It’s The Culture..

Every morning when I sit down at my computer, I’m confronted with headlines from the various news sources to which I subscribe: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post…and through the day, a mind-numbing number of others. I don’t know anyone with the time and/or inclination to carefully read all the available news and opinion, and I certainly don’t–like most consumers of media, I scan the headlines and click on those that promise some measure of enlightenment or moderately important/relevant information.

But occasionally, a headline is so weird, I have to read the article. That’s what lured me to a report in The Week titled (no kidding) “Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?”

Theranos, as you probably know, was the much-hyped startup company founded by Elizabeth Holmes–young, very good-looking and evidently one really smooth talker. She claimed the company had invented a new kind of blood testing technology that was going to save both time and money. Lots of people invested in it.

The most generous interpretation of what came next was a discovery that the technology didn’t work; a less-generous interpretation is that Holmes intentionally perpetrated a fraud. A jury is currently hearing evidence on the latter interpretation.

So what–if anything–does this audacious scam (if that is, indeed, what it turns out to be) have to do with Afghanistan? Well, the article does point out that General Mattis, late of the Trump Administration and the Afghan war, was on the board of Theranos and a major cheerleader for the company.

But the real connection was a cultural one.

Like the Afghanistan debacle, Theranos is a horror story of wishful thinking, credulous media, and celebrity impunity. Whether or not intentional deception was involved, both episodes display the dishonesty and incompetence of interlocking tech, finance, media, and military elites.

Mattis’ role in both sorry spectacles–the war and Theranos–illustrates the moral rot that infects far too many of the figures lionized by a media chasing eyeballs and clicks rather than the information required by a democratic citizenry.

Mattis denies any wrongdoing, claiming he was taken in, too. Even if that’s true, his role is discreditable. Mattis’ association with the company began in 2011, when he met Holmes at a Marine Memorial event in San Francisco. According to author John Carreyrou and other journalists, he immediately began campaigning for military adoption of Theranos’ ostensibly innovative bloodtesting technology. Mattis was not deterred by the lack of FDA approval and mounting doubts about whether the technology actually worked. After his retirement in 2013, Mattis also ignored legal advice that it would be improper to join the board while the company was seeking procurement of its products for use in Afghanistan.

It would be a mistake to single out a few “bad actors,” however. The problem is systemic–a widespread, “baked-in” disinclination to either provide or accept evidence that is contrary to what one wants to believe.

The article focuses on the impunity enjoyed by what it calls the American ruling class “until their conduct becomes literally criminal,” and it points out that the same people who make decisions in Washington sit on boards in Silicon Valley and appear on the same few cable channels. When the projects they promote go south, they continue to be celebrated and compensated as authors, management consultants, and respected pundits.

There’s a word for this governing hierarchy: kakistocracy, governance by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.

Which gets us back to culture.

In today’s America, celebrity is more valued than competence. A loud voice commands far more attention than an expert opinion. Purveyors of ridiculous conspiracy theories overwhelm the conclusions and cautions of reputable scientists. This is the culture that in 2016 gave us an embarrassing, mentally-ill buffoon for President, the culture that elects  equally embarrassing crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s the culture that leads thousands of people to ingest a horse de-wormer and reject the expertise of epidemiologists and medical professionals.

It’s a culture that threatens to overwhelm those of us who want to live in the reality-based community.


  1. Yes, well, I know you use the term “culture” loosely here. When our “free press” is owned by entertainment giants, one can expect that culture to bleed over into the news. If a celebrity General promotes the need for nuclear submarines in Australia for our “security,” we better support it because “they know what they’re talking about.”

    Lord, the TV would never lie to us.

    When Nicki somebody claims the COVID vaccine causes a friend of her cousin’s testicles to swell up, it’s pertinent for our free press to ask the President’s press secretary if that’s true.

    I expect Americans might be the first to elect an anime character for POTUS.

    Seriously, though, the dream ticket for the Democrats in 2024 is Kamala/Pete. We are fastly approaching the decline into the abyss where momentum gathers, and escape from tumbling over is not probable. God help us all.

