Politics & Policy

The World Doesn’t Care About Groupthink

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., in 2015. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
Conventional wisdom may change in a flash (remember ‘peak oil’?), but elites remain elites, united by common interests.

 

“All things are in flux.” — Heraclitus

The adage “nothing last forever” is an understatement. Far more accurate is something like “nothing lasts until next week.”

 

Saint-to-Sinner Silicon Valley

A decade ago, even most Republicans admired the rugged entrepreneurialism of the high-tech Masters of the Universe who had built a multitrillion-dollar, world-dominating Internet, and the computer, mobile-phone, online-sales, and social-media industries, defined by marquee companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo.

In turn, Democrats gave up their suspicions of big money, as they canonized liberal Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their wealth was okay, since the creators of it were progressives and dressed like Woodstock hipsters as they spread their billions freely among progressive think tanks, foundations, and political campaigns.

Not now.

In a near blink of an eye, Republicans finally caught on, and they now see the new billionaires as rank partisans who rig Internet searches, censor social media, manipulate data to help warp elections, push far-left causes, bully their own nonconformist employees, and demonize their conservative critics.

Equally abruptly, Democrats see the new billionaires as our new robber barons, who set up monopolies, destroyed competition, snooped and surveilled their own consumers, and trumped the shenanigans of the old 19th-century Jay Goulds and James Fisks. In other words, unlimited and unaudited power and wealth are a timeless prescription for abuse, whether in ancient Rome or 2019 America — a forever law that not even Mark Zuckerberg in T-shirts and jeans could escape.

 

From Too Little to Too Much Oil

Less than 15 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that we’d reached “peak oil,” or that the U.S., and indeed the world at large, had already extracted more petroleum than what remained beneath the ground.

Then, in unheralded fashion and quite silently, American frackers and horizontal drillers made such a term entirely obsolete. The U.S. went from a superpower hobbled by an insatiable need for imported oil to the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world and, soon, the likely largest exporter of fossil fuels. In the same vein, the Middle East and especially the Persian Gulf transmogrified from being the nexus of American foreign policy to nearly irrelevant in U.S. strategic thinking. If Saudi Arabia was once accused of virtually running American foreign policy, it is now seen at the other extreme as a minor medieval bother. A few thousand people in obscurity in the fracking industry, without government grants and without the media fawning over them as they had green legends such as Al Gore, literally changed the lives of millions of Americans at home and their country’s status abroad.

 

China: No Longer the Wave of the Future

Not too long ago the West was breezily talking of China as if the 1989 Tiananmen Square debacle and its aftermath that saw the Chinese government kill some 10,000 protesters and dissidents was a mere speed bump on the fated way to Chinese democracy and an open society. Beltway wisdom was that any year China could experience a moment akin to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Then status quo elite thinking in Washington was that even if the Chinese ran up huge deficits, treated their trading partners in ruthless fashion, jailed critics in a vast gulag archipelago, and mimicked the colonialism and imperialism of the former Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of the late 1930s and 1940s, Beijing, nonetheless, would inevitably translate its new affluence and self-confidence into free elections and eventual liberal society — or at least become a benign world hegemon. After all, its high-speed rail, its solar-panel factories, and modern airports wowed American pundits — as if China offered a model of green modern authoritarianism that could supersede Neanderthal resistance to green central planners. A Chinese Carmel or Upper West Side was always proverbially right around the corner.

Just as it had been awed by Western money and technology, surely China would be even more wowed by Western magnanimity and so reciprocate by mimicking Western political and cultural institutions.

That fantasy has dissipated as Donald Trump shattered its glass veneer. The vision of China as always on the cusp of consensual government was always about as accurate as the old American dreams that the more powerful imperial Japan became in the early 20th century, the more apt Tokyo would be to assume a role as a sober and judicious Westernized protector of global norms. Again, ahistorical groupthink, fueled by globalist nonsense, simply ignored Chinese history and culture.

 

The Old New Nazi Slur

Between 2006 and 2008, George W. Bush was reduced by the anti-war Left left to a veritable Nazi. Op-eds, documentaries, plays, and novels fantasized without apology about his assassination. Mainstream politicians including Senators Robert Byrd, John Glenn, and Al Gore compared the Bush administration to Brownshirts, Fascists, and Nazis. Indeed, so hated was Bush by his critics that that they stooped to accuse him of plotting near genocide during the government’s often incompetent response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005 that virtually destroyed large swaths of New Orleans. No slur or smear was too low to throw against the president.

