Category Archives: Culture

Political and Spiritual Cults: From Rapture to Complicity to Aftermath in the Shadow of 20th Century Yankeedom

“The party is always right, even when it’s wrong”

— Democratic Workers Party slogan

ORIENTATION

Everybody knows what cults are

People who join cults are mentally unstable before they join and less educated than the general population. True or false? Cult members also define themselves as lonely. True or false? Most people who join cults are from the poor and working class. True or false? People are physically intimidated into joining a cult against their will. True or false? No matter how much your vocabulary changes once inside a cult, you can still control what and how you think. True or false? Cults draw certain kinds of criminal elements, who in a sense get what they deserve. Good people would not be drawn into such extreme circumstances. True or false? This last statement is a version of the “just world hypothesis”. The implication being that you, a good person, could never fall into a cult.

If you answered “true” to any of these questions, you might have fallen for the social media propaganda against cults. In fact, the overwhelming number of members of cults come from middle and upper middle-class backgrounds, are well-educated and have no serious psychological problems previous to joining the cult. Furthermore, people join cults voluntarily and they are lured into them by various social and psychological techniques which offer immediate gratification. In her book Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Singer says people have an initial resistance to thinking they could be “taken in,” without force.

Lastly, many people mistakenly think that thoughts and language can be neatly separated. This is mistaken.  No one can think independently of language. If you force people to not use certain words, and insist on people substituting new words, you can control their thinking process. As Orwell pointed out, when the state controls the vocabulary and strikes words from its dictionary, it narrows the thinking range that is possible. If you use the word “freedom” to express autonomous thinking, but the word “freedom” has now been labelled by a leftist political movement as “bourgeois individualism” you have a problem in using it. You cannot coin new words by yourself. There has to be a movement of people who agree to create a new word and circulate it among themselves. Cult members are slowly socialized by their leaders and lieutenants to change their vocabulary as they coin and circulate new words through forums, meetings and media events. Slowly the members find their own vocabulary changes accordingly.

How many kinds of cult are there?

There are at least three kinds of cults: spiritual, psychological and political.

All three have left-wing and right-wing variants. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple; Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate; Rajneesh’s Tantric yoga, as well Charles Manson’s “the Family” are all examples of left-wing spiritual cults.  Right-wing cults are Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, Kurt Saxon’s Christian Identity, James Wickstrom’s Posse Comitatus and James Butler’s Aryan Nation.

Examples of left-wing psychological cults Harvey Jackins’ Re-Evaluation Counseling along with Saul B. Newton’s Sullivan Institute. Right-wing psychology cults include L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology and Charles Dederich’s Synanon. Political cults on the left include Gerry Healy in Britain and the Democratic Workers Party in San Francisco. A great example of a right-wing political cult was Lyndon LaRouche’s National Caucus of Labor Committees.

For most of this article I will be speaking of cults in general. But when I get more specific about mechanisms of control, I will sometimes refer to the left-wing Democratic Workers Party. I refer to them not only because they are especially monstrous compared to other cults. I do so more because my readers are most likely to be interested in political cults rather than spiritual or psychological cults. Secondly, my readers are more likely to identify as left-wing rather than right-wing political people. I think this article will “hit home”, especially among Leninists. I am not suggesting or implying that all Leninist parties are cults.

What is a totalistic institution?

Defining a cult has more to do with how the organization is run, not the political, psychological or spiritual beliefs of the organization. Cults can be characterized as a type of “total institution” (Goffman). Others include mental hospitals, jails, army barracks, orphanages and religious institutions such as monasteries, convents or abbeys. In modern capitalist societies, people enter and leave many social institutions during the course of a day. Examples include a son or daughter of a family at home, a student at school, an employee at work, a member of the choir at church, a fan for a sports team and a member of the national guard on the weekends.  While all these groups have a broad similarity in economic ideology (being pro-capitalism), within each group the power dynamics between the authority and the members differ. Different institutions are organized tightly or loosely with high, medium or low expectations. Most importantly the individual in a pluralistic society, with membership in all these groups can compare and contrast social expectations of each group, develop their own ideas and synthesize the results using critical thinking.

In totalistic institutions, sleeping, eating, working and playing all happen within a single organization, enacted within the same place, at the same time in the same way.  In pluralistic societies members enter into and leave a group of their own volition. In totalistic institutions members do not come and go as they please. Boundaries are strictly controlled.  Unlike in pluralistic societies, in totalistic institutions the authorities are a single centralized body, with very little feedback coming from the periphery to the core. In pluralistic societies, surveillance may be in place in certain settings, like in the military or in church, but there is no central setting from which family life, school life or work life is all watched from afar at the same time. In total institutions, besides centralized surveillance systems, there is a network of spying that goes on between members, breeding insecurity and paranoia. In totalistic institutions, everyone is treated bureaucratically in the same way, where sensitivity to the uniqueness of a person and situation is lost.

What is a cult?

Cults usually grow in a climate of political, economic or ecological instabilities in which the existing social order has been compromised. A cult is a spiritual, psychological or political institution which is hyper-critical of the existing spiritual, psychological and political institutions and wishes to overthrow them while often aspiring to create “heaven on earth”. Because cults are usually new and have not had years to socialize people the way organized religions have, they have to work quickly and use extreme measures to draw and hold people. Because a religious leader of a particular denomination is part of a large bureaucracy, that leader can be relatively dull while maintaining the following of his parishioners. But a cult cannot afford that.

Cults usually have at their head a charismatic leader with a grand philosophy who gives dramatic right and wrong answers to complex but deteriorating social situations. The leaders usually have lieutenants, ideologically committed members who have very good social psychological skills to keep the membership in line. Cults lack a democratic structure and the membership is kept passive and happy during the initial stages while being slowly terrified as membership continues into the later stages of the cult.

Characteristics of cults include:

  • Emerging out of a political, economic or ecological crisis;
  • Recruitment of young adults between 17 and 24 of middle-class and upper middle-class origins who are likely to be undergoing some developmental crisis in their personal lives;
  • An authoritarian, charismatic leader;
  • A revolutionary, dualistic ideology;
  • Possessing a social-psychological array of tools for luring in new members and sustaining their commitment;
  • A lack of mechanisms for critical feedback from the membership;
  • A small group of lieutenants to isolate and keep atomized the membership through spying so that no coherent opposition can form;
  • The development of rituals, myths and celebrations that allow the group to mark time;
  • Demonization of outside groups that are competition with the cult;
  • Rigid, terrorized boundaries that make it extremely difficult to leave.

STAGES OF CULTS

In their book, The Guru Papers, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad identify two stages of cults: the proselytizing stage and the apocalyptic paranoia stage.

In the proselytizing ascendant stage, the guru sees the possibility of realizing his ambitions. The group is touted as being at the cutting edge of new knowledge. Outsiders are welcomed although they are treated with a kind of benign superiority. In the ascendant phase, the guru rewards the enthusiasm of his followers and grants them positions which have opened up within the hierarchy. The tone of the community is celebratory. The guru is accessible to the public and is charming and playful. In terms of the recruitment this is the “honeymoon phase”. The focus is to expand the organization and the emphasis is on the present.

The apocalyptic, paranoiac, decadent phase is when the numbers of recruits have leveled off and explanations need to be found. The public is now seen as too stupid and blind to acknowledge the merits of the cult. In the declining stage the message becomes pessimistic, with a doomsday “I told you so” tone. Outsiders cease to be welcomed in a spirit of satisfying curiosity. Rather they are seen as enemies out to destroy the organization. Part of the descendent phase also involves the guru making more grandiose claims while promising to invoke occult power. The membership begins to have doubts.

Some find the courage to leave despite threats of violence, law suits, character destruction and loss of employment. Others hang on for fear of the costs of leaving. In the descendent phase recruits are expected to give far more than they receive in the way of time, energy and money. They are expected to work long hours recruiting, selling products and fundraising.  Because the organization is not growing, like most organizations this leads to squabbling for a diminishing set of resources. All too often the cult ends in scandal or tragedy.

PRE-CULT SOCIALIZATION

As we all know, when individuals are socialized within the first seventeen years of life, they are socialized by their families, their schools (including teachers and students), the various forms of media (tv, internet media), their religion, the state (propaganda to join the military) and their friends as well as by sports and music celebrities. All these forces are unified in presenting capitalism in a favorable light, but in other ways these socializing forces don’t agree. Broadly speaking, families, religion and the state appeal to the conservative forces of order and patriotism. Schools, mass media and entertainment celebrities are more liberal. As I said earlier, the diversity between these socializing influences allows the individual to develop thinking skills of comparing and contrasting which develops critical thinking.

But beginning in the teenage years, (and maybe even sooner) the individual begins to question these sources of influence. As early as ten or eleven, children are very aware that their parents are full of contradictions and are hardly infallible. By high school, some have developed Piaget’s formal operational thinking which helps them to critically evaluate religious claims about God and the afterlife. While in high school they may resent military recruiters in their schools. The problem with sports and music celebrities is that while they while they are held up as models, there is no feedback or dialogue which allows the individual to grow. By high school, one’s face-to-face friends may more likely to be the most solid socializing influence they have.

By the time the adolescent reaches seventeen, they have arrived at a developmental crisis. Do they continue on to college? Do they try to find full-time work? Do they join the military? Do they get married? It is here that cults might make their first appeal. Why now? Because developmentally, teenagers and young adults are in a fork in the roads of their lives. Additionally, the old forms of socialization have lost their stability and the teenager may be ripe for a new socialization process or a new group membership. If the individual decides to go to college, throughout the college years including graduation, they are suspectable to cult propaganda.

SOCIALIZATION INTO CULTS

The UC campus in Berkeley California stretches from south to north going from Bancroft Way at the south side to Hearst Ave. on the north side. There is a major walkway that begins at College and Bancroft and goes all the way to Hearst, cutting through the center of the campus. On both sides of the walkway there are tables with people stationed at them, inviting students to join clubs. Some of those clubs are front groups for cults. In addition, there are public bulletin boards advertising everything from movies, to offers for housing roommates, to free meditation classes.

The members of cults that are stationed at these tables are attractive, neatly dressed and extroverted. They are good social psychologists who can pick out a student that might be mildly depressed, lost or disorganized. These “hawkers” will call out to them, ask how they are doing and ask them if they’d like to hear a free talk and eat pizza afterwards. Once the person has come to the table, the hawkers will seize on anything the person says and respond in a very sympathetic way. They listen very carefully and keep the focus on the recruit. They are so engaging that they make an impression. Before the person leaves the table, they will be handed a flyer which appeals to nebulous conflicts like these:

  • Is it hard to make friends here at school?
  • Is college life harder than you thought it would be?
  • Is your romantic relationship lacking the things that you want?
  • If you have a job does it lack meaning?
  • Are you troubled about the state of the world, but feel powerless to do anything about it?

Then comes the pitch. “Come hear a talk by a celebrated expert in the field of psychology, religion or sociology on how to deal with all these problems in a meaningful way. Small group discussion afterward and free pizza. All are welcome.”

If the person attends the talk, there might be 50 people in the room, all of whom the recruit doesn’t know. What the recruit also doesn’t know is that 40 of those people are already in the cult. When any new people come into the room, the recruiters make sure they surround each new recruit and sit on either side of them and in back of them if possible. They engage the newbie, ask them questions about themselves before the talk even starts, and they make sure they compliment the newbie on their intelligence and insight. The leader giving the speech is usually an attractive, articulate, charming man with a sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic.

Once the leader makes their speech, the recruiters turn, and ask the newbie what they thought of the speech. They guide the newbie over to the table where there is pizza. The recruiters may hand them over to a new batch of recruiters who continue the discussion over pizza. Before the evening ends the recruits are told the time and place of the next meeting. Very causally they are asked for their email address “so we can keep you posted on up-and-coming events”.

At this point the recruit might feel like they just had an extraordinary date. They feel charged up and eroticized by some of the recruiters and might feel that they want to return to see one or more of the recruiters again. By comparison, these evenings are much more powerful than the times spent with family, friends and certainly religious services. After a couple of weeks the newbie returns again and the same thing happens. Now, the newbie is going to these talks three out of every four Sunday evenings. Their roommates, family and friends might inquire about where they have been. The newbie is not sure how to describe it. They might say this a “psychology group”. Both friends and family are not impressed and ask more probing questions. The newbie starts to feel defensive and stops talking about it, but continues to attend. This experience dovetails with a talk the leader gives the following Sunday on the nature of crisis.

The leader discusses how crisis involves the prospect of transformation and in that transformation, you meet new people while you have to let go of people that might be holding you back. This gently suggests that the newbie’s friends and family might not understand the nature of social change that the cult is part of and they are not among the enlightened ones (unlike the people in the cult). They also make a prediction that in the future they can expect their friends, families, church or state might not appreciate this cult and that is the price to pay for group enlightenment. But in the long-run, they may come to understand.

MECHANISMS OF CONTROL

Ascendant phase

The first, ascendant proselytizing phase of the cult is characterized by the following rewards. First – in terms of beliefs, a promise of the transformation of the world along with simplistic answers to complex questions. The cult then gives a sense of mission and purpose along with a sense of superiority over the ignorant and unenlightened masses. In terms of behavior, there is massive positive reinforcement which includes “love-bombing”: a great deal of attention to the recruit and their problems, along with an immediate, intense connection with many people. There is a promise (and deliverance in some cases) of erotic adventures. A regular dose of altered states of consciousness is achieved through chanting, hypnotic techniques of dissociation, group dancing, vertigo and hyperventilation. Along with this, a new identity is given which is often accomplished through changes in clothing or hair. At the climax in her recruitment just before she joined the DWP, author and sociologist Janja Lalich says: “Eleanor, leaned over, her face almost touching mine, she looked me in the eyes and said, ‘isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for?’ That’s all it took. I asked for the application”.

Descendent phase

Geographical isolation and physical deterioration

For the most part cults begin in cities, but in some cases, for various reasons (cheap land, control of members) they move to more rural areas as in the case of Jim Jones and Rajneesh. Especially if they are isolated in a rural area, they may be cut off from alternative forms of media. At this point with or without the move, in the descendent phase, the honeymoon is over for cult members. They are expected to work long hours in various phases of organization and as a result, become sleep deprived. In the DWP militants signed into a log book for keeping track of time, as if they were punching in their time cards in a factory. The organization does not provide for medical or dental insurance and their body begins to feel the wear-and-tear. Cult members who are older and have established incomes are pressured to contribute financially on a regular basis.

Atomizing the individual

Within the organization, the lieutenants work especially hard to keep people atomized so members cannot compare notes or consider their problems in any kind of collective way. In fact, the Democratic Workers party had a rule called “no gossiping”. But what they really meant was no comparing notes between members. Notice how comparing notes, a natural thing that is done in groups, was demonized by associating it with something bad.

Controlling vocabulary

The cult member’s vocabulary is controlled by the leadership and any kind of criticism is pathologized with certain labels. For example, in the DWP, “bourgeois individualism,” “careerism”, “grandstanding”, “factionalism” and “liberal” were used as “curse words” to shut down articulation of problems. In spiritual circles “unenlightened” or “materialism” might serve similar purposes.

Attacking the self:

True confessions

There are a number of ways one’s identity can be broken down. One of the ways the DWP used that was a requirement to write one’s personal history from a class point of view. Then they would write all the privileges they gained as a result of their class location. Finally, the recruit would have to present this in front of the whole group, exposing weaknesses to all.

Criticism and self-criticism

Once the true confessions are in place the cult member is treated to endless rounds of criticism and self-criticism. Once individual vocabulary is controlled and they have confessed their past privileges it is relatively easy for members to monitor each other by pointing out how current mistakes might be connected to their “middle-class” past.

Internalization of the party voice

When neither the leader or their fellow members were available the individual was controlled by their internalized “party voice”. When by themselves and in need of making a decision, they were to ask themselves “what would your older member say?”

At this point, they are in so deeply that they have burned their bridges with their families, friends, workers and no longer have a perspective of what’s happening to them. At the same time, it begins to dawn on them that maybe they should consider getting out.

WHY DO PEOPLE STAY AND REMAIN COMPLICIT IN THEIR OWN OPPRESSION?

At this point, the reader might say what is wrong with these cult members? These were once hypercritical people who questioned everything? Where is that spirit now? Why don’t they just run away? There are at least nine very good reasons why people stay.

Attachment to the new belief

Cult members have worked very hard to desocialize themselves from previous beliefs. They have worked hard to acquire and internalize new beliefs and the prospect of having to give them up with no belief system to call their own is extremely painful.

Cognitive dissonance

Research has shown that once people commit to something publicly, through actions, speaking or writing about it, they are much more likely to stay with their commitment. Without understanding this, to an outsider, cult members’ behavior seems crazy. What cult members are doing is unconsciously changing their beliefs to justify the increasingly irrational behavior of the leader during the cult’s descendent phase. They don’t see their beliefs as having changed because there is no one in the community to point that out, including many people who don’t want to see it because they are in the same boat.