  2. The antics of Elizabeth Holmes were disgusting. Despite following her story for years, I had somehow missed the Mattie connection. I continue to be appalled! If in fact she is found guilty, I will appreciate the finding, but the Mattie madness is a big pill to swallow. And you have illuminated another picture of the incompetence in those we would hope to believe in and trust. Sigh…. the buffoons usually are such clowns that they are hard to miss…. but so many of those I assumed we could trust have feet of clay. It’s sad that there are so few people we depend upon whose intentions are not honorable. I wonder how this episode will shake out for Mattis, but I don’t think I will pay attention…. I’m so disgusted with so many of the insincere and self serving ‘leaders’. A confederacy of dunces….
    thank God I know that when I read your essays, and a handful of others, keep the truth shining through!

  3. An interesting video on the Aljazeera site this morning. Wade Davis, renowned anthropologist and writer, discusses what he sees as the end of the American culture. Look for “Did the pandemic signal the end to the American era?”

  4. And that culture is being spread like a virus all over the world. There were arrests and violence in Bern, the capital of Switzerland last night because they are requiring vaccine certificates to eat at restaurants and go to museums etc., now. Switzerland has cast aside their old and tired “paper is proof” ways and developed an online vaccine certificate that is recognized in the EU. We have 3 ways to prove we’re vaccinated, our paper certificates, an online QR coded certificate, and I got a vaccination booklet since I didn’t have my childhood booklet. I have to admit that I’m rather surprised that the states, who have multiple Silicon Valleys, don’t have an online QR code for your phones. US travelers are in for big surprises when the rest of the world is way ahead in identifying the vaccinated.

  5. Aging Girl: Not all of us have the latest phone technologies. I don’t know if my flip phone is compatible with a QR code, and I am not really interested in finding out. I use it to make and receive voice calls. I don’t even bother with text messages. Somehow I get along with a technology that Alexander Graham Bell would understand.

  6. ABC News produced an excellent podcast called The Dropout a couple of years ago and has resumed the series to cover her trial. It is fair to describe her as a smooth talker but she is far more substantive than that. This excerpt from Wiki on her early life:

    “ After the end of her freshman year, Holmes worked in a laboratory at the Genome Institute of Singapore and tested for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) through the collection of blood samples with syringes.[15][17] She filed her first patent application on a wearable drug-delivery patch in 2003.[18][19] In March 2004, she dropped out of Stanford’s School of Engineering and used her tuition money as seed funding for a consumer healthcare technology company.[13][20]”.

    So I’m not disagreeing with your basic assertion that our culture values celebrity over science, but it’s more nuanced than that. Our country, and especially the elite class that runs our country, OBSESSES over “genius”. People with names likes Gates, Jobs, Musk, Bezos and also Holmes, who was a huge admirer of Steven Jobs and cultivated her image in his likeness (creepily wearing nothing but a black turtleneck like Jobs did).

    But the theory behind and design of her machine to test blood for hundreds of conditions in minutes was fairly solid, and was a game changer in the eyes of Walgreens, who made a massive investment in a joint venture with Tharanos, to the US Army who saw its potential to save lives in the combat theater.

    But it just didn’t work and she simply tried to WILL it to work through something else she shared with Steve Jobs: a “reality distortion field” around her head that would not allow information to enter if it was adverse to her vision (a common trait among very bright narcissists). So she leveraged her carefully-groomed image and celebrity to cast her spell on willing and gullible investors and people willing to lend their fame and gravitas to sit on her company’s board. The most tragic was former Secretary of State George Schultz.

    I believe she SHOULD be found guilty of massive fraud based on what I’ve read and heard but I won’t be at all surprised if she is found not guilty – it will simply affirm my observation that cultural elites are obsessed with themselves and other shooting stars like Elizabeth Holmes who aspire to join them. The real tragedy in this story is how much our society lost out on her intellect and talents – what she MIGHT have contributed had she finished her education and pursued serious medical research.

