Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"Inevitable Progress"

In "Trump’s America does not care" Robert Kagan presents an interesting analysis of the Trump revolution from the perspective of international diplomacy: "the United States as rogue superpower, neither isolationist nor internationalist, neither withdrawing nor in decline, but active, powerful and entirely out for itself."

Kagan observes that "Trump is not merely neglecting the liberal world order; he is milking it for narrow gain, rapidly destroying the trust and sense of common purpose that have held it together and prevented international chaos for seven decades."

As we have seen over the past two years, the role of the U.S. in the international order has been turned upside down. Common sense dictates that even an election of a Democrat as president in 2020 can not reverse this because once "America First" takes hold and requires a "Me First" or an "Us First" from other nations, excluding the U.S., other countries know they can not count on the U.S. to honor treaties or commitments from one administration to the next.

Kagan states, "Trump’s world is a struggle of all-against-all. There are no relationships based on common values. There are merely transactions determined by power. It is the world that a century ago brought us two world wars."

Kagan writes more expansively on a similar theme in "The strongmen strike back: Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic world — a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge. And we have no idea how to confront it."

In this piece he recounts the history of the tension between authoritarianism and liberal democracy over the past several hundred years, with the First World War largely representing a great battle between the two and the Second World War marking the defeat of authoritarians and a "new birth" for liberalism.

Of interest to readers of this blog, Kagan remarks that the authoritarians are succeeding in ways never imagined since the end of the Cold War. He writes:

"It has been decades since liberal democracies took this challenge seriously. The end of the Cold War seemed like indisputable proof of the correctness of the Enlightenment view — the belief in inexorable progress, both moral and scientific, toward the achievement of the physical, spiritual and intellectual freedom of every individual. History was “the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel put it in 1830; or as Francis Fukuyama wrote in "The End of History and the Last Man” in 1992, there were fundamental processes at work dictating 'a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies — in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy.'” [emphasis added]

This observation about the current reversal of progress belies "the belief in inexorable progress"on a global scale that mirrors the belief in "Inevitable Progress" expressed as Point #4 of the Six Points keynote page of this blog.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Enemy Within

Who is the enemy within? To figure that out, you need to decide who you are, who is acting against you, and whether or not they were here all along acting against you or recently entered from the outside - physically or virtually.

The Mueller investigation starts with actions taken against the U.S. and makes an effort to determine their source. The Special Counsel team is investigating crimes against the foreign actors as well as U.S. citizens.

But team Mueller is constrained by their mandate and how legal investigations work. They do not look for analogies. What if Russian has been working all along to ally themselves with conservative movements in Europe and the U.S. in order to weaken the Western alliance - NATO and the EU to strengthen the Russian hand internally as well as throughout the formal members of the Soviet Union and the unaligned nations?

Russian actions against the progressive democracies of the West have manifested themselves in similar ways in different countries. Yet this similarity is too abstract, too speculative for mainstream political journalists in the seize upon as evidence of anything.

The U.S. and the UK stand out as examples, but Italy looms large.

"Billionaires" who are not billionaires.

In the UK, Arron Banks was the largest contributor by far to the Leave campaign at 8.1 million pounds. If the source of his funds was foreign, such as Russia, those contributions would be illegal in the UK.  For much of the past three years, the press reflexively called him "Billionaire Arron Banks". As recently as last November, Time ran a piece: "The Billionaire Who Bankrolled Brexit Is Now Under Criminal Investigation. Officials Suspect Foreign Money" even as questions mounted about the source of his wealth and whether he is a billionaire. Bloomberg now has "The Mysterious Finances of the Brexit Campaign’s Biggest Backer" which sets his known assets at 34 million pounds.

Denying Meetings with the Russian Ambassador...and many other Russians...or their agents

In Britain, as in the U.S. meetings between those who promote so-called "populist" campaigns, inexplicable meetings with the Russian ambassador are first denied, then admitted, but minimized - it was "only once", then when there are more, but it was only social. As The Guardian reported: "Revealed: Leave.EU campaign met Russian officials as many as 11 times"

For analogy in the U.S., one need only think back to Jeff Sessions in his Senate testimony at confirmation hearings claiming that no one in the Trump campaign had any meetings with Russians. Then for him personally, it became only twice with Kislyak, allegedly and improbably in Sessions' role as a Senator.

