Category Archives: Random Blogging

History Repeats Itself

One of the most disconcerting realizations triggered by the election of Donald Trump and the various rages of MAGA Republicans has been my realization that there are many more haters in the American public than I had ever imagined. If survey results and academic research are to be believed, these fearful and angry people comprise some 25-30% of our “body politic”–and they are coming for the rest of us: Blacks, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ+ folks…anyone who isn’t a White Christian. 

Not a majority, thankfully, but a substantial and incredibly dangerous minority–made infinitely more dangerous by anti-democratic political mechanisms (gerrymandering, the Electoral College, the filibuster) that allow them to exercise far more power than they would be entitled to on the basis of raw numbers.

The New York Times recently ran an essay by Michelle Goldberg tracing differences between the Christian Nationalism favored by Trump and his supporters, and the version being developed by Ron DeSantis.

As she noted,

The issue isn’t whether the next Republican presidential candidate is going to be a Christian nationalist, meaning someone who rejects the separation of church and state and treats Christianity as the foundation of American identity and law. That’s a foregone conclusion in a party whose state lawmakers are falling over themselves to pass book bans, abortion prohibitions, anti-trans laws, and, in Texas, bills authorizing school prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

Goldberg reported on the recent ReAwaken America Tour, “a Christian nationalist roadshow co-founded by the former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.” Two of the speakers on that tour were jettisoned when the tour arrived in Miami because of negative publicity over their praise of Hitler, although they remain on the group’s website.

Unsurprisingly, Trump called in to offer his unrestrained support.

Goldberg notes that DeSantis is “fluent in the language of the religious right, and strives to check all its policy boxes”. 

Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” he said at the Christian Hillsdale College last year, substituting the “left’s schemes” for the “devil’s schemes” of Ephesians 6:11. In addition to the abortion ban and his war on “woke” education, he will almost certainly sign a recently passed bill intended to keep trans people from using their preferred bathrooms in government buildings, including schools.

As Goldberg notes, the question is whether rank-and-file religious conservatives care more about consistency or charisma. “DeSantis treats Christianity as a moral code he’d like to impose on the rest of us, Trump treats it as an elevated status that should come with special perks.”

Both are terrifying–and both are eerily reminiscent of the significant pro-Nazi movement in the United States during the interval between the first and second World Wars. Most of us today are unaware of just how robust that movement was–it became considerably less fashionable once we entered the Second World War (although some American corporations that traded with Germany continued to do so even after declarations of war).

I was certainly unaware of the extent of American pro-Nazi sympathy.

In 1933,  Rudolf Hess, then deputy führer of Germany, authorized formation an official American branch of the Nazi Party, to be known as the Friends of New Germany in the U.S. Although based in New York, it had a strong presence in Chicago, and it was openly pro-Nazi. According to historians, members stormed the German-language newspaper New Yorker Staats-Zeitung and demanded that the paper publish articles sympathetic to Nazis.

The German American Bund formed in 1935 and lasted until America formally entered World War II. Its goal was a united America under Nazi ideology. It was anti-communist and anti-Semitic. Taking inspiration from Hitler Youth, the Bund had a youth division–  members “took German lessons, received instructions on how to salute the swastika, and learned to sing the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ and other Nazi songs.”

The Bund continued to justify and glorify Hitler and his movements in Europe during the outbreak of World War II. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Bund leaders released a statement demanding that America stay neutral in the ensuing conflict, and expressed sympathy for Germany’s war effort. The Bund reasoned that this support for the German war effort was not disloyal to the United States, as German-Americans would “continue to fight for a Gentile America free of all atheistic Jewish Marxist elements.”

The Bund didn’t disband until the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

It’s impossible to read today’s news without seeing the parallels–and concluding that the pro-Nazi sentiments that led to the Friends of New Germany and the German-American Bund have simply remained underground until encouraged to emerge by the MAGA movement and its would-be fuhrers. 

We can only hope that it won’t take another World War to defeat them.

It Isn’t Just In MAGA-World

Let’s be honest: believing the people who tell you what you want to hear is a trait shared by all humans–Left, Right and Center. There’s a reason researchers study  confirmation bias–the current terminology for what we used to call “cherry-picking the facts.”

Just one recent example: MAGA folks who are frantic to believe that Joe Biden is just as corrupt as Donald Trump (okay, maybe not quite that corrupt…) have latched onto a report issued by James Comer, a Republican House member determined to find something to support that accusation. Unfortunately, as TNR (among many other media outlets) has reported, there just isn’t anything that we might call “evidence” to support that desired belief.

