rule to keep us “within the tribe”, and violating it puts out outside of this circle, even–and ironically– if we do it ourselves.

The problem is that information is an unregulated market, especially in our time, and especially in places where information is free and wide and available such as most of the world is today. Mass communication has made it easier for people to propagate ideas and messages while at the same time it has made it increasingly difficult to separate reality from myth. And honestly nobody could blame you when daily we are hit with more information than we can decipher.

The abundance of information has also had an adverse effect. It has allowed consumers of this information to pick and choose the information that best suits them, information that confirms their suspicions, biases, likes and dislikes, etc. No longer are we tied to the inconvenience of truth, now we are free to select only what we like. But it is actually worse than we imagine.

In a pre-Internet world, it was not only harder to propagate a message but also harder to access it. This kept everything tied to single strands of information that could be followed and scrutinized easier. Today anyone with a computer can create his/her own ideological bubble–and they do–and thus isolated bubbles of information form essentially keeping groups with the same frame of mind contained. And this is where the Kruger-Dunning effect comes into play as it easier to maintain the level of knowledge that you have among your group than to spend any significant amount of energy looking into different, and possibly contradicting, claims to your own.

When we look for information, some of us are looking for nothing other than what confirms what we already think or know and ignore the rest. That’s called confirmation bias. But when we are exposed to something beyond that, this puts us at risk of leaving the social bubble that we are part of, our tribe per se, which can result on acceptance of this new information or not, something called cognitive dissonance.

Two things can happen when these ideological bubbles crash into each other: they either burst violently or they merge. The best thing that can happen in any society is for these bubbles to merge because this means that ideas are exchanged and discourse is created.

The Burden of Authority

Too often people challenge the authority of experts as if they themselves were experts in those fields because they have read one or two magazines, paged through a few internet journals, skimmed an article, or watched Discovery Channel. I actually applaud these people because authorities of any kind should be scrutinized. There’s a twist though.

Unsurprisingly, experts of any field of study spend years, sometimes decades, perfecting their art or field. They challenge other thinkers and often challenge established ideas and present their own, sometimes being met with severe opposition from their own colleagues. This happens everywhere in life and it’s not a rare occurrence for innovators to be often shunned by those who maintain the sanctity of knowledge, and because knowledge itself is so fragile and malleable, unlike facts, experts are often scrutinized for what they claim to know. Although it’s not necessary to be formally trained in any area, self-training or self-teaching can only get a person so far before they are met with the unavoidable fact that to improve one’s knowledge one must be able to see an opposing position or at least recognize that one’s picture of the world is not complete without the input of others, especially those who can back up their claims with expertise and hard evidence. And even then it might not work, just as the [very knowledgeable] proponents of the theory of cold fusion.

My point here is that although sometimes authority is harsh to criticize new ideas, it’s not without precedent that those who make new, and at times improbable claims, can end up changing the world.

Our beef with B.o.B.–or anyone else who claims to know more than the experts–is not with the claim itself, but rather with the [weak] evidence presented.

Every field and discipline that exists will always have a pyramid of authority that at times is hard to climb. One must be bold to attempt to climb it, but one has to go about it carefully. The pyramid can be indeed humbling.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

With the wide availability of mass communication sometimes it might seems that reliable information has to be mined, while disinformation or misinformation is always readily available. The hard part is knowing what you’re looking for and being smart enough to smell the bullshit wherever you may find it. Case in point, this blog.

If anything, embarrassment alone should be a powerful motivator to fact-check. Many people who have been publicly embarrassed by the Internet police can attest to that. As odd as it may sound, that unrelenting, unforgiving side of the Internet is the good side of shared mass communication. I’m speaking generally here and at each occurrence, not always and not by everyone. Rather than face public embarrassment or worse, there’s an easier solution.

Although to most of us the phrase “I don’t know” signifies ignorance, we as a society need to recognize that sometimes ignorance is the best that can happen. Honest ignorance that is. Willful ignorance is another matter. I don’t know opens the door to new possibilities and discoveries and, in certain situations it brings a certain trustworthiness to a person. It lets the world know that while you don’t know the answer, you will not make up bullshit only to appear knowledgeable, that you are willing to find an answer. So never be afraid to utter it and don’t condemn those who do.

