The Scandal Is that They’re So Good at Creating “Scandals”

Mehdi Hassan of MSNBC is impressed:

You do have to admire the rightwing media echo chamber’s ability to weaponize even the most hyped-up of stories (John Durham filing!), misrepresent AND distort it, and then push it out with a relentless message discipline on cable and online that liberals could only ever dream of. . . . 

If your coverage and analysis of U.S. politics doesn’t center on or even include the fact that the right has a massive, well-funded, coordinated propaganda machine and its opponents don’t, then you’re really not doing it right.

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post is too:

On an average day, Fox News tells dozens or even hundreds of outright lies. Meanwhile there’s an entire trial happening in New York about A SINGLE WORD in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin, which was quickly corrected. Different worlds. 

Mr. Waldman wrote more about this latest instance of propaganda vs. reality:

When some appalling new story emerges of political actors lying to the public, should [the news media] confront it? Or will the attempt to debunk the story only draw more attention to it, spreading the lies further?

There’s no perfect answer that fits every situation. But at the very least, it’s important to understand how systems of propaganda operate, so we can try to minimize the damage they do. And never in our history has there been a propaganda system that operates with the skill, enthusiasm and outright shamelessness of the one conservatives have working for them right now.

That’s depressingly evident in the latest “blockbuster” story gripping the right, a story built on a grab bag of misleading assertions, misinterpretations and outright lies. It forces us to ask yet again: Is it possible to have a healthy democracy when so much of it is soaking in misinformation?

The current story concerns John Durham, the special counsel who has spent almost three years investigating the investigation into Russia’s attempts to subvert the 2016 election. You can read a comprehensive rundown of the facts here or here.

Durham has indicted Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to the FBI, which Sussmann denies [that indictment itself is incredibly weak — it involves whether Sussman said he was representing a client in a private conversation he had with an FBI agent he knew]. In 2016, Sussmann, whose firm was doing legal work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, gave the FBI a tip involving supposedly suspicious internet traffic between servers in Trump buildings and a Russian bank; it turned out to be nothing nefarious.

Sussman got the information through another client of his, Rodney Joffe, a technology executive with government cybersecurity contracts, including one that involved protecting the White House from cyber attacks.

In a court filing last week, Durham alleged that Joffe “exploited” his arrangement with the White House to obtain the data in question “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.”

Joffe vigorously denies this. His spokesperson says examining such data was par for the course, as he was doing cybersecurity work for the government, and in late 2016, everyone was appropriately concerned about Russian hacking. Durham has not indicted Joffe for anything.

But this is where the propaganda machine goes nuclear.

Fox News is treating this like a stunning revelation (“Worse than Watergate” trumpeted Sean Hannity), dramatically amping up the story with each retelling. After all, it isn’t good enough to say a lawyer with a second-order connection to the Clinton campaign got information from another client with legitimate access to White House internet traffic data; that’s not nearly scandalous enough.

So Fox published a headline reading “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.” The Washington Examiner claimed Sussmann “spied on Trump’s White House office” — even though the internet data came from 2016, when Barack Obama was president.

“Hillary broke into a presidential candidate’s computer server and a sitting president’s computer server,” ludicrously claimed Fox host Jesse Watters. “There, her hackers planted evidence, fabricated evidence connecting Trump to Russia.”

Tucker Carlson added that Clinton’s campaign stole “presumably text messages,” which not even Durham alleges.

These are all lies. This is not about “hacking,” no evidence was planted and the data on White House traffic came from when Obama was president. You can argue that Durham’s filing was itself misleading and tendentious [which it was], but even if every word of it was true, what they were saying on Fox was outrageously false.

But the propaganda machine doesn’t stop there. Republican politicians — even those who know better — see their constituents being fed this line, so they rush to get in on the act:

The coverage has gone meta; Fox is now angrily asking why other news outlets are not matching their breathless coverage of this nothing burger, feeding their viewers’ paranoid fantasies about cover-ups and conspiracies.

