Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Corporate Masters?

‘Skynet Is A Private Company, They Can Do What They Want,’ Says Man Getting Curb-Stomped By Terminator
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, January 18
So which is it? Does democracy work because society has some kind of collective wisdom that leads it, over time, to elect good leaders who mostly rise to meet the challenges of the time? Or are citizens basically sheep who are led by slick charismatic politicians and campaigns with manipulative marketing techniques?

This question has been turning over in my mind since viewing the fascinating 2012 Chilean film No by Pablo Larraín. (That movie has already been fodder for my other two blogs, so why not a third go?) A fictionalized account of the 1988 referendum campaign that ultimately turned Augusto Pinochet out of power, the film tells its story from the point of view of a mostly apolitical advertising executive. It caused some controversy in Chile because it implied that the No side won mainly because of its slick campaign messaging, that a sober and serious debate of the issues was not sufficient to sway sufficient voters. Critics pointed out that the movie downplayed—if not outright ignored—the major voter registration drive organized by the political opposition.

Usually, it is the losing side in an election making the argument that voters are easily led and manipulated by campaigns with big budgets. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, many of his opponents sought to explain the inexplicable by blaming his victory on disinformation disseminated on social media, mainly Facebook. Internet bots and strategic Russian advertising buys had swayed politically unsophisticated voters, they suggested. As a result of reporting on Russian election meddling, a lot of Americans were actually under the impression that the voting was or may have been tampered with and that the results were not completely legitimate.

With Joe Biden’s victory in November, the tables were turned. Trump insisted stubbornly—without producing any actual proof—that he was the victim of some kind of massive fraud and that he had actually won. The more rational among his supporters made a more cogent argument. They insisted that the election was essentially unfair because of media suppression of negative stories about Biden and social media companies’ newly aggressive approach to “fake news.” Exhibit A in their argument was suspension of the New York Post’s Twitter account just as it published a front-page article about information found on Hunter Biden’s laptop. The rationale was that the story was unverified and possibly Russian disinformation. Only after the election did the FBI validate the Post’s reporting. (That was in accordance with longstanding FBI policy, something it had disregarded four years earlier in James Comey’s pre-election discussion of Hillary Clinton’s email server.)

Did bias in the establishment media and among social media companies sway the election for Biden? While I think those players did show amazingly extreme bias, I doubt their favoritism tipped the balance. After all, details about Hunter Biden’s dealings with Ukraine and China were well known to anyone who was interested. They were a key revelation out of last year’s impeachment trial. I think voters just didn’t care about the younger Biden’s corrupt but apparently legal dealings—just as they didn’t care about all the salacious revelations about Trump’s dealings in business and with women four years earlier. Still, it was kind of jaw-dropping when a post-election survey showed that significant numbers of voters claimed to be ignorant of the Hunter Biden story and said it might have made a difference in their electoral decision-making.

If the people who believe that citizens are easily manipulated by the media are correct, that presents a huge problem for democracy—especially in a country as large and diverse as the United States. It would give a huge advantage to the side with the most money. In the 2020 election, Democrats (who once campaigned on election finance reform but never talk about it anymore) outspent Republicans by $6.9 billion to $3.8 billion. And those numbers do not include what many Republicans consider a virtual “in kind” donation—biased coverage by all the major corporate-owned media outlets (with the obvious exception of Fox News).

Is the lopsided coverage of the 2020 election an anomaly caused by the unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency? Maybe, but Republicans have been complaining of biased coverage for many, many election cycles. If you are a Democrat, of course, you do not see it as bias. It’s just that reality has a liberal bias, as some people like to say. Still, if big corporations have definitely picked a side and that side has a permanent significant funding advantage, what does that portend for democracy?

It means that we better hope that money and the power of corporate media are not completely determinative in election outcomes. Yes, you may have been quite happy with the outcome of the most recent election, but what about future elections when corporate interests and deep pockets go against what you think is right? Let’s hope that well-reasoned arguments and grassroots organizing still work. Let’s hope that corporate whims cannot silence your voice summarily.

After all, if the president of the United States can be banned from Twitter for all time, what does mean for you when your beliefs are not consistent with the agenda of major corporations?

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Hand of God

Note: This particular entry is being cross-posted on both my book and expat blogs.

Because of my personality type, I find myself compulsively scanning newspaper headlines from several different countries on a daily basis. Usually, there is a logical degree of variation, from country to country, as to what lands on the front pages. Sometimes, though, the same news dominates the front page everywhere. Normally, that tends to happen only there has been a major disaster of some kind or a particularly dramatic development in the United States. Sometimes it is the death of someone famous.