Entrapment

Just as in personal romances, once you put time, effort and resources into a relationship, you acquire a stake in it and are reluctant to give it up. Buying furniture together, a house, pooling finances, having children all become obstacles to throwing in the towel even if you are unhappy. So too in cults, the members have put in long hours of work, they have seen some success, they probably contributed financially, and they just don’t want to come up empty-handed. In addition, cult members then face the start-up costs of investing in a whole other institution and life. The thinking goes – “maybe it is better to wait it out. After all, things may change for the better.”

Peer pressure

Contrary to what most people think, peer pressure is far more powerful than even the commands of authority figures. Soldiers have reported having endured horrible times, not because they were obedient to the authorities, but out of loyalty to their comrades. Members of cults have gone through ordeals that might not be as intense as the ordeals soldiers go through in eight weeks of boot-camp, but the ordeal lasts much longer. In both cases feelings of extreme loyalty are produced in soldiers and cult members. They don’t want to let their comrades down.

In addition, because cults count doctors, lawyers, social workers with advanced degrees among their numbers their presence makes it more difficult to leave for the less professional cult member to leave. In order to do that those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy would have to consider that these highly trained professionals have been duped themselves. How could they all be wrong?

Exhaustion from overwork allows little time for self-reflection or objectivity

In the descendent phase of cults, rank-and-file members are working fourteen-hour days, sometimes more. After several weeks and months of sleep deprivation, medical and dental negligence, internal group meetings and public displays of solidarity for public consumption, cult members are exhausted.  There no vacations, no hobbies, no musical concerts nor ball games.  Who has the time to reflect on where you have been and where you are going?

Burned bridges separate the member from their past

When you join the military, you come back to a civilian life that is intact when your four years are up. If you join a convent and then realize after a few years later it is not for you, your family and friends are still there. Because cults are extremist groups, it became necessary to cut off family, friends, workmates and church in order to become a member. For a departing cult member, there is anger, confusion, hurt, revenge and shunning waiting for them on the outside. The prospect of making amends is daunting. In addition, you cannot so easily recover who you once were. You may always be a stranger to your former groups. Even so basic a thing as changing your name back or growing your hair out takes a great deal of courage. The prospect of having no friends on the outside is enough to keep you in.

Being ridiculed and called names by cult members is very painful

If you consider wanting to leave and state your reasons to others, you may receive a vicious reaction because you might be bringing up the self-doubts of other members they would rather not face. You can expect to be called a spy, traitor, materialist, bourgeois or less evolved. These are the very words used to denounce those outside the cult. Now you are one of the enemies, an infiltrator. You’ve watched this happen to others who tried to leave and now it is happening to you.

Fear for your life

The wealthier cults such as scientology or the Moonies play hardball. They will threaten you with lawsuits, loss of employment, character assassination and death. Members of the DWP “goon squads” would break into the homes of former members, beat them up put them on a plane with a one-way ticket and no money. Margaret Sanger, in her book Cults in Our Midst depicts some of the things done to her. They stuffed her mailbox with a dead rat every week while she was testifying in court against a cult. Rats were put in the ducts of her house, so she was treated to a house full of screaming rats upon returning home.  She needed an armed guard to be taken to and from the courthouse. She was kept on the witness stand for 12 ½ days by cult lawyers cross-examining her. Her office was broken into and files stolen. Her school lectures were disrupted regularly.

Guilt and embarrassment over having participated in the group to begin with

A cult member begins to have inklings that some of the things their cult did were pretty horrible and that they were complicit in it. it takes time to understand and be compassionate with yourself as to how you could be so naïve as to have joined and why you stayed. If you stay in the cult your complicity in what was enacted can be put off or rationalized.

CHARACTERISTICS OF PSYCHOPATHOLOGICAL LEADERS

There is a reason why I have held off describing to you the pathological characteristics of the leaders of cults. The reason is because of what I alluded to in my article Revolutionary Group Dynamics. In evaluating negative experiences in groups, people have a tendency to a) blame the leaders, or b) pathologize the intelligence or mental health of the followers. What I wanted to do here is draw attention to why the majority of cult members put up with the abuse, stayed in the cult and were complicit in what the cults did without thinking their intelligence or sanity has been insulted. My point is that these members would have been complicit regardless of the psychological health of the leaders. Now that we have gone through the reason why most members were complicit, we can turn to the leaders.

In their book Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias claim that most cult leaders can be diagnosed as sociopaths, narcissists or borderline personalities. Here are fifteen of their characteristics:

Glibness and superficial charm

Cult leaders are captivating storytellers and exude self-confidence.

Conning and maneuvering

Cult leaders are good at psychological maneuvering and do this almost as second nature, and maybe even unconsciously. The leader divides the world into suckers, sinners and himself. He is very perceptive and good at sizing people up. Cult leaders have an innate ability to attract followers who have the skills and contacts that the leaders lack.

Grandiose sense of self

He enjoys tremendous feelings of entitlement. He must always be the center of attention and cannot tolerate yielding the spotlight.

Pathological lying

Sociopaths lie coolly and easily. It is almost impossible for them to be consistently truthful. Leaders tend to create a complex belief system often about their own powers and abilities which they themselves get caught up in believing. They are rarely original thinkers and are more likely to be plagiarists and seldom credit the true originators of their ideas. They are talented at passing lie detector tests.

Lack of remorse, shame or guilt

They do not have friends. They have accomplices and victims and accomplices frequently end up as victims. For sociopaths, the ends always justify the means. In fact, they might not even separate ends and means in their own minds.

Shallow emotions

While sociopaths may display outbursts of emotions, these are more often than not responses calculated to obtain a certain advantage. They rarely reveal a range of emotions or a depth of emotions over time. The cult leader can witness or order acts of utter brutality without experiencing a shred of emotion. They are callous and lack empathy.

Incapacity for love

Love requires revealing strengths and weaknesses and it means trusting another person over time. The sociopath does not have the attention span, the depth or the capacity to self-reflect on any of this.

Sensation Seeking

Temperamentally, the sociopath is drawn to dangerous, thrill seeking behavior. He takes foolish risks and expects others to do the same. Robberies and shoot-outs with the authorities are par for the course (Jim Jones, David Koresh).

Impulsivity and lack of behavioral control

The cult leader has temper tantrums and fits of rage which the lieutenants are in charge of stage-managing. This behavior is a well-kept secret. If leaked, the behavior of the leader is collectively rationalized away by the followers as the work of his enemies.

Early behavior problems with juvenile delinquency

As teenagers, sociopaths frequently have a history of behavioral problems and run-ins with juvenile authorities. They often get by academically, taking advantage of other students or even teachers. They often have a history or theft, arson, and cruelty to others.

Scapegoating

They rarely accept blame for their failures or mistakes. Scapegoating is common. The blaming may follow a ritualized procedure such as a trial, gestalt “hot seat denunciations”, or in the case of leftist cults, criticism and self-criticism.

Promiscuous sexual behavior and infidelity.

Multiple relationships and marriages, rape and sexual acting out are common. At the same time, they are stringent about the sexual behavior of followers, insisting on celibacy.

Erratic work history of fits and starts

The sociopathic cult leader tends to move around a lot, making countless efforts at starting over as they seek out fertile new ground to exploit. One day they may be a rock musician, the next a messiah; one day a door-to-door salesman the next the founder of a self-rejuvenation program.

A materialistic lifestyle

The leaders of cults often present their movement as opposed to the decadence, shallowness and preoccupation with commodities of the dominant order. But in practice, these leaders often justify having these same luxuries for themselves. The leaders of cults often have many cars, houses, boats, planes, properties while they thunder against their followers who have the least in the way of material comforts.

Criminal or entrepreneurial versatility

Cult leaders change their image and that of the group as needed to avoid prosecution and litigation. They resurface later with a new name and a new front group, as Werner Erhard has done.

AFTERMATH FOR CULT MEMBERS

People who manage to make their way out of cults are a mess and are badly in need of social support. Deprograming, exit counseling and strategic interaction approach are three ways to help ex-cult members get on their feet.  According to Lalich and Tobias, there are five areas that are badly in need of attention.

  • Practical, everyday living
  • Emotional volatility
  • Cognitive inefficiencies
  • Lack of social networks and being socio-culturally out of touch
  • Theoretical instability

Practical, everyday living

Shell-shocked ex-cult members have lost their sense of how to manage everyday life. For example, people have to find work, while having to explain large gaps in their employment history which could span five to ten years or more. The work they did under the banner of the cult cannot be used as a reference. This would involve making up fake organizations to cover up their involvement, while claiming the skills they learned in the cult. Emotionally, the last thing ex-cult members need is more deception. If they are lucky enough to find a job, they have to learn to manage their money and set up a budget. If the ex-cult member is older this may mean relearning old skills. In the case of a young cult member this may involve learning new skills from scratch.

Something as simple as finding an apartment to live in can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t done this in years. The rise in the cost of monthly rents over the last 15-20 years will come as a great shock. As mentioned earlier, cults typically do not provide medical and dental care. Since cult leaders rarely pay attention to such mundane things, the ex-cult member may badly need a physical check-up, blood tests and dental work at the same time they are trying to investigate a medical and dental plan while probably knowing nothing about how to proceed.  While cults often fetishize eating particular kinds of food (being vegetarian), the diet of cult members is often not well-balanced, especially during the later stages of cult work when the cult member is asked to work long hours. In addition, the times members eat is likely to be erratic because of the flurry of activity that is always going on. Lastly, matters of daily routines may be hard to set up as cults have their members constantly on the run and doing new things. DWP members were often asked to stop a project on a dime, and then throw themselves into a new one. Having a regular time and place to take walks, visit friends, and listen to music after dinner have to be established.

Emotional volatility

Ex-cult members may suffer from PTSD, insomnia, and frequent bouts of dissociation, including an inability to concentrate because of triggers or flashbacks. They are likely to feel depressed after a loss of group support and may feel a loss of self-confidence because their support systems are suddenly gone. There is real fear of cult retribution whether they have reason to be concerned or not. They also may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of taking legal action over child custody or conservatorship. It is no accident that members of cults lose their sense of humor. Humor tends to reveal the relativity of situations. It adds a comparative perspective that is dangerous in cults that want everyone to think in an absolute rather than a relative manor. Cults tend to be dead serious, and humor relieves that and gives members a break which is not to be encouraged.

Cognitive inefficiencies

While a great deal of critical thinking in relation to society is common among cult members when they first join, critical thinking is not rewarded or is tightly structured once inside the cult. Weighing the pros and cons of occupations, schools, choice of partner is not something that is practiced in cults. This results in ex-cult members being either indecisive when they get out or making rash decisions. Because they may have difficulty concentrating, they may not be able to think analytically about the causes or consequences of things. They may suffer from memory loss or they may have to overcome false memories they may have been propagandized to believe when inside the cult.

Often times, cults disrupt education and cult members are not likely to continue their education once inside the cult. Spiritual cults may tell the member they have a “natural way of knowing” which will not do much for them in searching for work or in being an active political person. A major challenge they must undertake is detoxifying their vocabulary from cult either-or thinking. As Orwell pointed out, if you control a person’s vocabulary you control their thinking. So, the ex-cult member needs to expand their vocabulary to re-introduce neutral language, use ambiguous terminology and to use metaphors. One of the major problems in cult thinking is taking everything literally.

Lack of social networks and being socio-culturally out of touch

One of the best things exit counseling or the strategic interaction approach can do is give ex-cult members an immediate support system, no questions asked. It is rare that an ex-cult member who has burned bridges with their families is going to have the welcome mat rolled out when they come knocking. It takes time to process hurt feelings, anger and confusion. These connections could take months to restore or even years, depending how long they have been away. The ex-cult member’s friends may have moved away, gotten married become sick and may be in no position to resume a relationship even if they wanted to.

Making new friends is extremely difficult. How do you account for being in a cult for eight years? Why would someone want to be friends with someone with such an intense background? Are ex-cult members dangerous people? In addition, ex-cult members have a mistrust of others as a result of being in a cult. They may be paranoid and afraid they are being watched by others, the “fishbowl effect”. Since cults usually blur boundaries between work and free time, friendship and sex, the ex-cult members are likely to have enmeshed boundaries when they try to make new friends.

Theoretical instability

Lastly, cults inspire people by claiming they are building a new world, and cult members have roles in that transformation. Compared to that, ex-cult members are likely to feel they have chosen an unenlightened, boring life. It is easy to understand why ex-cult members who have not had exit counseling might jump into a new cult.

Whether the ex-cult member has been involved in a spiritual, psychological or political cult, the ex-member needs to find a new grounding within that field. If a member has been in a spiritual cult of transcendental meditation does this mean they must give up Hindu or Buddhist religion completely? Can you practice these religions in a non-cult like way? If you have been in a psychological cult based on the work of social psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan, does that mean you no longer can study his work? Lastly if you have been in Leninist political cult, does that mean you have to renounce Lenin completely? Probably the answer to these questions depends on how badly you’ve been burned. The worse you’ve been burned the more extreme your reaction will be. If you haven’t been burned too badly, you might be able to be more dialectical and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

CONCLUSION

Cults arose in Yankeedom beginning in the 1970s and I’ve covered their continuance into the late 1990s under conditions of ecological, economic and political decline. Cults find their audience among educated, idealistic middle-class and upper-middle class people who are rightfully hypercritical of the existing order and who are attracted to a vision of a radical transformation based on greater equality, justice, peace and love. They do not know they are members of a cult until they are at least partially integrated into the organization and then they are caught between the world they once knew and the world they hope to create. They are initially lured into the organization through the implementation of sophisticated social-psychological techniques and they then become complicit in the cult’s reproduction of these techniques over time if they remain. If members leave, they face a great number of the psychological problems as I’ve described in the last section. Fortunately, there are now well-organized institutions that are specifically designed to help ex-cult members reintegrate back into the existing order.

  • First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism.
  • The post Political and Spiritual Cults: From Rapture to Complicity to Aftermath in the Shadow of 20th Century Yankeedom first appeared on Dissident Voice.

    Your Right to Your Opinion Ends with My Right to Might

    No ruling class could survive if it wasn’t attentive to its own interest consciously trying to anticipate control/ initiate events at home & abroad both overtly & secretly.

    The dirty truth is that many people find fascism to be not particularly horrible.

    Michael Parenti, 1 POLITICS AND ISSUES, Fascism In a Pinstriped Suit, p. 32 – Dirty truths (1996), first edition

    As a trauma-informed social worker (no, it’s not some buzzword or new age trend) who has worked in prisons, in closed homeless facilities, in memory care day programs, for teenager foster youth and adults living with developmental disabilities, as well as worked with veterans who are homeless (in a clean and sober facility) and with the basic human beings who find him or herself homeless in Portland on the streets in a tent, I understand the deep well of historical and familial baggage people have.

    I understand we can either “make it” through childhood traumas with a modicum of sobriety when it comes to self-esteem, self-care, self-enlightenment or we just are in a constant stage or healing and rehealing (that’s true for most people I know, and myself, as well).

    As I repeated many times to my daughter when she was growing up in El Paso and then Spokane (and she visited me in Seattle and Portland where I worked with the so-called down and out), when you see that toothless smile, the grime, the shaky hands holding up that sign, “Anything helps . . .  Please Help a Vietnam Veteran . . .  My Family Needs Money to Feed Themselves,” remember that that adult once was loved, coddled, and even cared for (even for a few moments in the hospital). That adult did not wake up one day in elementary school, when the teachers asked, “what do you want to be or do when you grow up?” and then responded: “I want to be addicted to pot and alcohol by age 12, meth by 17, heroin by 23 and then homeless at 25. I want to be put into the criminal justice system, have a long rap sheet, have my veins collapsed by age 36, my heart out of whack by age 40, constant headaches the rest of my life, shakes and delusions, and be carted off every month or two by an ambulance passed out with urine-soaked and shit-smeared pants.”

    I recommended to her to be smart, to protect herself, to know her surroundings, but to treat these people – even the ones in the street yelling at voices and demons with their pants half down or completely naked from the waist down – as people who once, maybe for a short span of time, were honored/loved as children, as  babies, as gifts of the world, with people galvanizing so much hope and future and potential into the thin vulnerable surface of a baby.

    Story after story, case after case, and you end up age 63, still writing, still teaching, still working in social services, and now, on the Oregon Coast, in an amazing ecosystem, but also held in a kind of captivity during this time of police killings, BLM protests, lockdowns, spiraling and spiraling numbers of people on the edge, with each new day producing another 500 people ready to be entered onto that statistical category – “One Pay Check Away from Eviction or Foreclosure” and “One Mental Health Crisis from Suicide.”

    If it were just that simple. Eviction, or foreclosure, well, not good on the old credit record, but if the person has safety nets, people they call friends and family and compatriots, then a soft-landing might be in store with an eviction or loss of a job or foreclosure or mental health crisis.

    Unfortunately, we have  a tendency to not want to admit failure after failure, our precarity after precarity and certainly we do not want to see that life in the USA is one thin ice episode after another. Fine one day, the next month bankrupt because of a cancer or chronic disease.  We want to have this thin gossamer of hope that tells us (deludes us) that there is a chance things will not only turn around, but that we will have learned from the hardships and will have benefitted from the all and that we will be better people after all those hardships and that we will not only survive but thrive after all those bad bad things happening to us.

