Category Archives: Democracy

Blitzkrieg on the Truth

 

When Hitler invaded Poland and other countries in the 1930s he famously created a new form of war that he called Blitzkrieg. It was striking how fast European nations caved into his attacks.  Putin has been trying to something similar in the wars on the Ukraine. First the one in 2014 and then again in 2022.  In their own way they were both as impressive as Hitler’s “wins.”

Vladimir Kara-Murza described what happened in Russia this way in the Washington Post:

“While Vladimir Putin’s planned blitzkrieg on Ukraine appears to have stalled in the face of firm resistance by the Ukrainian military and its people, another, much less noticed assault has brought the Kremlin swift and total victory. Within a single week, all — literally, all — of Russia’s remaining independent media voices have been silenced in a co-ordinated effort by the prosecutor general’s office and the government’s main censorship agency.

One after another, media outlets that dared to report honestly on Putin’s assault on Ukraine had their signals cut off and their websites blocked.”

 

One of the early casualties of this war on truth was a famous radio station in Moscow called Echo of Moscow. To many people in Russia, it symbolized the best of journalism in Moscow for over 30 years.  They also shut down TV rain a popular online news source.

Many people who have become cynical about media think western media is as untrustworthy as Russian media.  That is a dangerous illusion. They are not equivalent. Nowhere in the west has media been shut down completely as happened so fast in Russia. We should remember that. If we are led to believe our media is as untrustworthy as that in Russia, we will not trust it when it is vital to trust it, such as during a pandemic. Or a war. The lack of trust crippled our response to a pandemic and cost many lives. The same thing can happen during a war. I am not advocating for blind trust in any media, but trust based on critical reasoning. Blind trust is as bad as blind distrust. We are not the same as Russia. Our media is not perfect, but it is much better than what Russians enjoy.

 

Russia tried to shut down all media during the failed coup d’état by the hard-line communist leaders in August 1991. That closure did not last long because hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow to quell the putsch. While the Communist failed, Putin has succeeded.  Recently, the Russian authorities have  also completely shut down dozens of other news outlets, both Russian and foreign, which Russian officials claimed had been spreading false information about the activities of the Russian armed forces in the Ukraine. Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency that is obedient to Putin’s will, has also completely blocked Twitter and Facebook, even though both are very popular with many Russians.  Millions of them use these platforms but the agency closed them down.  The CBC and most western news agencies have been kicked out of Russia or left because of the constraints.  As Kara-Murza said, “Near-total darkness has descended on Russia’s information space with frightening speed.

 Vladimir Kara-Murza described the situation in Russia this way:

“In other words, the journalists’ crime was telling the Russian people the bloody truth about Putin’s war — the truth that is completely absent from Russian state television, which is presenting viewers with an Orwellian reality in which it is Ukraine and the West, not Putin, that are to blame for the hostilities, and in which there is no war and no civilian casualties — only a highly targeted “special operation” directed against the imaginary “Neo-Nazis” in the Ukrainian government.”

Such a total lie depends on a similarly total monopoly on news coverage. After silencing critical voices on television — the largest source of information for most Russians — early in his rule, Putin tolerated smaller outlets such as Echo of Moscow as part of a pretend democratic facade for the West’s benefit. But under the conditions of war, even small pockets of independent media that could show Russians what heinous crimes their government is committing could present an existential danger to the system.”

Not all news agencies were banned in Russia, but the government made it so uncomfortable for them that almost all of them have left the country. As Kara-Murza said, Russia passed a law with lightning speed that had the effect of “criminalizing honest reporting”.  The penalties for the “crimes”  can run as high as 15 years in prison. A day after the new law was passed the police raided the offices of Lev Scholsberg a well known Russian opposition politician who had until then been a vocal critic of Putin since 1914 when Russia invaded the Ukraine the first time. The police also detained a Russian orthodox priest who spoke out against he war through his sermons.

 

 

As the Guardian reported,

 

“Global news media said they were temporarily suspending reporting in Russia to protect their journalists after a new law cracking down on foreign news outlets was passed that threatened jail terms of up to 15 years for spreading “fake news”.

Britain’s BBC said Friday it had temporarily halted reporting in Russia, and by the end of the day, the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Bloomberg News said their journalists were also stopping work. CNN and CBS News said they would stop broadcasting in Russia, and other outlets removed Russian-based journalists’ bylines as they assessed the situation.”

