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Imagine …

Imagine the evil of a man who demands blind loyalty from his followers; who preys upon their low self-esteem and insecurity, promising them pride they haven’t earned by offering them membership in a special tribal identity; who robs them of their individuality by offering them love and esteem in exchange for total deference; who deflects any questions about his competence or leadership by inventing bugaboos, weaving conspiracies and projecting his worst behavior onto his enemies and thus normalizing his behavior by claiming that it’s universal. Imagine his thorough success at this strategy is such that his followers eventually accept non-facts as fact, create their own argot that further alienates them from non-group members, turn violently on those who question the group dogma and otherwise allow their higher-brain qualities of doubt and inquiry to become neutered and destroyed.

And in other news, Charles Manson died.

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Media Monopoly

In journalism school, in a class on ethics, we were assigned to read “The Media Monopoly,” a thoroughly depressing screed about the onset of media consolidation with dire, unrelenting bad news that we young journalists were about to enter a field of whoredom owned by a handful of self-interested media conglomerates. These companies were filtering out far-ranging, dissenting voices (it was a prep of sorts for Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent.”) It left a big mark on me. The book’s author Ben Bagdikian has just left us now.  RIP. (You can read his obituary here.)

I feel two ways about his book in hindsight. In one sense he was absolutely correct: Most of the big media is owned by the same conglomerates who pollute our water and build war materiel and would indeed like to keep us in the dark. At the same time, the Internet has recreated journalism as cottage industry where even the most extreme voices (communists and global warming deniers alike) are free to put their wares in the marketplace of ideas and have them amplified. That’s given us the multiplicity of voices, but it’s also given us a lot of echo chambers for aspirational opinion havers to confirm their own biases with selective research. To the new voices, pretenses to objectivity are boorish, arcane and disingenuous. The kind of serious investigative, bias-free journalism we used to rely on from professionals becomes harder to find and fund, and must often be paid for by philanthropist billionaires –the patronage of the modern tech Medici. Meanwhile, a lot of old-time professional journalists are simply getting out of the business because there’s no money in it and going into PR.

The Internet age has led us to a kind of anarchy of opposing realities where you can choose your own facts and deny things that are indisputable–global warming, the Sandy Hook massacre or the fact that the Sept. 11 attacks were planned by Muslim extremists. The Internet has given people the confidence to say they trust nothing they read. But it hasn’t confronted them with the consequences of that sentiment: You now have more work to do in scrutinizing what is real by taking multiple viewpoints into account and understanding your own subjective interference in it, including the value system given to your by your peers and parents. Somebody somewhere on the Internet right now will be very happy to let you off the hook for this work by coddling you and your values, and in this you are just as manipulated as you would be by General Electric trying to bury a pollution story.

In this light, the handful of sober conglomerate voices Bagdikian warned us against don’t look all that bad, frankly.

But here we are. Change is change and not to be judged, least of all by me. Powerful money interests have lost a great deal of power over information. It happened quite naturally in a technological upheaval. Power over it has come back to the people, even sweaty, frustrated schizophrenics sitting on their laptops at night. Many people, however, will likely not know what to do with all the conflicting information they have. They will be confused and they will turn to the people they trust, and once again risk becoming tools of somebody else’s will. They will repeat others’ ideas, not innovate on them, and act as if this is some sort of emancipation. The power only to repeat.

So mission accomplished. Patriarchy smashed. Hope you have some idea what you’re in for.

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Warning, your Happy Meal might cause feelings of euphoria.

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–*The death toll is either in the hundreds or in the low tens.

–*At least two bombs went off, though we can’t discount that one of the building echoes might have been a third or a fourth bombing.

–*Several Saudi nationals were taken into custody.

–*These Saudi nationals were then booked, tried, convicted and hanged after a speedy jury trial by day’s end.

–*The chief suspect is Mohamed Atta.

–*Marathons were invented by the Egyptians.

–*Boston is located in the great state of New Hampshire.

–*Every foreigner who fled the scene of the blast is a suspect. Only foreigners who ran toward the blast are in the clear.

–*Abe Vigoda is dead.

–*It wasn’t a bombing, it was just a fallen scaffolding.

–*It wasn’t really tax day, since you can always file an extension.

–*The Boston police cannot determine at this time if they have arrested a suspect.

–*The Boston police have been holding a mysterious man in an iron mask for 34 years who is thought to be President Obama’s twin brother, the man who can prove Obama was born in Kenya.

