Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Life With Albert Speer: Part One

I recently finished reading Speer: Hitler's Architect, a fascinating and highly critical biography of a historic figure who has interested me since high school.  I intent to write a review of that book.  It will be in two parts.  The new material mixed with my recollections of the older material in my library and this motivated me to review my modest collection on Albert Speer.  This new biography by Martin Kitchen is my fifth biography on Speer.

Let's start with the fact that I have read Speer's autobiography Inside the Third Reich several times in my life, though not recently.  I have read his prison memoirs, Spandau, twice.  His last work, Infiltration, was so boring and obviously self-serving that I never finished it.  I was always impressed with Speer as a genuinely intelligent, creative and introspective person, with a keen awareness of technology and productivity and dramatic affect.  His entanglement with the Nazis was a source of interest to me. Here was a man who obviously knew what he was doing.  He was never popular within the Nazi circles themselves, he was never political or racist enough for their tastes. How could such a man become so involved with world events that he served a 20-year prison sentence for force-ably working millions of slaves in the Nazi industrial war machine?

My biographies on Speer mostly dismantle the post-war mythic image that Speer cleverly created for himself, which I accepted at face value for many years.  My personal journey of discovery about Albert Speer began with me completely accepting his perspective of events.  Through many years I have evolved into a more sober understanding of the man. The initial hammer blow came from Matthias Schmidt who wrote Albert Speer: The End of a Myth, which revealed for the first time that Speer had been directly involved with the forced removal of tens of thousands of Jews from Berlin as part of his city planning for the massive building project he managed known as Germania.

Gitta Sereny wrote a humanizing biography of Speer entitled Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth.  It is critical of Speer but generally sympathetic to the idea that he was existentially wrestling with the guilt of his involvement in World War Two.  Sereny seems to draw things out of Speer, such as his genuine contrition while depressed at the beginning of his prison sentence and his absolute belief that Hitler was going to win the war.  Likewise, Joachim Fest, Speer's personal editor since Inside the Third Reich, apologetically writes in Speer: The Final Verdict of Speer as a capable, talented person caught up in the powerful political tide of Hitler, as the Fuhrer's closest friend.  He admits Speer was responsible for the eviction of 75,000 Jews from Berlin, but, importantly, their fate was not necessarily death at that point. The Final Solution was not a matter of policy when the Speer's eviction idea was initially implemented.  Speer didn't know (nor did he care at the time) what would happen to them.

With Dan van der Vat we reach the first comprehensively negative biography of Speer's life, The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer. Van der Vat is proud of the fact that his work is “the first book about Speer over which he had no personal influence.”  At best, van der Vat finds Speer a master at improvisation, which led to his success within the realities of Third Reich.  For the most part van der Vat is critical, showing conclusively that Speer had to have known about the Holocaust (something Speer specifically denied during his life) even if he didn't directly participate in it himself.  The substance of van der Vat's polemic biography is more thoroughly elaborated in Kitchen's new biography so I'll save the specifics for there.  But, suffice it to say The Good Nazi opened the world's eyes for the first time to the greater depth and breadth of Speer's involvement within the Nazi regime. 

A few ancillary books round out my collection. Hitler's Engineers provides interesting insights into both Speer and his predecessor Fritz Todt and their supervisory roles in a wide range of architectural and engineering achievements (everything from the Autobahn to the V-2 Rocket) for Germany. Tales From Spandau delivers a factual account of Speer's prison life, along with the lives of the other Nazi's imprisoned there.  The Wages of Destruction is a brilliant book in its own right, dealing more broadly with the German economy under Hitler, but naturally including a lot of critical information about Speer as Minister of Armaments.  The primary conclusion of that book is that the so-called “Speer Miracle” in armaments production (Germany expanded rapidly and peaked in production very late in the war under Speer, despite heavy Allied bombing) was largely due to policies already established by Todt before Speer took over his ministry.

So, with all that in mind, I'll start with an overview of Speer's life as I understand it based upon all the information contained in these books.  Prior to 1942, Speer served as Adolf Hitler's architect having designed the Party grounds at Nuremberg in 1934, winning a gold medal for his design at the 1937 international exposition in Paris, and supervising the building and construction of the new Reich Chancellery 1936 – 1938.  Also in 1937 Hitler made Speer the General Building Inspector for the Reich Capitol - planning the details and supervising the initial demolition for Hitler's dream of transforming Berlin into the incredibly ambitious urban space known as Germania.

It was his close association with Hitler (said the be Hitler's closest friend, if he had any at all) that allowed him to become so intimately involved with the aesthetics of these massive architectural projects and to accumulate power within the Third Reich.  As Minister of Armaments he was infamously credited with having extended the war effort by a year or more, thereby costing many millions of additional lives, given the severity of the fighting in 1944-1945.

For demanding the work of millions of slave laborers employed by the Nazi industrial efforts (though he was not directly responsible for supplying the slaves to Germany, that person was Fritz Sauckel - who was hanged), Speer received a 20-year sentence at the Nuremberg trials. His defense at Nuremberg was a gamble that worked. Speer shockingly accepted "joint responsibility" for the crimes of the regime he supported through his work.  In doing so, he cleverly distanced himself from the other Nazi's on trial like Hermann Goring, whom Speer despised.  He also claimed to know nothing of the Holocaust and to have served merely an administrative function within Hitler's circle rather than having any political or ideological affiliation.  He spent his sentence in Spandau prison with several elite Nazi's who had, like Speer, escaped being hung as a result of the trial, most of whom were serving lesser sentences.

