Scamerica the Bountiful

Disclaimer: This piece is long, because … Brandolini’s Law. The shortest version is this: To understand the Trump phenomenon, you have to understand that he is a con man who has become political. He saw his opportunity to co-opt the Republican Party by inveigling their very large but malleable, culture-war-tested base, the Evangelicals, who have a strong nativist core. It was a kind of coup, but once that target group was acquired, the GOP fell in line without resisting. Details below. Please subscribe or at least remember how much time it takes to write. I don’t use AI. But I’ll be posting this on Substack in a few weeks)

Since 2016, the legacy media in the United States has been scratching its collective head and waving its arms about trying to understand the strange, toxic, relationship between Donald Trump and the “religious right,” which includes many so-called Evangelicals and a smattering of other denominations mostly found under the Protestant umbrella. Modestly, but frankly, I may have an answer.

How a super-moralist religious community could offer full-throated support to this odd, obviously flawed man, who lies and bullshits about everything, even petty things that really don’t “need” a lie, like the temperature in the New York courtroom, cheats on his wife, defrauds and steals from suppliers, has even had a number of brushes with the law ($25-million fine for Trump University fraud and $2 million for the fraudulent foundation, for example) , is quite fascinating in the way watching a building’s slow collapse after a controlled demolition is fascinating.  The term the legacy media like to use ad nauseam is “unprecedented.”

That, as the hackneyed expression goes, needs some unpacking, because it is far from true. But the explanation, like all things subject to Brandolini’s Law, does not fit into a few short paragraphs or the tight time slot between television advertisements.

Donald J. Trump is neither a new phenomenon, nor is he particularly original. However, to understand just how “precedented” he is, requires a deep dive into America’s political and religious customs and some basic grasp of the workings of the free market. Many erudite, articulate, and knowledgeable persons, nay, experts, on a thousand TV panels don’t “go there,” because religion is a sacred cow, ironically.

Trump with his Evangelical accomplices: Are they in the White House? Or is he in their bethels?

 The Donald

Donald J. Trump built up a brand based mostly on bombast, and having drawn attention to himself in myriad ways, he used his obnoxious celebrity status to sell shoddy products at high prices. As an “entrepreneur,” who managed to bankrupt a casino, he created a foundation and a university, both of which turned out to be money-making frauds. He could have stopped anywhere on the way in his life as an “impostor-businessman,” taken his money and gotten out of the three-card monte game, and spent the rest of his years playing golf, and slept with whomever he wanted for the rest of his life (as Melania told the world, she doesn’t care, the marriage appears to be for show as well). But Trump is indeed a narcissist and a very bitter one at that. Why? Probably because of his failed attempts at really being accepted by New York’s high society, whose members could smell the vulgarity coming off him in malodorous waves, the cheapness, the arrivé, the slumlord playing baron.

Somewhere on the line, while rubbing elbows with various political and social poobahs, who tend to gravitate towards money real or fake like moths to the flame, because they must, and while becoming a brummagem celebrity himself, the Donald decided to fully unleash his Inner Snake-Oil Salesman that had always accompanied him on his highly litigious pathway to riches, as mentioned, real or fake.

(Chatty aside: I do not believe DJT to be as intelligent as he says he is, and he is embarrassingly ignorant and disinterested, but so are many who earn seven figure salaries and more. However, with a few exceptions (I’ll note Rick Wilson of the Lincoln Project), everyone underestimates his feral instinct for people’s moral weaknesses. We all have them, of course, but he spots those who are either born with a weak backbone, or who have been groomed as such over generations), or crucially who are simply venal.)

DJT ultimately chose the Republican Party as his political prey, because, I suspect, the Democrats are usually herding their cats of many political hues under their “big tent,” and they do tend to be the educated class (the “elites,” the “experts”) and reject Trump’s inherent snobbism.  The GOP, on the other hand, was home to very wealthy ideologues with less democratic views of the USA and they often show a willingness to spend their wad to get what they wanted (see the Supreme Court) rather than pay taxes. Also, Republicans tend to follow the leader regardless (John Dean wrote a book about this: Conservatives without Conscience), and the Democrats tend to throw hissy fits if the party isn’t enacting their policy ideals 100 percent.

More importantly, however, was and is the GOP’s fairly homogeneous base that has long included the so-called “religious right” with its many evangelical denominations, run-of-the-mill conservatives (small government, low taxes), and, on the other end, extremists – from the KKK to the survivalists cosplaying in the wilds with camo garb and big guns or complaining about the ZOG, controlled demolitions, Klaus Schwab, George Soros, and other phantasma revealed in dubious newsletters – who would go along with anything that aided their conspiracy-laden cause. They will balk at paying a few taxes, but don’t mind sending frauds like Alex Jones money for some untested supplements.

But why would a man like Trump want political power? Why would he leave the comfortable life of lucrative bankruptcies, fawning wannabes, golden toilets and golf courses, for the hard world of politicking?  It was a question he, himself, asked rhetorically, as a way to justify his candidacy for the presidency and to suggest to his flocks at rallies that he was doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He was doing it for them. A bold assertion for a man who had, until that point, showed not a single iota of altruism. The shortest answer is this: money. And in his particular case the soothing adulation to nourish his industrial-sized ego. Nota bene: One famous scammer trick is to always make the  target feel it is being given something, being loved, understood. He saw the opportunity to run a kind of national pig-butchering scheme, fattening up a voluminous base, and then getting them to pay up willfully, adoringly, even thankfully.

What he had going for him was precisely that he was not a politician. He rejected that label himself, and it might be one of the rare truths to come out of his mouth. His base liked the idea as well, because they have been trained to think that “Washington = bad,” and that all politicians are the same, corrupt and sly manipulators who were out to get them. What they failed to see, is that Trump is not a real entrepreneur either. He is first and foremost a glorified salesman, which informs everything he does and says, even his road into politics. His non-politician status was overtly expressed at times,  or was hidden behind little inserts into his speeches: I am very rich (subtext: I’m not selling anything, I am incorruptible); I’m not paid as president (oh, I am such an idealist); I’m doing this for you. All, in the definition of Harry Frankfurt, bullshit.

The land of milk and honey and pigs

Consciously or unconsciously, Trump had already tested the political waters on his way to 2016. One milestone was surely his vicious call for the death penalty for the Central Park Five (later exonerated). He spent $85,000 on an ad in the New York Times, in which he wrote: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers.” The ad inflamed the issue and, as one defense lawyer of the five suggested, was in part responsible for the conviction of five innocent men. But it attracted attention from the conservatives and especially rural America dreaming of a time when everyone knew their place and which water cooler to drink from.

Earlier Trump version, the strange prurience of Sarah Palin

No doubt he witnessed the bizarre popularity of Sarah Palin among certain segments of the population, notably religious people. She probably sank the McCain ticket in 2008 with her bizarre rhetorical stew of homey “Main Street” talk, peppered with gun-nuttery and conspiracy theories about “elites.” It made her the darling of a crowd that had already been groomed for by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who was openly racist, aggressive, dishonest, and vulgar. And lest we forget, there was the Fox News agitprop team, which shackled its viewers to a chain of outright lies, fearmongering, and angertainment well before Mark Zuckerberg and other tech bros had even discovered hate and anger as a source of cash.

All together, the GOP and its media mobilized quite a crowd in 2008 and earned a fortune off their captive audiences, mainly by attracting advertisers eager to sell stuff to them. But the GOP was now being wagged by the tail, as conservative columnist David Brooks wrote: “I don’t think he [John McCain] could have known it at the time but he took a disease that was running through the Republican party – anti-intellectualism, disrespect for facts – and he put it right at the center of the party.” And the right-wing ecosystem also turned earlier dog-whistling into a dog-fanfare. The nativists, who had always been in the party, but had been embarrassed into silence by the Civil Rights movement, could now rise and begin spreading, anonymously, their arcane ideas thanks to the Internet.

Trump spotted the potential in this crowd. He launched the notorious birther conspiracy theory (Obama is really a Kenyan!) as another test balloon to figure out whether he could coattail Palin and pick up the Tea Party support. He had certain assets that Palin lacked, like television fame. She stuck to salt-of-the-earth themes, he managed to project broader American myths from the glory days of the nineteenth century: the brash entrepreneur, the brazen businessman, the superrich ruggedly individualist risk-taker, the man who said it straight. And he projected wealth, always a good thing, even though it would have made old-fashioned Puritans squeamish. With all that fake baggage, he made his tacky entry into the political fray in 2015 and then proceeded to rip up the opposition during the primaries. He was addressing Nativists, so he chose his single issue: foreigners, Mexicans, the “other.” It’s an easy subject, you really don’t have to study much to yell inanities about group X or Y.

The GOP candidates were all horrified, and they saw right through the game. Trump, however, was now like Frankenstein’s monster (and there are lots of real parallels I cannot go into at this point). He made anger, violent rhetoric, lies and conspiracy theories a trademark. When needed, be dissed untouchables of American Mythology, like John McCain or Gold Star families. Nothing was sacred anymore. Moreover, he was also fairly entertaining, what with his quirky nicknames and his repartee. The rivals collapsed one after the other, Li’l Marco, Lying Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Horse-face Florina, Rick Santorum, etc… This was reality TV become hyper-real, and the Republican electorate was having fun, and the media, too. They could not get enough of him, and reported his every Tweet and insult often incredulously, failing to notice that they were giving him enormous amounts of free advertising. They were trying desperately to hang on to an audience segment by being “fair and balanced,” but ended up embarrassing themselves with blatant both-sides dancing. Somehow, this madcap, ranting, vituperous, ignorant man started attracting the support from a segment of the electorate that had been convinced it was forgotten, ignored, and looked down upon, the eternal victims: the religious right, specifically the Evangelicals, who had already chosen the GOP as their political party.

The takeover

Receiving the religious accolade was not difficult,  in fact.  For one, throughout history, religious leaders have been known to keep their flock in a state of fear of something “out there,” Satan, witches, urban con men, Communists and their sexy women (my M.A. thesis was on anti-Communist films in Hollywood, and those Commie women had dangerous sex appeal), atheists, death, the list goes on and on… The latest enemy is the Muslim community, which is inevitably  equated with horrifying terrorist acts. Modern life itself, though, the natural progress of human society with science at the helm, is also seen as a threat. This notion, that an “expert” is somehow a bad thing, can be traced way back to the Great Awakenings and the revivals and even further, maybe to the Copernican Revolution that almost got Galileo gtortured in the cellars of the Vatican.

The other element Trump understood was the evangelical predilection for great and gaudy shows that have a kind of collective magnetism. Americans of all stamp love pageantry, one that eschews any subtlety, which, in turn, is the trademark of the “expert,” who has to explain everything painstakingly using data and some form of logic. Alternative facts, fallacious short-cuts, pulled out of the ether would do for what is now called the MAGA base. In fact, they seem to revel in  the creation of an alternate reality, which is as comforting as Alex Jones’s supplements, it’s a placebo.

At any rate, thanks to some very patient and simple priming using culture war issues like abortion (Roe v. Wade), the old Moral Majority that Nixon had touted as his support has now morphed into a large confab of grievance-addled voters who were tethered nilly-willy to the GOP for political representation in a politically mutually beneficial, symbiotic or parasitical, relationship . Some of their leading voices were well known, like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who along with fellow travelers like Pat Robertson, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, had once blamed 9/11 on gays and feminists using some spurious theological justifications. Many of these preachers hollered darker things to their mesmerized audiences and over time created  a kind of dark Jesus Christ twin promoting revenge, anger, violence against enemies real and imagined.  Some might remember the days when the tiny Westboro Baptist Church was an outlier. Now, their message of “God hates fags” and  repulsive  actions at the funeral of soldiers, appear as weak tea and perfectly mainstream in the Trump  fog.

The enemies of this religious community were clearly defined, and Trump easily took up the sword in as God’s chosen agent of retribution. The fact that he was about as religious as a cardboard box made no difference. God moves in mysterious ways, they said, and this is the fellow He’d sent to smite the evil Democrats, the gays, the feminists, mainstream media demons, college professors, and other sinful bugaboos. Q-Anon banshees got in on the game and were welcome. with their bizarre and somewhat revealing obsession with pedophilia, a genuine problem, but not in the way they were presenting it. Trump was the Kulturkämpfer par excellence, and so these people could now boldly show up in large groups, repeat the conspiracy theories he and his acolytes spread, including simple messages delivered by their guru, like “fake news,” “lock her up,” and the nonexistent “deep state,” the latter being one of those  inventions that means nothing but sounds terrifying.

Late-night comedians had a ball with these people, just as journalists like H. L. Mencken ridiculed them in the ‘20s and ‘30s. But humiliation feeds the fires of revenge. When Hilary Clinton, who was already considered a demonic force, referred to them as “deplorables,” she in fact solidified their  allegiance to Trump, who was their tool to tell the so-called elites to f*** off. They were the proud gueux, the downtrodden, the victims of a variegated host of invisible hobgoblins, from Hollywood actors, to East Coast intellectuals, to “swamp creatures.” With their strident leader, imperfect as he was, but who they felt understood them, they could now flex their vocal cords.  Social media gave them a cheap channel to spread their resentment and conspiracy nonsense, thus amplifying their power, but also to commune with their leader and his surrogates. And more importantly, to engage with more rational people, who often expended lots of energy essentially being trolled by fact-resistant individuals. They were drinking liberal tears and enjoying every minute of it, regardless of the impact Trump was having on the country. They could now rant against any fake outrage their media were deciding to whoop up, scientists, gas stoves, certain violent cities, immigrant caravans, civilization in general, secular humanism, modern medicine, Bill Gates, George Soros, all progressives, or, in media shorthand: “the Left.” For the Trump nomenclatura (like Steve Bannon, KellyAnneConway, the talking heads at Fox, Pirro, Hannity, the yappers at OAN, Town Hall, Newsmax i.a.), it was easy to feed this now untethered rage, since they had been neatly isolated from any contradictory or corrective messages. Particularly juicy was the almost prurient need to expose pedophiles all over the place. Even if some don’t fall for these weird messages, getting a rise out of outraged “liberals” was worth the abandonment of all self-respect, an act facilitated by anonymity on social media platforms.*

Needless to say, what passes for the Left in America played right into the Kulturkampf. The uppity woke crowd could be shocked into a fury by simply saying “a man can’t be a woman.” The LGBTQ images harvested on the web made it easy to ridicule the left, which, alas, having turned political correctness into a rhetorical paradigm, have also lost all their sense of humor.

Millionaires by God! The divine Ponzi scheme: Send me money, God will send you more, and if that doesn’t work, send me more…

Trump understands the religious right and especially their peripheral communities. He understands them all too well. The subsequent relationship rapidly became  fusional. Trump needed them for his ego, to keep the buzz going, but more importantly, as a source of easy cash. Any salesman knows that once you have a captive audience, you have to keep them fed with “good products,” and conspiracy theories and provocative ideas can be produced almost ad infinitum without need for manufacturing, design, quality control, or after-sales service. His audience became like Osgood at the end of Some Like It Hot, who, when Jerry takes off his wig and says “I am a man!” simply answers: “I don’t care.” As long as he was loving his “uneducated” flock and trouncing “liberals” verbally, they were happy.

As a political support group, the evangelical rank and file, in particular, for whom I still have some compassion, because they have been suckered beyond belief, were the low-hanging fruit for the Republican Party, and now for Donald J. Trump. They were accustomed to sending money for facile, performative blessings. I’m referring specifically to the myriad televangelists who promote the “prosperity gospel,”  which can be traced back to the Pentecostal movement that flourished in the 1920s, when get-rich-quick schemes were all the rage. The roots of this movement can probably be traced back to the show biz of the Baptist movements and the Great Awakenings and the revivals that periodically tried to inject energy into flagging religious enthusiasm.

The basics of the prosperity gospel are simple and they resemble any of the myriad scams that run rampant on the web, where some young and allegedly cool, badly shaven guy with no visible means of income, standing in front of a (rented) Lamborghini, declares that you can earn  thousands of dollars a day by sending him money and you are an idiot if you don’t. In religious circles, it’s like multilevel marketing on a grander scale and it goes like this: Send the preacher money, it will be returned to you (by God, I gather) ten- or hundred-fold. If it doesn’t happen, send more or consider yourself still unloved by God or unworthy. Same thing with the bizarre healings that might have had the preacher tarred and feathered in another era. If the healing of a very real health problem doesn’t work, consider yourself unworthy again, send more money … It’s a terrifying message for people who are in despair and who then get into a sunk-cost dilemma, like the gambler, who hopes that by putting more chips onto the table, he will get a big break. Meanwhile the casino is raking in his money. These carnival barkers, like Hinn, Copeland, Osteen, Swaggart, Paula White, and many more, live in huge mansions and fly private jets thanks to this rather obvious grift.