The House GOP accused Joe Biden and his family on Wednesday of engaging in business with foreign entities—but were unable to provide any actual evidence linking the president to any wrongdoing.

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer released a 65-page memo detailing a sprawling investigation into Biden and some of his relatives, particularly his son Hunter Biden. Nowhere in the massive document was there a specific allegation of a crime committed by Biden or any of his relatives.

During a press conference explaining the investigation, Comer was asked if he had evidence directly linking Biden to corruption. The Kentucky Republican hemmed and hawed but ultimately admitted he didn’t.

It’s easy enough to see confirmation bias at work when a commenter to this blog “cites” to Comer, a lawmaker who has publicly admitted that he “intuited” misbehavior by the Biden family, despite the fact that even Fox “News” personalities have admitted that there’s no there there. But it isn’t only folks on the Right who engage in confirmation bias–and the strength of that human impulse to cherry-pick is about to get a test on steroids.

Researchers have recently warned about the likely misuse of AI--artificial intelligence–in producing misleading and dishonest political campaigns

Computer engineers and tech-inclined political scientists have warned for years that cheap, powerful artificial intelligence tools would soon allow anyone to create fake images, video and audio that was realistic enough to fool voters and perhaps sway an election.

The synthetic images that emerged were often crude, unconvincing and costly to produce, especially when other kinds of misinformation were so inexpensive and easy to spread on social media. The threat posed by AI and so-called deepfakes always seemed a year or two away.

No more.

Sophisticated generative AI tools can now create cloned human voices and hyper-realistic images, videos and audio in seconds, at minimal cost. When strapped to powerful social media algorithms, this fake and digitally created content can spread far and fast and target highly specific audiences, potentially taking campaign dirty tricks to a new low.

The implications for the 2024 campaigns and elections are as large as they are troubling: Generative AI can not only rapidly produce targeted campaign emails, texts or videos, it also could be used to mislead voters, impersonate candidates and undermine elections on a scale and at a speed not yet seen.

“We’re not prepared for this,” warned A.J. Nash, vice president of intelligence at the cybersecurity firm ZeroFox. “To me, the big leap forward is the audio and video capabilities that have emerged. When you can do that on a large scale, and distribute it on social platforms, well, it’s going to have a major impact.”

Some of the ways in which AI can mislead voters include the production of automated robocall messages that use a (simulated) candidate’s voice and instruct voters to cast their ballots on the wrong date, or phony audio recordings that sound as if a candidate was expressing racist views– AI can easily produce video footage showing someone giving a speech or interview that they never gave. It would be especially simple for AI to fake images designed to look like local news reports making a variety of false claims….The possibilities are endless. And what happens if an international entity — a cybercriminal or a nation state — impersonates someone?

AI-generated political disinformation already has gone viral online ahead of the 2024 election, from a doctored video of Biden appearing to give a speech attacking transgender people to AI-generated images of children supposedly learning satanism in libraries.

If we have trouble now knowing who or what to believe, today’s confusion over what constitutes “fact” and what doesn’t is about to be eclipsed by the coming creation of a world largely invented by digital liars employing tools we’ve never before encountered.

If regulators can’t figure out how to address the dangers inherent in this new technology–and quickly!– artificial intelligence plus confirmation bias may just put the end to whatever remains of America’s rational self-government.



Fear Speech

I don’t know whether kids these days still employ that time-honored riposte to verbal insults: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!

If that sing-song phrase is no longer heard, it may be because it is abundantly clear that words can hurt. Words can hurt the individuals at whom they are aimed, and they can hurt the culture that tolerates them.

That realization is no reason to abandon the protections of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause–an abandonment that would give government the right to dictate citizens’ communications–but it does require citizens to be aware of the multitude of ways politicians and special interests use language to motivate behaviors.

Which brings me to a thoughtful column I read a while back in the New York Times.The author began by quoting an unmoderated tweet posted to Twitter, calling for transgender Americans to be “eradicated.” It hadn’t been taken down because it didn’t violate the platform’s rule against hate speech. (The current disaster that is Twitter under Elon Musk isn’t relevant to this particular issue.) Instead, the post was an example of what the essay called “Fear Speech. After quoting other, similar posts, the author wrote:

None of this was censored by the tech platforms because neither Mr. Knowles nor CPAC violated the platforms’ hate speech rules that prohibit direct attacks against people based on who they are. But by allowing such speech to be disseminated on their platforms, the social media companies were doing something that should perhaps concern us even more: They were stoking fear of a marginalized group.