Rarely have I seen such uniformity in top headlines as I have seen today on the covers of papers in Ireland, the UK, the rest of Europe, Chile, Peru, the rest of Latin America and even the US. It is a testimony to the unifying power of the sport of soccer that the top story everywhere was the sudden death of Argentine soccer god Diego Maradona of an apparent heart attack at the age of 60.

I say “even the US” because soccer does not have quite the hold in my own country as it does in the rest of the world. This is despite the fact that many of us would have played the sport in our youth and would be quite familiar with the rules. Certain countries, i.e. the ones that use the word “soccer” (the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland), have their own homegrown sports they call “football.” Most everywhere else, though, that word and its variants (fútbol, le foot, fußball) refer to what is universally called “the beautiful game.” While Maradona’s demise was widely reported in the US, he did not make the front pages of, for example, The Bakersfield Californian or The Seattle Times. He did make the front page of The New York Times, though well below the fold. He likely would have made the front page of The Wall Street Journal, but that paper does not publish on Thanksgiving. (Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, my fellow Americans.)

An impressive number of papers made a playful reference to God’s hands in their headlines, as exemplified by the UK’s Daily Express: “RIP: The eternal, flawed genius… now safe in the hands of God.” These are all not-so-subtle references to a famous/notorious goal he scored in Mexico City on June 22, 1986. It was in a quarter-finals match between Argentina and England. The goal should not have counted because Maradona used his hand. In fact, he should have received a yellow card for the infraction. Amazingly, no referee had a clear view, so the goal was allowed. Combined with a subsequent Maradona goal, it meant a 2-1 victory for the Argentines.

Afterwards, Maradona proclaimed that his first goal of the match had come thanks to “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” The goal was henceforth known as the “Hand of God” goal. The second one became known as the “Goal of the Century.”

In Asif Kapadia’s documentary Diego Maradona, released last year, the soccer titan drew a link between that win over England and the Falklands War a few years earlier: “We, as Argentinians, didn’t know what the military was up to. They told us that we were winning the war. But in reality, England was winning 20‑0. It was tough. The hype made it seem like we were going to play out another war. I knew it was my hand. It wasn’t my plan but the action happened so fast that the linesman didn’t see me putting my hand in. The referee looked at me and he said: ‘Goal.’ It was a nice feeling like some sort of symbolic revenge against the English.”

Maradona’s passing comes at a time when his life and career and even the Falklands War are all fresh in my mind. That is because the la Guerra de las Malvinas, as the Argentines called that conflict, is a plot element in Searching for Cunégonde, and there is even a reference to the soccer player in the novel. In Chapter 14 our hero Dallas’s search for his long-missing friend Antonio leads him and his new British friend Donal to Mendoza, Argentina, and to a man named Alberto. To keep their quest from ending in failure, they need to gain the wary Alberto’s confidence. It appears that the pair have run out of luck until, by chance, Donal and Alberto discover a mutual bond over their passion for international football.

“There is a young Argentine player you need to watch out for,” says Alberto. “He is only twenty years old, but he is already better than George Best ever was. Listen to my words. Remember the name Maradona.”

Indeed, at that point Maradona had wrapped up five years playing for a club called Argentinos Juniors and around that time signed a contract worth US$4 million with Boca Juniors. At not quite 16 years old, he had become the youngest player ever in the history of the Primera División. He had scored 115 goals in 167 appearances. Early on he was dubbed el Pibe de Oro (the golden kid). So Alberto did not need to be a gifted prophet to see Maradona’s bright future all the way back in 1981. What he probably did not foresee was the star’s later life beset by addictions and health problems.

Sadly, I will now never get the chance—as if I was ever likely to—to ask the great man if he was at all flattered to be featured in my novel. I suppose there is still hope, though, to someday ask actor Rob Lowe what he thought of his brief mention.

In the end Dallas and Donal get the information seek from Alberto, so at least that part of their quest is successful. As Dallas narrates, “I continued thanking him as he walked us back to the street. Locking the gate after us, he said to Donal, ‘Remember my words, Gringo! Watch out for Maradona!’ ”

Prescient words indeed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Expert Advice

“Sorry, Only Seeing This Now…” Government Finally Text NPHET Back After Recommending Level 5 Restrictions 2 Weeks Ago
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper web site Waterford Whispers, October 19
If you watched the original Star Trek series when you were a kid, as I did, then you may have wondered, as I did, why Mr. Spock was not the ship’s captain instead of James T. Kirk.

