Strongmen by Ruth Ben-Ghiat (2)

Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s detailed discussion of modern autocrats jumps back and forth in history, from strongman to strongman, throwing an illuminating light on the gross consistency of the strongman playbook. She lays bare the always intimate symbiosis between the strongman and the wealthy elites he courts during his rise and rewards for keeping him in power. If you are a member of a wealthy elite, and your strongman doggedly protects your privilege, what else do you really need from government? On the other hand, for the average citizen, the thrill of committing violent mayhem against local and foreign “enemies”, with the blessing of Dear Leader, is about all you get, outside of stirring propaganda, confirmation of your hatreds and autocratic rule. Every strongman requires obscenely privileged wealthy backers and squads of angry men, standing back and standing by, to intimidate and bloody all enemies.

At random from this great book, when Italian rogue, whoremaster, construction, media and advertising magnate Silvio Berlusconi took power in Italy in 1994, after running as the candidate of the first corporately created political party, Forza Italia (a one stop corporate influence shop that had clubs all over Italy, ran his marketing campaign, auditioned candidates, lobbied government, etc.), he refused to divest himself of control of his huge business holdings. He appointed his daughter, Marina, to run the holding company that controlled his major businesses. In this way, as far as he was concerned, he’d solved the entire question of conflict of interest and government ethics, he simply made a bold political, not technically illegal, move nobody could stop him from making. This was when he first became Prime Minister in 1994. More recent examples of this same thing, by strongmen and would-be strongmen, immediately leap to mind.

Accordingly, Ben-Ghiat wastes no time making a connection that needs no mention, instead moving on to talk about the way the strongman’s rogue nature draws people to him. He thrills them by proclaiming strict law and order for enemies, and complete impunity for himself and his cronies.

Strongmen often demonstrate their power and virility by flaunting their ability to have unlimited sex with a parade of women. Ben-Ghiat describes the practices of Muammar Gaddafi and his bunga bunga rooms. Berlusconi credited Gaddafi for the term, which to strongmen means unlimited sex, with or without consent. Berlusconi loved the term bunga-bunga and used it to describe his own sex parties [1]. Gaddafi’s bunga bunga room was more of a rape room, for good looking teenaged girls picked out of crowds by a special team always on the look out for young beauties. Berlusconi consorted with a more professional class of women, he was very wealthy, didn’t mind paying for sex, and had a reputation as a rascal to uphold. Other recent strongmen have the professionals they pay for sex sign binding non-disclosure agreements in exchange for hush money.

This embrace of hyper-sexuality and entitlement to sexual gratification is part of the patriarchal “macho” cult of personality myth of the virile strongman, you know, you can walk right up and grab ’em by the pussy, really, seriously. Transgressing the law, and the norms of polite society, is intoxicating to mobs, and a sexual thrill to men who envy the leader’s power to command sex. Ben-Ghiat doesn’t go into detail about Mussolini’s sex life, aside from noting that he was at it for a good part of every day (in ten minute intervals, apparently) and that the cheering crowd was an unfailing aphrodisiac for the priapic womanizer El Duce. Ben-Ghiat includes this sexual predation as part of the strongman’s universal drives: to accumulate bodies, territory and wealth. Again, brings many things from not long ago to mind.

Ben-Ghiat notes that strongmen can tolerate women in power, but only if they are subservient to the strongman. She describes the misogyny that Angela Merkel faced whenever she met with a strongman. Berlusconi made her wait, standing in front of his deak, while he took a long phone call. He referred to her as a “unfuckable lard ass” (the Department of Justice is currently defending an American former president for delivering a more delicate version of the same line, directed at a female journalist he also called a liar, at a press conference, part of his “official duties”). Trump refused to shake Merkel’s hand. Putin made her wait for hours and then, knowing her fear of dogs, unleashed his dogs near her. The German Chancellor said of Putin “I know why he has to do this, to prove he is a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

This terror of their own weakness is the driving secret of every strongman. Ben-Ghiat asks “who would the strongman be without the crowds that form the raw material of his propaganda? His secret is that he needs them far more than they need him.” The pageantry that is the hallmark of every strongman regime “plays to his bottomless need for control and adoration. Of course, having it all is never enough for men who live in a secret state of dread at losing everything. Even as the strongman proclaims his infallibility he is pursued by the demon of fear. He’s wary of the people he represses… of individuals who can prosecute him, of elites who can turn on him and of enemies who wish to remove him from the face of the earth.”

Only a strongman understands his fellow strongmen on this level, which is why they tend to validate each other publicly. It is all love between macho strongmen. The love of the crowd reassures them. We all recall the “lovefest” of January 6 when some of the best people, in one of the largest crowds in history, got a little carried away kissing and hugging the police in their overwhelming adoration of our recent strongman. We could all feel the love.

Wait a second, you say mass media magnate Berlusconi fought to stay in power to avoid prosecution? Berlusconi, as Prime Minister, had the power to get Italian Public Television hosts fired for saying things he didn’t like, though he owned the three most popular television stations in Italy, featuring scantily clothed women, he had no direct control of these public TV hosts. Exploiting corporate conflict aversion he was able to remove critical voices from the mass media, effectively silencing public critics. He managed to remain unaccountable for many arguable crimes, bold risks, committed before and after taking office, though his top minister was later imprisoned for Mafia ties and a few others faced legal consequences, just not Silvio. Other strongmen have not done as well as the Italian forerunner of Donald J. Trump. Some ended badly, Saddam, Mussolini, Gaddafi, Hitler.

Every strongman must successfully exploit the mass media of his day to gain power and control public opinion. Radio was a boon to Mussolini and Hitler (as it was to FDR here), TV to more modern strongmen. “Social media” is today’s coin of the realm for strongmen. Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (gruesomely murdering and dismembering a prominent critic with complete impunity) employs a gigantic army of internet trolls (“the flies”) spreading every message useful to his glorious, reformist rule and drowning out anything critical (MBS also doesn’t hesitate to imprison or butcher critics and rivals, clearly).

In regard to the internet age, a sobering realization dawns when thinking of our once and future Unitary Executive, Donald J. Trump. He could never have become president, in spite of his genius, in spite of being a self-made millionaire at age eight and all the rest, without the unregulated, powerfully influential battlegrounds of Twitter and Facebook. Before the ubiquity of internet echo chambers, before TV (which gave us JFK), the technological breakthrough for early modern stongmen was mass produced affordable radios. Mussolini and Hitler were pioneers in live radio broadcasts of their live mass rallies. It was amazing the effect leaders could have on millions listening at home, by delivering a direct message to each individual citizen in a compellingly personal way. “Social media” is the most directly “personal” form of mass messaging yet. Look, the leader spells just as badly as you do, LOL!

Dr. Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Public Enlightenment, saw at once that Hitler in the studio, trying to do radio, was a complete dud. Wooden and not the faintest bit charismatic in front of a studio microphone, Hitler’s rally-stirring genius only blossomed when the human geiger counter began to work a crowd into a frenzy. Goebbels only aired live Hitler performances, where his beloved idol really shined. The Fuhrer’s mesmerizing live performance was helped by body language training from a top German actor, he also worked with a skilled hypnotist, studying techniques to hone his native talents, constantly tweaking his Hitler brand, which Goebbels lovingly produced. Talk about reality TV.

Ben-Ghiat notes that for many it is intoxicating to commit criminal acts with impunity. “The special psychological climate that strongmen create among their people, the thrill of transgression mixed with the comfort of submitting to his power, endows life with energy, purpose and drama.” This criminal culture filers down from the top. “Making government a refuge for criminals who don’t have to learn to be lawless hastens the contagion effect. So does granting amnesties and pardons, which indebt individuals to the leader and make blackmailers, war criminals and murderers available for service.”

African strongman Mobutu hired the public relations/lobbying/political consulting firm of Paul Manafort and self-proclaimed rat-fucker Roger Stone to launder his corrupt, bloody reputation for the rest of the world.. Manafort’s job, immediately prior to volunteering to work for free as Trump’s campaign manager, was grooming Russian oligarch-backed strongman Viktor Yanukovich [2] to become strongman president of Ukraine. After Yanukovich was elected a massive anti-corruption movement ousted him from power, he fled Ukraine (to Russia) and was replaced as president by the young Jewish lawyer, comedian, TV star and anti-corruption candidate Volodymyr “I need you to do me a favor, though” Zelensky. Manafort was never prosecuted for his direct, secret dealings with the Russian secret service in connection with their help in Trump’s 2016 election campaign, but was convicted of other felonies, for which he was later pardoned by the president he’d loyally served, and refused to incriminate. As was Stone, Flynn, Bannon and a rogue’s gallery of other icons of transgression and polished criminals including Michael Milken. Y’all know the drill.

