Air Date 7/4/2022
#1500 America, A Beginner's Guide
[00:00:00] JAY TOMLINSON: Welcome to episode #1500 of the award-winning Best of the Left podcast!
I'm going to do something different today. Instead of curating brilliant things said by other people as I have been since 2006, I've attempted to curate the very best of the ideas I've either heard or had myself over that time.
I don't think I've managed to include every good thought I've ever heard but I got closer than you might imagine. Let's start!
Political Structures of Our Country
[00:00:31] JAY TOMLINSON: Chapter 1, in which we shall look at the historical context of the current political moment we find ourselves in.
I want to start with the big picture first. Or, at least the medium picture, because I'm not going back to Columbus who kicked off the genocide of the Native peoples of the Americas and the clearing of the land on which we now reside - although that would also be a good place to start. For today, to understand modern politics, let's begin by touching briefly on the fallout of the Civil War.
The fallout of the Civil War in one sentence is: The North won the war but the South won the peace, and we are still living with those consequences today.
Reconstruction, the period just after the war, is one of the parts of American history that we generally skip right over. It's that period when the Union occupied and managed the affairs of the former Confederacy. Without making a direct comparison between the Confederacy and Nazis, although the latter took a lot of inspiration from the former, think about the end of WWII and how the Allied Forces needed to occupy Germany for a good long while until, basically, the next generation of Germans could be trusted to take back the reigns of their own country.
Well, that could have happened after the Civil War in the US. But only 10 years in or so -- 10 years during which Black people were notably prosperous and much involved in politics -- a deal was struck during the contested presidential election of 1876 that gave the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes on the promise that he would withdraw troops from the South. He did just that, the power structure reverted back to the domestic terrorism of Confederacy-loving white supremacists, and kicked off another 100 years or so of overt, racist oppression in the US.
That also gave the South the opportunity to create a whole educational curriculum that cast themselves as the good guys and the North as the aggressors trying to take away their way of life, what's known as "The Lost Cause." You know, that way of life they enjoyed: talking slowly, drinking extremely sweet tea, and sitting lazily on porches, with no real mention of who was traditionally doing the work that allowed lazy porch-sitting to become a cultural norm.
Of the next hundred years, for about half that time, the bulk of racist sentiment lay within the Democratic Party, which dominated the former Confederacy of the South.
This can be confusing for modern folk learning the history, because the alignment of the political parties were different from today, but not entirely different. For instance, the economic populist legislation that Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal era is known for was passed with the help of racist Southern Democrats. So, that'd be kind of like Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders being in the same party as some of the most virulently anti-immigrant politicians of today, who are all Republicans. It was just a different time.
And that alignment held pretty steady until the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s. You know, that period of time that conservatives still long to go back to, when the economic populism of The New Deal and the economic boom of the Post-War era was still being enjoyed, and laws could still be written to explicitly give White people an additional leg up from that already-lofty perch of mid-century America.
The Civil Rights era and the passage of several Civil Rights laws by a Democratic president kicked off a major realignment of the parties. It took some time, because old habits die hard, but the more racist faction of the Democratic Party began to leave for the open arms of the Republicans who, under Nixon and beyond, had adopted the so-called "Southern Strategy" of appealing to racists without sounding overtly racist themselves. This is long-time Republican strategist Lee Atwater explaining how it worked.
[00:04:24] LEE ATWATER: Now y'all won't quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, it backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, "forced busing," "states’ rights," and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than Whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it, I'm not saying it. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded that we're doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.
You follow me? 'Cause obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut taxes," “we want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “nigger, nigger."
[00:05:18] JAY TOMLINSON: And so that, more or less, is the process by which the parties realigned so that the racists of the Democratic Party got into bed with the economic elitists of the Republican Party. All of which set the stage for what became known as the "Reagan Revolution."
The ideas that have become known as "Neoliberalism" were already in the air before Reagan, but he was able to come in with the support of economic elites for his promise of tax cuts, racists for his masterful adoption of the codes of the Southern Strategy, and a bunch of others in between, just because he said lots of nice things about America and made you feel warm and fuzzy inside. That, and Jimmy Carter said we should turn our thermostats down and wear sweaters to save energy. So un-American!
Thus ended the New Deal era and began the Neoliberal era we are still living in today. Democrats have been elected to the presidency since Reagan came to office, but they shouldn't be confused with the New Deal era Democrats. Clinton, Obama and now Biden have been Democrats shaped by the environment in which they came to power, just like Republican presidents during the New Deal era more reflected that environment.
In the decades since Reagan, corporate profits have continued to climb but they became disconnected from wages as productivity went up and pay remained stagnant. That's a far cry from the good old days of the New Deal era during which the wealth was spread around and the large middle class of the Baby Boomer generation was created.
You know, the part that gets all the attention from that Lee Atwater quote is how racism was being coded and disguised. But I think an equally important part is what he's referring to when talking about wanting to make cuts.
[00:07:02] LEE ATWATER: ...and you’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than Whites.
[00:07:15] JAY TOMLINSON: He mentions cutting taxes and "all these things." And comes back to it later again.
[00:07:20] LEE ATWATER: "We want to cut taxes." “We want to cut this."
[00:07:23] JAY TOMLINSON: The other stuff he's referring to wanting to cut that he doesn't say out loud is the government benefits that are the legacy of the New Deal, which were so beneficial to the country. And he doesn't even argue that those cuts will benefit anyone. He implies that everyone will be hurt by those cuts, but Black people will be hurt worse than White people.
That is the era we now live in: an era of cuts that hurt everyone, just some worse than others. So after decades of that mentality, it's no wonder the country is feeling the pain.
Just as the New Deal era ended what came before, and neoliberalism ended the New Deal era, so too will this era end -- and soon, I'd estimate. For a while, it seemed obvious that we would finally begin to follow the path of other countries similar to ourselves, like Canada, most of Europe, and others, and adopt greater levels of Democratic Socialism to help ease the pain of inequality and economic precarity, inevitably brought about by capitalism and, particularly, neoliberalism. But in the last five years it's become clear that there is another possible path.
With false promises of needed economic populism and real promises of acting on racial resentment, Trump, the MAGA coalition, and their willing accomplices in the mainstream GOP not only managed to get elected once, but to fundamentally destabilize our fragile political system.
More on them later. But the takeaway for me is this: we are exiting the neoliberal era one way or another. The GOP has staked out autocracy as their preferred path. For the Democrats to continue on the path of neoliberalism is to hold onto a sinking ship because it feels more stable than a life raft.
[00:09:22] JAY TOMLINSON: Today, between my bigger essays, I also have some thoughts on forms of media manipulation that I think everyone needs to be aware of. To help, I even co-wrote jingles to share.
The first one is about straw-man arguments. And to describe one of my favorite examples, I get to touch on one of my other favorite issues.
At the intersection of neoliberalism and our dysfunctional political system lies campaign finance, the most boring and most important issue standing between us and a legitimate democratic republic.
Money in politics doesn't necessarily imply quid-pro-quo corruption the way many imagine. What's dominant in our system is what's known as the "Money Primary" which means that you have to be able to raise unholy sums of money before you're even allowed to run for office with half a chance of winning. That gives undue advantage to the wealthy and connected, and therefore limits the range of views heard in campaigns to the views held by the wealthy and powerful.
