Category Archives: Decline of the west

Dumb-as-we-wanna-be

 

As we watch America flounder from afar some of us have pity for them. They are led by a President who is the least qualified President in history. He is a man who makes decisions on the basis of “hunches” and “instincts.” He has never given any indication that he ever read a book. He has said that his favorite book is the Art of the Deal which he wrote (with the help of a ghost of course.) He has no respect for science or expertise. He ignores the advice of his best advisors, such as the leaders of the various intelligence services. Instead he relies on people like Vladimir Putin because Putin tells him things “strongly.” That is good enough for Trump. It doesn’t hurt that Putin has no regard for truth either. Added to that, this is a President who has nothing but disdain for government so places no importance to having it run well. He has no respect for career bureaucrats who are often exactly what we need, particularly at times like this when the world faces an economic crisis and health crisis at the same time. He dismisses them as members of something called” the Deep State.”

But this post is not about Trump. Everyone knows what he is like. More importantly the American people knew before they elected him that this is how he was. The American people, even though not a majority of them, voted him in to power. About 55 million people voted for him nearly as many as voted for a much more obviously qualified candidate. Many of those people still support him.

That is the issue. The American people don’t care about science or expertise. They too are content to rely on hunches, instincts, feelings, and above all faith. That is what matters. They have faith in Trump and in fact have religious devotion to him. Trump said, truthfully for a change, that he could stand in Times Square and murder someone and his supporters would still support him. If that is not religious devotion what is?

Ignoring facts, reason, data/evidence, and science can only go so far. I think the United States is nearing the end. And Canada is not that far behind.

Thomas Friedman author and columnist for the New York Times, characterized this attitude as “Dumb as we wanna be.” Then he said the following:

This pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated the fact that over the last 20 years we as a country have weakened so many sources of our strength. We’ve simultaneously eroded our cognitive, ecological, economic, social, governance, public health and personal health immune systems — all the sources of resilience we need to get through this pandemic with the least damage to lives and livelihoods.

 

All these immune deficiencies are the logical outcome of how we’ve let ourselves go as a country, how we’ve let ourselves be dumb-as-we-wanna-be for so many years — devaluing science and reading, bashing public servants for political sport, turning politics into entertainment, not to mention adopting horrible eating habits that have left 40 percent of Americans obese.

Dumb-as-we-wanna-be is epitomized by the guy in Austin, Texas, who last week shoved a “park ranger into the water while the ranger was explaining to a crowd the need for social distancing,” as CNN reported.

Warren Buffett was right: When the tide goes out you see who’s swimming naked. And now it’s us. We are still exceptional, but now it’s in the fact that we lead the world in total coronavirus cases and deaths from Covid-19.

 

It seems remarkable that a country that has so many of the best universities in the world should have turned its back on them. How did that happen? It’s an interesting story. It didn’t happen over night. Kurt Anderson in his book Fantasyland described how that happened over about 500 years from the time of the arrival of Puritans on the shores of North America. It came gradually, very gradually, as a result of 5 centuries of the disparagement of reason in favour of faith and feelings and an array of temptations away from reason. It is an incredible story and all of us are now in 2020 suffering the consequences of that as we face a health crisis and an economic crisis at the same time . This is not a good time to discover that we have abandoned reason.

 

Impeachment is not important; Democracy is important

I don’t know know what happened today at the impeachment hearing in the U.S. Senate as to the conduct of President Donald J. Trump, but I suspect it was not good. I suspect the Republicans who control the Senate decided it was not necessary to have witnesses for a fair trial.  That is because their minds are made up. They won’t convict not matter what, so why have a trial?

If I am wrong, and there will be witnesses, I suspect that won’t matter for the same reason. They have already decided to acquit no matter what evidence is produced against Trump.