Spock was invariably cool, calm and in total control of his emotions. He was a brilliant scientist—in fact he was the Enterprise’s science officer—and a rigorous practitioner of logic. While Kirk was frequently distracted by some bit of intergalactic skirt or otherwise being led by his emotions, Spock was completely dedicated to his work and mission. Whenever Kirk had to absent himself and would tell Spock to “take the com,” things always seemed to run much more efficiently, and the leadership decisions were more consistent and clear.

There is an obvious reason why Kirk was the captain and not Spock. It made for better stories. Efficiently run organizations are not inherently watchable from an entertainment point of view. The show’s writers did actually come up with a justification for the Enterprise’s command structure. In the sixteenth episode of the first season (“The Galileo Seven”), Mr. Spock is in a position of command on an away mission. After an emergency landing on the planet Taurus II, Spock’s manner annoys and frustrates his subordinates no end. A desperate attempt is made to escape the planet, but the shuttle cannot escape the planet’s gravity. In an apparent act of desperation, Spock dumps the craft’s precious remaining fuel and ignites it. This seems pointless and foolhardy, but the flare is spotted by the Enterprise crew, which is then able to save the shuttle passengers by transporter beam in the few remaining seconds.

Kirk—and perhaps the writers—think Spock has learned a lesson in leadership because he acted emotionally rather than logically, but wasn’t Spock’s desperate act actually logical? After all, it succeeded. In a last-ditch situation, trying anything, even with near-zero probability of success, is surely more logical than doing nothing. Still, Kirk’s larger point stands. Leadership is more than just technical expertise.

In times when people get frustrated with their political leaders, you often hear voices arguing that governmental decisions should be made by technocrats or “experts” rather than individuals whose strongest ability is climbing to the top of the political ladder. You particularly hear this nowadays as countries struggle with a long-term emergency medical situation. President Trump has been roundly criticized for being dismissive of Anthony Fauci, a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and other medical advisers. Joe Biden, who looks likely to replace Trump in January, says repeatedly that, as president, he would “follow medical experts’ advice.”

For months Irish politicians smugly compared themselves to Trump and congratulated themselves on following the experts. The self-congratulation stopped abruptly four Sundays ago when the press learned that the country’s chief medical officer, on behalf of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), had written the government advising that the Republic of Ireland move to Level 5, i.e. the most restrictive set of measures currently available. The following evening, in a television interview, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Leo Varadkar defended the government’s decision to go to a lower-than-recommended level of restrictions, saying the medical advice had come “out of the blue” and was “not thought through.” Sixteen days later, under continuing media criticism and deteriorating case numbers, the government went to Level 5.

In his original defense of the government’s hesitation to tighten restrictions, Varadkar pointed out that the government must take into account all manner of economic and social repercussions, while the medical experts’ brief is limited to the spread of the virus. They have the luxury, if you want to call it that, to strive for minimal risk in their recommendations. The government faces serious risk no matter what it decides. The government’s defenders declared that, while NPHET should be heeded, it is not the government.

One of the strongest arguments I have read for not turning experts into autocrats comes not from some right-wing sheet but from an article two years ago in the left-of-center Guardian. In the piece David Runciman of Cambridge University argued against “epistocracy: the rule of the knowers.” It is a detailed and thoughtful article and well worth reading. Here is the nub of his argument:
Epistocracy is flawed because of the second part of the word rather than the first—this is about power (kratos) as much as it is about knowledge (episteme). Fixing power to knowledge risks creating a monster that can’t be deflected from its course, even when it goes wrong—which it will, since no one and nothing is infallible. Not knowing the right answer is a great defence against people who believe that their knowledge makes them superior.
The nature of science is exemplified by experimentation, debate, revision and skepticism. Ironically, many people, usually not scientists themselves, invoke Science as some immutable ultimate authority, not unlike the way religious fundamentalists would try to shut down arguments by invoking the Old Testament.

Such people would have you believe that there is near-unanimity among scientists on a range of critical issues. Worse, they seem at times to believe the anointed experts are infallible. Certainly, following the prevailing scientific opinion in a crisis is the smart thing to do, but it should never be treated uncritically as received truth. Unanimity of opinion is the virtual antithesis of science. You only have to read the October 4 Great Barrington Declaration by professors from Stanford, Harvard and Oxford or a recent letter to the Irish government signed by fifteen doctors, including those on the frontlines, to realize that there is a healthy debate going on about the best way to deal with pandemic.

By all means, you want Mr. Spock on the ship’s deck for his technical expertise and his advice. The captain, though, will want to hear from him and other crew members and then draw upon his or her own judgment before heading out into the great unknown.