Think of it this way: why would you bribe a politician to do something they wouldn't normally do, when you could just finance the political victory of someone who genuinely wants to support your cause? It's not illegal and may even work better than bribes. So that's now the dominant way monied interests influence politics.
Now back in 2016, Hillary Clinton was defending herself from attacks about her connection to big money supporting her campaign, but she didn't defend the Money Primary system, which she clearly benefited from. Instead, she built a straw-man argument that better suited her needs.
[00:10:59] HILLARY CLINTON: There is this attack which really comes down to: anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, senator. You will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.
[00:11:22] JAY TOMLINSON: Which brings us to our first jingle!
[00:11:25] JONATHAN MANN: Well, if a real discussion is too heavy a lift, You can make an opponent that doesn't exist. You've built a Straw-man! It's easy to win... Straw-man!... in this argument. Straw-man!... Oh, it's hard to trust you When you misrepresent the opposing view.
[00:11:50] JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Fun, right?.
Progressives and Progress
[00:11:50] JAY TOMLINSON: Chapter 2, in which we shall take a look at progressives and progress.
Now let's zoom in a bit and wrap our minds around progressives. What makes them tick? What's their whole deal? Well, I'm a progressive, so I'll give you a quick rundown of how my last couple of decades have gone.
If you'd asked me 15-20 years ago what my number one issue was, I would have said climate change. And to be honest, that's still the case. But there are complications. After a while of working on climate and being literally in the house chamber in 2007 when Democrats passed the first-ever federal climate legislation, only to have it die in the Senate, obviously, I began realizing that the financing of campaigns by big businesses that profited from ignoring climate change might be a problem.
Then, after focusing on campaign finance reform for a while, it began to dawn on me that capitalism was the real driving force behind campaign finance corruption and climate change, so why not focus there?
So I turned my attention to capitalism for a while. But then the bottom began to fall out of our system of government. So now I'm just hoping to hold onto a functioning democracy. So, let's just say it's been a period of diminishing expectations.
And my take, when it comes to fixing these problems of the climate crisis as well as our democracy, is that we need fairly radical change to correct course. In the context of extraordinary problems, only extraordinary solutions make any sense. If your climate is spinning out of control or your democracy is collapsing, the truly radical position is to suggest marginal tweaks or, worse yet, do nothing. To advocate massive action in the face of massive catastrophe is only reasonable.
Speaking of progressives sounding radical, it turns out that there's a Mark Twain quote that fits nicely here: "The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them."
Which is a good reminder that essentially all new views look radical at first until they don't anymore. And in an interesting way, the same often applies to people.
There's a myth that we become more conservative with age. It's an enduring myth because it seems to make so much sense: older people tend to be more conservative than the youth, so how'd they get that way?
I won't bore you with the details from the studies that I found, but the myth turns out to be a bit of an illusion. The crux of it is that individual people and society as a whole both tend to get more progressive over time, but society moves faster than the average individual.
So even as an individual becomes more and more progressive over the course of their lifetime relative to their starting point, society as a whole will almost always catch up to - and then surpass - each individual, making them appear less and less relatively progressive over time. Interesting, right? I call it the Bill Maher effect.
I once had a Bill Maher fan reach out to me and ask why I was criticizing Bill for expressing conservative views on his show. "Bill's been a stalwart progressive since the 90's," this person said, "and he still believes everything now that he did then."
To which I thought, "I think you're taking the wrong lesson from a person holding the same beliefs for 25 years."
One of my favorite phrases is: "If I can look back on everything I believed six months ago without cringing, it means I'm not growing."
As for how these generational shifts happen and, in essence, how progress is made, I have some thoughts there too.
A lot of the discussion about the progressive left these days revolves around language. The argument from many angles seems to be that trying to change language is petty, small and pointless, not to mention annoying. But I think there's strong reason to believe that changing language is actually integral to progress.
Just one example, but also a key element of the way language change impacts how we think is through what's called "Labeling vs Describing," which comes down to choosing to use nouns or adjectives. When I first came across this, I was stunned at how impactful this clarification was.
Think of the phrase "a Black person" and how that hits your hear as compared to "a Black." In the first case, the word "Black" is an adjective describing the person. In the second case, "Black" becomes a noun, which makes it sound to most people just wrong, like a dissonant note being played.
The same thing happened when Trump used the phrase "an African-American" while telling a story and then pointed to an individual in the crowd and said "my African-American."
[00:16:48] DONALD TRUMP: We had a case where we had an African American guy who was a fan of mine. Uh, look at my African American over here. Look at him.
[00:16:56] JAY TOMLINSON: The first usage was an adjective, and the second was a noun.
And here's a theoretical example of two ways a person of Mexican origin might be introduced: "Maria is Mexican" as compared to "Maria is a Mexican." In the first, "Mexican" is an adjective and in the second it's a noun.
To me, I find the difference immediate and profound, even if I couldn't explain exactly why. Luckily, in the book where I first learned about this, Words Matter by Sally McConnell-Ginet, the author goes on to explain. It turns out, the way we process nouns on an unconscious level is very different from adjectives. And harmful stereotypes can be applied more readily when nouns are used compared to adjectives.
From the book referring to a study on the topic: "Children told a story about a girl labeled 'a carrot-eater' were far more likely to 'essentialize' her carrot-eating than those told she 'eats carrots whenever she can.'"
In other words, when the children heard the carrot-eating characteristic of the girl in the story in the form of a noun, they were significantly more likely to think that the girl had always eaten carrots and would always eat carrots because it was intrinsic to who she was as a person. Again, these are children we're talking about and there's no inherent bias for or against eating carrots, this is just the difference in how we process different types of words.
Examples of language change around this phenomenon are abundant and once you understand the reasoning, it's easy to understand why. "Slaves" are now called "enslaved people," "the learning-disabled" have become "people with learning disabilities," "the homeless" are now described as "unhoused people" or even "people who happen to live on the streets," "diabetics" may be better described as "people with diabetes" and, of course, through many iterations, those who used to be referred to as "negros" are now "people of color."
In every case, the move is to change away from a noun phrase and toward an adjective phrase, because using nouns makes it easy to do two negative things. The first: to reduce a person to the characteristic in question, as though an enslaved person were intrinsically and primarily a slave, rather than human; or a person with learning disabilities should be defined primarily by that disability.
And second: have stereotypes associated with those noun phrases apply more readily to any individual associated with the group.
So yes, the language is going to continue to change and progressives are going to be pushing that change in a variety of ways. But it's not arbitrary, nor petty, nor pointless. It can make a surprising amount of difference in the way we collectively see the world.
Not that that's the single biggest problem facing us or anything, there's still runaway climate change and crumbling democracy to deal with. Which leads me to my last, kinda downer note, unfortunately: Progressives get criticized a lot for focusing too much on these kinds of issues, like anti-discrimination, as though that's a conscious choice that's been made. But I think there's another reason our focus has shifted that way.
People, not just progressives, tend to focus on what's easy, or even doable, more readily than what's important or difficult. Anyone who's cleaned their room rather than doing their homework will know what I'm talking about.
And I think this goes a long way toward explaining why progressives focus so much on identity, bias and discrimination these days. Not because those things are as unimportant as cleaning your room, they're not; but because they're easier than implementing progressive economic polices during an era of neoliberalism. And it's easier to push society into accepting new gender pronouns than it is to get money out of politics or abolish the filibuster.