The concept that most of don’t seem to grasp is that people who speak like equals are not necessarily equally informed. And in some cases one is detrimentally less informed than the other. So the problem in normal conversation is not ignorance, it’s closed-mindedness, willful ignorance by claiming to know something you are not close to sure of. The reason why people are so confident in their answers of certain things is simply because that is all the information they have at their disposal. But the wrench that breaks the machine is the denial that there is any more information out there to which they just haven’t had access to yet.

To me there are few things more corrosive in topical conversation than preconceived knowledge. People must be made aware that knowledge is ever-evolving and migratory. Even when we believe we know everything about anything, something else can always be learned. In fact, that’s what formal education is based on: building upon previous knowledge.

So next time you argue a point with someone, ask yourself if you have all the facts, if you truly know what you’re talking about, and be humble with the information you possess because you never know when someone will know more than you and not be humble about– that includes the internet. If someone had only told that to B.o.B.

And not that I would, but as for what you’re reading now, read it with skepticism because you don’t know me, I could be bullshitting you for all you know.

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Interesting Reads:

“What’s Wrong With Lying” By Christine M. Korsgaard- Harvard University http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~korsgaar/CMK.WWLying.pdf

“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incopetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” By Justin Kruger and David Dunning- Cornell University (Kruger-Dunning Effect Paper)  http://psych.colorado.edu/~vanboven/teaching/p7536_heurbias/p7536_readings/kruger_dunning.pdf

Perceptions in Politics  http://thehill.com/opinion/john-feehery/266941-john-feehery-the-rise-of-the-misinformed-voter-and-donald-trump

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Aftermath of Terror: Understanding ISIS and the Future of Our World

Last weekend France’s Prime Minister François Hollande declared a state of emergency and made the unprecedented decision to close off all of France’s borders after a large-scale terrorist attack was perpetrated in several spots in Paris leaving scores of dead and wounded.

As expected, soon after, a rush of condolences started pouring in from many heads of state and citizens from around the world who also expressed their rage at the situation and offered support for the victims.

In social media, many others whose countries had also been victimized by terrorism, sympathized with the French people by showing their support in different ways. And even hacktivist group Anonymous did its part by taking down Twitter accounts of people who sympathized with ISIS, including many of people who took to the social platform to hail Friday’s attacks as a great victory.

French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 for the Nov-13th victims.  (Author: Benoit-Caen. Artist does not endorse this work. Creative Commons License. commons/wikimedia.org)

With the painful memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January still fresh in our memory, it seems France, and possibly other European countries, is now experiencing another wave of terrorism as leaders of those nations ramp up efforts to combat extremism in their own countries and abroad. Now it’s apparent that these tactics are having an adverse effect in European cities. ISIS for one isn’t having it.

But are we correct to say that these attacks are simply a balancing act of retaliation on the part of ISIS for France’s meddling in Middle Eastern affairs? Or is there something else that many, including progressive-leftists and moderates (including Muslim moderates) seem to be missing?

From the many reports circulating about the identities of the attackers and their motives, what happened in France this past Friday was neither an isolated incident nor amateur hour. It was a highly-coordinated, deliberate attack in response to, once again, not one or two things, but a myriad of events that coalesce to form a situation that can only be described here as a clusterfuck of global proportions.

It’s important to understand that some of these reasons carry more weight than others in determining the motives behind these vicious attacks which, as always, kill more civilians than they do elements of the infrastructure of the target group or country–and to be perfectly fair here, that goes for both sides.

But we also cannot ignore another important fact that most people often overlook, and that is that the repercussions from these attacks–meaning the rain of bombs that will continue to rain on ISIS strongholds–are as coldly calculated into the model of the act of terrorism as the act itself. Meaning that ISIS, who has already claimed responsibility, not only expects vengeance but they in fact welcome it.

Why, you may ask, would they want retaliation.

As far as I–in my limited knowledge–can see, there are a few valid reasons that perhaps you may not be aware of.

Off the Fringe

It’s quite easy to label ISIS as murderous lunatics. And it’s equally simple to say that ISIS is just a bi-product of geopolitics gone wrong. However, while you may be right about one, or both, the facts actually point us in the other direction.