It’s hard to argue against the author’s assertion that fear is currently being weaponized even more than hate by partisans who are looking for votes, and ideologues seeking to spark violence. Commenters to this blog have often made a similar point, noting the political utility of stoking fears–and noting as well that it’s a tactic especially effective with uneducated/uninformed Americans.

Most tech platforms do not shut down false fear-inciting claims such as “Antifa is coming to invade your town” and “Your political enemies are pedophiles coming for your children.” But by allowing lies like these to spread, the platforms are allowing the most perilous types of speech to permeate our society.

Susan Benesch, the executive director of the Dangerous Speech Project, said that genocidal leaders often use fear of a looming threat to prod groups into pre-emptive violence. Those who commit the violence do not need to hate the people they are attacking. They just need to be afraid of the consequences of not attacking.

The author provides examples: the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was preceded by Hutu politicians warning the Hutus that they were about to be exterminated by Tutsis; Nazi propagandists triggered the Holocaust by warning that Jews were planning to annihilate the German people; Serbs engaged in genocide after being warned that fundamentalist Muslims were planning a genocide against them.

Benesch was quoted as saying she was” stunned at how similar this rhetoric is from case to case.”

“It’s as if there’s some horrible school that they all attend.” The key feature of dangerous speech, she argued, is that it persuades “people to perceive other members of a group as a terrible threat. That makes violence seem acceptable, necessary or even virtuous.”

A recent study found that “fear speech” promoted more engagement with a social media platform than hate speech–and that it was much more difficult for algorithms to identify.

There is no easy answer. Calling on social media platforms to police Fear speech runs into some thorny problems. As with so many of the difficult issues we face, our best defense is a thoughtful and civically-knowledgable polity.

In the end, algorithms aren’t going to save us. They can demote fear speech but not erase it. We, the users of the platforms, also have a role to play in challenging fearmongering through‌ counterspeech, in which leaders and bystanders negatively respond to fear-based incitement. The goal of counterspeech is not necessarily to change the views of true believers but rather to provide a counter‌narrative for people watching on the sidelines.

The essay’s bottom line echoes what I used to call my “refrigerator theory of free speech.” If you leave a leftover morsel on a back shelf in your refrigerator, it will eventually start to smell. If you place that same leftover under strong sunlight, it will lose its power to pollute.

A dedicated minority of educated and engaged citizens can–and must– provide that sunlight.

What was that famous Margaret Mead quote? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


The Problem With Moderation

A long time ago–twenty or so years, as my worsening memory calculates it–I tried to organize a local political group around the principles of civil discourse and moderation. I was concerned at the time about the nasty confrontations and unwillingness to negotiate that were increasingly characterizing political debate, and in my naiveté, I thought a group of nice, earnest folks might be able to nudge local combatants back toward an ill-defined “center.”

We called it the “American Values Alliance,” and you can guess how well that went. As one member concluded, there’s a reason you never see gangs of marching moderates.

In the years since that abortive effort, as the practice of “on the ground” politics has dramatically changed, I’ve come to recognize the massive impediments to–and lack of wisdom of– similar attempts.

In the past, “moderate” essentially meant “in the middle.” A moderate was someone who understood that half a loaf was better than no bread at all, and was willing to sit down with proponents of contrary policies to see if some middle ground existed. That approach works when the opposing positions are center-left and center-right–or at least when proponents of different policies come from rational, albeit different, perspectives.

When one side of a conflict wants to deprive the other side of fundamental rights, there is no “middle.”

What does half a loaf look like when the argument is about the right of trans children to access lifesaving medical care? What is the “middle ground” in a debate over who gets to decide whether a woman reproduces?

How do we “negotiate” with lawmakers who call LGBTQ citizens “abominations” and insist that nonChristians aren’t “real Americans”?

What is the “middle ground” between banning books and respecting the expertise of schoolteachers and librarians–not to mention the rights of parents who disagree?

When a political party threatens to upend the global financial order by refusing to authorize the payment of bills already incurred–amounts the government owes (thanks in many cases to votes cast by those now threatening to default)–giving in to some of that party’s demands is negotiating with terrorists and encouraging future blackmail.

I’m sure you can all come up with similar examples.

I tend to think of moderation today as the definition being employed by ReCenter, the organization I wrote about a couple of weeks ago–not as a center point between policy positions, but as a characteristic of reasonable people. A moderate person, defined in that way, is a rational citizen, someone open to discourse and amenable to evidence–not a rabid ideologue or bigot.

My sister recently hit the nail on the head when she opined that the arguments currently taking place between the parties aren’t about policy–they’re about morality.