There is much more to his story, as I will get show in my next post, but that, in a nutshell, was all I knew when I first read Speer's immensely popular autobiography Inside the Third Reich as a high school student.  My library features a first edition hardcover of that book today.  I have read the book 4-5 times; obviously Speer's life has fascinated me. Here was a man seemingly involved with creative pursuits when he was suddenly thrust into playing a critical strategic role in Germany's war effort.  He was close to Hitler and the book provides many intimate details about Hitler's inner circle as well as a front row seat to the collapse and eventual defeat of the Nazis. Speer professed to be aloof from the politics of the Reich, serving as a technocrat without any political convictions or aspirations.  Like so many others, I bought that story for many years.

His follow-up book, Spandau, was also interesting to me and I have read it a couple of times.  It is an account of his 20-year prison sentence, his interactions with the other Nazi officials imprisoned there, his struggle with guilt and depression, his therapeutic use of his hands and his imagination to build a lovely garden in a walled-off courtyard at the prison.  He walked the central path he constructed around the garden thousands of times as a prisoner, calculating the distance carefully so as to match his reading about various parts of the world which he "visited" through books and walked to in his imagination as a coping mechanism to ward off the monotony of his long sentence. 

The book also contains some details on how he secretly managed to write his memoirs on whatever scraps of paper he could find and have those writings smuggled out of the prison to be later edited after his release.  (Writing by the prisoners was severely limited to a few letters to friends and family now and then.  Such a large-scale biographical project was forbidden to everyone while imprisoned there.) Spandau fascinated me almost as much as Inside the Third Reich. Here was a man very different from the other Nazis, who were mostly unrepentant.  Speer was struggling with contrition, obviously more articulate and intelligent than his fellow prisoners, and interested in putting his mind and body to the best possible use within the confines of prison life.

Without exception my teen self unquestioningly accepted the view that Speer was ignorant of the Holocaust and was a "reluctant but effective" apolitical administrator over Germany's war economy. But gradually through the years it has become apparent that Speer, as most people do when writing their memoirs, cast himself in the best possible light. Through misdirection, omission, and outright decent, his cleverly constructed myth of an apolitical technocrat only responsible for the horrors of the Nazi regime through "joint responsibility" has given way to a much more personal and direct involvement with some of the crimes committed.  This was an eye-opening process for me taking place over a couple of decades.

The most recent contribution to Speer scholarship is Martin Kitchen's Speer: Hitler's Architect.  It is a thorough accounting of Speer's character and personal achievements and actions – placing this against sobering the backdrop of his full support for Hitler's regime.  It is a sharply critical summary of Speer's life, taking into account the research contained in most of the books mentioned previously while blazing new trails regarding Speer's guilt and individual responsibility. Ultimately, I find Kitchen's judgment to be somewhat unfair to Speer.  He seems to think the amoral Speer should have nevertheless acted differently; that is, morally.  I'll post more about that in part two.  Nevertheless, Kitchen's research is thorough, detailed, and thought-provoking.

Kitchen records that Speer wrote an essay in 1936 praising “the Fuhrer's buildings” (mostly Speer's designs) as an epitome of National Socialism.  The article, Kitchen implies, proves that Speer was more politically and philosophically ingrained with Nazism than he admitted in Inside the Third Reich. Further, Speer's claim to have built the new Reich Chancellery in less that one year was a lie.  It actually took two years to complete.  For Kitchen this is an example of the lying and myth-making engaged in by Speer that can be found in earlier research by Schmidt and van der Vat.  The one year claim not only made for a better story and greater prestige within Nazi circles, it also revealed how far Speer would bend the truth to make himself look “miraculous.”

Kitchen builds a strong case for Speer's manipulations of facts but he goes a bit too far in my opinion when he critiques Speer's colossal gold-medal winning German Pavilion design for the 1937 international exhibition in Paris.  Kitchen points out that the Soviet design was erected directly across from Speer's and it also won a gold-medal.  Kitchen claims Speer's design was “inferior” to the Soviets.  This may or may not be the case.  But the argument is knit-picky.  Kitchen takes every opportunity to put down Speer as a fraud and a swindle, without artistic talent.  On this particular point, among others, Kitchen overplays his hand.  The fact is Speer won a gold medal.  To argue that his design was inferior is little more than the sour grapes of neo-liberalism.  It is an unnecessary argument.  Speer can be accountable for other “crimes” without being a “bad” architect. His architectural talents are a matter of style and taste, not a matter of honesty or competence.

On the other hand it is fair to note that Speer chose the titles “Our Empire Style” and “The Globe” for the chapters about his work on Hitler's Germania project as presented in Inside the Third Reich, indicating a sense of arrogance regarding this massive building project. Of this Kitchen writes: “Germania was designed to be the backdrop for a permanent display of the regime's awesome might. Its architecture was intended as a power-political instrument at the service of National Socialism.” (page 71)  It is fair to conclude that Speer's efforts were not just artistic but had the intent to convey the strength of Hitler's movement.  Speer admittedly was enraptured with Hitler's world-dominating bid for a Great German Empire.  