Those Russian Wives and Girlfriends

Of course Arron Banks has a Russian wife whose first marriage at age 25 to a much older Englishman was an apparent sham to obtain UK citizenship and perhaps act as an agent of influence in the UK?: "The story of Mrs Arron Banks’ extraordinary first marriage"
Which brings to mind special agent of influence Maria Butina and her much loved boyfriend Paul Erickson of GOP/NRA fame.

Another Russian wife is Olga Roh, married to Stephan Roh. Zurich lawyer Stephan Roh has had close ties to the missing "professor" Joseph Mifsud, speaking alongside him at conferences and claiming to represent him though Mifsud has been missing for over a year. Roh has co-written a self-published book “The Faking of Russia-gate: The Papadopoulos Case, an Investigative Analysis,” Early Trump campaign advisor George Papadapoulos worked with Mifsud, as did his girlfriend, now wife Simona Maniante, who claims to be Italian, not Russian,  and admits her real age did not match her Italian passport age.

And Now Italy

Similarities to the U.S. are fascinating. The Daily Beast reported in March, 2017 :"Putin’s Party Signs Cooperation Deal with Italy’s Far-Right Lega Nord".

The Money: As the Daily Beast reports: "An Italian Expose Documents Moscow Money Allegedly Funding Italy's Far-Right Salvini" :
 "Italy’s interior minister and vice premier, Matteo Salvini, went off the grid for 12 hours during an official state visit to Moscow last October. Tales of Russian prostitutes seemed to explain the time lapse for the single statesman. But a new exposé by the Italian newsmagazine L'Espresso suggests that his time may have been spent doing something far more sinister: he may have been making backroom deals with Russian operatives ahead of European Parliamentary elections.The investigation, which the magazine says was conducted over several months, comes to the conclusion that Russian president Vladimir Putin is selling 3 million tons of diesel fuel via a Russian company to an Italian state company, Eni, that Salvini as interior minister can help manage."

The Russian Wife: 

As the Daily Beast reports:
Salvini's key tie to Russia is his former spokesman, Gianluca Savoini, who is not present in the current Italian government, but who remains a trusted ally of the leader. Savoini, who is married to a Russian woman named Irina, is listed as president of the Russia-Lombardy Association based in the north of Italy"

Austria, too. It's all happening in Austria, as the Daily Beast reported:

"Anger as Austria's foreign minister invites Putin to her wedding""
"Kneissl, an independent, owes her appointment as foreign minister to the populist, anti-immigrant Freedom party (FPÖ), the junior party in Austria’s ruling coalition.

The Eurosceptic and openly pro-Russia party has signed a “cooperation agreement” with Putin’s United Russia party, and Kneissl’s close ties to the Russian leader are raising questions in the EU over where Austria’s loyalties lie. The FPÖ has supported Russia’s claim to Crimea and called for the easing of sanctions on Moscow."

But not the U.S., right? Where's the signed cooperation agreement with the Republican Party?

Even if Mueller can prove everything, these are just process crimes, right? Nothing to see here. Or, as the Republican House Intelligence Committee insisted, speciously and falsely - Putin was anti-Hillary Clinton, not Pro-Trump, which Republican leaders repeated even after Helsinki: "House GOP stands by controversial finding in Russia report despite Putin's preference for Trump"

OK, so Putin was
(1) Pro-Brexit in the UK,
(2) Pro-Northern League in Italy (and Five-Star Movement for Italy to leave the EU),
(3) Pro-FPO in Austria, but
allegedly not (4) Pro-Trump in the U.S, despite Trump's strong pro-Putin stance.

If we only we could find the person or party Putin secretly supported in the U.S. in our national elections, that would surely be the enemy within.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Pivot to the General Case

One communications tactic that is easy to spot is the pivot from discussing that which is specific and germane to that which is general and irrelevant, and, often misleading.

Let's take an example that has nothing to do with politics per se and show how this works.

A certain NYTimes article begins thus:

"Danielle Teuscher decided to give DNA tests as presents last Christmas to her father, close friends and 5-year-old daughter, joining the growing number of people taking advantage of low-cost, accessible genetic testing.

But the 23andMe test produced an unexpected result. Ms. Teuscher, 30, a nanny in Portland, Ore., said she unintentionally discovered the identity of the sperm donor she had used to conceive her young child.

The mother of the donor was identified on her daughter’s test results as her grandmother. Excited and curious, Ms. Teuscher decided to reach out."

So, in the space of a few short sentences we are told that the mother of a young girl who was just trying out new ideas for Christmas gifts stumbled on the heritage of her biological daughter. Something does not seem right there.