I don’t really care about Donald Trump. Americans elected him. Americans can live with him. What I do care about is that it seems millions of Americans no longer believe in democracy. To think that in the self-proclaimed leader of the free world millions of people no longer care about whether they live in a democracy or not is deeply disturbing to me.

I never thought impeachment was a good idea, at least until Nancy Pelosi came out in favor of impeachment. I know lots of people despise her, particularly on the right. I don’t despise her; I respect her. She is a wily politician. She was largely responsible for getting Obama’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) approved by Congress. She did that, if you recall, when many in the house of Representatives and Senate were violently opposed to it, but she promised Obama she would deliver the votes and she did. It was masterly. If now she thinks impeachment is necessary, I find it hard to disagree with her.

What we all have to remember is that democracy is more than giving people the right to vote and then saying the will of the majority as evidenced by votes, must prevail. This is part of democracy, but more is needed to have a genuine democracy. For example, the country must respect the rule of law. Moreover there must be reasonable limits on what the majority can do. Human rights must be respected even if the majority wants to get around them. This is important.

We need rights and freedoms that are entrenched in a constitution to be a democracy. That means these rights and freedoms are constitutionally protected. There are different kinds of constitutions and different kinds of human rights. So some democracies are more democratic than others.

As well, those rights and freedoms need not be absolute. In Canada the way our Charter puts it is that limits on the basic rights and freedoms must be such as can be justified in a free and democratic society.

This ensures that the leaders who are elected must obey the law and must honour and respect the fundamental constitutionally protected rights and freedoms. In a democracy we don’t elect absolute rulers. We don’t elect kings who are entitled to do as they please. Our leaders must be subject to the rule of law and basic rights and freedoms. This is sometimes called a Liberal democracy.

Even though I am not per se concerned about whether Donald Trump is found guilty of what the American Constitution calls “high crimes and misdemeanors.” If he is found guilty of that by the Senate he will be removed from office. I believe Trump richly deserves this, but that is not for me to decide. I am concerned however that more and more Americans don’t seem to care any more if they have a democracy or not. I am concerned that many Americans seem content to have an absolute ruler. It does seem to me that millions of Americans don’t care. That I think is very important.

 

USA: Is this a country without Honour?

 

I love America; I love Americans. They are a wonderful people, but they have gone seriously awry. But sometimes they are seriously misguided. And when that happens a friend should be able to say that to the friend. This is one of those times. It is not enough to claim that you are honorable—you have to walk the walk and talk the talk.

Honor used to be an important value among Conservatives—genuine conservatives I mean. But increasingly among modern conservatives at least, honor is no longer important.

When Donald Trump realized what he had done in letting loose the Turks on his allies the Kurds, and realized that to some of his supporters, honor still meant something, this is what he announced, by tweet of course:

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I in my great and unmatched wisdom consider off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey (I’ve done before)”

Stephen Colbert described this as Trump going “full God Emperor.”  This is on a level with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.  But ignore the incoherence of this quote. Ignore the corrupt and idle boasting. Just look for the honor. You won’t find it. This is what America elected as their President. A man without honor! And 63 million Americans seem to like it. Does that mean American without honor too?

I don’t accept that Americans can blame it all on an ill chosen President. 63 million people voted for this one and I have been told most of those who did, still support him.  This is not an issue about Trump. He is too easy a target. But what about the country? It is not as if Donald Trump ever concealed his lack of honor. He boasted about. He said that in the Vietnam War he served by managing to avoid getting a venereal disease. Then he dismissed John McCain as a poor war hero because he got caught. Trump escaped the Vietnam War the way many rich boys did, by getting dubious health deferments as a result of alleged bone spurs, so that he could stay behind and chase models and starlets, while other young men and women, usually poor men and women, risked their lives and fought the war. Americans knew exactly what they were getting, and although 66 million voted for Hillary Clinton, 63 million voted for him. That is no aberrant number. That is a lot of support. This is where the problem lies. Trump himself is easy prey, but not 66 million Americans. Is the country without honor? I think it is time for Americans to step up and be counted. I think it is time for Americans to think about this.