So in no time, we move from questionable claims to obviously false allegations to demands for legal retaliation against political opponents to whining about their own victimhood, with the enthusiastic participation of GOP officeholders, none of whom has the courage to say, “Hey guys, I hate Hillary as much as anyone, but it seems like we’re running out ahead of the facts here.”

That’s because every Republican relies on the propaganda machine. It helps their own campaigns. It keeps the base in a state of perpetual anger. And if you question it, you will become its enemy.

This is happening while there’s an entire trial going on in New York about a single inaccurate word in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin — an editorial that was quickly corrected. The Times is falling all over itself to explain how it got something wrong, and no one on the left is defending the paper. Meanwhile, Fox programming contains extraordinary amounts of factual errors, misleading assertions and outright lies, almost none of which ever get corrected.

So where does that leave us? The unfortunate answer is that when a propaganda apparatus such as this one is so deeply embedded within one of our parties, it becomes almost impossible to puncture. Fantasies are accepted as fact, lies become immune to refutation and anyone who displays even a modicum of honesty is denounced as a traitor.

There may be a solution out there, a strategy to pull our politics back to reality. But if there is, we haven’t found it yet.

Unquote.

The former president issued a statement regarding this “scandal” claiming members of the Clinton campaign would have been executed (for crimes they didn’t actually commit), back when America was stronger. His bullshit was dutifully repeated here, there and everywhere as if it made any sense at all.

As we sink further into the abyss.

It’s Right/Left But Also Fantasy/Reality

This is a somewhat edited Twitter thread from Steve Schmidt, a political strategist who used to work for Republicans. His comments were precipitated by a CNN podcast (referenced at the bottom of this post):

The debate is around how to think and talk about Fox News. What is it? [CNN journalist] Brian Stelter thinks about this directionally and ideologically: describing Fox as moving further right. He is correct, as is [journalism professor] Jay Rosen, who evaluates Fox News along a different axis. For him, it is the drift into fantasy and the unreal.

The authoritarian movement in America is real, powerful and present. All authoritarian movements are nourished by an ecosystem that includes three powerful components:

A. The Financiers. “No Bucks, no Buck Rogers” said the PR man to the disdainful test pilots who were to become America’s Mercury astronauts in one of the all time great movies “The Right Stuff”. There is no autocratic movement without money and they have a lot.

B. CYNICAL ELITES.  Rep. Elise Stefanik, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Josh Hawley and Sen. Mitch McConnell are but a few examples of people who have tried to manage the toxic reverberations from [the former president’s] cult by manipulating it for power, self interest and vanity. They have aligned with the fringe and venomous ideas.

C. PROPAGANDISTS. All authoritarian movements rely on propaganda sustained by a particular type of lie. THE LIE OF AUTHORITY requires the abandonment of belief, truth, ethics, values and intellectual agency. It demands submission to the lies of the Leader/Party.

. . . Right-Left, in the tradition of American politics, has long been explicable with a two dimensional rendering, specifically, a horizontal line. It doesn’t work any more. When [Brian Stelter] talks about Fox and moving “Right”, it is important to pause and look at the [system of measurement].

Trying to explain the metastasized conservative media by marking a point on a line [that could be] used to measure ideological distance between [Republican moderate] Christie Whitman and [Republican conservative] Orrin Hatch [fails to capture reality].

The “Right” we are talking about here is a very specific variant, that no matter how easily identifiable, seems to induce a blindness in people who should see it clearly and an allergy towards confronting it by the people who have the most at stake in the fight.

We are talking, of course, about an authoritarian Right that is steeped in fantasy, delusion, hate, scapegoating, scientific racial theory, menace, violence and coercion.

This American Right is cousin to the noxious movements that have long been built on a fetid marsh of lies, grievance, scapegoating, hate, menace, fear and fantasy nostalgia for a world once pure. That fallen world, is the nucleus of a powerful and evil fantasy at the core of a terrible and dangerous mythology. The mythology is fear-based and architected around the imagined birthright of one group to feel superior to others.