Kitchen shows how closely Speer worked with the notorious SS on many of the Germania-related projects, including the eviction of Jews from Berlin. This began in late 1938 when the demolition of certain sections of Berlin were scheduled to commence for the eventual construction of what would have been the largest architectural achievement of any capital in the world.  The demolition work would displace a large number of German residents.  Speer's solution was to evict the necessary number of Jews from their apartments and, in turn, make those available for the resettlement of the affected German citizens.

“By the time Speer was appointed Minister of Armaments on 8 February 1942 his plans to rebuild Berlin had created a nightmare.  In close collaboration with the SS, he ruthlessly exploited the labor of concentration camp inmates in quarries, brickyards and factories producing building materials....Speer made thousands of Jewish families homeless, most of whom were handed over to the Gestapo to be shipped to what was delicately described as 'the East'.” (page 96) By November 1942 almost 24,000 apartments involving 75,000 Jews had been cleared for German Berliners displaced by the Germania project. (It is important to note that the Germania project actually never got passed the planning phase.  Nothing more than some test elements were ever built.)

Kitchen also points out that by the time Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 (Operation Barbarossa) Speer had tens of thousands of workers formed in special units to build prisoner of war camps in Poland and Russia.  Many of these prisoners were used by Speer as labor for works in Berlin. “In his first address as Armaments Minister Speer claimed that 'until recently I lived in a world of ideals'.  He was constantly to harp on this theme as he made himself out to have been nothing more than an architect, who was suddenly thrust into the armaments industry, an artist who overnight had to transform himself into a technocrat.  He used this line of defense at Nuremberg so as to disguise the more sordid aspects of his career....The brutal treatment of Berlin's Jews and the construction of a number of concentration camps for the slave labor he required for his mammoth building projects were a significant part of this ideal world.” (page 121)

More damning, perhaps, is the fact that Speer's organization was directly involved in the expansion of the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz, expanding the housing facilities there as well as constructing the crematoria.  This was known within the SS as “Professor Speer's Special Program.”  While not directly involved in the project (in order to accumulate his vast powers he delegated almost everything), Speer was personally informed of all the details by his key subordinates “whereupon Speer told Himmler that he agreed to all of Hoss's demands.” (page 156)

Speer's influence gradually came to be felt throughout more and more of the Nazi war economy.  He rose to incredible power over almost every aspect of raw materials, factory maintenance, war goods manufacturing, technical research, and the production of firepower.  Speer exploited labor from every conceivable source, including the Nazi concentration camps.  “By 1944, 500,000 concentration camp inmates were working for Speer...Speer was later to claim that working for him gave prisoners 'a chance to survive'.  This is a shameless perversion of the truth.” (page 221) In fact, the conditions were often horrific and many died as slaves to Speer's war economy, although Speer did express general concern over the need for nutrition in order to maximize productivity.

But even Kitchen finds some redeeming aspects to Speer's actions.  When Hitler came to see that all was lost in early 1945 he ordered that all industry and transportation assets (factories and bridges, etc.) be destroyed in areas lost to the conquering allied armies so that they would be of no use the liberators.  “It has to be said, however, that it is to Speer's credit that he put a significant amount of effort, and ran considerable risks in doing what he could to countermand Hitler's orgy of destruction.” (page 272)  Kitchen also refers to Speer as “an outstanding organizer and manager.”

In part two I will complete my review of the Kitchen biography and look back on 40-plus years of interest in the humanity of this enigmatic man. Where lies his guilt?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Mailbox is in the Ditch

Last week I received a call at work from Jennifer stating that the mail box had been knocked over. She said the box itself was fine but that the 4x4 wooden post was "split."  I didn't know exactly what that meant so I cancelled an upcoming appointment at work and drove home to check things out.  

The post snapped off in a diagonal fashion about one-third of the way up.  It was sitting next to my neighbor's mailbox which was also clipped off only his was about two-thirds of the way up.  How this happened I could not tell.  There were no skid or tread marks.  No dents or marks on the actual posts themselves other than the breaks.  The only piece missing was my neighbor's mailbox door.  

It took more than a casual force to cause such damage, maybe a piece of farm equipment swiped them as it came through. Regardless of the cause, I had to either get a new post or repair the old one.  I picked up the mailbox and saw that it would fit back together is I could find something to securely fuse the two sections of the broken post.  

So, I rushed back to town to see what Home Depot had to assist me.  I was disoriented looking for pre-drilled metal plates of some sort.  A guy in the plumbing section offered to help me (even though it was outside his departmet).  We rummaged through a smorgasbord of plates until I found two 15-inch heavy-duty ones exactly 4 inches wide.  A perfect fit for my post.

"I don't know if you are going to want to buy those," the Home Depot guy told me, still sorting through the disarrayed collection of pieces.  "How much are these?" I inquired.  They were about $8 each (the other items in the assortment were $2-$3).  I thought, what an incredible bargain! This was exactly what I had in my mind as I was driving back to town.  But, I figured the guy was used to people nickel and diming him a lot.  "Ouch," I emphatically replied.  "Oh well, I still need two of them."

As insurance that I had what I needed, I bought a couple of smaller, thinner plates as well, along with a box of screws. Since Jennifer was on business, as I drove home I planned how I was going to manage to prop up the mailbox, make sure it fit snugly and properly, while drilling the screws.  It sure would be easier if someone could hold it in place while I had two free hands to bolt it together like an orthopedist operating on a broken arm or leg.