The deflection begins with the first sentence. Let's talk about Christmas, not -"who is the biological father of my child?". And the general case - everybody is interested in DNA testing kits these days, not just mothers who resorted to anonymous sperm donors. Besides, this testing is so darn low cost and accessible. Who could resist? And then you find out a genetic link to the father of your daughter - who knew that was even possible?

But there is a dramatic logical flaw in that first sentence. Supposedly Ms. Teuscher bought a DNA test kit as a gift for her 5-year-old daughter. That makes no sense. Ms. Teuscher is obviously buying this test kit for herself to uncover the sperm donor. And the nonsense about buying kits for other family members is just noise - introduced to create confusion and to falsely make the case that this is all about Christmas, not about the mystery of paternity.

Even the title: "A Mother Learns the Identity of Her Child’s Grandmother. A Sperm Bank Threatens to Sue." gives away the game. "A Mother Learns..." is passive voice, also a clue to deception. Why not be direct? The mother did not just learn something. She took deliberate action. "A Mother Subjected Her 5-year-old to DNA testing and located the biological father. A Sperm Bank Threatens to Sue" would have been more to the point. The author is clearly taking the side of the mother in this one, but is being incredibly disingenuous. But this type of subterfuge is common in politics. Start with a specific case, possibly a specific question from a reporter, and deflect attention away from meaningful information to other irrelevancies, thus turning a discussion into nonsense. News reporters in politics have a tough time identifying this behavior as bad faith action, which, unfortunately, leads to continued bad faith.

In the Rose Garden yesterday Trump was challenged about his evidence requiring declaration of a national emergency at the southern border when statistics tell us "illegal immigration is down and crime is down, so on what do you base your facts?". After yelling "Sit down. Sit down" as he waved the reporter away -"You get one. You get one." Trump claimed, "I get my numbers from a lot of sources, Department of Homeland Security..." and then bobbed and weaved all over the place, saying "I have many statistics." In Trump's case, not only is the pivot away from the specific and germane to the general and irrelevant, and also to the vague and misleading, but, as we all know, almost always - to a statement that is false.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Real News Now

Margaret Sullivan and Jill Abramson present starkly different portraits in journalism today in the Washington Post.

In "Trump doesn't believe his own damaging rants about 'fake news", Sullivan correctly reports, with compelling evidence - it's in the title, and worth repeating:

:Trump doesn't believe his own damaging rants about 'fake news".

Surprise, surprise.

That fact is obvious, but editorial standards at WaPo, like NYT, require that reasonable conclusions derived from facts appear as Opinion, in this case, the "Style: Perspective" column. How does Trump get away with it? People like Jill Abramson help him. As Sullivan points out:

"Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson drew right-wing plaudits recently when she referred to her former paper’s coverage of the president — as well as The Washington Post’s — as “unmistakably anti-Trump.” (The author of a new book on the press, “Merchants of Truth,” Abramson also praised much of the reporting at both papers.)"

When journalists who tout themselves as objective bend over backwards to treat "both sides" equally, at all times and in all circumstances, one side may realize the vulnerability created - that they can lie, cheat, and steal in plain sight. All they need to do is cry out "fake news", which he said/she said journalistic practice - the companion to 'both sides" -  turns into a meaningless echo chamber of charges and counter charges that easily drowns out meaning.

Abramson's inability to take a stand - on reality, not political preference - is evident in her own WaPo piece today:
"Will the media ever figure out how to report on Trump?"
If editors are all like Abramson, the answer is "No". Fortunately, they are not.

Abramson leads off:
"The news media’s collective shock that Donald Trump won in 2016 was evidence of how out of touch most reporters were with the less affluent, less educated, rural parts of the country, where white voter rage galvanized into votes that made him the 45th president. In the days after the election, there was anguished self-examination in many newsrooms and vows to cover the parts of the United States that had been mistakenly overlooked."

These statements are simply false. If polls had predicted a 50%/50% probability of Trump/Clinton victory, there would not have been the same shock. And Abramson conveniently ignores a series of events - the Clinton email releases, the Comey memo, and other factors. For example, many suburban Republican-leaning voters were convinced - mostly by the even-handed coverage of Trump by responsible news orgs like the New York Times in particular, that both candidates were equally terrible and that, as the Times so clearly put it - "Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia."

 These factors had an impact in the final weeks of the campaigns.