It always leads to subjugation under the power and boot of the state for the purpose of preserving the power of the few and the fabulously corrupt over the common good of the great many.

Fox News is moving in a new direction and has been for some time. . . It is getting worse and more extreme every day. . . . The [metastasizing] ideological drift and the demand for submission to fantasies is at the core of understanding what all of this is. I hope enough people can see the totality of it all before we lose it all.

Unquote.

The CNN podcast is called Reliable Sources. From the description of this episode:

Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU and authors the PressThink blog, discusses the devolution of Fox News; the difficulty of describing a “shifted political universe” in the United States; and the need for news outlets to be “much more explicitly and aggressively pro-democracy.”

He says “Fox is becoming in some way more demand-driven” because “its audience is in the driver’s seat in a way that’s more extreme than when Roger Ailes ran the network.” For example, Rosen comments, “Do you want January 6 to be the fault of Antifa? You can have that. Do you want [somebody else] to have won the 2020 election? You can have that.”

Rosen explains that “these kinds of maneuvers are attempting to sever people from reality so that you can do what you want with them… to just sort of de-anchor people from anything that they have in common with their fellow citizens so that they can be manipulated further. And that’s why it’s so insidious.” 

Bad News and Possible Good News

The bad news isn’t actually news, but it’s good news that more people are finally admitting how bad it is. From Charles Pierce of Esquire:

Call me the Wet Blanket of the Gods, but I despair of ever making common cause with people who volunteer to live in Bedlam. From IPSOS:

. . . 56% of Republicans believe the election was rigged or the result of illegal voting, and 53% think [X] is the actual President, not Joe Biden.

There is no longer any reason to try to “understand” these people. Nor should there be any compunction about doing whatever we can to read them out of American politics, because they clearly have opted out on their own. They should be considered anathema, as should the entire Republican Party and the modern conservative movement that animates it.

Anything that can be done without including them should be done for the good—to say nothing of the sanity—of the country. Raw political power should be used to push through whatever of this administration’s policy priorities can be passed without any Republican help whatsoever. Majoritarianism should be invoked without mercy, and by whatever legitimate means necessary, and the window of opportunity to do that is closing fast.

It doesn’t matter if 53 percent of them say they believe the former president* is still the president* because they actually believe it, or they say it because it makes them one of The Elect. The effect on democracy is the same. They are poison in the bloodstream. And they’re proud of it.

Only 30% of Republicans feel confident that absentee or mail-in ballots were accurately counted . . . As a result, 87% of Republicans believe it is important that the government place new limits on voting to protect elections from fraud. Finally, 63% percent of Republicans think [X] should run for President again in 2024 . . . 

This is beyond the beyond. There is no compromise with this. There is no common ground. There is no deal to be struck. Millions of our fellow citizens are lost in rebellion against reality, and the only solution for the common good is to isolate them from decision-making and hope enough of them find their way back to make the country governable again. I’m not optimistic.

Unquote.

Today it was announced that the Manhattan district attorney has convened a grand jury to look at possible criminal behavior by the former president, his associates or his company. It’s unlikely the grand jury will indict anybody soon, but it’s a good development. Maybe he’ll have to run for president from jail.

And some observers think it’s becoming more likely the Senate filibuster’s stranglehold on progress will be loosened. From David Atkins of Washington Monthly:

The pressure to end the filibuster is getting strong enough you can feel all way from Arizona to West Virginia. But this time the impetus isn’t coming from outside activists or anti-gerrymandering and vote suppression reformers: it’s coming from inexorable forces within Congress itself.

A series of crucial votes looms in the near future, and it’s not clear that the internal calculus of Republican senators in the [X] era can permit a compromise with Democrats. Even less can Democrats permit an entire year and a half of legislative stalemate that not only threatens to derail democracy but would functionally disable the basic functions of government.