    Somehow people believe there are agencies and people and armies of volunteers in the ready to help. That is the big lie of dog-eat-dog capitalism. Odd.

    George Lakoff used to harp on narrative framing, discussing why, say, a house painter or truck driver or warehouse forklift driver would even have any mental or logical reason to identify with someone like, say, George W. Bush. Yale, silver spoon, East Coast background, millions upon millions in the family coffer way before 1960, and now, in that era, just a regular kind of guy.

    Nope – I knew many military men and women who did not suck Southern Comfort, sniff coke, womanize/manize, do no-shows (AWOL) in their Guard unit, and alas, attack every American left of his right wing mentality.

    Really, I am not pulling this stuff out of thin air. I was a military dependent – Azores, Maryland, Albuquerque, Paris, France, Munich, Germany, Scotland, and then Arizona – who had a great life traveling throughout Europe and the UK and USA before I was 14. I knew hundreds upon hundreds of military men and women. War veterans (my old man, shot in Korea, shot in Vietnam, 31 years total Army and Air Force combined). I worked with a few World War I vets as a journalist in Arizona. Plenty of WWII vets, and of course, Vietnam vets.

    I taught college-level writing and literature classes to military on an Air Force fire-fighting line, on a military post, and in an NCO Academy. Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Washington.

    I ended up years later in Vietnam working as a journalist/biodiversity team member. I have met and been deeply connected with ex-military in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras.

    Radical teacher, writer, activists, social services guy, and here I was, in 2018, working with down and out veterans who not only face homelessness, but PTSD, disabilities, trauma after trauma. Hands down, most of the thousands of military I worked with, then, supported my journalism, my writing, my teacher, albeit many were taken aback at my history with the military and my own familial history – grandfather who flew tri-planes for the German Navy in WWI, German uncles and relatives who were on the Russian front, Scottish and English uncles and relatives who were in submarines, on ships and as grunts in WWII.

    Here’s an article I wrote for my column in Portland, for Street Roots, on that former Army medic, 75, pepper sprayed in Portland as a photographer. Story: Feds sprayed chemicals into the eyes of a retired ER nurse and veteran

    There was a nanosecond or two where I considered attending West Point, and having a few ins there, I might have had a chance to get accepted. I understand the military, and that it is a blunt instrument, and that General Smedley Butler, who not only wrote War is a Racket, but broke up a business-influenced military coup attempt against FDR.

    I’ve reported on cops as reporter on the so-called police beat for several daily newspapers. I have worked with Central American refugees, with prisoners and ex-prisoners, with seniors in a continuing education program, all with some sort of trauma and multiple traumas, including survivors of death squads in Guatemala, horrific injustices and rapes inside the wire, and a few Nazi death camp survivors.

    Hands down, the idea for me is expression, self expression, working through (mostly not to the end of it) multiple adverse childhood traumas, and then those trauma inflicted through into adulthood. Perfectly fine 17 year old high school heavyweight wrestling champ, goes into the Marines, and comes back to Spokane, my student, completely obliterated emotionally as a man.

    Battle of Fallujah, 18 years old, and three major areas of trauma – orders to flash lights twice, honk once, and if the person (civilian) is in the road, just mow over him or her. For my student, Jacob, that was a woman who looked like his grandmother, under the chassis of the Stryker vehicle, and as a private, he was ordered to “go find her fucking head and put it next to the body after we drag her worthless ass out from under the vehicle.” Imagine, taking a head, one that was just alive minutes before, to this headless body. A head that was more ways than one resembling his grandmother on his mom’s side, a Mexican granny.

    Next, the battle field, Fallujah, and house to house, step-by-step combat, and again, Jacob and his cohorts (thousands and thousands over the years) told to shoot anyone left standing, sitting squatting. “If they fucking lift their hands and wave a white flag, better for you to get a clear shot . . . no worries about an AK-47 or hidden grenade.”

    The last one of many traumas for Jacob happened on “Thanksgiving,” and he was on a mission to retrieve three dead buddies. They brought the cadavers back to base camp, and Jacob wanted to just crash in his cot – read, listen to music, sleep. “No way, soldier. This is Thanksgiving, and I want your ass in the mess pronto. We got President Bush coming in a live feed, and you will sit down and eat all this food shipped in and cooked by your fellow grunts.”

    Oh, that, and the fact Jacob was amped up on amphetamines fed to the soldiers for long-duration battles, and the steroids they administered (ordered to take) as part of the battlefield triage – enough anabolic steroids in the body will allow for healing, no more bruised muscles, no more fagging out because of torn ligaments, bruised bones, bone spurs (how ironic, with Orange Menace Cadet Bone Spurs laughing all the way to his deferments).

    And other some such stuff, like forced vaccinations and some odd duties in Afghanistan and UAE.

    You can take the boy/young man away from the Middle East, but you can’t take the Battle of Fallujah out of the man. That sort of thing. Stuck in a community college class, five years later, and Jacob was up shit creek – how to relate to students, to faculty, to the assignments. I was one of his healers. I even got him in on a conference in Seattle – a first, really – as an undergraduate student talking about trauma and social justice as it dealt with his military trauma and indoctrination. He met David Zirin, the head speaker of the event.

    Aho!

    In reality, after working so long and hard at all these avocations and these gig jobs and part-time appointments and non-permanent full-time assignments – while still writing, still reporting, still organizing – I have a few lifetimes under my belt when it comes to trauma, people, war, injustice and the will to live.

    In the end, though, the concept of expression and debate and 1st amendment principles goes North/South/East/West. No matter how much the idea of free speech is aspirational it certainly is not a reality in a society that forces people to be conscripted in K12, forces people to pee in a cup before employment (guilty/suspect first until proven innocent) and to undergo credit-real estate-background checks, to be hirable only after references are contacted and  work history verifiable. Think about how much free speech we have when we want to tell a cop he or she is part of a killer force. Try it, to their face. Try telling a DA or judge they are engaging in criminal injustice and arbitrary punishment. Try telling the supervisor that there is something wrong-dangerous-unethical about something in the company-corporation-factory. Try telling a governor that “to mask or not to mask” is not the way to tackle the pandemic, the SARS-CoV2, etc. and tens of millions out of work, near destitute.  Try going to work NOT wearing a mask. Try giving the thumbs down (or middle finger up) to a bunch of neo-Nazi’s or Proud Boys while the cops are protecting them. Free speech in universities? Come on, there are millions of incidents of faculty, students and others who were shunted away from any free speech or so-called academic freedom. Try telling the so-called progressive union you are working for the Jill Stein campaign when the union(s) endorsed Barack Obama in May before the election.

    Having my free speech taken away or questioned is a sort of trauma I relive over and over and over.

    We understand the censoring of free speech on social media. We understand the algorithms that wipe clean Google searches for many many topics. We know how we are just data fields for the masters of the universe, and that if we dare kick and scream or try and buck the system, we are then cobbled or kettled away from the so-called mainstream. Our money and land and minds will be seized. Free speech my ass.

    Try not standing for the National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance (I have not stood since age 13, with all sorts of hell to pay). I’ve had sodas thrown at me and hotdogs tossed at my back in college stadiums. I have been yelled at in high school events. I was screamed at as a wrestler when I stayed on the mat. I was pulled from wrestling matches when I stayed on the mat during the bloody National Anthem.

    No hat off during a star-spangled banner rendition. That gets people pissed off.

    As a follower of many revolutionaries and thinkers outside the box, I can certainly get tied up in some contradictory thinking, and, alas, it is highly probable that we all need to embrace oppositional ideas (not just black v. white, but many views and slants and POV’s) to understand our own narrative contexts and how the world really works. Of course, the concept of thinking outside the box is almost impossible in a supra-colonized society like the USA, an oligarchy, and a war and imperial nation tied to the notion of Capital Trumping All. Free speech may have a lot of grounding in what are community standards of what is acceptable speech and what the culture may or may not tolerate (my belief is close to the ACLU’s in terms of protect hate speech – for), but in this predatory and parasitic capitalism, the boss and the bank and the brigadier general the blue line trump all.

    Attempting to define one’s perspective outside the lines of corporate-financial-surveillence-taxation-penalizing-fining-tolling-penury constraints is more dangerous than yelling, All Black Lives Matter or ACAB – All Cops Are Bad/Bums/Bastards/Brutes/ETC.

    I have been told as a college adjunct to not force (what is that?) students to read the Fight Club and to see a few clips from the movie as a discussion point about male identity and Dystopian thinking.  The idea is to give students in a state college alternatives  if they have a PG13 rule at home and if they deem anything offensive, anti-American, profane, violent. Or anti-Christian.

    I have been told to not bring up so many political issues in my writing classes, that too many students are writing about climate change, GMOs, collapse of civilization, social justice/injustice, USA’s role in genocide, etc., etc. “Why don’t you just keep the reading list to things like The Shipping News or The House on Mango Street, if you want to deal with multiculturalism?”

    Yep, free speech gives many many Americans headaches. Fine. But, to have to deal with a neighbor’s adult son, age 41 and, and a friend of his in his 30s, on a Saturday night while I am watching a film at 10:40 pm stripes away the very definition of not just what free speech denotates, but what trespassing and home invasion does to shunt free speech, or expression (as in putting up a sign on our property).

    Here I am, in a small house, with a glass screen to shunt the Pacific winds, leading up to a two-step stoop to the front door. On the window, about six feet up, the above sign — around 12 by 18 inches. Notice it is an American flag as the background. Notice it is something many of you have seen, I am sure, posted in your own neighborhood. Not my pro-Antifa sign, my upside down American flag sign, or other such radical things. Simple and easy for a semi-liberal to understand.

    So, two strapping fellows yank it off while the movie sound is not that high. Thinking there is some other noise-producing thing going on outside, like a raccoon in the garden or a cat on the car roof, I open the door and the sign is ripped down and the two lurking men are dashing away, less than 20 yards across the street, with the sign. I yell at them, sort of flabbergasted that they didn’t just drop the sign when I called them “you pieces of shit … what did you do?” Then, the one gentleman yells – “Call the fucking cops then . . . . hahaha.”

    We are talking almost 11 pm, and my spouse was sleeping, and, well, I went outside, with the lights on, and had a flashlight, but the two bums slinked in this guy’s retired parents’ big ass two story home with all the lights off. I was willing to talk, really, as in mediate – “You two fucked up, so now return the sign.”

    You see, in America, Free Speech is trumped by the Second Amendment. What do you do knocking on a door at 11 pm when the house has no lights on? In a real world, well, you knock on the door. In America, you know that a 9mm or shotgun could very easily greet you at the door, or just go through the door.

    Trauma. Now, two stupid men with nothing else to do but to take this property down and steal it can’t fathom the world as it really is. Sure, they were probably drunk, inebriated. That’s what a lot of white guys, young and old, do down on the coast. Saturday night. A big moon. No wind. Drunk.

    But again, the trauma that my wife had at age 21 really plays into this scenario. I would have had no problem on my own knocking on the door. I know I would have pointed my car’s headlights over at the doorway so there would be proof they could see me. I would have asked for the sign back. I would have stepped back off their stoop because in America, a man’s stoop is his castle.

    You see, coming onto our fenced property (small yard) and then physically ripping down a sign is both invasion and theft. I heard the ripping sound twice, 20 minutes apart, and alas, so, it took them two attempts to pull OUR sign down, and that is also a form of stalking.

    What about the trauma of people shits like this are triggering? What about the lack of values stealing a sign? I have told many a person that the Reagan hat or Bush hat or Clinton hat or Trump hat were insults to my intelligence. However, I said it calmly, and I knew they had a right to the stupid hats on their heads. Same with yard signs –Blue Lives Matter (bizarre and racist). If the gal or guy is out watering their weeds, I have told them that the sign is illogical and out of place. And then, if there is a discussion, great. If there is a “fuck you . . . fuck off” (which is usually the case), then I laugh and walk off, keeping an eye out for my back because the United Snakes of America has a history of back-shooting Native Americans, Blacks, Asians, Latinx, poor white people, women, Middle Eastern-looking humans.

    A country imbued in “might makes right” will indeed incubate all manner of idiots, whether that be a college provost or president, or some Joe the Plumber making more than the college president putting in toilets and unclogging sewer lines.

    So, the Lincoln County sheriff deputy is called Sunday morning. He takes down information. He makes a notation of the trauma this incident inflicted on my wife. We talk more before he goes over to the offenders’ house. It turns out the deputy had 14 years in US Army, and the last 5 years he was in the Seattle area working on a special task force and investigative unit on sexual crimes (rape) in the military.

    He understands fear, trauma, and what some people might sense as an invasion of their home, their sense of safety and future engagement with these nutty neighbors. That’s how my spouse feels. And the deputy gets the “man thing,” that I am still not afraid of authority, or mock authority, or big man rules the roost authority. He knows I would be out there talking to them now, but the trauma on my spouse trumps all.

    This family is an across-the-street neighbor.

    So, now, ugly No Trespassing signs I’ve put up on the chain-link fence. I had to purchase and install an extra light for the front porch. That sort of crap. The deputy suggested a no stalking order requested by my spouse from a judge. In the end, the conversation with the dipshits across the way was not cooperative, the deputy said. The tall guy, one of the perps, said, “I have nothing to say.” The father hemmed and hawed, but they never admitted to it. The deputy said he told them in no uncertain terms there was no reason for any of them to be in our yard, let alone messing with our property, the sign.

    While the deputy was cooperative with us and empathetic (I told him about my military experiences, my dad’s and such), the bottom line was that I did not have photographic or closed-circuit evidence, and alas, that’s the new normal. “I can’t make him cooperate, but I made it clear that there should be no trespassing onto your property.”

    This is America – small town or big town. Some of the other neighbors talked to me about “the sheriff’s vehicle in your driveway . . . what’s up.” And, here in the USA, sometimes the information spigot is forceful – lots of information about the California son who did the rip-off with his male friend. “He has been there for two months and he just stays inside and drinks all day.” You know, trauma after trauma/after addiction after addiction. Another neighbor said the other son, this guy’s 39-year-old brother, well, they both look alike, and that guy has “been on and off the wagon for a year.”

    Then, itchy fingers, and my spouse finds the old parents on line, on Facebook, and then one of the son’s as well, with amazingly hateful posts – “With all these logging trucks, they should go to Portland and just run over those scumbag protestors.” And then tons of likes and hearts on that post.

    I am grounded, and always have been. Capitalism under the USA, NATO, most of Europe and Canada, well, these societies are war societies and war organizations with continuing criminal enterprises called banks. No matter how hard a small minority of folk tries to shed the war complex and the MIC, no matter how hard they attempt to be anti-war, anti-racist, anti-corporatist, the majority in this country (Not just MAGA) are flag wavers, believers in exceptionalism for the white race/culture and in this country, believers in the adage “the man/woman with the most things/money/power when they die are the best people on earth (or wins)”.

    Know your enemy and know your debater. Know how people frame things, and know motivations, and understand/study the epigenetics of their lives, what agnotology is, and why someone like Gore Vidal might write a book titled, The United States of Amnesia.

    I go to Christian Parenti for some framing and dicing of the system that is the world’s most horrific and terroristic —

    Here, some riffs on free speech (does it really exist in the USA?) by the ACLU!

    Finally, in 1969, in Brandenberg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court struck down the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member, and established a new standard: Speech can be suppressed only if it is intended, and likely to produce, “imminent lawless action.” Otherwise, even speech that advocates violence is protected. The Brandenberg standard prevails today.

    First Amendment protection is not limited to “pure speech” — books, newspapers, leaflets, and rallies. It also protects “symbolic speech” — nonverbal expression whose purpose is to communicate ideas. In its 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court recognized the right of public school students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. In 1989 (Texas v. Johnson) and again in 1990 (U.S. v. Eichman), the Court struck down government bans on “flag desecration.” Other examples of protected symbolic speech include works of art, T-shirt slogans, political buttons, music lyrics and theatrical performances.

    In 1971, the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” by the New York Times brought the conflicting claims of free speech and national security to a head. The Pentagon Papers, a voluminous secret history and analysis of the country’s involvement in Vietnam, was leaked to the press. When the Times ignored the government’s demand that it cease publication, the stage was set for a Supreme Court decision. In the landmark U.S. v. New York Times case, the Court ruled that the government could not, through “prior restraint,” block publication of any material unless it could prove that it would “surely” result in “direct, immediate, and irreparable” harm to the nation. This the government failed to prove, and the public was given access to vital information about an issue of enormous importance.

    It took nearly 200 years to establish firm constitutional limits on the government’s power to punish “seditious” and “subversive” speech. Many people suffered along the way, such as labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Espionage Act just for telling a rally of peaceful workers to realize they were “fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.” Or Sidney Street, jailed in 1969 for burning an American flag on a Harlem street corner to protest the shooting of civil rights figure James Meredith.