Do the math

Conning, like selling any product, is a numbers game and perfectly adapted to a free market. You need a captive audience that is large enough to A) make it worth your while, and B) will produce a snowball effect. This is all the more important in the Online Age, when going viral is the way to success. And to go viral, you just have to be noticeable, even outrageous in some way. It’s especially easy if you are already a celebrity like Trump. In the world of ideas and news, the number of clicks counts more than the quality of the information or product, too. So here is the arithmetic: The USA has a population of about 320 million. There are 160 million eligible voters. If you can somehow convince just 10% of them to buy your nonsense and your merch with it, you’ll be in clover. And if they have been suckered into believing that they are all victims of a Great Conspiracy, or that you are going to fight the forces of evil for them, and that you are a martyr for their hallucinatory cause, they will disburse real fortunes. At an average of $50 per head, and later lots of merch, you can make billions at the game. All you have to do is dump your self-respect while you laugh all the way to the bank in the Cayman Islands: That’s an $800 million pool right there using minimal sums. Scams pay, and the Internet is full of them.

Trump no doubt saw this business model being used over and over again. He saw the charlatans and snake-oil salesmen like Glenn Beck (who only does it for the money, I can safely say thanks to a friend who knows him), or Alex Jones, or Steve Bannon raking in the clicks and cash. He saw the right-wing media like OAN, Newsmax, Townhall, and the Murdoch channels with their totally insulated audience being sold to advertisers as a legitimate product. He started hollering  “fake news,” to show that he could be of assistance in keeping the audience riveted to the channel that guaranteed anger, hatred, outrage, and legitimization of  the most absurd thoughts and theories. His lieutenant, KellyAnne Conway  created the “alternative facts” trope, which was brilliant in its own right. And people like Steve Bannon, who called himself a Leninist once (yes, Lenin, the man who coined the term “useful idiots”) acting as a kind of intellectual guru to the movement.

And now we come to the crux of the matter: Some time in 2016, maybe a tick later, Trump demanded racketeering rights from all these con artists involved in the grift. He had demonstrated his power to out-outrage them all, out-lie, out-bullshit them. He, as a candidate for the GOP and then president, had become a threat to their business model. The GOP had no choice. They had to keep a hold of their key “demographic,” the angry old people with a knee-jerk tendency to complain, the evangelicals who were still not rich or healthy in spite of the praying and sending cash to their gurus, younger crowds who think that being contrarian is a sign of wisdom, or those who just like to burn things down, and of course the conspiracy theorists, who like to think that there are vicious cabals “out there” plotting their demise. It was a well-crafted and perfectly capitalistic business model, and Trump was now in charge, and still is, more than ever. The raw material is cheap (essentially hot air, bullshit, outright lies, stream-of-consciousness ranting, conspiracy theories, incoherent rants, endless whining, and a lot of brazen self-aggrandizement and self-victimization). And the new distribution channels, like Twitter and Facebook, were cheap, too. What a deal! You used to spend a whole lot on paper and printing, which had the disadvantage of sticking around so some people might actually decipher the BS. Also, online info means that what I said a minute ago is already gone, and even if the “Internet never forgets,” it is constantly on “full” so the human mind has to keep deleting data as well.  Imagine a cesspool for all the cities in the USA… Where will you find the diamond ring you accidentally dropped in the toilet?

Anyway, he, Trump,  became the focus of all power, the capo di tutti capi of the confidence economy, the Great Orange Toll Booth through which all the hustlers, fraudsters, fast-talking bull artists, power-seekers, and many a politician would now have to go to reach the Promised Land of free money, where that growing audience waited, anxiously, to drink liberal tears, to exact vengeance on their hallucinations, and, literally, to be conned. Some people who sued Trump U successfully even went on to vote for Trump, a form of Stockholm Syndrome, it would seem. If the GOP would want to stay in power and make a good buck from a huge confab of suckers seething with anger, resentment, and a need for revenge against invisible enemies, they would have to toe the line.

Better than pills… send money, get touched, go home and hope you heal. If it doesn’t work, rinse, repeat.

The evangelicals, the pastors, the televangelists, the ad hoc preachers, and other opinion leaders, also realized, unconsciously perhaps, that this orange-faced city slicker, with his boring suits and absurdly long tie, was better at selling bullshit, fear, anger, self-victimization, and illusions than even they were and was encroaching on their business. So, they blessed him and granted him his rights.

Madness takes its toll

Trump had a special schtick. Many politicians bend the truth or violate any number of logical fallacies when wooing voters. The Germans have a saying “Lies have short legs,” because the can’t run far and fast. Trump has found the solution: He lies and bullshits consistently and always, even about the most inane and easily provable  things, so you can hardly tell anymore whether he is telling the truth or not. He also has his own style.  He did not rant insanely like Jones, or whine like Tucker Carlson, or use Vicks to cry like Beck, or even sound half-way literate like Bill O’Reilly or the late Limbaugh. He is always a bit disheveled, unlike over-groomed Hannity, he doesn’t sound inebriated like Pirro, or true-believer-serious like Ingraham. He’s learned a bit from the televangelist, sometimes sing-songing, sometimes yelling after a long sotto voce passage, always using his hands in the same way. A child of four could caricature him, and that is what he needed. He also likes to have his ramblings accompanied by soppy music. It’s painfully cheap and obvious, but those of us who have studied advertising know that sophisticated and smart doesn’t work too well.

Of course, he embarrassed himself endlessly, barely hiding his ignorance of the Bible, just like he never hid his illiteracy or his absence of any culture. He became on the surface “one of them.” He even Tweeted day in, day out, giving the illusion of being “with the people.” This meant he could be in the consciousness of his base before even Fox News cranked up the their wind machine. And like a good scammer, he made sure he sounded like his audience did. His thoughts pour out of his mouth disjointedly, mantra-like. They are simplistic, even incomprehensible and incoherent. He does not need knowledge, or data, expertise. He doesn’t deliver policy speeches no one wants to hear, he simply feeds the masses with the most binding emotion, genuine Internet fuel: anger, aggression, resentment, grievance. Emotion! Gut feeling. His audience “feels,” it doesn’t think (this is the Frankenstein reference from above). He goes off on strange tangents, talks of Hannibal Lecter, boats, covfefe, makes mistakes, stumbles, crushes words in a foaming mouth, digresses, mixes up Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley. It might be real, it might be all fake. If attention on him seems to be dissipating, he will stoke the outrage machine with some blatantly egregious statement. And the legacy media will react obediently, reporting on it, spending hours every day deciphering and deconstructing his verbal discharges.

The opposition trying to portray him as demented may be getting tricked as well. The pundits at MSNBC, CNN, ABC, and other more or less serious outlets remain perplexed. They have their overworked panels repeating the same lines over and over again trying to explain this man’s popularity, all the while talking about him 24/7, which, of course, is why he remains popular. They do not dare touch the religious stuff, and if they do, it’s to be nice (Tim Alberta wrote a book about this, but he experienced it differently). Every exegesis of his oafish lines takes days, and seems to prove his point that the media is against him and, hence, his base. Several, like Van Jones, want to “engage the Trump voter,” or listen to their grievances. Have they ever tried? I have. It appears pointless. They confuse critical thinking with dissing and both-sides-ism often aided by obnoxious and stupid conspiracy theories. Then come the ad hominem  statements and some meme, and the conversation dies. Who has time for all that? One of the very few people who manages to talk with the Trump base is comedian Jordan Klepper, but even he, by force, ends up humiliating the “MAGA cult,” not because he wants to, but because they do it to themselves, with statements like “Obama was president during 9/11″ or “Trump was sent by god…” It’s a strange phenomenon called self-stigmatization that was described by Wolfgang Lipp in his book Stigma und Charisma.

The vortex

At first, the Republicans did try to resist. When Trump won the primaries, they entered into an uneasy alliance. They could (should) have dropped him then, lost the election, but cleaned up their act — which they should have done after the Palin disaster. However, they would have lost that key evangelical vote to a new Trump Party. He was going nowhere, now that he had them locked up and expanding. A key moment was the revelation of the Access Hollywood tape. The entire GOP took a deep breath. Because you can shoot someone and get away with it in the USA, but sex? Never. Or so they thought. Many started tiptoeing towards the exit. But Trump, after a vague apology, cleverly chose the “flight forward full steam ahead” path. At which point he forced them into backing him.

They hate the blackmail, I am sure, but they could and can no longer escape it. Not with those venal spirits and gelatin backbones. A few did, later on (e.g., Jeff Flake, Adam Kinzinger, and Liz Cheney), but they are out of politics now. Even powerful Fox News tried after the 2020 election. They dropped him for a moment, realized that they were losing ad sales to the other  grifters on the Trump highway, so they bowed and scraped, and got back on the right road. Even losing the defamation case against Dominion didn’t change their strategy. A “serious” right-winger, Erick Erickson, turned against Trump some time in 2016 and instantly lost thousands of subscribers, so he packed up his self-respect and resumed whooping up the Grifter in Chief. It is now a textbook cult.

It gets real real

Trump did not expect to win the 2016 election. Polling was against him. But none of that mattered. Had he lost, he would simply have continued grifting off the base by hollering against the same bugaboos. Few remember perhaps that he used the “election rigged” conspiracy theory in 2016 just to make sure his base would not drift away from a real loser. This also explains why Trump, as president, suddenly started promoting bleach as a cure for Covid 19 (he meant the industrial cleaner MMS, but that is another story ) and introducing UV light into the body and other nonsense in the midst of a dangerous pandemic. This anti-expertise tactic fit in perfectly with a base that was trained in fear, in particular of something invisible, like a virus. He also ranted against masks, played footsie with the growing online anti-vax crowd, which is led by another segment of scam artists (just look how RFK Jr. demanded his racketeering rights), and somehow blamed the pandemic on the Democrats. After praising Ch-ay-na’s response, he then turned on the country, when he realized they were an outstanding specter to take the buck for his own failings. He caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, according to several studies, just to maintain his dominance over the minds of his base. This shameful fact has led to speculation that Trump might have lost the 2020 election because he literally killed off many of his voters in swing states, where his message was ingested like deep-fried butter.

When he won, surprisingly, he realized that he could now extend his reach globally. He did try to get some “serious people” into his cabinet. Many ultimately left the chaos and the embarrassment of having to support this “president” who seemed to be play-acting a parody of himself in the White House. And the lies and grifting began almost immediately, for example, with the number of people at his inauguration. There was even, I suspect, a bit of hanky-panky with the stock market earlier on, namely in early December 2016, when he attacked the planned  F-35 program and Boeing stock plunged. Great deal for short sellers if you know it’s coming.

The depth and extent of Trump’s corruption is probably going to come out in dribs and drabs in the coming years, if at all. Especially the deals he made with foreign governments. Has anyone thought to explain why this deeply corrupt man goes for dictators and other “strongmen?” Simplest answer: Because the risk of being exposed is too high when dealing with a democratically elected government with its many guardrails against corruption – that don’t always hold — and the pesky journalists cultivating sources. The fewer people involved, the safer the crime. That led to his first impeachment. Dealing with a dictator, on the other hand, means having a mutual back scratch with a single person, one with access to his/her nation’s purse strings and no accountability. In other words, Trump, and by extension his family, is eminently corruptible.

2024

Making predictions is risky. What if, what if not, and what can we learn… The victory in 2016 threatened to force Trump to get to work, which is not his favorite activity, because daily work is constraining. If you read Obama’s Promised Land, which covers his years as president, you can sense the weight of responsibility he felt after the election and how it changed him. He clearly delineates a before and after, the difference between campaigning for his party and ideas, and then suddenly sitting in the Oval Office with the (epistemic) responsibility for ALL Americans and the planet, since the USA has nilly-willy lots of influence. … Trump has none of these “spiritual” problems, apparently. He figures out how to attract media attention, he improvises, says a few outrageous things, and goes to play golf. All reports suggested a disinterested president who hardly read anything, certainly not the all-important daily briefings, seemed eager to play golf whenever he could, and did just a bare minimum. The huge tax cut that ballooned the deficit was easy, since it had long been a GOP wet dream and all he had to do was sign it. His only real task was personal: Maintaining a connection to the hard core of his base, the Evangelicals, the Nativists, the unfettered Booboisie (Mencken) he had liberated from the straitjacket of political correctness. The result was such action like the “Muslim ban,” red meat for the Nativists, as was the “good people on both sides” comment after Charlottesville. Otherwise, no immense wall, no infrastructure week, no perfect health care, nothing. Helsinki was a national embarrassment, so was his encounter with Xi and Kim Jong Un. All the while, the media meticulously counted and reported with loud gasps every lie he and his groupies like Kellyanne Conway uttered and the right-wing media zoo, with Fox News at the top of the roster, amplified the garbage to keep their viewership angry and in fear of all manner of hobgoblin, because that always translates to advertising dollars.

By inviting televangelists and other pastoral ringleaders to the White House, he maintained the connection with the evangelical base, which has simply surrendered any semblance of believing in the core tenets of Christianity in favor of overt hatred and violence against its perceived enemies. Meanwhile, the Republican Party forwent several chances to rid themselves of this con man, but they also knew that they would lose their base if they did reject Trumpism. January 6, 2021, was one of the last opportunities, and they failed, mainly due to the opportunism of Kevin McCarthy, who went on to become Speaker of the House, and the political fourberie of Mitch McConnell.

Since then, more and more Republicans have gone through that Trump-managed toll booth to take part in the bountiful scam that he launched. In Congress, they are mostly paralyzed with fear of losing power. They are monitored and supervised by a small group of Trump devotees, MTG, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and the like. Now, more and more big names are investing their self-respect in this bustling market to profit from the MAGA base, like Russell Brand, and they are not exactly savory fellows. But the base accepts them, because they rile up liberals, and even pseudo-intellectual centrists, like “comedian” Bill Maher, who has no real intellectual background, bring them onto their shows so they can pretend to be politically balanced.

It is quite brilliant, I must admit. Because whatever happens in November, 2024, Trump is not going away. He has set up a grift that is like Nine Men’s Morris. He gets them coming and going. The only way to stop the game, would be a staggering defeat by the GOP up and down the ballot, and that would require the Evangelical base to really turn on him, to see the error of their ways. But they are proud of their achievement of having had one of “theirs” in the White House, even though it is a total humiliation to have given into this city slicker, a type of con artists they have always been told to watch out for… They are in the throes of that sunk-cost dilemma, don’t forget.

I am not optimistic for the moment. The American electorate is, alas, far too disconnected and apathetic and fails to understand how fragile a democratic system can be. It’s not about flag-waving and yelling USA Number One. It’s about the rule of law. As for Trump, while he is still scamming, a part of him is now taking himself seriously as a potential dictator, and his team know that and approve. And that is a genuine threat for the nation and, by extension, the world at large.

(to be continued at some time, thank you for reading.)

*Interestingly, I have heard journalists speak of Trumpism coming to Europe. That, too, is not entirely accurate. Before Trump entered politics, there were men like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, founder of Italy’s Five-Star movement in 2009, and Silvio Berlusconi. And in the USA, you had many others throughout history, including Joe McCarthy, who waved papers allegedly listing the names of Communists, though no one ever saw these names.

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An island of memory

Memories of childhood and youth are often like an archipelago of islands separated by deep sea concealing abysses where dreams and nightmares lurk in a murky wash, with the occasional reef our hearts ran aground on. Surely everyone has thousands of these islands stored in their memory banks. One of mine was a set of three piano recitals.  

Today, Sunday, May 19, rummaging through a stack of old black-and-white portraits, trying to find out who the subjects were, I found the image above. It is from a series of famous people my father shot, and it features Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012). The Bulgarian-Jewish pianist, who managed to escape the Holocaust by playing Schubert for a German guard, has a  serious but questioning look on his face. The turtle-neck, the neatly cropped hair, and the waggish cigarette, do give him an unconventional quality, this being the early ‘50s, after all. It’s the reflection in the sleek black piano lid, the instrument he was wedded to, and the mysterious smoke, like incense, that complete the picture beautifully with a hint of something spiritual. Weissenberg  was still young, but my father captured the latent intensity in this young man, who would go on to shake up the concert stages in the 1960s, about a decade after this shot was taken.