But Abramson is conflating the issue of how and why Trump won with the issue of how news organizations need to report on politics so that readers understand best what exactly is going on. To Margaret Sullivan, who previously worked as the Public Editor at the Times when they still had that role, news orgs need to recognize Trump's games  for what they are and report accordingly. As Sullivan says, "The fact that the Trump coverage comes off as negative doesn’t make it “hostile” and doesn’t make it “anti-Trump.'"

But to Jill Abramson,
"One way out of the reactive cycle is to report the story from the places where the pro-Trump and Trump-curious live, to cover the facts and truths of their lives. The Caro approach offers a way forward for news organizations to find contributors from, or place correspondents in, the communities that support the president, to soak up the sense and sensibility of under-covered America. That way, we mix with the other tribe. The 2020 campaign, already upon us, offers a great opportunity to fulfill the pledge we made after the last election."

What Abramson is saying - unbeknownst to her apparently - is that support for Trump is so incomprehensible - that we need to go to places that have large majority Trump voters to understand how this is possible. These people must be so so angry - "white voter rage".  This is a case of deciding what the story must be and seeking it out until you find some facts to support it. The NYT and other news orgs took it upon themselves to nail down the story they had already told themselves by going on this mission many times after the 2016 election. These white people must be so angry. It must be the economy. All of this is the noble savage take. It can't be white racism or white resentment or white supremacsim. In many cases, what these journalists found was Republican Party operatives willing to masquerade as angry independent voters.

And note that last line. "That way we mix with the other tribe." There it is. The former executive editor of the NYT saying that she was not able to report true stories because she and her tribe did not mix with the "other tribe." Wow. The other "side". There is not truth based on facts, only stories two "sides" believe to be true based on their own "facts". Maybe Kellyanne Conway could be executive editor of the New York Times. Instead of traveling all that way to the country, why not bring the other "tribe" in-house right at the top?

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Artful Dodger

The headlines tell all.
"Retired FBI Agent: The Roger Stone raid was totally by the book"  reports CNN.
"FACT CHECK: Did the FBI Use Unusual force When It Arrested Roger Stone?"  says NPR.

We can ignore the actual stories beneath those headlines because the point is simple:
If you are Roger Stone - deny, distract, deflect, accuse. By the time you get to the accusation phase - in this case, putting the FBI on the defensive, you have successfully taken yourself off the defensive - promoting the FBI as the wrongdoer and, simultaneously, sending the usual suspects in the media, CNN and NPR, into fact checking mode.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Six Forms of Media Bias?

David Leonardt of NYT has an interesting piece - The Six Forms of Media Bias -  in response to Margaret Sullivan's WaPo perspective article: "The media feel safest in the middle lane. Just ask Jeff Flake, John Kasich and Howard Schultz."

These articles properly address major problems of objective media political reporting, but miss the big picture. Leonardt organizes his piece around six elements, but in two of those - Centrist Bias and Liberal Bias, he notes the problem of bothsidesism, which is the correct point of focus.

Bothsidesism derives from an inability of political journalists to understand the difference between:

1. Fair and accurate reporting
2. Fair and balanced reporting

Balanced reporting can be inaccurate, and often is, especially if one "side" recognizes this media vulnerability and instinctively or, with calculation, act to exploit that weakness.

So, political reporters, so afraid of being wrong, now and then, practice bothsidesism, and wind up wrong more often than not.

The commitment to forced balance leads to these errors:

-If a full and objective analysis of facts would logically lead to dire conclusions regarding one "side" in our politics, especially if it is the other "side", these so-called "liberal" journalists soften their conclusions in order to maintain the appearance they are unbiased, but the result is bias against factual reporting in full context. Fox News does not have "Conservative bias" as Leonhardt writes. Fox News is a propaganda machine with enormous influence on viewers who like what they see and hear on the station. But Leonhardt can not say that. He says they "skew hard right" says nothing about their disregard of reality. They lie. Trump lies.

Fair and balance leads to
Forced balance, leads to
False balance,
False equivalencies

We need a new journalistic set of standards for political reporting with a commitment to objectivity and accuracy,  not so-called "fair and balanced" reporting. Fair and balanced implies the reporter is just a conveyor of facts without context. This has resulted in reporters who try to step back at all times to the "View from Nowhere" as Jay Rosen calls it, practice he said/she said journalism by default. They can not do otherwise under this regime. He said/she said political journalism favors the more aggressive politician, especially those who lie over those who tell the truth. Lying sends the political reporters into fact checking, which means they waste their time. Or they go running to the political opponent to ask - "he says this bad thing about you. What do you say about that?