These Colors Run

 

Have you seen that bumper sticker with an image of the American flag—Old Glory—with the caption, “These Colors Won’t run?” I have. The problem is it ain’t true. They do.

America used to be a proud country. And for good reason. There was  a lot that was good about it. Sometimes I wonder what happened?

Recently the American military, under the command of their  Commander-in Chief –Donald Trump–abandoned a long-standing ally—the Kurds.  At the same time, in tweet, Trump made it clear that Turkey a long time foe of the Kurds, could have their way with them. And very few Americans have grumbled about it. Most have accepted the lame attempts by that Commander-in-Chief to dismiss the shabby, dishonorable treatment of an ally with a shrug of the shoulders.

That Commander-in-Chief poured scorn on the Kurds saying they did not help much. They didn’t even help in World War II. As is so often the case with this leader, the truth is different. Trump and the truth keep little company. The Kurds have been America’s chief ally in the fight against Syria and ISIS. The Kurdish forces are called the Syrian Defence Forces (‘SDF’).

Dr. Kori Schake put this in perspective: “They have been the ground forces doing the fighting for the defeat of ISIS and you can see it in the casualty figures.  The U.S. suffered only 5 casualties in the Anti-ISIS campaign. The SDF suffered over 11,000! They have been doing the hard dangerous work and we have just abandoned them!

And the Americans through their chosen President mock the efforts of their closest ally and prepared to abandon them. It did not take the Turks, who have it in for the Kurds, to take advantage. This then allowed the Syrians, who used poison gas on their own people, to win the Civil War that has cost so many lives and resulted in so many refugees and asylum seekers around the world. Of course, the Americans refused to accept them, even though they were so instrumental in creating their problems. First the Americans abandoned the Syrian rebels, then they also abandoned the Kurds.

So the Kurds made a deal with the Syrian leader Assad rather than face the brutality of the Turks. As Schake said, “which tells you a lot too.”

Where has all the honor gone? Whose colors don’t run?

 

The Monarchy of Fear

 

When I saw the title of a book, The Monarchy of Fear, I was immediately attracted to it. Then when I saw who wrote it, I had no choice; I had to buy it. The author is Martha Nussbaum, considered by some, to be the finest philosopher in the United States. I had read an article about her in the New Yorker, but had not read any of her books. In that article I learned that she liked to write about emotions. To me, a graduate in Philosophy some 5 decades ago, this seemed unlikely. I was wrong. Emotions are important in so many ways and it is good that philosophers opine on them.

For quite some time I have thought fear is an emotion that can have extraordinary consequences, particularly in the modern political context. Fear is a natural product of the age of anxiety or the age of anger. What could be more important than that?

Nussbaum had important things to say in the very first paragraph of the book. Here is what she said,

 

“There’s a lot of fear around in the U.S. today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.”

This struck exactly the right note from my perspective. The real problem with fear is that it interferes with rational decision-making. And we see it everywhere. In Canada just like the United States, but I think it is particularly prevalent in the United States. That country is the richest in the world, has the best armed forces that money can buy, spends more on prisons and police than any other nation by a long-shot.  Yet it seems to me to be a country infused, no saturated, with fear. Americans like to call themselves the ‘land of the brave,’ but over and over again, from gated communities, to elaborate armies, the country is hobbled by fear to such an extent and with such intensity that it constantly surprises. And as Nussbaum suggests, such fear often “blocks rational deliberation.” Nowhere is the effect of this powerful more evident than in the election of Donald Trump. What rational deliberation could have ushered in his presidency?