In relation to the strongman’s need for experienced criminals and dirty-tricksters, Ben-Ghiat cites Hannah Arendt for the proposition that “murderers were most likely to survive in Nazi death camps, not least because the SS appointed criminals to be be capos in charge of disciplining their fellow prisoners. Criminals proved to be some of the Nazis best torturers since they were highly imaginative when it came to pain.” Pinochet was a big believer in torture, with the official backing of the US government that made his rise to power possible.

Strongman states are chaotic, violent and destructive, yet they claim economic growth superior to what is available under democracy. Some categories of people prosper under a regime that helps cronies and financial elites concentrate capital and privatize public goods. Non-cronies and ordinary citizens better just get on line for the rallies and cheer loud as hell for the strongman.

Ben-Ghiat turns to Arendt again:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and ficion, i.e. the reality of experience, and the distinction between true and false, i.e. the standards of thought, no longer exist.”

Every strongman harnesses the power of mass media to influence and intimidate, dismantle the public’s ability to think critically, and create the ideal subjects of strongman rule. All the strongman needs, beyond that and massive financial backing, are a few people with public gravitas who can harness the law, as Bill Barr did for Trump, to advance the strongman’s needs. Ben-Ghiat describes Barr’s March 2020 attempt to get Congress to declare a state of emergency (Covid-19) to allow him to detain, indefinitely and without trial, members of the Left who he accused of “a systematic shredding of laws and undermining the rule of law.” [3] Barr told cops that he was engaged in an “unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society.” He sure was, but only certain ones.

From a bruising, norm-busting presidential campaign, to Trump’s Bannon-composed America-first “American Carnage” State of the Union, which Dubya called “weird shit”, to the January 6 MAGA riot Trump organized, incited and defended after losing the election he claims to have won in a landslide, Trump and his allies followed the strongman playbook step by step. Create an inhuman enemy bent on destroying society, an existential threat, offer yourself as the only savior, keep your war chest full of dark money, control the mass media to convince masses that black is white, up is actually down, use violence and the threat of violence to intimidate the thoughtful, who tend to hesitate and deliberate rather than taking the bold, violent action the strongman is always ready to inspire, et, viola, you are on your way to creating a strongman state.

Ben-Ghiat points out that for strongmen politics is always personal. She notes that all strongmen are also “personalists” holding no real ideals beyond what is best for them personally. “Thirsty for profit and holding a propriety view of office, personalist rulers exploit their nation’s natural and human resources for economic gain.” Bolsonaro warned indigenous communities that they must adapt to his exploitation of their Amazon rain forest habitat or disappear. “Trump’s authoritarian bargain with elites — profits for them, political support for him — motivates his administration’s enthusiastic embrace of climate change denial.” She notes that as of May 2020 he’d rolled back a hundred environmental regulations, greatly increasing profits for his most highly polluting donors.

Strongmen, like all perpetuators of unfair systems, require maximum opacity for their most controversial operations to flourish. Here’s Ruth Ben-Ghiat, ending with a nice snapshot of corporate media’s famous “conflict aversion”, and its tacit support for the status quo, no matter how grotesque:

To counter authoritarianism we must prioritize accountability and transparency in government. At the heart of strongman rule is the claim that he and his agents are above the law, above judgement and not beholden to the truth. Accountability also matters as a measure of open societies because the old yardstick, elections, is less reliable. New authoritarian states often simulate democracy. The nominal democracies governed by personalist rulers often act like autocracies. In Trump’s America, as in Berlusconi’s Italy, the legal and the illegal, fact and fiction, celebrity and politics, blend together until nothing means anything anymore and everything is a confidence game. The corrosive effects of the shift away from standards of accountability and truth were evident in the reaction of CBS news journalist Nora O’Donnell to Trump’s January’s 2020 State of the Union speech. Although the speech contained numerous false statements about economic growth during his presidency, O’Donnell hailed it as ‘a triumph by the Reality TV president, a master showman at his best’.”

Everyone of these motherfuckers, in their day, a master showman at his best.


A century later, the term bunga bunga became popular again as part of a joke on the internet.[7][n 1] This joke was then narrated by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at his dinner parties (in a version which featured, as prisoners, former ministers from the centre-left opposition party led by Romano Prodi).[8]

This expression was then frequently quoted by the Italian and international press during the 2011 investigation surrounding Silvio Berlusconi’s child exploitation acquiring a quite different meaning as “an orgy involving a powerful leader”; it was allegedly taught to Silvio Berlusconi by Muammar al-Gaddafi,[9] who was also the unwitting originator of the phrase Zenga Zenga.

In Italy, the term “has become an instant, supposedly hilarious, household expression”.[10]

Recent explanations disagree on its meaning, or perhaps illustrate the range of its reference. It “is said to be a sort of underwater orgy where nude young women allegedly encircled the nude host and/or his friends in his swimming pool”,[11] “an African-style ritual” performed for male spectators by “20 naked young women”,[12] or erotic entertainment of a rich host involving pole dancing and competitive striptease by skimpy-costumed “women in nurses’ outfits and police uniforms”,[13] the prize being prostitution for the host.[14]



Ukraine was by no means the roughest place Manafort ever worked. His roster of clients going back to the 1980s has included Congolese and Filipino dictators, along with a guerilla leader in Angola. But even this range of experience did not make the Party of Regions an easy customer for Manafort. The reputation of its leaders had been stained with blood since at least 2000, when some of Yanukovych’s political patrons were implicated in the murder of Georgy Gongadze, an investigative journalist who was abducted and beheaded that year.



Yet while the world is consumed by this pandemic and when he thought no one was watching, Attorney General William Barr proposed granting himself immense, permanent powers extending far past the needs posed by this threat.

For example, the proposal grants Barr personally the power to ask any chief judge to hold a citizen, “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.” What qualifies as such disobedience or emergency is left, once again, to Barr. So Barr would be able to hold any American—man, woman or child—indefinitely at his own discretion, whether related to COVID-19 or not, without trial.

The proposal also prevents people with COVID-19 from even applying for asylum. The most vulnerable populations around the world, including children with credible fear for their lives whom we are required under the Refugee Convention to protect, would be needlessly turned away.


Strongmen by Ruth Ben-Ghiat

I will be updating this book report soon to include some of the fascinating details historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat lays out in her playbook for dictators. In the meantime I highly recommend this insightful book to anyone interested in the historical parallels to the autocratic challenge we face today in the USA! USA!!!!

The author, in going back and forth in time between Mussolini, Pinochet, Putin, Saddam, Berlusconi, Bolsonaro, Franco, Hitler and company, presents the unaltered playbook that every one of these “strongmen” uses. It is uncanny how every one of them use exactly the same reality- bending techniques.

The Strongman playbook she lays out is remarkably consistent over the century it has been in use. Every one of these Law and Order Strongmen employs criminals and ambitious sociopaths to subvert the rule of law, intimidate and silence critics and favor and shield those who enable the dictator’s unchallengeable rule. Loyalty and personal use to the Strongman become the sole benchmarks for personalist rulers, like our most recent former president, when hiring henchmen.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat ends her book describing the essential weakness of the Strongman and the path citizens of conscience must take when facing the rise of a Strongman:

History Lesson for September 11th

featuring an excerpt from Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back.

September 11 is probably a good time to transcribe this evocative passage from the opening chapter of the 2006 book by Amy Goodman and David Goodman that I have long been meaning to transcribe and post here.

Journalism is often called the first draft of history. These investigative reports from the first term of the Bush/Cheney administration detail the real-time actions of people struggling against a new regime in which torture was legally (if secretly, at first) redefined as “enhanced interrogation” and dark practices that were previously hidden were now flaunted as part of the US’s tough new zero-tolerance policy towards “Terror”. How did this official U.S. embrace of torture change history? Our current president, when he was a candidate, boasted that the tortures of Bush and Cheney were nothing compared to what he was prepared to do. In that sense, at least, Mr. Trump has kept his word.

Americans are famously prone to amnesia when it comes to history. The name Maher Arar will not ring any bells for most Americans. He was a Canadian citizen, born in Syria, who was detained at JFK airport on September 26, 2002, separated from his family (they were en route to Canada after a vacation) interrogated for days, drugged, diapered, shackled and “rendered” to Syria, where he was kept in a hole in the ground and tortured daily for a year before Canadian efforts finally got him released.

As Amy and David Goodman record: “Three hundred and seventy-four days after he landed at JFK, Maher Arar was released from the Syrian prison. Charges were never filed against him.”