Then a wave of good karma happened upon the situation. Literally as I was topping the hill before my driveway I saw my neighbor (who was not home when I was there earlier) rounding his house with his electric drill in hand.  I pulled into the drive in perfect timing with him arriving at the scene of the debacle.  

"Somebody's been messing with us," I smiled to him as I got out of my truck.  He ranted about how fast people drive through here and how reckless some people are and how we weren't raised to cause such damage and not at least try to contact the owners to accept responsibility for the accident (if it was an accident).  He also said that whoever did had to have mess up their vehicle, even though neither of us saw any indication of how the breaks actually occurred.  I couldn't disagree with anything he said.  But his tone changed when I delighted him about the plates I had just picked up at Home Depot.

Working together, it took us all of about 15 minutes to fix both mailboxes.  The heavier metal plates mended my 4x4 perfectly solid and steady.  The smaller plates did the trick to stabilize his mailbox.  It is amazing how fast you can accomplish things when you have the right help and the right tools all line up at precisely the right time.  If life were always so easy.  

We looked everywhere for his missing door flap but only could a couple of small chunks of it scattered across my driveway.  Afterwards we stood and talked for a good long time.  He offered to pay me for the plates and screws but I wouldn't hear of it. "That's what neighbors are for," I offered. And that took him on a tangent about how country people have come together through the years all around us and helped each other.  There was more than a little nostalgia in his voice as he lamented about the fast-paced, impersonal carelessness of the world.

I shared with him that this was only the second time since 1993 that I have a problem like this.  The last time my mailbox was on the opposite side of my driveway and had been taken out by the garbage truck.  The company promptly bought me another one and I moved it to where it sits today in order to stay away from the garbage pick-up.  I still have no idea whether this was some sort of bad high school prank or the accident of extra wide farm equipment or what...but I am glad the damage was not any worse than it was.  

Fortune smiled upon me when I returned from town at precisely the moment my neighbor was ready to fix his mailbox.  It was a good visit to catch up with him; we haven't really talked other than to say "hello" since before Christmas. He's right. Stuff like this is what neighbors are for.  And the world has gone crazy, even if all we had to show for it in this case was a couple of mailboxes somewhat mysteriously chopped in the ditch.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Trump, the EPA, and Your Toxic Future

As I pointed out previously, the first Industrial Revolution almost occurred in China several hundred years before it happened in Europe. There were various reasons why this did not occur, not the least of which was an invasion by Genghis Khan. But before that happened, the Chinese city of Kaifeng became the largest urban area on the planet.  It housed more than one million residents.  It was the global hub for science and development and a fledgling iron works industry.  

Remembering Kaifeng is useful today because it seems many among us have forgotten a simple, undeniable historic fact. Wherever unregulated human beings prosper economically it is always at the expense of the environment to the degree that it poses a threat to human life itself.  The region around Kaifeng was heavily forested but within a few decades the landscape became completely denuded.  Vital wood and other materials had to transported from many miles away.  The industry suffered but so did those living in the industrial waste and environmental devastation - the worst in history up to that time.

Also as I have posted here, here, and here, China remains one of the world's worst polluters today. Millions of Chinese citizens dies every year from breathing toxic air and drinking toxic water. Conditions are just as bad in India, if not worse. The singular thread connecting these two rapidly growing world economies is that neither country has had any regulatory oversight on the environment. The fact is that in modern times the "Socialist world" has become the worst polluter on Earth thanks to a hands-off approach to pollution and environmental healthy.

In essence, this is what human beings do to their environment every time.  There are few if any historic examples of how economic development and free enterprise factor in the environmental impact.  Instead, profitability and productivity are the holy grail of economic prosperity.  Left free and unencumbered, human beings will fill their pockets with money and neglect the environmental consequences until the environment becomes unhealthy, causing disease and death. 

Even with the EPA, America remains one of the worst polluters on the planet.  Our country's great industrial revolution was the source of incredible wealth and opportunity but, predictably in the view of history, it was also the source of unmitigated toxic pollution.

President Trump does not believe in history.  He does not learn from the past. He (and most of his sorry supporters) believes that the EPA is equivalent to the IRS and should be abolished.  His choice to head the department believes such a drastic act is justified (although it really doesn't look like outright elimination of the agency is not likely to happen). How does he think this country will look ten years after this ill-conceived decision? Are we Americans more enlightened now than we were 50 years ago where the environment is concerned?  Without the EPA, Lake Erie died in the late 1960's.  There are countless facts about pre-EPA American disasters.  Love Canal, New York, Picher, Oklahoma, Libby, Montana, Louisville, Kentucky, these are the places of America's environmental heritage.

Just today Trump and his ilk decided that the Clean Water Rule which protects the drinking water for 117 million Americans (not to mention crops and wildlife) should be "dismantled".  This is a major blow to the EPA's ability to protect the environment.  Let's get the facts straight here President Trumpet.  It was precisely the horrific, unregulated conditions of drinking water in this country due to dumping by individuals and industry that lead to the Rule to begin with.  Trump calls the Rule a "disaster" which, of course, utter bullshit (and a waaaaaaay overused term by the Donald).  Precisely the opposite is the historical, factual case. The disaster existed into the early 1970's when this Rule came into effect and led to today's situation, which is some of the cleanest water in the world.