Nussbaum boldly asserted the following:

“What is today’s fear about?  Many Americans, themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of loved ones. They fear that the American Dream–that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done–has died, and everything has slipped away from them. These feelings have their basis in real problems: among others, income stagnation in the lower middle class, alarming declines in the health and longevity of members of this group, especially men, and the escalating costs of higher education at the very time that a college degree is increasingly required for employment. But real problems are difficult to solve, and their solution takes long, hard study and cooperative work toward an uncertain future. It can consequently seem all to attractive to convert that sense of panic and impotence into blame and the “othering” of outsider groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women.  “They” have taken our jobs. Or: wealthy elites have stolen our country.”

How many of the important social problems of the day are encapsulated in that paragraph? There is a lot to chew over in that paragraph.

And of course with such fears rational deliberation is unlikely! It is hardly surprising as a result that the United States, in its moment of fear, has turned to a man who is probably more unlikely to solve its problems than anyone else we could consider. As a result of fear they made the worst possible decision imaginable. That is the monarchy of fear!

Those are not demons at the border

On my last post on the subject of immigration I indicated that I believed there was a duty to rescue someone in serious trouble if to do so involved a relatively trivial loss to the rescuer. I used the analogy of a person who refused to rescue a drowning person because he did not want to get his shoes wet. This would morally leprous. Yet, I believe it is a common attitude especially on the right. Many of them don’t want any migrants let alone those seeking asylum

After World War II many in the west were so ashamed by the failure of the west to rescue Jews fleeing Nazi persecution that they brought in new international law that required nations to grant asylum from asylum seekers.  This was enshrined in the International Convention on Refugees signed by Canada along with more than a 100 other countries.

We must remember that often these people fleeing violence and oppression are the most vulnerable people in the world including  women and young children. Sometimes they are children as young as 12 years old  travelling all alone through a long line of unwelcoming countries. Refugees as young as my grand daughter  take the most desperate measures to escape countries and travel to countries they think are safe, dodging predatory criminals along the way. Many of these women and children to end up in the most inhospitable countries where they are shouted at by locals to go back home, treated like criminals, locked up in cages, forced to sleep in the cold on the hard stony ground, and in the most egregious cases even separated from their parents  under the most trauma inducing circumstances while billionaire politicians lie to them that they are illegal when they are not, are and not wanted when often they are. Some countries of the west are now reengaging in the practices from their past that are the most despicable in their histories.

Then when these refugees arrive at the  country where they want to seek asylum because they think they will be safe there they are called, wrongly I might add, illegal immigrants. Every country seems to have its Ted Falk, like we do in Canada, who metaphorically stands at the  border telling them to go home  because we fear what they will do here.

These are not illegal immigrants. They are asylum seekers and they have the right by international law, as included in International Treaties to which countries like Canada are signatories, to come to our country and claim asylum. We have a legal and moral duty to listen to them so that they can make their claim. We are entitled to take our time to assess those claims and if found invalid to send them back. But these are not illegal immigrants. We have to do that even if it costs us a bit of money.  We can afford it. Our shoes will dry out again.

We have to remember what Paul Heinbecker the former Canadian  diplomat and current member of the World Refugee Council said on a recent CBC radio Ideas program, “We cannot continue with this demonization of refugees as equating them with terrorists. We have to recognize that they have a right to refuge.” Those are not demon on our borders. They are on the inside.

Liberalism: A response to Extremism

 

I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:

 

  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.

 

Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51

Money doesn’t Talk; it Swears

Last week, in his State of the Union address,  President Donald Trump said the American economy is booming, unless politics, foolish wars, or ridiculous investigations interfere. He was referring of course to the many investigations of him and his campaign, including the Mueller inquiry and numerous investigations launched by the House of Representatives now that the Democrats are in the majority. Really the essence of Trump’s argument is that because the economy is doing well no one should interfere with him no matter what he has done. This is the same attitude he has to the Saudi Arabian assassination of American resident and Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. After all they Saudis have invested billions in buying American arms. Is that not reason enough not to interfere in anything they have done, no matter how despicable?  Because millions of people continue to support Trump, and even think his State of the Union Address was “presidential”, it shows to all that America is morally bankrupt.  Dylan was right, “money doesn’t talk it swears.”

