The Morning Jolt

Culture

The End Is Nigh

American flags fly on National Mall as high-wind weather conditions continue in Washington, March 2, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a survey of fears of American decline that might keep you up at night, Trump officials speak to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for his new book and hope for the best, and Google chooses a side in China.

What Thoughts Keep You Up at Night?

Tyler Cowen tries to envision American decline, slowing economic growth, increasing addiction rates, declining infrastructure maintenance, a vicious cycle of tax hikes to protect entitlements, a diminished U.S. military, and a globally dominant China.

A few fears he missed, or doesn’t share, or hasn’t thought of yet . . .

What happens if virtual reality, immersive gaming, and other forms of “feels real and interactive” entertainment make living in a virtual world a lot more fun and interesting than the real world?

What percentage of our fellow citizens would grow obsessed with spending time in some technology-enabled virtual Shangri-La, where everything is easy, everyone is beautiful, and nothing is boring? What happens if some demagogue or exploitative corporation comes along with a cynical understanding of how many people are willing to trade away their freedom in exchange for unlimited access to their full-HD Paradise VR hookup?

What happens to our society if the traditional virtues of adulthood — growing up, getting a real job, getting married, and having children — get increasingly perceived as a sucker’s deal? What happens when spending your adult years living like an adolescent becomes normal, and the already shrinking birthrate plummets as marriage and family become perceived as luxury goods?

One of the hardest lessons of my lifetime is that problems that seem faraway and small, such as a bunch of lunatic guys in a cave who claim to have declared war on the United States, can suddenly change the world one morning. On the evening of September 10, 2001, very few Americans knew much or cared about al-Qaeda. Our quasi-isolationist impulses make us reluctant to worry about or pay much attention to every anarchic corner and extremist group on the planet. Al-Qaeda is largely defeated, and ISIS has been hit hard, but what if they get replaced by extremists from every destabilized region of the globe, all convinced that the world will bend to their demands — or at least stop ignoring them — if they pull off a spectacular enough attack on a Western city? What if terrorism becomes perceived as the most effective form of political action?

The online rumor mill and Facebook posts helped set off violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. And then Sinhalese-language Facebook groups did something similar in Sri Lanka. Similar threats and violence arose in Indonesia, India, and Mexico, all with the same formula: poor neighborhoods, ethnic divisions, a mistrusted government that lead to riots, lynch mobs, ransacked stores, arson. Is this a third-world problem? How far are we from this with our own homegrown ISIS wannabes, the alt-right and the Charlottesville nut-jobs, “Incels,” and “Columbiners”? The world has never had a shortage of angry young men with an endless list of grievances against the world for not being fair to them. What if technology is making it easier to recruit them to extremist causes?

The world said “never again,” but genocides keep happening — the Balkans, Rwanda, Darfur. We found a reason to not intervene in Syria; international organizations stopped counting the dead in 2016. Outside organizations think it’s more than half a million dead now. How do the world’s dictators, warlords, brutes, and militias respond when they know nobody’s coming to keep the peace? Do you think future waves of refugees will be larger or smaller than in the past?

What if the fallout from a terrible terror attack — nuclear, biological, chemical, radiological — breaks down our traditional idea of a free society? The police-state fears — cops on street corners asking to see your identification — are bad enough, but our society inadvertently taught “stranger danger” to children. What happens when Americans start seeing every stranger as a potential threat? We already have citizens calling 911 over children selling water in the street.

In the economic realm, just how far away are we from the cyberpunk concept of global corporations becoming more powerful than governments? In the competition for Amazon’s new headquarters, Fresno offered Amazon partial control over 85 percent of the tax revenue it would generate, and Chicago offered to divert between 50 and 100 percent of the taxes paid by Amazon employees back to the company. Some elected officials are perfectly comfortable giving corporate entities powers that are traditionally reserved for governments.

In Peter Thiel’s book, he noted that we’re already in an era of de facto monopolies, particularly in the technology realm. Yes, there are other search engines besides Google, but none count as true competitors. There are plenty of online-shopping sites, but Amazon is by far the king. Facebook and Twitter are similar but distinct and only really compete with each other. Disney now controls a good chunk of America’s childhood; it owns its own characters, Pixar, “Star Wars,” Marvel Studios, and just purchased a big chunk of Fox’s intellectual property. ABC television, ESPN, Hulu, A&E, History, Lifetime . . . it’s all part of one big corporation.