We've managed to make relatively large progress on social issues in a relatively short amount of time, normalizing concepts like LGBTQ pride, gender pronouns, intersectional feminism and anti-racism, in part due to the fact that we're so structurally unable to make progress in the realms of economics, health care, good governance and climate change.
Defer to Authority
[00:21:22] JAY TOMLINSON: Another thing progressives talk a lot about is empathy. We lament that we seem to have so much more empathy than our conservative counterparts. Whereas their circle of empathy certainly exists, it may not extend far beyond their family and close friends while progressives are more likely to say that their empathy extends to all of humanity... and why not include all the animals and plants too? I think that sketch outline is approximately correct but it was suggested recently that empathy may not be the right word for the cause. Empathy is what allows a person to understand and share the feelings of another but that may not be specific enough because that definition doesn't require those feelings to be directed at the oppressed or the mistreated. After all, it's empathy that allows the good cop to identify with and defend the bad cop.
Also, here's a quick and easy tip to remember: "Black Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives" don't exist.
Which brings us to our next jingle about reporting on police and other figures of authority.
[00:22:25] JONATHAN MANN: If you say the words, "according to police" and regurgitate what they said unquestioningly, that's not journalism, it's stenography, you are deferring to authority.
So, if you say the words, "according to police" we should also hear from folks in the community. Countervailing narratives will always keep you from deferring to authority.
Understanding Race, Gender, Privilege and Power
[00:22:59] JAY TOMLINSON: Chapter 3, in which we shall quickly solve the issues of race and gender.
When it comes to understanding race, gender and a bunch of other complicated stuff in the world, it's become a shortcut of mine to refer to the book Why Fish Don't Exist. The main takeaway is that our understanding of the world is built on the ways we've attempted to organize information but our attempts at organization haven't always been an accurate reflection of reality.
Fish, as a category of creature, for instance, isn't a very good label because there are fish that live in the sea that have more in common biologically with land mammals than they do with other fish.
So, sometimes the labels we create are either misleading, like with fish, or they insufficiently allow for the complexity of the world. We think of species as, by definition, creatures that can procreate together and only together but that's only true most of the time, there are edge cases where the rules bend.
So, it should be no surprise that when we've made efforts to label different groups of humans, we haven't always quite hit the mark. The first point that I'm sure we've all heard before is that race doesn't exist biologically. This fact isn't actually very helpful though and having debates over whether race is "real" or not doesn't benefit anybody.
The phrase that I think brings a lot of clarity is "socially assigned race." It both addresses what race is, a social construct, and points out that there's a difference between what race or ethnic label you may apply to yourself and how you are dominantly seen by others. For instance, you may think of yourself as hispanic but you may be socially assigned as White based on appearance.
If I were to try to put this entire concept into one sentence it would be this: Meet the world where it is, not where you think it is. If things turn out to be more complicated than you thought, embrace the complications rather than attempting to simplify them.
At this moment in time, the area where we're struggling the most with this idea is in understanding the transgender, gender-fluid and non-binary community. This is a classic case of the world being more complicated than our standard organizational system accounts for, and that's not the fault of the world for being too complicated, it's our fault for insufficiently allowing for complexity in our understanding.
Obviously, conservatives are the ones having the most trouble with this idea but the far more interesting group to discuss, I think, are the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or "TERFs" for short. They're progressive in most ways, hate the patriarchy, often hate capitalism but when it comes to the idea of a gender spectrum, they can't get down with it. Basically, they "can't meet the world where it is" but it's less for religiously-driven ideological reasons like it is for many conservatives, it's more politically motivated based on their desire to advance the cause of gender equality.
It's kind of like free-market fundamentalists who refuse to believe in climate change because addressing it would require tampering with the markets. TERFs have a similar aversion to accepting the full humanity and equality of trans and nonbinary people because it complicates their conception of the fight for gender equality.
There's no such thing as fish, people. Meet the world where it is. Besides, a gender equality built on the erasure of trans people will be an equality built on sand and that won't be good for anyone in the long run.
Speaking of embracing complication, let's talk structural thinking as relates to racism. Here's a definition of racism that fits pretty well with what I was taught growing up, "Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another."
Simple, straightforward, but, as with fish and gender, insufficiently complicated.
A newer, more fleshed out definition goes like this, "Racism refers to a variety of practices, beliefs, social relations, and phenomena that work to reproduce a racial hierarchy and social structure that yield superiority, power, and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others."
I think it's important to use the new definition for no other reason than that it's more accurate in describing the problem. But I also think it's important to recognize that this is a very new concept for a lot of people who've lived for decades believing in the first definition. If you attempt to use the new definition as a foundation for your argument without explaining it, you're more likely to confuse people than change their minds, so please take the time to explain where you're coming from in such a debate.
Knowing where the old definition came from is also interesting, particularly because we can basically trace it to a very specific event. Broadly, racism was always thought of as a system; the system of slavery, the system of segregation - it wouldn't have made sense to think of racism as merely individual prejudice.
Then, released just at the end of WWII, an exhaustive, 1500-page report called "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy," authored by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, was released. This was basically like the 9/11 commission report of its day. According to wikipedia, it "sold over 100,000 copies and went through 25 printings before going into its second edition in 1965. It was enormously influential in how racial issues were viewed in the United States, and it was cited in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case."
Here are a couple of excerpts from the report itself that highlight their focus on individual prejudice rather than structural oppression: “The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on. This is the central viewpoint of this treatise.”
And “Our central problem is neither the exploitation of the Negro people nor the various effects of this exploitation on American society, but rather the moral conflict in the heart of white Americans.”
And it was from this extremely influential report that we collectively got the idea as a society that the only problem we needed to solve was the unkind thoughts inside the minds of White people. This is how we got to the point where racist structures continue to exist even while only an extremely few would admit to being racist. By hammering it into people to not be personally discriminatory while ignoring systemic forms of racism for several decades, we left the door open for those systems to evolve into, as the new definition explains, "a variety of practices, beliefs, social relations, and phenomena that work to reproduce a racial hierarchy and social structure that yield superiority, power, and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others."
Meanwhile, if a person can feasibly argue to themselves that they are not personally discriminatory then they must not be contributing to the problem of racism as they see it. And they become extremely upset if you suggest that they are because it feels like a personal attack rather than a description of a structural system. It is only systemic thinking that can help explain that systems of power can be sustained without the conscious awareness of individuals.
For a deep dive into this, I recommend checking out my episode #1358, How a System of Power Defends Itself.
Also, it needs to be mentioned that in order for a system of power to be upheld, it cannot direct all of the privileges in one direction or all of the oppression in the other, as that scenario would be too unstable, too obviously unjust to stand. But this confuses people, they think of a system of power and think, "well, it must be sending all the privilege in one direction." But no, it can't work that way, this is how we get countervailing "privileges" like that women should have doors opened for them and that they should be saved from a sinking boat first. It's a way of keeping the balance of power tilted toward patriarchy without it tilting so far that it collapses underneath the weight of its own injustice.
