April 13, 2018

Crisis: James Comey, Paul Ryan, Facebook & Rohingya, What´s ¨A Fascist¨, Big Data´s Robbers


1. Summary
Crisis Files
     A. Selections from April 13, 2018

This is a Nederlog of Friday, April 13, 2018.

1. Summary

This is a crisis log but it is a bit different from how it was the last five years:

I have been writing about the crisis since September 1, 2008 (in Dutch, but since 2010 in English) and about the enormous dangers of surveillance (by secret services and by many rich commercial entities) since June 10, 2013, and I will continue with it.

On the moment and since more than two years (!!!!) I have problems with the company that is supposed to take care that my site is visible [1] and with my health, but I am still writing a Nederlog every day and I shall continue.

Section 2. Crisis Files

These are five crisis files that are all well worth reading:

A. Selections from April 13, 2018
1. James Comey Has a Story to Tell. It’s Very Persuasive
2. Political Scientist Corey Robin: Paul Ryan Is Retiring After Failing to
     Fulfill Right-Wing Agenda
3. How Facebook Played “Instrumental” Role in Rise of Burma’s Ethnic
     Cleansing Campaign of Rohingya

The Definition of a Fascist? Trump thinks any attack on him is an attack
     on America

5. Reining in Big Data’s Robber Barons
The items 1 - 5 are today's selections from the 35 sites that I look at every morning. The indented text under each link is quoted from the link that starts the item. Unindented text is by me:

1. James Comey Has a Story to Tell. It’s Very Persuasive

This article is by Michiko Kakutani on The New York Times. It starts as follows:

In his absorbing new book, “A Higher Loyalty,” the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey calls the Trump presidency a “forest fire” that is doing serious damage to the country’s norms and traditions.

“This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” Comey writes. “His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”

Decades before he led the F.B.I.’s investigation into whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, Comey was a career prosecutor who helped dismantle the Gambino crime family; and he doesn’t hesitate in these pages to draw a direct analogy between the Mafia bosses he helped pack off to prison years ago and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Well... I think Comey is right in what he wrote above, but I neither like nor admire Comey.
Then again, he is right about ethics and truth (though I am rather certain his positions on ethics and truth differ radically from mine, though we agree both exist and are important).

Here is more on the similarities between the Mafia and Trump´s government:

A February 2017 meeting in the White House with Trump and then chief of staff Reince Priebus left Comey recalling his days as a federal prosecutor facing off against the Mob: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.” An earlier visit to Trump Tower in January made Comey think about the New York Mafia social clubs he knew as a Manhattan prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s — “The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Café Giardino.”

The central themes that Comey returns to throughout this impassioned book are the toxic consequences of lying; and the corrosive effects of choosing loyalty to an individual over truth and the rule of law. Dishonesty, he writes, was central “to the entire enterprise of organized crime on both sides of the Atlantic,” and so, too, were bullying, peer pressure and groupthink — repellent traits shared by Trump and company, he suggests, and now infecting our culture.

I mostly agree (though Comey is not the right man to say so, I think), and indeed here is more on groupthinking and totalitarianism (except that the sick and degenerate Wikipedia has redefined ¨totalitarianism¨ so that it cannot possibly mean anymore what it did mean ever since George Orwell wrote about it).

Here is Comey once again:

“We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country,” Comey writes, “with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded.”

Yes, and there is a lot more in the article, that is recommended.

2. Political Scientist Corey Robin: Paul Ryan Is Retiring After Failing to Fulfill Right-Wing Agenda

This article is by Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh on Democracy Now! It starts with the following introduction:
In news that has sent shock waves through Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul Ryan has announced he will not seek re-election this fall. Over 40 House Republicans have announced they will resign or retire, including nine chairmen of committees, leading many to speculate Republicans are fearing a blue wave will bring a Democratic majority to power in November. The most prominent Republican contender for Ryan’s seat is Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist and anti-Semite who has called for deporting all Muslims from the United States. For more, we speak with Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump,” which The New Yorker called “the book that predicted Trump.”
And this is mostly about Paul Ryan and also about a related fact, namely that there are many more Republican retirements:

AMY GOODMAN: (...) Professor Corey Robin, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. You just came from giving a speech at Harvard Law School on—you know, on the United States under President Trump. You then get this announcement that the House speaker, Paul Ryan, is leaving, is retiring, not only leaving the House speakership, but retiring the House. What does this mean?