 

Meanwhile Russian media spreads the now unchallenged party line that Ukraine is led by Neo-Nazis.

The point I want to make is that you might distrust media in the west, but no one can say they spread falsehoods like their Russian counterparts. We would be very foolish to conclude our media is the same as theirs. That would be a dangerous mistake.

 

Russian Disinformation

 

Russian weaponized the techniques of disinformation it had used in the first war in Ukraine in 2014. in the Brexit campaign and in the 2016 US election campaign. No doubt those astounding successes, and the lack of resistance from the west led Putin to believe western democracy was weak and ready to have it feathers plucked

 

According to Carole Cadwalladr of the Guardian

 

“From 2014 to 2016 Putin had carte blanche across our entire information system. So in St. Petersburg he set up the Internet Research Agency  and we know that thousands and thousands of trolls and fake accounts flooded out information system. And that is the thing that really confused people and distracted people. It wasn’t that Putin set out to support Trump,  or had any political agenda, in 2014 it was simply about spreading confusion, making us more divided, increasing polarization. It was divide and rule if you think of it like that.”

 

He had learned what Hannah Arendt had said. It was enough to sow confusion. The Americans and English would do the rest. Putin must have been stunned at how easy it was and how successful that was it. Even after the FBI marvellously exposed his nefarious efforts, Americans were again deflected from the real issue. First, the Democrats smelled the blood of Donald Trump in the water and attacked him in a misguided frenzy. Not that I think he was innocent. They thought this would be enough to get him impeached. Then Trump hit back saying there was no collusion. When the Mueller report did not come out clearly that there had been collusion, the Republicans, were also distracted and began a similarly misguided frenzied attack on Democrats that deflected attention away from the real issue, the fact that a foreign power and the second most militarily powerful country in the world had interfered with a free election and then nobody seemed to care. He got away it completely!  Both Democrats and Republicans failed to attack the real wolf at the democratic door in their unseemly haste to attack each other. Putin perhaps without knowing how he did it, found an open path to the heart of the democracy he wanted to attack and no one was concerned about what he was doing. Each side was only concerned about what the other side was doing. No one raised a finger to stop the Russians or even criticize them. Putin must have been thunderstruck at this luck or at the foolishness or the Americans or more likely, both. It was the same in England. The opposite parties hated each other they ignored the real danger—Putin.

 

Besides the astonishingly polarization of the country, Putin was aided and abetted by the fact that the international media giants were private closed black boxes that allowed Putin to operate in complete darkness without public objection. As Cadwalladr said,

 

“we had no idea what was going on inside them and it was only in 2016 that the FBI started telling us what was going on, and only after the election journalists and academics slowly picked out the truth of what was happening. It was through the social media platforms that Putin launched this information war against Ukraine and against us. And those social media companies can still be used in that way!”

 

This attack had huge societal impacts, it was discovered and yet it was largely ignored as Americans in America and the English in the UK concentrated on attacking each other rather than the much more vicious foreign enemy that was eating their vital innards.

 

Both sides used language to minimize what Russia had done. In the US and UK the referred to Russian “meddling” in the elections. It was really a declaration of war. As Cadwalladr said,

 

“this was a military strategy and it was carried out in many ways by military intelligence! The GRU which is Russian military intelligence, they are the ones who carried out the hack and leak on Hillary Clinton emails for example. Those intelligence GRU officers are there now playing a fundamental war in Ukraine now. It was those same GRU intelligence officers who helped to poison a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the city of Salisbury England. Again, the English resistance to this was minimal. Again, Putin must naturally have reached the conclusion that the West was weak and ready to be plucked.”

 

As Cadwalladr said, “this was Putin using an unconventional chemical weapon on British citizens in Britain and he got away with it.” We here in Canada are fairly familiar with how many Americans did not want to hear about Russian interference in the US because they saw this as an attack on the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency and saw all such claims of election interference as Democrats looking out for their own interests. The same thing happened in the UK. People who supported Brexit did not want to hear any allegations that Russians interfered with that referendum because they did not want to see that vote as illegitimate either. In both cases the “winners” did not want the distraction of foreign interference. In both cases Putin learned a very valuable lesson, namely, to insert himself inside the widening polarized rifts between conservatives and liberals in both countries, was easy and very profitable. In each country, Putin was handed a golden opportunity to wreak mischief and havoc on account of the host countries polarized populous!