Ever since ISIS (initially an offshoot of Al-Qaeda) stemmed away from the root organization in the early 2000s, it has worked hard to establish “legitimacy” among the local players in the region. At times, this has not been easy. But with the escalation of war activity by the US-led coalition in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria that left entire regions ungoverned, and the abundance of civilian sympathizers both events created, ISIS, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has not wasted any time in recruiting a large force for the purpose of creating the Caliphate he said he would build. By taking full advantage of the governance vacuum in Syria, ISIS under the replenished leadership–including many who had served under Saddam Hussein, including generals and commanders who now oversee military operations–began successful offensives in Iraq and Syria and very quickly began to gain ground.

Of course this is a very simplified explanation of the ISIS-AL-Qaeda alliance, but for the purpose of this post, it’s more than enough.

Although this all sounds like clockwork we cannot ignore the sad reality that the main motivation behind what can only be described as openly-clandestine acts of war (a terribly ambiguous term) has turned out to be more religious than political at this point. So, once again, while you may be right that ISIS is the product of foreign affairs as the United States and our allies armed and disarmed insurgencies in the Middle East during and after the Cold War, and that they truly are murderous lunatics, at this point the religious radicalism in this organization has become so pronounced that the political reasons have effectively ceased to exist.

Unlike their Muslim counterparts in other areas of the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who have clear goals in mind, such as the liberation of Palestine and the eradication of Israel, and even Al-Qaeda, who is more theologically-based, although still political–ISIS is unique in that more than anything it seeks to establish a Caliphate (essentially an absolute theocracy) that will follow the exact model of ancient Caliphates dictated by the literal interpretation of the Quran.

So for us to say that ISIS’s motives are purely political, it makes liars out of all of us.

ISIS has for some time now, worked very hard to establish themselves as even more extreme than all other groups cataloged as terrorist organizations by the U.S., the U.N., the E.U., and others. The strategy here, if there ever was one, is to play into people’s fears and emotions, and up until now it seems to be working wonderfully.

"Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS"- Trans. "Scenes of war against ISIS." Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

“Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS”- Trans. “Scenes of war against ISIS.” Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

Since before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, countries and individuals started censoring themselves and each other for fear of offending an invisible enemy that could strike anytime, anywhere. Many of us have made it our business to condemn those who point out the faults in Islam and Islamic extremists by labeling them Islamophobes or “racists” (a term that wouldn’t even be applied correctly), but what those so-called “progressives” don’t seem to realize is that this is perhaps the biggest disservice we could be doing for our communities and our way of life. There is, after all, a way to discuss bad ideas without alluding towards derogatory or hateful undertones regarding a whole population (Islam as opposed to Muslims).

At the same time we give the bad guys a free pass on our freedom of speech. Emphasis on the “our” because of the history of our own societies and our acceptance that speech should indeed be free. This is precisely what ISIS and other terrorist organizations are working towards: a collective psychology molded by fear.

But they also play into people’s emotions  by making use of something so elemental in people’s hearts and minds that it transcends politics, alliances, and even reason: religion.

Other groups with specific goals in mind operating in different parts of the region, groups like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, et al., are the products of history and of very specific circumstances derived from foreign policy blunders. They are also good PR firms in their own right, and they have only gotten better and better at it. These yahoos are not only crazy, they are also highly organized and very adept at manipulating social media to recruit members, which has worked very well for them in recent years. But while these other groups use religion as a lightning rod to attract extremists, even if they believe what they profess, ISIS seems to take the religious rhetoric to heart, leaving all the political baggage that defines all other groups among the rubble of their conquests. This makes ISIS unique. They have taken the Al-Qaeda model and perfected it.

ISIS is peculiar in that they are not an organization so much as they are the embodiment of an ideology. Its leadership not only understands the endless power religion has, but knows how to tap into that well, and the reason is simple: they believe every word they say to their very core.

There’s a movie called “The Siege” (very apropos in this situation) where one of the characters, a C.I.A. officer investigating terrorist cells in the U.S. along with an F.B.I. agent, tells her partner, “In this game, the most committed wins.” That rings true every time you hear the news.

When al-Baghdadi announced that there would be a new Caliphate on Earth, most dismissed the claim as nothing more than extremist mumbo-jumbo. What people at that time did not realize was that their radicalism was so beyond what we had seen before, something so ingrained into their very psychology, that they truly believed–whether the leaders knew otherwise or not–that they were the messengers of god sent to Earth to bring about an apocalypse, and that only as the Earth was engulfed in fire, could every “innocent and moral” being ascend to heaven.