–*A conflagration later reported at the JFK Library was reported, but it was uncertain whether the event was a mechanical fire, an explosion, or just readers’ passion for books.

–*The New York Post‘s source is a woman named Lennay Kekua and The New York Post deeply loves her and believes she is The New York Post‘s soul mate.

–*Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likely factors into this story somewhere;  The New York Post is just trying to find the right paragraph to stick him in.

–*Test X180 with fenugreek extract and ginseng will improve your performance on and off the field.

–*According to Boston police, Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism allowed America to feel good about itself again.

 

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You expect amazing stupidity from conspiracy theorists, who use bullying tactics to get you to believe that they are smarter than you and tell you that you’re programmed if you don’t let them program you. But rarely do they push news organizations into such amazing blunders.

At least a couple of different online news sites, the Mirror and the Daily Mail Online, are reporting today that Osama Bin Laden was not, after all, dumped in the Indian Ocean after his ignominious end at the hands of Navy SEALs last May. Instead, according to internal e-mails stolen from Austin, Texas security firm Stratfor by hackers, bin Laden’s body was taken to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Bethesda, Maryland for examination and cremation. Stratfor, which does security work for the United States government, is called by detractors the shadow CIA. The firm supposedly has extensive knowledge about U.S. internal security and handles accounts for some of the largest U.S. corporations doing business overseas and thus stands at the nexus of commerce and power, say its foes.

According to the e-mails, which appeared on Wikileaks.org, a Stratfor executive named Fred Burton posted in an e-mail subject line, “Body bound for Dover, DE on CIA Plane” when referring to bin Laden’s corpse, which would then be sent onward to Bethesda. That e-mail came at 5:51:12 on May 5, 2011. This elicits the response from George Friedman, the company’s president, that the sea burial was an unlikely account. It sounded to him like the disposition of Adolf Eichmann’s body:

“Eichmann was seen alive for many months on trial before being sentenced to death and executed. No one wanted a monument to him so they cremated him. But i dont know anyone who claimed he wasnt eicjhman [sic]. No comparison with suddenly burying him at sea without any chance to view him, which i doubt happened.” The FBI wouldn’t let that happen, he opines.

The Mail goes on to show pictures of the supposed aircraft carrier next to the supposed pathology institute, and top if off with a nice post-prandial sorbet: a sidebar explaining who Adolf Eichmann was.

Problem is, a later Stratfor cable the news organizations didn’t bother to read says, “Never mind.”

I first read this story after seeing a thread on The New York Times Web site about a bunch of hackers being arrested who were vaguely linked to the same large Anonymous movement that has targeted firms like Stratfor. One commenter said that the Bin Laden cremation story had appeared all around the world “except in America, due to the heavily censored government/corporate media.” There’s no telling why the Times would gain from burying this story, since the paper has regularly published Wikileaks material. Supposedly the Times, Dow Chemical, Stratfor and Barack Obama are now all in cahoots.

Smart readers probably already knew the story was a hoax when they read Friedman only “doubted” that the bin Laden burial at sea was true. That means the alternative Bethesda cremation story was simply conjecture by the Stratfor guys, a bunch of armchair analysts obviously outside the loop or still gathering information. But if that wasn’t enough to convince conspiracy theorists or gullible newspaper reporters hot for copy, then certainly this memo should have been:

“Down & dirty done, He already sleeps with the fish….” ** Fred’s Note: Although I don’t really give a rats ass, it seems to me
that by dropping the corpse in the ocean, the body will come back to haunt us….gotta be violating some sort of obscure heathen religious rule that will inflame islam? I was sleeping thru that class at Langley.”

The time code on this: 15:11:03, May 5, 2011. Well after the first two e-mails.

So, Stratfor concedes in the later memo, Osama bin Laden, was indeed thrown into the sea. How did they know? They probably heard it on the god damn news.

You can debate all day whether it was important for hackers to target Stratfor, which seems to have as many conspiracy theories about Julian Assange as he does about them. Reading the links is sometimes less like reading John Le Carre and more like listening to “Dueling Banjos.” When you read through Stratfor e-mails, you hear a mix of braggadocio and paranoia that is likely the proper cocktail of people who work in the spook business, but what you don’t hear are the voices of powerful people who control our daily lives. Sometimes they seem just as out of the loop as anybody (“Look here! Everything we need to know about our hacker enemies I found in this issue of Wired!”) The hackers who broke into the company regard it schizophrenically as an evil perpetrator of black ops standing at the nexus of power but then disdainfully as a company too drag ass to even protect its own computers from attack.