    This is a propaganda poster of a Native American man claiming that 100 million of his people were slaughtered on their homeland by European colonizers. This picture reminds us that the Native Americans were almost completely killed off on their own land. I chose this pin because the same thing is happening to my people in Palestine and Gaza right now. It is important for us to remember events like this so that we do not make the same mistake again.

    The post Your Right to Your Opinion Ends with My Right to Might first appeared on Dissident Voice.

    Do Americans Dream of Capitalist Sheep?

    It’s capitalism after all.  Those political parties for the rich and powerful know how to sell exploitation and subjugation by their good cop/bad cop marketing. If you don’t buy this, you get Trump.  But if you buy what they sell, you get Biden, an imperialist with the crime bill, Patriot Act, and the rest of the schemes for the rich and powerful.   W.E.B DuBois talked about this in 1956 saying, “I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.” I don’t think there was real democracy founded by slave owners, but you get the idea.  Since then, people have kept voting for over a half century.  Now three people own the bottom half of the wealth of the US.  The feudal hierarchy is backed by 800 military bases across the globe with piles of weapons of mass destruction.  In the US, people have no healthcare, education is gutted, no legal rights, 1 out of 5 children are starving and so on.  The system works tremendously well to keep the feudal hierarchy.

    Just like any moneyed social institution, the political institution is structured to serve the rich and powerful.  This is just like how colonialism works.  The colonizers come to steal land and resources, and they dominate every aspects of your life.  If you follow the rules shaping the hierarchy, you get to live in reservations as second class citizens.  If you complain, they manage to declare “love it or leave it”  If you complain more you could end up in prison or even be killed.  Why is Leonard Peltier still in prison when George Zimmerman walks free?  The essence of exploitation and subjugation is rooted in the origin of the whole enterprise, and it keeps going. Fear of murder, rape, theft and torture lurk beneath the filmsy lable of “democracy”.

    Those who benefit from this, as well as those who are afraid of exclusion and unsavory name calling desperately scream “you must vote”, “a vote for third parties is a vote for Trump”, “don’t be stupid”, “don’t be selfish” and so on.  Those words come out of people who screamed “black lives matter” yesterday, asking you to vote for the father of the crime bill.  Last year his running mate Kamala Harris managed to say that the Colin Kaepernick phenomenon was orchestrated by Russians.  I guess if they have to bomb countries full of brown people, it’s not very good to get rid of racism.  She knows her role in the empire very well.

    By the way, they also claim that their political opponent, Trump, was placed in his position by Russians.  People should remember that the Democratic Party supported Trump as a pied piper candidate—meaning that he was so ridiculous that people would rather vote for their candidate Hilary Clinton.  But the manipulation went a little too far, enough so that Trump actually became the president.  I mean, Donald Trump, the loud-mouthed reality TV star with gilded gaudiness and shadiness actually became the President.  This has triggered the privileged class status quo tremendously.  They want their ways of colonizing, militarizing and corporatizing with class and righteousness, the way President Obama delivered it.  They want an agonized Black man doing his best, yet resulting in seven wars, big bank bailout, deportation, surveillance state, loss of legal rights, militarized police, drone killing and so on, instead of the embodiment of a loony Uncle Sam with lies, racism and violence asserting what the US government has always pursued.  Trump is the exact caricature of what the people of the world see: the US as the biggest bully with no taste. He is like fourth of July fireworks insisting on what the empire is entitled to.  “That’s not my president” people scream. Of course he is not.  That would trigger a huge cognitive dissonance. Their identity as freedom loving Americans of democracy falls apart. It’s this psychological projection mobilizing the sentiment of “resistance”.

    Therefore, Trump turned out to be a godsend for the Democratic Party. He justifies the corrupt corporate political party of war, big bank bailout and neoliberal restructuring. I mean, as it’s already stated, the Party is an integral part of the American political institution which serves the rich and powerful along with their counterpart the Republican Party.  The Democratic Party doesn’t have legs to stand on without evil Trump.

    That makes Joe Biden a pied piper candidate.  Why him?  I don’t endorse any imperial politics party candidate, but Sanders, for instance, proved himself to be able to beat Trump in 2016. Why not him? After all, the Democratic Party clearly stated that it is a private entity and it can pick anyone regardless of Primary or whatever. Biden is a hardened imperialist with a solid record of colonizing, militarizing and corporatizing.  And he is more widely known as a creepy old man who can’t keep his hands off of females, any female, especially very young ones. He has also shown some symptoms of going senile as well. Why him?  He is a pied piper candidate to keep the Democratic Party playing the role of savior against evil Trump.  You get two pied piper candidates.  This is what happens when capitalists continue to narrow political options in order to give the illusion of choice. The lies are so inflated that there is practically nothing left that can be reasonable.  And it doesn’t matter how the dice roles as long as everything stays within the imperial framework.  In fact, the more ridiculous, the more infuriating, and the more sensational, the better.  It can create the illusion of a “democracy” more vibrant and lively. But there are tremendous sacrifices.

    Now people would ask “so what is your solution?”  I know that the question is rhetorical.  How can people who have willfully ignored everything being said about the insanity of supporting the imperial trajectory listen?   For those who turned into soldiers to keep their positions within the system, logic and reason become enemies in winning against anything that threatens their positions. This is, and has been, a war against people.  This is how the system of “democracy” deprives humanity from people and herds them into what they despise: fascism.  And my answer unfortunately is:  I don’t know.  I do respect and admire revolutionaries who have stood against the establishment.  When Fred Hampton was murdered by the US government, he was only 21.  His Black Panther Party with socialist principles inspired people across the country.  Patrice Lumumba stood for his people and showed the world beauty and strength of humanity.

    We should all learn from experiences of revolutionaries and history of resistance against the capitalist domination, and see ourselves and our communities in such contexts.  And I do empathize with those who struggle with tremendous predicaments imposed by the oppressors.  But after all, I am merely an artist getting stuck in my studio, covered with paint and dust.  But I know one thing.  Years of working as an artist have taught me that a seemingly impossible problem can only be solved by a struggle, with honesty and patience.  What hurts me the most about participating in the corporate politics is that it kills our ability to reason and trust, therefore it deprives our ability to relate to others in truly meaningful ways.  It stands to reason that the dehumanizing symptom of capitalism—deprivation of our association to ourselves, communities, nature, and our future and our history—is most prominent in ways we determine our path as a collective.  It deprives our ability to dream together based on reality and our needs—dream about our future, dream about our children and dream about all the wonderful things in life.  And it brings tears to my eyes with sadness.  But I am certain that I am not alone.  I am speaking to you who are like me.  We are many.  And there will be more of us.

    The Confessions and Polemics of Esmeralda “The Red” Chang

    On American Democracy

    In American political discourse we frequently hear the term “our democracy.” For example, the Russiagaters are fond of this term. The term grates. The sound of the utterance “our democracy” is not as bad as the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard, but it’s reminiscent.

    It’s been said that a great advantage of democracy is that there will be no wars under it. Since the people have no desire for war they will not vote for it. The people do not have the motive the dictator or king or queen has to start war for self enrichment. But the United States has started more wars than any other country. What is to account for this? Is the United States really not a democracy, or are the people more warlike than has previously been thought?

    Twenty years ago I predicted a presidential race between Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg. How can that be you ask, since twenty years ago it was unimaginable that either of these men would be a presidential candidate. I predicted it metaphorically. I said that lesser-of-two-evils voting would someday lead to its advocates saying, “You better vote for Mussolini or else Hitler is going to win.”  Lesser-of-two-evils voting allows the Democratic Party to move to the right. And the Democratic Party’s move to the right allows the Republican Party to move even further to the right. Had the fearful leftists formed a strong third party twenty years ago we would not be in the predicament we are today.

    Some leftists, the cynical faction of the left-wing movement, have a different description of lesser-of-two-evils voting. They make the radical claim that lesser-of-two-evils voting is actually a corporatist strategy for maintaining power. They start with the premise that lesser-of-two-evils voting allows both parties to move to the right.  Then they conclude that this allows the Democratic Party to simultaneously: (1) counter its constituents’ interests and, (2) garner its constituents’ support in a way that supports corporatist interests. Here’s the evidence.

    Joseph Biden won the most elections in the 2020 presidential primary election. In every, or almost every, state the exit polls showed a majority of the voters favored the creation of the single-payer health care system advocated by Biden’s opponent, Bernie Sanders. But Biden had openly and honestly stated that he opposed a single-payer system. And yet the voters who supported Sanders’ policy voted for Biden because they thought that Biden would have the best chance of defeating President Trump in the general election. So by instilling fear of the greater evil, the ruling corporate elites are able to scare the people into voting for the other candidate committed to preserving corporate power. In the end the corporatists are guaranteed the health industry stays in the hand of private insurance companies against the wishes of the majority of the voters.

    Can such a cynical theory be correct? The answer to this question is beyond the expertise of a retired engineer, not to mention the fact that with the shelter-in-place order all the libraries around here are closed. Plus the big research library in this area is across the bay, and I can never find a place to park in Berkeley. And BART doesn’t run to Marin County. Perhaps answering this question is a job for a Marxist intellectual. I’m not gonna fool with it. I’m just telling you what I heard.

    I say that the party that fails to advocate for ranked-choice voting has forfeited its right to complain about a third party being a spoiler. But some will object. The cynics on the left will say that, with my use of the word “forfeited,” the claim is too strong. The cynics will say that the Democratic Party, for example, doesn’t forfeit anything but rather depends on spoiler campaigns. The spoilers are fodder for the blamers. Another American characteristic shared by both Democrats and Republicans is failing to take responsibility for their own actions by blaming others. And so the left-wing cynic says that the Democrats need the Green Party, Russia, and whatever else to blame for its losses.

    On American Capitalism

    How can there be self-rule in a country whose economy is based on consumer capitalism? Since the people are brainwashed by advertising to buy so many products of questionable value, how do they engage in critical thinking in the political realm? Does the consumer who in the afternoon impulsively buys products as she checks out of the supermarket, then engage in critical thinking when watching the news in the evening?  Or in a presidential campaign do people suddenly and radically switch into critical thinking mode?  Or did Michael Bloomberg’s rise in the polls show that even in the political realm a candidate is just another commodity to sell?

    You don’t need a Marxist intellectual to tell which way the wind blows.  The oligarchic nature of the United States and the dominance of the capitalist elites is so transparent that anyone with an open mind can see it.

    I assert that under the American capitalist system the shortages we see in medical equipment as a result of the devastating impact of the coronavirus could not have been prevented. There are times in which it is useful to turn to the sophisticated and insightful analyses of left-wing thinkers and philosophers. This is not one of them. To defend the present thesis the only political theory I need refer to is that of the free-market advocates themselves. It is much simpler. You don’t need a Marxist intellectual to tell which way the wind blows. Under free market theory all that’s needed to sustain society is a free market. As a member of the far left, I refer to this as “the dictatorship of the market.” But the dictatorship of the market cannot provide for unexpected needs of the people. If there is no pandemic, there is no market demand for ventilators. The market demand for ventilators can only arise when there is already a preexisting epidemic or pandemic. The problem from a human needs perspective is that people will have to die before the market demand kicks in. Let us consider a hypothetical.

    Imagine a publicly traded corporation, Good Samaritan Medical Supply, Inc. The company leadership has read the numerous predictions of a pandemic over the years and is aware of the 2018 report from Johns Hopkins University warning that the country needs more ventilators. So the leadership invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in the production of ventilators. The board of directors is now subject to a shareholders’ derivative suit for wasting corporate assets. The shareholders can claim that the hundreds of thousands of dollars should have been returned as dividends or invested in production meeting present market demand. Capitalism cannot provide all the needs of the people.

    On American Political Culture

    Obama and Trump killed American liberalism. Obama took the liberals out of the antiwar movement, and out of the civil liberties movement in so far as surveillance and privacy issues are concerned. Not noticing how Jeb Bush and Mario Rubio, by engaging in irrelevant (Bush) or debased (Rubio) political discourse, abandoned their standards and good sense when attacked by Trump, the liberals followed suit. In high dudgeon they lowered their standards, or otherwise demonstrated they had none. Opposing the Evil One as best as they apparently could, these liberals became the self-righteous, narrow minded, neo-red baiting, group-think conformists that in the 1950s and 60s they used to look down their noses at the conservatives for being. If this seems implausibly harsh to you, the proof is on the Daily Kos website. Additional proof is found in most liberal discourse about Russiagate.

    For the conservative, the liberals should not exist. That’s because the liberal represents a vile and sacrilegious threat to the values that the conservative holds sacred. Liberals look down on conservatives who they see as know nothings. But the liberal thinks conservatives should at least exist. That’s because the liberals believe in pluralism and so the conservative has a role to play in the liberal universe. That is, the  conservative’s existence helps to justify liberal theories of pluralism and diversity.

    In America, the relation between the conservative and the liberal can be explained by reference to the Daoist concept of the unity of opposites. The famous circular symbol of the Dao represents this. The intertwining black and white figures can be seen to represent liberals and conservatives respectively. I used to think that American liberals and American conservatives were totally different beings. I used to think that the mainstream conservatives were uneducated, prejudiced, anti-intellectual folks who saw the world in black and white categories.  They could not make logical distinctions, and adhered to ideological dogmatism. They were rigid thinkers who used ideology to quickly put people and events into a box. As a member of the far left, I saw liberals as ideological allies. I saw them as rational, open-minded, tolerant, but in some ways unaware. But the rise of Trump and Russiagate has liberals imitating the worst tendencies of the conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s. Along with other sources,  the proof can be found on the Daily Kos website. In America, liberals and conservatives are a unity of opposites. While there are differences between them, they are bound together into a unity by the most American of qualities: narrow mindedness, a lack of fairness and objectivity, and adherence to dogmatism. I believe these qualities descend from American Puritanism. Consider the following.

    Some Republicans want to expel Mitt Romney from the party because of his vote to remove President Trump from office. But many Democrats cannot tolerate Tulsi Gabbard’s vote of “present” on the question of whether President Trump should be impeached. In both cases the problem is that the heretic has failed to tow the party line. In America independent thinking and adherence to conscience are not respected. Here’s another example.

    Many Democrats and media people attack Bernie Sanders because he dares to acknowledge that Fidel Castro adopted programs to spread literacy in Cuba. Sanders’ crime is the failure to rigidly adhere to ideological dogma. In America people do not make critical distinctions. And this is not a rare example. Such dogmatism was continually demonstrated by liberals during Russiagate. Americans may be nice, but don’t bet on them surviving the competition in the global economy. They lack the sagacity necessary for national survival.

    I was born in 1947. Being acculturated as an American, I had no desire to hang out with old people. It’s different in Latin cultures, especially in Brazil. A twenty-year-old Brazilian will engage an old person as a social equal. I am now an old person. This allows me to look back to the past and learn from experience; to gain  perspective. For example, I have been both a young person and an old person. And with that perspective I now see what a problem is with old people. It’s summed up by the well-known expression “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Many old people are handicapped by their past experiences and beliefs. And in America this includes the anti-communist, anti-Russian propaganda that was drummed into people during the Cold War. It is easy to sway the people in countries whose economies are based on consumer capitalism. Turning the people against Russia is just selling another product. It’s very difficult for old people to overcome this propaganda, this experience. This difficulty prevents the United States from adapting to changed conditions. Evolutionary theory tells us that the inability to adapt has fatal consequences.

    The problem with the advocates of Russiagate is not that all of their claims are wrong. It’s that they show such bad taste. They lack perspective. They’re handicapped by their past.

    When I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s many students attempted to expand their consciousness by taking marijuana and psychedelic drugs such as LSD and mescaline. I thought that was unhealthy. As an engineering major I attempted to expand my consciousness by hanging out with anthropology, comparative literature, and Chinese studies majors because they seemed to be the most open-minded and to have great perspective. Everyone read Dostoevsky back then, and a few of us read Nietzsche. Even fewer read Zhuangzi. For many years I felt that reading these authors made me a strong person. What difficult social situation can you not face after reading Dostoevsky? And so it was that, while I looked upon them with compassion, I felt superior to those I believed were weaker because they turned to drugs or religion for an escape. Some of those who I thought were weaker became mentally ill as a result of the stress they felt in our society and economy. But in the last few years I’ve lost a little of my confidence. When looking at America and some of its problems I do not always think in a hard logical manner for solutions. I now find myself occasionally laughing at America and its problems, and more as time goes on. Is this evidence of a mental illness?

    In third place behind the threats posed by global warming and nuclear war, the greatest threat to the United States is the Internet. Before the Internet the United States had more prestige than it does today. The oceans separating the country from most other countries kept much of the world from getting an intimate look at American culture. From a distance the United States is much more impressive. It put a man on the moon, it invented the Internet, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Ice Cream, the light bulb, and much much more. Not only could the Americans be seen as the leaders in science and technology, they used to be seen as hip. American culture gave rise to rock’n roll and hip hop. But the Internet has changed all that. Now people in other countries can get so close to the United States with their Internet browsers that they can see the warts: the inequality in wealth, the crumbling infrastructure, the U.S.’s relative ranking in terms of freedom of the press, civil liberties, child mortality, availability of health care and on and on. These warts are, metaphorically speaking, co-extensive with the warts found on the feral hog. Foreigners do not understand the Electoral College. It’s not clear to foreigners how the United States is classified as a democracy. Thanks to the Internet the country can be seen as backward and barbarian. To Make America Great Again it is necessary to censor or firewall the Internet. Take that as a prediction.