  7. There is a pervasive cultural mania in America obsessed with a similar blood test hoax, and it is the way the far right chooses to brand freedom. I am spending what left (no pun intended) there is of summer here in Canada. Public adherence to public health guidance and mandates are very strong as if Canadians see it as a common fight against a life threatening disease. My Canadian friends argue we Americans prefer to rant about our freedom never to be muffled by a mask. Thank you, Shiela. Another thought provoking post to start TGIF!

  8. To blame any one person or even culture for our failure in Afghanistan is too much. It might help to explain parts of it.

    In an NPR interview a few days after the fall, a former Afghan official said the US did not lose one war, they lost 20 – 1 year wars. He explained that every year all the troops and all of the on the ground leadership would change, and with it the focus and the strategy.

    An op-ed piece explained we lost to corruption and greed, explaining all of the people that got rich as we threw money at a country that sucked it up like a sponge.

    I would hope that General Mattis is just symptomatic of the kind of leadership you get in kakistocracy. Given the continued polarization, for the foreseeable future it is likely to happen again.

    On a positive note, Canadian Prime Minister Tredeau called a general election and the candidate that might give him a run for his money is doing it by being a more centrist player. One could only hope for a similar shift in the US.

  9. Sometimes a nonsensical post on Facebook with no redeeming factor at all takes on a surprising meaning. Today someone questioned finding a word beginning with “z” and ending with “t”; my friend posted “zeigeist” but questioned my word “zit” as being slang and not in the dictionary. I found both in my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and was able to use them in a sentence referring to the fact that the current “zeigeist” in this country has gone from being a “zit” to becoming a carbuncle on the ass of America.

    To quote Linda Ellerbee; “And so it goes!”

  10. There have always been cons and there have always been con artists. There used to be great con artists, now we only see the greedy ones. We need to have mandatory classes on how to spot the con. That might just be how we get people vaccinated.

  11. We have become so comfortable, so unpressured by real life, so protected, that being entertained has become a right and it’s accommodated technically by the most pervasive presence in our lives of anything. It’s like the air that we live in, it’s everywhere, all of the time, and relentlessly reliable. How could a culture have not enveloped us that makes us one with it? It was and is inescapable.

    Learning and thinking are too hard to get right, the risk of wrong too high. Being entertained is too easy, and mistake-proof.

    Is this how civilization ends?

  12. I too was excited by the Theranos “tests”. As a scientist, l found the technology to be quite plausible, as did Patrick.

    At the time, however, I did think that an attractive, sales-oriented (and patent oriented) woman like Holmes could get backing that I never could. (I shot down an idea by a friend of mine in graduate school to create a startup. I still believe it would never have gotten off the ground precisely because we weren’t “connected”).

    Also like Patrick, I am more likely to buy the middle path. She didn’t start out to con people and she didn’t just “fail”, but she failed and then ended up with the equivalent of a con.

    One personal anecdote – as a master’s student, one of my first experiments was wildly successful, and exactly like I predicted. I spent over six months trying to repeat that experiment before I decided it was an artifact. Fortunately, I had a plan B which was successful, replicable, and got me that masters degree.

    One successful result can drive a scientist mad in their belief in an artifact. Again, as Patrick pointed out, certain personality types react differently. I eventually admitted to myself that I was chasing an artifact and I didn’t try to fool my advisor (not that it would have worked). I’m not that certain about Holmes.

    Back to the point, we let celebrity have too much influence. I just read an bit in the “merged” Detroit papers (News/Free Press) that Nicki Minaj tweeted she won’t get vaccinated until she “does more research” because she was told that a friend of her cousin became impotent. Again, a celebrity who knows nothing spreads balderdash that reaches millions. It’s crazy.

    JoAnn – yes – LOL

  13. Yes, the celebrities and rich and scams mix and rule. So what’s new about that besides the toxic stirrer of the Web/social media? Yawn….