Now this world of Nazi boilerplate has been turned upside down. In the age of Trump, Bush has been rehabilitated as a sober and judicious centrist by even his left-wing critics, in part to use him as an establishment club to batter the sometimes crass Donald Trump.

Bush supporters who were once slurred as Nazi neocons, such as Bill Kristol for his prior role as co-founder of the Project for a New American Century and frequent embrace of unapologetic “national greatness,” now themselves often accuse Donald Trump and his supporters of Nazi-like behavior for their “Make America Great Again” values.

Kristol, once the target of unfair vituperation, now suggests that Trump adviser Michael Anton (who sometimes wrote in Kristol’s Weekly Standard), by working for Trump, replayed the roll of Nazi puppet lawyer Carl Schmitt, as in Kristol’s tweet “Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton: First time tragedy, second time farce.”).This is among other frequent allusions Kristol and his circle have made to Trump and his supporters as having Nazi-like affinities.

George W. Bush’s former CIA director Michael Hayden — himself often slurred and smeared as a veritable Nazi for green-lighting enhanced interrogation of terrorists — became a purveyor of Nazi slurs, when he posted a picture of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in order to libel Trump’s border policies. In 2007, who would have believed that those who were likened to Nazis for supporting or working for George W. Bush would a decade later adopt the very smears of the Left — but in libeling their fellow Republicans who supported a Republican president?

What causes these radical changes in lifestyle, material conditions, perceptions, and politics? Or rather why do we fixate on the fleeting present without help from the past to fathom the future?

Most obviously, technology has no limits, either on its ability to transform utterly modern life or the speed at which it accomplishes such changes. Once fracking was mastered, it became ever cheaper and ever more efficient at a geometrical rate — and operated independently, as scientific breakthroughs do, from political consensus and convention.

Computer technology was just as unpredictable in its ability to alter the world as we know it. At first, the Internet and social media seemed simply to make life easier and more enjoyable. But soon such Frankenstein monsters devoured their idealistic creators and were recalibrated to contaminate almost everything they touched, as Twitter turned into an electronic lynch mob; Facebook, an instant tool of progressive intolerance; and Google, a Big Brother screen that snooped into its users’ living rooms for sport and profit. The tech revolution in communications simply accelerated and empowered the preexisting human desire of its creators to be all powerful and force others to believe as they do.

Groupthink explains radical transformations in conventional wisdom and received opinion. The status of China should always have been pretty clear: The Chinese government was a Communist autocracy with a long history of mass murder, racial and religious intolerance, and hatred of democracy — whether it lived hand to mouth in Maoist times or befooled naïve journalists and buccaneer corporatists who bragged about its shiny new infrastructure.

What changed was not the essence of China, but its superficial veneer, which tricked the gullible or conniving Westerners into assuming its fascist brand of capitalism led to riches and on to eventual freedom.

Political differences are not always so different, or they at least pale before cultural, class, and social affinities. Often for the Washington–New York elite political classes, left and right, Democratic and Republican, conservative and liberal are not so much fault lines as cultural commonalities among like-minded elites juxtaposed against their assumed hoi polloi social inferiors. Keep that distinction in mind, and it may not seem so strange that those who were unfairly smeared as veritable Nazis go on to themselves unfairly smear others as Nazis, as if stooping to Third Reich vituperation is an in-house parlor game.

In some sense, the old French adage of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose —the more things change, the more they stay the same — remains timeless. Communists are Communists are Communists, whether or not they develop solar-powered cities or invest in unoccupied homes in Beverly Hills.

Free-market constitutional societies depend not so much on natural resources as on their own system of free markets, meritocratic and enlightened government, and free inquiry. Americans usually are the most creative and resourceful when they are written off as has-beens and doomed — as we saw when they went from being a hobbled oil importer to OPEC’s greatest nightmare.

Among the political classes, both being slurred or slurring others of like kind in disgusting fashion is no big deal. Apparently, it is just the usual foul water that such kindred fish always swim in.

 

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