Fear: the whacky world of the Super-rich in Salina Kansas

 

We drove near to an ancient Titan missile site located near Salina Kansas close to the Nebraska border. We did not see it but I knew it was here. It was one of the two such sites in North America during the Cold War. The other was located in Green Valley Arizona where Chris and I lived for a month a couple of years ago. That one was turned in to a museum. We toured it with friends.

The second site near Salina is being developed as a security haven for the super rich of America. These are among of the most fearful people in America. The site is being converted into a super secure place for the super rich to hunker down. It is their luxurious bomb shelter, designed not just for bombs, but for any and every catastrophe. Rich people are getting ready for a crack-up. They are called survivalists. They want to survive the impending doom. We used to think of survivalists as woodsmen living off the grid, crackpots in some religious colony, and other assorted crackpots. Recently this has changed to included the super-rich especially hedge-fund managers and techies from Silicon Valley.

I am fascinated that this is being developed by the very rich. Why is that? I don’t know, but I have a theory. I think the rich in America live in fear. They fear that their wealth will crumble and they will be left to their own devices among drug-crazed hooligans out to get them and their families and their wealth. In fact, I think (entirely without evidence of course) that this fear emerged out of a sense of guilt. American society–and American wealth in particular–is based on 2 ultimate horrendous injustices. The first was the genocide of Indigenous peoples that the first European settlers encountered in the New World. The second was the astonishingly long imposition of slavery on African-Americans. They were immigrants from Africa as Ben Carson famously called them. That injustice led to guilt, which leads to fear. Many rich Americans are incredibly fearful. I think many of them fear what Quentin Tarantino emphasizes in many of his films–i.e. the turning of the tables. In many of his films a very evil man tortures an innocent man and later in the film the tables are turned and he gets the chance to impose revenge for the injustice. I think that is exactly what many rich Americans feel deep in their corroded souls. They fear justice.

In American many rich people have wealth beyond anyone’s imagination. And the greater the wealth the deeper the unconscious belief that such wealth is not justified and then justice might be served some time soon.

Many of the super-wealthy have helicopters, all gassed up and ready to go when the apocalypse arrives. Many of them want to be ready for whatever arrives– unrest, revolution or environmental collapse. They live in fear that soon the gig will be up.

Many of them want to defend themselves. Some take archery lessons. I kid you not. Some of these guys are young yet incredibly rich (even though many also seem incredibly stupid). Welcome to modern America. One of them is Steve Huffman, the thirty-three-year-old co-founder and C.E.O. of Reddit, which is valued at six hundred million dollars. Not bad for a 33-year old, but he is not happy. He is scared shitless!

Many of the survivalists have dreams (nightmares?) of collapse. Many of the survivalists, or preppers, are deeply concerned about political instability in the United States. They fear there will be widespread unrest. Huffman forecast “Some sort of institutional collapse, then you just lose shipping—that sort of stuff.” According to Evan Osnos, who wrote an article on this in the New Yorker, “Prepper blogs call such a scenario W.R.O.L., “without rule of law.” That is what they fear.

People like Huffman believe that that the consensus that holds society together is fragile. As he said, “I think, to some degree, we all collectively take it on faith that our country works, that our currency is valuable, the peaceful transfer of power—that all of these things that we hold dear work because we believe they work. While I do believe they’re quite resilient, and we’ve been through a lot, certainly we’re going to go through a lot more.

Preppers or survivalists such as Huffman often have a good understanding of modern social media and the corrosive effect it can have on social relations. “Social media can magnify public fear. Huffman put it this way, “It’s easier for people to panic when they’re together,” he said, pointing out that “the Internet has made it easier for people to be together,” yet it also alerts people to emerging risks.”