The immediate triggers for all this are 1) the imperiled January 6th Commission; 2) the debt ceiling fight; and 3) rising awareness that if nothing is done to curtail it, Republicans will simply rig elections in their favor and even refuse to certify their defeat even if they do lose their own rigged game. . . . 

The hostility of Senate Republicans toward accepting even the basic premises of a bipartisan commission to examine the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol has pulled a wet blanket over the hopes of optimists seeking to avoid partisan entrenchment. It is possible that Republicans are simply using hardball negotiating tactics and will eventually . . .  strike an agreement. But it’s unlikely. . . . 

Democrats, meanwhile, cannot afford not to investigate it. It was the most damaging assault on the foundations of American democracy since the Civil War, and members of Congress themselves were just minutes from potentially being murdered by the right-wing mob. Pressure will mount considerably to push the Democratic senators still defending the filibuster (most notably Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin) to change their stance if Republicans refuse to come to the table . . . 

But an even bigger battle looms ahead of the commission. As Dave Dayen notes at The American Prospect, Republicans in Congress are even likelier than they were in the Obama Administration to hold the government hostage over the debt limit–thereby threatening the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury. Democrats, for their part, are far less inclined to lend credibility to conservative crocodile tears about deficits or hamstring their own ability to help people or craft policy. . . . 

Ryan Grim is confident enough in this trajectory to predict that this is how the filibuster goes down. Grim believes that the debt ceiling will be the cue to enter Act II of Adam Jentleson’s speculative timeline for the end of the filibuster in his book Kill Switch: the flash point that will turn Manchin’s and Sinema’s Mom-and-apple-pie defenses of the filibuster into regretful reforms. There is good reason believe this analysis is correct. . . .

Parmenides Was Unreal (in the Modern Sense)

Parmenides of Elea doesn’t get much publicity these days. He lived 2,500 years ago on the edge of Greece and only one of his philosophical works survives. It’s a poem usually referred to as “On Nature”. The publicity he happens to get derives from the fact that he helped invent metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the general nature of reality (as it’s been practiced by philosophers in the Western world ever since).

Parmenides is the subject of the latest entry in a series called “Footnotes to Plato”, a periodic consideration of famous philosophers from The Times Literary Supplement. Here’s a bit of the article:

If Parmenides’ presence in the collective consciousness is relatively dim, it is in part because he is eclipsed by the thinkers he influenced. And then there is the small detail that his opinions are, as Aristotle said, “near to madness”.  Let us cut to the chase: Parmenides’ central argument. It is so quick that if you blink, you will miss it. You may need to read the following paragraphs twice.

That which is not – “What-is-not” – he says, is not. Since anything that comes into being would have to come into being out of what-is-not, things cannot come into being. Likewise, nothing can pass away because, in order to do so, it would have to enter the non-existent realm of what-is-not. The notion of beings as generated or perishing is therefore literally unthinkable: it would require of us that we think at once of the same thing that it is and it is not. The no-longer and the not-yet are modes of what-is-not. Consequently, the past and future do not exist either.

All of this points to one conclusion: there can be no change. The empty space necessary to separate one object from another would be another mode of what-is-not, so a multiplicity of beings separated by non-being is ruled out. What-is must be continuous. Since beings cannot be to a greater or lesser degree – this would require what-is to be commingled with the (non-existent) diluent of what-is-not – the universe must be fundamentally homogeneous. And so we arrive at the conclusion that the sum total of things is a single, unchanging, timeless, undifferentiated unity.

All of this is set out in a mere 150 lines, many of which are devoted to the philosopher’s mythical encounter with a Goddess who showed him the Way of Truth as opposed to that of the Way of (mere) Opinion. Scholars have, of course, quarreled over what exactly is meant by this 2,500-year-old text that has reached us by a precarious route. The poem survives only in fragments quoted and/or transcribed by others. The main transmitter was Simplicius, who lived over a thousand years after Parmenides’ death. The earliest sources of Simplicius’ transcriptions are twelfth-century manuscripts copied a further 600 years after he wrote them down.

