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.


This Isn’t Dunkirk

Longtime readers of this blog know that I rarely, if ever, post about foreign policy. There’s a reason for that–I am uninformed about most aspects of such policies, and I am deeply conflicted about America’s obligations vis a vis purely humanitarian concerns. 

When it comes to warfare, I mostly agree with those who insist we should keep our cotton-pickin’ hands off unless there is a very clear American interest to be protected, or a humanitarian crisis of significant proportions that we are actually in a position to ameliorate. I will readily admit that the definition of American interests and the nature and extent of humanitarian crises are matters of considerable debate.

If I had been the person determining the parameters of America’s intervention in Afghanistan, I would have approved an initial intervention to root out Al Qaida and “get” Osama Bin Laden–but not the slog of the subsequent 18 years, during which we wasted trillions of dollars–not to mention the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians.

But here we are.

President Biden has made what I consider the absolutely correct call–and the media and self-styled pundits, abetted by deeply dishonest Republicans sensing political advantage, are having a field day attacking him for, among other things, recognizing and admitting the obvious.

I think that Michael Moore, of all people, has it right in the following paragraphs. (I say “of all people” because I tend to find Moore tiresome–you usually know precisely what he’ll say because, like far too many people, he approaches all issues through an unshakable, pre-defined lens. Sometimes, of course, like that “stopped clock” he’s right; sometimes, not so much.)

In this case,I think he is “on point.” In his recent letter, Moore wrote about our departure from Afghanistan: 

This is nothing here to celebrate. This should only be a monumental gut-check moment of serious reflection and a desire to seek redemption for ourselves. We don’t need to spend a single minute right now analyzing how Biden has or has not messed up while bravely handling the end of this mess he was handed — including his incredible private negotiations all this week with the Taliban leaders to ensure that not a single enemy combatant from the occupying force (that would be us; e.g., U.S. soldiers and spies and embassy staff), will be harmed. And Biden so far has gotten every American and foreign journalist out alive, plus a promise from the Taliban that those who stay to cover it will not be harmed. And not a single one has! Usually a force like the Taliban rushes in killing every enemy in sight. That has not happened! And we will learn that it was because of the negotiating skills and smarts of the Biden team that there was no mass slaughter. This is not Dunkirk.

Dozens of planes have safely taken off all week — and not one of them has been shot down. None of our troops in this chaotic situation have been killed. Despite the breathless shrieks of panic from maleducated journalists who think they’re covering the Taliban of the 1990s (Jake Tapper on CNN keeps making references to “beheadings“ and how girls might be “kidnapped” and “raped” and forced to become “child brides”), none of this seems to be happening. I do not want to hear how we “need to study” what went wrong with this Taliban victory and our evacuation because (switching to all caps because I can’t scream this loud enough): WE ARE NEVER GOING TO FIND OURSELVES IN A SITUATION LIKE THIS AGAIN BECAUSE OUR DAYS OF INVADING AND TAKING OVER COUNTRIES MUST END. RIGHT? RIGHT!!

Unfortunately, we probably will find ourselves in similar situations, because a substantial portion of our citizenry believes we have the right–indeed, the duty–to impose our will around the globe, irrespective of any threat to genuine American interests.

Is our exit from Afghanistan being accomplished smoothly? No. To the extent both the war and the exit were bungled, we’ll need sober analyses of those failures in order to inform future foreign policy decisions. But sober analyses are not what we’re getting–for that matter, even presumably straightforward eyewitness reports of what is occurring “on the ground” are wildly inconsistent. 

If people of good will are truly concerned about the fate of non-Taliban Afghanis–especially Afghani women–under a fundamentalist religious regime, what they can and must do is extend a welcome to those who want to emigrate, and work to facilitate their speedy immigration and resettlement.

It is telling–but not surprising– that the monkeys throwing poo in hopes it sticks to the administration are unwilling to do that.


The Difference Between Children and Adults

The facts are relatively straightforward:

In Afghanistan, American soldiers inadvertently burned several copies of the Koran. Apparently, it was an honest mistake; however–predictably–it infuriated many Muslims. Some of them have responded violently, and a recent attack that killed two Americans may have been prompted by the incident.

President Obama apologized for the burning of the Muslim’s holy book.

Newt Gingrich and other Republicans criticized the President for apologizing even before the recent attacks. Locally, Gary Varvel’s cartoon on the matter showed caskets covered with American flags and the President off to the side apologizing–defiantly suggesting, with the attitude of five-year-olds everywhere, that “they’re worse than we are, so we shouldn’t apologize.”

Let’s (patiently–in the manner of parents of small children everywhere) use this as a “teachable” moment. A couple of lessons come to mind.

First, let’s try putting ourselves in the other guy’s shoes. How do you think the bible-thumpers in the United States would have reacted if bibles had been accidentally burned by Muslims? With reason and understanding, acknowledging that “accidents happen”? Of course not.

Now, let’s talk about appropriate/inappropriate behavior. Violence is never appropriate; it is a sign of immaturity and lack of discipline. It doesn’t matter “who started it”–fighting doesn’t solve anything. It makes things worse, and it doesn’t persuade anyone of anything. So the Afghans’ response was wrong.

Lesson three is important. Adults apologize for their mistakes. Those apologies are not a sign of weakness; quite the contrary. As we constantly admonish our children, admitting when you’ve done something wrong–accidentally or purposely–and saying “I’m sorry” when that is appropriate are signs of honesty and maturity.

And as I used to tell my children, you apologize when you’ve done something wrong even if the other guy is a jerk who doesn’t accept that apology. Because it’s the right thing to do.

It’s what separates the children from the adults.