And the most prominent phenomenon that makes it hard for people to notice how a system of power works is that of privilege. The best way I've ever managed to describe it is with a cycling analogy. When riding a bike in calm air, you can feel the resistance of the air as you pass through it. When riding against the wind or with a cross-breeze, you can really feel the resistance even more. But when you ride with the wind, with the breeze at your back, a funny thing happens, you stop being able to feel the air at all. You don't feel it pushing you along, it just feels like you're a really fast cyclist. That's what it is to exist in the world where the systems of power are a wind at your back helping to push you along, it feels like nothing at all.
It's only the voices of marginalized groups that can act as a sort of wind sock that gives you an indication of the wind that's blowing your way in stark contrast to those riding in other directions.
And lastly, as for righting historical wrongs and the inevitable defense that will come arguing that because no one alive today is culpable for the actions from centuries-past, this is my favorite response come from Isabel Wilkerson in her book, Caste:
"Yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.”
Just Asking Questions
[00:33:26] JAY TOMLINSON: Speaking of how systems of power defend themselves, sometimes the players involved are aware of what they're doing and propaganda can play a big role, so it's worth understanding methods propagandists use, like "begging the question."
Back in 2006, The Daily Show made a segment called The Question Mark:
[00:33:44] JON STEWART: Then there's Fox news. It uses its question marks in a more focused way asking queries, like, "Have Dems forgot the lessons of 9/11?" Just a question. "Why is America more concerned about the economy than terror?" "Media preaching hate in the mid east?" "Is the liberal media helping to fuel terror?"
Cavuto's not saying these things, he's just asking.
[00:34:08] JAY TOMLINSON: And while begging those kinds of questions worked for a while to plant seeds in minds, it became clear more recently that there'd been an evolution in the kinds of questions propagandists were asking. This is Tucker Carlson.
[00:34:20] TUCKER CARLSON: What is hate speech?
What is a white supremacist?
What precisely is privilege?
What exactly is a nationalist?
[00:34:30] JAY TOMLINSON: And as you can hear from his tone, he's asking these questions rhetorically. He's not seeking a real response nor is he trying to plant a specific answer to those questions in your mind but rather implying that there really is no answer worth looking for.
[00:34:46] JONATHAN MANN: Questions can be used to get to the truth, just ask Socrates! But when the questions come out because you want to sow doubt, that's just an attempt to mislead.
Your question can be there to plant a seed of some idea in our minds, or to make us stop and turn our minds off like the answer's too hard to find.
"Was Obama born in the U.S.A.?" I am just asking questions! "Do you have a reason to fear today?" We are just asking questions.
Progressives in Politics
[00:35:32] JAY TOMLINSON: Chapter 4, in which we shall look at how the Left got to now.
The left is not an organized lot. In fact, we're famously disorganized. I attended Will Rogers Middle School, having no idea who he was at the time, but later learned that he was a humorist who made such comments as "I'm not a member of any organized political party, I'm a Democrat." Which beats the hell out of having a school named after a confederate general.
The point of bringing this up is to take comfort in the immovability of this fact. Will Rogers said that back in the 1930's so if you're spending any time wishing the left were different, wishing we could get more organized, conceiving of ways that we could get more in "lock step" like the Republicans then I am begging you to stop that right now. There's no point, it's a lost cause, it's not in our nature and not gonna happen. This is a reality to be managed, not wished away. Meet the world where it is.
Looking to our modern dynamics, I first got a sense of the major fracture on the left in the early years of the Obama administration.
Under Bush, it was pretty hard to see much divide on the left. There was wide unification around opposing the war in Iraq which covered over a lot of underlying divides.
But underneath, there was the left that I identify with: the never-satisfied left which will happily criticize Democratic presidents as much as Republicans, and the mainstream liberals who are much more of what you might call "team players" who root for the Democrats and against Republicans as circumstances dictate.
So, when Obama came into office, a lot of the never-satisfied left geared up to criticize the new president when it was called for but then looked around to find that many of our anti-Bush brothers and sisters-in-arms had gone to brunch and weren't much interested in doing any criticizing.
For those who don't recall, President Obama was a much better campaigner for change than he was at making substantive change to the system. And that's not controversial, he's said as much himself and explained that it was a time of emergency during the Great Recession so they decided that they just needed to get stuff done working within the process rather than trying to transform the process. Harry Shearer even songified it in the style of Will-I-Am.
[00:37:50] PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Over the last two years in emergency situation, our basic attitude was we gotta get some things done. But in order to do that, basically worked with the process as opposed to transform the process.
Yes we can. Yes we can, but. Yes we can, but.
[00:38:18] JAY TOMLINSON: Those of us on the never-satisfied left were, unsurprisingly, not satisfied with this. We argued then and forever more that the emergency of the Great Recession was exactly the opportunity we needed to make some of the more fundamental transformations we knew both our economic and political systems needed.
The point is that the never-satisfieds were disappointed almost immediately by Obama and the steps they took to protect the bankers who caused the crash. Again, he said it himself, Headline: "Obama To Bank CEOs: 'My Administration Is The Only Thing Between You And The Pitchforks'" to which many of us thought, "why are you standing in the way?"
And this disappointment was strong enough that a new fissure was created between, approximately, the never-satisfied Left who were in it for the long haul and those with a more tenuous attraction to politics, many of whom had been pulled in for the first time by the inspirational message of campaigner Obama.
Those first couple of years of the Obama administration, by setting higher than usual expectations, particularly at a time when we desperately needed structural change, and then delivering much closer to the mediocre baseline and no structural change, I think it's fair to say, created higher-than-usual levels of disillusionment in the ability or willingness of the Democratic Party to make change, and it was that disillusionment that developed, over the years, into what became; first: the Draft Bernie movement, which I heartily welcomed! , then the "Bernie or Bust" movement, which I did not. Which has now now fully split off into a wing of bizzaro-world, left-ish political activists and commentators focused almost solely on criticizing Democrats to the point that they're making common cause with the far right like Tucker Carlson to do it.
It's quite strange to take it that far but the underlying criticism of the Democratic Party is more than understandable. I don't begrudge the urge to call for a third party, but I disagree with the strategy on structural grounds. Many of us lament the relative restrictiveness of our two-party system, although I tend to think it's less restrictive than we often imagine. If we had a parliamentary system we'd definitely have more parties but none would have an outright majority and they'd all have to form coalitions within which there would be much disagreement. In our case, instead of many parties, we have many party caucuses that help define various ideologies so I just think of the two major parties as permanent coalitions with plenty of infighting.
Anyway, our system is structurally designed to only allow two parties. There are a lot of elements to this structural design I won't get into and we could change it to allow third parties, which I favor, but for now we're stuck with just the two and it's not for lack of effort just like your inability to leap a building in a single bound is not due to lack of effort. And what that means is that all the political power in our country resides within the two major parties while any third parties remain entirely powerless.
Which is important to remember when thinking about steering people toward third-party campaigns. I first heard the term "sheep-dogging" from a Green-Party-supporting commentator describing Bernie Sanders in 2016 after loosing the primary election to Hilary Clinton. The idea was that Bernie had activated many potential voters who would have otherwise remained disinterested in politics with the unabashed progressivism of his campaign but then he betrayed progressives by "sheep-dogging" those new voters into the profoundly unprogressive corral of the Democratic Party.
This might be "true" with big air quotes, but it's wildly misleading.