I’m not making shit up here. These guys have taken the most literal interpretation of the Quran and applied it to the real world. Scary isn’t?

If we have learned anything from history is that literal interpretations of holy books usually lead to disastrous consequences. Google “Holy Wars,” if you don’t believe me. But their plans go further than that and I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

ISIS knows that it doesn’t have the capabilities, yet, to fight a large-scale war with any country, especially countries who have powerful allies on their side (think the EU), which initially was the reason why they limited their aims only to the local chapters they created as they opened way inside Iraq and Syria. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS did not plan to engage their fighters in foreign soil. Note that this doesn’t mean they did not support stand-alone acts of terrorism by home-grown extremists who were loyal to their ideals. But instead it seemed less-than-clear that they would devote all of their energy towards expanding their hold in that region before operating abroad.

It is more than evident now that they have radically shifted course.

Now, as the world braces for what seems to be a new type of warfare, we are finally beginning to understand how ISIS operates and what they have in mind.

Three major outcomes will stem from deliberate acts of violence and terrorism, which in some countries will converge and feed off of each other in a symbiotic relationship that will centralize gubernatorial power and strip away citizen rights. Not to mention radicalizing the other side.

Retribution and Endless War

The first of these outcomes is that retribution will envelop the Middle East in conflicts for decades. These conflicts will spread, as they already have, into quasi-guerrilla wars that will be taken to the streets of the places we deemed “safe” at one time, which is exactly what groups like ISIS want.

As France vamps up military action, and its allies join in, the world will begin a second wave of wars that will go on for the rest of our lifetimes. Atrocities and injustices will happen on both sides as defenses and attacks are passed back and forth, with civilian populations bearing most of the casualties.

ISIS will undoubtedly continue its attacks on the world’s cities in order to provoke a self-fulling prophecy of apocalypse as dictated on their holy book. And as more attacks and threats unfold, future leaders will inevitably be forced to protect their own populations by any means necessary. This will follow the second outcome which has been happening for some time now.

Totalitarianism: The All-Seeing Eye

As the world becomes engulfed in obscure conflicts with irrational actors, governments will find in a scared and willing population the means to tighten their grip of control with the valid excuse of protecting their countries and their citizens. Valid to a very limited extent.

As 9/11 has proven, clandestine government programs designed with the aim of gathering intelligence at the global level will effortlessly expand to monstrous sizes, giving these governments the tools to police their own citizens faster and easier. These are not sensationalist claims, it is already happening as we have seen with the PRISM and MUSCULAR programs run by the American N.S.A. and the British G.C.H.Q. agencies, not to mention all other intelligence agencies around the world, and with help from major tech corporations like Google, Facebook, and others. With some luck, a portion of these programs will be monitored (although the chances are slim). In reality most of these clandestine surveillance programs will be so secretive that in the future–as it is today–they will not even be known by lawmakers and the general public.

Eventually, fear will work just as good for this side as it does for the other side, and most nations will enter a new era of governance where most central governments will hold immense power and sway over their own populations. But why convince your own people that what you’re doing is for their own good if the enemy can show them more effectively? This is the beginning of the third outcome.

Radicalizing the Other Side

It’s already happening. As I type this, scores of lawmakers around the world have vowed to end the radicalization of Islamism. A few others have vowed to do this the only way they know how, with “good old Christian values” and their own brand of crazy.

One of the (un)intended consequences of what ISIS is doing is radicalizing the other side in hopes that this will bring about the last holy war, where the soldiers of god (which one?) will fight the final battle against the infidels and defeat them. I’ll admit to you that I’m not sure which side I’m talking about here.

Not to make a direct comparison between these two parties, but more and more Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, an ultra-right fascist organization that openly calls for the rejection of immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians–and the American Republican Party are starting to sound very much alike. And what’s more, people are listening.

These, and many other, organizations advocate for the eradication of Muslims. At the same time, they build up and spread the idea that only Christianity can end this evil. To these people it has never occurred that they are only the other side of that coin.

Even friends of mine have expressed their humble opinions that “their god is a false god, and ours is the only true god.” Please take a moment to understand that logical dilemma.