Osnos also reported on a study obtained by National Geographic that “found that forty per cent of Americans believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than a 401(k). Online, the prepper discussions run from folksy (“A Mom’s Guide to Preparing for Civil Unrest”) to grim (“How to Eat a Pine Tree to Survive”). Some of these things are hard to believe, I know.

No one knows exactly how many wealthy Americans have bought into this fear, but the numbers are not insignificant. Osnos asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. He guessed 50%.

There is something inherently barbarous about rich people taking such extreme measures to protect themselves from hazards that their own reckless disregard for benefits to other classes has wrought. Max Levchin, a founder of Paypal and of Affirm, a lending startup admitted this to Osnos, when he acknowledged, “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.” If only these multi-millionaires and worse spent some of their money helping others, or even if they moderated the exploitation of workers and the system in their own favor, and less time worrying about how they can survive the impending troubles a solution to the problems might actually be found.

Levchin told Osnos that he prefers to shut down cocktail party discussions on the subject by asking people instead,

 

‘So you’re worried about the pitchforks. How much money have you donated to your local homeless shelter?’ This connects the most, in my mind, to the realities of the income gap. All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.” In his view, this is the time to invest in solutions, not escape. “At the moment, we’re actually at a relatively benign point of the economy. When the economy heads south, you will have a bunch of people that are in really bad shape. What do we expect then?

 

While many captains of industry are unable to see anything that is not in their own immediate advantage, a few do recognize that there are vulnerable people out there who have been screwed by the system and many of them may seeks “solutions” to their problems that may involve insurrection, as far fetched as that may sound to some of us.

Many of the rich think, as the aristocracy of France did before the French Revolution that the poor can eat grass. Others fear revolution that might upset their privileges. Dugger said, “ “People know the only real answer is, Fix the problem,” he said. “It’s a reason most of them give a lot of money to good causes.” At the same time, though, they invest in the mechanics of escape.”

Elite fantasies of escape are often exactly that–fantasies. There are all kinds of logistical problems. Many of the wealthy cannot see these problems. They assume there must be a way for them to escape. After all they deserve that escape. They have earned that right to escape. So at least they think.

Dugger one of the super rich, told Osnos about a lavish dinner in New York City after 9/11 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble, “ “A group of centi-millionaires and a couple of billionaires were working through end-of-America scenarios and talking about what they’d do. Most said they’ll fire up their planes and take their families to Western ranches or homes in other countries.” One of the guests was skeptical, Dugger said. “He leaned forward and asked, ‘Are you taking your pilot’s family, too? And what about the maintenance guys? If revolutionaries are kicking in doors, how many of the people in your life will you have to take with you?’ The questioning continued. In the end, most agreed they couldn’t run.You can run, but you can’t hide.

Robert A. Johnson was another person that Osnos interviewed. He saw the fear of his peers as “the symptom of a deeper crisis.” I agree with that. I too see the fear as a manifestation of fundamental unease about their place in modern society. They are unmoored and their wealth, which often is extreme wealth, is not able to fill the void. Johnson was the manager of a hedge-fund. He was also the head of a think tank. He called himself “an accidental student of civic anxiety.” From my own career, I would just talk to people. More and more were saying, ‘you’ve got to have a private plane. You have to assure that the pilot’s family will be taken care of, too. They have to be on the plane.’ ”

Osnos analyzed this situation this way,

 

By January, 2015, Johnson was sounding the alarm: the tensions produced by acute income inequality were becoming so pronounced that some of the world’s wealthiest people were taking steps to protect themselves. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Johnson told the audience, “I know hedge-fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway.