I salvaged many photographs from my father’s almost pathological need to forget the past, as if photographing so many cultural icons of his time were a sinful act. It was not false modesty on his part.  Something about the past bothered him intensely (I am planning a biography…). Whenever I would visit him in the tiny village lost in France where he had retired to, I would beg him to put some order in the material stored in boxes he had chucked pell-mell into his attic. He would wave me off and say “What do you want to do with all that shit, just put it in the garbage after I die.” He didn’t do it himself, thank goodness…

Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012), one of the great pianists

Back to Weissenberg. Those who know me are aware that I love what’s known as classical music. It reached obsession level when I was a boy, in my pre-teens. There was always lots of music in our home, and having no television was certainly an enabling factor. Next to a record with songs by Burl Ives, I had one called The Festive Pipes by the  Bernard Krainis Consort. My sisters would organize ballet sessions in our parents’ studio on 65th Street in New York, and that is where I heard Stravinsky’s  Firebird Suite, which still haunts me today. The Chickering grand in the living room was naturally played by my sister (“From the Halls of Montezuma…” remains stuck in my memory) and by my mother playing German Christmas songs and Mozart’s Turkish March. But Ania Dorfman was also on our list of friends, so there was that. Her recording of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words had pride of place in our library.

New York, where we lived

Naturally, I gravitated towards the piano, and particularly  Mozart and Beethoven, and then Chopin, whose music I collected voraciously, both on vinyl and paper. By that time, we had moved to Paris. The first record I purchased on my own dime was of the Chopin Etudes played by Agustin Anievas (10 francs, all fairy-tooth money).  One of my favorite shops was Pugno Musique, then at Quai des Grands Augustins, where I could find second-hand scores to accompany my listening. My piano teacher was not the most rigorous, but we did listen to music together and occasionally played chess (I lost, but learned).

In 1967, age 10, I changed schools. In the new establishment, I found myself a bit isolated as one of only a handful of foreigners, an American at that, and no one missed a chance to remind me of my damnable birthplace, especially the teachers. It was not pleasant, but I managed to retreat into a beautiful space with music in my head and became an expert at “osselets,” a game going back to Roman times involving some dexterity. At home, I would do my devoirs, and then listen to music, follow the scores, time the pieces with a chronograph, and note them down in a book. Our library included the complete Beethoven Sonatas (by Arthur Schnabel, including the scores), the complete solo piano music of Mozart (Walter Gieseking), and my own collection of Chopin, which was missing just a few recordings that were unavailable at the time: the first piano sonata, and three rondos, which I knew existed, because they were at the end of a collection of preludes. There was a recording by Adam Harasiewicz, but it was only available in Poland, I found out later.

School was no fun at all. Except for the last hour of the week, Saturdays from 11 to 12. We learned songs and played recorders. And occasionally, the teacher, Mr. Lesueur, would let me play piano (at home we had a Pleyel baby-grand). I remember a few Chopin Préludes, and Debussy’s first Arabesque. Mr. Lesueur was the only teacher there with an encouraging attitude. When I finally retreated totally and flunked a class, his was the only one with top grades. So that music hour was a delight, as uplifting as a tièrce de Picardie brightening up some lugubrious song in a minor key.

Doing my homework in our Paris kitchen, which was featured in a magazine called Cuisine Magazine

Adventure

Please bear with me… Weissenberg is coming…
One day, after classes in my second year (I was now 11, and we were going to move to London, so… future open and new), I did my usual pilgrimage to the corner épicerie where all kids stocked up on candy, and then  spontaneously turened into Rue Verrier. I discovered a strange shop. In my memory, it was lit in a yellowish light and seemed to be selling nothing. But it had small posters in the window advertising cultural events, including concerts. I went in. It smelled of dust and wintry sunlight (it was in February). A fairly old man was standing behind a large, deserted wooden counter, and I inquired what their business was. He explained that they were a print shop, and, among other things, they made these posters announcing concerts and exhibitions to be put up on doors or in prominent positions in various shops and boutiques. This was common practice back then.  “If you get forty shops to take these posters and get a stamp from each shop, you get two tickets for the concert advertised,” he told me. I immediately selected a recital, and  took two rolls of posters, eighty in all. I intended to take my parents along.

Doors of Paris shops were for advertising. From that moment on, my Saturday afternoons and Thursdays (it was a day off in French schools)  and late afternoons were filled with long walks around my neighborhood, posters tucked under my arm and a sheet of paper in my pocket to collect the stamps.

What a great job it was! The parfumeries gave me little samples (I actually remember the tiny Fleurs de rocaille bottle and that very flowery smell, like butterfly wings in ones nose), the boulangeries, and patisseries, and charcuteries had some little tidbit for the little blond kid with bangs. I never checked whether they put the posters up… I had that precious stamp, and that was all I cared about. Sure, schoolwork suffered a bit, but this was a passion that wiped away all those stern teachers with their scowls, their pinched lips, the endless homework … A few weeks later, I returned to the print shop and proudly came out with FOUR tickets… I couldn’t believe it!

Long story short, I did this three times in all. And these were the recitals: Martha Argerich, who was debuting in Paris, Alexis Weissenberg, and Samson François. The concert hall was an amphitheater at what became the University Pantheon-Assas, on rue d’Assas, if I remember correctly. The thrill of earning those ticket and inviting my parents to a concert was quite overwhelming. I stood with them in the crowd at the entrance, like a proud little pine tree in a forest of oaks, heart beating with excitement.

Somewhere in my papers, I have one of the concert bills… Once I find it, I will post it as well.

Weissenberg was one of my favorites at the time, I knew his work from some records. But I always suspected that the recordings were not 100% authentic. After all, the immediacy was not there. I could not imagine how one could play such complicated works with ease…  Here, at the recital, the music was so alive, so clear, so nervous. The occasional error, a missed high note, a vague phrasing… made it human.  These pianists were like top-drawer jockeys riding great thoroughbred horses. They radiated concentration, power, control, and, yes, passion. Eyes and ears, and indeed body received a clear message: These artists were wedded to their instrument, more, they had become the instrument itself, and they made this huge sound, even in the quiet parts. Chopin was de rigueur, but I suddenly heard Brahms and Schumann, and Debussy, and Haydn, and Bach, and Ravel. My musical horizon was turning into a cornucopia of exalted sounds and textures. You could feel the notes, as they came at you like bees, or birds, or drops of rain, hailstones.

At some point, I decided (in vain, I discovered) that I wanted to be a pianist. But that is another story. You need a lot more than just ten fingers to get up on stage and face the audience and, as Argerich once put it, “the crocodile with 88 teeth.”

All the while, my father never told me that he had actually met and photographed Alexis Weissenberg. He could have just said it… He did, later. But in fact, he had met a host of cultural icons and photographed them, including Ernest Hemingway, John Garfield, Virgil Thompson, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Henri Salvador, Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison, and more.

Hemingway and one of his many cats, photograph by Paul Radkai

So that is the story of my first job, as it were. Finding that photograph was a reminder of that one island in the past. Also, a reminder of my father’s curious lack of genuine ambition when it came to his work. Given time and energy, I may understand more about my parents as I continue digging into their past, a tough job, because they were members of that “silent generation.” They were both very gifted, but they, too, had murky childhoods. The islands in their archipelago were not always pleasant places, from what I gather, and the waters in between were stormy.

 

Story of the Red Bear

 

The Story of the Red Bear

Many years ago, at a flea market on the parking lot of a seedy pizzeria next to the highway, my daughter (let’s call her Thalia)  found and fell in love with a little bear dressed like Santa Claus.  She called it Rotbär, red bear, and pronounced it hohtbär (with long dark “O” as in home), because her mouth was still learning those harder, guttural letters. It became her one and only faithful companion, support, savior, friend.

A few months later, disaster struck. On a cold November night, Rotbär got lost somewhere in Basel.  Exactly how is anyone’s guess. We searched for it high and low, made calls, returned to each location we might have been. To no avail. Thalia’s gentle heart, at three and a half years of age, had experienced its first great tragedy, and she was inconsolable. And my heart reached out and tried to pick up the pieces of hers and patch them together.

All is real in childhood.

“Rotbär has certainly gone on vacation for a while,” I told her, explaining, with as much empiricism in my voice as possible, that even bears like to take a break. Winter was on its way, dark, cold, and austere, and he had surely caught a southbound train, to Ticino, to Italy, Spain, later Africa… He wanted to see the world, he would be back, just be patient. In our minds, mine adult and hers basking in the great universe where fantasy reigns, this was all possible and perfectly logical.

It worked. For a while at least. The world is a big place. I had a map in my mind, and it all made perfect sense. I hoped she would slowly  find a new creature to love, or be distracted by the weekly steps a child’s soul makes, but that is not Thalia. Every now and then, she would burst out in tears and say, “Hohtbär is surely, surely lost forever, why would he want to leave?”

This went on for two-and-a-half years, or thereabouts. She did not forget the little bear dressed like Santa Claus. In the meantime, she even pronounced him “rrrotbär,” rolling the “R”s properly.  “He probably found a wonderful place to live for a while,” I told her, “and I am sure he is happy, he must be,” I spoke with genuine sincerity driven by my own emotion.

This worked, too. At least for another while.

But soon after, one quiet night, my usual lucubration was interrupted by a plaintive cry: “Papa, I wonder where Rotbär is right now, I am sure he was stolen by pirates,” and the tears flowed and flowed and flowed, and I felt my own welling up. And so, the story of the traveling red Santa Bear expanded, my imagination driven by the need to console this child. The journey became decorated with touches of real life, train rides, plane trips, seasickness on ships, and joyrides in cars, visits to poor children in faraway lands, who really needed to be comforted by the Miracle Bear, because they had so, so little, and we had so, so much. And Thalia’s little-giant heart of gold, overflowing with a sense of justice, felt this was right and Rotbär was doing fine. So, it worked. For another while. Say a month or two, maximum.

But miracles do happen when we love. And so, one day, I was happy to report that Rotbär had finally phoned me. From England, of all places. It came as a surprise, of course and raised hopes I could not dash.

He told me — so I reported — that he had decided to come back home because he missed Thalia. She was excited. “Really???” Yes, really, I answered, and mentioned in passing that he had probably changed a bit, just like she had changed in all those years. She had become bigger, her language was now almost perfect, and he had been traveling, after all, and had lived rough occasionally. But apparently he still had those clothes on. “He told me he would send a postcard from Hamburg,” I dropped, casually, at the table one day.

I knew other key parts of Rotbär that had “changed,” but I could not tell her. In fact, I will take this secret with me to the next world.

Lo and behold, a few days later a picture came in an envelope – today we’d say a selfie – addressed in heavy, cumbersome letters: A little bear in a Santa suit, looking cocky indeed, and, oddly, sitting on a chair just like the one in our living room. He was obviously somewhere where people also did sporadic shopping at a Swedish furniture outlet. I placed the picture on the kitchen table. At mealtimes, Thalia would look at that bear, and could hardly believe it. Rotbär was really, really coming home. And it must be that bear, she vaguely remembered. He was in Hamburg (“Is that far?”), he is in Hanover (“Is that far?”), he is in Düsseldorf (“Is that far?”), he is taking a ship down the Rhein to Karlsruhe (“Is that far?”), which flowed just a few miles from where we lived. We scrutinized the map of Germany. Once she even asked if he was in Alsace, across the border. “No,” I replied earnestly, “The train line from Hamburg comes through Freiburg, not Alsace…

You have to be realistic, right?

Then came her sixth birthday, on a bright July day. She was having seven friends over. The heat was excruciating. In the afternoon, just as the party was setting off for a treasure hunt (accompanied by our flesh-and-bone cat), after the cake-eating ceremony, heavy storm clouds suddenly stacked up in the sky, menacingly. But they only broke to the north and east of the district, causing floods and all manner of havoc. We just got the dark clouds and wind and a few drops of rain. So, the children could play outside for a while and dip in the inflatable pool and scream.

Thalia was in seventh heaven.  Especially since there was one prodigal guest at the festivities.

This is what had happened earlier in the day:
She had woken up to a festively decorated apartment, with garlands strung from the beams and pink vinyl cloth on a table decked out with fairy cups and princess plates. Suddenly, at 8:20 a.m., the doorbell rang perfunctorily. She ran down the stairs, imagining some present or some well-wishers to be there. On the table in front of the entrance door sat none other than Rotbär, back after so, so many adventures. Exactly, the same as on the postcard. Except in his backpack were some gummi bears. Well, what do bears snack on while traveling?

What a miracle day. It was twelve long hours of fun and games and cake …

Sun was setting, the guests all went home. The day turned to a dusky evening.  Before going to bed, Thalia’s front tooth, which had been very wiggly, finally came out. The tooth fairy would be along as soon as everyone was asleep to round off this magical,  oh-so-magical day. Thalia went to bed, undressed Rotbär, because it is still quite hot out, she pointed out.

Cooler night hours make work easier in summer. I sat down at my desk. And then, after some time of silence, her voice, with those familiar dissonant notes of distress, tore through the now quiet flat. “Papa!” I rise from my desk and amble to her room. “The guests,” – she really called her friends guests – “they said that someone brought Rotbär, he didn’t come by himself.” It’s night now, and the time when our inner voices are often loudest, tiny doubts become raging wolverines eating up our sleep.

Somehow, I had expected this. Or rather, I feared this. The crushing comments of children raised in convenient empiricism…. Like those fragile, pearly little teeth giving way to more stable eating tools, her childhood was ebbing, and with it a power that can truly move mountains. The dreams, the fantasies, were ceding to reason and logic. She knew it. She was proud of those new teeth. Her friends all had Halloween pumpkin smiles already and boasted about it among themselves.

What can we do? We want our children to grow into free and bright individuals. And we want them to keep that secret power of childhood at the same time.

I told her simply they had no idea what they were talking about, and maybe they, too, wanted a magical bear as a friend.

She tearfully, desperately, explained that she had really liked being five years old, and did not want to be six. She couldn’t explain why, but having to go to school suddenly seemed too daunting. “Five is a good age!” she threw at me. I could feel the gate to the Garden if Eden was opening. But we chatted about age, about being six, and fifty-three, and how old grandpa is (seventy-seven) and about why Joni, our neighbor in Hungary, died two years ago at around eighty.

Child that she was, Thalia had few filters. She listened with each cell to what life was telling her and it became experience.  In a few years, no time really, she would be a different person, I knew that. What lesson was there here? Should one obey the harsh laws of 2+2 = 4 and nothing more? Was this a manipulative charade I was playing with her? Would the disappointment be even greater later on? Or was I simply trying to nurture happiness?

I believe in authentic emotion, in sadness, and anger, and joy. We avoid pain, but our wounds are where the light enters, said Rumi. There is so much to say for feeling and expressing our deepest selves. The mind debates the heart, but all its victories are Pyrrhic, because the heart is stronger and will rebel, slip out of the cage of reason, and set fires if it must. Our emotions, and hence our imagination, are what make us whole and real and able to truly communicate in the end.  Her feelings, I suddenly realized, had nothing to do with a little bear in a Santa suit.

“You always knew Rotbär was coming back, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Yes!”
“You believed he would? Truly, in your heart?”
“Yes!”
“Because you really love Rotbär, right?”
“Yes!”
“Well, your friends were not here this morning when the doorbell rang, so they don’t know. He’s here, and that is because you believed it would happen.” This I say in a voice of conviction.
“Yes, and he came back to be with me.”
“Of course,” I answer,” what more do you need to know? Good night, sleep tight…”
“… and don’t let the bedbugs bite” she finishes off.

She fell asleep in minutes, clutching Rotbär. Her dream was still intact, she had all the time in the world to do the growing up bit. She knew a lot anyway, even how to move chess pieces on a board, so I was not worried.

I watched her body breathing quietly, and I keep thinking that it’s true, she actually willed that Rotbär back in some way. She never deviated from the faith in what I, her father, kept telling her.  But it was her faith, her energy, her focus on the dream that did it. The bear was traveling and traveling and enjoying himself and having so many adventures, and she was with him.

This is the genuine power that children have. It’s so unbelievably pure, so surgically precise and in some ways devastating. In the dark room, it took my breath away and released tears of wonder and longing: to be suddenly bathed in this electrifying power of dreams, to feel free of the narrow protective armor needed to survive the daily grind with its inevitable skirmishes,  to just, for a moment, feel the immensity of imagination and the full force of its impact.   She breathed life into any object. This is true strength.   This must be protected and nurtured  at all cost. Not only in our children, but in our own child that we once were.

The house is quiet. I walk back to my desk. Time to get back to work.

 

Note: I published this story a while ago on an old blog. It is personal, and because the Internet is what it is, and I wished to protect my  daughter from exposure to harassment for being a brilliant, well-balanced, dreamy individual, I took it down and replaced it with this. The Internet, for all its benefits, has since been conquered by data-mining feudal lords. It has invaded our erstwhile private spaces and co-opted and stolen our ability to dialogue, our epistemic stability, our focus on important things, our peace of mind, and, worse, the final frontier: our time. This story took place just before that time).