Canada eventually issued a public apology to this innocent Canadian architect, a man with a name similar to someone the US suspected of being a terrorist, and paid him millions in damages. The U.S., in the name of “national security,” (and on several other grounds as well) dismissed the lawsuit Arar brought in U.S. federal court. Nothing to see here, dipshit, we’re fighting evil!

Years later President Obama would admit “we, uh, tortured some folks,” explaining that good people had done it with the best of intentions during very fearful times, but that it was still, you know, kind of wrong. So our first multi-racial president, whose election wiped the slate clean of racism once and for all, made a clean breast of our descent into barbarity, under cover of law. He said it was wrong. I will let the Goodmans take it from the beginning of their 2006 book, a work of journalism that is now a straight up history book (and one I highly recommend):

The United States is an outlaw nation.

The laws that used to govern the behavior of American leaders evolved from basic codes of conduct for civilized nations. In 1215 the Magna Carta asserted that no one, not even the king, was above the rule of law, and it established the concept of habeus corpus — a prisoner’s right to challenge his or her detention in a public court of law. Kidnapping, murder and rape, all nations agree, are crimes. The four Geneva Conventions, the first of which was adopted in 1864, established that even in wars, civilians and combatants have rights. The conventions prohibit murder, torture, hostage-taking and extrajudicial sentencing and executions.

These have long been the publicly proclaimed ideals of Western nations. In private, they have been routinely violated. From the Native American conquest, to slavery, to Vietnam, where torture and extrajudicial killing were staples of the CIA’s Phoenix program, to Latin America, where US-backed death squads rained terror on civilians throughout the 1970s and ’80s, to the US Army School of the Americas, which counts among its graduates a who’s who of Latin American dictators and humans rights abusers, the United States has been secretly involved in the torture business for years.

Yet even by these sordid standards, the United States is now probing new lows.

For this, we must credit President George W. Bush. A failed oil-man, he lost the 2000 election but was selected as president of the United States by the Supreme Court. Having lost the popular vote nationally that year — including, as recounts proved, losing in Florida– Bush proceeded to declare after the attacks of 9/11 that he had a God-given mandate not just to rule America, but to wage war across the globe. He reportedly told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, “God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam.” Bush decreed that neither international law nor U.S. law applied to him or his administration.

Bush was not able to achieve all this on his own. A compliant Congress, lubricated by contributions from self-dealing lobbyists and multinational corporations, together with a deferential American media have been essential parts of his arsenal.

In the Outlaw Nation that has risen up where the United States once stood, holding humans in offshore cages and denying them fair trials is fine. Kidnapping has become an essential tool of foreign policy. The vice president personally lobbies the Senate to legalize torture, while the secretary of defense decides which medieval torments are acceptable (drowning and freezing are in, disemboweling is out). The secretary of state trots around the globe to forcefully and unequivocally reassure squeamish allies — on whose soil the kidnappings and torture occur — that what they know is happening (and secretly assisted) is not really happening. The U.S. media speaks politely about possible “abuse” and refers delicately to things like “stress positions”.

Torturing enemies in secret is not new for the United States. But the open — even proud– embrace of it is unprecedented. Let us take a look into the dark alleys, behind the iron bars, and into the dungeons to shed some light on the secret actions of the Outlaw Nation.

Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back. pp. 17-19 (c) 2006 Amy Goodman and David Goodman

A few last thoughts from Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

which I must transcribe for you now, since the overdue tome I’m holding on to must go back to the library now. Shoshana Zuboff writes:

As Hayek [Friedrich Hayek, influential radical free-market economist – ed.] told Robert Bork in a 1978 interview, “i’m operating on public opinion. I don’t even believe that before public opinion has changed, a change in the law will do any good… the primary thing is to change opinion…” [1]

Indeed, and this has been a longtime project of the movers and shakers of the radical right for literally decades, since at least 1978. Changing public opinion needs to be everyone else’s project now, and going forward.

Shosahana Zuboff:

When I speak to my children or an audience of young people, I try to alert them to the historically contingent nature of “the thing that has us” by calling attention to ordinary values and expectations before surveillance capitalism began its campaign of psychic numbing. “It’s not OK to have to hide in your own life; it is not normal,” I tell them. “It is not OK to spend your lunchtime conversations comparing software that will camouflage you and protect you from continuous unwanted invasion.” Five trackers blocked. Four trackers blocked. Fifty-nine trackers blocked, facial features scrambled, voice disguised.

I tell them that the word “search” has meant a daring existential journey, not a finger tap to already existing answers; that “friend” is an embodied mystery that can be forged only face-to-face and heart-to-heart; and that “recognition” is the glimmer of homecoming we experience in our beloved’s face, not “facial recognition.” I say that it is not OK to have our best instincts for connection, empathy, and information exploited by a draconian quid pro quo that holds these goods hostage to the pervasive strip search of our lives. It is not OK for every move, emotion, utterance, and desire to be catalogued, manipulated, and then used to surreptitiously herd us through the future tense for the sake of someone else’s profit. “These things are brand-new,” I tell them. “They are unprecedented. You should not take them for granted because they are not OK.” [2]

[1] p. 520

[2] p. 521

from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for A Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (c) 2019 Shoshana Zuboff — published by Hatchette Book Group

my “review” of this masterpiece by Shoshana Zuboff

The Right to the Future Tense

This is from Shoshana Zuboff’s important “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. These first few paragraphs of the chapter called “The Right to the Future Tense” leaped out at me as a profoundly evocative description of a writer’s world:

I wake early. The day begins before I open my eyes. My mind is in motion. Words and sentences have streamed through my dreams, solving problems on yesterday’s pages. The first work of the day is to retrieve those words that lay open a puzzle. Only then am I ready to awaken my senses. I try to discern each birdcall in the symphony outside of our windows: the phoebe, redwing, blue jay, mocking bird, woodpecker, finch, starling and chickadee. Soaring above all their songs are the cries of geese over the lake. I splash warm water on my face, drink cool water to coax my body into alertness, and commune with our dog in the still-silent house. I make coffee and bring it into my study, where I settle into my desk chair, call up my screen, and begin. I think. I write these words, and imagine you reading them. I do this every day of every week– as I have for several years, and it is likely that I will continue to do so for one or two years to come.

I watch the seasons from the windows above my desk: first green, then red and gold, then white, and then back to green again. When friends come to visit, they peek into my study. There are books and papers stacked on every surface and most of the floor. I know they feel overwhelmed at this sight, and sometimes I sense that they silently pity me for my obligation to this work and how it circumscribes my days. I do not think that they realize how free I am. In fact, I have never felt more free. How is this possible?

I made a promise to complete this work. This promise is my flag planted in the future tense. It represents my commitment to construct a future that cannot come into being should I abandon my promise. This future will not exist without my capacity first to imagine its facts and then to will them into being. I am an inchworm moving with determination and purpose across the distance between now and later. Each tiny increment of territory that I traverse is annexed to the known world, as my effort transforms uncertainty into fact. Should I renege on my promise, the world would not collapse. My publisher would survive the abrogation of our contract. You would find many other books to read. I would move on to other projects.

My promise, though, is an anchor that girds me against the vagaries of my moods and temptations. It is the product of my will to will and a compass that steers my course toward a desired future that is not yet real. Events may originate in energy sources outside my will and abruptly alter my course in ways that I can neither predict nor control. Indeed, they have already done so. Despite this certain knowledge of uncertainty, I have no doubt that I am free. I can promise to create a future, and I can keep my promise. If the book that I have imagined is to exist in the future, it must be because I will it so. I live in an expansive landscape that already includes a future that only I can imagine and intend. In my world, this book I write already exists. In fulfilling my promise, I make it manifest. This act of will is my claim to the future tense.

To make a promise is to predict the future; to fulfill a promise through the exercise of will turns that prediction into fact. Our hearts pump blood, our kidneys filter that blood, and our wills create the future in the patient discovery of each new sentence or step. This is how we claim our right to speak in the first person as the author of our futures. (…)

from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for A Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (pp. 329-330) (c) 2019 Shoshana Zuboff — published by Hatchette Book Group

my “review” of this masterpiece by Shoshana Zuboff

Make it Concrete by Miryam Sivan

Make it Concrete is the richly layered tale of a woman haunted by history, by turns horrific, tender and wry.    It is beautifully told.   I read it slowly to savor every scene.  The tenderness of the telling, and the flashes of irrepressible playfulness, transform the tormented history wrestled with in the book into fertile background for deeply felt, living human drama.    History should always be written this way, placed in moving, living context; sadly, it rarely is.

Sivan’s protagonist, Isabel Toledo, makes a living interviewing survivors of the Nazi holocaust and writing their stories for publication.    She continually finds herself living horrific details of their ordeals.   Her loved ones keep trying to convince her to give up ghostwriting, which is clearly taking its toll on Isabel.   The ghosts — including those in her own immediate family — keep egging her on.   