What happens when all of that power over what Americans watch, shop for, find in web searches, and see gets concentrated in one executive suite?

What happens if enough Americans convince themselves that socialism and/or Communism will give them a better quality of life, and that these belief systems have nothing to do with the gulags, the secret police, the Stasi, forced resettlement, the Red Terror, the Cultural Revolution, Holodomor, the Great Purge, the Katyn Massacre, the Great Leap Forward, the Cambodian Genocide or North Korea’s prison camps, and that “this time it will be different”? What if they conclude that it’s simply coincidence that socialist countries produced Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge, and Nicolae Ceaușescu?

After Obama’s election and the instant — and intense — adoration of figures like Obama and Sarah Palin, I debated writing a book about cults of personality in politics. What happens when people stop seeing politics and governance as being contests of ideas, policies, and philosophies, and it starts being a battle of mortal demi-gods? What if — having so thoroughly left behind the concept of a divine redeemer — Americans turn to a series of secular saviors, ambitious narcissists who promise the world and seek scapegoats when they fail to deliver?

Our current political moment features a lot of tension between the Left and the Right, but also perhaps even more tension between those who paid attention in civics and history classes and those who didn’t. One in six Americans expresses approval of “having the army rule” and more than 40 percent of wealthy Americans support the idea of “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.” Polling reveals only half of Americans know that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. Half of us are arguing what the laws ought to be, based upon the Constitution; the other half of us are arguing what the laws ought to be based upon how our gut feels that day. The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from erratic changes in public opinion by making the Constitution difficult to change. But they couldn’t make it difficult to ignore.

Anyway, have a good Wednesday!

Wait, What Image Is Woodward’s New Book Going to Shatter?

It’s Fire and Fury all over again, but with a reliable reporter this time:

The result is what often happens in Trump world: Senior officials, acting as lone wolves concerned with preserving their own reputations, spoke to [Bob] Woodward on their own — with some granting him hours of their time out of a fear of being the last person in the room to offer his or her viewpoint.

As one former administration official put it: “He hooked somebody, and that put the fear of God in everyone else.”

Another former official added: “It’s gonna be killer. Everyone talked with Woodward.”

Woodward has written similar books about every White House since Clinton’s presidency, and they’ve all had the same unwritten rule: individuals who talk to him come across better than individuals who don’t. He gets a lot of “if only they had listened to me” anecdotes.

Still, one wonders if this book’s cavalcade of anecdotes will really be that damaging. What’s that, you say? The staff is infighting and leaking? What else is new?

Does anyone look at this White House and see a unified, methodical, well-oiled machine? They’ve got the turnover rate of Spinal Tap’s drummer position, the president’s daily statements are heavily shaped by what he sees on Fox & Friends in the morning, the president regularly tosses his written text and ad-libs his speeches, and well-meaning messaging efforts like “Infrastructure Week” get overtaken by events.

The Woodward book brand is usually “despite the placid, carefully-managed image, this White House is deeply divided between warring factions, each convinced the president is being led down the wrong path.” Is the public as interested when there is no placid, carefully-managed image to shatter?

Google, Helping China Censor More Effectively

This week, you’ll hear a lot of people expressing well-earned disgust at Paul Manafort’s willingness to do the bidding of overseas oppressive regimes in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Of course, America’s big tech companies aren’t that different.

Documents seen by The Intercept, marked “Google confidential,” say that Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The search app will also “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, the documents state. The censorship will apply across the platform: Google’s image search, automatic spell check and suggested search features will incorporate the blacklists, meaning that they will not recommend people information or photographs the government has banned.

Remember when people said the internet would jeopardize the rule of autocratic regimes?

ADDENDUM: The first Jewish speaker of the House in American history is . . . Paul Ryan! Technically. Ten generations back.

Just think about how much work this creates for all of the anti-Semitic nutjobs who have to update their conspiracy charts.

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