Not so fast-ing

The city I live in, Geneva, has many strange aspects. In some ways it’s a city like no other.  It is very small, but likes to see itself as very big. Somewhat like that image of a little Pussycat looking at self in the mirror and seeing a lion with a great mane. It is incredibly bourgeois, but loves to feel revolutionary. It calls itself the city of peace, and it is, if you consider a passive aggressive disposition as peaceful.

No surprise then, that it has its own share of special days that no one else in Switzerland celebrates (OK, the others have their own days off)… I’ve already written about the Escalade,  which celebrated Geneva’s defense against the Savoyards, who had attacked the city just before Christmas (Gregorian calendar) in 1602. Because protestants  refused Christmas (yes, the original “war against Christmas”folk were the same denomination worried to bits about  a non-existent war on Christmas in the USA).

Today, Thursday September 9, we have another day called the Jeûne Genevois, a day of fasting. What makes it strange is that it comes right after the-post vacation rush back to work and school. It always feels a bit like driving off in a speedboat and forgetting to untie it from the dock. Suddenly you are faced with a free day, plus the following Friday, because this holiday is scheduled for the second Thursday in September.

For school kids and teachers, the Friday is NOT a free day. So the four-day weekend, while tempting, will merely remain a painful longing. A temptation to overcome and  teach us to steel ourselves for greater temptations.

What’s the origin of this holiday? Basically, fasting is quite a common sport and tends to come from religion, as I have written before. It is mostly  done as a form of cleansing and atonement. In Europe, fasting was often ordained after major catastrophes, like plagues. (Chatty aside: This is rather amusing since today a small but vociferous section of the population complains bitterly about any measures taken to slow the spread of our current plague, the coronavirus, and is willing to invent and spread all sorts of extraordinary and often contradictory tidbits of fake information to support their claims. In the good old days, one could just blame the Jews and burn up their ghettos, including inhabitants… And not surprisingly, the covid-deniers have developed a strain of anti-Semitism, notably in France with the “Qui” question, Germany with a vegan cook turned demagogue and a far right wing reveling in denial, and in the USA with the Q lunacy …. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose).

The Massacre of St. Bartholomew (Aug 1572) is thought to have started the fasting tradition in Geneva.

Anyway… Switzerland did establish a confederate fasting day in 1794 during the French Revolution, and reaffirmed it in 1832, but it fell on a Sunday. Geneva decided to go its own way (passive aggressively) and just to be complicated made it the Thursday following the first Sunday in September.

But Wikipedia tells us that the Genevan fast goes back to the night of Saint Bartholomew and the terrible massacre of Protestant families that began in Paris in 1572. It’s not entirely true. there is evidence that the originator of this day off was in fact Jean Calvin himself. No doubt, however, the Protestants here we’re very upset at the horrifying news from Paris back in 1572.  and because it’s Geneva, this particular fasting involves nothing less than eating tarte au pruneaux…. a delicious plum tart.  Those plums are ripe at this point, and this might help understand why Protestants were always considered good in business.  If you can sell plum tarts for a day of fasting, you can sell refrigerators to the Inuit, and SUV’s to people living in a tiny city.

What remains of the fasting process: Plum tarts…

Few in Geneva know why this day is one of fasting. Even fewer care, I suspect. But the tart remains, after all, the motto of the city is Post tenebras lux. After the darkness, luxury… or is it light? Same thing, perhaps.

I rest my case.

Easter Meditation

Easter doesn’t end with the egg-search on Sunday. It goes on for at least another week, and so it should, otherwise, why bother? Here some stuff that has been going through my mind for several years. Now it’s on “paper,” I can let go a bit. Have fun and tell me what you think.

It’s no surprise that the Guardian gatekeepers should have chosen Easter Monday to publish an article about the drip-drip-drip decline of religion in the USA (‘Allergic reaction to US religious right’ fueling decline of religion, experts say, April 5, 2021). The high holidays are a perfect time to draw attention to what one might call a “crisis of faith” brought about by a society that is increasingly secular and unwilling to believe in space-based teapots. To quote Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of that wonderful analogy: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.”

The article, however, does not dwell on any deep epistemological issues, like critical rationalism, empiricism, and the like. Rather, it points to the drift in the USA towards Christian nationalism and bigotry in religious communities as the source of the “allergy” to religion amongst younger generations.

A sentiment that is becoming quite widespread.

Nor does it really mention the glaring contradictions between the leaders preaching water, but drinking wine, living in million-dollar mansions and flying around in private jets from one gaudy show of some stooge being cured of a fake illness or condition, to a revival filled with shouts and shrieks uttered in incomprehensible tongues.

Above all, their embarrassing support of Trump was a gamble, and a bad one. “They are experiencing their loss of prominence in American culture as an unacceptable attack on their beliefs,” says Alison Gill, vice-president for legal and policy at American Atheists, “and this is driving much of the efforts we are seeing to cling on to power, undermine democracy, and fight for ‘religious freedom’ protections that apply only to them.”

It could be called a form of communal reactance. As evidence mounts that would contradict or certain orthodox beliefs (shibboleths) or traditions, a part of the community will inevitably double down and become fundamentalist,  even fanatical. While striving for greater  spirituality, they are in fact becoming classically materialist, since every word in the  Good Book is to be considered true as written, scholars and interpreters be damned.

A different look

For years, now, Christian leaders of many denominations have blamed the dwindling of their flocks on secular humanists, atheists, drugs, Democrats, Communists, liberals, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, and other phantasms. They have a convenient  scapegoat for that, a fellow named Satan, whose origins were brilliantly explored by theologian Elaine Pagels (The Origins of Satan). They rarely examine their own role in the matter. Indeed, any attempts at modernizing the religion are met with a sturdy wall of resistance. Hans Küng, who died on April 6, suggested, among other things, ending celibacy for the priesthood. He was prohibited from teaching! A few years ago, the German Bishops’ Conference also proposed letting women be ordained (please!), and that was ignored. Meanwhile, the church is hemorrhaging cash due to sex scandals involving priests and their superiors.

The famous fig leaf…. covers more than just sexual organs.

Crises, be they of faith, or in one’s marriage, or when deciding what to wear to a party, are usually a sign that something needs changing. And people with questions about their lives will seek guidance. But one thing is certain, young and old don’t want to be yelled at all the time and threatened with eternal hell. Life is stressful enough as is, what with our daily duty to maintain the economic well-being of the collective. People want their religion to make sense in their daily lives today. Not two thousand  years ago.  It would therefore behoove churches to adapt their messaging and attitude to The People, if they want to survive, and not try to convince the people to follow their theology.  This was concisely expressed in a recent interview in  Die Zeit  with a young, Catholic, queer theology student, Chiara Battaglia, who suggests that young people are naturally losing interest in the church (Catholic in this case). “We are so varied in how we are designing our lives, we can make up a patchwork of the best from all religions, we are experiencing spirituality without a church.”

Yet, the solution is simple. The first step for the church (and I am speaking for the Catholic church, but not only), would be to embrace the changes in our society and get back its overarching spiritual message, one shared by most religions, rather than cling to some old, orthodox, materialistic concepts that were always rooted in the maintenance of power. Because the spirituality is still homeopathically present, notably in such rituals as Christmas and Easter.

Search for meaning
Besides economic activity, these holidays offer us a moment of respite in a frenetic social environment. Secondly, we tend to need rituals, because they give both the physical and metaphysical structure to our lives, be that daily, weekly, or annually.

All the better if the ritual in question has a deeper meaning. Like Easter. It comes at after forty days of fasting, for forty days plus six Sundays at the end of winter and beginning of spring. This was a smart idea at one time, since food reserves in our climes could otherwise run out. In our day and age, in the West, our worries are often too much (rather than too little) consumption of unhealthy stuff, be it nicotine or other drugs. But it can also be other bad habits, like doomscrolling, the constant ingestion of divisive, polarizing, and strictly absurd content from the Internet. Even cat videos.

Nothing like the desert to spawn new thoughts and visions. And to reveal our shadow.

And so we want change. The idea of making a conscious, daily effort to enact that change is encouraged and sustained by fasting and by having a mentor. The ideal mentor during Lent is none other than Jesus Christ who went into the desert after being baptized (he saw the light) by John. There, he was surrounded by wild beasts and thrice got tempted by the Devil himself.

Another narrative

The Christian calendar ends this period with the holy week, which, according to Arnold Bittlinger, a theologian and Jungian psychologist (Das Geheimnis der Christlichen Feste) leans heavily on the Roman celebration of weekdays, not a bad idea when trying to graft one theology onto another. It begins with Palm Sunday and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem of the “Conscious I,” the visible world with all its hidden phoniness. It is followed by Holy Monday (lundi -> luna -> moon), in which the unconscious is at work to reveal the truth known to the soul: Jesus withers the fig tree, whose leaves were always used to hide sinful stuff (Genesis 3,7). He also clears the temple of the money changers to restore its spiritual value. In other words, that what the fasting churned up can now be uncovered, and it will inevitably force a conflict, which comes the following day. On Tuesday, the day of Mars for the Romans (Mars, god of visible conflict), Jesus “locks horns with his opponents,” writes Bittlinger. “He destroys his relationship with all representatives of the Jewish people and religion … he delivers a violent end-of-times speech.”

Profound change can mean putting paid to all those who were part of your entourage, to old habits. It must be done with some “violence,” meaning: it must be spoken. The two aspects of Mercury, generosity and pettiness/dishonesty, are observed on Wednesday (mercredi), when the apostles – spurred by Judas – complain about the precious spikenard ointment poured on Jesus’ head. On the day of Jupiter, the god of abundance, Thursday, Jesus gets together with his apostles, and on Friday, we have the day of Venus, goddess of love and, Bittlinger points out, of the cycle of death and rebirth, for she is the evening star when the moon is waxing, and as the morning star when the moon is waning. Death is the essence of change, and while we are in a process, we will feel lonely (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). And at some point, you will have to let go and simply trust: Into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Jesus, our higher or true self, and the twelve apostles, our quotidian self: part of a single organism.

Finally, we have the day of Saturn, the “Guardian of the Threshold,” the symbol of limitations and constraints, real and in our minds, or conscious and unconscious, such as a cave, where Jesus is placed after death. Saturn, the Roman version of Kronos, also represents hard, persistent work that will bring just rewards. Namely a new beginning, resurrection.

Most of us can relate to this process, even to some of its joys and tribulations. We want change, yet we fear it. The stories told of Jesus can help us objectify the process and make it more understandable. The cycle of life and death, or of creation and transformation, is explained by creating a grand story around it (Brahman, Vishnu, Shiva). It is true in the macro as well as in the micro.

Of course, one could be ultra-scientific about change and set forth the minutiae of molecular structures, the sparking neurons, the flapping dendrites and fascinating quantum leaps in our brains. But at times, a good yarn manages to paint a bigger picture in a more exciting manner, and in a way that everyone can understand more viscerally.

Something to think about

One more point needs elucidating. As in a dream, all the figures are in atomized parts of a single figure. Jesus, an androgynous figure, is the “higher self,” the one who knows the roadmap to the future, while his apostles do not. They are living and working in the three-dimensional world, but they must learn to trust their “crazy friend.” So what is Judas doing there, and why did Jesus love him in particular, knowing he would betray him? Because often

Rehabilitating Judas, the “infamous” apostle. We despise that part of us that will force the process, and yet we need it.

the changes in our lives, be they experienced as positive or negative, are actually brought about by an action we took, or did not take. Without Judas, Jesus would have remained just another soap-box hero. With Judas, he finds his greater calling, his divine self, his peace of mind.

And by the way…. Remember the three temptations of Christ in the desert…. That devil is a part of us. We make the choices. At least most of them.

Aftermath

Holy week and resurrection are not the end of the story. Easter week follows and has Jesus wandering around a bit and testing his new enlightened self. How natural! Isn’t that what we all do, when we have managed to transform something in our lives, when we have come through the crisis? A victory lap to test our new self?

Hanging on to tradition for dear life, i.e., fundamentalism, is a natural response to some change, but perhaps not the right one. The fire and brimstone and the endless harping on about sex, sexuality and snakes and the devil simply does not make much sense anymore in the age of advanced medicine, condoms, psychology, freedom of speech, books, the Internet’s freewheeling culture of criticism. Maybe it’s time to make religion a personal story again. Self-development has become a veritable industry that taps into many different health-related fields. If it has such success, it’s because in a disjointed, hectic world, with its myriad distractions and bullshit jobs, there’s a clear need to “find oneself.” It would be a shame to waste such terrific stories like that of Easter by pretending they are based on some real, three-dimensional, historic reality for which there is very little evidence, if any at all. These stories are universal, they are instructive, they are exciting, and they often explain and encourage our inner processes and help us become better humans.

God (or my higher power), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
R. Neihbuhr.

 

Lockdown in the rear-view mirror

We’ve become used to economic crises, since they are endemic to our system. And some of us might remember the oil crises of the ‘70s (from which we learned very little) and the brown-outs and black-outs, and the rocketing fuel costs. But the past year delivered a crisis several generations of westerners simply haven’t experienced. Here’s a brief look back at the first months and my experience with remote teaching.

In Switzerland, the state of emergency triggering the lockdown was announced on Friday, March 13. It had been expected. A few weeks earlier, the first cases of covid-19 had appeared in Switzerland (in Ticino), so the Federal Council gradually prohibited  gatherings of more than 1,000 people, then 100, then less. That put paid to the big trade fairs, like the Salon de l’Auto in Geneva, Baselworld (watches and jewelry) and traditional events like the Fat Tuesday revelry in Basel. It was obvious that schools would have to shut down as well. Two weeks prior, in my school, we had discussed the skiing week and whether it would be possible. Some thought, yes. The thought fizzled. Hope still remained for the school outing at the end of the year… Then the axe fell.

As a substitute teacher now with long-term contract, I was in charge of a class of eighteen teenagers in their last year before entering the equivalent of high school. At first, they were thrilled not to have to go to school. Some were a little worried about their grades, which they hoped to improve in the third term that had just started. Some were already eying a professional path and were worried about it being in jeopardy. My co-main-teacher and I had a special duties towards them: Throughout the school year, we were asked to prepare them for the working life, showing them the many possibilities of achieving their dream or, if at all possible, finding that dream.

Leaving the schoolhouse on that Friday had a mystical feeling to it. There was no drama, no suggestive music, no worries. Just a deafening silence. The airport, which is about 500 yards from the school as the crow flies, had fallen silent, and the air had a whiff of spring unadulterated by the usual scent of burning kerosene.

The empty classroom, March 16, 2020.

The following Monday morning, my co-teacher and I got the class together on WhatsApp for a little chat about how we would proceed. Our orders were to use the Gmail platform, which features “classrooms,” a meeting app, email, etc… But my colleague, far younger than I and a scientist, knew about gaming. SHe had the brilliant idea of setting up a server on the Discord platform, which is not only quite easy to use, but was also familiar to many of our students. That afternoon, I went to school for the last time to gather the books the students had left behind not thinking that the lockdown would happen, and to pick up our class plant.

Last year I wrote about this moment, which some suggested was like a vacation. “A vacation is planned, implemented, executed. It comes with “vacation stress,” the unwritten edict that says: “Thou shalt relax and be nice to everyone and not think of work.” Sheltering-in-place, on the other hand, is like having been on a demented carousel one moment, and being yanked off and cast into limbo the next.”

Revving up

From the start, we felt it was important for the kids to see the positive aspects of the situation. I sent around a few paragraphs explaining how the work environment of the future was demanding more independence from employees anyway (a concept called Work 4.0 that I had had to write about for a company, you can read about it here). The lockdown, I pointed out, would be excellent training in self-motivation, in getting things done, communicating properly, staying “with the team,” as it were. This is what freelancers do every day, anyway (see box below).

This little pep-talk, which I repeated several times during the lockdown, had an effect on some. One boy later recalled how hard it was to work for ten minutes in silence, without the noise of the class in the background (these were very chatty kids). They were given enough work to do for half a day. They received the work in one-week batches and could do the work  whenever they pleased, though as a teacher of English and German, I often asked them to be strict about doing a bit every day. Several learned to communicate their questions or problems in a timely fashion and to actually space out  out their work so as to make it doable, rather than wait for the last minute. Some, of course, disappeared and even calls to the parents couldn’t get them to their desks.

For a generation that has grown up with computers and online, their actual skills in this area were often sorely lacking. They could get pics onto Instagram within seconds, but the computer as a tool was in many cases beyond their abilities. It was time to learn by doing, which is probably the best way.