    On American Militarism and Imperialism

    Militarism is pervasive in American society. It invades almost all areas of the culture. The anchors on both Fox News and CNN engage in the religiously obsessive ritual of thanking every veteran who appears on their show for “your service.” Every professional sport I know of promotes militarism. In NBA basketball games, there are standing ovations for the serviceman who surprises his family by entering the arena when he is thought to be overseas. The major league baseball players wear camouflage uniforms for certain holidays, and if it wasn’t enough to start every game with the national anthem sometimes “America the Beautiful” is played during the seventh-inning stretch. The NFL gives the appearance of being an arm of the Pentagon. And the military seems to have recruiting advertisements on every televised college game. When I was a young girl these types of customs were associated with America’s enemies. But times have changed. This is not the country I grew up in.

    When the Americans talk of protecting freedom in a particular foreign country, you better run. A lot of people are going to get killed. When I was a young girl growing up in Bakersfield, the term “commander-in-chief” was not part of American political discourse. No one said, “Vote for Dwight Eisenhower for president because he’d make a better commander-in-chief than Adlai Stevenson.” And no one said, “Vote  for John F. Kennedy because he would make a better commander-in-chief than Richard Nixon.” The use of the term in contemporary American political discourse is a reflection that America has become quite a militaristic nation. After World War II the Americans saw themselves has having defeated the militarism of the Japanese and the Germans. But those days are long gone. This is not the country I grew up in.

    Some historians claim that the citizens of an empire do not see that empire’s fall until many years after the fall begins. We frequently hear that the United States is a superpower. Paul Craig Roberts once asked, “How can the world’s largest debtor be a superpower?” My question is: how can a superpower lead the world in the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic?

    So far I have only seen a few of foreign press accounts of the United States’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. To use a dated American expression, it seems to me that these articles take an almost “uppity” tone with regard to the superpower. Spiegel International has a particularly interesting article. We read comments like this: “Europe’s social welfare states are proving to be better prepared for keeping economies afloat in the shutdown, with measures like Germany’s short-time work furlough program and government-backed loans for companies.” And this: “Some economic scientists expect the coronavirus recession to be deeper in the U.S. than in many other industrialized  countries.” It is not surprising then at the end of the article there is speculation that the economic consequences of the pandemic might be a shift in global power relations in favor of China. These European social welfare states that are claimed to be doing a better job are what the Fox News folks would call “socialist.” And depending on which of these European states are referred to even AOC and Bernie Sanders would say they are “socialist.” So if the various claims and speculations to be found in Speigel are true, it may be that the capitalist elites in the United States could have done a better job ensuring a longer dominance of American imperialism and super power status had they adopted a more humane, liberal, or “socialist” economic system. But then again, Americans do not do strategy.

    Another of the interesting terms bandied about in America is “leader of the free world.” Borrowing a Daoist method of linguistic analysis, we can say that leader implies follower. So, if I may be so bold as to ask, if America is the leader, who are the followers? And once someone has identified these followers, I would ask: Do these followers have a say in whether they are followers? If so, do these followers have a say in who their leader is?

    In his introduction to one of the editions of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Thomas Cleary stresses the importance of understanding that the book is a Daoist work. Philosophical Daoism, especially as found in the Zhuangzi, is an empirical philosophy. In the Zhuangzi we read of lessons learned from the observations of nature including storms, tigers, monkeys, and people. As for Sun Tzu, do not be misled by this: “As to government expenditures, those due to broken-down chariots, worn-out horses, armour and helmets, arrows and crossbows, lances, hand and bodyshields, draft animals and supply wagons will amount to sixty per cent of the total.” If you are, you may miss the many statements like this: “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”

    Sun Tzu stressed the importance of knowing oneself and one’s enemy. Many years ago my former partner and I had a 1986 Volvo station wagon. After a while, the car radio broke and was stuck on one station. It was the local station that broadcast the Rush Limbaugh show. So for three years I listened to Rush Limbaugh while driving. I know my enemy.

    How odd. The Daoist classics were written centuries before the creation of the United States. And yet the Daoist classics clearly foretell the collapse of the United States.

    On American Weather

    The indigenous peoples of California knew what they were doing. In the summer when it was hot in the valley and foothills, they’d move up to live in the mountains. When winter approached they’d move back to the lowlands. That is a good idea.

    My aunt once told me that the early residents of Sacramento did something similar. They built two-story houses. In the winter they moved up to the second story to avoid the floods. In the summer they moved back down to the first story where it was cooler. Sacramento has way more trees than most cities. Sacramento’s trees are like the forests the indigenous peoples escaped to in order to avoid the heat. My aunt was not an historian, but that’s what she told me.

    I once met a man from Boston who said that San Diego had the best weather of any city. I met a man from Vallejo who said that Vallejo had the best weather of any city in California. The man from Vallejo was right.

    Okay, compañeros, un gran beso de Sausalito. Hasta la próxima.

    The Confessions and Polemics of Esmeralda “The Red” Chang

    On American Democracy

    In American political discourse we frequently hear the term “our democracy.” For example, the Russiagaters are fond of this term. The term grates. The sound of the utterance “our democracy” is not as bad as the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard, but it’s reminiscent.

    It’s been said that a great advantage of democracy is that there will be no wars under it. Since the people have no desire for war they will not vote for it. The people do not have the motive the dictator or king or queen has to start war for self enrichment. But the United States has started more wars than any other country. What is to account for this? Is the United States really not a democracy, or are the people more warlike than has previously been thought?

    Twenty years ago I predicted a presidential race between Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg. How can that be you ask, since twenty years ago it was unimaginable that either of these men would be a presidential candidate. I predicted it metaphorically. I said that lesser-of-two-evils voting would someday lead to its advocates saying, “You better vote for Mussolini or else Hitler is going to win.”  Lesser-of-two-evils voting allows the Democratic Party to move to the right. And the Democratic Party’s move to the right allows the Republican Party to move even further to the right. Had the fearful leftists formed a strong third party twenty years ago we would not be in the predicament we are today.

    Some leftists, the cynical faction of the left-wing movement, have a different description of lesser-of-two-evils voting. They make the radical claim that lesser-of-two-evils voting is actually a corporatist strategy for maintaining power. They start with the premise that lesser-of-two-evils voting allows both parties to move to the right.  Then they conclude that this allows the Democratic Party to simultaneously: (1) counter its constituents’ interests and, (2) garner its constituents’ support in a way that supports corporatist interests. Here’s the evidence.

    Joseph Biden won the most elections in the 2020 presidential primary election. In every, or almost every, state the exit polls showed a majority of the voters favored the creation of the single-payer health care system advocated by Biden’s opponent, Bernie Sanders. But Biden had openly and honestly stated that he opposed a single-payer system. And yet the voters who supported Sanders’ policy voted for Biden because they thought that Biden would have the best chance of defeating President Trump in the general election. So by instilling fear of the greater evil, the ruling corporate elites are able to scare the people into voting for the other candidate committed to preserving corporate power. In the end the corporatists are guaranteed the health industry stays in the hand of private insurance companies against the wishes of the majority of the voters.

    Can such a cynical theory be correct? The answer to this question is beyond the expertise of a retired engineer, not to mention the fact that with the shelter-in-place order all the libraries around here are closed. Plus the big research library in this area is across the bay, and I can never find a place to park in Berkeley. And BART doesn’t run to Marin County. Perhaps answering this question is a job for a Marxist intellectual. I’m not gonna fool with it. I’m just telling you what I heard.

    I say that the party that fails to advocate for ranked-choice voting has forfeited its right to complain about a third party being a spoiler. But some will object. The cynics on the left will say that, with my use of the word “forfeited,” the claim is too strong. The cynics will say that the Democratic Party, for example, doesn’t forfeit anything but rather depends on spoiler campaigns. The spoilers are fodder for the blamers. Another American characteristic shared by both Democrats and Republicans is failing to take responsibility for their own actions by blaming others. And so the left-wing cynic says that the Democrats need the Green Party, Russia, and whatever else to blame for its losses.

    On American Capitalism

    How can there be self-rule in a country whose economy is based on consumer capitalism? Since the people are brainwashed by advertising to buy so many products of questionable value, how do they engage in critical thinking in the political realm? Does the consumer who in the afternoon impulsively buys products as she checks out of the supermarket, then engage in critical thinking when watching the news in the evening?  Or in a presidential campaign do people suddenly and radically switch into critical thinking mode?  Or did Michael Bloomberg’s rise in the polls show that even in the political realm a candidate is just another commodity to sell?

    You don’t need a Marxist intellectual to tell which way the wind blows.  The oligarchic nature of the United States and the dominance of the capitalist elites is so transparent that anyone with an open mind can see it.

    I assert that under the American capitalist system the shortages we see in medical equipment as a result of the devastating impact of the coronavirus could not have been prevented. There are times in which it is useful to turn to the sophisticated and insightful analyses of left-wing thinkers and philosophers. This is not one of them. To defend the present thesis the only political theory I need refer to is that of the free-market advocates themselves. It is much simpler. You don’t need a Marxist intellectual to tell which way the wind blows. Under free market theory all that’s needed to sustain society is a free market. As a member of the far left, I refer to this as “the dictatorship of the market.” But the dictatorship of the market cannot provide for unexpected needs of the people. If there is no pandemic, there is no market demand for ventilators. The market demand for ventilators can only arise when there is already a preexisting epidemic or pandemic. The problem from a human needs perspective is that people will have to die before the market demand kicks in. Let us consider a hypothetical.

    Imagine a publicly traded corporation, Good Samaritan Medical Supply, Inc. The company leadership has read the numerous predictions of a pandemic over the years and is aware of the 2018 report from Johns Hopkins University warning that the country needs more ventilators. So the leadership invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in the production of ventilators. The board of directors is now subject to a shareholders’ derivative suit for wasting corporate assets. The shareholders can claim that the hundreds of thousands of dollars should have been returned as dividends or invested in production meeting present market demand. Capitalism cannot provide all the needs of the people.

    On American Political Culture

    Obama and Trump killed American liberalism. Obama took the liberals out of the antiwar movement, and out of the civil liberties movement in so far as surveillance and privacy issues are concerned. Not noticing how Jeb Bush and Mario Rubio, by engaging in irrelevant (Bush) or debased (Rubio) political discourse, abandoned their standards and good sense when attacked by Trump, the liberals followed suit. In high dudgeon they lowered their standards, or otherwise demonstrated they had none. Opposing the Evil One as best as they apparently could, these liberals became the self-righteous, narrow minded, neo-red baiting, group-think conformists that in the 1950s and 60s they used to look down their noses at the conservatives for being. If this seems implausibly harsh to you, the proof is on the Daily Kos website. Additional proof is found in most liberal discourse about Russiagate.

    For the conservative, the liberals should not exist. That’s because the liberal represents a vile and sacrilegious threat to the values that the conservative holds sacred. Liberals look down on conservatives who they see as know nothings. But the liberal thinks conservatives should at least exist. That’s because the liberals believe in pluralism and so the conservative has a role to play in the liberal universe. That is, the  conservative’s existence helps to justify liberal theories of pluralism and diversity.

    In America, the relation between the conservative and the liberal can be explained by reference to the Daoist concept of the unity of opposites. The famous circular symbol of the Dao represents this. The intertwining black and white figures can be seen to represent liberals and conservatives respectively. I used to think that American liberals and American conservatives were totally different beings. I used to think that the mainstream conservatives were uneducated, prejudiced, anti-intellectual folks who saw the world in black and white categories.  They could not make logical distinctions, and adhered to ideological dogmatism. They were rigid thinkers who used ideology to quickly put people and events into a box. As a member of the far left, I saw liberals as ideological allies. I saw them as rational, open-minded, tolerant, but in some ways unaware. But the rise of Trump and Russiagate has liberals imitating the worst tendencies of the conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s. Along with other sources,  the proof can be found on the Daily Kos website. In America, liberals and conservatives are a unity of opposites. While there are differences between them, they are bound together into a unity by the most American of qualities: narrow mindedness, a lack of fairness and objectivity, and adherence to dogmatism. I believe these qualities descend from American Puritanism. Consider the following.

    Some Republicans want to expel Mitt Romney from the party because of his vote to remove President Trump from office. But many Democrats cannot tolerate Tulsi Gabbard’s vote of “present” on the question of whether President Trump should be impeached. In both cases the problem is that the heretic has failed to tow the party line. In America independent thinking and adherence to conscience are not respected. Here’s another example.

    Many Democrats and media people attack Bernie Sanders because he dares to acknowledge that Fidel Castro adopted programs to spread literacy in Cuba. Sanders’ crime is the failure to rigidly adhere to ideological dogma. In America people do not make critical distinctions. And this is not a rare example. Such dogmatism was continually demonstrated by liberals during Russiagate. Americans may be nice, but don’t bet on them surviving the competition in the global economy. They lack the sagacity necessary for national survival.

    I was born in 1947. Being acculturated as an American, I had no desire to hang out with old people. It’s different in Latin cultures, especially in Brazil. A twenty-year-old Brazilian will engage an old person as a social equal. I am now an old person. This allows me to look back to the past and learn from experience; to gain  perspective. For example, I have been both a young person and an old person. And with that perspective I now see what a problem is with old people. It’s summed up by the well-known expression “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Many old people are handicapped by their past experiences and beliefs. And in America this includes the anti-communist, anti-Russian propaganda that was drummed into people during the Cold War. It is easy to sway the people in countries whose economies are based on consumer capitalism. Turning the people against Russia is just selling another product. It’s very difficult for old people to overcome this propaganda, this experience. This difficulty prevents the United States from adapting to changed conditions. Evolutionary theory tells us that the inability to adapt has fatal consequences.

    The problem with the advocates of Russiagate is not that all of their claims are wrong. It’s that they show such bad taste. They lack perspective. They’re handicapped by their past.

    When I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s many students attempted to expand their consciousness by taking marijuana and psychedelic drugs such as LSD and mescaline. I thought that was unhealthy. As an engineering major I attempted to expand my consciousness by hanging out with anthropology, comparative literature, and Chinese studies majors because they seemed to be the most open-minded and to have great perspective. Everyone read Dostoevsky back then, and a few of us read Nietzsche. Even fewer read Zhuangzi. For many years I felt that reading these authors made me a strong person. What difficult social situation can you not face after reading Dostoevsky? And so it was that, while I looked upon them with compassion, I felt superior to those I believed were weaker because they turned to drugs or religion for an escape. Some of those who I thought were weaker became mentally ill as a result of the stress they felt in our society and economy. But in the last few years I’ve lost a little of my confidence. When looking at America and some of its problems I do not always think in a hard logical manner for solutions. I now find myself occasionally laughing at America and its problems, and more as time goes on. Is this evidence of a mental illness?

    In third place behind the threats posed by global warming and nuclear war, the greatest threat to the United States is the Internet. Before the Internet the United States had more prestige than it does today. The oceans separating the country from most other countries kept much of the world from getting an intimate look at American culture. From a distance the United States is much more impressive. It put a man on the moon, it invented the Internet, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Ice Cream, the light bulb, and much much more. Not only could the Americans be seen as the leaders in science and technology, they used to be seen as hip. American culture gave rise to rock’n roll and hip hop. But the Internet has changed all that. Now people in other countries can get so close to the United States with their Internet browsers that they can see the warts: the inequality in wealth, the crumbling infrastructure, the U.S.’s relative ranking in terms of freedom of the press, civil liberties, child mortality, availability of health care and on and on. These warts are, metaphorically speaking, co-extensive with the warts found on the feral hog. Foreigners do not understand the Electoral College. It’s not clear to foreigners how the United States is classified as a democracy. Thanks to the Internet the country can be seen as backward and barbarian. To Make America Great Again it is necessary to censor or firewall the Internet. Take that as a prediction.

    On American Militarism and Imperialism

    Militarism is pervasive in American society. It invades almost all areas of the culture. The anchors on both Fox News and CNN engage in the religiously obsessive ritual of thanking every veteran who appears on their show for “your service.” Every professional sport I know of promotes militarism. In NBA basketball games, there are standing ovations for the serviceman who surprises his family by entering the arena when he is thought to be overseas. The major league baseball players wear camouflage uniforms for certain holidays, and if it wasn’t enough to start every game with the national anthem sometimes “America the Beautiful” is played during the seventh-inning stretch. The NFL gives the appearance of being an arm of the Pentagon. And the military seems to have recruiting advertisements on every televised college game. When I was a young girl these types of customs were associated with America’s enemies. But times have changed. This is not the country I grew up in.