I wrote extensively about Assange last year, noting that even though information is always a good thing, his motivations are nutty. Of course, why should I care about that if the leaks are substantial? Well, in this case, much of the information was stolen by people who also stole credit card information from companies, assuming all companies are part of the complex. It so happens I write about finance, and perhaps part of my paycheck comes from advertising money doled out by a hated industry. Does that make me part of the complex? Does that make my credit card worth stealing?

I only worry about that because conspiracy theorists lump everybody into plots, damning innocent and guilty alike, and what’s more, especially in this case, THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO READ OR TELL TIME. And yet their conviction is such that they will not be moved, they bully dumb reporters into stories like these, and finally, their extremism promotes criminality. If what they find in their hacking promotes the greater good, like the Pentagon Papers, I’m ready to defend them. And Stratfor seems to be full of nutty right wing conspiracy theorists itself. But there’s the rub. Conspiracy theorists are usually notable only by their infantile feelings of helplessness and their need to be in the know. And often, on both sides of the debate, they can impress us only in being smug, self-satisfied and wrong. In this case, the firm’s detractors seem as unlikable as the firm they invaded.

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My wife and I have been provisioning all day for the monstrous Hurricane Irene. How temperamental is she? She keeps changing her category! This storm is such a raging bitch that not only have 370,000 New Yorkers been ordered evacuated, but the New York Times has momentarily given away free storm stories on its Web site. This evil hurricane is already messing with our Web business models!

This has been a summer of firsts for me. Not only have I had my first baby, but three days ago I experienced my first earthquake, and this weekend, I’ll face down my first hurricane, and all at an age where you stop having firsts. It probably also bears mentioning that you shouldn’t be dealing with any of these things in New York City, perhaps even the baby part.

My wife and I are thankfully not in one of the flood zones, but we have big windows on a high floor and are wondering if we will have to be spending the weekend bodily shielding our baby Xander against flying tempered glass.  New York supposedly upgraded its building codes in 2008 to stiffen them against hurricane winds, but in a city where pragmatism must be mixed into politics like milk into chocolate, many existing buildings didn’t have to meet these codes. At the height my wife and I live, there’s a danger of glass, gravel, and other items flying off adjacent roofs (even those of shorter buildings) and creating a debris field. We hear different pieces of advice about how risky it is to stay where we are, but at this point, we have few choices. I’ll let you know if things start flying through our living room.

I’ve spent most of the day stocking up. It’s strange how people predicting the end of the world recently (Glenn Beck comes to mind) have been admonishing you to invest in gold. But after spending the day looking for larder items, I’d say the smarter money is on peanut butter. That and bread seem to be the two items my neighbors can’t live without, and every store I’ve been to today has been robbed of its creamy spreads and whole wheat breads. Where other nonperishable items like beans and soup and Chips Ahoy remained, peanut butter seems to be the rock star staple food of the nascent storm survivalist. How you gonna eat gold, after all, when the flood comes?

When you are provisioning, I’ve found it helps to be counter-intuitive. Most stores I went to had run out of flashlights and D batteries by 2 p.m. today. But if you were willing to walk into one of the tiny newsstands, you found lots of D batteries. And my wife said there were tons of flashlights at Gracious Home. I found it better to look for each prized survival item at the place where it was most novel. Water at the health and beauty store. Batteries at the bodega. Cereal at Bed, Bath & Beyond. If anything, however, today’s shopping lesson was a bog standard lesson in supply and demand. Items that are unremarkable one day become as valuable as silver the next.

Another lesson for you disaster watchers is to listen to the voices in the street for the stirrings of public skepticism. There are a few lone voices out there who insist Mike Bloomberg, our billionaire mayor, is fear mongering and exaggerating the threat of the storm. The city has launched New York’s first mandatory evacuation ever from the flood zones in all five boroughs and mass transit will shut down at noon on Saturday. In a mordant moment at a press conference Thursday, Bloomberg said that he’s asking residents of those areas to leave so as they do not, you know, die. But skepticism of his motives has already risen among those who feel he’s making up for a botched response to last winter’s Snowmageddon.There’s a lot of dismissive sneers by those who say we’re having our chains pulled. New York hasn’t seen a major hurricane in decades.