 

It is difficult to discern why the privileged are so fearful. What do these ultra wealthy people have to fear. If money does not buy happiness, surely it buys security. If one thought that, one would be wrong. As Osnos reported,

 

As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”

 

Near Salina in Kansas, where we drove through on our way to Arizona, is interesting countryside. Osnos drove to the site where the luxury bunker in the old Titan silos is being built. It is called the Survival Condo Project near the town near Salina Kansas. When Osnos arrived he was met by a guard dressed in camouflage holding a semiautomatic rifle. The condo project is being built inside an underground missile silo like the one we saw in Green Valley Arizona. The developers are building 13 luxury condos. The facility housed nuclear warheads from 1961 to 1965. After that the site was decommissioned. The site was built in response to a perceived threat from the Soviet Union that was engaged in a long-standing “cold war” with the United States and its allies. The developers are led by Larry Hall the CEO of the new project. According to Osnos, “Hall has erected a defense against the fears of a new era. “It’s true relaxation for the ultra-wealthy,” he said. “They can come out here, they know there are armed guards outside. The kids can run around.”

Wow is that the best the super rich can do? Is there not more to life than being ensconced in a cocoon? To me that sounds horribly limited. I guess being rich is not all its cracked up to be.

Hall developed the property for which he paid $300,000 by spending nearly another $20,000,00 for renovations. With that he created 12 private apartments that he sold for $3in the case of full floor units and $1.5 in the case of half floor units. He sold them all except for one that he decided to keep for himself.

The silos in which the apartments are located are solid. After all, they were built by the Army Corp of Engineers to withstand a nuclear strike. The inside has enough food and fuel for 5 years off the grid. Of course it will require that people raise tilapia in fish tanks and hydroponic vegetables under grow lamps and supposedly renewable power that could function indefinitely, according to Hall. I am not sure how he would accomplish that.

In a crisis more drastic measures can be expected. According to Hall, “In a crisis, his swat-team-style trucks (“the Pit-Bull VX, armored up to fifty-calibre”) will pick up any owner within four hundred miles. Residents with private planes can land in Salina, about thirty miles away. In his view, the Army Corps did the hardest work by choosing the location. “They looked at height above sea level, the seismology of an area, how close it is to large population centers.”

That does not mean that each prepper has an individual bunker. After all, hardened bunkers are expensive and complicated to construct. The complex looked and felt like a ski condo that did not have any windows. What kind of ski condo is that? But it had a central area with pool table, stone fireplace, a kitchen, and leather couches.

Osnos had the benefit of a tour of the Kansas facility. It had many amenities. $20 million buys a lot of amenities. It has a 75-foot long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of computers, a gym, a movie theatre and a library. According to Osnos “It felt compact but not claustrophobic.” Osnos also described the armory and related facilities:

 

We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.

 

This is not exactly paradise is it? The facility also contained a hospital bed, operating table, dentist’s chair and food storage area. 2 doctors will be residents and 1 dentists. I guess they are wealthy enough.

One problem is how to get away with the absence of windows. Can you imagine it? According to Osnos, “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. “windows” that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted a video of Central Park. “All four seasons, day and night,” Menosky said. “She wanted the sounds, the taxis and the honking horns.” So that is what she got.

This is not virtual reality; this is whacky reality. Hall has given some thought to how people will live there, but I wonder if he has given enough thought. According to Osnos, “Hall said the hardest part of the project was sustaining life underground. He studied how to avoid depression (add more lights), prevent cliques (rotate chores), and simulate life aboveground.” Frankly I would not be satisfied with simulated life. Would you? I would rather have life. Or is even death preferable? This is particularly poignant when you consider that most (all?) life might outside the bunkers might perish.

Some survivalists have mocked Hall’s plan. They say they won’t pay. They will just attack when the time comes. To this Hall responded that he and his guards could repel all forces. And if necessary, the guards would return fire. How long could people survive a siege?

Some of the people who put down $3 million for a unit have strange fears. Maybe they all do. Osnos interviewed Tyler Allen a real estate developer in Florida who bought a unit. He worries about future “social conflict” in America. I do too. Allen also thinks that the government will deceive the public, as it has done in the past. He even believes that Ebola was allowed into the country “in order to weaken the population.”