Sivan sure-handedly weaves vivid, concisely told vignettes of history into the narrative of Isabel’s life in present-day Israel.   As someone also haunted by history, particularly family history (like Isabel’s) that is often zealously guarded,  I related to the way history — and the quest to know exactly what happened and “make it concrete”–  reverberate throughout this book.   Readers with no particular interest in history will also find themselves pulled into the compelling story of Isabel’s struggle to reconcile her choices in life with the lessons of the past– especially the horrific lessons of one of history’s more notorious epochs of inhumanity.   Make it Concrete is the story of the triumph of life, and love, over even the truly grotesque horrors of the past.

I give this book all the stars it is possible to give.  I look forward to the next book from the thoughtful, talented Miryam Sivan.

Pogrom (and the ignored lessons of history)

Pogrom:  Kishniev and the Tilt of History   by Steven J. Zipperstein  

A pogrom, google informs those who’ve never heard the word, is “an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group”.    The second clause of the top definition reads “in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe.”    The word comes from Russian, Russia was where pogroms, organized attacks against Jews, often erupted in the early 20th century.   Synonyms (and I’m quoting):   massacre, slaughter, wholesale slaughter, mass slaughter, mass killing, mass murder, mass homicide, mass execution, night of the long knives, annihilation, extermination, decimation, carnage, bloodbath, bloodletting, butchery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, megadeath, More.   

A pogrom is when a group of people who hate another group of people organize and storm into the hated community, run amok and brutalize the hated group.   They smash windows, loot shops, burn down homes, beat and kill, rape, get drunk, laugh, whoop, shoot, stab, strangle, pummel to death, set on fire.   During a pogrom the authorities generally look on benignly, allowing events to unfold as they will.   

Not to complicate things here, but a pogrom is exactly what happened, for example, in Tulsa, Oklahoma May 31 through June 1, 1921 when the prosperous black community of Greenwood was invaded, looted, burned to the ground, dozens of blacks (perhaps as many as 300) were murdered, ten thousand were left homeless and many of the now homeless survivors were interned, by armed men deputized during the organized attack who also took part in it,  in a makeshift prison camp in the “pogrom’s” immediate aftermath.  

It is a sickeningly familiar if easily forgettable horror story (America pretty quickly forgot about the massacre in Tulsa, for almost a century).   Think of the horrific tales of the Janjaweed (“evil on horseback”)  in southern Sudan.   They ride into a village of the group they hate and rape, massacre, slaughter, commit carnage, butchery, ethnic cleansing.   The Rohingya [1] in Myanmar are another ethnic minority that has been catching hell in recent times, stateless souls fleeing by the tens of thousands, victimized by government supported pogroms and ethnic hatred, villages on fire.

I have always found it particularly grotesque that humans don’t stand as one against this kind of atrocity, instead arguing about which ethnic group has endured the worst of it.  We are quite tribal, apparently.   Our attitude toward a particular slaughter varies by how much we identify with the victims, or the perpetrators.  Our memory of various atrocities is shaded by the degree of our particular historical amnesia.  Americans are famously obtuse about anything that happened in the past, even a few weeks back.

But I am stepping on the story, which is an astoundingly told history by a writer and historian named Steven J. Zipperstein.    I’d heard of the 1903 Kishniev pogrom, one of many carried out against Jews in Russia in the Age of Pogroms, the most famous of them.   Zipperstein’s book is the most readable history I’ve ever encountered. 

Looking for the notes I took while reading the library’s copy of this great book (eluding me so far) I opened his book at random, looking (in vain) for my usual minimally invasive pencil marks in the margins for passages that I wanted to find again– and was immediately again sucked into the pages of the story.   Zipperstein tells a complicated and sprawling history in a smooth, narrative way we seldom see in a history book.   The beauty and immediacy of Zipperstein’s detailed, seamless telling is the most striking aspect of this great book.

My first thought when I finished reading it was to write to Zipperstein, tell him how blown away I was by how the book placed this particular, haphazardly famous pogrom into a broad historical context (as any great history must do)  and did so with breathtaking narrative sure-footedness.   In turning the book over I noticed that I’d been beaten to the punch by other, much more famous, writers who appreciated Mr. Zipperstein’s amazing facility for uncovering and telling a story,

“It tells us the horror that occurred street by street, butchery by butchery– with gripping clarity and admirable brevity” opined novelist Philip Roth.    Historian Deborah Lipstadt added “Written with the insight of an impeccable historian, his account– which will intrigue scholars as well as the widest array of readers– can be seen as a harbinger of what would come but four decades later.”   Timothy Snyder adds: “Structural grace and clear prose allow a lifetime of historical meditation and a decade of multilingual research to reach virtually any reader interested in Jewish, Russian, and, indeed, American history.”

The book is admirably brief, just over two hundred pages.  The clarity of the writing is gripping.  The insights follow so quickly one after another that a reader without his notes (as I am) is at a loss to even conjure many of them (though I’ll try).  The writer puts the story, brilliantly, within the reach of virtually any reader.

The organized slaughter of Jews in remote, provincial Kishniev, we learn from this account, became famous because, the Kishniev communications liaison for the World Zionist Congress was there when the pogrom began and immediately took off by train for a neighboring town where he began sending off telegrams.   News spread far and wide as fast as possible in 1903 and newspapers worldwide, notably Hearst’s vast news syndicate, arrived in Kishniev in the immediate aftermath of the pogrom.  Photos of the murder and devastation were immediately on newspaper front pages worldwide.  

A star journalist, Michael Davit, writing from Kishniev. kept the story on the front page of Hearst’s influential paper for days.   Davit went on to write Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia, a definitive account of  Russian Jewish life.   Kishniev became the subject of Zionist poet Hayim Nachman Bialik’s most famous poem, In The City of Slaughter.   The image of the Kishniev pogrom  was a potent symbol and organizing tool for Zionism.   It was held out as an irrefutable proof that Jews could no longer live in lands where they could be freely butchered while local authorities looked the other way.

We all know how the larger story of the Jews of the Pale turned out, an army marched through the region just four decades later and completed the mass killing of virtually every one of the area’s Jews.  That knowledge only deepens the horror of this intimate portrait of one particular pogrom.   A bit from the book, at random:

With horror and puzzlement, Jews here would speak of the friendly, at least benign, relations between Jews and non-Jews that had existed prior to the violence; interactions, they said, that had been more casual and less encumbered here than elsewhere in the city.   In this neighborhood, with few pretensions and where workaday relationships — Jews often hired non-Jewish laborers as well as maids or artisans — were more likely to slide into friendships, it was more typical than elsewhere in Kishniev for gentile neighbors to take risks to save Jews.   Hence it was not rare for Jews fleeing rioters to run into the courtyards or homes of non-Jewish neighbors, with the expectation of being hidden.

Then again, it was also not uncommon for neighbors to slaughter or rape neighbors, and frequently with an astonishing indifference to suffering.   The interplay between familiarity and ferocity was replicated in grim incident after incident.  Victims of rape and beating were known to call out the names of their assailants.  One raped woman spoke afterward of having held her rapist as a baby in her arms.  The sons of a local shoemaker — the two boys hid behind a stove while their father was beaten and murdered — recognized the killer as a neighbor whose shoes they had recently repaired. 

This immediately reminded me of translated witness narratives by Jewish survivors of the 1943 massacre in Vishnivetz, the little town my grandparents came from.  In these accounts Jewish women pleaded for mercy from  Ukrainians they knew well, begging them by name.  One very pregnant woman with a child in her arms pleaded in vain to a Ukrainian “reptile” (and not one of the worst, according to the witness) named Vasye, begging him to at least spare her tiny child.  Vasye did not spare anyone.  Such was the “interplay between familiarity and ferocity” and the “astonishing indifference to suffering” in that part of the world. [2]

It is well-known (by those who know…) that the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the bible of anti-Semites, translated into dozens of languages and continually in print since its appearance early last century  (we’re told it is second worldwide in sales to the actual Bible) played a huge role in the proliferation of pogroms after its appearance around 1903.   The long ago debunked (but nonetheless often cited) book purports to be a verbatim account (largely plagiarized from a French satire written decades earlier)  of the diabolical meeting of Jewish leaders (once a century, at midnight in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, as in Umberto Eco’s brilliant novel) at which they (we) lay out their (our) infernal plans for world domination.  