 

Carole Cadwalladr pointed out that,

 

“All the way through this reporting we see this really clear line Brexit, Trump, and Russia. And there is a triangulation there. There is a straight and clear line through multiple individuals and organizations and via the tech platforms…I America the Mueller report got bogged down in this question did Trump collude with Russia? And actually the big takeaway from the Mueller report should have been Russia successfully attacked America! This was a military attack and it got away with it. And that same attack was across the information systems which we all use and in that year 2016 they were completely unprotected! And in Britain we have been blind to waking up to that. The US had this massive investigation by the FBI and Congressional committees. In Britain we have had not one single investigation. There was one report and Boris Johnson personally tried to suppress that report.

 

In both countries the political parties think the issue is about politics. It is not about politics. It is about power and Putin. Of course this weak response from the UK and the US emboldened Putin and he is now using the same techniques in Ukraine but not with as much success.

 

Unfortunately, Cadwalladr has been attacked by a wealthy businessman in the UK for libel based as a result of her reporting. It has cost her 1 million pounds and 2 &1/2 years of her life. She was lucky she got crowd source funding. But such efforts have a chilling effect on the search for truth. And that is now common place around the world. It is really truth itself that is under attack. In the US CNN was targeted as a news organization as “fake news” by Trumpsters. The terminology of fake news has been weaponized. These are dark times. This is what happens when we acquiesce with attacks on truth.

And attack on truth is a declaration of war.

Capitalism goes Nuts

 

I know not every one likes Bill Maher as much as I do. They are entitled to be wrong. I listened to a fascinating discussion on capitalism on his show with 2 very interesting guests–Scott Galloway and Larry Wilmore. I have been blogging about Galloway’s appearance on another show. He stole the show again.

 

Scott Galloway is a Professor at NYU and the author of Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity i is an internal critic of capitalism. By internal critic I I mean that he is a critic of capitalism from the inside as a believer in capitalism, but who hates what capitalism has become. Galloway is a Marketing Professor at NYU and an unabashed proponent of capitalism, but capitalism has become sclerotic, in his opinion.

He used some very interesting examples. First, Jeff Bezos lost 38 billion dollars in his divorce. And he made it all back in 1 month! That simple statistic tells you a lot. Bill Maher asked a wonderful question: what does this tell you about America?  Galloway said something shocking to that. He said, “Its worse than that. We’ve had 1person add the GDP of Hungary to his own personal net worth during the 1 year of the pandemic and that is Elon Musk.”

 

Capitalism has gone crazy. It is nuts. And then Musk moved to Texas so he doesn’t have to pay taxes. During the pandemic, “Billionaires have gone from 1.9 trillion dollars to $4 trillion. The dirty secret of this pandemic is that the top 10% not just the top 1% are living their best lives.”

Some businesses have gone out of businesses. They have suffered catastrophically during the pandemic. Others have flourished. Why is that?

Bill Maher describes this phenomenon this way:If you’re in the sit on your ass and look at a screen business–Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook “If you’re in the sit on your ass and look at a screen business–Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook–they are now worth 21% of the whole US economy!” 

Scott Galloway put it this way:

“We used to talk about the S& P 500. Now it’s the S & P 7. 7 companies now have 51% of the market capital in the US. Amazon since March 2020 has added more market capitalization than all of European retail. We effectively have 4 companies that are so dominant that we’ve been overrun. There are more full-time lobbyists in Washington working for Amazon than there are Senators. There are more people working for Facebook manicuring Mark and Cheryl’s image than there are journalists working for the Washington Post. We are so beyond any sense of balance in our economy that the ecosystem is out of control. We absolutely need to break these companies up.”

 

People in the west have forgotten how corrosive market dominance can be to democracy and freedom. As these corporations grow, democracy and freedom shrivel in lock step. Concentration of wealth in modern capitalistic society, particularly when there is a conservative dominated Supreme Court in the US is “a freedom shredder” according to Galloway.

The amazing thing is that it seems inevitable. Too many people–the vast majority–believe there is nothing that can be done about it. There is a lot that can be done about it.  But the people must assert their power to do it. As Larry Wilmore, the Executive Producer of Amend: The Fight For America, said, “No matter what happens in the economy it all flows one way.”  That is what happens when power is concentrated.