Racism, bigotry, and xenophobia will increase to exorbitant levels–unfortunately it’s not only the religious who will be turned, but even the fragile moderate base will begin to collapse as fear sets in. We can already see it in our own countries and communities as people often conflate the terms “Muslim” or “refugee” with “terrorist”, and reject these people fleeing war-torn areas where many of them have been victims themselves of atrocities by ISIS or even their own governments.

There have already been reports that terrorist sympathizers might have infiltrated the refugee wave that landed on Europe a few weeks ago and even ISIS has said as much. So it’s not a baseless fear that governments and people have that at some point in the future their cities will be attacked. Unfortunately, many people whose homes and lives have been ruined by war will once again be the victims of hatred and discrimination in a whole new land, all because it plays well into ISIS’s plans that the infidels fear and hate Muslims, whether they are their Muslims or not.

Damages

While it is true that Islamism is at the forefront of these recent troubles, it would be unfair to paint all Muslims with the same brush. However, to dismiss this as an entirely extremist problem is also not accurate either, after all, the tenets of Islam do support the literal interpretation given by ISIS, even if most Muslims don’t. The problem is not Muslims, the problem is extremists and our failure to speak out against them for fear of offending or being labelled as bigots or Islamophobes. As far as the refugees who flee war-torn nations in the M.E. and North Africa, they are hardly to blame for these terrible events.

The world stands united with France in this terrible moment. But before the bombs rain and we unanimously decide that all Muslims are evil and we are the good guys, a few things to ask ourselves: Where is the compassion for the victims of other terrorist attacks throughout the world and why hasn’t there been an outcry for victims of similar atrocities like the ones in Beirut and Kenya? Where are the flags on Facebook and the hash-tags? What are we as individuals doing to combat extremism of all kinds?

One essential question to ask is whether strong nations only support strong nations; whether we only support our allies; or whether we are prepared to repudiate acts of terrorism wherever we find them.

As far as France goes–our oldest ally–we stand with them. We shed the same blood and the same tears. We have similar values and similar views. And at this terrible time, we are all French just as they were Americans on 9/11. But if there’s anything that I can leave you with today is that we are also all Kenyans. And Beirutians. Hell, we’re all humans! So when will we start acting like it?

Speak out, and encourage others to speak out, against extremism of all kinds, otherwise our future might be a lot shorter than we thought, and the apocalypse the other guys are striving for might come sooner than we would want.

It’s a good thing that you show support for the victims of these terrible tragedies. It’s good that you pray, but… Well, I will let the Dalai Lama end this with some words he said following this tragedy, words that are wiser than any I could conjure:

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

“Why Do You Care?” – The Roadblock of Social Progress

Why do you care?”

If I haven’t been asked this question enough lately, I could definitely do without for the remainder of this year.

Depending on the context of the situation, the question can be asked defensively or it can be phrased offensively. In the specific context of my situation- and more specifically in the situation of millions of other people  also- it was a mixture of both.

A couple of weeks back when the news that the SCOTUS (that’s Supreme Court of the U.S.) declared that marriage in the United States was to be allowed for all persons of legal age regardless of gender, race, or creed, I, like millions of Americans and millions of people around the world, was ecstatic! Before that day, America was slowly moving in the right track toward social equality, city by city and state by state. However, I’m sure that like me, a lot of people never anticipated that it would come this soon and this fast. In my mind this was a process that would drag on for years to come only to culminate in some far away date no one would predict. Imagine our surprise. But once it came, as you know, the wave of euphoria spread throughout the land. There wasn’t a news channel, newspaper, or social media platform in the United States where the decision did not make news, and those who did not support it made their voices known only to be drowned out that day by those who did. A major part of that wave of positivism was the product of progressive social media campaigns, sometimes pushed by social media giants themselves such as Facebook and Twitter. That day, for example, millions of Americans from celebrities to politicians to regular people alike all took to Facebook and Twitter to show their support by either Tweeting about it or by adding the rainbow flag as a background on their profile pictures.

A few days later, a friend of mine asked me in earnest curiosity why I- a straight man- was celebrating something that clearly did not affect me in the least bit. The question was funny to me for several reasons and at that point I was thinking that perhaps he meant marriage in general, since aside from being straight, I also don’t wish to ever be married. But I understood the point as I understand it now.

That’s when it dawned on me that when it comes to civil rights issues- or many other everyday issues for that matter- there is still a very deep disconnect in our understanding of other people’s suffering; but also that we often do not question the things that truly matter and we do the things that don’t.