Zipperstein details the story of locally influential anti-Semitic Kishniev publisher Pavel Krushevan and his apparent role in creating the famous Czarist forgery, which first appeared serialized in his paper around the time of the Kishniev pogrom.  In Zipperstein’s account Krushevan is strikingly reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s insane protagonist in The Prague Cemetery.  

There a dozens of fascinating discoveries in the pages of this book.  In passing, describing what he does not include in this account, Zipperstein tells us 

Not examined in this book is Kishniev’s impact on the politics of the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund, then the largest Marxist group in Russia.   This influence, while undoubtedly significant, proved too difficult to substantiate, given that the Bund’s keen preoccupation with the pogrom was silenced by its insistence on its internationalism. 

Among other things, the Kishniev pogrom, it turns out, played a significant role in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Anna Strunsky, a radical Jewish woman and William English Walling, her wealthy, white Southern Christian Socialist husband, recently returned from a visit to post-pogrom Kishniev, were in the middle of the formation of the NAACP.  Hot damn.  Maybe those Czarist secret police forgers who wrote the Protocols were right about those sneaky Elders of Zion!


[1] Doesn’t this look sickening, reduced to a footnote (even leaving out details of the vicious persecution, referred to here blandly as the “crisis”)?

The Rohingya people are a stateless Indo-Aryan ethnic group who reside in Rakhine State, Myanmar. There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis. By December 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, Myanmar, had crossed the border into Bangladesh since August 2017. Wikipedia
Myanmar~400,000 (November 2017)
Bangladesh1,300,000+ (March 2018)


[2]  (from eye witness testimony)

While he was hiding, the reptile Vasye, a Vishnevets resident who lived near the Jewish homes, came armed with a gun and leading Avraham Shimkovits’s daughter, the one who was married to Motye Grinberg, Shimon the Soldier’s son.

[Page 65]

He was leading her as if he were escorting a prisoner on trial. The woman was in the last months of pregnancy and carried a baby in her arms. The baby cried and twisted in her arms out of fear and nervousness.  The woman was very tired; she faced Vaske, her neighbor of many days and years, and spoke.

“Vasye,” she said. “Look, Vasinke, look at my condition. I’ve never harmed you. Have mercy on me and my baby, have mercy, Vasinke.”

The reptile didn’t answer. He moved back as if he wanted to measure her with his eyes, and with unusual calm, he aimed the gun at the baby’s mouth, shot him, and quieted him. The boy convulsed, collapsed, and fell from her arms… she passed out and went into labor. When the killer saw the newborn coming into the world, he aimed his gun and killed him the minute he was born… him and his mother.


A Few Notes on Fascist Politics

My copy of Jason Stanley’s excellent, short book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is on its way back to the library.   While reading it I wrote about the book in some detail HERE.  Before I turn it in for others to read (noting that free public libraries are one of the great institutions of democracy) I’d like to share some additional notes, which follow his ten points of fascist politics. 

MYTHIC PAST:   We once were great, then we were weakened by our eternal enemies, we will struggle to become great again.

PROPAGANDA:  if you can control the information and the spin that the public gets, the battle for public opinion is largely won.    Stanley wrote the book a couple of years ago, so he doesn’t give the following example (but I can):

An investigation reveals troubling evidence of wrongdoing by the president.  The president hires a new Attorney General to take control of the situation, which is threatening to spiral out of control for the president.   The new A.G. does not release the fully redacted summary of the report that is given to him by the investigator.   Instead the new A.G. announces that since the investigator “punted” and didn’t make a charging decision (for reasons the A.G. conveniently ignores) he has been forced to make the hard call on the mass of evidence contained in the report.  That call is “no collusion, no obstruction”.

“No collusion, no obstruction” is the only news the public has until a month later, when the A.G. releases the redacted report and the investigator’s own summaries.  By then, most Americans believe the president has been completely and totally (or at least largely) exonerated by a nothing-burger investigation.  Even though there is a massive trove of evidence that looks very incriminating to the president.

Even though the last lines of the Report  say if the investigator could have exonerated the president in the face of the weighty evidence against, him he would have exonerated him.  The investator determined that he could not exonerate him. 

Barr:  No matter.  

Propaganda is always simple, nuance is hard and tricky.  Who are you going to believe, someone who confidently says “I never lie” or a person who writes 448 dense pages of legalese examining the evidence behind that assertion in excruciating detail?

ANTI-INTELLECTUAL:  rigorous intellectual debate tends not to support fascist politics or the policies of fascism.   Everywhere fascism triumphs intellectuals and open debate have been removed from the public sphere.   Stanley writes (of the removal of certain books and subjects from university curricula):

The priorities here make sense when one realizes that in  antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the workforce without bargaining power and ideologically trained to think that the dominant group represents history’s greatest civilizational forces.  Conservative figures pour huge sums into the project of advancing right-wing goals in education.  For example, the Charles Koch Foundation, just one of the conservative foundations in the United States funded by right-wing oligarchs, alone spent $100 million to support projects largely devoted to conservative ideology at around 350 colleges and universities according to some sources. 


Throughout Mein Kampf, Hitler is clear that the aim of propaganda is to replace reasoned argument in the public sphere with irrational fears and passions.

UNREALITY:  believe half of what you see, none of what you hear, and everything the leader says.   There are facts and there are also, more importantly “alternative facts”.   

This disorienting storm of falsity, and distortion of language itself, is a deliberate tactic of fascist politics.  Stanley discusses  the liberal concept of  “the marketplace of ideas” where good arguments will, through the use of reason and persuasion, drive out bad arguments.  At least that’s the theory.

The argument for the  “marketplace of ideas”  presupposes that words are used only in their “descriptive, logical or semantic sense.”  But in politics, and most vividly in fascist politics, language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion.   

and of special, sickening relevance to our current political situation:

…citizens look to politics for tribal identification, for addressing personal grievance, and for entertainment.   When news becomes sports, the strongman achieves a certain measure of popularity.  Fascist politics transforms the news from a conduit of information and reasoned debate into a spectacle with the strongman as the star.

HIERARCHY:  This applies to groups as much as to individuals in fascist politics, which, as Stanley’s title conjures, divides the world into us (good) and them (bad). Members of the inferior “them” groups are the ones citizens of the superior “us” group may freely take out their frustrations on.  

In the day to day politics of fascism, on a personal level, loyalty to the leader is the most important element to rising in the fascist “meritocracy”.

VICTIMHOOD:   Stanley begins the chapter describing President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.   Johnson vetoed it on the ground that

“this law establishes for the security of the colored race safeguards which go infinitely beyond any that the General Government have ever provided for the white race.”  As W.E.B. Du Bois notes, Johnson perceived minimal safeguards at the start of a path toward future black equality as “discrimination against the white race.”

The fascist in group is always the fully justified, righteous victim of the angry out group.

LAW and ORDER:  This slogan stands in for the idea that law will be used to preserve and protect the desired order.   

A healthy democratic state is governed by laws that treat all citizens equally and justly, supported by bonds of mutual respect between people, including those tasked with policing them.  Fascist law-and-order rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of the chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless.

Stanley focuses on the explosion American incarceration where people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted and sentenced.   Law and Order is a slogan that resonates much stronger than “we are afraid, as Jefferson was, of the righteous rage of a race on whose neck we have kept our foot for centuries.”  Nixon exploited this powerful, racially charged euphemism  in his presidential campaigns (his “southern strategy”) as have virtually all right-wing politicians since.  

SEXUAL ANXIETY:  Fascist politics is patriarchal, with the strongman leader as the hyper-masculine father of the nation.    Demonizing anyone who deviates from this vision of mythic order is a common element of fascist politics. 

SODOM AND GOMORRAH:  cities, which tend to be places where diverse populations live and work, and differences are tolerated, even embraced, are seen in fascist politics in stark contrast to the country, where the mythic national purity they extoll still prevails.   Stanley cites a  few counter-factual lines from one of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches:

“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever.   You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.”  And yet during this time, cities in the United States were enjoying their lowest rates of crime in generations and record low unemployment.  Trump’s rhetoric about cities makes sense in the context of a more general fascist politics, in which cities are seen as centers of disease and pestilence, containing squalid ghettos filled with despised minority groups living off the work of others.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI:  “Work Will Set You Free” was the false promise on the gates of places like Auschwitz where slave laborers were routinely worked to death.  Hard work is a trait of “us”, laziness and parasitism are traits of “them”.  It is not a stretch to argue, in a fascist society, that vicious, life-sapping parasites should be worked to death.

Stanley spends some time laying out the fascist hostility to organized labor.   In labor unions workers of various races, backgrounds, genders, sexual and political orientations have common goals: better working conditions, fair pay.  These shared goals tend to unite working people who fascists seek to keep apart, exploiting their differences to create the hierarchic caste system necessary for a fascist regime.