"Bias for the new" is a big problem that is related to an inability to properly handle incremental changes to the status quo on important items. For example, the unbelievably significant interactions between Trump, his campaign, and Russia in 2015 and 2016 became public slowly over an extended period of time and the means of revelations was often manipulated by team Trump to soften the immediate blow to their credibility.  So, for example, Jeff Sessions sworn testimony to the Senate in his confirmation hearings that he was not aware of any contact with Russia was an absurd statement.

The solution to outdated standards of reporting for journalists is to step away from he said/she said reporting. Political journalists need to be like scientists - not referees, not judges. Instead of fair and balanced, be complete and accurate in context. Instead of horse race emphasis, turn to likely outcomes. We live in a world that is completely opposite to the world America would have inhabited if Clinton had won and Brexit had lost. But we did see much, if anything on that story in the he said/she said, false balance reporting of 2016.

Donald Trump is not an aberration. He represents the apotheosis of Republican political strategy of the last half century. Republicans are good at winning. Democrats are good at analyzing complex problems and designing complex solutions. Republicans succeed by dumbing down the debate to the lowest common denominator. Journalists have a duty to report this as fact, as the context for political debate, not as opinion.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The God that Failed

The American model for objective political journalism takes the he said/she said, both sides approach to every issue. Jay Rosen calls this the View from Nowhere. And nowhere is it more apparent than in the persistent adherence to this soft, hands-off approach followed by The New York Times.

This forced balance reporting falls easily into the horse race model for elections also decried by Rosen. After the horse race field is winnowed down by the primaries to two opposing main party candidates, one Democrat and one Republican, this archaic model can be strictly applied by political reporters.

And so NYT news analysis drifts easily into the headline: For a President Consumed With Winning, a Stinging Defeat. In it, Peter Baker writes:

"Democrats were not exactly gracious in victory, barely containing their delight. “Hopefully, it means a lesson has been learned: Shutting down government over a policy difference is self-defeating,” tut-tutted Mr. Schumer. “It accomplishes nothing but pain and suffering for the country and the American people.”

See what he did there? Government shutdown battles are a tug of war between the two sides. Trump "wanted" a wall and did not get it, so he lost. Nancy Pelosi held the Democrats in the House together, so she "won". She "defeated" Trump. But what did Pelosi win exactly? Getting the government running again, though weakened, falls short of the status quo before Trump/McConnell employed this tactic. That's no victory.

Suppose the goal of Trump is to disable the federal government so badly that the FBI and Justice Department are hamstrung in their investigations of him and his team. Suppose Mitch McConnell wants to disable the federal government so badly that most of the agencies fail in their mission and, when Democrats return to power, need to spend all of their energies just trying to revive the functioning of the government. And, in addition to wanting to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency, the Education Department, Housing and Urban Development, the Consumer Finance Protection Agency, isn't it obvious that a weakened IRS benefits Trump and the billionaires who financially support Republicans?

No, Pelosi has not won, if winning means gaining an advantage that you did not have previously. Pelosi and the Democrats have lost. Trump had no chance of holding the functioning of the U.S. government hostage and obtaining a legislative advantage. But he was able to hold the U.S. hostage with the aid of Mitch McConnell who held the Republican coalition in the Senate together for 34 days - long enough to inflict real damage on government and make skilled people think twice about going to work fot the feds and, for those who are good at their jobs, think twice about staying in those thankless roles when private industry beckons.

Peter Baker's "Democrats were not exactly gracious..." nonsense demonstrates his full commitment to the horse race, both sides, black and white winner/loser view of politics." At the NYT, the "barely containing their delight" take on the Dems is not the observation of an objective reporter. The NYT loves to refer to "gleeful" politicians. And for some reason, probably their commitment to "both sides" symmetry, Baker and many fellow reporters do not acknowledge the assymetry between Democrats and Republican on government shutdowns. Republicans are happy to engineer shutdowns, as noted above, to weaken the federal government to make a later cleanup by Democrats that much harder, but also to support and expand the cynicism of voters about the federal government. Baker's comment about Schumer's quote shows he has no understanding of the game theory dynamic of government shutdowns.  The NYT and Peter Baker do not and can not face the facts because it would force them to confront their perpetual devotion to the God of both sides symmetry - the God that failed.