The commentator argued that the energy and progressivism of those voters would be diluted into uselessness within the Democratic Party but that steering them into a third party would have allowed them to remain true to their progressive vision and be the start of a new movement to break the two party stranglehold.
Another way to look at that, though, is that if you have a group of excited, motivated progressives and you have the option to guide them to one place or another then the obvious choice is to guide them to where the power is rather than to where the power is not and cannot be within our current structures.
True, if you join the larger group where the power is then your individual influence will be diluted but if you join a third party to keep your ideology unsullied by compromise then the reality is that you will have no influence at all.
In fact, if I were a conservative, corporate, neoliberal Democrat who hated and feared progressives more than the Right, as many do, I would love the Green Party and probably send them donations for their recruitment drives. Talk about sheep-dogging! What more effective way is there to keep progressives from getting a seat at the table of power than to coral all the most progressive people in the country into a powerless third party and just let them spin their wheels? It's like sitting them at the kids table so they don't get in the way of the adults making decisions that will effect everyone.
If that sounds like a bad idea for progressives, then don't worry about how much progressive ideas will be diluted by the Democratic Party, think about how much the Democratic Party could be forced to change by progressive ideas and demand a seat at the table. And if you have any doubt that a political party can dramatically change over time, look no further than the Republicans.
[00:44:09] JAY TOMLINSON: As I said, "sheep-dogging" as described by the critic of Bernie Sanders managed to be both true and misleading. And there's no better way to say the truth while being so misleading that you may as well be lying than to do it with statistics.
That's where we get the old saying, popularized by Mark Twain, among others, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."
[00:44:33] JONATHAN MANN: If you torture the numbers, you can get them to sing. You can make statistics say anything! So, what you are saying is technically true but you're laying out the story to misconstrue.
It's lies, lies! damn lies and statistics. You must feel so great, so great! about lies, lies! damn lies and statistics, the data you manipulate mm-hmm.
[00:45:04] JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Chapter 5, in which we shall track the arc of conservatives from mid-century Republicans to 21st century insurrectionists.
As I suggested, if you have any doubt that a political party can be changed, look no further than the Republican Party platform of 1956, as brought to our collective attention by Jim Hightower.
"America does not prosper," the platform reads, "unless all Americans prosper."
"Labor is the United States. The men and women, who with their minds, their hearts and hands, create the wealth that is shared in this country – they are America."
"The protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Republican Party."
The document also supports the Postal Service, the United Nations, equal rights for women, expanding our national parks, "vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws," and raising the minimum wage.
This was all largely possible because, first: we were in the New Deal Era which bent all thinking in that direction; and second: because evangelical Christians had not yet really entered politics. There was a largely insular cultural of evangelicalism at the time. Their politics didn't extend much farther than wanting the Jewish people to be in Israel to help hasten Jesus' return. That, and they'd already been convinced that capitalism was good, great wealth was a sign of virtue rather than sin, and also that racism was quite important, which makes this a good time to mention Nixon.
Nixon aide John Ehrlichman summed up Nixon quite well in this quote that was dug up by a reporter only within the last 10 years, though it was said back in the 90s. Quoting the original Harper's article titled "Legalize it All," "'You want to know what this was really all about?' Ehrlichman asked, referring to the war on drugs. 'The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.'"
So, the racist drum beat of the Southern Strategy was underway. And that focus on race is important to note, because it wasn't Roe vs Wade that first woke up the evangelicals to politics. You see, in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, there was an explosion of private segregation academies run by evangelicals that sprang up as alternatives to integrated public schools, and these were run as tax-exempt charitable institutions.
That's what set the stage for a lawsuit arguing that any institution that practiced segregation was, by definition, not charitable, and should lose its tax-exempt status - and the courts agreed in 1971. That was the decision that finally made it clear that racist evangelicals weren't going to be able to wall themselves off from the rest of society anymore.
When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 as the first evangelical Christian president, evangelicals were elated, but it didn't take long for them to realize that Carter was far too nice for the majority of them. He was that rare breed of progressive evangelical. And so four years later, the evangelical community was primed for the event that became known as the birth of the Religious Right Movement. It was the National Affairs Briefing of 1980 where evangelical leader and founder of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich, famously laid out their anti-"small-d" democratic perspective:
[00:49:04] PAUL WEYRICH: How many of our Christians have what I call the Goo Goo Syndrome: good government? They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
[00:49:28] JAY TOMLINSON: And presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan explicitly courted the support of evangelicals at the same event.
[00:49:35] RONALD REAGAN: Now I know this is a nonpartisan gathering, and so I know that you can't endorse me. But I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you and what you're doing.
[00:49:50] JAY TOMLINSON: To be clear, It wasn't just the segregation issue, but all the various cultural revolutions that were scaring them at the time: feminism, the sexual revolution, abortion legalization, drug culture, gay rights and free speech movements, and the always-lurking communism. All combined, they were finally convinced to get involved and vote. The Southern Strategy had been opening the door to racists, inviting them to join the Republican Party for years:
[00:50:17] LEE ATWATER: And all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than Whites.
[00:50:24] JAY TOMLINSON: And Reagan happily walked through that door with just the right amount of movie-cowboy manliness and pandering. And the conversion was complete. From then on, if you wanted dog-whistle racism and fog-horn misogyny, then the Republican Party was calling you home -- which remains true to this day.
Jumping ahead a bit, it's during the legal battle of Bush v Gore that things get eerily familiar to the GOP we know today. Many will know that the Supreme Court eventually stepped in and told Florida to stop recounting their votes while George W. Bush was ahead by 537 in the recount, giving him the presidency. Fewer will recall what had happened to stop the counting in the first place.
If you thought that January 6th, 2021, or even the protests outside ballot-counting centers in November 2020, was the first time physical violence had been used to stop the counting of votes in a presidential election, then let me make you aware of the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot.
From Wikipedia, "The Brooks Brothers riot was a demonstration at a meeting of election canvassers in Miami-Dade County, Florida, on November 22, 2000, during a recount of votes made during the 2000 United States presidential election, with the goal of shutting down the recount. After demonstrations and acts of violence, local officials shut down the recount early.
"The name referenced the protesters' corporate attire. Many of the demonstrators were Republican staffers, and Roger Stone was among those who took credit for managing the riot from a command post."
Sounds familiar, yes?
Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan and was among the 5-vote majority that gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush. She retired in 2005.
In 2006, less than a year later, O'Connor criticized Republicans for tacitly endorsing threats of violence against judges who ruled in ways they disliked. It was a speech that is one of the most prescient I've heard. Though it wasn't recorded, it was reported on at the time by NPR's Nina Tottenberg.
[00:52:34] NINA TOTENBERG: In an unusually forceful and forthright speech, O'Connor said that attacks on the judiciary by some Republican leaders pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedoms.
The nation's founders wrote repeatedly, she said, that without an independent judiciary to protect individual rights from the other branches of government, those rights and privileges would amount to nothing.
It gets worse, she said, noting that death threats against judges are increasing. It doesn't help, she said, when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with. She didn't name him, but it was Texas Senator John Cornyn who made that statement, after a Georgia judge was murdered in the courtroom and the family of a federal judge in Illinois murdered in the judge's home.
Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries, where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O'Connor said we must be ever vigilant against those who would strong arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.