Mr. Hitler again, from Mein Kampf, calling the kettle black in the way of fascist leaders everywhere, projecting on to their enemies exactly what they are doing:

“[The Jew] is gradually assuming leadership of the trades-union movement– all the easier because what matters to him is not so much genuine removal of social evils as the formation of a blindly obedient fighting force in industry for the purpose of destroying national economic independence”  

Stanley demonstrates that fascist politics is more effective under conditions of stark economic inequality.    

I note that while the many of the wealthy captains of Germany industry were initially alarmed and horrified by Hitler’s rise,  as many of their counterparts here in America were by Trump’s ascendance, they soon found their profits rising, their wealth greatly enhanced and their privileges well-protected.   The most unscrupulous of the German businessmen availed themselves of Hitler’s generous offer of very low cost slave labor.  The SS charged $1 a day for death camp prisoners who could, literally, be worked to death making products for Germany.  

It has long appeared to me that slave labor (as long as their slavery can be kept secret) is the ultimate dream of corporate bottom-liners.   Corporate employers in Nazi Germany had the perfect situation, hard working very low cost employees who spent their nights in death camps and, obviously, no labor unions.   Hitler abolished them shortly after taking office, after allowing organized labor a last May Day parade in 1933 — he outlawed collective bargaining and the right to strike. 

This rascal we have now as president, I have to say, seems to check every box of fascist politics.  He is not alone, as the party he has seized leadership of has been steadily heading this way for the last few decades.  Hard to blame them, really.   The vast privileges of the inheritors of immense intergenerational wealth are threatened by the notion of things like a social safety net, a commitment to pursuing our common goals (like preventing the destruction of our biosphere) and fulfilling the basic human needs of citizens great and small.   The exponents of fascist politics, a politics of division, have expertly used people like Mitch McConnell and Mr. Trump while enlisting widespread support for otherwise unpopular policies that only help the already powerful.

God bless these United States, man.


To use or not to use the F word

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,  by Jason Stanley

(book review, or, more accurately, my recommendation of a thought-provoking book I am still reading)

It’s tempting, when a leader panders to ethnic hatred, relies on propaganda and attacks the press as the “enemy of the people”, consolidates power by demanding personal loyalty and threatening all opponents, exhibits excessive cruelty in his policies (like tearing children from the arms of their mothers), defends his actions by constantly attacking enemies he villainizes, rewards loyal cronies by appointing them to key positions they are unqualified for, openly monetizes his office for his own gain, is openly contemptuous of democracy and all law, except when laws can be used against enemies,  is compelled to publicly brag at every opportunity… it’s tempting to call such a leader a fascist.

Fascists, it’s true, also despise intellectuals, reasoned debate, media that is not fawning (and party-controlled), anyone in a position to apply reason and demonstrable facts in an argument opposing the leader’s will.  Dissent is seen as treason in a fascist, one-party state.   Anything not broadcast on the state-run channel is attacked as fake.   Fascists do many of the things our Orange Menace does here, it’s true, but is it correct to call Mr. T a fascist?

Jason Stanley, Jewish egghead know-it-all from Yale [1], grandson of holocaust survivors, makes an excellent case in his slim, very readable book How Fascism Works.   One can quibble, as some historians apparently have, that some of the economic policies of “classical fascism” are not in play in the USA and therefore… blah blah blah, but Mr. Stanley makes a very compelling case that we are dangerously close to becoming a fascist state, certainly as far as our politics goes.    He goes through ten characteristics of fascist regimes, focusing on fascist politics, and Trump scores beautifully on each of them.  (At the risk of seeming to ape Mr. Trump’s twitter style, I will put each of these characteristics in ALL CAPS)

The philosophy of fascism, if we may call a crude and violent system of coercion like fascism a “philosophy” (Stanley, a philosopher, reasonably takes no position on this) is born in struggle.  An eternal, existential struggle is a necessary element of the fascist worldview.   Like the titanic struggle Mr. Hitler heroically waged, after realizing the Jews were at the root of all evil, decadence and humiliation in Germany, and then overcoming a million enemies and a thousand obstacles to attain the leadership of Germany in order to finish the struggle against Jews and lead a pure Germany for the next thousand years.    Fascism is a philosophy of perpetual heroic war against evil, devious, inhuman enemies that must be eliminated.

Stanley starts with the MYTHIC PAST conjured in every fascist worldview. At one time our nation was great, the myth goes, it had the greatest culture and was glorious and undefeated in war.   Then X destroyed that greatness, by treacherously injecting our culture with fatal weakness.   To make our country great again, we must destroy X, inoculate our people against the residue of their poison, and eliminate anyone who has sympathy toward X and their repellant ideas.

PROPAGANDA is essential to the rise of a fascist state.  Masses have to be convinced of this mythic past and the necessity of a ruthless war to make the nation great again.  The only chapter in Hitler’s Mein Kampf that is not the incoherent blathering of a rabid dog (my words, not Stanley’s) is his shrewd, ruthless analysis of propaganda.   Stanley quotes historian W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote in a discussion of propaganda in history that once the ideals of historical scholarship, truth and objectivity are bent strictly toward advancing a political goal you have propaganda, not history.   This rewriting, or forced forgetting, of fact-based, inquisitive history is a primary aim of totalitarians.  History itself must be replaced, in a fascist regime, by propaganda.

Stanley writes “political propaganda uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends.”  He gives the example of Nixon’s “war on crime”, a campaign that concealed the racist intent behind Nixon’s selective (it was the blacks, Nixon believed, the goddamned blacks) crime control policies.  War, whatever reason it is actually waged for, is always couched in stirring, moral terms.  You cannot sell an idea like war without powerful slogans to persuade the public it is morally necessary.

In a commercial, advertising-driven democracy like ours, we are bombarded by a free flow of messages, increasingly so since we began carrying tiny personal computers in our pockets.  It is this free flow of ads and other “content” that gives a repressive ideology a chance to flourish (this is not one of Stanley’s points, but follow me here).   Stanley quotes Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda and public enlightenment, who famously said “this will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.”   Goebbels also shrewdly noted (it should be noted), that the Nazis, if they won their war against Jews, would be regarded as history’s greatest benefactors, if they lost, they’d be remembered as the world’s most notorious criminals.  Word, history is written by the victors, in the blood of the vanquished.

Stanley’s third characteristic of fascism is ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM.   Traditionally intellectuals debate each other based on a great deal of reading, citing other intellectual’s studies, theories and conclusions to bolster their arguments.  The free exchange of ideas is essential to intelligent discussion of any problem.  Fascists despise this kind of thing.  In fact, the first thing they do is round up all the eggheads and kill as many as needed to get the cooperative silence they need to have only the fascist point of view heard.

OK, you can say, if you love Mr. Trump, he’s not anti-intellectual, he’s an extremely stable genius who has read many books, or at least one book, and he uses the best words, unbelievable words, and doesn’t rely on bullying anyone who criticizes him.  You get the idea.  

The shamelessly intellectual Jason Stanley, to the great annoyance of people who hate criticism of a great man, keeps quoting other sources, as his type (and mine) always seems to do, in support of his conclusions.   As no less an authority on fascism than Mr. Hitler himself wrote, in Mein Kampf:

All propaganda should be popular and should adapt its intellectual level to the receptive ability of the least intellectual of those whom it is desired to address.  Thus it must sink its mental elevation deeper in proportion to the numbers of the mass whom it has to grip… the receptive ability of the masses is very limited, and their understanding small, on the other hand, they have a great power of forgetting.  This being so, all effective propaganda must be confined to a very few points which must be brought out in the form of slogans. 

Hitler made it clear that the aim of propaganda is to “replace reasoned argument in the public sphere with irrational fears and passions” (Stanley’s words).  Bingo.  Fear of a hoard of illegals who rape, kill, torture, smuggle drugs, hate freedom replaces all reasonable discussion of solutions to a massive refugee crisis that is complicated and difficult to solve.

In terms of “messaging” which of the following resonates more powerfully and is easier to retain as the definitive end of the subject?

“No collusion, no obstruction, complete and total exoneration.”


“The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

One fits on a T-shirt (or red baseball cap) the other would require you to read hundreds of pages to even know what the fucking long-winded, lawyerly fuck is even talking about.  You choose!

Stanley then moves on to UNREALITY.   Language, traditionally used to clarify and elucidate, is co-opted to serve the needs of the fascist ideology. Words are often repurposed to mean the opposite of what they have always meant.  For example, sonderbehandlung “special handling” used to indicate the delivery of fragile and precious cargo, was stamped on the papers of stateless Jews on their way to Nazi death camps.