COREY ROBIN: I think it means two things. First of all, we’ve seen this wave of retirement announcements that you’ve mentioned. I think the statistic is that you haven’t seen this many number of Republicans retiring from Congress, announcing their retirement from Congress, since 1930.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking like 41.

COREY ROBIN: Yeah. Well, it’s actually—and then if you add into the Senate, it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Much higher.

COREY ROBIN: —you’re pushing 50, as well. So, it’s an extraordinary amount, more than double the number of Democrats. And what that first means is that parties that are either in ascendancy or firmly and confidently in power, you don’t tend to see their most powerful elected leadership resigning their seats of power after a mere three years in office, which is what is the case with Paul Ryan. So, I think the first thing is he’s seen the writing on the wall.
I believe this is very probably correct. And here is Robin´s second point:
COREY ROBIN: (...) But the second thing that I think is going on here, which is very important, is that when Paul—after the November 2016 election, Paul Ryan announced an extraordinarily ambitious agenda. This was the moment to fulfill long-standing Republican dreams, not simply the repeal of Obamacare, not simply the tax cuts, but also the final assault on the welfare/entitlement state. And this was the vision. And the truth of the matter is, with the exception of the tax cuts, which is something that the Republicans can almost do on autopilot, they have not been all that successful. They were not able to gut Obamacare, and in particular the Medicaid part of it, which is very important. There weren’t able to really touch that. And, more important, since the tax cuts, I think you may remember, right after the tax cuts, in November, December, Ryan said, “OK, now we’re going to go after the entitlements and the welfare state.”
And, to continue Robin´s point: Apart from the tax cuts - which incidentally is a pretty large exception - Ryan mostly failed to get what he wanted.

This may well be right, although one reason may be that Trump´s government was (and probably still is) quite unstable. And perhaps Ryan misses Stephen Bannon, who seems to have made similar plans as Ryan did in the end of last year.

And this is a recommended article, although my own guess is that Robin may be too optimistic.

3. How Facebook Played “Instrumental” Role in Rise of Burma’s Ethnic Cleansing Campaign of Rohingya

This article is by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! It starts with the following introduction:
In Burma, seven soldiers have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for participating in the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din in western Rakhine State. The bodies of 10 Rohingya men were discovered in a mass grave there last September. The victims are among thousands of Rohingya who have been killed by the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority Muslim group. For years, activists have demanded Facebook regulate hate speech against Rohingya on its platform, saying this speech has contributed to the rise in violence against the persecuted community. For more, we speak with Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor of information and library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Her book is titled “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.”
This is mostly about the killings of Muslims in Birma, and I think it is the first time that I treat the subject in Nederlog. I did not treat it before because I don´t know Burmese, and did not know much about these killings, but now there is more:
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: (...) The situation in Myanmar and what Facebook allowed is inexcusable, because I know that—I personally know that, at least since 2013, civil society groups have been literally begging Facebook to step up. What happened is, as the country transitioned from this military junta to a more democratic, more open situation, Facebook came in, along with the rapid spread of digital SIM cards and phones, but without the proper oversight. Like imagine—like consider all the problems that this kind of new public sphere is causing in Europe and U.S., where we have a lot of countervailing institutions.

So, in Myanmar, there is an extremist Buddhist group that is very anti-Muslim and is promoting ethnic cleansing. This is not a joke. It’s the second-biggest refugee outflow in the world. And what they started doing is they started using Facebook to spread their, literally, blood libel, you know, all these false accusations. There was an interview with a Burmese person about the Muslim minority. And he was like, “They’re horrible. They’re doing all these horrible things.” And they asked him, “How do you know?” He said, “I know it, thanks to Facebook.” Enormous amount of hate speech went viral, without Facebook putting in the kind of things that Zuckerberg is finally saying they’re going to put in.

I think this is probably correct, and I note that ¨at least since 2013, civil society groups have been literally begging Facebook to step up¨ - and that was five years of not stepping up by Facebook.

