Slush Fund of the Apocalypse

Rachel Maddow reported today that a Venezuelan businessman bought access to Trump’s National Security Council for his son. The purpose was to go over a ten-point plan that would remove US sanctions on Venezuela, instituted by the Obama Administration in response to the deaths of those protesting government corruption.

Access was apparently linked to a contribution of $666,000.00 to the president-elect’s inauguration fund. The fund raised more than $100 million, of which probably 20% was necessary to fund the celebration. The rest of the money is unaccounted for.

What amuses is that the original donation was $500,000. Someone on the Trump team felt it necessary to hold out for an additional $166,000.

“666”, of course, is the number of the beast in Revelation.

Anomie in Action

I ate dinner on Easter at Jack-in-the-Box. Fox News was broadcasting a synopsis of the Gospels. I came in just as John the Baptist was being dragged before Herod. The reaction of Jesus was portrayed as an angry invocation to his disciples to pick up the sword. The lines were (I paraphrase):

I understand now the anger of my father. It is time to take up swords against his enemies!

Followed on the Temple steps by a threatening diatribe against the religious authorities.

Obviously, this is a corruption of the story related by the Apostles. I just shook my head and turned the other way.

Last night at Bible study I found myself counseling a man of deep convictions who had come in railing against the hypocrisy of those that use Revelation to justify dropping bombs on our enemies. I suggested that he not argue Revelation with them – the symbolism is too complex, and in the past we have seen that often only those doing the work can interpret prophesy. Rather, take heart in the actual words of Jesus that so clearly contradict pronouncements of hate.

This came up again this morning with my Muslim colleague at work. He related a call-in broadcast with a scholar who was attacked by a young man claiming that the scholar was spreading lies regarding a Wahhabi theologian. When confronted with the actual words of the Wahhabi, the young man continued to assert that what was said was a lie. The moderator finally intervened, telling the young man to please not call in until he had studied the source materials.

Was that the right approach, though? Or will it leave a bitter taste that will continue feed anger and violence in the caller?

Put two rats in cages and subject both to shocks. In one cage, install a red button that the rat can use to interrupt the sequence of shocks. Ensure that both rats still receive the same number of shocks. Guess what? The rat with the button will behave pretty normally. The rat without the button will lie motionless. The motionless rat suffers from anomie, a type of hopeless paralysis.

As the lower 90% of our society slides slowly into desperation, receiving shock after psychological shock, they will grasp at anything that gives them a sense of control (no matter how displaced) over their situation. Expressions of anger are a great way of shutting people up, as is brandishing of a weapon. They don’t have any affect on our circumstances, but like the rat in the cage with the button, they enable us to continue to act when we otherwise would succumb to hopelessness.

So I would say that the young Muslim caller should have been congratulated for reaching out, and offered sympathy for the circumstances that provoked his anger. Stories from the lives described in the Qu’ran – including Moses, Joseph and Muhammad himself – would guide him towards patience and faith.

Political and religious zealots of all stripes arise in desperate times. They flourish because we don’t pay attention to the circumstances that create desperation. Shutting them out of our gardens won’t solve the problem.

 

 

Feminine Power

Letter to Dr. Marcie Bianco in reponse to her recent article in Quartz.


Reading “The Future of Feminism” in Quartz, I am concerned that the references you cite depart from the masculine framework for gender relations.

Many have also questioned whether strict “equality” is desirable, even if attainable. Diversity implies difference, if only in particulars. In the case of the genders, biology guarantees that there will never be strict equality.

My recommendation is a focus on “fairness.” Patriarchies do tend toward the centralization of power (to paraphrase Unamuno: “every man wishes to rule the world”). Practices of fairness – returning value commensurate to an individual’s contribution – will be interpreted by the “establishment” as a form of resistance to centralization. There is more to fairness than that, though. Fairness creates robust networks of trust.

My observations and research on “matriarchies” tends to support the conclusion that this is what women naturally seek. They give support to those that suffer, empowering them to think proactively rather than reactively.

I understand that “robust” is difficult to quantify. My belief, though, is that “robust” is the metric that feminists should pursue as alternative to the calculus of power (“What percentage of CEOs are women?”). I was heartened by Balanced Scorecard methods back in the ’90s (https://hbr.org/1992/01/the-balanced-scorecard-measures-that-drive-performance-2). Unfortunately, in the interim exploitation of foreign labor and resources has made it too easy for the economic elite to centralize resources, and such disciplines don’t appear to have become part of American management culture.

Kleptocrats, Unite!

Rachel Maddow is building the case that Rex Tillerson’s actions at the State Department – and principally the firing of the top career civil servants – are consistent with the goals of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

To those that understand Putin’s Russia, the goals are simple: transfer as much wealth as possible from the Russian state to private ownership. This is called “kleptocracy” – government serving the financial interests of the leadership. Putin has made an art of this game, becoming arguably the richest man in the world.

As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson was awarded Putin’s “Friend of Russia” designation for his stand against U.S. sanctions that impeded Exxon’s ability to exploit oil and gas resources in Russia. The methods used to enforce those sanctions were situated in the U.S. State Department. Those methods were also used to bring pressure against Exxon for its actions elsewhere in the world.

So Tillerson’s business history supports the conclusion that the State Department, with its focus on human rights and equity, is a nuisance to those trying to get business done in the world. My guess is that this is consistent with Trump’s goals, particularly as it has become clear that our President is almost certainly in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for which the sentencing mandates jail time. Cleaning out the top of the State Department will allow the administration to identify and elevate career diplomats that share their priorities, and perhaps protect themselves from prosecution.

So Rachel, don’t push the Russian connection too hard. Trump and Tillerson share with Putin the attitude that government should be turned to the purpose of making money. Their kleptomania may be sufficient explanation for their policies. Regardless of whether Putin is using blackmail to coerce their actions, the Trump administration is composed of people that appear to be inspired by Putin’s success.

To be Trolled, or Not to be Trolled

Trolling – posting a comment on a discussion forum for the sole purpose of creating hostility among the participants – is the most dangerous threat to the exchange of ideas on the web. The tech community is seeking to moderate the damage. Some new artificial intelligence engines profile accounts, others monitor for certain logical constructs (for example, any statements starting “You think…”).

Engadget reports that a site in Norway disallows a comment until the poster demonstrates knowledge of the main article. A script engine presents a multi-choice question generated from the article, and disallows comments until it is answered correctly.

What would be even better is if they would verify comment relevance against the original post and the previous comments in the thread. Given that a script is generating the questions, and a script is able to answer them, it seems that should be possible. Maybe that could be verified by a question posed to the poster?

Unfortunately, all of these solutions play into the hands of state-run trolls, such as the Russian “fake media” mills. By generating scripts that determine the correct answer, they can post far more efficiently than others, and thus come to dominate forum contents.

Here’s another option: build an AI engine that ranks the relevance of comments against the article and discussion, and allow readers to filter content against that ranking. That would enable those seeking serious discussion not just to be protected from trolls, but also to skip past comments that are just socializing. Offering “Good point!” is nice, but posted enough times and more substantial commentary falls off the bottom of the page.