    When the Americans talk of protecting freedom in a particular foreign country, you better run. A lot of people are going to get killed. When I was a young girl growing up in Bakersfield, the term “commander-in-chief” was not part of American political discourse. No one said, “Vote for Dwight Eisenhower for president because he’d make a better commander-in-chief than Adlai Stevenson.” And no one said, “Vote  for John F. Kennedy because he would make a better commander-in-chief than Richard Nixon.” The use of the term in contemporary American political discourse is a reflection that America has become quite a militaristic nation. After World War II the Americans saw themselves has having defeated the militarism of the Japanese and the Germans. But those days are long gone. This is not the country I grew up in.

    Some historians claim that the citizens of an empire do not see that empire’s fall until many years after the fall begins. We frequently hear that the United States is a superpower. Paul Craig Roberts once asked, “How can the world’s largest debtor be a superpower?” My question is: how can a superpower lead the world in the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic?

    So far I have only seen a few of foreign press accounts of the United States’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. To use a dated American expression, it seems to me that these articles take an almost “uppity” tone with regard to the superpower. Spiegel International has a particularly interesting article. We read comments like this: “Europe’s social welfare states are proving to be better prepared for keeping economies afloat in the shutdown, with measures like Germany’s short-time work furlough program and government-backed loans for companies.” And this: “Some economic scientists expect the coronavirus recession to be deeper in the U.S. than in many other industrialized  countries.” It is not surprising then at the end of the article there is speculation that the economic consequences of the pandemic might be a shift in global power relations in favor of China. These European social welfare states that are claimed to be doing a better job are what the Fox News folks would call “socialist.” And depending on which of these European states are referred to even AOC and Bernie Sanders would say they are “socialist.” So if the various claims and speculations to be found in Speigel are true, it may be that the capitalist elites in the United States could have done a better job ensuring a longer dominance of American imperialism and super power status had they adopted a more humane, liberal, or “socialist” economic system. But then again, Americans do not do strategy.

    Another of the interesting terms bandied about in America is “leader of the free world.” Borrowing a Daoist method of linguistic analysis, we can say that leader implies follower. So, if I may be so bold as to ask, if America is the leader, who are the followers? And once someone has identified these followers, I would ask: Do these followers have a say in whether they are followers? If so, do these followers have a say in who their leader is?

    In his introduction to one of the editions of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Thomas Cleary stresses the importance of understanding that the book is a Daoist work. Philosophical Daoism, especially as found in the Zhuangzi, is an empirical philosophy. In the Zhuangzi we read of lessons learned from the observations of nature including storms, tigers, monkeys, and people. As for Sun Tzu, do not be misled by this: “As to government expenditures, those due to broken-down chariots, worn-out horses, armour and helmets, arrows and crossbows, lances, hand and bodyshields, draft animals and supply wagons will amount to sixty per cent of the total.” If you are, you may miss the many statements like this: “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”

    Sun Tzu stressed the importance of knowing oneself and one’s enemy. Many years ago my former partner and I had a 1986 Volvo station wagon. After a while, the car radio broke and was stuck on one station. It was the local station that broadcast the Rush Limbaugh show. So for three years I listened to Rush Limbaugh while driving. I know my enemy.

    How odd. The Daoist classics were written centuries before the creation of the United States. And yet the Daoist classics clearly foretell the collapse of the United States.

    On American Weather

    The indigenous peoples of California knew what they were doing. In the summer when it was hot in the valley and foothills, they’d move up to live in the mountains. When winter approached they’d move back to the lowlands. That is a good idea.

    My aunt once told me that the early residents of Sacramento did something similar. They built two-story houses. In the winter they moved up to the second story to avoid the floods. In the summer they moved back down to the first story where it was cooler. Sacramento has way more trees than most cities. Sacramento’s trees are like the forests the indigenous peoples escaped to in order to avoid the heat. My aunt was not an historian, but that’s what she told me.

    I once met a man from Boston who said that San Diego had the best weather of any city. I met a man from Vallejo who said that Vallejo had the best weather of any city in California. The man from Vallejo was right.

    Okay, compañeros, un gran beso de Sausalito. Hasta la próxima.

    System Fail #2: An Airborne Virus Called Freedom

    A look at the social and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a specific focus on the incompetent state responses of the UK, Brazil and the United States.

    Featuring an interview with anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos, author of Diagnostic of the Future: Between the Crisis of Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy.

    Popular Movements Can Overcome Authoritarian Policing

    Portland protests say Go Home Feds as protests grow (by Noah Berger, AP)

    Today is the 60th day of protests since the murder of George Floyd. This weekend, people marched in cities across the country in solidarity with Portland and in opposition to the US becoming a police state.

    President Trump sending troops to cities added fuel to the nationwide uprising against racist police violence. Protests have grown not only in Portland but in Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Omaha, Austin, Oakland, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC, among other cities.

    Trump is not a ‘law and order’ president, he is a chaos and disorder president. He is mistaken to think that increasing conflict in cities throughout the country will save his failing 2020 campaign. Just as his hyped attack on Central American caravans backfired before the 2018 mid-term elections, this escalation is also backfiring as people are mobilized to stand against Trump’s authoritarianism.

    While Trump’s actions are the focus of current protests, Portland demonstrates there is a long history of police violence that preceded Trump. Mayors have allowed police violence and Joe Biden, when he was Chair of the Judiciary Committee, authored legislation that led to over-policing and encouraged police militarization. While Trump sending in militarized troops to cities needs to be opposed, police violence is bigger than Trump.

    Federal troop pushes a mother back during a demonstration against the presence of Trump’s federal enforcement (Reuters)

    Trump Sends In Federal Troops, Escalates Violence

    While federal officers protect federal buildings across the country that is not what Trump is doing. He is using the excuse of protecting federal buildings as cover for sending in federal troops to dominate cities.

    On June 1, President Trump made his plan clear, warning governors that if they did not get control of the cities, he would send in troops. He told governors “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time.”

    June 1 was also the day that National Guard troops in Washington, DC fired tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets into non-violent protesters in Lafayette Park across from the White House so Trump could walk across the park for a widely denigrated photo-op holding a bible in front of St. John’s church. Trump said last week that he sent personnel to Portland because “the locals couldn’t handle it.”

    The presence of federal troops in Portland and being sent to other cities is based on an executive order signed on June 26 to protect “Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.” Homeland Security director, Chad Wolf, created a task force made up of Border Patrol, Coast Guard, U.S. Marshals, and other agencies. Three different operations have been announced: Wolf’s “Protecting Americans Communities Task Force”; the Department of Justice’s crime-fighting “Operation Legend” announced on July 8; and “Operation Diligent Valor,” which includes the Portland police mission.

    Legal analysts and commentators are debating whether the actions of federal troops in Portland are legal. The government argues they are merely protecting buildings and when they go blocks away they are investigating who damaged buildings. The Oregonian questions that writing, “Even if the federal agencies have legitimate license to defend the courthouse, ‘The real question is: Is it being used as a pretext?’”

    It is evident from federal troop actions in Portland that this generalized federal policing is beyond federal authority.

    Reports and videos of unidentified Border Patrol agents in camouflage grabbing people off the street, stuffing them into unmarked vehicles, and driving off are unconstitutional, illegal actions.

    Oregon officials including the governor and Portland mayor have asked Homeland Security to keep its troops off of Portland’s streets but Chad Wolf has refused. Oregon’s senators have also opposed Trump sending paramilitary squads to Portland.

    Some, including the District Attorney of Philadelphia Larry Krassner, say federal troops should be prosecuted when they violate the law. The Oregonian reported that Steven Wax, a former Federal Public Defender, called on Oregon’s US attorney and the Multnomah County district attorney to convene grand juries with subpoena powers to investigate alleged criminal acts by federal officers. Potential charges could include kidnapping, assault, and racketeering conspiracy, he said. The district attorney and attorney general are conducting a criminal investigation focused on the injury of a protester, 26 year old Donovan La Bella, on July 11 who was shot in the head with an impact munition near the federal courthouse and subsequently needed surgery.

    Oregon’s attorney general, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, state legislators, and others have filed at least four lawsuits against federal agencies. US District Judge Michael H. Simon issued a 14-day order barring federal officers from targeting journalists or legal observers and said in court that he was disturbed by several images of federal officers using force against non-aggressive demonstrators. He noted the July  18 baton-beating of 53-year-old Navy veteran Chris David who tried to talk with federal officers outside the courthouse and the injury of La Bella.

    As our guest on Clearing The FOG, constitutional lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard makes the point that courts need to protect the rights of all people to protest and not make journalists and legal observers a separate category with greater rights than others.

    The Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) carries weaponry of the sort usually used in Afghanistan or Iraq (John Rudoff)

    Paramilitaries Instead of the Military

    We describe these federal agents as “troops” because that is what they are. President Trump threatened to use the Insurrection Act to deploy armed services to states but people in the military and legal scholars opposed him. Instead, Trump has sent militarized troops from civilian agencies into the cities.

    The Department of Homeland Security sent Border Patrol Tactical Units (BORTAC) from Customs to Portland. BORTAC is an elite paramilitary unit that includes snipers and other highly trained troops who often operate outside of the US and are based along the Mexican border.  These “Specialized Response Teams” wear the US Army’s camouflage and use military gear. BORTAC units have been deployed to war environments, including Iraq and Afghanistan. While not a violation of Posse Comitatus, which forbids the use of the military in domestic law enforcement, they subvert the intent of the Act.

    An internal Homeland Security memo found the federal troops were not trained in riot control or mass demonstrations. It also stated this kind of federal action was “going to be the norm” so training was needed. Trump has promised to send troops to “Democrat” cities in an election year spectacle.

    In addition to on-the-ground troops, the US is using the US Air Force ‘Cougar’ surveillance plane over Portland.  The Intercept reports the flight data shows tight, circular surveillance flights over Portland. Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Government Secrecy Project, asks “What is their mission? Under what authority are they operating, and who authorized them?”

    Trump is using police as a prop in the 2020 election with Portland as a campaign stage. The campaign seeks to win votes in the suburbs, which he won by 4 percent in 2016 but is now losing by double digits. Trump’s re-election campaign has spent over $983 million in 2020, more than the $878 million spent in his entire 2016 campaign. Despite this spending, he is behind Biden by landslide margins in all of the battleground states. He fired his campaign manager and is obviously getting desperate.

    Trump is mimicking the ‘law and order’ campaign of Richard Nixon but this is a different era when police violence and racism are on video for all to see. Protests after police murdered George Floyd took place in cities of all sizes and in many suburbs. A national consensus is developing that racist police violence exists and it must end. Images of militarized police shooting and tear-gassing unarmed protesters is likely to backfire against Trump.

    Portland protester enveloped in tear gas waves US flag (Nathan Howard for Getty Images)

    Police Violence is Bigger Than Trump

    Before the federal troops arrived, Portland police were using extreme violence and chemical weapons against protesters. The Portland Police Bureau already had a temporary restraining order for its violation of protesters’ free speech rights and another for arresting journalists and legal observers. Another court ruling largely prohibited local police from using tear gas, but that has not stopped federal troops from doing so. When Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the police commissioner, came to the courthouse protests people jeered him and signs called him ‘Tear Gas Ted.’ Wheeler was teargassed himself by the federal troops.

    The Intercept describes how the Portland Police Association has dominated elected officials for decades. In meetings with the mayor, one police union president would put his gun on the table. The union contract protects racist cops making it hard to fire those who’ve used deadly force. When the new contract was being considered in 2016, people protested at City Hall and the police rioted forcing protesters outside where police in riot gear then surrounded the building as city officials approved their union contract.

    The NY Times reports that of the 35 cities in the United States with populations larger than 500,000, Portland is the whitest with 71 percent of residents categorized as non-Latino whites and only 6% are Black. This stems from the state being founded as a state for white people. A 19th-century law called for whipping any Black person found in the state. In the early part of the 20th century, Oregon’s Legislature was dominated by members of the Ku Klux Klan. As the destination of Lewis and Clark, Oregon symbolized the conquest of the American West and the subjugation of Native peoples.

    Police violence in Portland is disproportionately against Black people including being stopped by police and targeted with the use of force. Slate reports, “When the police chief banned chokeholds in 1985 after officers killed a Black man with the hold, officers made T-shirts that said, ‘Don’t Choke ’Em. Smoke ’Em.’ In 2012, the Justice Department reported that the PPB had an unconstitutional ‘pattern or practice’ of using excessive force against people with mental illnesses.”  The Portland police have also been sympathetic to right-wing, white supremacist organizations when they demonstrated in the city.

    With this history of white domination, some would think racist policing would not be a political issue but the evidence of racist police brutality has struck a chord not only in Portland but across the country. Portland has had a strong protest movement over inequality, neoliberalism, wars, and more. The police have a long history of using violence against protests resulting in court settlements for victims. Now, opposition to racism, capitalism, and fascism has led to a unified movement.

    The Wall of Moms, followed by a Wall of Dads, combating tear gas with leaf blowers, has been joined by a wall of veterans. Veterans are challenging the federal troops, telling them they are following illegal orders. Other affinity groups forming “walls” include grandparents, chefs and lawyers. People have made shields and are wearing helmets and gas masks to protect themselves against federal violence. Some are using hockey sticks to hit tear gas containers back toward federal troops.

    Most local officials have opposed Trump’s threats to send troops to their cities and have threatened litigation. Lori Lightfoot, a neoliberal Democratic mayor, initially opposed federal troops coming to Chicago but, after a phone call with Trump and a promise that troops would work under the control of the US Attorney with a very limited role, she changed her mind. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, has faced protests at her home for this.

    Alliances with federal police can be problematic. Separate from the current controversy, Albuquerque, Atlanta, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Portland all pulled out of federal-local task forces because federal agents have violated local rules regarding racial profilinguse-of-force policies, and requirements to wear body cameras.

    While Trump is putting himself at the center of current police violence, the reality is police violence is bigger than Trump. The system-wide challenges with policing are deeply entrenched. Police defend the status quo including racial injustice and class inequality. Whenever political movements develop to respond to racial and class unfairness, the police have undermined their politically-protected constitutional rights. Now that the conflict has heightened, it is time for the people to resolve it.

    Retired US Army major intelligence officer Jenine Betschart (center) protests outside the Multnomah County Justice Center along with the ‘Wall of Moms’ as night fell on the city (Daily Mail)

    People Can Protect the Right to Protest and Limit Police Powers

    Militarized police violence is the wars abroad coming home. Strategic tactics like the Wall of Moms and veterans in broad opposition to militarized federal police demonstrate how movements can stop Trump’s authoritarianism, limit the actions of police and protect the right to protest.

    At the beginning of this century, mass protests in Washington, DC against corporate trade agreements led to violent responses by DC and federal police. Litigation by the Partnership for Civil Justice followed. The result was large monetary awards to protesters but also agreements between the parties that put in place “best practices” to protect the right to protest in Washington, DC. Now both local police and federal police are bound by these agreements.

    We interview Mara Verhayden-Hilliard on this week’s Clearing the FOG Radio (available Monday night) about whether the current protests could also lead to the protection of our rights. The overreach of President Trump and the violent reaction of local police is an opportunity for change. To succeed requires smart litigation that protects all protest, not a hierarchy protecting media or legal observers, and the litigation must act in synergy with the people.

    People cannot give up the streets but must oppose violent police with strategic tactics that continue to pull people to support the movement and oppose police violence. Our goal is to transform the concept of public safety to mean programs that meet people’s basic needs and build a national consensus for policing that is defundeddemilitarized and democratically controlled. Already the movement has changed the opinions of people in the US.  We must build on that success, and continue the pressure for change no matter who is elected president.

    Revolutionary Group Dynamics: How Minorities Influence Majorities, from Group Complicity to Collective Creativity

    Orientation

    From the macro to the micro

    When it comes to stereotypes of the masses of revolutionary people, the masses have built barricades that look like forts which they hide behind, armed with guns. But if we trace the behavior of masses back far enough to pre-revolutionary situations, masses become groups. In order to understand how masses of people become a revolutionary force, we first need to understand how groups, small groups of ten to twenty people, become revolutionary. By revolutionary I don’t mean that groups consciously advocate for revolutions. By revolutionary I mean that people in the group understand the science of how minorities in groups can influence majorities to change, no matter what the contents.

    Who is to blame when groups go wrong?

    The most typical responses people give when groups fail to meet their expectations are to:

    • blame the leaders;
    • blame stigmatized, obnoxious individuals.

    For example, at a staff meeting, staff members will say to each other “the leader should have done this or they should have done that”. Psychological analysis of the leaders is in no short supply. The leader is a narcissist, a control freak, an alcoholic or a dictator. Another common strategy is to target members of the group that are stigmatized in some way. They are deemed as recalcitrant, needy, talk too much, talk too little, don’t listen, are unrealistic, are cynical, depressed or inarticulate. Usually people will say to each other, “if only the stigmatized people would get fired, transferred, get sick or find another job, everything would be fine”. But everything wouldn’t be fine. Most groups will unconsciously produce the following to do the work for the majority of people:

    • more bad leaders;
    • more stigmatized individuals.

    From by-standing to complicity

    However, there is a third possibility. Let us assume a group has sixteen people. It has two leaders and two particularly obnoxious members, leaving twelve other members. How is it that two leaders and two stigmatized individuals can control twelve other people? Why don’t those twelve other people take control of the situation, challenge the leaders’ faults publicly and shut up the obnoxious individuals? After all, its twelve against four. Why don’t those who appear as bystanders jump into the fray? Why are they putting up with a miserable situation? That is one of the subjects of this article.