Unsurprisingly, commentators have argued over Parmenides’ meaning. Did he really claim that the universe was an unbroken unity or only that it was homogeneous? They have also wondered whether he was using “is” in a purely predicative sense, as in “The cat is black”, or in a genuine existential sense, as in “The cat is”. Some have suggested that his astonishing conclusions depend on a failure to distinguish these two uses, which were not clearly separated until Aristotle.

What I took away from my philosophy classes is that Parmenides was a “monist”, someone who thinks that, in some significant sense, Reality Is One. The variety and change we see around us is somehow illusory or unreal or unimportant. One textbook suggest Parmenides believed that “Being or Reality is an unmoving perfect sphere, unchanging, undivided”. A later monist, the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, argued that reality consists of a single infinite substance that we call “God” or “Nature”. There are various ways to be a monist.

Well, I’ve read the paragraphs above, the ones that try to lay out Parmenides’s central argument, more than twice. You may share my feeling that the argument doesn’t succeed.

Where I think it goes wrong is that Parmenides treats things that don’t exist too much like things that do.

Although it’s easy to talk about things that don’t exist (e.g. a four-sided triangle or a mountain of gold), that only takes us so far. If I imagine a certain configuration of reality (say, me getting a cold) and what I imagined then becomes real (I do get a cold), the imaginary, unreal state of affairs (getting a real cold in the future) hasn’t actually transformed into a real state of affairs (actually getting a cold). All that’s happened is the reality of me imagining getting a cold has been replaced in the world’s timeline (and my experience) by the reality of me getting a cold. One reality was followed by another. It’s not a literal change from something that didn’t exist into something that did.

Saying that the unreal has become real is a manner of speaking. It shouldn’t be understood as a kind of thing (an imaginary situation) somehow changing its properties or relations in such a way that it becomes another kind of thing (a real situation). Philosophers have a way of putting this: “existence is not a predicate”. They mean that existing isn’t the same kind of thing as being square or purple or between two ferns. Existence isn’t a property or relation that can be predicated of something in the way those properties or relations can be. 

When Parmenides says “what is not” cannot become “what is”, he’s putting “what is not” and “what is” in a single category that we might call “things that are or are not”. That leads him, rather reasonably, to point out that “are not” things can’t become “are” things. It’s reasonable to rule that out, because a transition from an “are not” thing to an “are” thing would be something like spontaneous generation. Putting aside what may happen in the realm of quantum physics, when sub-atomic stuff is sometimes said to instantly pop into existence, the idea that “Something can come from nothing” is implausible even today. Parmenides made use of that implausibility in the 5th century BCE when he argued that what isn’t real can’t change into what’s real, so changes never happen at all.

What Parmenides should have kept in mind is that things that “are not” aren’t really things at all — they’re literally nothing — so they can’t change into something. Change doesn’t involve nothing turning into something. Change occurs when one thing that exists (a fresh piece of bread or an arrangement of atoms) becomes something else that exists (a stale piece of bread or a different arrangement of atoms). Real stuff gets rearranged, and we perceive that as something coming into existence or going out of it, i.e. changing.

So I think Parmenides was guilty of a kind of reification or treating the unreal as real. He puts what doesn’t exist into a realm that’s different from the realm of things that do exist, but right next door to it. Those two realms aren’t next door to each other, however. They’re in totally different neighborhoods, one that’s real and one that’s imaginary. It’s impossible and unnecessary to travel from one realm to the other.

By the way, the gist of the Times Literary Supplement article is that Parmenides “insisted that we must follow the rigours of an argument, no matter how surprising the conclusion – setting in motion the entire scientific world view”. Maybe so. I was more interested in his strange idea that change never happens.

Hope vs. Reality, or the Vaccination Blues

From The New York Times:

In April, with hospitals overwhelmed and much of the United States in lockdown, the Department of Health and Human Services produced a presentation for the White House arguing that rapid development of a coronavirus vaccine was the best hope to control the pandemic.

