Privacy and the Decent Society: Keeping a Journal

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In this series I am analyzing the first chapter of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of an indecent society. An indecent society, Margalit writes, is one in which institutions humiliate individuals.

Winston Smith is on lunch break in his dingy flat. Before he seeks the refuge of a small alcove just out of view of the telescreen, he looks out the window and takes in the horizon. Much of London has not yet been repaired from the bomb damage of World War 2. The cityscape that has survived is pitifully neglected: much of it consists of “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with balks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard, their roofs with corrugated iron . . . .”

In the midst of this ruin, we encounter the next object in chapter one whose purpose is to deny the people of Oceania any measure of privacy. It is the Ministry of Truth headquarters, Winston’s workplace. Orwell writes of it, “It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” That’s tall.

Let me remind you that Chicago’s Hancock Building, at just over 300 meters high, dwarfs even the midrise office buildings around it. Were it surrounded only by one-story housing stock, like the crumbling London homes Orwell describes, the Hancock Building would dominate its environment to a stupefying degree.

There are four 300-meter pyramids in Orwell’s London, which house the government’s main ministries. The last time I read 1984, I could not leave Orwell’s description of the Minitru pyramid behind without calling to mind the skyline of Astana, Kazakhstan’s rather zany capital. Dreamed up by a dictator, Astana looks like this:

astana

One of the city’s many baubles is a glittering white pyramid, not 300 meters tall, but imposing nonetheless. Here is a picture:

astana pyramid

I see these images of Astana as reminders that authoritarians do not bother hiding their intentions. They still seek  to humilate the masses by overawing them with the physical apparatus of power (not to mention with the unaccountable expenditure of lots of money, but that’s another story). Despite the publication of Orwell’s greatest novels exposing authoritarianism; despite the publication of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz; despite the publication of practically everything by Solzhenitsyn, true authoritarians still feel no need to change their stripes. It doesn’t matter to them that their game has been given away.

The point of authoritarian architecture is to remind the individual that s/he could achieve no private life even if she wished for one. The state’s power to plan, spend, build and organize–and, of course, monitor and intervene–will always overmatch the individual’s power to cultivate a private conscience. The authoritarian city is merely the tasteless outward sign of a more dreadful institutional imperative within. Every physcial implement an authoritarian regime builds is ultimately identifiable with the boot Winston sees stamping on the human face forever.

Even in the presence of such hideous strength, though, Winston insists on rebelling. A private conscience is germinating inside him, and it demands to seek the light of day. It will be called to life. We do not yet know what Winston understands about the impulse to think and write. This is how the urge is allowed to express itself early in chapter one:

For some reason the telescreen in the living room was in an unusal position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was abe to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. . . . It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

The thing Winston does in his hiding place will ultimately bring about his death, but he can’t restrain himself. He had recently purchased a simple but graceful diary, of “creamy white paper” so beautiful it “deserved to be written on . . . .”

Orwell hardly ever insinuates anything of the sensual in his writing (Winston’s upcoming love scenes with Julia hardly rank among Orwell’s best stuff), so it is remarkable that he relates Winston’s sybarritic bond with the notebook so naturally. In the store where Winston spied the book, Orwell says he was “stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it.” Possess it? Such words bring to mind what David felt when he saw Bathsheba, not what most of us feel when we see a Moleskine.

Well, the actuation of our sensual desire is the heart of our private life, is it not? There is a close connection, I believe, between Winston’s Dionysian “strickenness” with the beautiful journal and his Apollonian compulsion to write out plain truths. They suggest the two halves of his innermost self.

When it comes time to put those plain truths down on paper, though, Winston delays. He writes out the date but can go no further. Is he straining under the burden of what he is about to confess? It might be ordinary witer’s block (already!). On the rare occasion when Orwell is funny, he is only coolly so. This may be his writerly idea of an inside joke.

winston writing
Winston begins his diary (Image: tumblr)

But after pouring out an initial passage of junk, Winston encounters a crystallized moment starting to emerge. He recalls the Two Minutes Hate–when all rise and clamorously denounce Oceania’s enemies– conducted the day before in his office. He homes in on its operative effect:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

Winston’s very first exercise in journaling takes him straight to the heart of Oceania’s worst offense against humanity. Any bully or sadist can compel a victim under torture to say or do things against their conscience or principles. A truly monstrous thing, though, is to manipulate an individual’s fears into a genuine feeling of mob mentality. This is a self-immolation of privacy.

Even as the Allies were winning Wold War 2 in Europe, Orwell pereived that the things that gave the United States and its closest European friends a decisive advantage could easily be maintained under conditions of peace–if that peace were seen as constantly under threat. And one such thing was the genuine conviction among the Allies’ societies that they were on the right side of history. If you could just constantly inculcate or regenerate that attitude, Orwell saw, you could harness an unassailable mass support of state priorities. The factories and bureaucracies would never stop humming.

At the end of World War 2, much of the world was understandably fixated on the horrible power of the atomic bomb to erase entire cities from the map. Orwell spied something much more insidious–the power of mass culture and mass communication to erase the individual mind from the collective will. It is Winston’s perception of this threat to human diginity that dooms him to be pursued and killed by the state. The wages of sin are death, after all, and he has committed thoughtcrime.

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Privacy and the Decent Society: Big Brother Is Watching You

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Today I’m continuing my analysis of the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m looking at it through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of decent and indecent societies.

Margalit argues that in indecent societies, institutions humiliate individuals, and in decent societies they generally do not. To draw an analytic contrast, a society whose criminal justice system aims primarily to rehabilitate would tend toward decency, since rehabilitation tries to restore criminals’ dignity, which includes a capacity for reform and redemption. A system meant primarily to incapacitate criminals or to enrich the providers of criminal justice would be more likely to be indecent. Humiliation would be an essential part of what it does.

In my first post, which looked only at the opening paragraph of 1984, we saw that Oceania’s humiliation of individuals is pervasive and thoroughgoing. Big Brother’s regime tells casual, inconsequential lies about little things–like the name of Winston Smith’s apartment building–and calculated, deeply ramified lies about large things–such as whether Oceania is winning the war against Eurasia.

By dominating the whole domain of information exchange, from the trivial to the highly significant, Big Brother’s regime means to reduce the individual to a reflexively obedient subject who adapts his whole corpus of beliefs to mass culture, relinquishing private opinion. This situation, not far from the real one in North Korea and in large parts of China today, surely would reflect an indecent society by Margalit’s definition. Any regime that simply instructs its populace what to believe rules over subjects, not citizens–humiliated, not diginified persons.

(Bookish aside: If you are interested in this idea, Hegel develops it as the “master-slave dialectic” in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Nietzsche expands on it as “master-slave morality” in On the Geneology of Morals. Hegel’s book is very tough sledding, but anyone can pick up and enjoy Nietzsche’s book.)

As Winston Smith passes through the doorway of his building and makes his way toward his apartment, we begin to see up close some of the instruments of a regime bent on humiliating its subjects in this fundamental way:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide, the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. . . . It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Notice a detail here. Size matters. Have you ever even seen a poster of anyone’s face wider than a meter? Even a face depicted twice its normal size, perhaps 20 inches wide, would qualify as large. Orwell’s meter-wide poster of Big Brother leaves conventional ideas of dimension behind. It is an instance of what we used to call giganticism when discussing the Soviet Union.

big bro
He’s gigantic

A repressive regime signals its overwhelming power, or at least tries to, by emphasizing its overwhelming size. The whole idea of a military parade, for example, is to produce a spectacle of numerical superiority. When the current U.S. president asked for a military parade two years ago, many of us in the defense establishment recoiled at the idea. I think much of our unease was based in the suspicion, acquired from watching Russia and North Korea over the years, that these kinds of penis exhibitions are humiliating for all parties involved. Decent societies don’t roll out the tanks to raise the country’s morale, still less that of its rulers.

It’s a pity Orwell didn’t live long enough to see the Jumbotron, or even the “humble” roadside billboard (standard size in America: 14′ by 48′). He would have appreciated their dimensions, and he might have quailed at how listlessly (and sometimes enthusiastically!) we accept these monsters in everyday life. If you wanted to hold a Two Minutes Hate in real life today, the Jumbotron just might be your tool of choice.

It is when we enter Smith’s apartment that we encounter the summum malum of Big Brother’s ability to monitor and repress–the telescreen:

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.

We will come to learn a list of horrors, many of them prefiguring our own internet, about the telescreen. It is always on, for example. The feature I want to dwell on today is its physical setup as an integral part of the wall.

Integrating the telescreen with the wall removes any visual signs that screens were once ancilliary fixtures in our homes. A TV was once an appliance that you could take or leave (although how many of us would leave it?). The telescreen is part of the very walls around you. Whatever unsettling things Freud may have said about your mother or your libido, he was on to something solid, I believe, when he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams that the home represents the mind itself. Whatever belongs to the home is part of you.

Some of our most formative assumptions have to do with what we consider normal and what we don’t. This is the point of the telescreen being built into the wall: it’s as normal to have a telescreen as to have a home.

Much of any goverment’s propaganda aims to condition the citizens to think of extraordinary circumstances as normal. Before 1947, for example, the United States had, when necessary, a Department of War. In 1947 Washington created its replacement, the Department of Defense. Today we simply accept the DoD as a permanent part of our government. And that’s because of a word. “Defense” is a consitutional duty which must be attended to all the time. It is a normal part of living in a dangerous world.

Before 1947, it would have been more evident to the casual oberver that we hadn’t always thought of ” defense” in this way. Raising an army to defend the nation’s interests had always been something we improvised in response to war, which is more or less the paradigm of extraordinary circumstances.

Recall how long it took Lincoln to generate the forces of the Union Army. The Army that became an unstoppable behemoth began with pathetically haphazard, unprofessional, poorly informed efforts. To take another case, the image we have of American industry during World War 2 is one of factories humming at an insuprable capacity. This, though, was the result of an astonishingly quick adaptation to new circumstances. The factories that won the war mostly stayed in place and became the core of the military industrial complex, a phrase that now sounds slightly conspiratorial to breathe aloud. Why? Because “defense” is such big business, it must be thought of as normal. There is no industrialized country on earth than can afford to let arms sales be thought of as unusual. Military-grade weapons are a vital sector of a “normal” economy.

I am not quite at the point where I want to draw a direct connection between a militarized society and one that accepts a government mandate to ignore history, but I believe Chapter One will pull me toward this connection soon enough.

I will close for today by noting the main commonality between the poster of Big Brother that Winston passes in the hall and the telescreen that forms part of a wall in his apartment. In the poster, Big Brother’s eyes are “contrived” to hold the viewer in their gaze no matter where the viewer goes. The telescreen does the same. These are both achievements in surveillance that recall Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon–a phsyical space whose setup enables a watcher to monitor all the inhabitants from a single vantage point. If it ever came about, Bentham thought, the panopticon would become a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

In my next post we will watch Winston Smith try to rebel against this horrible power. He does it by writing.

 

Privacy and the Decent Society: A Close Look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In his 1998 book The Decent Society, the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes, “The institutions in a decent society must not encroach upon personal privacy. There is a close connection between encroachment upon personal privacy and humiliation. This connection is especially close when the encroachment is institutional.”

As someone who likes to have my lunchbreaks to myself, at home if possible, I have always thrilled to the action in the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty Four. Although quiet, it throbs with the menace of a monstrous institutional encroachment on individual privacy–Winston’s Smith’s lunchbreak to be precise. Away from his office at midday, Smith is determined to be left alone and feel he has a life of his own despite the whole setup of Oceania, which is designed to abolish privacy. Margalit might say Oceania’s abolition of privacy debases and humiliates the individual. This humiliation is the crux of 1984‘s first chapter.

With ever more of our lives falling under surveillance, either by the government or the businesses that seek to monopolize government power, we would do well to go back and reread 1984, if for no other reason than to see what kind of humiliations we are willingly walking into.

Here are the clear, astringent words that open Orwell’s greatest novel:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

I recently read 1984 for the tenth time. I keyed in on three things that jump out of the first paragraph.

First, the clocks strike thirteen, not one. Oceania has normalized the militarization of everyday life. Clocks no longer register the flow of an ordinary, peaceful day. By putting the people of Oceania on military time, clocks cultivate a mindset of permanent war.

George-OrwellRT

Orwell believed that ordinary things like units of measurement said something meaningful about who we are and could be manipulated by a sufficiently cunning authority to warp our self image. Most of us (Americans) dislike the metric system simply for ist foreignness. In 1984 Orwell imposes metric measurements on Oceania because he sees in the perfect divisibility of meters and liters and so forth a sinister regimentation of units that could have been left alone to express a tradition. This is why he liked pints of beer, for example. They were marks of a past world made up of folksy, unregulated habits of mind that didn’t need to be rectified in the laboratory or focus group.

In other words, Orwell thought that not just humans, but even our artifacts could be made to speak a new language that serves the interests of a hidden authority. This would be a kind of Newspeak for non-human speakers. In our age, where artificial intelligence devices such as Alexa help us run our (“private”) households, it is worth bearing in mind that these AIs are capable of conditioning us to favor certain words, concepts and thought routines over others. This technology has been fashioned by corporations whose job is to addict us to spending money on them. The goal of making our lives easier or more glamorous or more intersting is subordinate to the goal of influencing our patterns of consumption.

The second thing that jumps out is the name of Smith’s home, Victory Mansions. It is an official lie. To be more precise, it is two lies in one. We find out shortly that Smith’s home is no mansion. It is a dreary, dilapidated midrise apartment, like every other party member’s home in midtown London. A little later we learn that victory does not exist  as a verifiable fact in Oceania. “Victories” are always events of official propaganda, with no empirical ties to reality. They are signals to the masses to acclaim Oceania’s military might.

By giving a false name to an individual’s home, Oceania’s government poisons the idea of home as a refuge where the world can be made right, if only privately. Big Brother has invigilated his belief-forming power into the one place where the individual was supposed to rule her own thoughts.

Big Brother’s most awful power to control the home rests in the telescreen, of course. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her short 1970 book On Violence, an authoritarian regime  relies crucially on implements to rule through force. But the power of the Victory Mansions lie is that it prepares the individual to accept even casual mendacity about the inconsequential as a typical feature of government power.

I live in a new section of suburbs, so I see this kind of casual mendacity at work all around me in the names of new neighborhoods under development. One new neighborhood might be called Fox Hills. There is not a fox or hill in sight, but we are meant to associate whatever appealing images that name calls up with the new homes for sale there. Other neighborhoods have (ridiculously) aristocractic sounding names, formulated to heighten feelings of class difference. If you’re even in the slightest cowed by the name of Westin Estates, for example, good, you probably don’t belong there. It matters not one whit that there never was a Lord Westin. The imaginary version of him has done its job.

A person conditioned to accept such thoroughgoing dishonesty, even in matters that seem inconsequential, is postured to accept the humiliation of being ruled by a government and by corporations that lie flagrantly and systematically.

The third thing that jumps out of 1984‘s opening paragraph is a whisp of foreboding symbolism. That swirl of gritty dust that Smith tries but fails to keep out of his home? It is a sign that some things take on the power to overwhelm the individual despite our best efforts. An ordinary wind might be acceptble to most of us. Most of us can live with the prospect that there are large, impersonal forces in the world, such as nature. But by making that swirling wind vile with grit, Orwell warns us that men, who desire ruling power over all things, will seek ways to ride the coattails of nature into our private lives.

In my next posts, I’d like to observe Winston Smith further along into chapter one as he commits the thoughtcrime of writing in his journal. This is the tragic-heroic act that sets Smith on the path to destruction. Simply trying to be an individual defies real powers in the world whose imperative is to extinguish individuality.

 

 

Review of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media” by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In 2016 as Donald Trump’s run for the presidency was picking up steam, three of his top campaigners started retweeting messages from a conservative Tennessee GOP Twitter account, @Ten_GOP. Altogether the pro-Trump messages relayed by Donald Trump Jr., Kellyanne Conway, and (future National Security Advisor) Michael Flynn would be retweeted 1.2 million times, reaching several million Twitter users.

@Ten_GOP was a hit. Despite being an unofficial representative of Tennessee Republicans, it had ten times more followers than the party’s official account. On election day in 2016, it easily outpaced other GOP cheerleaders to become the seventh-most retweeted account across all of Twitter. (And this in the age of the Kardashians.)

After Trump’s election win, Michael Flynn, a career Army intelligence officer, called the victory “an insurgency.” “This was irregular warfare at its finest, in politics,” he effused.

Flynn didn’t know how right he was. Insurgents will use any means necessary to win, and they often have foreign backers, which is exactly what @Ten_GOP was. It was one of dozens of pro-Trump social media accounts created in the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. In addition to posing as individual social media users (“sock puppets”), the Russians also created automated networks of fake accounts (“bots”) to boost their messages, and they bought ads on Facebook tailored to get out the Republican vote and suppress Democratic turnout.

As Flynn would have known, however, an effective insurgency has to be grounded in a base of domestic support, even if it has solid foreign backing. In Trump’s case, the deepest homeland support came from a network of social media users operating out of the white nationalist image board 4chan.

Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital campaign manager, drew from thousands of 4chan’s posts and sent them to thousands of U.S. Facebook users to see which ones stuck. Essentially the game was to figure out which 4chan messages achieved the right blend of outrage and credibility to take off and go viral in the mainstream. Many of these focus-grouped messages became mainstays of the Trump campaign, luring millions of voters to like, retweet and emojify them. Most Facebookers probably didn’t know the memes they were liking came from the racist bowels of the internet. They just worked.

A few of 4chan’s messages became so popular that Trump retweeted them himself, including the cheeky image below of the future POTUS as the neonazi mascot Pepe the Frog. The subtext of this tweet was clear: even if you traced Trump’s online support base to a network of racist trolls, it wouldn’t harm his chances for winning the presidency. As Singer and Brooking put it, millions of Americans were warming to Trump’s “authenticity,” because, “in the fast-talking, foulmouthed, combative billionaire, they saw someone just like them–a troll.”

trump pepe

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media is not a book about Trump’s election win, but the Trump campaign does frame the authors’ main motivating question, which comes in the form of a logical puzzle. In the age of Trump, you have to be able to believe the following without contradiction:

(1) Russia successfully used social media to intervene in Trump’s campaign to help him win.

(2) Trump used social media to build his personal brand as a troll and transform underground racist bilge into mainstream populism. In making no effort to disguise his methods, Trump ran a reasonably transparent campaign.

So far, these facts accord with each other. Like them or dislike them, they produce no contradiction. (In fact, it’s a pattern. Russia backs right-wing nationalist parties in several countries across Europe.) But then there’s this:

(3) Civil society and U.S. institutions have accepted Trump’s election victory as fair and defensible, despite (1) and (2). Trump played by the rules and won.

If (3) is true–if Trump indeed played by some set of rules that enabled a large part of the populace and our established political system to acknowledge the legitimacy of his win–we would be well served to discover what these new rules are. LikeWar is the first book to take this issue seriously. It documents the dizzying ways our information environment has changed since the advent of social media and the ways those changes connect up to ordinary habits of mind to shape a frightening new social dynamic of pervasive conflict. This new dynamic threatens to corrupt the practice of democracy from the bottom up.

likewar

The social media deluge, Singer and Brooking argue, is just the latest revolution in communications technology, like the telegraph, radio, telephone and TV, innovations which also changed society and politics. But it is different from those earlier revolutions in key ways. The main difference is that we, as social media users, are always on and always attuned to the new media in one way or another. Unlike the earlier technologies, which were (to varying degrees) scarce, and which required deliberate effort to use, today’s ubiquitous smart phones give us a constant, 24/7 interface with, well, everyone else.

The persistent nature of our new interconnectedness means that social media is in one sense not just like war, but is a real war–it is a war for our attention. Can’t put your phone down? Of course not; social media is addictive, and your phone delivers your fix anywhere, any time. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.

Back in the 1990s, computer gurus told us the Internet (which they called the Information Superhighway back then) would usher in a utopian age of global peace and democracy. Information, they said, wanted to be free, and no despot could suppress citizens with free access to so many facts, ideas, and potential ideological allies. Instead, humans have used the Internet to do the same things we did before the revolution, much of which is partisan, narrow-minded, and even dreadful, such as crime, cruelty and war.

Social media hasn’t transformed us; it has intensified who we already were and given us shortcuts to pursue some of our worst instincts.

Eighty percent of fights in Chicago schools originate online. Some of the instigations involve the brandishing of gun images, which in very short order causes real gunfire and death. Where formerly a gang member would have to take a real risk to edge up to his rivals’s turf and issue a threat, the same thing now happens with a mouse click. “The decentralized technology,” Singer and Brooking tell us, “allows any individual to ignite this cycle of violence.”  It’s easy to imagine someone thousands of miles away from someone else’s turf, with no stake in gang violence, sparking a lethal fight.

In Myanmar (Burma) since 2013, government-fabricated (and other) rumors of religious violence have sparked real acts of genocide by majority Buddhists against minority Muslims. The Muslims quickly learned the trick and turned it against the Buddhists in reprisals, albeit to lesser effect. (In 2018 Facebook was scrambling to hire scores of Burmese speakers to moderate hate speech and try to prevent new outbreaks of this social media war.)

Violence is often purposefully demonstrative. The terrorist group ISIS made its name spreading increasingly gruesome snuff videos. After a series of online beheadings, it invited fans, through social media, to vote on new, creatively cruel ways to kill its captives. This method is what led to the burning alive of  victims in cages.

Such inhumanity is not just the purview of religious fanatics. “Wherever young men gather and clash, social media now alters the calculus of violence,” Singer and Brooking write. “It is no longer enough for Mexican drug cartel [and Central American gang] members to kill rivals and seize turf. They must also show their success.” This is done through multiple social media platforms.

Well, that’s all horrid, you might say, but it has nothing to do with me. Not so fast, say Singer and Brooking. Social media wages a constant battle for everyone’s attention, and what really draws us in is the feeling of being party to a conflict. When someone likes your social media content, it produces a real gush of brain activity that makes you feel good. What’s even more engaging? The thrill of battle when someone flames you and defines themselves as an enemy. And now that we all carry our social media device with us all the time, we can, and do, immerse ourselves in this persistent form of conflict. We are always armed for likewar.

Amplified by social media, we all experience homophily, or fondness for people like us and ideas like our own. Furthermore, we all seek confirmation of our beliefs and attitudes. Social media enables these mutually reinforcing dynamics to play out ad infinitum. Our worlds have become filter bubbles in which we have deep emotional stakes and a strong desire for community building, even if our outreach is only to increase our online support base of allies.

Who is the personality type most capable of winning this war of nonstop us-against-them? Singer and Brooking suss out five key characteristics of social media champions. The thought leaders capable of forming our attitudes and drawing our battle lines all evince (1) an appealing narrative, (2) emotion, (3) authenticity, (4) community, and (5) inundation. They are on all the time, stoking our emotions and engaging us in the stories of who they are–and, by extension, who we are.

Notice something about the five characteristics Singer and Brooking lay out: they are all morally neutral, neither good nor evil in and of themselves. There is not one trait there that implicates a cardinal virtue, such as honesty or justness or bravery, something that would tend to produce socially positive outcomes (of the sort that internet dreamers thought would come automatically back in the 90s). Jesus or Gandhi could conceivably rise to social media stardom today, but just as easily could the devil, or a good used car salesman, or Joseph Stalin.

Indeed Stalin’s successor in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, has done quite well. Russia’s outsized ability to influence events abroad is largely the product of Moscow’s virtuoso manipulation of social media under Putin, a phenomenon that Singer and Brooking document as Russia’s “global information war.”

Posing as real, grassroots supporters of goals that align with the Kremlin’s, Russia’s social media warriors fight a highly effective campaign to shape the beliefs of Putin’s target audiences and draw them into a community of allies. They do this, Singer and Brooking assess, through the five Ds–dismissing, distorting and distracting from their competitors’ messages and dismaying and dividing their adversaries’ societies. Putin’s trolls excel in subverting their competitors’ messages and looking clever and occasionally high-minded in the process–because who doesn’t like seeing established powers chopped down to size?

Whether Moscow is trying to shed blame for the shootdown of a Malaysian airliner by its proxies in eastern Ukraine (as happened in 2014), justify its military intervention in Syria, or get its preferred candidates elected to leadership positions in foreign countries, it has mastered the tactics of meshing state propaganda with spontaneous social media activity that mimics, and in many cases actually produces, support for its positions.

Information warfare is nothing new, of course, and especially in Russia. From the birth of the USSR in 1917, much of the state’s energy was taken up trying to formulate lies credible enough to keep the masses believing in Soviet communism in the face of countervailing evidence. And, just as in those days, it could be hard to tell lies from genuinely held beliefs, even in matters of life and death. For example, did U.S. defense planners really believe in the infamous missile gap with the Soviets (promoted by Soviet propaganda), or did they merely affect belief to secure funding for their own military acquisitions?

The difference today, Singer and Brooking write, is the speed with which such murky beliefs can be formed. In the sphere of social media, beliefs are formed faster than credible evidence pro or contra can accrue.

Were the “little green men” who invaded (Ukrainian) Crimea in 2014 real Russian soldiers, hired mercenaries, Crimean proxies, or something else? It didn’t matter. By the time anyone could evaluate the disputed facts of the matter, Russia had conquered Crimea and passed a law in the Duma to annex it. Singer and Brooking are right to compare this situation to one invoked by Hitler before he invaded Poland in 1939. “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli,” he told his generals. “Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”

The same can be said of the Trump campaign. It played by the rules of social media, which says all content moves faster than truth, and the purpose of that content is to win attention, not to survive the verification of underlying facts. By the time the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election emerged, laying out the details of Moscow’s “sweeping and systematic” intervention on Trump’s behalf, the facts no longer mattered. Trump’s supporters were already fixed in their attitudes in a way that made the facts fundamentally irrelevant. They weren’t going back on the vibrant sense of narrative, emotion, authenticity and community that Trump inundated them with. They were too invested in the 24/7 war in which they were all, to some extent, soldiers now.

Trump’s opponents are understandably outraged that a sitting Republican president could all but flaunt the Russian imprimatur of his election. There is, however, a wider lesson to consider. In order for such a con to go global and to become ensconced in the political system of a liberal democracy, the ground had to have been prepared by larger forces.

The larger forces, soberingly, were us. We simply didn’t know, before it began to dawn on us in the late 2010s, how susceptible we are to believing the scandalously stupid and the crassly indecent. In a deeply telling study cited by Singer and Brooking, MIT data scientists discovered in 2018 that fabricated news stories spread six times faster on social media than authentic ones. So, the good news is we seem to have a sense for the scurrilous and fake; the bad news is, we are perversely attracted to it.

Furthermore, some of the worst behavior on social media has given rise to a phenomenon of blanket deniability now known as Poe’s Law. It is . . . :

. . . an internet adage that emerged from troll-infested arguments on the website Christian Forums. The law states, ‘Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a [fundamentalist] in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.’ In other words there is a point at which the most sincere profession of faith becomes indistinguishable from a parody; where a simple, stupid statement might actually be considered an act of profound meta-irony. Taken to its logical conclusion, Poe’s law could lead to a place of profound nihilism, where nothing matters and everything is a joke.

Taken together with our penchant for lies, exaggerations, and outright fake news, Poe’s Law threatens us with a kind of epistemological apocalypse, where the only thing that matters is the war for our attention and the production of feelings of homophily. To take just one real-world example, it was this erasure of factual standards that got Donald Trump off the hook when he very publicly asked Russia to intervene on behalf of his campaign by stealing and exposing Hilary Clinton’s emails.

A real presidential candidate would never do that, so it must have been a joke. Unless it wasn’t. Of course we’ll never know. And now social media has given us a discursive space in which it makes no sense to care about the difference because there are no facts on which to base such distinction between Trump the blatant traitor and Trump the political sophisticate. And even if they were, our loyalty would be decided by feelings of solidarity with one ambiguous interpretation against another. Such are the rules of understanding the real world through the lens of social media–the rules by which Trump won his election. If this new reality constitutes a war, it is a war with much more at stake than whom we elect as president.

 

What Is to Be Done? Part Two

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In my last post I borrowed some arguments from a few of my favorite thinkers to make the claim that people depend for their sense of individuality on the consciousness of other people. We rely on others to reflect images of us back to ourselves and develop our defining characteristics. These reflections constitute who we are. We are, in a sense, other people.

Even if you flinch from that bold conclusion, insisting, for example that a lone frontiersman or a prisoner in solitary confinement would nonetheless remain a human individual, you must admit that humans can only achieve their full range of flourishing through interaction with others and enmeshment in a civilization. This is what Aristotle meant when he said (at the beginning of Politics) that the human is a social animal.

I was not much of a social animal–or didn’t think of myself as one–until I was married and had children. I began to notice it in the playgrounds of Skopje, Macedonia, where I lived as a new father. I discovered that I loved taking my kids to the main local playground, which was situated astride a walkway between two rows of mid-rise apartment buildings. Depending on the time of day, you would find fifty or sixty kids playing there, attended by parents or, just as often, grandparents. Teenagers played hoops at an adjacent basketball halfcourt. There was always a crowd.

Working people cut through the playground, usually on their way to bus stops on either side of the surrounding apartment blocks. There were shops, pharmacies and banks at each end of the walkway, so lots of folks were headed to those as well. There was also a utility office about five minutes away where I used to walk to pay the bills once a month. They thought I was interesting because of my American accent.

Despite the basic foreignness of the place, my neighborhood in Skopje quickly became very comfortable to me. It was not just home, but in many ways a more practical and commodious home than any I’d lived in before. It was dense with human activity, and just about anywhere you could see or walk to from my apartment was interesting or useful.

I recently read a fascinating book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Among other things, Klinenberg gave me a useful term for summing up the experience of the built environment I enjoyed back in Skopje. One of the many reasons Americans never walk anywhere anymore, Klinenberg writes, is that there is nowhere “compelling” to walk to. You can walk around the block or possibly to the school bus stop, but you damn sure can’t walk to buy groceries, pay a bill or attend a PTA meeting.

To function in our society, you must get a driver’s license and buy a car. People in the suburbs have to drive places many times each day.

Put a pin in that idea. There are other, interlocking reasons why we don’t walk anywhere anymore, but the lack of accessible destinations is one I want to come back to. First, though, I want to shift the scene to a crowd of sweaty, (mostly) unlovely human bodies packed tightly around a swimming pool, picnicking and speaking languages I don’t comprehend. I, a misanthrope who hates crowds, despises prickly heat, fears skin cancer, and panics two seconds after  my kids disappear from view, should hate everything about the crowded swimming pool scenario. But I came to love it. It’s a puzzle that calls for reflection. It all happened in Griesheim.

Griesheim was the utterly unremarkable town of 29,000 people in south-central Germany where we moved after Skopje. We would live there for 12 years, and I would have several other experiences of communal life there outside the swimming pool that would challenge my idea of who I was. Just like back in Skopje, I would be remade by the people around me.

But the pool was memorable thing. Its meaning crept up on me over the course of many hot summer days, surrounded, as I have indicated, by a thousand or so of my overly warm fellow citizens. Entrance didn’t cost much, because the city wanted everyone to be able to afford the pool. Hence all the languages. Griesheim is a middle class town, with the offices of doctors, architects and lawyers dotting main street and quite a few professionals commuting 25 miles northward to Frankfurt. But it also has numerous of the less wealthy–Turkish speakers, whose parents or even grandparents came as early as the 1950s or 60s, a handful of Italians who came in the same wave, a large number of former Yugoslavians who fled wars in the 1990s, Polish and Hungarian vegetable pickers, and, more recently, about 400 Africans and Arabs.

The pool itself was big and serviceable but not lavish. The city had clearly sunk quite a bit of money into the facility’s construction and upkeep, and it had given a nudge to all its citizens to congregate there in the form of subsidized entrance fees (I’m fairly certain). What did Griesheim get as a return on this investment?

As a matter of fact, it got almost every piece of social capital to which Klinenberg  refers in the subtitle of his book–an antidote to inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life.

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The Griesheim swimming pool (Image: http://www.hessen-luftbild.de)

The citizens of Griesheim from all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder met one another face-to-face at the pool on equal terms. If you had 2,50 € you could get in, and who didn’t have that much? They might have been from the lowest-rent apartment block or from a deluxe 2 million € custom built home on the city’s forest edge, but at the pool they jostled for the same picnic space, stood in line for the same water slide, overwatched their toddlers flank-by-flank, and of course, did it all for fun.

Here is something special I loved about the pool: there was no body policing. While the town’s lithe young princes and princesses of course showed up to parade as required by standard mating rituals, for everyone else, there simply were no aesthetic standards to live up to. New moms looked like new moms, not like Hollywood starlets back in bikini shape four weeks after childbirth. Over-the-hill Greek guys looked like over-the-hill Greek guys. And so forth. People showed up in all ages and forms.

Why did this matter to me? Because it saved me a huge amount of work trying to teach my kids to resist the tyranny of mass culture and especially the impossible aesthetic hierarchy it imposes on our judgment. I might have them read about such things in books some day, but I don’t have to. Because of the Griesheim pool, my kids accept other people’s presumptive right to enjoy themselves in public without bowing to standards set by trash culture.

Robust civic life is based on the principle of equity among citizens, and it reinforces that principle in as many ways as possible. The pool at Griesheim did precisely this for me and my family. I love this principle so much that I came to love the sweaty, noisy crowds who taught me a new aspect of it.

A few months ago I ran past a new housing development in the suburban neighborhood where I live now. As sign boasted of its amenities, which included a “private park.” My hear sank at how bleak that sounded. I see a lot of signs like that–private pool, private playground, keep out. They are indicative of a low-grade war on civic life.

Tooth and nail, we are clawing back the public spaces where it was once possible for Americans to meet as equals. Everywhere we go requires a car, and in my city 30 percent of the people don’t own one. How equal is that? Everywhere really worth going requires money, and most places vie for a special level of exclusivity defined by income bracket. From our schools to our churches to our shopping areas, we set an unspoken price of admission based on our private wealth. That admission price says to everyone else, “Don’t come here.”

Which brings me back to the ideas of accessibility and “compelling destinations.” Back in Griesheim (as all across Germany) kids are trained to walk to school, from the first grade. I say “trained” because the experience prepares them to walk other places they will soon need to–the doctor’s office, the library, the sports club, the ice cream shop and so forth. In this way they learn that their town belongs to them and to whoever else can move through its streets and squares. If you tried to talk to someone in Griesheim about compelling destinations, I doubt they would understand. When everywhere is a compelling destination, and they’re all accessible, none of them really stands out.

When German kids are in the fifth grade and start attending secondary school, they might go to the next town over, as ours did. No problem. They get on the bus or street car with dozens of other kids, and off they go. Without applying their young minds to any particular issues of political ideology, they are re-learning and expanding the lessons they absorbed walking to elementary school–the space around them belongs to the public, and everyone has a presumptive right to use it for reasonable purposes.

With our talk of private parks and other abominations. Americans have set forth on a doomed project. We wish to transpose all the features of the private sphere to the public sphere. We wish to be kings or queens of our own castle. We will either fail in this project because no one can survive, still less thrive, alone, or we will succeed and commit some new and interesting kind of national suicide. “America stopped believing in the public,” future historians will write, “and of course you can’t have a res publica–the public thing–without that basic mode of community.” So it goes.

I opened this argument with a bold abstraction: we are other people. I continue it with a concrete notion that many people might find just as strange: we must build an environment that prioritizes the public sphere over the private one. Building the right physical stuff is the key to the future. If we fail to advance the public sphere, we may lose the thing we’re trying to protect, human individuality capable of flourishing.

What Is to Be Done? Part One

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Occasionally a reader will ask me what’s to be done about the things that horrify me–gun violence, cultural illiteracy, bad schools, structural racism, lack of sidewalks, vulgar money worship, undifferentiated assholery.

Fair questions. For the most part, I have no practical solutions. I’m all talk. I was born with the pious but unimaginative conviction that people will believe and act on the truth if they just hear a good unmasking of falsehoods. And so I do my best to unmask, but little else. Some of my critics have noticed this lack of oomph in me. I recognized it in myself the first time I read Orwell’s essay “Charles Dickens.”

Dickens, Orwell wrote, tripped over himself pointing out all the world’s sorrows, but he never mounted anything like a political response to them. He held back because he was horrified of revolution, as you can gather from A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens simply thought everyone should spend time dwelling on what was wrong with the world and try harder to be better. Improve human nature, and you improve society, if only by tiny increments.

Raised as I was in country churches, this is more or less the attitude I inherited. It’s up to each individual to avoid coveting their neighbor’s ass and to cultivate the other noble virtues. If you can’t do it on your own, you really shouldn’t expect a government agency or anyone else to step in and do the work for you. If you end up burning in hell for your sins, well, you simply didn’t take advantage of the opportunities you had for moral improvement.

I think this rugged individualist attitude is characteristic of a large swathe of Anglophile Christendom, for whom John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress is a formative myth. Each of us is on a lone, dangerous quest for heavenly virtue that may only be aided by supernatural intervention or internal moral suasion. There is no legitimate role for social benevolence in a truly heroic epic. The hero must go it alone.

But I digress.

In my latest indictment of Trumpism, I said those who were most exploited by America’s corporate masters appeared the most likely to swear loyalty to the vulgar idols Trump promoted–money, celebrity and militarism. I called his politics “malevolent yokelism” and other bad names. Despite my poor manners, I believe I supported my views with facts and reasons. For me, this is sort of where the story would normally end, at the same place where Charles Dickens’s moral imagination leaves off. I did my best to make my point, and anyone who finds sympathy with it can act on it as they see fit.

This will never happen, of course. People never change their minds, still less act, based on arguments in social media.

The question that was posed to me, though, was about changing minds. Specifically: If Trumpism is a mass response to a crisis that preceded his presidency, and if 60-odd percent of the country does not wish to see a repeat of Trump, what actions can we take to address the conditions that produced his election?

I’ll take my best shot.

I will need three parts. Sorry, but philosophers, being longwinded, do chop things up like that.

In this part, I will lay some necessary groundwork. You can’t jump right in to a to-do list without first considering what it’s for, what kind of resources can be drawn on, and so forth.

Today I will do my best to deflate the myth of rugged individualism, which causes us to denigrate the public sphere and devalue social cohesion. Whether we articulate this myth vigorously or not, Americans pretty obviously believe something like Margaret Thatcher’s (in)famous pronouncement in 1987 that “there’s no such thing as society,” just individuals. Unaided and alone, we each pursue our self interest, and together these pursuits makes something we call a market, whose operations are as close to perfect as humans can come.

This idea runs deep in America. We tend to take it for granted that we are all going it marvelously alone, as free and unprotected as Jack London’s protagonist in “To Build a Fire.” Each of us does our level best to reason out strategies for coping with impersonal nature and abstract market forces. Even the well-networked citizen of the 21st century tends to believe success comes down to individual effort and nothing more. Clubs, churches and sports teams are good for teaching, enhancing or showcasing individual success, but they have little intrinsic value.

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The rugged individual (Image: lynnhpryor.com)

Government, on the rugged individualist view, is the lowest depth of the necessary evil of collectivism. H.L. Mencken summed up this quintessentially American attitude in a 1926 book review when he said government “still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.”

The idea that humans left alone can achieve their full measure of dignity is a bracing one. It is also entirely false. Mencken’s “industrious man” depends for his success on a body of regulations capable of restricting everyone’s freedom (so that others cannot simply copy his inventions, steal his farm or factory, sell inferior knock-offs of his products, hack his bank accounts, etc.). As for being decent, one cannot even contemplate this happy state unless s/he feels secure in her life and property. Decent behavior is not an individual virtue; it requires other people, interested in our lives, some entrusted with the force of law and organized to carry it out. It is impossible to be well-disposed without the prior existence of lawmakers, cops, courts and lots of other people acting with the collective purpose of institutions.

I know President Obama got a bad press when he scolded business owners in 2012, “You did’t build that,” but his essential meaning rings true: There is a whole matrix of social constructs on which your individual achievements depend and from which your choices take shape. What you perceive to be an austere, abstract starting line in life is actually a rich interplay of institutions built up by millions of your forebears and expanded and borne along by millions more of your contemporaries. This rich institutional life is what de Tocqueville so admired about America. We are joiners, or at least we once were.

We depend crucially on others for what appear to be individual choices, achievements, experiences, and, I believe, even personal characteristics. I actually believe something fairly radical in this vein. I believe we are other people.

The germ of this idea is trivially true. Biologically, we are an admixture of our parents’ genes. Psychologically, we are imprinted with their behaviors (or those of other caregivers). Culturally, we receive humanity’s whole endowment of knowledge from our teachers–a miracle I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Our brain is the seat of our soul. I don’t know about yours, but mine is populated with other people–images of my family, things they have said to me throughout my life, lessons I learned from my teachers, and so forth. Remove the neural signatures of these other people from my brain, and I am not me anymore.