You cannot believe, according to a fascist leader, the things you see with your own eyes, these things are recast in some other, more purposeful, way.    Observable facts are rightfully opposed by equally compelling “alternative facts.”   Hannah Arendt points out that a “normal” person in Nazi Germany (normal from any traditional notion of morality), where mass-killing of enemies was considered necessary and highly moral, would have been considered abnormal, immoral enough to lawfully execute.  

In a society where it is normalized to take crying babies from their mother’s arms and lock the kids in cages you compare to “summer camp”, the person who objects to this admittedly tough but necessary measure, is called hysterical and an enemy of freedom.  Unreality becomes the new reality in a fascist state.

As for the famous liberal notion of a “marketplace of ideas” where reason rules and wise opinions vanquish stupid ones, forget that.  “…in politics, and most vividly in fascist politics, language is not used simply, or even chiefly, to convey information but to elicit emotion,” notes Stanley.  “Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a gun.”

HIERARCHY is Stanley’s fifth criterion of a fascist state.  Equality of citizens is seen as a ridiculous and destructive myth in fascism, which celebrates strength and despises weakness.   The greatest, chosen because of their clear superiority, lead the fascist state, the citizens follow their leader without question, recognizing the leader’s superiority.  Like the modern corporation, or any bureaucracy, really, accountability flows in one direction only.   Pawns and drones are obliged to obey orders from unaccountable superiors without question, because the person giving the orders is recognized as superior in every sense.  

The notion of human equality, is seen under fascism as a vice of the weak, and an affront to nature, which clearly favors the strong over the weak.  Fascists consider democratic debate, consensus and compromise related vices of the weak, who try to compensate for the fact that they lack the vision and infallible wisdom of the leader by some warped notion of wisdom residing in the memory and values of a community that is responsible for each other. 

One way to make a large mass of burdened people feel better is to assert their innate superiority over another mass of people.   Men are superior to women, whites to blacks, agrarians to urbanites, party members to dissenters.   This little hierarchical trick has worked beautifully for centuries.

Stanley next discusses the essential fascist trope of VICTIMHOOD.  In the fascist worldview the good, blameless people have clearly been victimized by implacable, evil enemies.  Justice demands this be redressed.  These villains should be hanging from lamp posts, from the unabashed fascist point of view.   A victim has every moral right to destroy their longtime abuser.  

I couldn’t help but notice this Hitler-in-the-bunker trope in one of our president’s many angry tweets after the Mueller Report (that totally exonerated him) was released (he is, after all, our Victim-in-Chief):

It is finally time to turn the tables and bring justice to some very sick and dangerous people who have committed very serious crimes, perhaps even spying and treason!

LAW AND ORDER, is Stanley’s next chapter (I have not read this chapter or beyond yet, though I will soon).  Law and Order, of course, are always things to be selectively applied, to enemies only.    Nixon’s henchman John Erlichmann told an interviewer in 1994 that it was impossible to criminalize being black or opposing Nixon or the Vietnam war, but that it was quite possible to make possession of certain drugs a felony under federal law, and that gave the lawless Mr. Nixon an enormous hammer to wield against his many enemies.  

The first thing Trump did when he announced his run for president was to summarily criminalize immigrants and asylum seekers, calling them rapists and murderers.   Which leads us to Stanley’s next criterion of fascism, sexual anxiety.

SEXUAL ANXIETY is a famous driver of murderous lynch mobs everywhere.   Blacks were often accused of raping white women before they were violently removed from prison, often under the watchful eye of local authorities, tortured and killed.    One wonders why there were virtually no accusations of black male slaves, left on the plantations down south while most of the able-bodied white men were fighting the Civil War, raping the wives and daughters of their owners.   It would be easy to understand their motivation, if such violence had happened.  

The absence of  stories of black on white rape during the war underscores the fallaciousness of most of the rape allegations in the years after the war.  The rape charges routinely used to justify a century of unpunished lynching were the product of the sexual anxiety of the racists who committed these bestial acts and used their own sexual anxieties, and righteous, if irrational, sense of victimhood, to justify them.  

Sexual anxiety, or course, is a patriarchal tic, the product of the same hyper-manly “toxic masculinity” that fascist leaders always project.   Why is intolerance of homosexuality often part of the fascist mindset?   Homophobia, literally a “fear of homosexuals”, always plays a large part in the anxieties of patriarchal types.   Who else is scared of somebody else’s sexual preference?

SODOM and GOMORRAH is Stanley’s next chapter.  This refers to the common fascist myth that cities, like universities not strictly controlled by the one-party state, are hotbeds of degeneracy, sin and potential violence, while the countryside is where true human decency prevails.   Cities that give sanctuary to raping hoards of illegals, tolerate homosexuality and transgender people, worship the false, unnatural ideals of equality and democracy are not reflections of the real values of the people.  

The morality of a nation is rooted in its soil, says the fascist myth, the people who live outside of the morally polluted cities are the truly great citizens, denizens of cities are hopelessly corrupt and need to be kept in check, punished.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI  is Stanely’s final chapter.   It is the logical extension of fascist ideology.   Your enemies have been stealing from and undermining the good people for generations, now it is time to turn them into slave laborers.   The name of the chapter is taken from the notorious sign that was worked into the top of the iron gates of the Auschwitz death/work camp. It meant “work liberates”. One of the most famous Nazi practical jokes, that slogan.  

Vernichtung durch Arbeit (extermination through work); i.e., hard labor until death, was an integral part of the Nazi extermination scheme.   Might as well generate capital from the labor of these vicious people you were exterminating, while you worked them to death.   The arbeit macht frei myth/lie reinforced the importance of unquestioning work for the benefit of the most important members of society.   If work could also liberate by enslaving and working your enemies to death?  Win win.

As the child of people whose parents’ entire generation was wiped off the face of the earth by fascists in the space of a few months in 1942, I don’t take any of these signs lightly.   The shit all lines up a little bit too symmetrically.  All indications are that Trump would love to be a fascist dictator, and that he’s pretty close already, with unquestioned support from a lock-step political party, an ideological mass media megaphone/echo chamber  and a sizable part of our population.    

If a leader who is openly contemptuous of law, and has always used the courts to avoid any liability for his many dishonest schemes, is not held accountable by the laws that govern democracy, we are already at the end of the joke Goebbels so enjoyed about democracy providing the means to achieve a fascist state.   If “politics” are nervously invoked by the timid and divided opposition party who fear strengthening a leader they claim belongs in prison, leaving the decision to the voters a year and a half from now rather than using the law to hold him to account, we are already very close to the end of our long experiment in democracy.

If the law is not enforced against unscrupulous people “too big to indict”, out of fear of electoral or other repercussions, we should just resign ourselves to the inevitable.   Line up, get our tattoos, and get into whatever cattle car they send for us to take us wherever they decide we need to end up.  

We have laws that can stop these determined, ruthless motherfuckers, there is no good choice but to use them.  Now.

Meantime, read Jason Stanley’s book, if you need any further convincing on the need to act.

[1] I can say this without fear, because I am a Jewish egghead know-it-all from the City College of NY.  Fuck off, Nazis.

A few thoughts on thinking

The most satisfying and memorable kind of conversation is like a great catch.  The thought you throw to the other person is held for a moment and tossed back, with an interesting additional idea, and it comes directly into your hand, for a moment of consideration, before you toss it back.  There is a rhythm to this kind of chat, and no rush to talk.

What you just said reminds me of something eerily similar that happened to me years ago.  I mention it.  You raise your eyebrows, nod, yes, it’s very similar, but there is one big difference.  You elaborate.  I hadn’t thought about that, but, sure, that’s a very big difference, all the difference in the world, really.  

You can learn something important when a distinction is illuminated like that.  This kind of conversation is a way of thinking back and forth, of collaboratively considering things and shedding light on some of the mysteries of this mysterious life.    

Most talks between us are not so much this way, they are quick, many unrelated things come and go, threads pop up and disappear, shorthand is substituted for consideration, we move on, time is fleeting, we gossip, we vent, we don’t linger to converse in the more thoughtful mode every day.

We can all remember specific conversations that were on a deeper level, that moved us, changed us even.   I recall one, during a bike ride with an old friend, when she told me something obvious and profound that I’d never thought of.  She put it succinctly, in a phrase, and it changed the way I saw things.  I had one, and only one, wonderfully deep, personal conversation with my otherwise fussy, distracted Aunt Barbara.  In the living room of my parents house, after everyone else had gone to sleep, the moments with her I value the most.