With utmost sincerity I explained to my friend that this huge change that had just happened in America had to be celebrated by everyone because essentially it pertains to everyone’s interests in the way that the Civil Rights Movement of last century pertained not just to African-Americans (or rather just Americans) but to humans. In effect, this was a victory for humans, not just for some humans.

If you are offended by the comparison I suggest you get your head out of your ass. I am well aware that the suffering for both black Americans and the LGBT community has been different in many ways, as well as their respective socio-political movements have been. But there is no doubt that where we are concerned they are both social issues where people have suffered as a consequence of other people’s ignorance and indifference, and therefore they should be addressed.

The problem I see regarding social and political movements nowadays is that people have taken too much trouble to compare one to another. The bigger issue here is learning to realize that a social movement that aims to create progress is never over and it’s continually progressing. In fact, it’s in any social movement’s ethos to continue that progress essentially forever.

To know the history of the LGBT movement in America we really don’t have to go that far back, merely a few decades- almost a hundred years to come to an honest timeline proximity.  However, if we wind back the clock a bit further we find that even though the attitudes towards homosexuality and hemophilia are dependent on specific historical settings, we see that in general, homosexuality has been frowned upon by more societies than we can count.

One could make the case that unlike the suffering of black people throughout history, LGBT members of any society have been less marginalized simply for their ability to blend into that society easier, having no discernible exterior features that give away their innate condition other than their sexuality. But playing devil’s advocate for a second, are we not wrong in making such distinctions, or even dismissing the suffering of one group by comparing it to the suffering of another?

Although tolerance lies in the objective mind, there is no doubt that it is also a subjective experience. It’s then that we begin to see that social change is not so much going in circles as it is spiraling upwards as far as progress is concerned. To compare one progressive movement to another is to denigrate the very meaning of social progress, precisely because it’s social, meaning it affects society as a whole, and it’s progress, meaning it moves society forward.

Just from common sense alone you might infer that every “race” as we know them today (and even every race within a race) has been, at some point in human history, victimized by another. Take a look at the history of military conflicts and you will see that it is always the losing side that gets pulled down to the bottom of the social scale. This even happens in modern times. Where in the 1800s and early 1900s Chinese, Italians, and Irish immigrants were the “flavor of the month” as far as the most persecuted races in America, now Hispanic immigrants are. Of course there are a few groups that throughout history have been more hated than others, Jews for example who have had to endure antisemitism for over two thousand years. But to say that because Jews have had a hard time throughout history to really care about any other group of humans, would not only be a blatant disregard of social order, it undermines the kind of morality we are trying to instill in future generations and it is exactly the kind of potentially harmful learned social behavior that breeds ignorance, hatred, racism and the propagandist vitriol that disseminates it.

Do we have to be one race or another to ONLY understand their suffering?

Granted, most educated people in the world now don’t see it this way. But there are still those that make the comparison with a certain degree of animosity.

It seems to me that the reasoning behind the alienation of supporting cooperative social progress is flawed, and in fact it is downright illogical.

Saying that a group or a person should only offer their support for one of the things they believe advances social well-being, and adhere to what it is only their concern due to race or creed- or any other self-serving reason really- is discrimination at its finest. That mentality narrows conversations and excludes others who are of a different race or creed or sex to be part of a positive change that’s being created for the world and for the future of the human race as a whole.

Imagine for example if the hatred of Jews had evaporated just as soon as it began, there is no doubt we would have different problems in the world right now, but not that specific problem to try to fix. In fact, imagine if hatred of any race had never existed in the first place, where would we be?

It is a waste of time to study history in the hopes of “what would’ve been,” so instead we should study history in the hopes of understanding how we can, once and for all, eradicate hatred now that we have a deeper understanding of the social structures that we create and the tolerance that we have come to acquire through much pain and suffering.

 

Selective Urgency/Selective Tolerance

Sometime before the SCOTUS announced equality in marriage I announced in some social site or other that equality in marriage is basically, or should be, a non-issue and that more urgent matters required our attention.

Of course from everything you read in the sections above it might sound hypocritical of me to even say that there are more important things to think about than gay rights, or ridding our world of racism, sexism, classism, etc.