It makes you think briefly about politics. To doubt something that’s factual (indeed, to ignore myriad satellite pictures and weatherman showing you exactly how Hurricane Irene is going to hand your ass to you) is something damn near instinctual among us. Perhaps political parties grow from these abundant small disagreements more organically than we think. I wrote earlier this year after the Japan earthquake about the need to politicize acts of God, comparing the event to Hurricane Katrina. Is there something good about doubting people who would take you out of harm’s way? Does it help us to constantly question and be skeptical of things insight tells us are true, in hopes of constantly making insight better? Is it better to have a foil political party or group always saying “Nay,” no matter what the question? Is this what actually makes democracy work?

Perhaps we don’t choose the dialectic. Perhaps it chooses us.

I’ll leave with that thought and hope Hurricane Irene does not choose me or my family this weekend. If you don’t hear much from me in the next couple of days (and hate seeing egregious spelling errors sitting uncorrected in the post) it’s because my power is likely down or because my son won’t let me type for two seconds. In fact, I’m amazed I wrote this much.

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Now why, you ask, may I be thanking God for a lot of hate mongers? For people inflicting harm to the parents of dead soldiers? For people who have spurned every belief system but their own, even the dogmas of other Christians, and other Baptists to boot? Why would I thank people who use other people’s suffering as a way to draw attention to themselves and their megalomaniac founder, a fame whore about one step removed from Mark David Chapman in his utter depravity? Why would I draw your attention to people who have distilled only the pure hatred of a distant Hebrew deity without any of the mitigating love that was supposed to emanate from his son? (I’m an atheist, but I’m just asking here.)

I’m not just pointing it out because it’s timely (the Supreme Court recently decided that these God-fearing Christians could harass the families of dead soldiers any damn time they please to show God’s condemnation of America for its tolerance of gays). I point this out because we hate a lot, America. We’re good at it. It’s in our blood. If we all weren’t such consummate haters, Sean Hannity would never have brought these lunatics on the air in the first place. We like watching the Westboro crazies on Fox News because we enjoy the spleen it allows us to vent. In fact, I would say, taking a leaf from George Orwell’s 1984, that our hatred has taken on a nightly, regimented format, replete with car commercials and steak with shallots. Hatred was built into the spiritually parsimonious Puritans that first landed on these fertile shores. It’s built into our discourse and our increasingly heated political rhetoric. When it is put into action, as it was in Arizona earlier this year, we are surprised and quick to blame anybody but ourselves. It wells up very easily in those who are inexpressive, who have no creative outlets, who have no way to show what they are feeling, except, say, with a lifestyle or a rigid political affiliation–a flag if you will–to say what they can’t work through logically.

It’s not that we don’t love. Humans love a lot. They love their children. They love Elmo. They love the Beatles. They love the hit show Glee. They love Mother Teresa (except for Christopher Hitchens). But what to do with the still abundant rage and violence that is stamped into our lowly monkey DNA?

I thank God for the Westboro Baptist Church because they remind us that there is perversity everywhere, not just in Kansas. These sociopaths show us all what we’re capable of if we live in insulated cults drowning out other people’s logic and reason (sound familiar, Fox News viewers?), and that’s why the First Amendment and Milton’s Aeropagitica before it encouraged a markeplace of ideas, true and false, side by side. We need to know exactly where the haters are and what they think. Because the fact is, there are a lot of people who mindlessly hate homosexuality, and these people won’t be swayed not even until they become consumed by their hatred and drop dead of myocardial infarction. We need to know who they are, because they aren’t merely people hiding in the shadows. They hold elected office and do violence on paper.

The Westboro sideshow wasn’t much of a concern to conservatives until the group started picketing military funerals. Do you see now, gay haters, what it means to be hated and hounded for no good reason? Do you realize that one of the darkest creatures of your id, Rick Santorum, is still running loose and considering a presidential bid, drawing political strength from that hatred. Do you not see how he and the Westboro crazies are not far removed from each other? Santorum may not get it all mixed up with the army somehow, but that’s a distinction with little difference.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie “The Aristocrats”? It’s a film about a tasteless joke that seems to have no reason for being other than to gross people out as its teller runs through a litany of a sick family’s sexual perversions. Why would somebody tell such a disgusting joke with no punchline that serves no purpose than making us sick? Because the sickness itself becomes funny after a while. And that’s what has happened with the media frenzy known as Westboro and Rev. Fred Phelps. I submit the joke that the Westboro Baptist Church has been playing on us: a perverted family act that has completely lost its sense of offensiveness and brought incest to a whole new level.

“… the Aristocrats!” yelled Rev. Fred Phelps, as America writhed in tears of laughter Friday realizing that the Westboro Baptist Church was only telling a joke the whole time.

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