Back and forth

One key to our online teaching was communication. My colleague and I decided to have regular meetings on the platform. Meet (the app) was not a favorite, mostly, we suspected, because they valued their privacy and were probably sitting in bed in their PJs most of the day. So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we had a conference call at 11.30 a.m. to listen to their questions and problems. Otherwise, they were free to contact us, and we would respond fairly quickly. At all hours, I might add. I remember one evening helping a student with her French reading, a chapter of a book she did not quite understand. So we worked on it together for nearly an hour. Several did their homework after 10 p.m., which is too late.  One morning early – 4:15 a.m., I am an early riser – I found two students chatting away online and had to convince them to get to bed.

Around the second week, I was contacted by a journalist from the Swiss Radio and Television, who wanted to know what was special about the lockdown, what experience people were having that was brand new. As an incurable optimist, I figured she would be interested to know something about the experience of teachers. And so I described how we, the adults, their teachers, had suddenly entered the world where they spent a lot of time. It was a great moment to share their experience, and to give them a bit of guidance in the utility and dangers of the Internet. It bred a sense of familiarity, too, because we were no longer physically present and applying the usual disciplinary methods. They would bicker and joke around just as they did in class, and occasionally we had to remind them that we were still their teachers. It revealed how vulnerable they could become when not seeing who is communicating with them. A physical voice can be very different from the words on a page.

The airport fell silent as well, a blessing for our noses and ears, and lungs, probably, as well

It was probably not a very interesting observation, because the journo was audibly checking messages on the other end and waiting desperately for me to finish my three or four descriptive sentences. I don’t think she even got my name right. That’s perhaps one of the problems with news media, they do need the spectacular to attract attention, and the subtle gets kicked to the curb.

Epilogue

This regimen lasted nearly two months. The kids would struggle a bit with the IT, somehow get the work back to me for corrections. We did one or two classes online with Meet to get some oral work done. Few showed up for these confabs. It was a bit of a struggle, but, in time, a number of the kids started getting a groove. Some even benefited from the occasional one-on-one classes. The bickering (my class had a few high-level bickerers), while irritating, suggested that they were still engaged with each other, and always offered opportunities for learning social manners.

We returned to school in half-classes on May 11. There were to be no exams, the final grades would be those at the end of the second term. The feedback on the nearly two months of online schooling was mixed. Most students in my class were happy to be back in physical contact with their friends. Even seeing their old teach seemed agreeable. The familiarity continued in the classroom, but as an adult and a teacher you have to keep a certain distance. We are not pals, we are not family. Many felt, too, that testing for grades was stressful and somewhat spoiled the fun of learning.  We discussed this issue, and I had to agree with them, but the problem remained in how to evaluate the kids. The idea of no grading is good, but it does need some preparation. The emphasis is on self-responsibility. What do you do with students who are simply different, whose experience has turned them against any organized society?

Soon, we were back at exploring the curriculum, but without the prize and coercion of grades. This held for another month or so. Then, the promise of summer, the balmy air, the brilliant colors, the the glimmering of freedom till September pried their teenage souls from the classroom, the reading, the maths, the grammar, the constraints. It was time to let them go. My colleague and I organized a picknick after the official end of school. Eleven came.

Those I have seen since are doing well.

In the end, the students who already worked well in class, were also the ones who managed the online learning as well. A few did go AWOL. The parents might have helped, but they, too, were probably too taxed by the situation, though some failed to give their children the proper aural space to work in (in one case, I heard a dad speaking loudly into his phone, while his child was trying to read).

The pandemic is over a year old, now, and people are getting sick of it, while many are still getting sick from it.  But the virus doesn’t care whether or not you’re sick of its presence. This too shall pass, as they say, so me must deal with it. Young people are having a hard time with the lockdown. But hand-wringing, moaning or spouting ridiculous conspiracy theories is not particularly helpful. It behooves us adults to remain stable, supportive, encouraging. Remember the film La vita e bella? Roberto Benigni guides his young son through the trials and tribulations of a concentration camp as if it were a game? That may be where we should all be. In all crises, adults must remain adults, and that does not mean being a pill. It means maintaining your humor, your optimism, your reason. Moaning and groaning about the lockdown and cursing at things you cannot change is not adult. To quote Seneca: “Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”

The Box: (I wrote about this last year already : “First injunction, therefore, is to rein in time, set up a rhythm, and stick to it. Your health depends on good sleep, some exercise, and attention to nutrition. Excellence is habit, to paraphrase Aristotle, and it does apply to surviving confinements of all sorts. Chatty aside: I hear so many people, even friends, complaining about being at home in front of the computer, not seeing anyone during the lockdown… I’d like to say: Now you know what it feels like, welcome to my world!).

What happened?

It’s time to come back to reality. Fear and loathing and ridiculous conspiracy theories that have no proof are not how we’ll meet the challenges facing our democratic societies. These will only lead to (more) dissension, illness, death and ultimately war, which, depressingly enough, is one of the most logical reality checks for a society gone haywire.

The last time a Republican president left office after losing to a Democrat, the economy was shedding 750,000 jobs a month and American soldiers (and Iraqi civilians) were dying in a war in Iraq launched using a totally fictitious casum belli, and in Afghanistan. Collectively, we should have learned then what history has been teaching us repeatedly (oh, but “don’t care much about history…” as the song goes): Beware the demagogue…

The Republicans in particular should have learned as well. Fiction and reality don’t mix. In their struggle to generate enthusiasm in the midst of the crashing economy and save the election in 2008, they tapped the Know-Nothing, nativist, lunatic fringe as represented by Sarah Palin. The electorate, thankfully, went for Obama and Biden, a good ticket for a country in the grips of a major financial meltdown. In 2012, Romney did not stand a chance, the economy was in good shape, and the country was well led, essentially, even though today, the revisionists have 20/20 blindsight.

Fast forward 12 years—-A Republican president is leaving office again after losing to a Democrat. But now, he’s a card-carrying member of the lunatic fringe, a kind of latter-day Joe McCarthy, screaming at and about hallucinations, a Sarah Palin on steroids, but with a difference: He’s a practiced con man, one of those synthetic TV personalities, a failed businessman, a crude and boisterous dandy, who has learned to bluster and flatter and somehow exude a sense of power while not actually doing anything. His entire presidency has been marked by scorched earth. And it has had a terrible impact even beyond US borders, where more and more people have been jumping on the anti-science, post-truth (“my truth is good enough”), anti-Enlightenment bandwagon.

Back to the USA: Trump has a fawning base that he despises, because he is, at heart, a terrible snob, and they seem to have the same personal specifation. He’s jealous of people who are simply better than him, be that a skinny Black president, or scientists, experts, or artists, or the many people who put aside their ego, don a uniform, and go do service for a cause or their country or for their community. But he has gotten a taste for ultimate power, thanks to millions of enablers, including the GOP, who have one and all abdicated all sense of decency, all honesty.

Kenneth Copeland, one of the many multimillionaire religious frauds who support Trump. Here he is “blowing the virus” away…

In the process, he has forged a sick alliance with religious groups, televangelists, extremist militias, and conspiracy theorists who are often just on his coattails as a way to get money out of very gullible people. He is, and was always, incompetent, he had no plans, he just improvised badly, depending on his moods and what his twitter feed or some extreme right-wing pundit channel churned up. His rhetorical method was transparent: Generate a lot of outrage by lying or simply saying rude things. He does this to cover up more outrage, to cover up more outrage. And ultimately to disguise the fact that his time in the White House has been one long game of golf and watching TV on the taxpayer’s dime.

Trump has exhausted everyone, because the news media, pro and con, has become addicted to his antics. It’s cheap, too: No need to do much research, the raw material comes by way of the information highway delivered straight to everyone’s telephone. He drove wedges into society, and has thus so confused his base, that many are driven to repeat verbatim his most obnoxious and absurd claims, or the claims of the outlets that support him. Their nefarious influence is even felt in Europe, a continent that has always contributed to the advance of thought, and where people tend to be more critical. Too many people I know are falling for transparent conspiracy tales and marching along with neo-Fascists. Backing out of this system will be tough.


The worst part is this: Donald J. Trump has the full backing of the Republican Party and a cult of millions of followers that refuse to take a serious reality check, because they have willfully let themselves be brainwashed and indoctrinated by agitprop on social media and broadcasts by certain news organizations.

Only now, we have massive unemployment again, and we have shed upward of 270,000 American lives —not jobs, lives—, and the number is rising steeply. These are human beings who died suffocated or from massive septic shock. They are the real victims, not the navel-gazer in the White House. They were thrown under the pandemic bus, discarded by a venal, boring man, a con man, and his nodding and bobbing administration of yes-sayers.

Mismanagement would have been better option, because at least it allows for a course correction. What Trump did — and by extension all those who refused to contradict him — is criminally negligent. And the Republicans have gone along with it and dragged the base into the hecatomb with it.
There lies the problem, and why the “base” cannot seem to relinquish its murdering guru and his repulsive family.

I understand when people are upset that their candidate has lost an election. Happens to everyone…. But this? This total callousness on the part of ordinary citizens? This rejoicing in the death of their fellow human beings? Do these people remember the eight hearings about Benghazi and the strident rantings emitted by Fox News when Obama wore a tan suit? Do you remember the name Terry Schiavo, 12 years in a coma, shrunken brain, and the oh-so-religious GOP going haywire when she was taken off life support?

270,000 Americans dead, the number growing daily, hospitals doing triage to see who can be saved, and mealy-mouthed Republican governors like Ms. Noem standing like a hare in the headlights, not mandating masks, because she is terrified of what a fifth-rate con man and lame-duck cult leader in the White House will say to his base, and how that base will react … Shameless cowardice. And when at war, cowardice leads to death.

I even get the satisfaction at triggering librul tears. It was fun for a while, I’m sure. (As an adult, I think that is pretty infantile, sort of sand-box gloating. In fact, when voting, I actually seek the candidate that is offering policy and unity, and concrete solutions, not just bluster)… The hyarhyarhyars must stop. The tears you are seeing are those of families grieving for their members who died, they are those of the exhausted medical personnel, they are not and never were “librul tears.”

I get it, though. It’s a sunk-cost problem. In for a penny, in for a pound…. The gambler’s dilemma: When on a losing streak, when do you stop? When has the cost gotten too high? When have you mortgaged everything, your conscience, your feelings, your capacity for rational thought, yes, even your swift exit from the game of mass-murdering your fellow citizens?
But the murder is real. The failed economy is real. The total degrading of our nation is real. Forget the problems you have with intellectuals, college kids, the woke crowd, the non-existent Hollywood or other elites, or TV and Cable News, with their endless parades of talking heads and fake “debates” aimed at either creating outrage or false equivalencies.

It’s time to leave this disgraceful period as the tail-end of a failed economic and political system and start a conversation based on reality and facts. The first being: Trump lost and refuses to leave the White house, i.e., he wants a dictatorship. Where is that revolutionary spirit of the T-Party? I thought the Bostonians back then were rejecting the king. Time to do it again, especially such a lousy monarch.

That time is now.

Did RGB die in the nick of time?

The coming confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett is something of a double-edged sword for both parties. It’s being done at a time when the US, and even the planet, are exhausted by Trump’s grand guignol show, the pandemic, collapsed economy, Mother Nature going ballistic, people running around with absurd conspiracy theories in their heads, in short, end times feeling. It is, however, a battle, and as such should be a lesson in self-discipline and focus, especially for the Democrats.

Honor her memory by being focused, calm, collected.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while a shock to so many – and a  source of despair –  has in fact opened a large window of opportunity for the Democrats.  

Over the past eight months or so, Trump and his Republican enablers have literally gotten away with what is tantamount to negligent homicide. Over 200,000 Americans (at last count) have been carelessly thrown under the pandemic bus, and continue to be, all for the sake of a re-election campaign. Thanks to a total lack of leadership, too, the US economy has crashed, the country is exhausted and on the brink of serious violence, and there seems to be no end in sight to this carnage (which Trump promised right at the start).

The way things worked out…


If Obama been nearly this cruel and dishonest, he would have been frog-marched out of the White House well before any election, of course. But Trump is the anti-Obama, he is protected by his party and by vociferous base that nods and lock-steps docilely behind him with each of his vile and undignified attacks on the opposition, on decency, on intelligence, on truth.

And if the Democrats are not careful, he will get away with it in November and then he’ll feel even more empowered to trash the Constitution, after which all bets are open.

How does he get away with it? Backtracking briefly: During the 2016 campaign, it looked as if DJT would lose easily. Every norm he could find was broken, and yet…. He won, squeezing out a few votes in key states where the Clinton campaign had, irresponsibly, failed to read the political tea leaves*. Already back then, it was obvious that the Trump playbook was to stoke the outrage machine till all the valves blew out and a large part of the electorate could barely tell truth from lie from alternative fact. It was a fairly transparent strategy, a classic for any con man: blue smoke and mirrors.

Ask Trump about his platform, and he would just say anything, the more outrageous the better (the “fake news” was a terrific Big Lie). And then the talking heads would be out there filling up hours and hours of airtime with useless deconstructions of his absurdities. Before the cock crowed on a new day, this gesticulator-in-chief and his majordomos were preparing  a new salvo of absurdities so the next round of chattering could start.

So he got away with one-liners, while Hilary Clinton was “boringly” reciting a litany of good ideas. Who do you think got the TV spotlight?

Yacking is cheaper than reporting on real stuff.

The surrogates were in on the game, embarrassing themselves daily with the most egregious transformations of reality into weird reconstructions of the same reality. They excused the boss, they screamed, they ignored, they obfuscated, they pretended that pussy-grabbing was just boys-being-boys, and thus acceptable, even if you had been saved by Jesus, they smiled coyly, they pretended they hadn’t heard, they pounded their chests, they invoked God, they yelled “Bill Clinton,” they said “both sides do it,” but for the Democrats it’s worse…

Here is the most absurd aspect of this little scenario: In reporting every “outrageous” statement, including all the “You are fake news” expectoration, the media was indeed producing fake news. How many times have I emailed anchors and journalists asking them why they didn’t just send a  reporter with an iPhone to Speaker’s Corner? It would be more instructive and less repetitive. Trump’s twaddle could be reported after the weather as faits divers, along with cats giving massages to Labradors.

So why does Trump still have so much support in spite of the massive death toll and the crashed economy? Because he never stopped using the same process, and the media, partly for economic reasons I suspect**, has continued to play the game. Every book detailing his outrageous stuff…. is merely red meat for the base and keeps him in the spotlight. Nothing touches him. His base, absurdly, loves it. The country is burning down, and they are bringing the cans of gasoline.

Bear with me:

The late-night comedians were thrilled. And still are, because the material, as one said (was it Colbert?) writes itself. One of Trump’s latest attention-getters was to, once again, suggest he may not leave office. The fact that this might cause a lot of violence regardless of the outcome of the election (I’ll write about this at another time) doesn’t bother him. Occupying about 80 % of the airwaves and Internet tubes is the point. Even Bill Maher keeps amplifying this point. He admits himself that he may even have given Trump that line …

The result: Biden and Harris can’t get a word in edgewise. I’ve pointed this out for years. But maybe if a real prof says it, it will sink in? This morning, Smerconish from CNN let Michael Sandel, Professor of Government, say it:

“We shouldn’t take his bait and become entangled in a fever-pitch outrage at every new outrageous thing he says. Trump is not a dictator, he plays one on television. And we should not play along as his supporting cast. We should focus instead on his failures to help the working people who elected him in the first place (…) and on the Democrats’ alternative.”

So what does this have to do with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that frail judge who had her finger in the dyke holding back the torrent of authoritarianism…?

The way to mating the king is by a careful and lethal attack. If your position is good, you can even sacrifice the queen to get the job done.

Her death, and the pending confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett  is a golden  opportunity, so close to the election, to break this hammerlock Trump has on the communication channels. Barrett (ACB) is unassailable. She has outstanding conservative credentials, even if you don’t like the idea that she belongs to a strange religious sect. She does her work, has seven kids, is apparently happily married… She has Saturday Evening Post appeal, and whether you like it or not, she’ll play more or less in Peoria. What she is doing cavorting with the likes of Trump now is irrelevant, because we should know that Trump is merely a Trojan Horse for the GOP power grab. They, Trump and most of the GOP, hate each other, because they depend on each other, and one will try to get rid of the other soon.