    Groups of human beings are not machines. They are composed of individuals with free will who can coordinate, cooperate, obey or leave a group. Because groups become “alive” as they function over time, the truth is that in groups, there are no neutral bystanders. Every member of the group is either actively or passively producing expansion or contraction of the group’s power. Those twelve people are complicit in whatever happens in the group, for better or for worse.

    My experiences in groups:

    Blaming leaders and stigmatized individuals

    I have been in groups most of my life. From the age of seven to the age of twenty I played in pick-up baseball and football games. During the same window of time, I endured 12 years of Catholic education in grammar and high school where I was taught by nuns and brothers. For the first 13 years of my life I blamed leaders and obnoxious individuals for group problems. My understanding of groups changed when I became involved with radical political groups.

    Awakening to complicity

    In my twenties I participated in Men’s Liberation Collective, a radical psychiatry group, community and in a council communist political group. In those groups I learned about Wilhelm Reich and his theory of mass complicity.  In my early 40’s I worked as a group counselor for an organization called Men Overcoming Violence. This was a 40-week program which met once a week to help men gain communication skills so as to not resort to battering their partner. I worked in group settings in two half-way houses in San Francisco.  I spent about eight months in what I would now call a cult, a left-wing political psychology group. Beginning in 1989 and for the next 27 years, I taught psychology courses at universities and community colleges, including classes in group dynamics and mass psychology. These classes ranged from eight to 40 students. Throughout those years my appreciation of group complicity was a key to understanding why rebellions in groups don’t occur more often. It was both revealing and frightening.

    Theories of groups

    Reactionary theories

    The earliest years of social psychology in the 2nd half of the 19th century were dominated by political reactionaries who hated groups. Taine, Le Bon and Sighele had never forgotten what the masses did during the French Revolution. For them the whole (the group) was less than the sum of the parts (the individual). In other words, something degenerative happened to individuals when they joined a group. Without any empirical research they characterized groups as childish, criminal, beastly, savage, irrational, impulsive, blood thirsty, primitive, cruel and fickle. Despite the lack of scientific research behind these pronouncements, this stereotype is a staple of mass media today, with the “looting” mantra splashed across the headlines, whenever a natural disaster or a social uprising appears. For them Lord of the Flies depicts what happens in groups without strong leaders.

    Leftist theories

    At the other extreme on the left, whether they are anarchists, communists or social democrats, they all believed that the working-class in masses was heroic. All workers had to do is was overthrow the capitalists and their kind, gregarious and cooperative tendencies would come to the fore. For them the whole (the group) is more than the sum of its parts (the individuals). Major social change only comes about through mass action. The challenge is to awaken in the masses confidence they have the numbers to take over the world. The problem these leftists were unwilling to face is that workers are conflicted about what to do in a revolutionary situation and they can be turned into fascists with the right kind of political manipulation such as used by Goebbels and Hitler.

    Mass complicity theory of Wilhelm Reich

    When I was first starting out in the early 1970s on my radical political journey, Wilhelm Reich was required reading for being a situationist communist. I read every book of his that was translated into English. Reich was the only psychologist whose theories were more sexual than Freud’s. He had a theory of character armor which explained that working class people didn’t rebel more because they had character armor in their bodies that prevented them from having good orgasms. For Reich, good revolutionaries were bodily unarmored and had good orgasms. I never had a problem with orgasms, but I investigated Reichian therapy to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I spent three years in Reichian therapy.

    Typically, either leftists don’t know about Reich or if they do know about him, they refer to the Mass Psychology of Fascism and then say he went crazy. It’s fair to say that the last fifteen years or so of his life Reich did go around the bend, but he never lost his insight into the mass complicity of the masses in the situations we were in. Reich once said that there never could have been a Hitler if there wasn’t a little bit of Hitler in a whole lot of people.

    Reich was at his best at criticizing the masses from a left-wing point of view. He argued the fascist rulers were much smarter than communists because they knew mass psychology. He demonstrated how mass complicity works in his books “Listen Little Man” and “the Murder of Christ“.

    How Minorities influence majorities—from complicity to power

    Let us return to our group of sixteen people: two leaders, two stigmatized individuals and twelve members who are complicit. In our Men Overcoming Violence group, we taught men communication skills so that they don’t batter their partners. In our group we gave our members an opportunity to shape the direction of the group in terms of when we met and how consecutive the meetings were. Since part of the mission of Men Overcoming Violence was to communicate in a non-violent way, we were open to the men practicing this as group members in our program, not just on their partner.

    On one occasion, a group member – I’ll call him Antonio – complained that 40 weeks in a row with no break was too much. Men needed a Saturday off now and then where there was no meeting. For the rest of this article, I will use this example to show how group members moved from passive members who were complicit, to members assuming some power as to what the direction of our group would be.

    At the end of our two-hour Saturday meeting we allowed 15 minutes of time for members to meta-communicate about how the meeting went and how the program was going for them. It was here that Antonio first brought up the problem of meeting every single Saturday.  The following italicized headings are the steps necessary by which a minority in a group can impact a majority. When minorities impact and change majorities the group has gone through a revolutionary process.

    Perseverance

    Antonio made a proposal both to all members of the group and to the group counselors that we should have some breaks between meetings. He made his pitch to a dead silent reception. Mistakenly, Antonio interpreted this as a sign that no one liked his idea. Dejected, he didn’t say any more. But what Antonio didn’t realize was that group silence can mean many things besides rejection. It can mean some members were not paying attention. It can mean they were paying attention but were apathetic and don’t care. It can mean that some members want to think about it. It could also mean they agree with Antonio’s proposal but are afraid to speak about it publicly because they are afraid to speak publicly about anything. They might agree but withhold saying anything about it because that would violate subgroup norms, whether they be race or class customs.

    So, the first skill Antonio needed to cultivate in moving the group from complicity to power was perseverance. Antonio had to bring up his proposal more than once. People needed time to get used to it and those who didn’t agree would have time to think about how they could rebut it. If Antonio brought his claim up repeatedly, he gave the message that he was determined, and he was not giving up easily. In private, we counselors encouraged Antonio not to give up and to try to pitch it again, which he did.

    Rhetorically compelling

    It was not enough that Antonio repeats himself. He had to make his position rhetorically compelling. Aristotle argued that there were four considerations in being rhetorically successful. The claim has to be logical, meaning the person had to have their facts straight and there must be a tight relationship between the facts or the reasons and the claim. The argument also has to come from a reliable source, whether as a primary or secondary source. The third consideration is that the argument was not just rational. It had to have heart and it had to show imagination. In Antonio’s case part of his evidence needs to be something like – he can go to a ballgame with his son on the Saturdays he has off. The last ingredient in being rhetorically compelling is that the claim has to be timely. There has to be a necessity to the claim. There has to be an urgency such that if something is not done now it may be too late. Why is it now or never?

    Then the counselors and the rest of the group criticized Antonio’s claim. We told him that the claim had to be specific about how often and in what sequence he expected these breaks to occur. It wouldn’t do to simply say “let’s take a break when the group feels like it”. The breaks needed to be built into our institutional setting. His claim had a pathological (emotional appeal) because he talked about all the places he would go with the time off. His source was good since he was a respected group member who did his work and participated in the program. The timing of the argument was not good. We had only held three meetings, so members had not been ground down by the wear-and-tear of the group in order to make his appeal compelling. Had he brought it up after 10 or 12 meetings in a row, he might have had a better reception.

    The rest of the group members and the counselors discussed Antonio’s claim and we decided if we went along with Antonio’s pitch the best time for breaks would be every eight weeks, because that was when we allowed new members to come in. We told the group that if they agreed to take a break it would need to be every eight weeks. However, it wasn’t just the counselors’ decision. It was still up to the group.

    Find allies and get them to commit to a public agreement

    Even if you persevere and repeat yourself and even if Antonio had followed all four of Aristotle’s criteria of logos, ethos, pathos and kairos, he is only one person in a group of 16. His claim can be dismissed by the group members, whether to themselves privately or to other group members on personal grounds such as these. Antonio is:

    1. heroic but unrealistic;
    2. a rebel and a troublemaker;
    3. a victim of a psychological disorder and has a need for attention; and,
    4. just an extroverted personality.

    Antonio needed to find allies. How did he do this? He got the phone numbers of the members whom he senses might be sympathetic to his claim because of what he knows about them and talks to them between the meetings. It is not enough to get them to be sympathetic over the phone or privately in person. It has to be public. I remember as an adjunct faculty member, I would bring things up at faculty meetings. Other teachers would listen politely, but nothing would be said or done. Then after the meeting, a couple of adjuncts would come up to me and say how much they appreciated what I said. I thought to myself “why in the world didn’t you say anything when I was making an appeal in the meeting”? Finding allies to change the direction of a group means asking them to make a commitment to speaking in public before and after you make your pitch. It means verbalizing their own reasons at the time.

    How many allies do you need? It is a mistake to think you have to convince all or even half the members. You just need to have enough to make an impression that you are a political force within the group to be reckoned with. What that means is that the majority will be affected by your presence and your views will be taken into consideration even if they are not discussed. In a group of sixteen, three or four people is enough. In other words, about 20-25% of the group.

    Anticipate the objections of the majority and rebut them

    Between meetings, Antonio drew up on paper three columns. In the first column he put the names of the people he thought would be opposed to his proposal. In the middle column, in bullet form, he listed their objections. In the last column he rebutted their objections, as much as he could, and committed his arguments to memory. When he made his proposal at the next meeting, he said something like, “I know there are significant objections to my proposal. Some of you may feel that it drags the program out even longer than it already is. Others may feel like having two weeks off with no group structure might cause a relapse to being violent. Well, I thought about that and here is my answer”.

    He didn’t name the people who might object, he simply named the objections. That kept those members from being put on the spot and less likely to be defensive. He didn’t pull out the paper and read it. That would be perceived as being too lawyer-like and might be a turn-off. He also didn’t name every possible objective because that would be overkill. He could save those objections if he needed them for another round of group discussion. Anticipating objections and rebutting them like this will build up his credibility: “Wow, Antonio has really thought about this. He’s done his homework. He’s serious” these members might think to themselves.

    Be Flexible

    None of these group members will want to follow the proposal of someone who seems rigid or fanatical. Even if Antonio is right about everything, it is better to intentionally give ground on the little issues. People are far more willing to work with you, if they feel that you are dialectical and can go back and forth on an issue and concede points. Antonio did do this and we think this is one reason he was able to keep his allies.

    Present your message so that it appeals to the whole of the group

    As much as possible, try to make the claim as an appeal to the interests of the group as a whole. In Antonio’s case, he suggested to one of the counselors that his proposal would be welcomed by counselors so they would get a break too. He also argued that this would be better for the men who enrolled in the problem long after Antonio’s cohort graduated. Of course, there is Antonio’s self-interest involved. However, as much as possible, if there is some part of the proposal that appeals to wider interests, it might have a better chance of passing.

    Seize spatial seating advantages on the day of the meeting

    It is very important that if there is any flexibility in the seating arrangements that Antonio take full advantage of them. If the tradition of the group is for everyone to be seated (including the counselors) it will be too much for Antonio to stand to make his proposal. But if it is possible to stand without it seeming weird as the act of standing commands more authority than sitting.  In addition, Antonio had three allies. On the day of his presentation he made sure that each of his allies were evenly spread out so that they could see each other and interpret others’ body language. Also, if they were spread out, they appear to be independent voices rather than as part of a clique. One ally spoke before Antonio, and one spoke after Antonio. They all gave different reasons for wanting the break every eight weeks.

    Present your message so that is part of a plan

    Since the counselors already suggested that they would go along with Antonio if the breaks were every eight weeks, the structure was set. However, he still had to convince the rest of the group. Would the eight-week break proposal go into effect immediately or would it be gradual? Since some group members were not convinced that extending their program an extra five weeks was a good idea, Antonio suggested that they try two breaks in the next 16 weeks and then revisit the proposal.

    Having a plan also means having an articulated division of labor as to who will do the work, a timeline for each step to be taken as well as some measurable indicator of whether the proposal was a success or not. Antonio and his allies agreed to write up a questionnaire at the end of the 40-week program and ask members on a scale of one to ten how successful the proposal was. The questionnaire also included essay questions, asking what group members did with their time off, and whether they had any violent incidents during that time.

    Meta-communicate: reveal the steps you took to move the majority to other group members

    Antonio’s methods should not be kept secret by Antonio and his allies. Antonio should reveal all the steps in this article to his fellow group members so they too could try to influence the majority of the group on other issues. In this way, the twelve formerly complicit members of the group move to become active minorities so that the group maximizes its collective creativity by making all members capable of transforming the group. In this way, leaders would be reduced in stature because the seat of creativity will be the group rather than the leaders.

    Conclusion

    All members of a group are always co-responsible for what happens to it, whether we like it or not. Most of the time most members in groups are dragged along in the galleys of groups unaware of what is happening, stupidly blaming leadership or annoying individuals for what happens in the group while doing nothing about it. But it doesn’t have to be this, as this article tries to demonstrate. Complicit members can become active minorities who demand that majorities come to life and maximize their resource basis through collective creativity of the group. To do that is to revolutionize group dynamics.

    • First published in Planning Beyond Capitalism

    Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?

    We may know where one is, we may regularly pass by one, but most of us will never go to prison. Dark Islands of Confinement, existing in a space separated from the rest of society, where men, women and youths are locked up, often poorly treated, seldom rehabilitated.

    Black men and people from Asian and minority ethnic groups including tribal peoples, make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population in many countries. In America, where incarceration based on race is routine, Prison Policy found that “Black Americans make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S. residents.” In Britain, Government statistics show that, “people of minority ethnicities made up 27% of the prison population compared with 13% of the general population.” This figure increases further in young offenders’ institutions (YOI), where about 51% of boys aged 15–17 and young men, aged 18–21, are from black minority ethnic backgrounds, nearly four times the BAME proportion of the wider UK population. In addition between 2018/19, black people were eight times more likely than white to be stopped and searched, and police are five times more likely to use force against black people than white people.

    Globally there are around 10.35 million people in prison (World Prison Population List), half of who are held in just three countries – the USA, China and Russia. With 2.2 million people behind bars America has the highest number of prisoners in the world; 655 people per 100,000, in Russia its 615 per 100,000.

    At the other end of the scale is Norway, a world leader in prison reform. The total prison population is 3,207, equating to 60 people per 100,000 – over 10 times lower than the US and Russia and five times lower than Britain (87,900 behind bars – 148 per 100,000). Norway also has among the lowest re-offending rates in the world at 20% – by comparison in the US 76.6% re-offend and are re-arrested within five years; in the UK it’s almost the same.

    These stark statistical differences reflect alternate approaches in the judicial system, the prison environment and in the nature of the society, the values and ideals, as well as levels of wealth and income inequality, which are much lower, and the overall atmosphere in which people live.

    Prison officers are well-trained professionals, not merely ‘guards’. The Governor of Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison told the BBC “We make sure an inmate serves his sentence but we also help that person become a better person. We are role models, coaches and mentors.” Staff and inmates take part in activities together: “they eat together, play volleyball together, do leisure activities together and that allows us to really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and to motivate them.”

    Prisons are well designed, well resourced and properly maintained, humane places in which inmates can study, learn skills and prepare themselves for a new life on release; centers of rehabilitated and education, rather than hostile places in which retribution is sought and punishment meted out. This rather crude, but widespread approach is based on the misguided belief that tough sentencing and a rigid penal system will act as a deterrent.

    Is fear a deterrent?

    The idea of prison as punishment posits the power of fear to change behavior. It is part of a broader ideological approach that believes in competition, together with reward and punishment as effective means of motivation, of manipulating behavior to achieve the goal, whatever that may be – obedience and conformity for one thing. It is a common technique in the world of business, is widely employed by parents and to a lesser degree teachers when faced with ‘difficult’, children, usually meaning children who won’t conform.

    It is an approach that ignores, disregards or has no time for underlying causes – social, psychological and behavioral, and determines, that criminals should be punished. And while this approach appears justified, and commonly has public support, all the evidence suggests that not only does this method not deter criminals or, as re-offending rates show, change behavior, but it feeds into a societal atmosphere of intolerance and judgment, strengthening embedded divisions.

    Instead of institutions of retribution, prisons should be refashioned as Therapeutic Centers for Change in which the criminal takes responsibility for their actions but is not made to feel guilty, or despised. An approach that looks at the range of influences that lead a young person into crime and to joining a criminal gang. Communities in which inmates are offered educational and therapeutic support; the whole focus of activity should be to rehabilitate, educate and heal, with the aim of releasing people back into society better educated and (psychologically) better equipped to deal with the demands of life. As in the Norwegian model, prisoners need to be shown respect and compassion and prisons need to be well resourced, funded by the state – private companies have no place in prisons or anywhere else in the criminal justice system – and staffed properly with trained personnel.