“DEADLINE: Enable broad access to the public by October 2020,” the first slide read, with the date in bold.

Given that it typically takes years to develop a vaccine, the timetable for the initiative, called Operation Warp Speed, was incredibly ambitious. With tens of thousands dying and tens of millions out of work, the crisis demanded an all-out public-private response, with the government supplying billions of dollars to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, providing logistical support and cutting through red tape.

It escaped no one that the proposed deadline also intersected nicely with President Txxxx’s need to curb the virus before the election in November.

“Hey, if Operation Warp Speed ‘curbs the virus’ by October, the 200,000 dead will be forgotten and I’ll win a beautiful victory, the biggest win ever!”

Thus our president is hoping. 

I hope his staff doesn’t disappoint him by sharing this from The Washington Post.

In the public imagination [and between the president’s ears], the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine looms large: It’s the neat Hollywood ending to the grim and agonizing uncertainty of everyday life in a pandemic.

But public health experts are discussing among themselves a new worry: that hopes for a vaccine may be soaring too high. The confident depiction by politicians and companies that a vaccine is imminent and inevitable may give people unrealistic beliefs about how soon the world can return to normal — and even spark resistance to simple strategies that can tamp down transmission and save lives in the short term.

Two coronavirus vaccines entered the final stages of human testing last week, a scientific speed record that prompted top government health officials to utter words such as “historic” and “astounding” . . .

As the plotline advances, so do expectations: If people can just muddle through a few more months, the vaccine will land, the pandemic will end and everyone can throw their masks away. But best-case scenarios have failed to materialize throughout the pandemic, and experts — who believe wholeheartedly in the power of vaccines — foresee a long path ahead.

“It seems, to me, unlikely that a vaccine is an off-switch or a reset button where we will go back to pre-pandemic times,” said Yonatan Grad, an assistant professor of infectious diseases and immunology [at Harvard].

Or, as Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen puts it, “It’s not like we’re going to land in Oz.”

The declaration that a vaccine has been shown safe and effective will be a beginning, not the end. Deploying the vaccine to people in the United States and around the world will test and strain distribution networks, the supply chain, public trust and global cooperation. It will take months or, more likely, years to reach enough people to make the world safe.

For those who do get a vaccine as soon as shots become available, protection won’t be immediate — it takes weeks for the immune system to call up full platoons of disease-fighting antibodies. And many vaccine technologies will require a second shot weeks after the first to raise immune defenses.

Immunity could be short-lived or partial, requiring repeated boosters that strain the vaccine supply or require people to keep social distancing and wearing masks even after they’ve received their shots. And if a vaccine works less well for some groups of people, if swaths of the population are reluctant to get a vaccine or if there isn’t enough to go around, some people will still get sick even after scientists declare victory on a vaccine — which could help foster a false impression it doesn’t work.

A proven vaccine will profoundly change the relationship the world has with the novel coronavirus and is how many experts believe the pandemic will end. In popular conception, a vaccine is regarded as a silver bullet. But the truth — especially with the earliest vaccines — is likely to be far more nuanced. Public health experts fear that could lead to disappointment and erode the already delicate trust essential to making the effort to vanquish the virus succeed.

The drive to develop vaccines is frequently characterized as a race, with one country or company in the lead. The race metaphor suggests that what matters is who reaches the finish line first. But first across the line isn’t necessarily the best — and it almost certainly isn’t the end of the race, which could go on for years.

“The realistic scenario is probably going to be more like what we saw with HIV/AIDS,” said Michael S. Kinch, an expert in drug development and research at Washington University . . . “With HIV, we had a first generation of, looking back now, fairly mediocre drugs. I am afraid — and people don’t like to hear this, but I’m kind of constantly preaching it — we have to prepare ourselves for the idea we do not have a very good vaccine. My guess is the first generation of vaccines may be mediocre.”

Unquote.

In other words, reality isn’t reality TV.