Allen claimed that when he started suggesting ideas like this people thought he was crazy, but they don’t anymore. He said, “My credibility has gone through the roof. Ten years ago, this just seemed crazy that all this was going to happen: the social unrest and the cultural divide in the country, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering.” Now to many it seems like a reasonable precaution.

Of course how will people get to their bunkers? The buyers don’t live next door. Tyler lived in Florida. That is a long way from Kansas. Tyler thought he would have 48 hours to make it to Kansas. Most people he believed, when the crisis came, would head to the bars while he headed towards Kansas. I guess he thinks they would be watching the action from “Sports bars.”

As I have said, all of this is driven by fears–in particular fears of the very rich. Osnos does not disagree,

 

Why do our dystopian urges emerge at certain moments and not others? Doomsday—as a prophecy, a literary genre, and a business opportunity—is never static; it evolves with our anxieties. The earliest Puritan settlers saw in the awe-inspiring bounty of the American wilderness the prospect of both apocalypse and paradise. When, in May of 1780, sudden darkness settled on New England, farmers perceived it as a cataclysm heralding the return of Christ. (In fact, the darkness was caused by enormous wildfires in Ontario.) D. H. Lawrence diagnosed a specific strain of American dread. “Doom! Doom! Doom!” he wrote in 1923. “Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America.

 

Not everyone has the same fears. Often ideas of the end times flourish during times of insecurity. Insecurity (fear again) breeds monsters. “Jack London, in 1908, published “The Iron Heel,” imagining an America under a fascist oligarchy in which “nine-tenths of one per cent” hold “seventy per cent of the total wealth.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like today?

Fear was not invented recently in America. It has always been there. There was fear earlier in the United States. The Cold War was brimming with fear. Many thought there were communists under every bed. Many feared nuclear annihilation. Thousands of people built bomb shelters in their basements and stocked them with food. Doom boom some called this.

There is no doubt that all of this is being driven by fear. Fear of disaster can be a useful thing. When the world realized that a hole was being punched in the Ozone layer because of chlorofluorocarbons (‘CFSs’) in the atmosphere they got together and adopted the Montreal Protocol to do something about it. They phased them out. That action has been a remarkable success story. But this is not happening here. Instead it is another case of the super wealthy doing nothing to solve the problem. They are using their money to buy an escape. That escape is illusory, but that is what these rich people want to do with their money. Instead of using it to help solve the problem, they are trying to run away from it. As Osnos said,

 

Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal… Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair. As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them. ”

 

 

Another super-wealthy CEO had a much better approach. This is what he said,

 

There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”

 

As it has so often in the past, America is being pushed and pulled at the same time. On the one are people like survivalists, neo-liberals, and their political puppets who have shredded all of their fellow feeling in order to fill their bags with as much money as possible. On the other hand there are the kinder gentler souls who see a better way, but seem to be increasingly crushed by the more vocal and bellicose side. I don’t know who will win this battle, but I care. I hope that America (and with Canada dragging along behind) comes to its senses and abandons this philosophy of fear. Fear is all right but it must be managed. When it gives way to panic we have to realize that smart decisions will no longer be made. We must abandon panic; we must embrace critical thinking and fellow feeling. If we can do that then we will survive. If we are unable to do that, we will sink into the mire, or worse. We can sink into the whacky world of the super rich.

American “Communities”

I frequently  walked through one of these so-called ‘communities’ that are found in Arizona. Americans love to call them that, but as a wise judge once said, you can call a jackass an eagle, but that won’t make it fly. Some “communities” are gated. The one we stayed at in Arizona in 2017 and hope to stay at in 2018 are not gated. But uniformly, these communities are not welcoming to everyone. They want to keep ‘others’ out. They abhor biodiversity.

Yet the walk was most pleasant and the people I encountered friendly people. I guess I looked like one of ‘them.’ I did not look strange enough to be an outsider. I will have to improve next time.