Then again Tufecki also notes some positive things about Facebook:

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: So, this is an interesting thing. I also write—like I want to sort of present the complexity. Around the world, there are a lot of countries in which Facebook is also an anti-censorship tool. Right? So this is why it’s so crucial that it happens better, because there are a lot of countries where TV is censored, where radio is censored, where newspapers are censored. And social media is one way in which—we see this in the United States: Black Lives Matter, Women’s March. A lot of movements that have difficulty first getting either respect or traction from traditional media or mainstream media can use social media to circumvent the censorship.

But what we usually see, again, as the problem, is that they, Facebook, the company, just doesn’t have the kind of staffing you need to understand which page is correct, which page is not.
Yes, although I see no reason to assume that the (secret) norms that Facebook staffers use to decide what is and is not correct are sensible. And besides, so far it seems both the staffers and the norms simply are absent, in spite of five or more years asking.

Then there is this about nationalizing Facebook:

AMY GOODMAN: For the most part, they are not owned by private corporations. Do you think Facebook, which is the information highway, in a sense, all over the world, should be nationalized?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Well, the threat with nationalization is that it’s such an attractive tool for governments to do their own propaganda and their own surveillance, right? So, if a government owned something like Facebook, can you imagine the kind of surveillance that it would allow and the kind of manipulation it would allow? So what you want is a method and rules that make it so that it’s not a tool of surveillance, that it’s not a tool of authoritarianism.

So, there’s a lot of things that can be done. Anti-trust is certainly on the table, because one of the questions Mark Zuckerberg was struggling to answer was “Who’s your competitor?” Well, the answer is: not really anyone. Right? So, that just brings up a lot of monopoly power and anti-trust questions. But maybe we also need to say, “What about limiting data retention? What about limiting the kind of surveillance they can do? What about mandating some kind of oversight and appeals process? What about breaking certain things up?” There’s all these things that can be done without taking Facebook, as it is, and just appending it to the U.S. government, because I think that would actually be quite dangerous, to give any government this kind of potent tool.

Well... yes and no. I more or less agree with Tufekci that if the government that is supposed to take over control from Facebook is authoritarian then it is not a good idea for it to take over Facebook. But I am less certain if the government that is supposed to take over control from Facebook is democratic, and my reasons are especially that private corporations, and especially Facebook, are extremely difficult to control by voting, whereas a public and nationalized Facebook is probably a bit easier to control by democratic voting.

Then again, all of this is mere speculation. Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: It’s gotten started. So, at least in Europe, on May 25th, there is going to be a legislation that’s going to go into effect. It’s called GDPR, the General Data Protection. It’s got a lot of good things. So, it’s a big start. And a lot of people are like, “Oh, this is so onerous.” Actually, GDPR is just a start. It’s bringing some better privacy rights and some more control to users, and it will probably benefit United States and other countries, too, because the companies are going to comply with it, and it’s easier to comply globally.

I do not know much about the GDPR, but I suppose Tufecki is probably right. And this is a recommended article.

4. The Definition of a Fascist? Trump thinks any attack on him is an attack on America

This article is by Chauncy DeVega on AlterNet and originally on Salon. It starts as follows:

Does any real doubt remain that Donald Trump is a fascist cut from an American mold?

To this point in the story that is the decline of American democracy under Donald Trump and the Republican Party, we have seen many things. Among them are threats of violence against political rivals, an upsurge in racism and nativism, militant nationalism and careless warmongering, efforts to limit the freedom of the press, assaults on the rule of law, blatant disregard for democratic traditions and norms, shameless apparent corruption and abuse of the public trust, idol worship of despots and dictators, and the creation of a malignant reality in which Trump's followers are wedded to him in a political cult based upon collective narcissism and shared authoritarian values.

Well... the first paragraph is (I am sorry to say) mostly bullshit, and the reason is that there are over 20 different definitions of the term ¨fascism¨ (nearly all of which are defended as serious definitions).

And since I am a philosopher who had a father, a mother, and a grandfather in the resistance against the Nazis between 1940 and 1945, when my father and grandfather also were arrested and convicted as ¨political terrorists¨ to concentration camp imprisonment which my grandfather did not survive, I have a serious and long standing interest in fascism, and also in the term ¨fascism¨ and namely because it may mean many different things to many different intellectuals.

I tried to sort it out in 2016 - see my
On Fascism and Neofascism: Definitions - indeed in part because the terms ¨fascist¨ and ¨fascism¨ were quite popular then, but it seems very few read it.