[00:53:44] JAY TOMLINSON: We'd all seen homegrown extremism in the Oklahoma City bombing in the 90s, though of course that was called just a "lone wolf" attack. And we obviously took our eye off domestic threats after 9/11. But here, Sandra Day O'Connor in the mid-2000s is pointing out violence and the tacit endorsement of that violence by elected Republicans as steps along a path that leads to the disintegration of our democracy.
The signs were getting clearer, but the clearest sign yet came in 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security released a report titled, “Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment”, which warned that “right-wing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues" and that "military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities” might mean the “emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.” The report called this convergence of factors the “most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”
The point of the report was to bring attention to the danger so that the department would direct sufficient resources to manage the risk.
Predictably, Republicans politicized the report and made it out to be an attack on conservatives. The Obama administration apologized, the report was removed, and the unit within DHS that wrote the report was disbanded.
Fast forward to the DHS under Trump, and they were effectively only allowed to work on anti-immigration in terms of their threat assessments. Even as Nazis were marching in Charlottsville and FBI field offices across the country were conducting domestic terrorism investigations, the DHS, the department responsible for monitoring threats and coordinating the response, was handcuffed. They were trying to look into QAnon, the Proud Boys and beyond, but they were shut down by the administration because it would make them look bad.
You won't be surprised to hear that the DHS didn't issue a single warning about January 6th.
Appeal to Emotion
[00:56:00] JAY TOMLINSON: It's amazing what we can do with language. It shapes how we think, our conception of how the world works, who to get mad at and who to let off easy.
We're told that we live in a meritocracy. We're encouraged to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps. Similar to lone-wolf terrorists, it's said that bad cops are just bad apples that shouldn't taint the rest.
The only problem is that none of those phrases are used correctly.
Meritocracy was coined in a satirical book titled The Rise of the Meritocracy to mock the idea.
Lifting oneself by one's bootstraps is a phrase meant to describe something literally impossible.
And the whole point about bad apples is that it does only take one to spoil the bunch!
On top of that, the game Monopoly was invented by a person trying to warn against the anti-social ramifications of wealth consolidation. The original game actually came with a second set of rules meant to show the benefits of socialism.
The point is, when concepts are over-simplified - and often misused - it's usually to appeal to your emotions rather than your logic. If your anger can be directed, or misdirected, you can be manipulated, and your attention can be held for the benefit of others. Which is why it gets used as a tactic in the media.
[00:57:19] JONATHAN MANN: You are leading with anger. You're giving me fear. You don't want to inform, you wanna keep me here And engaged. So I'm getting no substance, it's all just feeling. You're not dealing with facts, you're just appealing to emotion!
[00:57:39] JAY TOMLINSON: Chapter 6, in which we shall look at the impacts of various forms of power on the international stage.
I want to touch on a few things in the realm of international politics. Obviously that's a big topic but I just want to highlight some of the concepts that have really stuck out to me over time.
The first is what we refer to as the post-war era in the US. We think of it as a time of peace and prosperity, the war had helped juice the economy which got us out the Great Depression and we emerged as a Super Power. But, of course, the idea of a Super Power is always something that's going to be relative, right? No one is a Super Power in a vacuum, only in comparison to others. And in the wake of WWII, we benefitted from one of the greatest strokes of luck of our geography. I know we only think of fighting as having happened in France, Germany, the bombing of London, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and some fighting on a few islands in the Pacific but there were large swaths of the entire world decimated by that war that we always ignore and we escaped practically unscathed in terms of death or destruction on our own territory.
So, it wasn't just the economic boost we enjoyed, it was an enormous, entirely dumb-luck head start we got while the rest of the world was rebuilding from the rubble. I just think that's important to remember when we think of our great amount of power as being a reflection on us being an intrinsically good and honorable country as opposed to a highly populous and highly lucky country.
And a second note on WWII because I feel like it's one of our countries biggest blind spots. We talk about the great sacrifice of the US losing over 400,000 soldiers in that war and I have no problem with that, that was a big sacrifice to be sure.
But some context is almost always helpful. Those 400,000 soldiers of ours accounted for around 1/3 of 1% of our population at the time. Meanwhile, our allies in the Soviet Union lost more than 20 million of their citizens accounting for more than 13% of their population. 400,000 and 1/3 of 1% vs 20 million and 13%.
Maybe you already know those numbers but I can assure you that many, many Americans do not, and I find it almost inarguable that a major reason for that is that the relationship between the US and Soviet Union flipped from allies to adversaries as soon as the war was over and it just wouldn't do for American propaganda to say anything nice or appreciate the sacrifice of a former ally-turned-Cold-War adversary.
And the point of bringing that up, aside from making sure that stat isn't only known by WWII buffs, is to highlight again the power of words. What we say and what we don't and how that shapes our perception.
Which brings us to empires, not just ours, but more broadly. Empires used to be something countries bragged about which really just goes to show how well they were able to hide the hideous implications of imperialism. Left to our own devices, we may think about imperialism as an issue of self-rule vs rule from outside. Of course we would likely come down on the side of self-rule being preferable, we kicked out the British after all, but it's all too likely that we'd miss the forest for the trees and not notice the real crime of colonization.
The phrase that finally made it hit home for me in a big way was this: "wealth pump." All details aside, the overall purpose of empire is to extract wealth from the colony and import it back to the capital of the imperial power. That's it, that's the whole point. That and maybe convert some "heathens" to your preferred religion along the way.
For example, Brussels is a beautiful city. It's full of really gorgeous architecture. One particularly lovely park features two museums connected by a classic set of grand arches. Basically, think of the Brandenburg Gate and you're most of the way there. Anyway, the construction of the arch was commissioned by King Leopold II in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence.
Meanwhile, Belgium had colonized the Congo, where rubber, among other resources, were major sources of wealth to be exported. Belgian colonial overseers enslaved Congolese people, ordered them to harvest rubber from the rubber trees and gave them quotas to fill. If an enslaved person was unable to fill their quota, they would have one of their hands cut off.
It was only due to the wealth generated by such practices in the colony that Belgium could afford to build themselves such beautiful architecture to decorate their capital city. Which is why the colloquial name for the 50th anniversary arch in Brussels is "The arch of severed hands."
Speaking of imperialism, we're currently living through the cycle of imperialism that Democracy Now!'s Juan Gonzalez calls "The Harvest of Empire." This is where, in the wake of imperial power disrupting and systematically pumping wealth out of colonized countries, citizens of those countries find themselves needing to flee in search of a better life than is possible in a post-colonial state. Naturally, they end up traveling to the imperial countries which are reaping what they had sown: the "Harvest of Empire." Keep that in mind during your next discussion about immigration.
And the last element of power I want to talk about is the perception of legitimate vs illegitimate use of force. A classic comparison is between something like the US military dropping a bomb on one side and a suicide bomber on the other.
The quick and easy description for one is a "military action" while the other is an act of "terrorism." And, on top of that, the act of terrorism will likely be described as indicative of the type of people we're fighting. "These are the type of people who would stoop to terrorism, possibly because of their backward religion or their culture, something we would never do" - we say.
The concept that brought the most clarity to me on this topic was to analyze the situation through the lens of power dynamics. People do not use terrorism, by and large, because there is something in their nature, temperament, culture or religion that makes them prefer terrorism as a tactic, they resort to terrorism due to a lack of institutional power. Just as, inversely, the US government has no need to resort to tactics like suicide bombing because we have immense institutional power.