The desire for this kind of conversation is a big reason people love to read.   We have a dialogue, of a sort, with another mind, a mind who was driven to set things on paper, after combing them into the readable form we have in front of us.   I am reading a book like that now, a novel.   Full of what Zora Neale Hurston called “that oldest human longing”, the desire to reveal ourselves to another, to speak our deepest personal truths and be seen and heard as we really are.   Speaking is great, writing is a more refined version of speech.

This dialogue with the author is a big reason we read.  I knew nothing about Shoshana Zuboff except that she recently gave a few very interesting interviews about her mind-blowing book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.   I didn’t pick up the book because I wanted a dialogue with her specifically, the subject she wrote about was compelling to me.  It turns out she is not only a very perceptive and extremely well-read woman, she’s fucking brilliant, creative and extremely engaging.  

She reminded me of Hannah Arendt in the way her book was loaded with thought-provoking insights seemingly peripheral to her central idea. Of course, no insight is peripheral to anything, in the hands of a creative thinker and skilled writer.

Take this seemingly random peripheral insight from her book.   We in the West have long valued the idea of our own autonomy.   The principle that we alone, as individual moral actors, have the final say in what we think and do.   This idea, Shoshana Zuboff points out, is under great pressure now, in an age when systematically modifying our behavior, our choices, how we think and interact, is increasingly monetized by people who become billionaires by tracking our every impulse, particularly things like the desire to be accepted by others,  and directing these impulses toward personally targeted commerce.  

The ideal consumer is one who is not autonomous, driven by deeply held beliefs and a strong internal need to feel independent, but heteronomous.

Heteronomous?   What the fuck?

Shoshana Zuboff provides this great term as the opposite of autonomous.   Heteronomy is the external force, based on an overarching concept, that drives mass conformity.   This indispensable word is apparently a coinage of Immanuel Kant’s [1].  

Note: the digital technology that allows us to instantly search for and pull up information, opinion and historical (and ahistorical) details is a sharp double-edged sword, of course.  We are all very smart, in our information age, and capable, if we wish, of effortlessly fact-checking and quoting very accurately, when we have instant access to the world’s collected information.  We are not nearly as impressive when we have no cell reception and only memory and wit to rely on.   In this age anyone can tap in a quick search and come up with:

Heteronomy refers to action that is influenced by a force outside the individual, in other words the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another, as in a military occupation.

Immanuel Kant, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau,[1] considered such an action nonmoral.[2][3]

It is the counter/opposite of autonomy.

Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis contrasted heteronomy with autonomy by noting that while all societies create their own institutions (laws, traditions and behaviors), autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (αυτο-νομούνται). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies (hetero = others) attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (e.g., God, the state, ancestors, historical necessity, etc.).[4]



The actions of a heteronomous person are driven not by an internal imperative to act based on a personal, individualized belief system, but by an external force.  The masters of the force that moves masses can make themselves all-powerful and wealthy beyond the dreams of the most wanton slaveholder who ever enjoyed the involuntary company of an endless parade of beautiful servant girls.

You get a notification and look into your cellphone screen to read a come on that a third party has sent to you.  Your smartphone, of course, has a camera with a sharp lens and you have, by clicking “accept” when downloading the app, already given permission for the app and any associated third parties to have access to that camera.   As you look at the come on, the camera captures your reactions.   A few revealing micro-expressions are taken and filtered through algorithms that tell the third party exactly what you are receptive to receiving as a follow-up.  Disgusted by the ad?   We are too!    We’ll send you the antidote!

In our surveillance age, privacy is sacrificed to “security” and convenience.   The genius of the world’s smartest man, Jeff Bezos, was implementing a system to exploit his keen understanding that by monetizing the laziness and poor impulse control of the average American consumer he could become the richest individual in human history.  

Shop, in the privacy of your home, in your underwear, for the specific things that will make you elegant, popular, the envy of your friends and enemies alike.  Pay an annual fee and become a preferred customer, you can receive this great stuff almost instantly.   They’re working on a way to have robots and drones get this stuff to you in virtual real time.   What a world!

As we enjoy the convenience of this cyber world we give up certain crucial things.   Human interaction has been changed by the always-on social media machine that converts the world into a data-driven high school popularity contest. The need for face-to-face play, improvisation just for fun, one of the great joys of human life, has been largely replaced by virtual human contact. Virtual human contact that allows third parties to monetize and profit from our need to connect.

Just as the female calf on the industrial diary farm never experiences the play that all young mammals have always enjoyed as they master a host of social skills, including the flirting that will lead to reproduction (these industrially raised young cows don’t need to learn anything, they’ll be artificially inseminated and give more milk than any naturally raised cow) [2] today’s teenagers are growing up in a less playful, far more precarious, world few of us could have imagined.   Except perhaps on our worst day in junior high school.

A world where everyone has a camera on them at all times, for better or worse.  Where, on a dare, or being flirtatious, at an age when people are searching for the acceptance of their peers, racy nude photos are taken, exchanged, live forever on servers in virtual clouds.   At the worst possible time in the life of a fifteen year-old girl a formerly trusted best friend reveals a vicious side, posts that photo of you with the dick against your dumbly grinning face.   Of all the things that goad adolescent suicide, a good public humiliation is high up there.  Another person’s shame can now be uploaded, instantly, on to the internet everybody carries in their pocket.  This is a new, devastating weapon everyone is aware of.

Shoshana Zuboff discusses the wariness that must be imparted to children in this world of eternal invasive, largely commercial, surveillance.  Be paranoid, they are collecting every private insight that can be gleaned, in order to “serve you more efficiently”.  They are modifying your behavior in real time, and the reach of their prying apps, in continually more refined ways.  You are a sucker if you trust anyone.  Do not make eye contact, hit “like” and LOL.

I saw an ad for what seems to be a wonderful project.  A search engine that spends its profits planting trees, they’ve already planted millions of trees in formerly denuded, lifeless landscapes. We can read all the devilish details of what amoral motherfuckers Google’s executives are. They also built the greatest internet mousetrap in history, you have to give them credit.  The proof of Google’s value, as they say, is in the pudding, they are richer than fuck, among the most successful companies in history.   That’s really all you need to know.  Hate success?  You hate freedom!  (talk about heteronomous logic)

The alternative search engine I saw the ad for, Ecosia, has a series of wonderful ads.  They plant trees to restore destroyed rain forests, reclaim arid new deserts, provide habitat to preserve some of the thousand of species that are becoming extinct every day.   You can download their free app.   Sounds like a total win-win.  Fuck google.  Let me support a company that is doing something proactive to save our planet from the rapacious extractionists who are, to put it crudely, raping our biosphere to death.  

Then I think:  this is exactly what they want, isn’t it?  Talk about building the ultimate mousetrap.

Download the free app, along with every other idealist in the radius of Ecosia’s advertising,  and they are on your computer, on your phone, in your home, in your head.   They now have your name, and your every preference, on a worldwide list of everybody who fancies herself an idealist, everyone who wants a better world.  Who do they have to wipe out first, if they are to finally have everything just before the earth breathes its last?   Me and you, baby, the people who are determined to fight the grim, determined, heteronomous armies of death.  

Another bracing thing Shoshana Zuboff details is how this justified paranoia has decreased human to human trust among Americans.   We also have less and less trust for institutions, norms, the fairness of justice.  We are right to be paranoid, as we are screwed left and right, in the name of abstract principles that serve only the monetizers at the top of the societal food chain.   Distrust has become a kind of default setting as we learn more and more about the details of how we are being systematically fucked and lied to about the nature of this nonconsensual arrangement.

One final thought about thinking.  We tend to think in words (feelings come in many tastes, smells, sounds, colors, etc.)  and so a word like anodyne, or heteronomy, is essential in forming certain thoughts.  Without the word neatly expressing and encompassing the larger concept, we’d have nothing to chew on, at least not in a way we can express.  Something to masticate.



[1] Kant, a world-changing philosopher, is reputed never to have traveled more that a short distance from where he was born.  Forty miles is the distance I recall hearing from a chatty professor in a philosophy class at City College around 40 years ago.   I did a search for what that distance actually was, using the newfangled internet.  That he never travelled more than 16 km. (9.9 miles) from his birthplace is apparently a crock:  

A common myth is that Kant never traveled more than 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Königsberg his whole life.[45] In fact, between 1750 and 1754 he worked as a tutor (Hauslehrer) in Judtschen[46] (now Veselovka, Russia, approximately 20 km) and in Groß-Arnsdorf[47] (now Jarnołtowo near Morąg (German: Mohrungen), Poland, approximately 145 km).   source

Ninety miles, bitches.  Don’t believe the hype.

 [2]  Thank you, Yuval Noah Harari, for the description of this animal right to play and socialize, unsentimentally sacrificed without a second thought by the industry that brings Americans their dairy and meat.