And while I concede that the second paragraph is considerably less bad - in my opinion, which is informed - than many other discussions of ¨fascism¨, it still is vague. In case you are interested, here is my definition of fascism (and this also is one of the very few decent definitions of ¨fasscism¨):
Fascism: Fascism is a. A social system that is marked by a government with centralized authority and a dictator, that suppresses the opposition through propaganda, censorship and terror, that propounds an ethics founded on discipline, virility, and collectivism, that has a politics that is totalitarian, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-equality, and anti-Marxist, that is also authoritarian, rightwing and nationalistic, and often racist, and that has a corporative organization of the economy, b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a social system.
I think that is far more adequate than anything offered by DeVega. In fact, here is more:

As they should be, the president's threats against an independent legal system -- one of the bedrocks of a democracy -- have (again) been met with much public criticism and concern.

But Trump also signaled toward something even more ominous and worrisome in his tirades this week.

When the president claimed that Mueller and the FBI's investigation into his affairs was "an attack on our country," he christened himself a fascist leader in all but name.

Trump believes that he is the state, as did the absolute monarchs of earlier centuries, and as did totalitarian despots like Hitler and Stalin. He believes that he is above the law and that all legal power and authority flows from him. For Trump, instead of being embraced as the hallmarks of a healthy and functioning democracy, checks and balances are a threat to his authoritarian agenda.

No, I am sorry: I really dislike Donald Trump and I have said, as a man of 67 with excellent academic degrees in philosophy and psychology, that he is a fascist (in my sense, which is a lot better than nearly all of the 20 serious alternative definitions that I read) and that he also is insane (and I am a psychologist), but the above paragraphs do not establish that Trump is a fascist, although I do agree that he is authoritarian and anti-democratic.

Here is some on Madeleine Albright:

In a much-discussed essay in last Sunday's edition of The New York Times, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned the American people and the world about the threat of fascism embodied by Donald Trump and other emergent right-wing leaders and movements around the world.

That a former senior foreign-policy official of Albright's experience would issue such a warning about an American president is both chilling and ominous.
That seems true and I did a review of Albright´s article in the NYT here (where there are similar remarks of mine about ¨fascism¨ and ¨neofascism¨).

Here is DeVega´s ending:

Donald Trump's presidency is a keg of political dynamite. The fuse has been lit. The explosion is imminent and inevitable. The only question which remains is how many Americans -- and how many others around the world -- will be hurt by the blast.
Well... that is not specific at all. I agree with DeVega´s feelings, but I also have litttle idea about the future.

5. Reining in Big Data’s Robber Barons

This article is by Jennifer Cobbe on The New York Review of Books. It starts as follows:
The use of Facebook by Cambridge Analytica to gather data on tens of millions of users is just one of the troubling things to have come to light about Facebook and its effect on social and political life. Yet that story is also, in some respects, a distraction from the bigger issues that stem from the Internet giants’ practices: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants have constructed the most extensive and intrusive surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen. And we are the target.
Yes indeed, and this is a good article, but I think that it are not the ¨tech giants¨ that ¨have constructed the most extensive and intrusive surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen¨:

This was all done before most tech giants existed or took an interest, for it was mostly done in the twenty years between Brzezinski´s announcing that the ¨National Security¨ would control and predict everything Americans did and would do, and his realizing (with technical assistance) a world wide web in which absolutely nothing was encryped, which in turn meant that the very rich and the very powerful could extract ALL information about anyone with an internet connection that they liked (and that nobody else could, for it is very expensive).

And I insist this was all planned in the late 1960ies and early 1970ies by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Here is more:

Surveillance capitalism—so named in 2015 by the Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff—is the business model of the Internet. Built on techniques of information capture and behavior modification, surveillance capitalism came into being when Google’s engineers realized that by tracking what users were typing into their search engine, they could learn to predict what those users wanted. Once they could anticipate what users wanted, they could target them with ads designed to influence those users’ behavior in ways that maximized Google’s revenue.

These days, virtually every aspect of day-to-day life is fed into corporate databases and used to predict and influence all kinds of behavior.
Again this is both correct and leaves out the crucial role of the American national security, that was involved in personal computing from before it started. In fact, Brzezinski knew (and planned) what ¨Google’s engineers realized¨ twenty years later: That he could predict what people wanted if only he had enough data. (And again, see here.)