By this I did not want people to confuse the intention- I don’t believe we as an entire nation should be discussing something that is so foreign to our national priorities. But I also don’t want people to confuse the underlying message- the fact that we are discussing these matters effectively proves that we have been ready for quite some time to move past the kind of social roadblocks that prevent us from creating a near-perfect society.

At first reading it sounds as though I don’t consider human rights to be part an urgent matter to discuss. I’m saying that given how much we’ve known about ourselves historically, the issue of human rights is one that in today’s day and age should take no longer than a coffee break. It is imperative that we force each other to recognize that human rights is for all humans- not for some, not for the best, but for all. And it is something that, in brutal honesty, should have been resolved by now.

One of the reasons why this moment hadn’t arrived sooner is because of selective tolerance.

We as individuals do not devote all of our attention to one unbelievably huge problem, one that seems to be out of our reach (e.g. the imminent death of our galaxy, the existing threat of nuclear war, or even global warming) especially when our lives are already buried beneath an avalanche of problems of our own that we must worry about. Instead we limit the laundry list of problems to what we can carry individually and devote decreasing slices of our time to those problems that seem to be out of our reach (e.g. gay rights, and within that bracket, gay marriage; drugs, etc…) Unfortunately in this case the problem comes about when in the interest of self-preservation we often run contrary to the benefit of the whole “colony” to benefit ourselves, in smaller and smaller numbers.

A little thought experiment.

Whether you are poor, middle-class, or filthy rich- provided you have had some kind of education- you know it’s a fact that mass poverty is something that affects millions around the world everyday, and that in some countries poverty is so extreme that people die by the millions because of it and because of the slew of social consequences it produces. You are aware that poverty affects some percentage of the total global population, and depending on the country we’re talking about you know that some areas are more affected than others, maybe even in your own town. Of course you know this.

But when TV ads about the poor, dying kids comes on television do you jump to the chance to donate money to sustain a child in some poor faraway nation?

Congratulations to those who said they do/would. But how many of you asked yourselves in this hypothetical scenario what their own financial situation was before donating- or even whether you should? Doubtless there’s a moral echo going off in the back of your head while you guiltily check your bank account. But don’t worry, I would- and have- asked myself the same thing. The point is that the majority of us have done it practically on cue. While intrinsically altruistic people do exist in the world, they don’t by any means constitute any majority- intrinsically selfless people being an even smaller circle.

However, there are obvious evolutionary advantages for that kind of selfish attitude, and we have done well to translate them to our modern times; we just cannot help but weigh out how helping others will shortfall us in some way. This is something we all do regardless of anything. We are, to a certain point, selfish. Of course the situation is not as black-and-white as it sounds, and you are not selfish as I made you seem. Perhaps you donate to Amnesty International, or you devote your time to recycling programs, or you anonymously bought the next table over their meal. Maybe you’re even more selfless and you donate time and money to a cause- and maybe religion is a big part of that course of action. But the fact remains that there are degrees of selfishness and reasons to be so. For example we are selfish enough not to give to those faraway starving children, but selfless in that we would provide for our own children before we provide for ourselves. Our altruistic motives only go as far as we allow them to.

Coming back “to the gay thing,” it appears that logically we cannot all care about all the issues that happen so we select those that affect us in closer social proximity. It is a logical step to take and it would make sense that most people would consider equal-rights as being something more important that something that appears extraordinarily complicated and long- something like global warming per se. But ask a starving person if they consider global warming a pressing issue, or gay rights for that matter. I’m quite sure they would disagree with you while trying to instill enough urgency in you to feed them.

It is important that you as the reader understand that by this I am neither shaming you, nor pushing a hidden agenda here- I actually do believe global warming is the more important issue here-but people would benefit greatly by understanding the ridiculous comparison between one issue of overdue resolve to one of yet-greater potential damage to us as a species and for the planet itself.

Think of it this way, if homophobia (and sexism and classism and cynicism) suddenly vanished from the human condition- think how much could be accomplished. Without straying far from the context, the amount of time humanity has been talking about sexuality- or people’s personal lives for that matter- is far too long for us to have conceived any honest notions of planet colonization a thousand years sooner.

Perhaps, the pats in the back we give ourselves for our great achievement of finally advancing social reform  will show us just how capable we are, as a thoughtful, tolerant society, of moving past ignorance while at last revealing just how tedious the subject actually is.