    Wealth, crime and confinement

    The underlying causes of crime and anti-social behavior are complex, but study after study shows that poverty, poor education and lack of parental guidance (specifically a stable father), are key factors. Education is consistently hailed as key to release from poverty and social deprivation, and therefore crime. The education a child/young person receives, however, including extra tutoring, access to the Internet, parental support, exposure to the arts, freedom to travel, is conditional upon their social/economic background. Varied levels of opportunity are one aspect of a world defined by inequality.

    Inequality is an issue of social justice. It is not simply a financial issue. It is inherent in the socio-economic order and impacts on all areas of life (including political influence – with wealth goes power), enabling broader social imbalances to prevail. Restricting social mobility, condemning those born into poverty, to, by and large – there are always exceptions – remain there. Interestingly there is a correlation between levels of inequality and crime. Homicides, suspicion and fear of others are higher in countries where differences in wealth/income/opportunities are most pronounced, as are child pregnancies and mental illnesses in addition to a range of other social issues.

    Operating under the same socio-economic model all countries suffer from inequality. Comparing levels of inequality is not straightforward. South Africa often tops the list, with China and India close behind but according to inequality.org the US, is the “most top heavy, with much greater shares of national wealth and income going to the richest 1 percent than any other country.” America is also the prison capital of the world and has more people serving life sentences than anywhere else: 30% of the estimated global number.

    All is interconnected; prisons and crime are consequential elements within a societal structure of injustice and prejudice, which requires fundamental change. The current outdated, habitual and in many cases shameful methods need to be reviewed, the interconnections revealed and alternate approaches developed.

    Such an examination must seek to understand the psychological impact that certain habitual methodologies and relentlessly promoted values have; the widespread use of competition, reward and punishment; the impact of fear, its relationship with desire and comparison; the reductive construct of the self. It must also examine the social conditions people are exposed to. Education and housing, the lack of access to the arts and the impact of materialistic values relentlessly promoted by corporations and governments, as well as the behavior such ideals encourage and the focus on material success. Probably not everyone can be rehabilitated, but many can and all deserve the chance.

    A radical shift is needed, rooted in the recognition that humanity is one, that prejudice has no place in our consciousness or society and that the seed of all that is good rests within each and every human being. In order for that to flourish the creation of environments free from competition, judgment and hatred is required; stimulating spaces (home, school/university, the workplace, prisons and society as a whole) built on compassion, understanding and tolerance.

    Doublethink Doublethink: It’s Two Thinks in One!

    If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

    — O’Brien to Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

    Seventy years ago, on August 29, 1949, the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear bomb, and became the only other state power on the planet, after the United States, with nuclear WMD. Thus commenced an ever-expanding arms race between the two global powers in what became known as the Cold War. Democracy versus Totalitarianism, duking it out, like rock’em-sock’em robots (sold in America; means of production: Marx!), in proxy battles from Central America to the Middle East to Vietnam — held in check by one lone term of engagement: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. America has been at war with Russia my entire life. That year also saw the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which enacts a future where such forces — Oceania and Eastasia — have gone from Cold to Hot.

    Thirty five years later, the real-world Oceania and Eastasia, flashed hot eyes at each other, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev not blinking. Reagan was all Bonzo giddy, feeling oats he hadn’t felt since his Hollywood Western days, pressing a presumed advantage — telling Gorby to “tear down that [Berlin] wall,” touting Star Wars (an ICBM missile shield defense system), and waxing so jocular, at one point, that during a break in a radio interview Reagan’s flippant words (“the bombing begins in five minutes”) put the Soviets on edge — and red alert. (An even more flippant NBC commentator quipped that the alert may have been triggered by a lone drunken Russian officer).

    But it wasn’t all a Deep State chucklefestival. Two graphic films depicting nuclear annihilation, Threads (1983) and The Day After (1984) reminded everybody just how close to MAD Oceania and Eastasia were getting. Tensions were ratcheted to the breaking point: The Soviet economy was teetering; the Berlin Wall fell five years later; the USSR crumbled and Gorbachev eventually gave way to the Russian Trump — Boris Yeltsin. Oceania giddyupped into Eastasia with strings-attached das kapital shortly thereafter. Not every Muscovite was gleeful to see the Golden Arches roll into town, driven by the clown-Christ of capitalism, Ronald McDonald. Nyet, some nationalists griped, while scarfing down a Quarterpounder™ with cheese — and borschtroot — and condemblating how to meddle in future American helectoral process.

    Thirty five years later, we have our own clown-Christ of capitalism, pre-kompromised, installed in the Oval Office, the result of, US intelligence agencies allege, Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, a form of sado-masochistic paranoia seems to have gripped the nation — the president (“Fake News”), the MSM (“Putin’s Puppet”), the People (“they looked left, they looked right, but they couldn’t tell the difference”). In his new biography, The Ministry of Truth, Dorian Lynskey notes that just four days after Trump’s 2017 Inauguration, “US sales of [Nineteen Eighty-Four rocketed] by almost 10,000 per cent, making it a number-one best seller.”

    Lynskey attributes this panic-driven sales soar to claims by the new administration that Trump attracted the “‘largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.’” It was a wild claim, immediately debunked by the MSM, but doubled down on by Trump adviser, Kelly Anne Conway, who dismissed the glaring evidence and pronounced that the new administration would be opting to go with “alternative facts.” Alarm bells went off across the media frontier. As Lynskey’s citing of the statistic suggests, this sounded an awful lot like the “doublethink” gobbledygook of Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare, Nineteen Eighty-Four. If people were going to be living in a parallel universe, they wanted to know what to expect.

    Like Dorian Lynskey’s previous work, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, in The Ministry of Truth the author shows he is adept at showing the confluence of ideas expressed by the voices of myriad protest leaders, whether through song or, if you will, dystopian visions. Ministry is a biography limited to an exploration of the etiology of Orwell’s masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four (and to some degree, Animal Farm).

    In Part One, Lynskey traces the roots and evolution of Orwell’s creative and political ideas, his experiences fighting fascists and communists; and, the literary influence of H.G. Wells, Eugene Zamiatin, and a wealth of others in a cross-pollination and intertextuality that not only help define the genre but demonstrate the interpenetration of human ideas in general. In Part Two, Lynskey traces “the political and cultural life” of the novel, from Orwell’s death to Trump’s Inaugural.

    Like so many other European and American Lefties who signed on as mercenaries to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39, George Orwell came away from the shattering experience thoroughly disillusioned, his ideals in disarray. “The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would,” Lynskey writes, “but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him.” He’d come to fight in a great battle of Good versus Evil — writers like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn and John Dos Passos had come to bear witness — but “[w]hat he found was ‘a bad copy of 1914–18, a positional war of trenches, artillery, raids, snipers, mud, barbed wire, lice and stagnation.’”

    Further, reading battle reports, Orwell discovered “that the Left-wing press [was] every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.” However, aside from the usual horrors of the war and the way they were reported, Orwell did experience moments that would prove useful in his writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lynskey writes, “Orwell found in the trenches a superior version of the cleansing egalitarianism that he had found among the tramps, and it made him a socialist at last.” A ‘cleansing egalitarianism’ (Brotherhood) is a key theme in his dystopian novel.

    In another incident helpful to his fiction, he refused to shoot a fascist with his pants down, mooning melancholically, and noting of the brotherly Francophile that he was “visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him” while he’s shitting. But in a later incident, Orwell is so rattled by a rodent that he opens fire, “thus alerting the enemy and triggering a fierce firefight,” that was nearly catastrophic to his comrades in arms. Rats turn out to be Winston Smith’s greatest fear, at the end of the novel, and the means to breaking down his ego.

    Probably the biggest disappointment Orwell took away from the war was the behavior of the communists; he’d served with a Marxist militia unit (POUM) and saw their atrocities close up. Lynskey wonders:

    Why did Orwell criticise communism so much more energetically than fascism? Because he had seen it up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it.

    The left hand of the Right clasped, behind the back, the right hand of the Left, in any photo shoot together — if you looked hard enough.

    Orwell began reading up on Stalin’s regime, including American journalist Eugene Lyon’s description of Stalin’s Five Year plan, which included “the nose-thumbing arithmetic” of “2+2 = 5,” which is so crucial to Winston Smith’s brainwashing. He read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, whose depictions of purges and show trials (think, Goldstein, and, later, Winston Smith) further amplified his contempt for Stalin and his fear of totalitarianism. The two world wars, I and II, with the Great Depression in between, had drained civilization of its hope, vitality and wherewithal. Out of the morass rose ogres — Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and arguably even Truman (if you counted the dread that the questionable use of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented) — as if to finish us off.

    However, no one had a greater influence on Orwell’s generation than the literary colossus, H.G. Wells. Prolific, prescient, extraordinarily innovative, and widely regarded as the father of modern science fiction (Mary Shelley just rolled over in her grave, uneasily), in some ways Wells was the perfect tonic for an age that had torn humanity apart with with world wars, tyranny, and economic misery disseminated across the globe.

    “Wells predicted space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs,” writes Lynskey, “and popularised in fiction the time machine, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.” He also developed notions of a “World Brain” and anticipated the World Wide Web (sorry, TimBL). Further, he was a force behind the establishment of the League of Nations. Wells was an inspiration in a time stuck in the human morass described by T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland.

    Wells, in turn, was inspired by early readings of Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, all of which required the reader to imagine with the narrator an alternative or new-and-improved world. Thus, Wells bequeathed us The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Outline of History, The Shape of Things to Come, and an enormous trove of essays and other public writings with enormous influence. All of these were enormously important to Orwell as he developed his own utopian visions.

    But Orwell had seen what he’d seen in Spain, and knew the dark heart of Uncle Joe Stalin, and was, writes Lynskey, like “many writers [of his generation] consumed by the idea of decadence and decline.” H.G. Wells’ cautionary utopianism didn’t quite cut it for the lot of them. “It is no exaggeration to say that the genre of dystopian fiction evolved as it did because so many people wanted to prove H. G. Wells wrong,” Lynskey writes. There seemed to be something of the Wagner-Nietzsche competitive intimacy in Orwell’s approach to the Genius; while Wells emphasized Siegfried, Orwell and friends were all about the Götterdämmerung.

    Orwell was a social democrat at heart, but he longed for something deeper and more radical, which seems to be why he was so devastated by the failures of communism. Plato had taught him that if humanity could see the Good, and the error of their ways, uncovered by dialectical reasoning, they would pursue it naturally, out of self-interest. This melancholic view (that would later infuse Winston Smith’s experience of his world) gets reinforced when he comes across the work of American Edward Bellamy — specifically, Looking Backward — 2000 – 1887.

    As Bellamy’s title suggests, the novel moves backward, progressively, towards the squalor and dehumanization of the early Industrial Revolution. Lynskey notes:

    When he looked around at the United States of America in the Gilded Age Bellamy saw a “nervous, dyspeptic, and bilious nation,” wracked by grotesque inequality. Millionaire dynasties controlled the industrial economy, while the labouring classes worked sixty-hour weeks for low pay in unsafe factories and sweatshops, and lived in foul slums.

    In the novel, the protagonist Julian West falls into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep in 1887 and wakes up 113 years later in a “socialist utopia,” where crime is regarded as a medical problem treatable with drugs. This got Orwell thinking.

    But perhaps the single most influential piece of literature that Orwell came across, in the lead-up to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, was Eugene Zumiatin’s We. As Lynskey points out, by coincidence Orwell had already completed an outline for his dystopian novel when he discovered Zumiatin’s work. They share some structural similarities: each features a fall guy who becomes the focussed target of hivemind hatred; a shy protagonist driven astray from his social programming by flashes of free thought and a sexually-liberated female; thought police (Guardians for Zumiatin), and forced mind-mending (from ‘I’ thinking to ‘We’ thinking). Orwell believed that Aldous Huxley nicked some ideas from We.

    But Orwell had a turn at the accusation as well. Lynskey writes, “Karma came for Orwell in the form of several critics who accused him of plagiarising We.” But Lynskey dismisses them, insisting that the genre itself is rife with such borrowings and intertextuality. He answers historian Isaac Deutscher’s claims thusly:

    [Deutscher] accused the author of borrowing “the idea of 1984, the plot, the chief characters, the symbols, and the whole climate of his story” from We… [but] Deutscher wildly overstated the similarities between the novels. Two: as we have seen, Orwell had already written his outline months before he read We. Three: Orwell made repeated efforts to get Zamyatin’s novel republished in English…. surely not the kind of thing that plagiarists usually do.

    So there. “Originality is a vexing concept in genre fiction,” Lynskey adds.

    But Lynskey is even more caustic with Ayn Rand, one of Orwell’s more vocal critics. Writes Lynskey, “There are critics who insist that Ayn Rand could have written her 1938 novella Anthem without ever having read We, and good luck to them.” Rand penned the novella “in three weeks,” and, Lynskey claims, it “is We rewritten as a capitalist creation myth, with paradise as a building site…The book’s working title was Ego.” He clearly objects to her Objectivism. Talk about getting hoiked into your own spittoon.

    Later in his life Orwell faced more pressing criticism than the question of whether he plagiarized Zumiatin. Perhaps, so traumatized by what he’d seen in Spain and saw happening in Stalin’s Russia, Orwell developed a list of 38 writers — communists or sympathizers — that he turned over to the Information Research Agency, a government agency, that he recommended they not hire because of questionable allegiance to the Labour party. Apologizing for this behavior, Lynskey writes, “It is legitimate to be disappointed by the very act of sending such a list to a government agency (even a Labour one), but the edited version was at least largely accurate.” Hmm.

    Some critics were having none of that apology. Lynskey quotes Marxist historian Christopher Hill who opined, “I always knew he was two-faced. There was something fishy about Orwell…it confirms my worst suspicions about the man.” But the late great polemicist (“Beat the Devil”) Alexander Cockburn “couldn’t disguise his glee: ‘The man of conscience turns out to be a whiner, and of course a snitch, an informer to the secret police, Animal Farm’s resident weasel.” (His full article is a fun read.) Does this spell the end of Orwell’s Truth? Should we never read him again? I don’t know, but, when you think about it, Winston Smith’s character takes on new dimensions with this incident — that final betrayal of all you love and everything, and all its implicit future snitching to protect We.

    However one feels about Orwells’ late-life failures, Nineteen Eighty-Four has exerted its familiarity and gravitas since his death in 1950. We are all familiar with the terms of our engagement with his work. Lynskey writes:

    The phrases and concepts that Orwell minted have become essential fixtures of political language, still potent after decades of use and misuse: Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police, Room 101, the Two Minutes Hate, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and the Ministry of Truth.

    Of those terms, perhaps the answer to the equation “2+2=” may be the most pertinent to the contemporary political situation we find ourselves facing in Washington and around the world. How would you answer, brother?

    Nineteen Eighty-Four’s principal concerns have been reprised in Western culture, in one form or another, for decades. For example, Lynskey describes the “aviphobic” David Bowie’s fall into “paranoia and panic” in the 70’s and how it affected his work (his Diamond Dogs album was originally meant to be called 1984.) Bowie was not alone in his feelings of demise. “IRA bombs…stagflation…a miners’ strike…an Arab oil embargo…blackouts, petrol rationing, reduced television service, and non-functioning elevators, Britain began to feel like the opening pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” writes Lynskey. In the 80s, with the advent of personal computing, even commercials, such as Apple’s highly controversial ‘1984’ Super Bowl Ad, were produced to reflect a desire to break free from mind-imprisoning Conformity. In 1990, a film version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was released, which extends the Orwellian vision into what could be a near-future reality.

    Today, Oceania is otherwise known as Five Eyes, and Oceania moves in history in a world of the wars, never-ending, destruction by remote drones and online corporate-government profiling, leading toward neo-fascism or some new unthinkable form of totalitarianism. It remains to be seen when the public should have begun its Orwellian panic, whether it was in the aftermath of 9/11 — or sooner — or with the Carnivalesque decay of Exceptional Democracy. “We are an empire now. We make our own reality,” is attributed a coy Karl Rove, and it sounds like a celebration of doublethink, a movement in the direction of 2+2=5.

    Lynskey wants to locate it with the Trump Inauguration, with the return of Doublethink and Newspeak. But he does remind the reader:

    Orwell’s fear that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world” is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them.

    Lynskey’s words are well-taken, but I believe we must beware that Trump might be Goldstein and that hating on him has been preordained.

    Toward the end of his life H.G.Wells lost his mojo for mankind. In his last published work, Mind at the End of its Tether, Wells wondered aloud, as it were, if it wasn’t time to replace the human species with something more evolutionarily desirable. Like Nietzsche, Wells seemed to long for a Zarathustrian Übermensch; he tired of being a tightrope walker in the largely indifferent marketplace of conventional ideas.

    Five more years of Two-Minute hating on Trump should do it (maybe even just one). Like a soul orphaned in a mechanized world — like Winston Smith — I can almost hear a fat lady singing as it all comes out in the wash she’s hanging on the line:

    Totallo!

    Totallo!

    I love ya

    Totallo!

    You’re always

    A coup

    A way!

    Woof.