Without the EPA, or even with a severely restricted EPA, this country will revert back to how it was before the EPA (see this sobering story in that radical left-wing publication, Popular Science).  We know what this nation is like without adequate environmental protection.  We know what human being have always done to the environment.  Our individual liberty cannot be trusted where the air, water, and soil are concerned.  As I said in a previous post, "Liberty means nothing if you can't breathe the air." 

As these photos show, we need a strong EPA now more than ever.  Otherwise, "those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

Illegal dumping on the Hudson River, 1973

Burning batteries in Texas, 1972

Cleveland, Ohio, 1973

Cuyahoga River Cleveland, 1953

George Washington Bridge, 1973

Illegal Dumping, Hudson River, 1973

Los Angeles, 1973

Louisville and the Ohio River, 1972

Sewage Dumping in the Potomac River, 1973

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Unhinged: The 2020 Campaign Begins

Just before Donald Trump's inauguration (which happened just 33 days ago - seems a lot longer than that doesn't it?), I was having lunch with several of my work colleagues all of whom voted for Trump in last fall's election. They were talking about how pleased they were at how Trump was going to "shake things up" in Washington.  As I finished my meal I predicted that Trump would become highly adversarial toward the media and that this would ultimately lead to fewer press conferences, more mass rallies, and more direct communication by Trump through twitter.

This past Friday and Saturday featured a great example of what I thought might be coming.  After an unusually combative press conference, Trump rushed down to Florida where his supporters formed a line a mile long waiting to applaud and voice support for the president.  The event was billed not as an "official" presidential visit, but rather as a "campaign" affair.  The 2020 campaign officially began in Florida as Trump has discovered, to no one's surprise really, he is more comfortable campaigning for president than he is at actually serving in the office. 

While his overall approval rating has been declining, Trump remains solidly competent and effective in the eyes of his voter base.  The fact that the White House is in turmoil has not affected his core supporters.  In fact, they are actually pleased with the chaos Trump is either causing by design or stumbling through due to ineptitude - as indicated by my work colleagues (I suspect highly typical of Trumpkins everywhere). 

Despite an impressive pace of executive orders and half-baked policy announcements (the immigration thing, the healthcare thing, the protectionist thing, etc.), Trump has accomplished absolutely nothing so far other than to look either puzzling or stupid (or both) to most of American and the rest of the world.  The president is on the receiving end push-backs from every aspect of the alleged "swamp" that a plurality of voters sent him to DC to "drain" as well as a strong grass-roots movement intending to disrupt him and impact the 2018 mid-term elections.  

Amidst all this Trump held a radical news conference last Friday where he spewed 77-minutes of hubris at the media and the American public. He denied the White House was in turmoil.  He whined that he "inherited this mess."   It was a moment without precedent in American political history. You can read a transcript of the entire performance here.  Things were so ridiculous that Trump's choice for National Security Advisor decided he didn't want the job after witnessing the incredulous news conference.   Even Fox News called Trump out on the way the president portrayed the media. 

Recent events have shown President Trump is a disgrace to the office of the presidency.  Republican Senator John McCain has pondered the apparent inability for the administration to separate truth from lies where the facts of governing are concerned.  McCain also rightly declared Trump's attitude toward the free press as the way "dictator's get started."  Further, McCain frets of the apparent inability of the Trump administration to "separate truth from lies." 

Senior officials say they have never seen such chaos within an incoming administration. Much of what Trump belches in his public appearances is simply untrue.  The president seems to have no concept of what facts actually are.  Actually, that is probably not true.  Trump knows the facts but chooses to spin his own reality with "alternative facts." 

This is an absurd situation.  We are at a point where not only are we polarized in terms of our political perspectives but we can no longer even agree upon such basic things as what is and what is not a fact.  This renders authentic debate and dialog of opposing political views (the heart of our democracy) impossible, as soon no one will be able to agree upon the basis for validity, let alone the conclusions to be logically drawn from a reasonable exchange of perspectives upon vetted and substantiated facts.

Take the "mess" Trump supposed inherited.  This is classic bullshit. Trump, faltering at the polls and rudderless at something as basic as putting together a political team, chooses to attack one of the few institutions less popular than himself - the American media.  So, he invents a "mess" that is separate from his lack of leadership and governing ability. What exactly is this vague "mess"?

Trump inherited a slowly growing economy with low unemployment.  His predecessor, Barack Obama inherited a full-blown financial crisis and skyrocketing unemployment. On the other hand, Obama clearly left Trump with a foreign policy mess.  But Trump doesn't seem to care about that specifically as he is only making America's foreign standing messier.  So, I'm unclear as to what the "mess" is exactly. Obamacare?  Seems the mess lies in attempting to dismantle it rather than anything the unfortunate policy actually caused.  Mexican immigration?  Trump's wall idea is more of a mess than that - including the fact that Trump has disrupted relations with Mexico, one of America's best trading partners.

The comparisons between Trump and Hitler are mostly overblown.  The United States is weak but it is not the Weimar Republic that spawned Hitler. Trump is an authoritarian narcissist but he's not a genocidal maniac. No, Trump is unique.  I don't see him as evil so much as someone incompetent and unqualified who prefers to surround himself with people even less competent and qualified. 