Of course not talking about it isn’t as easy as it sounds, after all entire ad campaigns have been formed around issues that shouldn’t be pressing and not enough time is being devoted to issues that truly are a matter of life and death for all of us (but that’s for another blog). However, until our collective understanding of social equality catches up to this future we’re living in, talking about human rights for that matter is one of the most important thing to think about. Ironically if we want to fix the world we inhabit we must first fix ourselves.

 

The Role of Religion

Think hard about the following question: How does gay marriage affect me?

The short answer is that it doesn’t.

The long one is that you want it too. And over time it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that you have made it affect you. Am I not talking about it now?

The fact is that same-sex attraction exists within all species of living creatures in the planet. It’s natural because we are part of nature itself. And it’s not abominable because sexuality- even if it’s practiced responsibly- will always carry some kind of risk no matter what, homosexual sex is not exclusive. Think how slower AIDS would have spread had we as a society been more tolerant. Instead of shaming our kids for being who they are, we could’ve informed them to practice sex and love, safely.

This is where our other prejudice comes from, and in this case it is deeply rooted not in our DNA but rather in our voluntary convictions- something much more terrifying.

If we haven’t presented a voice to speak for those we alienate in society, we might get away with it by putting it on our very own intrinsic selfishness. But if the human race is already alienating towards those we don’t’ like, there is one thing I can think of that puts those doubts into overdrive- voluntary conviction, and nothing does a better job at it than religion.

Just in the same, but opposite, way that we are selfish not to give to those children in Africa, sometimes it is to our advantage to make other people’s lives miserable. If you don’t believe that, read up on… pretty much every single war ever.

Even if you consider yourself a good person, it serves some purpose to enslave people, or at the very least deny them the same rights that you’d grant yourself. In the case of financial motivation I can at least understand its nefariously logical ways to make us be a bit more selfish with others and a bit more selfless with ourselves or our own.

But a more curious- and hopelessly lost situation- is when we enslave others, or deny them rights, with the inviolable conviction that what we are doing is a good thing. There is no moral ambiguity here, the only way any human will adhere to morally reprehensible ideas while keeping a clean conscience, is either by being medically psychopathic or by being devotedly religious. You can see for yourself when you ask a question like: should gays be allowed to marry?

If you were one of the few who said no, I would challenge you to think of a valid reason why they couldn’t that was not based on religion. Without wasting anyone’s time I will say that outside of religion there is no valid reason for why gay people shouldn’t marry or form relationships, and those who insist on quoting scripture should do well in reminding themselves why they have just denied a human the right to love.

Once on Facebook I debated a person who believed that without a doubt all human life should be respected and that all humans should have the right to live free and happy lives. The caveat here was that as long as they weren’t gay they should be.

I can think of only one way in which an obviously intelligent and decent person would get it into their heads that happiness is not deservedly equal unless blank.

The simple fact is that religion has taken too much of our time in idiocies that not enough people would believe had it not offered some kind of reward that is “too big to fail.” Or in fact, too big for us not to take notice. Something so large that it can only be received in the one life we are not even sure exists- go figure.

So it seems that religion while in some contexts is benevolent, at the root it is just as selfish as our natures can go, and then some.

Global warming- yes again with that- is a problem that is significantly more urgent, although more distant, in scope if not in time. This is one of those pressing issues that if we fuck up, has the potential to annihilate not just the human race but pretty much everything else. And yet, we approach it with the same patronizing urgency we show kids.

In the subject of religion, decency, like public discourse, seems to go only as far as the word of god allows, it appears. Whereas in any other context the diminishing bubble of religious influence allows our decency to go much further, even if it’s not as far as it should be.

John Lennon once said, “Imagine all the people living life in peace…”

Lennon used to beat his wife. And while some have elevated him to near mythical status, Lennism isn’t a religion- that I know of. That should tell you something about the fanaticism of some, while reminding you of the objectivity of most.

Lennon was truthfully an incredible human being- but he was no god and in fact he was very flawed . And the rest of us, like sheep, are smart, and perhaps a bit selfish as a few, but very idiotic and corruptible as a flock. The moment we realize that we are betraying our own humanity for ideas people had about how to live two thousand years ago, the faster we can start talking about the things that will take us, quite literally, to the stars.

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Instead, check this out: