Tag Archives: current events

Radio Without Money Episode 5: Brevity Is the Soul of Wit

brevity is the soul of wit

In this exceptionally brief (for us!) episode of Radio Without Money, the official WritersWithoutMoney.com podcast, Ross Snider and Aloysius VI try to put lipstick on a pig by discussing Daniel Levine’s disappearance, user analytics, the budget, Wikipedia, propaganda, Facebook’s new fact-check alerts and the conflation of “neutrality” with “objectivity,” journalism in general, the aborted Republican health care legislation, and the conflation of neoliberalism with traditional, progressive liberalism.

Podcast recorded Thursday, March 23rd through Friday, March 24th, 2017.

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Free Speech Extremism and the New Neo-Nazis


The foundations of liberal (small R) republican (small d) democracy depend on a variety of presumptions. Some of these were never actually in place, but we were hopeful they’d eventually come together. Some of these were in place but have unraveled.

And some of these are suspiciously similar to the presumptions undergirding the largely theological beliefs of how markets work.

It’s presumed in both that you have a completely rational public that makes perfectly logical decisions, or at the very least that the outliers are ironed out by a rational majority. Both take for granted a very flattering enlightenment derived notion of the individual and the mind then set it loose presuming it will do the right thing. Faith in man’s goodness replaces faith in God’s but along suspiciously similar lines.

It’s a fear that man is impeccably rational and self-interested that creates the “need” for an enormous and still metastasizing advertising and propaganda industry. Maybe without advertising the free market and republican democracy would work perfectly. However, we live in a world with advertising so that’s a pointless hypothetical.

Contemporary man is more the aesthetic child of Ernest Becker and Deleuze than the enlightenment or Jung. How can we look at the election results and think otherwise? Hillary Clinton wanted to be our super ego; to represent our high minded ideals and to crowd out the possibility America could be defined by its cruel racist id. She was professionalism, being an adult, the part of the collective consciousness that says we’re cultivated and civilized creatures despite slips. She ran on the promise she could repress the collective id; the part of the popular consciousness that wanted to childishly lash out because it was angry; that wanted gratification regardless of logic, consent or ideals; that wanted to brag about its transgressions because it only understood morality in terms of the rush of feeling like it got away with something. And if anything her losing the election was paradoxically a result of her being too convincing in this role.

Trump’s victory came as suddenly and unexpectedly as a Freudian slip because it was a Freudian slip. The return of the repressed. The various lies we all told ourselves about how he could never win, lies that seem ridiculous in retrospect, lies like “there isn’t a large enough white electorate, the demographics will do him in”, were all attempts to reassure ourselves of the immortality and resilience of our way of life; that despite history consisting of little else in the long run we alone were immune to radical upheaval. Scandals didn’t stop him because his voters wanted to transgress against society-his “grab them by the pussy” remark probably helped solidify his appeal and his brand more than it lost any votes. His base continues to support his reckless and ridiculous actions since taking office because their assurances he’d somehow magically grow up-that there was in fact some magical transformative power of the office, of our institutions, was a lie told in order to make sure he could be allowed to transgress in full. The nihilism of his “lulz” flank, the Gang of 4chan, gets closer to the truth for its lack of substance and ideology. We seek to find a cogent ideology we can call “Trumpism” as a final pathetic reassurance that the enlightenment rules still work, that history is a battle between stable coherent ideologies and ideas and that we can wage war with the noxious ones and be done with it.

Has anyone who’s had an argument with a radicalized conservative in the last 8 years, possibly even since 9-11, had any luck selling rationality as a replacement good? Facts? Has calling the right hypocrites really changed their minds? The empirical truth is not and was never what these people wanted. They wanted blood. They wanted revenge. They wanted to be able to regress without consequences. To be able to act out in tantrums like a guest on Jerry Springer but also have a billion dollars and fuck supermodels. And if they couldn’t do that directly to at least be able to imagine they could do so by proxy. And they found their man.

Blahblahblah. We’ve all read a million election post-mortems. What am I getting at?

I’m getting at this: while weaknesses in enlightenment ideology have gotten us to this point, and a pedantic, impotent and frankly boring adherence to enlightenment principles in their most abstract form aren’t going to get us out of it. Constantly pointing out that Fox News is lying about shit hasn’t really accomplished much to convince the other side. The arguments in favor of free speech fundamentalism have the same fundamental flaws as the other “in a free market of blank the universal good will always prevail” logics. They only work if everyone else believes in them in good faith. That the overall response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings would be an uptick in international racist far right politics was pretty predictable. That “free speech” posturing would be used as a trojan horse to sell racist jingoism through vehicles like the Seth Rogen film The Interview was similarly predictable because the only people who’ve whined about free speech issues since the Naked Lunch trial have been the extremist right, whose only interest in free speech is was and has always been the freedom to stifle all other speech that isn’t their own.

The concept of free speech is best defended as a legalistic one, not a moral/ethical one, specifically because speech is a Foucaultian interplay of different power centers. Freedom of speech is a good legal standard for a society because it somewhat levels the playing field in this interplay. However, the idea that perfect “freedom” comes through a completely hands off approach ignores both the greater importance of other freedoms (freedom from being harmed, reasonable expectations of privacy, etc) and the larger void of power problem that arises in any right-libertarian free-for-all fantasy-eventually, especially in a capitalist system, a small number of parties consolidate power and leverage this consolidation to curtail the freedom of all other actors in the system.

Speech is particularly important because in a media saturated society, speech is quite literally what constitutes and defines reality for the individual. Because speech in (post?) late capitalism is commodified and needs to reify its own commodification, it has to train individuals from a young age that their self-definition must come from their relationship to the act of consumption and the ways that the proximity of given objects imply a specific relationship to the act of consumption. Reality is a territory and must be treated as such tactically. This is the basic premise of advertising and public relations, and their open embrace of this worldview is a large part of why they’ve managed to make themselves the defining social engines of postmodern society.

The Milo/4chan crowd are free speech extremists. 4chan first became politically active against Scientology not because Scientology is awful but because 4chan users were pissed off that Scientology was trying to block internet access to a viral video of Tom Cruise jumping on a couch. Free speech extremism is an outgrowth of the shift in individual political self-identification from worker/owner/lumpen to consumer. The consumer identity is however schizophrenically split by its very nature . The consumer feels both the entitlement of the boss and the humiliation of the lumpen. The consumer identity is a balm that absorbs this tension. The high youth unemployment has led to numerous “consumer revolts” which are the only sort of uprising that would seem natural to a large crowd that never developed an identity as a proletariat, much less a coherent theory of resistance. They feel frustrated and that frustration has to be expressed in terms of grievances against pointless blockbuster movies and video games that no longer cater directly and specifically to them.

Both the free speech extremism of the right-wing trolls and the free speech fundamentalism of the liberal “don’t punch the Nazi” crowd evade the larger and more complicated problem of figuring out the new rules of engagement. Despite our laws and folk understandings revolving around such a binary, we all know that speech isn’t a discrete category from action, never was, and is even less so now.

Radio Without Money Episode 1: Are Chair Shots Still Allowed?

Welcome to Radio Without Money, the official podcast of Writers Without Money! Today on the show, Aloysius VI and I discuss Flynn’s dismissal, memories of proto-Alt-Right-neonazi-whatevertheyrecalledfuckthosedickwipes, the Super Bowl and how pro wrestling relates to labor politics! Stream it below.

Hopefully there will be new episodes of this once a week, possibly even more frequently once I get the mixer working. If you’d like to be on the show or would like to syndicate this to your local community radio station, leave one in the comments.

Check out the next episode!->

Redefinition Politics – An Incomplete Rhetorical Dictionary

“China’s chilling plan to use social credit ratings to keep score on its citizens”, a CNN headline from October 2015 reads. The article describes the Chinese state’s plans to use data from surveillance along with scoring algorithms to analyse – en masse – the credit worthiness of its population. China’s stated goals sound legitimate enough: a “lawful application of credit information and a credit services system” with a goal to “use encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.”

Of course, setting up a credit rating system is not an unusual activity for an industrializing nation and the credit system in America is instantiated for exactly the reasons expressed by China’s State Council. Nor is China unusual in setting up a credit system under their Central Bank (e.g. Spain, Ireland).

The reporting in CNN’s article makes the plans to factor social media postings and relationship circles into credit scores sound literally Orwellian – they even use the word:

“The State Council plan, for instance, mentions rumor-mongering as an example of behavior to be sanctioned.

It is this part of the plan that has led many commentators to describe it as an Orwellian tool of individual control.

They may well be right — the Chinese state has continuously sought to expand its power to intervene in the lives of their citizens.

It is where the hard power logic of state survival and political stability intersect with a tendency towards social engineering with roots both in Socialist and Confucian thought.”

CNN completes their article by referring to the global trend towards social control through surveillance – they tacitly include the US – with “In that sense, perhaps the most shocking element of the story is not the Chinese government’s agenda, but how similar it is to the path technology is taking elsewhere.”

Yet the article only makes vague references to this global trend – and then only with feel-good techno utopian sidelines toward Silicon Valley. The article does not mention that online surveillance of social media content and relationships is already factored into United States credit scores.

CNN makes a wink at the tendency of the United States and the broader West to use social engineering to control their citizen’s behavior, but excludes direct references to state actions, preferring instead to talk in broad strokes about Silicon Valley.

CNN did not mention the Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative within the Office of Science and Technology Policy to deploy “Nudge Units” which use behavioral engineering to affect large scale civil behaviour. They do not mention that the Cass Sunstein approach to policymaking – of using psychological nudges and incentive systems – is now the predominant legal view in the US judicial system. They don’t mention that to affect this, he was made the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees all of US policymaking and regulation for the White House.

Cass Sunstein is known for suggesting the government actively and anonymously infiltrate civilian discussions online to fight rumor-mongering. He is also known for eloquently expressing in his book The Problem of Free Speech that in “light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals.” Indeed one of Sunstein’s core suggestions for the state is that it employ a tax or discredit – public or otherwise – to citizens who engage in online rumor-mongering.

Wikipedia summarizes his accolades: “A study of legal publications between 2009 and 2013 found Sunstein to be the most frequently cited American legal scholar by a wide margin.”

Compare the coverage of the emerging Chinese credit system with this story run recently by the Washington Post. “The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score’” did not only fail to make front headlines but was published under “Public Safety.” The article is littered continuously with images of police officers posed in heroic, gentle gestures:

Fresno Chief of Police Jerry Dyer inside the Fresno Police Department’s crime center. (Nick Otto/For The Washington Post)” – Credit to the Washington Post

In defiance of palpable use of surveillance and social media scoring directly for “real time” law enforcement, the article contains absolutely no mention of Orweil. Every example in the article of how the police use the technology is positive or speculatively positive – the article even opens with how surveillance is used to identify that a suspect in a domestic case has social media ties to gang members.

Missing is any reference to the Fresno Police Department’s track record of misconduct, including harassment and excessive use of force. The Post article is perhaps made more interesting by the recent extremely bizarre death of John Lang, who accurately predicted the time of his death and collected video and records of what he was certain was Fresno police harrassing him with street surveillance and monitoring his online messaging. Whether murdered by the police in Fresno or not – these systems of continuous monitoring have deep and predictable psychological consequences that unquestioningly led to Lang’s lack of personal security.

The consistent theme across the ‘threat score’ article is that these powers are necessary for public safety. That the surveillance systems are legitimate and only very speculatively subject to any abuse. In one of the few paragraphs that suggests that these systems are controversial the Post writes:

“But the powerful systems also have become flash points for civil libertarians and activists, who say they represent a troubling intrusion on privacy, have been deployed with little public oversight and have potential for abuse or error. Some say laws are needed to protect the public.”

– The Washington Post Article (emphasis ours)

Not only does the Post neglect featuring the actual arguments of activists and those concerned with human rights against warrantless law enforcement – they cast what they phrase as a marginal opinion as mere concerns with ‘privacy’.

Jacob Appelbaum, one of the developers of the online anonymizing software TOR, was featured briefly in the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizen Four.” In twelve words Appelbaum provides a crisp and damning response:

What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy.

Bulk and warrantless surveillance, scoring systems, pre-crime and ‘real time’ crime enforcement are concerns over fundamental freedoms, constitutional and human rights: but are covered by establishment news as ‘privacy concerns’.

The differences in the phrasing between the article on Chinese credit scoring and US threat scoring belie their content.

Somehow credit scoring systems in China that behave the same way they function in America are written in ominous overtones. At the same time, the deployment of surveillance systems developed by our military for the control and occupation of foreign territories into hundreds of districts and cities across the United States (the article only mentions New York, Seattle and Houston) receives praise and quiet rationalization. The articles never mentions that political parties have been targeted by these surveillance systems along with both presidential candidates and peaceful civilian protest groups (including Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter).

But far more insidious than persistent double standards in fundamentally biased media is this issue of redefined political terminology. During the Snowden global surveillance disclosures it was difficult – and it still is – to find any broadcaster that would put “mass surveillance” or “surveillance” at all in headlines. Instead broadly across CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox and other major outlets referred to the act of collecting, processing, mining, scoring and reporting on everyone’s private conversations, daily routines and political activities as “Bulk Collection”. To this day if you search for the two disparate terms you will see a definitive divide that isolates the major US news networks from the independent and international media.

This redefinition is startlingly common inside the American political space. Within the past year or two, what used to be called non-interventionism has recently been relabeled as new or neo-isolationism; as though Americans who are against non-defensive warfighting somehow want to isolate America completely from the world, absent all global trade, foreign assistance, travel and information connectivity.

The term populism is now primarily used as a pejorative to refer to knee-jerk snap decisions by uninterested and unintelligent populations rather than its original intended meaning of bottom-up grassroots democratic participation and accountable leadership that is held on transparent record to plebian inspection.

Socialism and Communism have for generations in America meant nothing at all similar to either structures of government or aspirations toward effective distributive ownership. Elements on the right of the spectrum in the country gleefully refer to the liberal policies promised by a possible Clinton administration as ‘socialist’.

Even the term democracy has suffered. Under the cover of the National Endowment for Democracy the United States military has overthrown elected representatives from countries with fair and able democratic processes to install dictators and juntas – infamous examples from the mid-twentieth century include Guatemala and Chile – and modern examples of election fixing include the Malaki administration in post-invasion Iraq and the ironically named “Operation Uphold Democracy” in Haiti.

The United States renaming of the ‘War’ Department to the ‘Defense’ Department is indicative of its use of the terms security and defense. The definition of National Security, as officially descibed by the first National Security Presidential Directive NSPD-1 to mean “the defense of the United States of America, protection of our constitutional system of government, and the advancement of United States interests around the globe. National security also depends on America’s opportunity to prosper in the world economy.” By strict application of the term, National Security means invasion of another country or rigging of financial outcomes as easily as it means defense of national borders.

The recent Senate report on the CIA torture program, which is still over 80% redacted due primarily to fears of popular outcry, lists the least controversial of what the state had insisted on calling ‘enhanced interrogation’ rather than torture: forced rectal feeding (without medical need), rectal ‘exams’ with excessive force (leading at least one prisoner to rectal prolapse), mock executions, repeated drowning and resuscitation, weeks long sleep deprivation, and stress positions including forcing detainees to stand on broken feet.

Similar to ‘enhanced interrogation’ is the terminology used for propaganda: ‘strategic communications’ and ‘public diplomacy’.

The combination of terms makes following political debates exhausting and confusing. When Clinton described her relationship with Wall Street by invoking National Security, did she mean to say that her policies are intended to underwrite and guarantee the prosperity of the stalling American global economic system? Or did she mean that she will protect Wall Street from another physical attack? Or is there some financial interest the United States has overseas that Wall Street will help the state to obtain?

We can’t blame the Huffington Post for compiling a (not really that good) list of articles under the umbrella category “weird politics” or the National Council of Teachers of English for giving out yearly Doublespeak Awards. Politics have to be weird when talking about national security means financial interests, defense means unprovoked invasion,  when peace can mean war and isolationism means trade and diplomacy; and when public safety nets like unemployment, minimum wages, and health care are labeled communist when communist countries around the world broadly don’t have them (and capitalist countries broadly do).

This weird politics is redefinitional politics – a form of public discussion that can’t be effective because its terms are either vacuous or actively antithetical. Redefinition politics will feature as prominently this election year as “populism”, “isolationism” and “identity politics” but it will be so hard to parse that pundits and talking heads will generate twice as much doublespeak as it takes to unwind the first.