Then there is this (and this follows information that Google has been running something like tenthousand - secret - experiments every year):
As a result, if you use a web browser or an app, you are almost certainly the unwitting subject of dozens of psychological experiments that seek to profile your habits and vulnerabilities for the benefit of corporations, every time you use the Internet. This personalized and dynamic form of behavioral nudging
gives surveillance corporations repeated opportunities to manipulate user behavior, in ways that would be impossible in the offline world. And because these companies use their knowledge of your vulnerabilities to learn how to target other users, in using their services you are rendered complicit not just in your own manipulation, but in the manipulation of your friends and your family, your neighbors and colleagues, and every one of these companies’ billions of users.
Yes indeed - and all secret services anywhere know the same as Google and Facebook know, or even more.

Here is something on what actually only a few know and understand:
Most people don’t realize the extent to which predictive analytics can reveal otherwise unknown information about them from relatively impersonal behavioral data. One 2013 study by Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre showed that, without having any factual information about you, analysis of what you’ve “liked” on Facebook can accurately predict your sexual orientation, your ethnicity, your happiness, your political and religious views, whether your parents are separated, and whether you use drugs. A follow-up study in 2015 found that by analyzing your likes, a computer can be a better judge of your personality traits—such as how artistic, shy, or cooperative you are—than your friends and family are. Consider what personal information, even information you would assume was personal and confidential, could be determined from the troves of other data that surveillance corporations gather on you and every other user. And then consider how the quantity of this data will increase exponentially as the Internet of Things—in effect, a network of sensors, eyes, and ears lurking in our homes, our offices, and our public spaces that feed data back into surveillance capitalism’s databases and algorithms—takes ever-greater hold.
In brief, the very rich (Google, Facebook, Amazon) and the very powerful (strongly but secretly subsidized secret services anywhere) know everything or much more about you than anyone else, and they can deceive you in myriads of ways (all of which tend to very secret because they either are the secrets of the very rich owners, or the secrets of the secret spies).

Here is more:
It’s often said that handing over your data is simply the price for using these services. But this isn’t quite right. Privacy is the true cost of using Google or Facebook. Giving up your privacy allows surveillance corporations to figure out your personal psychological susceptibilities and then charge advertisers to exploit them. To justify this, these corporations hide behind privacy policies that are often long, convoluted, and framed in obfuscatory legalese. A decade ago, a study found that, even in that less connected world, it would take the average person about 25 days (and nights) a year to read all the privacy policies with which they are confronted. Who has the time or inclination to read all of these? Invoking privacy policies as a justification for these practices seems fraudulent (..)
No, I think it is (even) more serious:

Handing over your data has been DELIBERATELY built into personal computing - without telling anyone - since the late 1960ies. Again see here. And all of this was done very deliberately so that the very powerful who command the the secret services and the very rich, who can invest hundreds of millions or billions, can (and now do) know more about you personally than any real person knows.

Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:
The questionable practices of surveillance corporations and their refusal to act responsibly have brought us to a turning point. We can reject a level of corporate surveillance we would never have accepted in the pre-Internet age by putting pressure on Facebook and lawmakers for change, and by using alternative services with different business models. And we can demand greater accountability from the Internet oligopoly and better legal protections for our privacy and our data. This is a moment of decision: Will it be our Internet, or theirs?
I feel rather certain that the internet will be the main tool of the few very rich and the secret services to find out everything about anyone and deceive them so that they decide as the very rich or the secret services want them to decide.

That is, if there will not be a major economical crisis in the next 10 years, for that may make a major difference. And this is a strongly recommended article, in spite of the fact that the secret services are not mentioned in it.


[1] I have now been saying since the end of 2015 that is systematically ruining my site by NOT updating it within a few seconds, as it did between 1996 and 2015, but by updating it between two to seven days later, that is, if I am lucky.

They have claimed that my site was wrongly named in html: A lie. They have claimed that my operating system was out of date: A lie.

And they just don't care for my site, my interests, my values or my ideas. They have behaved now for 2 years as if they are the eagerly willing instruments of the US's secret services, which I will from now on suppose they are (for truth is dead in Holland).

The only two reasons I remain with xs4all is that my site has been there since 1996, and I have no reasons whatsoever to suppose that any other Dutch provider is any better (!!).

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