  14. JoAnn, Kurt Vonnegut virtually patented “And so it goes,” what seems like ages ago, and Ellerby picked up on it I suppose.
    Vernon, I watch NO talking head stuff, on either side of the divide, and may be saner for it.
    Our “culture” has gone off the cliff since the GQP started to lie in a bald-faced manner, lead by Newt, who “knew” there was no such thing as acid rain. A few moments ago, I noticed a headline saying that one of the female Faux talkers said that leftish violent was worse than that of 1/6, in a new misinformation toss-out.
    Alex Jones’ idiot “Info Wars” is perfectly named, may be the only thing he’s said in years that is not a lie, as he is warring on the front lines of information.
    I’m reading “The Constitution of Knowledge, A Defense of Truth,” by Jonathan Rauch, a treatise on epistemology, and on pg 5 he states that searching for truth is mediated in a series of conversations, which, in turn, “…are mediated through institutions like journals and newspaper sans social-media platforms; and they rely on a dense network of norms and rules, like truthfulness and fact-checking; and they depend on the expertise of professionals, like peer reviewers and editors—and the entire system rests on a foundation of values: a shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge.”
    It’s that “…shared understanding” that is being attacked in today’s verbal wars. And, he cites “Identity Protective Cognition,” as per Yale Univ. psychologist and law prof., the apparent basis for tribalist thinking, is, evolutionarily important for social grouping species, such as humans. ‘In effect, “What matters most is not what I believe, or what you believe, but what we believe… We have hundreds of thousands of years of practice at believing whatever will keep us in good standing with our tribe, even if that means denying, discounting, rationalizing, misperceiving and ignoring the evidence in from of our nose.” pg. 31-32. Being in “good standing with our tribe” allows us to find mates, reproduce, and keep the tribal “knowing” going!

  15. Mitch D. Yes, The Constitution of Knowledge– A Defense of Truth is a fascinating read. Working on it now!

  16. The Ponzi Schemes and Con-Men or Con-Women go back to ancient times. The Oracle of Delphi or other “Holy Relics” paraded around for the gullible to believe in and yes make a donation.

    Years ago I read a book about the Mafia. One of the Mafia people interviewed offered the opinion based upon his life experiences that anyone can be bought off. It simply depends on the person’s attachment points: Wine, women, song, greed, or status. There was muscle that could be applied to the more restive types.

    A case book or text book example would be the man formerly known as “America’s Mayor”: Rudy Giuliani. He went from Hero to a hustler for Donald Trump.

    The list of times the Elites have closed ranks, looked the way goes on and on Epstein, Larry Nassar, the Enron boys, etc. The recent testimony from female athletes suggests our FBI blew off the whistle blowing on Nasser.

    Between the first complaints to the FBI and the time the agency took action, Nassar sexually abused some 70 women and girls. One of the agents who was supposed to investigate was angling for a job at USA Gymnastics.

  17. The obsession with celebrities in politics and law and order began with radio and accelerated with television. And now we have a 24 hour news cycle. The first televised debate as I recall was between Nixon and Kennedy. Kennedy won that debate.

    The spotlight is someplace where narcissists love to live. And so, the more we become obsessed with politicians who are celebrities ie Ronald Reagaon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the more likely it is that those who win office will have a healthy dose of narcissim in their personality. Servant leadership is totally alien to narcissists unless they can use the concept to gaslight for their own ends,

    If Elizabeth Holmes was as good at gaslighting as I think she is, she could have easily conned Mattis. Who would not want a much easier way to do lab work on the troops, one that required just a spot of a specimen?I know I would.

    What Holmes did along with the pharmaceutical companies is damage the credibility of our medical institutions and technology. It’s already damaged. Why else would people refuse to wear masks , take vaccines, and believe that Fauci and the CDC have created a hoax?

    It will be interesting to see what the outcome of the court’s decision will for this very privileged, smart, white, young woman .

    Wouldn’t it be good if all the wealthy and extremely privileged people stopped believing that they could get away with fraud. “Can’t touch me.” Maybe that’s what they think. Just wait till their ocean front properties get burned by wildfires or wiped out by the rise in sea levels. No one is invulnerabile,not even Ms. Holmes.

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