However, Trump's intentionally adversarial conduct toward the free press and his emerging preference for mass rallies is rather Hitleresque. Trump's outrageous, unstable, and arrogant behavior has led to the resignation of long-time National Security Council member Edward Price. This weakens the Council further after the ridiculous appointment of the utterly unqualified (he's just a banker/film maker, nothing more) Steve Bannon. (To be fair, and to possibly reflect the sheer weigh of opposition to Trump's nonsense, it was announced today that the White House might be walking back a bit on the Bannon thing. So maybe there is some small hope for all the resistance to Trump after all.)

This has merits comparison with Hitler's initial rise to power. When he took office in 1933 the Nazi's control only 3 of 11 cabinet posts.  His opponents thought this was sufficient to keep him in check. But these three positions effectively gave the Nazi's control of the police which led to the various crack-downs that further elevated Nazi power.  Putting people like Bannon on the Council and losing people like Price and Harward does not bode well for the Council's future

Federal law enforcement and the intelligence community are somewhat insulated from the National Security Council.  So, there is no immediate danger of a Hitler-like control of the police by Trump.  But, like the Reichstag fire episode, one wonders what the affect might be should a major terrorist attack hit this country at this time.

Such an attack could legitimize the full-blown violation of privacy that security state advocates seek and lead to a radicalization of the "war of terror" that was unthinkable under more stable leadership by Presidents Bush and Obama. The possibilities are truly chilling.

But, let's not get overly speculative when there is so much to factually critique about Trump's first two months in office. So far, ill-conceived executive orders, adversarial relations with the free press and the intelligence community, stacking the Security Council, and actively campaigning to solidify his voting base are all the accomplishments of this administration.  Nothing else has happened yet. But we are early in the game and a lot can change over the next few months.  

I told many of my friends who, as opposed to my work colleagues, were depressed with Trump's improbable election that I just didn't think he would be able to do all those silly things he promised on the campaign trail. So far, he seems to be pissing off everyone who can actually make policy happen. Maybe Trump will end up being all bluster with no substance. Or maybe it could be as bad as everyone fears.  Stay tuned.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Donald the Demented Disruptor

I have a theory for how Donald Trump became president.  My theory makes the assumption that everyone is looking in the wrong place for explanations.  Everyone seems to think that since this was a political event then the answer must be political or economic or demographic in some way. This is partially correct. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if Hillary had gotten out the vote in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit she would have likely beaten Donald.  But, my contention is that the disruption of human life, so prevalent due to the advances of digital technology, governmental micromanagement, corporate power and commodification, globalization, among other reasons has deeply affected the American voter.

Disruption is understated in the political narrative but it cannot be emphasized enough.  The forces affecting the daily lives of Americans have frustrated the hell out of most people.  Frustration leads to a lack of clarity where politics is concerned. Voters don't care about the political consequences of their vote so much as they simply want to cause disruption themselves.  Donald Trump was not elected for any political reason.  He was elected because voters desire to create disruption as a form of revenge. To that extent, the 2016 election makes perfect sense.

This is not a Left versus Right phenomenon - though, of course, the Right has benefited from it. The Left, being progressive, is viewed as more of the cause of frustration. Progressivism is inherently pro-digital, pro-globalization, pro-government, pro-media, and pro-academia - all the things voters associate with the disruption of their lives.  The Right, being more conservative by design, is either neutral or opposed to these forces.  The corporate power component of frustration is viewed as more of a digital/global phenomena than as a contributing factor by the Right.

Progressives are seen as the primary enablers of disruption. Many articles on disruption take the slant that it is largely a positive phenomenon.  But it is not seen that way by most people at all.  Most people don't want to be re-trained for future jobs, they don't want to deal with the invasive technological change of private lives, they don't want the responsibility that comes with enabling technology and sophisticated governmental and corporate systems that result from this disruptive effect.

One example of this massive, understated, force of disruption comes from a recent book by Tom Friedman. 'The central argument of Friedman’s book is that technology (due to “Moore’s Law” — whereby computing power has been doubling every two years for the last fifty years), globalization (the “Market”), and climate change (“Mother Nature”) have all collided and now constitute the “age of acceleration.” These three accelerations “are impacting one another” and, at the same time, are “transforming almost every aspect of modern life.”

'Friedman believes that the collision occurred roughly ten years ago, 2007, with technological advancements in computing power (processing chips, software, storage chips, networking, and sensors) that formed a new platform. This platform “suffused a new set of capabilities to connect, collaborate and create throughout every aspect of life, commerce, and government.” These capabilities are smarter, faster, smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. It is not coincidental, therefore, that that year saw the advent of the first iPhone, symbolic of this massive transformation.
The challenge posed by these exponential rates of change is our ability to absorb and adapt to them. “Many of us,” Friedman writes, “cannot keep pace anymore.” Eric Teller, head of Google’s X research and development lab, said, “[T]hat is causing us cultural angst.” And Teller warns that “our societal structures are failing to keep pace with the rate of change.”'

The nuts and bolts of the disruptive effects upon human behavior are well known. 'I study disruptive technology, specifically innovative technology that gains so much momentum that it disrupts markets and ultimately businesses. In the past several years, disruptive technology has become so pervasive that I’ve had to further focus my work on studying only disruptive technologies that are impacting customer and employee behavior, expectations and values and affecting customer and employee experiences. I can hardly keep up with today let alone consider the potential disruption that looms ahead in every sector imaginable including new areas that will emerge and displace laggard perspectives, models and processes.'