Israel and Palestine come straight to mind. The power differential between the two is enormous and it is for that reason that the tactics used by each side differs so greatly, not due to something inherently good or evil about one or other of the people involved.
The history of Israel is also a good lesson in shifting power dynamics. I've heard Israel described as having lost the greatest amount of moral high-ground, coming out of the oppression and genocide of WWII and using that as an eternal excuse to use their newfound wide power disparity to now oppress their own neighbors who lack the structural power to fight back.
Keep that in mind the next time you hear a group of people being demonized for their tactics rather than their cause. Obviously a cause can be monstrous or honorable, but the tactics used say much more about power, or the lack thereof, than about the righteousness of a cause.
[01:05:23] JAY TOMLINSON: Speaking of power, one of the most boring sounding, yet insidious, methods of defending power from criticism is using what's called the "Passive Voice" in media reports. Similar to nouns and adjectives as described earlier, children are even adept at using the "Passive Voice" because it's the perfect way of deflecting blame.
A child who knocked over the cookie jar might say, "the cookie jar fell over", as though it were an event that simply happened without the active participation of any individual or entity, namely: the child trying to avoid blame.
Similarly, a newspaper like the New York Times might write a headline about the police as: "Minneapolis: A photographer was shot in the eye" compared to one about protesters: "Washington DC: Protesters struck a journalist."
Notice that the police get the "Passive Voice" treatment while the protesters do not and how it subtly diverts anger away from power and toward the powerless.
[01:06:23] JONATHAN MANN: "Passive Voice" is about avoiding culpability, using passive language to obscure responsibility. When you're little and you knock over the cookie jar, you say "Mama, the cookie jar fell over." There is cause and effect, and you have a choice. You can tell the whole truth or use the passive voice. "The cookie jar fell over" as opposed to "They knocked over the cookie jar."
The Progress Trap
[01:06:54] JAY TOMLINSON: Chapter 7, in which we shall look at the state of "progress" in our increasingly technological world to understand where the downsides are primarily coming from.
I find a bit of comfort in the idea of progress traps. They're not, generally, comforting things as they describe inevitable collapse, but I find that it is a repeating feature of humanity to be comforting because it means that our current culture isn't uniquely messed up.
Here's a quick example. Say you have a society of 100 people living off some modest farmland but then you invent irrigation and your capacity to grow food goes up by 10x and the population goes up with it to 1000 people. That's progress, so far so good.
And now, it takes a long time but it turns out that irrigating that land is slowly raising the level of salt and other minerals in the soil which begins to hurt the crops and after a long while, the yield from the farms goes down so that there's not enough food to support the population, and hundreds die of starvation. That's the trap.
Agriculture is a classic example of the progress trap but the same concept can be applied in many other ways. Fossil fuels created a great amount of technological progress and relieved us from a lot of manual labor, but climate change is the trap.
For now, though, I want to look at the biggest example of progress we currently live with and that's the internet and big tech companies. Being wary of potential progress traps in technology doesn't have to mean adopting an anti-technology philosophy across the board but knowing some good questions to ask and looking at new technologies critically is a good place to start. This was Neil Postman's wheelhouse and these are the questions he recommends asking back in the 90s.
[01:08:44] CHARLAYNE HUNTER GAULT - HOST, THE MACNEIL/LEHRER NEWSHOUR: What do you think the people, society, should be doing to try and anticipate these negatives and be able to do something about them?
[01:08:54] NEIL POSTMAN: Everyone should be sensitive to certain questions. When confronted with a new technology, one question should be: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? And the second question would be: Whose problem is it actually? And the third question would be: If there is a legitimate problem here that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be created by my using this technology?
[01:09:27] JAY TOMLINSON: Now before we go any further, I want to be clear that technology has its benefits. It would be absurd to deny that. Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology, who I'll be paraphrasing a fair amount describes our current technological situation as simultaneous utopia and dystopia. Giving ride-hailing as an example, he points out that it's basically a miracle that you can push a button on a phone and a few minutes later a car will pull up and take you where you want to go. That truly is amazing.
But the dystopia comes in many forms. Search engines create filter bubbles that reinforce our confirmation biases. Social media speeds the flow of disinformation that is literally destabilizing societies around the world and is making people, especially kids, deeply unhappy to the point of rising suicide rates.
But what I would argue is, behind all of these downsides of these technologies is the way the profit motive motivates tech companies to actively vie for our attention and our time, not just to provide us a service.
Paraphrasing Tristan Harris again, he argues that technology of today isn't merely an iteration on past technology the way television was an iteration on radio. No, today's technology is fundamentally different because it actively wants something from us.
A bicycle and a computer keyboard are both technologies but they're more akin to a hammer in that they're dumb tools that just sit there until you want to use them, they don't have an agenda of their own. Whereas most new tech coming online right now is built from the ground up to not just serve a purpose for you but to actively attempt to change your behavior to better fit the needs of the tech and the bottom line of the company behind it.
What that means, fundamentally, is that you are no longer fully in control of your actions. You will believe that you are but if there is a supercomputer being programmed by a team of behavioral scientists using cutting edge research of human psychology to get you to use their tech, make that purchase, and walk away thinking it was all your own idea, that's not a fair fight.
Here is my favorite passage from the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff making this point about the shopping habits of people with voice-activated devices in their homes.
[01:11:52] Excerpt: "Communication is the first human joy and a conversational interface is prized for the frictionless ease in which a mere utterance can trigger action, especially market action. 'Let there be light.' 'Let there be new running shoes.' What could be dreamier than to speak and have it be so? An Amazon senior vice president comments on the company's voice activated home devices.
'The nice thing about the Amazon device business is that when we sell a device, generally people buy more blue jeans and little black dresses and shoes, and so that's good. Voice shopping," he concludes, "is good for business and good for predicting business.'
In a conversation addressed to a digital thing, as opposed to a conversation in a shop, words can occur on the fly with less friction and effort, less inhibition, fretting and comparing, less concern about the limits of one's bank account or where a product or service is sourced, less doubt and hesitation, less memory and remorse.
The speaker feels herself at the center of a seamlessly flowing universe. The seams are all backstage where the machines confront and conquer stubborn sources of friction such as distinct apps and entities, recalcitrant administrative service, distribution, payments, and delivery systems, and boundaries and borders that threaten the flows of desire and satisfaction.
Spontaneous and fluid, universally verbal conversation turns the new personal digital assistant into a voice that sits between your life and the new markets for your life, between your experience and the auctioning of your experience. A runtime, a new interface that creates the sensation of mastery while in fact giving it away."
[01:13:50] JAY TOMLINSON: For a long time, the discussion about online privacy was focused through the lens created by books like 1984 and government surveillance programs that came very much into fashion in the wake of 9/11. As dangerous and dystopian as those scenarios are - and there are countries right now dealing with exactly those kinds of privacy concerns - in most of the world, at least for now, the technological overreach manipulating our behavior is coming from the corporations who want to tilt the ground under us just enough so that our money slides into their pockets but without us realizing that anything has shifted at all.
And how did we get here? It's not maliciousness, it's "techno optimism." Here's a discussion with another Amazon executive who I think sums up the mentality of the whole industry pretty well. This is from the podcast, Land of the Giants.