 

As Galloway asked,

“Do we want that one company to say when we type in “overthrow government” should we be sent to ‘how to build a dirty bomb’ or to “voter registration.” Should one company control those decisions 93% of the time? Should one person control the algorithms that decide the content of what of the southern hemisphere plus India see? Should one company effectively control 97% of all increase in value of all retail?”

Is that what freedom is all about? And we should never think they are satisfied with what they have. That is because they are never satisfied with what they’ve got. They want it all. They want totalitarian control of the entire economy. Is that an exaggeration? Who is being the Pollyanna here?

Amazon started out as a company that sold books. A commodity. Easy. Right Wrong? Some like Galloway think they will try to control health care next. As Bill Maher said, “Of course why wouldn’t they want that? They own everything else. Where is all the money going? Sick people. Because that’s what America does best–make sick people.”

As Galloway pointed out,

“The largest business in the world is US health care. It’s 17% of GDP. Its prices keep going up. MPS is going down. That spells ‘here comes Amazon’. But not only is it bad or morally corrupt for these companies to have so much power, it’s dangerous. The equivalent to Nasdaq in Israel is down, not up, they are vaccinating at 7 times the rate. When the most powerful and wealthiest people in the world are living their best lives, if we don’t show this virus the full-throated capitalist response we are capable of [we’re done]. If Amazon stock had declined 70% instead of risen 70% in the last 10 months, when a van with a Smile shows up on my driveway tomorrow someone in a lab coat would have jumped out and vaccinated us. ‘We are living our best lives.’ This virus has not seen what the US is capable of because ‘Stop. Stop. It hurts so good, if you’re the shareholder class.

 This virus has been allowed to flourish because the S&P 7 likes it that way! It they were losing money during the pandemic they would have stopped it by using the full power of market capitalism. They chose not to do so.”

 

The shareholder class and the big 7 have enjoyed this pandemic ride because it is the best thing that could have happened as far as they are concerned. Why stop what puts money in my pocket? If I have the power to stop it why would I do it while my bank account keeps growing exponentially? That is why concentration of wealth and power is so dangerous.

Of course, as we all know, the S & P are delivering things we want. During a pandemic they deliver food to our doorstep so I can avoid those dangerous grocery stores. What is wrong with that? Capitalism is very efficient at fulfilling our needs. Of course, it can do that because it has manufactured many of those needs in the first place! Did you think you decided you needed Twinkies delivered to your door in one day? They have positioned themselves to bring to you what you want.

But in the process, as Wilmore said, “It’s amazing how they have Pac-manned every company that is out there.”

 

Free Speech in a pandemic

 

I have seen in many places, including Steinbach, and on TV reporting, at Trump rallies, and even the rampage on the Capitol, signs that say things like this:

“mask free zone,” or “No Masks,” or “The media is the virus.”

Statements like this are dangerous in a health pandemic. We are entitled to free speech, but are we entitled to make blatantly false statements that contradict all available science to such an extent that public health measures are compromised and lives endangered? How is this different than shouting “Fire” in a dark and crowded theatre when there is no fire? How far does free speech go?

 

Too many people forget that free speech is important but not absolute.

 

Dark Water: A Much Bigger Question

 

I heard Mark Ruffalo who played Bilott, and Bilott himself on the PBS television show, Amanpour & Company and the real life Bilott. They made some important points.

Commenting on the legal fight that took almost 20 years of relentless endurance on the part of Bilott, Ruffalo had this to say:

“The system is rigged—against the people. They want us to think that it will protect us, but that is a lie. We protect us. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us We protect us. Nobody else.”

This is the fundamental idea behind the film. The system is rigged. Against us.

Of course, this was just one case. But is in any different in the pharmaceutical sector? Or oil and gas? Or tobacco? Or anywhere else? Not according to Ruffalo.

Ruffalo put it this way in his interview by Amanpour:

“We have a system where the government is not responsive to the needs of the people and where it is slavish to the corporate system. We have a democracy that is in service to an economic capitalist system, instead of that system being in service to our democracy. Yes that system is rigged. It has been rigged because there is so much money in politics. If you wanted to fix the problem, really quickly, you would have the state have a stake in health care. Then this stuff would get cleaned out really fast because right now we’re getting poisoned. We have to pay to get ourselves healthy and the state just keeps taking money from both sides, to keep the vicious circle going.”

In the American legal system the people have to prove the chemical harms them. The corporations can sit back and do nothing other than, of course, block the science of the opponents. This is a fundamental flaw.