According to the Huffington Post, American culture is clearly afflicted with disruption. 'If you were about to celebrate the end of the Great Recession and the decline in the unemployment rate, please re-cork the Champagne. The American economy — much like the economies of other developed nations — is entering a period of major upheaval in which many middle-class jobs will be lost. The digital revolution is increasingly allowing computers and machines, made smarter through software, to replace many of the better-paying jobs, namely those that require skills and are associated with the middle class.'

The Financial Times also substantiates this. 'So why all the fuss about tech companies and competition? Technological change is naturally disruptive. We saw widespread industry restructuring throughout much of the 20th century and we can expect the same to happen in the 21st. Incumbents are understandably worried about being disrupted or even displaced and this anxiety boils over into demands that regulators “do something”. Unfortunately, this often means restricting competition rather than enhancing it.

'“The best of all monopoly profits,” the Nobel laureate John Hicks once said, “is a quiet life.” But life can never be quiet in the high tech industries as long as technologies continue to advance, innovation continues to thrive and consumers continue to have so much choice.'

The accelerated pace of disruption is a possible source of societal discontent partly because there's no end to it in sight. This creates a sense of helplessness and rage that feeds the more radical instincts of the voters. 'Whether you are a fan of the digital revolution, or think of it as unavoidable evil, there is no denying that it has changed our lives forever. It has changed the culture and social fabric of our existence in more profound ways than we realize. The most amazing thing is that all of these changes have taken place in the last 15-20 years! The even more chilling fact is that we are not done yet.'

The Economist notes that part of the crisis lies in the emergent relationship between technological progress and unemployment.  'Yet some now fear that a new era of automation enabled by ever more powerful and capable computers could work out differently. They start from the observation that, across the rich world, all is far from well in the world of work. The essence of what they see as a work crisis is that in rich countries the wages of the typical worker, adjusted for cost of living, are stagnant. In America the real wage has hardly budged over the past four decades. Even in places like Britain and Germany, where employment is touching new highs, wages have been flat for a decade. Recent research suggests that this is because substituting capital for labour through automation is increasingly attractive; as a result owners of capital have captured ever more of the world’s income since the 1980s, while the share going to labour has fallen.'

With disruption really only beginning, with it becoming the norm, with the frustrations of the voters rising because of the complexity and uncertainty of our postmodern "Great Disruption", there is a paradoxical relationship between discontent and individual ability to impact disruption. 'My goal is to give you a sense of the pace of change. We haven’t seen one percent of the rate of change that we going to see within the next ten years. It used to be that a thousand years ago, the only people who could change a nation or a region of the world were the Kings and Queens. One hundred years ago it was the industrialists, the robber barons, that could make the change. Today it’s anyone…'

Clearly, Donald was the candidate of disruption. Jeff Reifman writes: 'Both Bernie Sanders and Trump exceeded early expectations because of their outsider status and their appearance as disruptors of the status quo. Sanders used his authentic regard for equality and social justice to address these issues, whereas Trump promises to tear everything apart and restructure it without specifics.

'Who can’t empathize with his intention? The status quo is broken for all of us. Even when money in politics fails to win elections, gerrymandering and the Supreme Court keep us on course toward an increasingly indebted country with failing infrastructure controlled by the wealthy and corporations for their own benefit. Frankly, there’s not much of a democracy left here.'

Hence, the emergence of Donald Trump.  The perfect candidate of disruption; the opportunity for disgruntled voters to give every contributing influence of disruption some payback. 'The emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has sent shockwaves through the GOP. It has also unleashed a vitriolic response from many who passionately oppose his more inflammatory statements. Trump’s success is rooted in his ability to disrupt the established order within the GOP. His followers, fueled by anger and distrust of the prevailing political orthodoxy, have drawn their strength from conservative news sources, obscure websites and the blogging fraternity for views and opinions that reinforce rather than challenge established assumptions. The convergence of the power of new media on a political system dominated by extremes has formed a nexus within the present political cycle.

'Technological disruptions have served as important milestones for human progress across centuries. In the 19th century, opposition to newly developed technology in the English textile industry led to the machine-smashing Luddite movement. The movement would not last. New technology not only transformed the textile industry but also spurred the creation of a new economic order. Two centuries later, we are again experiencing disruptions of historic proportions. We are also observing the emergence of a new 21st-century economic order. The speed of innovation and its transformative impact on our everyday experiences is near complete, for good or bad. Disruption has always yielded champions and victims. What is not clear this time is who will win.'

This is causing great consternation, particularly on the Left. But, as the Sydney Morning Herald points out, 'Trump is governing almost exactly how he said he would during a campaign that he won. No one should be surprised.'

We got what we voted for America.  The voters are to blame for this mess.  A plurality voted for a man with serious mental issues and personality disorders over a wide field of other candidates throughout the primaries and in the general election.  Now, we all will learn.  Maybe a significant portion of American voters are a sick as Trump.  Regardless, just because a candidate is anti-everything doesn't make that candidate viable. If you voted for Trump, you voted for counter-disruption...and an unstable man.  God only knows what you are going to get in the end.  Trump serves no one but his delusional self. There has never been a better example of why informed voting, rather than voting based on your personal frustrations, matters.  