[01:14:48] Host: I asked him are there teams at Amazon listening to skeptics and then working backward to make sure skeptics fears don't actually become reality.
[01:14:57] Daniel Rousch: When we're at our best we're as a team spending almost all of our time living in and thinking about the future. I know on my best days that's really what I get to do. But it's not sort of working backwards from skeptics, so to speak, it's working backwards from, you know, the important things we can do for customers.
[01:15:16] Host: So it sounds like it's almost always starting from a place of optimism about how technology could improve the future versus starting from a place of doubt.
[01:15:30] Daniel Rousch: I'm deeply optimistic about it.
[01:15:33] JAY TOMLINSON: In short, the people in charge of developing new technologies are in no way asking themselves the three questions that would help steer us away from progress traps.
[01:15:45] NEIL POSTMAN: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? Whose problem is it actually? And If there is a legitimate problem here that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be created by my using this technology?
[01:16:07] JAY TOMLINSON: Surveillance capitalism may be taking the attention economy to places it never could have dreamed before but vying for attention certainly isn't anything new. In fact, it's a time-honored tradition in the media which brings us to our next element of media manipulation.
[01:16:22] JONATHAN MANN: It's a news tradition to get more eyeballs, increase your clicks, a time-honored trick called clickbait. Clickbait! Clickbait. Clickbait!
Often the article will hardly relate to the clickbait, Clickbait! headline, Clickbait! and pushing the angle to sensationalize and that's the part that will stick in our minds, even if it's not the truth.
Structural Thinking and the Alternative -
[01:16:54] JAY TOMLINSON: Chapter 8, the final chapter, in which we shall explain what structural forces are and what you're left with if you don't understand them.
I think the concept that brings the most clarity to the differences between the two basic schools of thought in America is structural thinking.
Let's start with the more concrete version. In 2012, Mitt Romney ended up essentially running his entire campaign in opposition to this statement by Barack Obama:
[01:17:24] PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we had that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you got a business, that, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own.
[01:17:53] JAY TOMLINSON: The Romney campaign jumped on the idea that Obama had said that business owners hadn't built their own businesses, instead of what he obviously meant, which is that individual business owners hadn't built the American system, roads and bridges, or the Internet.
That Romney and company would take something so far out of context and run with it to the point that the GOP convention that year was themed "We Built It" is not terribly surprising but it is telling in that they knew their supporters were primed for just that kind of anti-structural, hyper-individualistic message.
My favorite breakdown of this concept came from Chris Hayes in 2014 so I'm just going to play it.
[01:18:38] CHRIS HAYES: We are all standing on a scaffold of laws and government policy that is so massive that it feels like the ground. This isn't some kind of speculation. It's documented. In 2008, a Cornell poll asked people whether they had ever used a government social program. 57% of people said no. As political scientist Suzanne Metler writes, 94% of those who denied using a government program had benefited from at least one. The average respondent had used four. There are two types of people in America. Those who recognize that they're standing on top of something built to help them. And those who believe they are naturally giants.
[01:19:20] JAY TOMLINSON: So that's the structural vs non-structural thinking in the concrete world of economic, social safety net and infrastructure policy. But the same basic concept of structures so big and so long-instituted that they feel like nothing more than the ground we walk on or the air we breathe applies to much more of life than economics and infrastructure.
As already explained, racism and sexism are structural in nature, not merely individual opinions. Our interactions with the Internet, particularly specific services in the attention economy, are highly influenced by structural forces, not individual, freely-made choices. The strategies and tactics of militaries and freedom fighters, or terrorists, depending on your perspective, are driven by a structural context. The influence of money in politics is far more structural than personal. The functioning of our profit-driven news media, what stories they decide to feature and which get ignored, it's all far more due to structural reasons than individual decisions.
In fact, there's a huge similarity between those last two. Just like we heard about the money primary in politics, corporate media has found it much more efficient to simply hire staff who will focus on the stories that are most profitable for the company. That way, there's no need for there to be a heavy hand controlling what news gets covered and everyone at the company gets to walk around convinced that they have total freedom from the corporate executives. Kinda beautiful in its simplicity, really.
And all that may seem self-evident to this audience, or maybe it's worth pointing out for posterity, but this is where I think it gets interesting and begins to explain our current situation with more clarity than I'd had before.
It may seem obvious to say that if a person does not or cannot understand that structural forces are at play in our very complicated world then they will think more in terms of individual actions and individual motives. Sure, that's simple enough. And as long as we're thinking on the small scale, that works to simply dole out perceived credit or blame to individuals. Besides, our whole ethos is about rugged individualism, of course lots of people are going to think that way.
But what about when things start to go majorly wrong on the large scale? Problems like the instability of neoliberalism leading to two recessions within 15 years, new technologies setting all our nerves on edge, political hyper-partisanship and then a global pandemic. What if one were to look at the all of the intricately intertwined, deeply complicated problems in our world and thought to themselves, "this is all because of individual choices people are making." What conclusion would that lead them to? And my answer to that is: conspiratorial thinking.
It's been long-shown that conspiracies are not the exclusive domain of the right, there are left-wing conspiracies, too, but at this moment in time, a time when only structural thinking is capable of beginning to make sense of the world around us, those who have been primed for decades by hyper-individualism to not think structurally about anything are the ones most prone to spinning out and becoming consumed by conspiracy theories because that's the only way they know of to have the world fit together in a way they can process.
[01:22:54] JAY TOMLINSON: Speaking of avoiding falling into, or attempting to climb your way out of, conspiratorial thinking, I have another suggestion. The first is to understand how confirmation bias works because understanding that we're all trapped in our own heads with our own biases should be a constant reminder to question what we think we know.
But the real kicker about conspiracies is that they're self-reinforcing so that every new piece of information feels like it's confirming the theory, even facts that run entirely contrary. That's why it's so hard to talk another person out of their conspiratorial beliefs. They have to find their own way out. And to start on that path, the best question I've yet heard is: "If what you believe to be true is not true, how would you know?"
[01:23:44] JONATHAN MANN: If what you believe to be true is not true, how would you know? If you can't answer that, then you might believe a conspiracy theory, oh, oh. You're trapped in a fortress of confirmation bias, that's true of us all to some degree. But is there any evidence anywhere in the world that would make you not believe? Oh oh oh.
[01:24:16] JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Thanks so much for listening. I'll just leave you with this last thought.
As the late, great Michael Brooks said so eloquently, “be hard on systems but easy on people.” Meet not only the world where it is but people where they are and act accordingly. And that goes for yourself too. No one knew what they didn't know until they learned it. We're all on a journey and there's a simple, two-step formula for always being right.
Step 1, Whenever possible, be right from the beginning, but failing that
Step 2, In the event that you find yourself to not be right, change your mind.
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Thanks, as always, to our small team of researchers, Deon Clark and Erin Clayton. Thanks to our volunteer team of transcriptionists, Ben, Ken and Brian. And thanks to Amanda Hoffman for all of her varied support both personal and professional over the years including doing all of the dishes this past week while I've been glued to my computer for about 9 straight days putting this episode together.
And as always, coming to you from far outside the conventional wisdom of Washington, D.C., my name is Jay! and this has been the Best of the Left podcast coming to you twice weekly, thanks entirely to the members and donors to the show, from BestOfTheLeft.com.