Play to win
When your forces are too weak to win a battle, draw the opponent to a place where you feel more comfortable. The Battle of Sakarya River in late August 1921 is a good example (for history buffs), where the weaker Turkish forces drew the Greeks, with feints and spoiler work, into difficult terrain, and forced them to capitulate.  Trying to tear ACB down will lose the election for the Democrats and could jeopardize the Senate flip. It will give more fuel to the GOP, which still can’t get over the ripping of Bork and then Kavanaugh. It may not even be necessary. She may turn out to be a conservative but fair judge. Who knows. After all, she got to where she is because RGB cleared the way…

The confirmation hearings, however, will be an ideal platform to respectfully tell the candidate that the GOP flipped and lied and trying to ram her through is not really a respecting her own dignity, and they feel that is not  a proper way to handle the Supreme Court and above all the American People. They must express willingness to look at the candidacy after the election, and the Democrats might really like to confirm her, but it simply would not be fair, as the judge herself said!

There are too many issues at stake that could seriously impact the country in the future, notably the ACA, Roe v Wade, and whether Trump would like, as he says, to dispense with elections altogether. Also, does the country accept the 200k-plus dead as a human sacrifice to the re-election of Donald Trump. In short, they have to make this not about her, and it should not be, but about Trump.

Respectfully, and regretfully, they must say, they simply feel that the process is rushed but the GOP should have waited.  She will get pushed through, the Democrats must congratulate her warmly and ask that she respect the will of the majority of Americans who voted AGAINST Trump. No histrionics. And that should apply to the peanut gallery. Histrionics and cosplaying will dissolve the small lead the Democrats seem to have. Restore dignity. Don’t play the GOP game. Show the American People and the planet at large, which has lost some faith in  democracy, that there is a real alternative, a mature, fair and respectful leadership to be expected from the Democrats, as opposed to the ridiculous games played by the likes of Ted Cruz. That’s my take. I used a few hours writing this, so if you want to help me pay bills…. Feel free.

_________

* I’ve had long and acrimonious debates about her “deplorable” comment, pointing out that it was a profound mistake. I’ll come back to this some other time, if merely to clear up the record: it has to do with the self-victimization of many Trump voters and their deep feeling of being ignored and inferiority artificially enhanced by their news media and, to an extent, funny but slick late-night comedians.  

** It’s expensive to send TV teams around the world  to report on other things, and a lot cheaper to have Trump just deliver the stuff for free, get the same old talking heads together, and fill up the airwaves. So obviously American TV audiences are not very well informed about the world at large. On the other hand, it’s a lot cheaper to have a stringer do it on paper/radio, by the way, or even a social medium. So if you want to do something revolutionary: Subscribe to a good newspaper. And read it slowly.

Vortic’s Five-Year Vortex

I’m waiting for Hollywood to pick up this story:

For the past years, R. T. Custer (no one knows his real name except his parents, I think) has been battling Swatch Group. Some reporters in the watch biz have been watching the story with some trepidation, but few have been vocal for reasons that need a look elsewhere:

The details you can find here. In short: Vortic, a little outfit in Colorado founded by Custer, has been upcycling old pocket watches. He collected the discarded movements whose cases had been sent to the smelter.

Tyler Wolfe and R. T. Custer…. On the ball (and the Elgin, Hamilton, Illinois and other Good Ole Names in American watchmaking)

His intentions and business model have been clear as a bell since day one. One of the names appearing on these ancient dials is “Hamilton,” a brand that is now a part of the Swatch Group stable, a huge conglomerate of watch brands and other enterprises worth over $36 billion…

David and Goliath is not the right comparison. It’s more like drop vs. ocean. Five years ago, Hamilton thought it could squash the little non-competitor by suing for trademark infringement. Custer fought back. Now, the saga that brought him at times to the depths of despair, when he thought he’d have to fold his brilliant little business of making “museums for the wrist,” is over, thanks to the Southern District of New York. Federal Judge Alison Nathan validated the business model of recycling (upcycling) antique watches and hence any antique product, whether it bears an old brand name or not.

Needless to say, Custer and his partners and employees are happy. Not only has their watch business been a success, but it now became a test case for others who might be thinking of similar businesses with, maybe, other discarded objects.

I p

Masks: Reason and Reactance

Are you getting tired of the circus around wearing masks? The demonstrations that some say had 500,000 people, others 20,000? The sick comparisons that say “mask = yellow star?”The professors and doctors coming on with smug faces and saying: “It was all wrong, it’s just the flu, the dead are not dead”? Don’t be tired. Democracy is the child of philosophers, it was never really accepted, it’s complicated and needs a lot of attention.

Face masks, something dentists use, doctors use, surgeons use, even construction workers use, and people who ride bikes in cities could/should use because of pollution, have become a huge bone of contention that a lot of people are gnawing on. There are many reasons for this, but two main lines stick out. One: Scientists can’t quite agree on clear recommendations, not because masks don’t protect, but for reasons having more to do with human behavior and the complexity of confronting the coronavirus and the diversity of masks and how people use them (that was the recent Dutch issue). Many, as scientists are wont do, have tweaked their views with the spread of the virus and the evolution of society’s response. This doesn’t mean they are confused…

Secondly, there is the behavior of some leaders, notably the fellow pretending to be the president of the USA, who made an issue of it early on, mainly because the virus highlighted his utter incompetence in leadership, and it threatened to consume the time he needed for golf, tweeting, and watching television. He had to find something to distract and deflect from his failure and recent impeachment, so he blurted out a few stupidities about bleach (probably a reference to Miracle Mineral Supplement, a poisonous disinfectant  being sold as a cure-all for everything from cancer to autism), UV lights, miracle cures, summer killing the virus, and Democrat hoaxes. The media spent weeks being outraged, and on cue his cultish followers started yelling liberty, unpacking their guns, cosplaying patriots fighting the neo-red coats, threatening health care professionals, in a nutshell, an embarrassing spectacle for an industrialized nation. Thus, the virus spread, and infantile chaos  replaced reason.

Out of the woodwork crawled the conspiracy theorists, and with them the disgruntled doctors with axes to grind against their more successful colleagues – who are part of the conspiracy, along with “the media.” The professors of recondite institutes hopped on board, too, and because it’s such a great occasion to be heard and revered by the data spreaders of social media, the anti-vaxxers unpacked their  axes, of course, and the climate change deniers, holocaust deniers, Q-Anoners, Reichburgers, “populists” (that’s the other word for you-know-what), the Gateway Pundit, gun-toters, Tea-Party apostles, evangelicals, in short, all the usual suspects. A circus that should have been painted by Breughel.

(Update May 2021: Two articles on masks here and here with thanks to Sharon Presley for the two links)

Suddenly we have a kind of war about nothing, one of those terrific distractions that seem to expose a society bored stiff and pampered by comfort and cheap consumer goods, a “Societé du Spectacle,” to conjure Guy Debord, one that has nothing  more serious to think about, like the actual value of liberty (hint: liberty is deeper than being asked to wear a face mask, nor is it equivalent to traffic lights, condoms, seat belts, air bags, helmets, and saying hello when you meet someone).

How are we to get along if every time there’s a collective challenge or problem that needs all of us to concentrate and work together, the political majordomos seize the occasion and set up an army of drama kings and queens with fallacious arguments and oddball theories. Imagine all those whirring servers chewing up energy just to keep all that hot air, arguments, YT-clips and gaslight moving!

Maybe it comes from too much television. Too much info. Boredom. The lure of “interesting” if wobbly facts. A false dialectic. Deep-seated fears of a new-ish situation. Or, as I often suspect, plain egotism and what psychologists call reactance: An almost irrational/immature reaction to being told what to do, even if it is perfectly reasonable. Which is then experienced as an infringement on personal liberty, a deep aggression on the individual, an attack on Grundrechte, basic rights, the Constitution, Magna Carta, the freedom of speech.

Marchers against the mask…. right-wing extremists have gotten involved…

All it’s about is trying to prevent the spread of a deadly virus. And since the situation is quite new, new data demands a new approach. It’s not about basic rights and human rights. It’s more like putting a traffic light at a dangerous intersection.

This sounds very one-sided, and it is, because bothsiderism happens to be an intellectual plague that has invaded the media and it’s doing no one any good. It equates flimflam with the real thing. It’s time to put the church back into the village, as the Germans say : In a democracy*, we have the blessing of rights. Switch off Facebook and the TV, read some material on feudal or autocratic societies by some decent authors, and you’ll immediately see what is meant by rights. But there’s the companion to that: duties or obligations. My liberty is limited by the liberty of others and of the collective, and that means I have to sometimes accept 60%, or even less of the rights-cake. If that means that by “spontaneity” is being infringed upon, then so be it. If I have to urinate, I look for toilet, I don’t just do it where I am standing. Ethics demand that we ask ourselves: What if everyone did this, what would the world look like (I think that idea was propounded by Kant, but let’s not get too serious).

Rights and obligations maintain a balance between the individual and the collective. Otherwise our society would become an ochlocracy. A rule by mob. Where silo-dwelling groups, believing that they have the right to do X, Y, or Z (like the gun owners in the USA, by the way), theatrically proclaim it, do it, and get into everyone else’s hair. This can have dire consequences, even murder. Imagine if everyone did it with the anti-mask and anti-confinement actions… You don’t have to imagine it. Look at the USA. 185,000 deaths (updated) and climbing. Brazil the same, where the evangelical boss ignored the threat completely.

That’s why I posted the quote by Mathieu Ricard from his book Altruism on my Facebook page:

Individualism mistakes the freedom to do what you please and real freedom, which consists in being master of yourself. (…) Spontaneity is a valuable quality as long as it is not actually mental agitation. To be free inside means first and foremost liberating yourself from the dictatorship of egocentrism and the negative sentiments that go along with it.

Here’s the deal: Many friends of mine complain about having to wear a mask. That’s a luxury. The same friends pass around the shrill screeds of anti-maskers and usually in the same breath anti-vaxers, another great luxury, since the same people tend to live in nations with outstanding medical infrastructure, excellent doctors, with health insurance, a phone number that will get you an ambulance in ten minutes, and where vaccination programs have led to herd immunity already, so you are free not to get vaccinated. That’s not the case in many developing nations, where crowded conditions, lack of medical care, and poverty (often due to our unquenchable thirst for cheap consumer products that have to be manufactured for $3 a day) make diseases deadly. I often mention diphtheria in Yemen and polio in Afghanistan, but there are others.

I don’t have the luxury either. I work. Every day. About 140%, because I do my work as a drifting journalist and copywriter, and as a teacher. The latter means I am in a small classroom (about 45 square meters), with twenty-three teenagers, who tend to chatter a lot (aerosols). I have to speak loudly (aerosols). Some kids might have asthma (risk), or diabetes (risk), or it’s their parents. Or their grandparents, who take care of them, because the parents are working. We are dealing with a highly infectious disease (if you think Covid-19 is a hoax, please protect yourself with tin foil). I might carry the virus without knowing it. Or it’s one of the kids who brought it in. I might transfer it home without knowing it. I do know that a mask can help however. Because I read a lot about it. And because three dentists  told me. And other medical personnel, like my doctor. Especially if social distancing is not possible. That’s all. It makes me a covidiot, a sheep, and some other choice terms, but too bad.

My classroom is a two-thirds of this and the tables are closer togteher

And by the way: Even before the pandemic, I sent sick kids home. Because I didn’t want a classroom of sick kids to delay the course. Maybe this time we can even reduce the impact of the other flu. Who knows.

At any rate: Here is the conclusion from a long article in the Telegraph explaining that the mask alone might not be perfect, because the problem is in the feeling of  safety that a mask can generate, which in turn means that people can forget to keep their distance. The article is fairly clear, and a lot less smug than some of the stuff floating around. Bottom line:

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “A number of new studies and systematic reviews have persuaded most researchers and public health officials that they should be worn, including those who were skeptical a few months ago …  Growing evidence on potential airborne transmission of the virus adds to the case for face coverings.”  You don’t have to wear a mask at home. But if you’re in a train (which many of my anti-mask friends are not, in a shop, or in a crowded place, just do it. Even if you think it doesn’t look chic enough. You can take a selfie without it at some other time.

*Democracy…. what is it…. I have a few ideas about one branch, but it’s for later

Parallel Worlds (Part 3): The Followers and the Fighters

 

This is the last section on conspiracy theories (for the moment). It is written to bear witness to what I see as a genuine poison in discussions these days about matters political and social. More and more people dear to me are falling for these patently false narratives created to enhance the “owner.” And increasingly, they begin sounding like members of a cult, with a specific liturgy, tropes about “freedom,” constant self-victimization, and the arrogance to think that their narrative, unsupported and  made of whole cloth, is somehow of paramount importance for the world.

Why I take the time to write is a good question. It’s not to criticize my friends or acquaintances who decide to post this stuff. They are well-intentioned, often. Many seek self-improvement, self-knowledge, new-age solutions, but in our discussions, I sometimes notice a reluctance to be stringent in their thinking. They are suspicious of authority, they question shibboleths, they want to find alternatives, they don’t want to be conventional. This is all good, when exploring a topic dialectically. But when you set up syllogisms full of weak or fallacious premises, the entire construct collapses in a sorry heap. That is not the result of a conspiracy, but rather shoddy data.

One of the almost laughable contradictions of many conspiracy theories, particularly noticeable in  the ones swirling around Covid 19, is that they keep saying that “they” (government, journalists, etc.) are trying to create fear in order to “fill in the blank.” The conspiracy theory (hereafter CT), of course, is in and of itself based on the idea of spreading fear. In fact, fear is a major emotional pillar holding up conspiracy theory, even if the creator or “CEO” of the theorist pretends to be above it all. He/she must communicate the fear to the followers. “Whenever there’s an event, a global event or even a local event, that makes people feel that they have lost control over their lives or their future, that is when conspiracy theories emerge,” said psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, on 60 Minutes, Australia. He pointed out that CT, ironically,  offer some people comfort, a way to explain the randomness of life.

Fear and rationalism are not good friends

It’s sad to see your friends drift into this bizarre, ephemeral thought system. Because passed a certain point, no amount of rational or empirical argumentation can help. The CT acts like a psychotropic drug of sorts and conspiratorial group think begins to kick in and it all starts smelling like a cult, in which people are bound together by a certain core beliefs. As one friend wrote about another: “She understands what I am saying but just wants to believe. She wants to believe it.” Let that sink in. And she feels good with this strange and provably false world view.

This reinforces the drug/cult analogy. Addicts do not like to be told to stop. They often go into a rather immature form of reactance and will continue cutting their nose to spite their face. The cigarette smoker will say “I like to smoke after meals,” without realizing that the non-smoker does not because of one difference, namely, the addiction to nicotine, which informs our brain to like tobacco and will make it “taste good.” Furthermore, like the cult member, the conspiracy theory peddlers will sacrifice friends and family to the growing obsession with the theory itself. They will say and do anything — the most callous, disrespectful, absurd nonsense — to support their view. They will dig themselves ever deeper, send you more clips in the silo that the YouTube or Facebook algorithm offers them. The tone of the conversation will get condescending, and then aggressive. I have seen this happen repeatedly.

For some, this might appear quaint, almost funny – though irritating after a while, as a few spouses of conspiracy theorists confessed to me – but for others it’s like watching a person become slightly psychotic and it is worrisome. I’ve seen people spew unadulterated bilge in public and not even get corrected. On the contrary, when I do speak up, as I am wont to do,  the company shushes me, not the conspiracist. Facebook is a case in point. It’s public.

What drives people to embarrass themselves this way? (Because it is embarrassing to fall victim to transparent sophisms). It may be something banal: lots of time, no necessity to earn a living and boredom. Sometimes it’s merely reactance, that psychological switch that tells us to resist being told what to do. It could also be the thrill of being engaged in something apparently meaningful.  The conspiracist has made it to the barricades of humanity. So, the Follower is now part of the Epic Battle against a huge, invisible, ungraspable, lethal enemy, and plain logic and banal, provable facts are just too insipid to get the endorphins going.

The Internet, of course,  is a great incentive for believing in, and generating, conspiracy theories. The True Believers can gather together, raise their profile (the German language has the verb sich profilieren), and be seen amidst a community of backslappers. Flat Earthers, Truthers, Birthers, those who believe that Theodor Adorno wrote Beatles songs to destroy our society’s moral fiber (or something like that) … It has become one of the great tools for real research and communication, but it is being taken over by a rising sewer of nonsensical conjecture that a critical mass of people believe in for reasons only a psychologist can explain — whereby I put it down mostly to loneliness caused by that very Internet, which is increasingly atomizing society into little units of despair, where immediate human-to-human communication has become a rarity.