Read about this Trump presidency so far in my new flipzine, Trumpocalypse Now.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fake the Nation

The favorability rating for the news media in America is at an all-time low.  Americans don't trust the reporting of the free press.  Those who proclaim themselves Republicans are the primary driver of this trend.  The so-called "liberal media" (ignoring the fact that there is clearly a powerful, competitive "conservative media") has never been more under attack.  

Such skepticism is generally a health thing, in my opinion.   All media should be scrutinized and evaluated based upon a cross-checking of facts and a verification of any seemingly outlandish claims. But, when the media is ignored completely, not verified, not confirmed then we have a problem.  In our case we have the problem of people just simply making shit up because it sounds better to their preconceived (and largely unconfirmed) notions.

"Fake news" abounds in America today.  It crosses the political landscape to include both the Left and the Right. Buzzfeed supplies 50 examples of fake news from 2016 on FaceBook (FakeBook?) alone. But, Buzzfeed itself was probably guilty of fake news when it published the story about President-elect Trump's scandalous "Golden Shower" connection.

Other assorted examples:

And so on.  For both political factions, Left and Right,  it has become preferable to emulate the Joseph Goebbels style of (propaganda) press coverage.  This is a blow for the First Amendment far worse than any government regulation or corporate power play.  Free Speech is only as valuable as it is informed.  There is no constitutional right to make shit up and present it as fact.  That, my dear readers, is not Free Speech - that is intentionally misleading pseudo-speak.  Free Speech is inherently legitimate, even between contradictory speech acts.   It isn't "free expression" if it is an intent to lie.
Rather, Free Speech is an intent to enter into debate with conflicting views and to allow the force of factual argument to carry the day.  This is a cornerstone of American democracy. When voters rely upon fake news to validate their preconceptions out of a desire to be "right" rather than a desire to be "informed", then all of American democracy is in crisis. Free Speech cannot be distinguished from fake speech, the press is no longer allowed to inform the electorate or to legitimately hold authority accountable as part of our cultural "checks and balances", and people invent their reality thereby pushing public policy beyond the perils of partisan rancor and political gridlock into something far worse - policy based upon how people feel regardless of the facts

So we will soon be under the direction of a Fake President.  All politicians put spin on the truth and position the facts to their favor.  Most America politicians have historically stopped short of outright fabrication of facts.  Until recently. Donald Trump is a champion of fake news.  Even conservative media sources questioned the "stunning" phony accusations Trump made about "massive voter fraud" in the 2016 election.   Even when he wasn't personally orchestrating  fake news, Trump benefited from Right-wing fakers.

There is no shortage of Left or Right voters who prefer to believe their own opinions rather than to investigate, inform themselves, and obtain what has traditionally be termed "received wisdom." This is perhaps the most terrifying threat to free speech.

The New York Times reports on what researchers found when they intentionally parodied fake news. A significant swath of the American people (possibly around 15%), enough to sway an election, bought in to it.  The Times summarizes: "It may be less that false information from dubious news sources is shaping their view of the world. Rather, some people (about 8 percent of the adult population, if we take the survey data at face value) are willing to believe anything that sounds plausible and fits their preconceptions about the heroes and villains in politics.

"It suggests that the most straightforwardly fraudulent forms of fake news are a small part of what is shaping how people understand the world. People’s hunger for information that suits their prejudices is powerful, and in the digital media age, a pile of it emerges to satisfy that demand."

It seems to me that the rise of media distrust and the rise of fake news are symptoms reflecting in tandem the same societal disease.  We are sick to the extent we allow fake news to validate our lives. We are inauthentic to the extent that we act in ways that was demonstrably false.  It turns out that America is fundamentally in trouble not because we are no longer ""great" nor because we have a legitimacy crisis in government, equality, privacy, freedom, corporate greed, etc. America is in crisis because the American people are increasingly invested in lies.  This supposedly Christian nation has allowed lying in the public sphere to have unprecedented powers of persuasion and inspiration.  

Though fake news is nothing new to America (we can find examples of it all the way back to the election of 1800) 2016 might well represent the year fake news consistently replaced legitimate news in the minds of the American public.  If 2016 is any indication, large swaths of the voting public are going to vote based upon preconceived prejudices without the benefit of either discourse between candidates to become better informed or the news media to "vet" the positions of candidates based upon reality.

Our democracy has plenty of troubles from the "evil powers" of the government or the "inequality" of corporate greed.  But nothing threatens it more than the American voters themselves.  By discounting factual reporting and meaningful debate in favor of fake news we have elected a fake president who clearly invents his own reality and we have thereby chosen to manifest our political freedom into a fake nation. We get the government we deserve and frankly, we deserve to be lied to, it is what makes so many of us politically happy.

Late Note: The Fakers seem to be running wild in the early days of the Trump administration. Kellyanne Conway, who did a brilliant job of getting Trump elected, claims that the administration is dealing with "alternative facts" - one of the finest examples of outlandish bullshit I've heard in a long time.  Meanwhile, Trump's press secretary's claim that Trump's mediocre Presidential Inauguration had "the largest crowd ever to witness an inauguration" is further proof that this administration is simply going to make shit up as they go along.  Most of this is petty stuff really, but it unfortunately is indicative of a behavioral pattern of lying. Trump is well on his way to becoming our (fake) great nation's Faker-in-chief