The philosopher W.G.F. Hegel, although he lacked the knowledge of brain science we have today, recognized the deepest implications of the critical importance of other people for individual identity. The human person, Hegel argued, can only become self-conscious if its consciousness is mirrored in the regard of others. In other words, other people’s recognition of me is part of what makes me myself. The writer Wittold Gombrowicz expressed this idea beautifully in his novel Ferdydurke: “Man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul.”

The idea I am leading up to (in my next post) is that, if there is no such thing as the rugged individual, it follows that the public is of primary importance to society. And so it is the public sphere that politics must primarily attend to. When government thinks its only job is to create markets and stay out of the way of “rugged individuals” contending for wealth, it is bound to go seriously wrong.

Our moral and political landscape today is as blasted one, bereft of any sense of collective purpose. As the historian Tony Judt put it in his last book , in 2010, “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.” The result has been a dramatic–I would say pathological–steepening of income inequality. In 2005 the Walton family (founders of Walmart) held $90 billion of wealth, as much as the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population.

This dramatic inequality has had horrific consequences: poverty, ill-health, deaths of despair, skyrocketing incarceration, and the extinction of the American dream–the idea that each new generation starts with more advantages than its predecessor did. Why do we go on like this? Because we have learned to valuate our lives in terms of material possessions. This seems insane, but it has become possible because we buy into its underlying myth of rugged individualism: each of us must simply do our best to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

But if this myth is true, it is a truth that has made us a nation of losers. When the bottom ninety percent of our society holds as much wealth as the top one percent, deprivation has become the statistical norm. It cannot be regarded as an anomaly. It is a condition that our society is designed to produce. No one tells you when you start life that taking your best shot at wealth and security is much more likely to end in failure than success. What they tell you instead is that you are a hero of your own epic, possibly the next Sam Walton, which is a very attractive thing to believe, or at least it’s supposed to be.

So even if you don’t go as far as I do in my goofy, mystic belief that we are other people, it would be worth your while to consider that we nonetheless have vital, inextricable ties to one another. The idea that we are rugged individuals and we should measure our worth in material wealth is the propaganda of the rich. It is an immoral way to think of ourselves, and it has failed us. It is time to recast ourselves as an interdependent public, none of whose members need to starve because they are losers.

 

America is Already a Socialist Country

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I will be uncharacteristically brief today.

My point is simple: we are wasting our breath arguing whether our country should become socialist or not. According to the only definition that matters to the people, we already are socialists.

Our government taxes freely and spends lavishly to fund unaccountable special interests and tells more than the usual amount of lies to disguise the arrangement.

Orwell was one of the first to understand the paradox of supposedly capitalist countries behaving as socialists where it really counted.

Shortly after World War Two, Orwell made the dubious-sounding observation that only socialist countries were capable of winning large wars. What? Hadn’t he been paying attention? Capitalist America, although making the smallest military sacrifice of the Allies, stepped in to win the war with industrial know-how, robust logistics, and, of course, wonder weapons. It was our capital that got the job done. How, I wondered, had Orwell missed that?

It took me years to understand what Orwell really meant and to appreciate that he was right after all.

The Soviets turned the tide against the Nazis by producing the cheap, effective T-34 tank in massive quantities. America produced flashier stuff, such as the P-51 Mustang, a sleek, deadly fighter plane that knocked the Luftwaffe out of the sky and enabled the Red Army to roll to Berlin unmenaced from above. Orwell’s point is that the T-34, the Mustang, and many other similar achievements (not to mention conscriptions) were the outcomes of planned economies in which the government directed industrial production.

Consolidated TB-32
America’s planned economy was instrumental to winning World War Two. When the war ended, industrialists and politicians kept it going, profitable as it was.

(If you are interested in the arcana of this history, see the surprising reasons why Germany lost. Rather than mobilizing its entire industrial base to counter the Allies’ wartime production, Germany under Hitler allowed economic markets to function relatively freely so that the people would not lose access to the “normal” range of consumer goods. As Red Army soldiers rolled through eastern Germany in 1945, they were shocked and enraged to see how comfortably ordinary Germans were still living after five years of war.)

The Cold War enabled us to do what Eisenhower warned we should not–maintain a permanent war footing that would incentivize a planned economy like the one that WWII had forced on us. A few well-placed industrialists grasped clearly that there was too much money to be made in following the same model of production that had won the war. And voila–we had our military industrial complex.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan would give the MIC permanent political cover by proclaiming that “defense is not a budget item.” In other words, the citizens’ taxes are first to be spent (unaccountably) on anything that can be construed as militarily prudent and only then are spreadsheets drawn up to account for the paltry remainder. People, being stupid and fearful, accepted Reagan’s formula. We would have the world’s most kick-ass military, at any cost.

The result, eventually, was a corporate coup. Large companies heard the people willingly surrender their claim to their own tax dollars and decided these were pretty good conditions for taking over the economy. So they did. They got all the money and the political power to protect it. We got the opioid crisis, gun violence, and the worst schools in the developed world. That’s the price of freedom, though, right? As long as our taxes keep sluicing their way into “defense,” we will bear any burden.

The results have spoken for themselves. Although we call ourselves a capitalist democracy, we resemble in too many ways a socialist oligarchy. A tiny nomenklatura of wealthy insiders plans an economy of weapons, drugs, junk food, low culture, and meaningless “services.” When they make bad bets, such as the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, we hurry our tax dollars to them to bail them out. We love them so.

Today our government has added another feature of (what is widely perceived to be) socialist rule–the acquisition of an official propaganda wing. Now, whenever the worker’s affection for the rich begins to flag, he may tune in to America’s most trusted news network to hear praise of the Dear Leader or, even better, to join in castigating one of our many enemies in a Two Minute Hate.

We are already a socialist country, at least according to the fatuous definition of socialism which the illiterate have entrenched. Rather than quibbling about terms, we should decide whether our socialism will be for us or for the nomenklatura.