When your cat channels the CIA

The rabbit hole

What you soon discover, when dealing with these souls, is that arguing is pointless. You love your friend, because you knew him or her as a kind or funny person, quirky maybe (Ph., I’m talking about you), you offer alternative views, you point out the logical errors (essentially to alleviate the fear you hear in the conspiracist’s language), you ask for real evidence, you shed as much light as you can on the issue. In one case, after listening to 90 minutes worth of of utter bilge, I told a friend: “I know the solution, we should just commit suicide.” He stopped his rambling and asked: “Why???” And I answered, because all is lost, everything is occupied by an invisible enemy, they are obviously on the building opposite and listening to this conversation…” For two hours after that, we could converse normally.

In the end, however, you will lose the argument, since the goal posts get moved with every factual contradiction. The conspiracy grows and grows, like some horrid blob… Ultimately, you will have to follow a standard 12-step program. Number one:  You are powerless in the face of a CT junkie. Two, you cannot change another person. As the Fighter against the nonsense, you must, at some point, admit defeat, and that admission will be your personal victory, the moment you stop enabling the other. You can offer your view – and suffer the consequences – and that’s it. The alcoholic, like the CT-junkie, has to hit rock bottom. A number of conspiracy theorists who got Covid-19 and almost died or lost relatives have spoken of their experience in public. The illness brought them back to reality. But that is not something you wish on your friends, now, is it? As for the rest, they will continue filling their minds with these exciting but vaporous theories until some event drags them back to reality. And I am afraid that event will not be pleasant.

 

 

Parallel Worlds (part 2): The Makers and Shakers

My last post was a general explanation about why I feel it’s important to expose conspiracy theories (hereafter CT) for what they are: in short, dangerous bullshit (cf. Harry Frankfurt On Bullshit). Dangerous because they get people confused and they very often lead to violence. Here I explore what CT is, and what is the reason for promoting it. A note: This is merely a short intro… Books have been written about this subject. I can recommend Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (not directly about conspiracies, but the anti-expert idea is closely related) and Thomas Milan Konda’s Conspiracies of Conspiracies.

Short version:

1) Conspiracy theories have been around for ages. Some are fairly harmless, many have sparked mass killings. If you don’t believe me, check the pogroms, beginning in 38 AD in Alexandria, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Rwandan massacres, various “ethnic cleansings” that we’ve seen since 1992, etc. And just a note: The ur-conspiracy theory in the West is anti-Semitism.

2) What are they and how to identify them: The CT is a style, in fact, a way of cherry-picking facts or inventing new ones, and then drenching them in jaw-dropping conjecture. The more absurd, the better. The bigger, the better. In fact, CTs are open-ended when it comes to size and absurdity. The tonality is “whispered,” in case someone is listening, the unheard music behind the CT is spooky.  Conspiracy theorists love certain terms, like “elites” (meaning invisible puppet masters in their tales), or “deep state,” (a great one that the Trump cult seems to have launched. They love spy-talk, like “stochastic terrorism,” “false flag,” etc…). The popularity of Q-Anon was based on this: someone “inside” was divulging top-secret stuff…Even the use of the letter “Q” was clever, I have to admit.

Conspiracy theories essentially state that any incident large or small is controlled by some evil forces or individuals who intend to …………………. (fill in the blank). Some of them go very far, talk about lizard people, etc… You’re now in crazy territory. A young student, Abbie Richards drew a very concise chart worth viewing. What she does not mention, however, is that the lower theories are often “gateway drugs” leading to  near psychosis. (More below). But be prepared to be called the idiot if you dare contradict the Believer, because he/she is a member of a secret society battling for the very survival of the community, the country, the continent, then the planet, the solar system, damn, the very universe, which could collapse into pre-Big-Bang tininess, because the coronavirus was created in a lab, maybe.

3) These individuals promoting them like to pretend (or they really believe) they are at the forefront of an apocalyptic battle of good versus evil, usually one that cannot be won anyway, which is what makes CTs so durable: It’s about nothing real. The theorists also like to pretend they are victims of the Great Conspiracy: Ask yourself, WHY are they being taken down from social media or their material is not taken seriously by regular news media? They will say: It’s the evil media, the elites, the deep state, the Queen of England, Jeffery Epstein, the CIA.If you can take it, listen to a guy like Steve Bannon or Alex Jones, and while they rant on about their battles against these invisible windmills, ask yourself: How do they make their money?

In fact, conspiracy theory has nothing to do with free speech. The reason many of them remain obscure, and should, is because of the gatekeepers (editors and the like), who check the material and see if it is relevant, true, verifiable, in any way significant or meaningful. The other reason is because they distract from real issues and are therefore dangerous, even lethal. They can convince an unstable person to commit acts of violence, and in the current situation, they are slowing down the moment when the rest of the planet can get back to work again. 

4) The real personal motivation for generating these myths is usually recognition, money, and/or, power.

5) There is now some serious political motivation and impact: Most of the Covid-19 “anti-maskers,” “it’s just influenza,” “hydroxychloroquine,” “we should be like Sweden,” “It’s all a hoax,” etc., material on the Internet started or has been co-opted by so-called “populists,” a euphemism the media use to describe what are essentially anti-democratic forces.  In the USA, the highest bully pulpit is occupied by a fairly transparent con man who freely dispenses conspiracy theories and lies and bullshit, which are then picked up by his media (Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart, etc) and his apostles and spread around. Alas, the mainstream media pick this stuff up as well, and make a big deal out of it, so the rubbish gets far too much exposure.

This all has been amply documented by serious journalists, which is precisely why we have a president in the USA who has been rambling on and on about “fake news,” and conspiracy theorists just repeat that message. Like sheep going baa baa. If you have been following the climate change “debate,” you will see parallels: 97% or so of the scientific community says: It’s real, it’s here, here is the evidence (Swiss friends, look at your vanishing glaciers). But suddenly, all attention is on the 3% that say it’s not the case. I asked Australian psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky about this phenomenon, here is his response:

“(M)ost of the dissenting climate scientists had terribly mediocre careers (at best) until they became climate deniers. And then all of a sudden, they appear on TV and testify in front of Congress and so on. The second thing is that most of those scientists have a long history of contrarianism in their field—science does tend to attract the occasional cantankerous individual who would not fit in anywhere else. But those are just anecdotal impressions rather than hard data, so I can’t be too certain except for the first three—money, ideology, notoriety.”

6) Watch out: Facebook and other social media are an easy and cheap way of spreading the deflection, because most people think” oh, this is interesting, maybe it’s true.” I would posit then, that a major factor in the spread of conspiracy theory is the fact that “clips” from YouTube are easy to absorb and difficult to deconstruct. It is just like the coronavirus, each reader/listener needs to use an intellectual filter to sort  out the  lies and the BS and the vapid arguments from what’s more or less real. An example: When the coronavirus hit, there was very little information about it, but the conspiracy theorists were already online (Dr. Wodarg in Germany was one of the first) developing all sorts of ideas. The duly elected governments, however, have a duty to protect us, it’s their epistemic responsibility. So they can’t just fllow Mr Wodarg or the hydroxychloroquine salesman in Marseilles… And the lack of data meant that many governments were faced with a very difficult choice. 20/20 hindsight is useless at this point.

Finally: What you can do about it: First, stop posting this stuff and saying “I don’t have an opinion, either way.” If you don’t feel competent to read a text, don’t promote it, it’s irresponsible. You are literally risking people’s lives from the safety of your keyboard. Also, the moment you post something, the algorithm will register you as having an opinion and will send you more of the same rubbish.  If you do feel like posting something you find interesting/different, then check it out carefully: What is the source? Did you Google it, and which sources came up first will tell you who is pushing it. Check out the fact checkers like Snopes, etc., they often do excellent work. And then check their work. Many conspiracy theories are built using syllogisms. Check each element. Does it sound right? Does it even sound possible? What’s missing?

Now you’ll start seeing why the satrap in the White House has tried to denigrate and minimize the hard work of real news gatherers. I’ve never been a “great journo” doing big things, but I did not get a press card because I believed in hobgoblins. Now you’ll also understand why there’s a job description called journalism.

Here’s the longer version:

Conspiracy theories have been around for ages.  Many are simply developed by individuals seeking to draw attention to some pet political/social topic, expose a bugaboo, frequently a non-existent one, or simply to boost an individuals need for self-importance and recognition. In politics, the conspiracy is a great way of attracting attention and demonizing the opponent, and in the religious field, one finds a great deal of  these stories, especially since religious leaders tend to self-victimize and self-stigmatize. It’s part of the charisma.  At any rate, CT can be fairly effective, depending on the audience.

So what is a conspiracy theory? Basically, it’s the idea that the world’s events, large and small, are in fact being controlled by invisible, all-powerful forces. Sometimes these are  organizations, sometimes they are individuals, but then they tend to be “untouchables,” like billionaires Bill Gates and George Soros, whose elevation to Dastardly Doyens of all that is evil is in fact nothing more than latent anti-Semitism, the financier having replaced the Rothschilds in the roster of Jewish evilissimas. The groups or organizations have often existed for real, like the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Jews, the Club of Rome, and so on, but their impact is nothing like what the conspiracist will describe. The Communists have been favorites in the USA since 1871, believe it or not, and a separate chapter should be devoted to them. Suffice to say, when you hear grown men who are supposed to be leaders call Democrats “Marxists,” you know they are merely string up archaic fears.  

I would encourage people to read Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style”  published in Harpers Magazine in November 1964, a time during which the impact of the McCarthy-driven red scare was dwindling. It pithily explains how the conspiracist actually works. Hofstadter uses the clinical term not because he considers CT a sign of proponents being “of unsound mind,” but because “(i)t is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant (…) Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric.

This is a crucial distinction to make. It’s not only the content of the CT, but the tonality. At its core, therefore, CT is the obvious backed by a spooky soundtrack.

In my view, there are at least three identifiable tiers to the CT, plus a few ancillary players, like the media. Tier 1 covers the owners of the information, the ones who launch  or really curate the conspiracy theory. “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public,” wrote Hofstadter, “the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.

Therein lies the danger. This is a fight that will need confrontation. And in a country like  the USA, where guns are a plenty,  who knows which neurons will suddenly start sparking and backfiring… In addition, the conspiracist will always intimate that he/she is a victim of sorts, and has been or will be attacked. One inspector from the Federal Criminal Office (the German FBI) I knew told me that one political cult I was researching used to call him up to tell him they’d been shot at, or attacked in some way. All nonsense, but he had had to investigate. Pete Evans, an Australian star chef and noisy conspiracist also kept suggesting in an interview that if he disappeared or died, it would not be an accident. An incredibly irresponsible thing to say, but conspiracy theorists are, if anything, irresponsible.  

The motivation

There are too many reasons to create these odd fables to list here. In recent times, though, becoming an Internet celebrity is one way to slake ones thirst for recognition and money. You have the notoriously callous Alex Jones, whose porcine grunting especially about the Sandy Hook “crisis actors” finally got him into well-deserved trouble he well deserved, or Glenn Beck, with his Vicks-induced theatrics and his chalkboard covered with phony connections. For these two, dumping their self-respect to make fools of themselves brought in the riches. Pete Evans, mentioned above, was also selling some $24,000 “light machine2 that was supposed to perform some miracle.

The Internet has boosted CT considerably, by offering very cheap platforms to spread the nonsense. Facebook and others, have become festering sewers of conspiracy theories, and the average user will spread the stuff without really thinking. This is irresponsible (as I mention above). But it’s also why Facebook and Twitter have come under attack.

The notorious Q-Anon conspiracy theory is particularly pernicious in this regard. Q is allegedly a clandestine source in the government explaining to the world how Trump is combating elites, the “deep state” (a typical “obvious thing” with spooky music in the background), child pornography; in other words, he is the Messiah. Indeed, the QAnoners use terms like “awakening” and are awaiting some grand moment when a bunch of Hollywood stars will be arrested for child pornography. This strange obsession is in and of itself unhealthy. Q cannot be seen or named, and is thus particularly thrilling for those who’ve fallen for the con. This irony, that an invisible person is spreading non-information, and people believe it (several spreaders are members of Congress or want to be) make Q the almost the perfect conspiracy theorist. My hunch? Look for a 400-pound guy in a basement, or the like (in the meantime he’s rich…there are so many suckers out there).

Worrisome…

Ranters like Jones and Limbaugh and Hannity  and Savage and Kirk are dangerous, because they tend to fill their audiences with fear and loathing. They will not incite violence directly, but they will condone it, and the anger they generate can easily fuel violent acts. When you speak of a specific group with such hatred, violence must always be considered as a possibility. The far-right, Trump-boosting  Sinclair Broadcast Group finally pulled a 26-minute video called “Plandemic” by an anti-vaccination barker named Judy Mikovits that put Dr. Fauci at the center of a massive conspiracy theory (they are always huge!), which in turn drew death threats to the good doctor and his family. Really nice, right? CT is dangerous.

But pulling out late is actually just a brand-washing technique… the insemination has taken place and the story, boosted by the Internet’s steroids, then runs all by itself. No amount of debunking will work (pizzagate is still a thing among the QAnoners, in spite of a guy actually going there and shooting up the place only to find it didn’t even have a basement.  But the conspiracists can now ALSO say: “You see, they are trying to silence us!” It’s a perfect con game.

The plunderers

That’s when the second group of conspiracy theorists gets going and plunder the first. They are generally less noisy, so you must train your ear. I call them “Monday-morning quarterbackers,” mainly because the only reason they can comment and critique and invent is because they are safe, they will not really get their hands dirty. Take the Covid-19 conspiracies: Governments have already imposed measures that have “flattened the curve” and saved lives, so the conspiracist is not faced with a very dramatic situation. They can be smug about it and say: “Merkel should have done this differently. Look at Sweden.” Extrapolating from Sweden, Germany would have had about 50,000 deaths. Then the same people would be on television or YT channels saying: “The government ran a euthanasia problem, they should have imposed a lockdown…” See how it works?

Their discourse is easily recognizable, but sometimes they manage to sound so reasonable, you almost think they are legit. Take  the hydroxy clamor: It started with a little-known doctor in Marseilles… He suddenly says he has a miracle cure. It’s early in the pandemic, people are afraid. Hope blossoms. His name, as is to be expected, is uttered from pole to pole. He may legitimately think he has got the solution. But the medical field has rigorous  systems in place to test, and his “testing” didn’t pass muster. The testing system is to prevent accidents (like thalidomide) and points out that his study has serious flaws and the drug he’s using has unwanted side-effects… (The average vaccine takes over 10 years to get onto the market).

But Trump gets wind of it and uses his platform to promote it.  And then come the real plunderers, like Simone Gold, promoted by a far-right-wing group affiliated with the astroturfish Tea Party. She  makes a video (much better than writing the stuff down, which then has to be read and checked) that goes viral. By time the real fact checkers have pointed out the incredible flaws in it, the absolute nonsense, including the speech by some strange doctor in Texas, who believes in “demon sperm,” and the dangers of  believing her, the  video, like the coronavirus, has infected  millions.

 
Conclusion:

I have spent a lot of time just skimming the surface of CTs and hopefully communicating how urgent it is put a stop to them. Unfortunately, they are now genuine money-makers, and that means they are driven by robust profit motives.

In our both-siderist  culture, it may appear unfair that I only listed the right-wingers. There is a reason for this. First, they are definitely the most dramatic and loudest ones. Second, they have now been integrated into the mainstream of conservative politics, which have drifted to the extreme right wing. Third, they have made it over to Europe, where, suddenly people of all stamp have started demonstrating against mask-wearing, the confinement, the government, etc. There’s a political will behind it. As I mentioned: The boy who cried wolf…. If you can train people  to not react to the  cry of wolf, when the wolf is there, you can’t get people to move. Think of climate change. Governments will have to act at some point. What will my anti-masker friends say: “Here’s a really interesting clip, a scientist no one has ever heard about says it’s just a way to achieve the New World Order. Actually, he says that driving SUVs and flying around the world millions of times a year is totally harmless.” And the person saying that will be the same boy who cried wolf.
I’m not saying conspiracy, but one fake conspiracy is a really good way to conceal a real one.

In part 3, I’ll briefly look at the Common Folk, those who carry the water for the conpiracists.

Parallel Worlds (Part 1)

 

The following is the tip of an iceberg that I have been writing and gathering information on for ages it would seem. I’ve cut the story in three parts (Part 2 and Part 3 plus a note on masks). No one has time anymore to read, alas, which is one of the problems causing the issue explored below, but if you need some background, like my motivation for touching on this subject, maybe some credentials, a deeper look, you’ll find it after the main body. For those who send me clips that I “have to watch,” please consider how much time I’ve spent with pen in hand listening, reading, taking notes. Deconstructing. You can get through about 1000 words.