According to the film there is still no regulation of PFOSA in America. And PFOA’s are ubiquitous. As Nathanial Rich who wrote the article on which the movie was based, explains,

“But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water…

Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.”

As Manohla Dargis said in a New York Times review of the film:

“But at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is, Haynes suggests, a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.”

 This is the bigger issue. The exploration of this issue is what makes this film, and the article on which it is based, so important and so interesting. Ultimately it comes down to these two closely related questions: is our modern political system democratic and is modern capitalism anti-life? Those are two very big questions. Worth thinking about.

Is Donald Trump a King?

Recently, I learned some astonishing things about the United States. One of my legal heroes, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, made astounding statements in the U.S. Senate in defence of President Donald J. Trump from impeachment charges launched in the House of Representatives.

Susan Glasser a reporter with the New Yorker interpreted what he said as follows:

Donald Trump’s lawyer said that the President can do just about anything he wants.” This is an astonishing claim. It amounts to saying the United States is not a democracy. Dershowitz was asked by Senator Ted Cruz, during the question and answer phase of the Senate Impeachment Trial of Trump whether or not the President’s motivations mattered when he imposed a condition on the release of hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid for the Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression. If the President insisted on a quid pro quo that Ukraine investigate Trump’s leading Democratic Party rival before getting the military aid was that permitted?

Dershowitz, one of Trump’s lawyers, went beyond saying what he needed to say to answer that question. Dershowitz said, Donald Trump has the power to do just about anything he wants to do, and there’s nothing that the U.S. Senate can or should do about it. There are no limits on what the President can do. Dershowitz in effect suggested.

 I was stunned to hear this. Democracy is more than counting ballots. Counting ballots is important. It is a vital part of democracy, but it is not all of democracy. A democracy must be a country that permits all citizens to vote and for all their votes to count equally. But there are many forms of democracy. Democracy is more than that.

The majority must be constrained by civil liberties or human rights. In other words, we must have a liberal or constitutional democracy. Even majorities in a genuine democracy cannot impose their will on the minorities in all cases. There must be reasonable limits on what the majority can do. For example, the majority cannot be allowed to ban freedom of religion or freedom of speech.  Another example: the majority cannot be permitted to ban free speech, or the free press, or the freedom to assemble.

In Canada such limitations on democracy are contained in the Charter of Rights and Liberties. Added to that, to have a democracy we must have a society in which the rule of law is respected. We do not elect dictators or kings. Our elected representatives, even our top leaders, must govern by law. Political leaders must be governed by law like everyone else. They cannot do anything they want. This is the flaw in Dershowitz’s argument. Saying the President can do “anything he wants,” amounts to saying the President can be an absolute dictator. That is contrary to democracy.

I am no expert on the American constitution so don’t want to comment on it. But a democratic society cannot be led by a dictator or king, even if the term of the leader is limited for specific years, such as 4 years in the case of the United States.

Dershowitz had something larger and more profound to say, however: Donald Trump has the power to do just about anything he wants to do, and there’s nothing that the U.S. Senate can or should do about it.

Dershowitz argued,

“If a President does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” he argued. Dershowitz was offering Trump—and all future Presidents—a free pass. His argument seemed unbelievable: as long as the President thinks his reëlection will benefit the country, he can do anything in pursuit of it without fear of impeachment.”

Really?

Of course, earlier Trump himself made it clear that this was his position. No surprise there. He said “I can do whatever I want.” Trump’s actions and statements, ever since he got elected, make it clear that is precisely what Trump believed. If Trump is right, America is not a democracy! If Trump is right the US has elected a King!

In the impeachment trial in the Senate the House managers who acted as prosecutors, played the video of Trump making this statement over and over again. It was no surprise that Trump believed this. All of his actions and statements since being elected in 2016 made it clear that this was his belief.  Few others have expressed similar views. Therefore is it was shocking to see this position supported by Alan Dershowitz a respected Harvard Law Professor emeritus.

As shocking as all of this is, and it is shocking, what is even more shocking is that millions of Americans agree with this!  Millions don’t challenge his statement. Whatever Trump says or does, he must be right. We will soon see how many Republican Senators agree with this. I suspect almost all of them agree. In my view this means all of these people do not think it is important that the country is democratic! That is shocking!

I wonder how many Americans think Trump is a king?