My sister and I both used to be among those thousands of Republican women who volunteered in our respective precincts to get out the vote, and considered ourselves to be…yes…moderates. We currently number among the thousands who have fled the racist, homophobic, misogynistic cult that is today’s GOP.

I don’t know how one becomes a “moderate” racist or anti-Semite. I don’t know how the  base of the GOP squares its current positions with the moral aspirations of the U.S. Constitution or the historic American emphasis on civic equality and democratic decision-making.

What prompted this particular diatribe was an important recent statement by Third Way’s executive vice president. Progressives routinely accuse Third Way of being unrealistically moderate, but the statement–quite correctly, in my opinion– lambasted another presumably “moderate” group, No Labels:

The group No Labels is holding its nominating convention in Dallas to select a 3rd Party candidate that most assuredly would hurt Biden and elect Trump or whoever wins the GOP nomination. They have already raised $70m. They are already on the ballot in a bunch of states. And in a map they recently published showing their absurd path to 270 electoral college votes, they’ve targeted 23 states for victory—19 won by Biden and 4 won by Trump. That gives you an idea of what they’re up to and who they really want to elect. And as a reminder, No Labels endorsed Trump in 2016.

(Subsequently, evidence emerged that Republican “dark money” is funding No Labels.)

In a sane world, moderation and willingness to compromise are virtues.  We don’t currently occupy a sane world. As a letter to the Washington Post accurately put it:

One side believes in American democracy, while the other has attacked it. One is governing from the mainstream, while the other champions extremism. One seeks to work collaboratively on the issues; the other has given way to conspiracy theorists and cranks.

A vote for No Labels –or for any third-party candidate–isn’t evidence of moderation. It’s a Faustian bargain.

Shameless Promotion

Okay–I previously warned readers of this blog that yet another book was in process. This time, it’s a co-authored effort with Morton Marcus, who occasionally comments here. The book is titled: From Property to Partner: Women’s Progress and Political Resistance, and it’s available as either an e-book (6.50) or a paperback (15.00).

Bargains, I tell you……

Morton and I have been friends for 30+ years, and–while we don’t always agree–our disagreements tend to be both minor and civil, and both of us think women are people and equal rights are a good thing.

This is the 11th book I’ve written–and only the second with a co-author. Most have been published by academic and trade presses that did absolutely nothing to market them. (Granted, three or four of them were barely interesting to other academics, but there was no effort at marketing even those that I fondly believed merited a broader distribution.) Morton’s experience with publishing houses has been similar, so we’ve published this book on Amazon–keeping the price reasonable and access broadly available. Hint, hint.

This time, we’re marketing!

Our book–with individual chapters by each of us– considers the progress women have made over the last 100 or so years—from a status that essentially made females the “property” of their fathers or husbands, to today’s almost-equal legal parity with men. It outlines the bases upon which that progress rests, and the very real threat posed by the Rightwing culture warriors who see women’s progress as an existential threat to their continued patriarchal dominance.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the “Afterword,” to give you a taste of the contents:

We began this book as an exercise in social history. The decision in Dobbs was handed down a couple of months after we began researching the path women had taken—the path we’ve dubbed “from property to partner”—and it changed our focus for this effort. Dobbs was a frontal assault on human liberty. Yes, it was a “shot over the bow” of women’s right to self-determination, but it was much, much more. It represents a profoundly anti-liberty worldview that poses a danger to fundamental American constitutional values….

In order to look forward and to act with vigor, we need to understand the technologies and cultural changes that have empowered women over the past years. Now, women (and men of good will) must enlist the technological and cultural opportunities of our times to issue a call to arms. This effort, this manifesto if you will, is intended to assist in a marshaling of building blocks for the critically-necessary program to stem the tide of reaction, to regain what we have already lost, and to prevent the further erosion of women’s personal autonomy. It is the time for all of us to ask, “What else we are at risk of losing?”

So–here’s my shameless plea, and my “elevator speech.”

If you are a regular reader of this blog and feel that its contribution to the current national discourse is worthwhile–buy this book!

If–like Morton–you believe that data “tells the tale” and that an analysis of credible and accurate facts and figures confirms and documents both persistent problems and progress to date–buy this book!

If–like yours truly–you are deeply worried about the culture warriors’ efforts to return women to a subservient status, and interested in the religious and historical roots of their paternalistic backlash–buy this book!

If you want to feel better about the prospects for women’s continued emancipation –buy this book!

And if you do buy it, and after reading it decide that you like it–tell your friends!

We’ll really appreciate it!

I will now return this blog to its usual whining and ranting…..