Here’s why I am writing it. The Covid Crisis has become highly political. It has destabilized people in our very comfortable societies, where having one’s nails done or going to the gym is considered essential for survival and liberty. As every expert on conspiracy theories will tell you, unsettled times tend to boost the spread of these strange tales. Today, it’s the Internet, notably mass-gathering platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which are like Speaker’s Corner in London to the power of 100. I have been confronting them among strangers, and especially among friends since before the Covid crisis. And each time, it’s a journey down the rabbit hole.

Sadly, I have lost dear friends to this bilge, because CTs are an assault on intelligence and they literally block any discussion by their very nature: The conspiracy is always immense. It gobbles up any evidence proving it is nonsense. And those who become entranced by them tend to act like addicts (I’ll cover that in Part 3).

They are petty as well: Conspiracy theorists, for example, call mask wearers sheep for following rules, the way one might stop at a red light. Is that nice? Are the 163,000+ (now over 1 million…) dead Americans sheep for dying? Herman Cain didn’t wear a mask. He’s dead. Oh yes, they say: Covid is a hoax, they died of something else… like the truthers who deny that planes didn’t take down the Twin Towers. I’ve argued with fundamentalist Christians…. They have the same attitude. They believe and promote patent lies, but the non-believer is the idiot.

And so I am beginning to feel like Bérenger at the end of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Lonely, but incapable of joining the cult-like community that believes that there’s a “they” out there and “they” are out to get them. There’s also something somber to these CT. The same people who are spreading doubt about climate change, are also spreading doubt about the veracity and impact of the virus. And they are the same people who want to see Trump re-elected. Those are just the facts, available straight from the horse’s mouth, no mysterious dot-connecting necessary. Look it up. The Fox pundits, the Breitbart gnomes, etc., all are maintaining a large base of conspiracy-addled people, mainly for financial gain …

(New info: a friend of mine I promise to keep anonymous dined with Glenn Beck, the man who uses Vicks under his eyes to “cry” about the desolate state of the USA.. He asked him about the conspiracy nonsense. Beck waved it off, saying he didn’t believe any of it himself. To the question “Why do it then?” Beck just pulled out his black Mastercard.

 

Conspiracy theories and fake news are good friends. They are often promoted by groups with an axe to grind, with an agenda (yes, they are projecting). What Trump has labelled fake news, for example, is merely his way of discrediting the hard work of journos. By repeating that stupid trope over and over again, he has created a nimbus of doubt around the mainstream news, and suddenly everyone is calling news they don’t want to hear fake. Ironically, by reporting all his nonsense, the MSM have, to a certain extent, started reporting fake news, precisely the hallucinations put out by the Trump admin. Of course, they are forced to do their job and report from the White House. But couldn’t they slot this rubbish behind the weather?

Anyway: There are such things as facts, with a bit of bias maybe, but anyone with a functioning brain can distill the info out of the editorializing, as long as it’s not just editorializing or out-and-out lies, like the stuff pumped out by Fox News and the other far-right channels. It’s called critical rationalism.  For years I read the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine, it didn’t affect my appreciation of its news value. Many conspiracy theories regarding masks, Hydroxychloroquine, sipping luke-warm water, “where are the bodies,” Covid as Hoax, “it’s just the flu,” “it was created in a lab,” the film “Plandemic”, etc., are not true, or are slightly true, making them in Harry Frankfurt’s definition: bullshit (cf. his treatise on the subject).

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

When I receive information, because a conspiracy believer or a well-meaning both-siderist assumes we all have to read fake news, otherwise we are violating someone’s freedom of speech, I have the politeness to read it carefully. But before spreading it, it is actually the first reader who should check the sources, check out everything. That is what I do, and I don’t get paid for this job. You check who is promoting the information. And finally the famous question: “cui bono?

Years ago, a friend sent me a strident, Islamophobic harangue from Britain First politician, a neo-Fascist party. It led me to a peculiar Institute (where I found John Bolton on the board) that seemed to specialize in Islamphobic rants. One on Germany listed endless  crimes of migrants (heavy emphasis on the sexual, since that is a special department of the conspiracist). I started looking them up online and contacting people and found some that were 5 years old, others that were non-existent, some were poorly reported (a foreigner, no country of origin, had accosted a woman on the train, another woman had falsely reported being harassed, but it turned out to be a hoax, etc …). I’m not saying that NO CRIMES were committed. But this was pure propaganda… written by a fellow with apparently lots of qualifications.

That’s the work that needs to be done.

I’m not saying people are stupid for believing this stuff. It’s just that I happen to have a good nose for CTs, having literally studied them and read hundreds of primary sources and secondary sources. It began in school with people throwing  around “Commie” as an insult, and I wanted to know what a commie was.  I investigated a political cult years ago, read all their literature and tracked the other organizations they ran, and where their information was landing. You can “hear” the conspiracy vocabulary emerging through the language. And it’s politically left and right, though these days , the right wing has made CT their main means of self-promotion and attack. Reasonable friends of mine have fallen for the stuff, reporters who should know better but who, trawling the internet, slowly caught the bug, and are buying the data.

CT is like a drug. It’s so attractive. Everything, at first, seems so easy to folow. All the pieces are in place and everything works. As if real life were so simple. Ever see the film “Small Change?” It was the Truthers’ big moment. I wasted hours on that one. It unveiled, nay, it screamed out a GIANT conspiracy involving all sorts of actors…. but I had a friend who was an architect and who explained very simply how the towers fell and why building 7 fell. The information was corroborated by other architects and experts. So the CTs make you feel like you understand everything, and that the Lie is So Big, that it must be true. But that is exactly what the Conspiracy Theorist is banking on. Using a Big Lie to uncover a Big Lie, which is non-existent. And being shown proof that the theory is wrong in 100 small points,  shouldn’t make you feel ashamed, just corrected. But this is where Brandolini’s Law kicks in:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.

Even if the information comes from a doctor: Listen and read carefully. I communicated with a psychologist, a known CT specialist briefly. His answer: Besides money and ideology, “(o)ne of those additional motivations is notoriety: most of the dissenting climate scientists had terribly mediocre careers (at best) until they became climate deniers. And then all of a sudden they appear on TV and testify in front of Congress and so on.” My own experience has shown that doctors and scientists are just as prone to peddling fake stuff and then screaming conspiracy, when the community does not react or tells them to check their facts, because they have it bass ackwards..

But let me ask: If you believe, say, Dr. X who says it’s all a hoax, why don’t you believe the other 35,000 doctors who say: “It’s very dangerous, infectious and hard to cure when acute, so let’s be really careful.” Is it because you like to hear a maverick, a contrarian, someone who says different stuff? Is it a form of contrarianism? Or does the doc varnish  your prejudices, the niggling doubt, the grain of paranoia that is stored in our lizard brain for protection?  Or does it awaken the control freak in us, especially at a time when things on the planet seem totally discombobulated?

These are the questions we have to ask ourselves. So please, learn to navigate the web.

One “doctor says” video was the infamous Simone Gold promoting Hydroxychloroquine and the cure by a “doctor” who believes in witches and wizards impregnating women in their dreams, literally! It is all funded by an extreme right-wing group in the USA. Knowing this, why is the video still on people’s timelines?

Then there is another, a French geneticist, who sounds very reasonable, but suddenly, after blandly and sweetly going on about various banal matters, she makes an assumption that pierces the information. “While it is reasonable to suggest that the corona-virus is a natural development, she prefers to think it was engineered…contradicting the bulk of geneticists. Wow. I spent 90 minutes listening to the good doctor, and noting the problems. The vaccination tests in South Africa are another area where she combines conspiracy with truth. ( https://www.conspiracywatch.info/alexandra-henrion-caude )

The most recent “doctor speaks” video I received was one from Sweden. The author says in the first sentence that the information is anecdotal. And seems to support the idea that “ripping the bandage off” is better than slowly pealing it off, as was done in most European countries. That is: no lockdown, etc… Great for the 5,500 people who died, right? What is not said: The Swedish health ministry also applied measures and throughout March to may, the cities were quite empty, and shops closed. The economy suffered, like elsewhere.  People kept distant from each other. And 5,500 Swedes died, because …. Well… That’s what some people would like answered. Because they were old? Sounds like a modern version of Aktion T4. That Sweden seems to be enjoying respite from the infection for the moment has to do with summer vacations, cities less crowded, and the fact that 50% of Swedish households happen to be single, apparently (I have to check that info). It may be interesting to note, that in discussing a Vitamin D study in another post, the doc mentions that Muslim women have a deficiency because they are always covered up. That info needs checking. It sounds sort of strange. It takes time…

So yes, dear friend: Go Sweden, as you say… tell that to the families of the dead. And the death toll in the USA is still going up and up. And in Brazil, where an Evangelical runs the country … Please be careful of what you say. What is hurting our society is selfishness and callousness. It’s time to get back to humane and human norms.

Masks: They are not equivalent to the yellow star. They are one way to protect ourselves and, if we happen to have Covid and not know it, our neighbors. I go shopping here, there are many old people shopping with me. I have a robust immune system, I hope. I might not notice being ill. I could spread it. I’ll be teaching in crowded classrooms, I have to be careful, for myself, my family and the families of the kids. We had cases of Covid, if it was a hoax, it wasn’t a funny one.

And by the way: Is anyone complaining about condoms? Are they a plot to enslave men’s penises and ruin their pleasure (at least one Trumpist thinks so? Is AIDS a dastardly plot concocted in labs to… I don’t know what, but none of the thousands who have taken part in the non-existent plot have ever said anything. Maybe they were all killed? In the basement of a pizza parlor in Philadelphia?

Finally: Are CT harmless? Just a little pseudo-intellectual horse-playing? Here’s where I beg to differ. Some conspiracy theory (CT) is funny, at times just weird,. At best, it starts confusing the issue. At worst it is harmful. It can blow the odd mind, as happened to a friend of mine who is bipolar. The pogroms against Jewish communities beginning in 38 AD, or in Norwich 1177, or during the Black Plague were all triggered by conspiracy theories. Same for the the September Massacres during the French Revolution, or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995 (the main perpetrator, Tim McVeigh was a member of the Patriot Movement and was obsessed with the idea of government overreach…. In psychological terms, a case of extreme reactance. Need I add: the Holocaust,Stalin’s mass murder, Pol Pot, even Mao’s brutality: All fueled by conspiratorial thinking, the belief that a mysterious “they” were plotting “something.”

Ultimately, these were victims of conspiracy theories that dehumanize the “other.” Spreading them is very risky.

If Trump and the GOP hadn’t been so obsessed with the elections and how it made this ridiculous con man look, they would have been able to control the pandemic. The result is thousands and thousands of deaths and lots of suffering, plus a supine economy, and no end in sight. That is NOT harmless and it might explain why the American right wingers are desperately trying to distract people with silly tropes about masks. .

In sum: CT are used to manipulate , to distract, to attract attention. My German friends who are convinced this is all manipulation insist that the recent anti-mask demo in Berlin was attended by 500,000 people. The police said 20,000 max. There are scientific ways to estimate those numbers. You measure the surface area where the demo was held, and essentially you count two people per square meter. The police were right. A picture posted on the web was from an anti-racist demo a while back.

The solution: Be skeptical at all times. If anyone seems to have some secret knowledge about some Big Thing, ask how he/she was made privy to that data. Silly clips that say “You won’t believe this….” or “This is the biggest scandal….” … are usually just trying to attract attention. Information these days is easy to spread, and that makes it less than precious. Listen to the tonality…

Part 2 should be up soon.

In the Vortic: Two American Tales in One

In 2015, thanks to the Baselworld jungle drum, I landed an appointment with a man named R. T. Custer. It’s his name, by the way, and he insists on the initials – his parents’ choice?– because he’s from an advertising background, and dammitall, that name sticks. We met at the Ramada, as it was then called, where free-floating watch-folk who wish to avoid the prohibitive costs of the fair’s booths run around with attaché cases filed with products that may or may not achieve breakthrough on the market.

R. T. Custer: cycling upward in business.

Young, dynamic, crew cut, straight-laced, yet not, R. T. enthusiastically pitched me his products. They were a little different from all the power-watches I had seen at the fair. Vortic, an artificial name, had launched a collection of large timepieces assembled into clunky cases made up of two segments produced by direct laser metal sintering.  The dials were mostly original vintage dials and featured the names of the old American Greats, like Elgin, Waltham, Illinois and…. Hamilton.  What struck me most, however, was the story behind these timepieces:  The movements were original Americn movements and some of the salvageable dials were being taken from pocket watches that had been scrapped for their gold and silver cases. Why not recoup this junk, recondition the movements, restore the dials that could be restored, leaving sometimes the fissures and chipped enamel as patina, and sell them.

He bought a farm in Colorado, hired a few people, including a watchmaker, and set about developing his business. A new and more coherent case was designed, a new collection was launched with the name Vortic on the dial (the Journeyman series). When I interviewed him for the second time in 2016 (for Wristwatch Annual 2017), he was ambitiously dreaming of making his own movements. By this time, the cases had been vastly improved. They were in one piece and the crown, large and with the appearance of an industrial , had been moved to 12 o’clock.

The first Vortics were rough and rugged.

Evolution to a real watch with a strong identity.

For the past three years, Vortic watches have had a separate chapter in my Annual. They are eminently recognizable due to their size, the visibly “old” dials, the protruding crown, and the fact that most of them bear the name of an old American brand. Their appeal is obviously the nostalgia so many feel about those “good ole days.”

So much for the American tale of “crazy idea makes big,” a tale that any Hollywood producer could turn into a moderately successful flic. The second tale is not so fun… 

One day, RT received a gloomy letter. It came from lawyers representing Swatch, the Swiss-based giant, owner of such brands as Omega (yes!), Blancpain, Breguet, Harry Winston, Jaquet Droz, Longines, Tissot, etc, etc., etc. In their stable is Hamilton, and it wanted R. t. to cease and desist using the Hamilton name, which had appeared in an ad.  In other words, a multi-billion-dollar behemoth of the industry was attacking some guy in Colorado. R.T. fought back as he could, almost going bankrupt in the process. He finally happened upon a law firm with strong trademarking experience and the case went to trial at the now famous (thanks to Trump and Barr)  United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The story is well documented by Christopher Wood of BizWest in Colorado, so you can get the details here. The arguments essentially boil down to this:

Vortic using vintage Hamilton watch faces constituted copyright infringement, and that the company was producing inferior knock-offs by mixing old Hamilton parts with modern parts so it would fit within a wristwatch case.

Vortic holds that the watches using the Hamilton mark are clearly distinguishable from modern Hamilton-branded timepieces because it only repurposes Hamilton’s American-made models decades before Swatch bought the brand, not the ones more recently made in Switzerland.”

A verdict is still pending, and Hamilton has already stated it will appeal if it is not in their favor. Not very nice, but once the company decided to litigate, it had to see the “war” to the end, alas, and it has the money and the power to do so.  In his article, The Curious Case of Hamilton International Ltd. v Vortic LLC,”Allen Farmelo offers an in-depth and cogent examination of the issues involved and what the judge, Alison Nathan, will have to consider. Vortic claims it is “upcycling,” i.e., reusing/recycling older material, which can be seen as a “noble and fair pursuit, perhaps even one that honors and promotes those brands,” Farmelo writes. “Hamilton, on the other hand, sees Vortic’s use of Hamilton movements and dials as an infringement on their intellectual property. For Hamilton to prevail in these ongoing law suits, they will need to establish that Vortic’s re-purposing of the older Hamilton components constitutes trademark and/or counterfeit breaches as described in the relevant US Federal Laws on intellectual property—which, perhaps unsurprisingly, differ from those set out in the Swiss legal system.”

We’ll see.

But before we do, let me reproduce the post scriptum that Allen Formelo added to his reprinted article:

“I had pitched the story to many publications, and only International Watch was willing to go to print with it. The rejections I received came in the form of rather frank explanations that Swatch Group, which owns Hamilton, was too close to ad revenue sources. I didn’t see the problem, as long as one provides a balanced report that doesn’t take sides. For full disclosure, this story came to me through a conversation at Worn & Wound’s WindUp event in NYC with the folks at Vortic, but I quickly cut off conversations with them and instead began research and pitching.”

This one paragraph reveals one of the aspects of the business of writing about watches and business in general that can be terribly nerve-wracking. Any journalist being critical of the industry of certain brands or products, will get shut out. And since the industry is dominated by big groups, loss of access can become a real problem. So writing about watches is at times reminiscent of the story “How the Soviet Robinson Crusoe Was Written,” by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov.

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