Thirty-One Flavors of Fascism

JANUARY 29, 2021 (counterpunch.org)

BY PAUL STREET

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Leftists” I know have had their undies tied up in a nasty knot bunch over other leftists’ use of the F-word – fascism – to describe Trump and his backers.

Fascism, seriously? Yes, absolutely, provided we have a reasonable definition. In his incisive 2009 book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, David Neiwert rightly observed that “Fascism is not a single, readily identifiable principle but rather a political pathology best understood (as in psychology) as a constellation of traits. Taken individually,” Neiwert wrote, “many of these traits seem innocuous enough, even readily familiar, a part of the traditional American hurry-burly. A few of them …are present throughout the political spectrum. Only when taken together does the constellation become clear, and then it is fated to take on a life of its own.”

What comprises this collection of characteristics? Here are my top 29 traits of fascism, cobbled together with no claim to originality in concept or phrasing:

+1. Obsessive anti-liberalism co-joined with obsessive antisocialism/anti-communism and anti-conservatism but with an understanding that fascists are willing to engage in alliance with other sectors, especially on the conservative side.

+2. A sense of grave national and social crisis that cannot to effectively met with traditional solutions from liberals and conservatives.

+3. Fairy-tale and vengeful notions of a glorious national past that was betrayed – “stabbed in the back” – by evil liberal and Left elites linked to a sense of the decline of the nation and/or a once properly dominant ethnic or religious group’s power under the destructive impact of class struggle, radicalism, liberal individualism, multi-culturalism, and outside/alien influences.

+4. A quest for national re-birth linked to “palingenetic ultra-nationalism,” meaning, in historian Roger Griffin’s words, a drive “to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing in on a heightened sense of national belonging or national identity.”

+5. The passionate belief that one’s formerly and properly dominant national, ethnic, and/or religious group is being unfairly victimized.

+6. A fierce attachment to one’s national, ethnic, and/or religious group coupled with the belief that any action without legal or moral limits is justified to eliminate perceived threats to the group’s enemies, both internal and external.

+7. Chronic “Us and Them” scapegoating of demonized Others accused of causing great harm.

+8. The dehumanization of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural Others and political enemies, intimately related to the willingness to abandon past legal and moral norms when it comes to eliminating the threat(s) these demonized Others and enemies are said to pose.

+9. The “right” of the supposedly good and “chosen” people to dominate the supposedly bad Others without since the “right” is conferred by Darwinian and moral superiority.

+10. A fierce and fervent anti-socialism and opposition to Leftists, linked to incessant fearmongering about the real or alleged threat of socialist, communist, and/or left anarchist revolution.

+11. An obsession with the alleged evil of liberals, combined with a false conflation of liberals and “the Left” and the charge that liberals are too weak to stop Left radicals from “taking over the country.

+12. Fear, suspicion, and hatred of large, cosmopolitan cities, seen as fetid hotbeds of demonized Others: racial and ethnic minorities, intellectuals, liberals, leftists, intellectuals, feminists, labor activists, civil and human rights movements, “sexual deviants,” and race-mixers.

+13. A predilection for bizarre, offensive, and dangerous conspiracy theories such as the notion that the Jewish Elders of Zion and George Soros are secretly controlling world events.

+14. Relentless attacks on intellectuals, expertise, and reasoned public discourse.

+15. A relentless cultural and propaganda war on truth: constant assaults on the public’s capacity to perceive reality.

+16. Demonization and shaming of the previously normal bourgeois free press as an “enemy of the [chosen] people” combined with the cultivation of separate propagandistic anti-truth news and commentary avenues to reach the fascist base above and beyond “liberal” and “radical Left” media.

+17. The promotion and glorification of traditional social and political hierarchy beneath revolutionary and transformative claims.

+18. Hyper-masculinist patriarchy attached to “traditional” oppressive gender roles, the degradation of women, and attacks on women’s rights.

+19. Unceasing attacks on the rule of law while upholding the police and military state in the name of law and order: chronic lawlessness in the name of law and order.

+20. Rejection of constitutional and parliamentary checks and balances and aspirations for the introduction of a one-party state.

+21. A Social Darwinian fixation on extreme binaries including triumph vs. defeat, thriving vs, failing, strength vs. weakness, and “greatness” vs. inferiority.

+22. Contempt for the old, disabled, and infirm, seen as “weak” and worthy of premature death along with nonwhites.

+23. Promotion of a cult of personality reflecting the perceived necessity of a natural, always male Leader who alone is seen as capable of redeeming the greatness of the betrayed and victimized Nation/chosen people.

+24. Belief in the superiority of instinct and will over reason and intellectual deliberation and in the preeminence of the Leader’s instincts and will over that of others and over abstract reason.

+25. Constant propaganda to mask objectionable authoritarian, racist, militarist, nativist, and sexist goals with widely accepted ideals like democracy (“the will of the people”) and social cohesion.

+26. Glorification of the military, hyper-militarism, and the exaltation of violence.

+27. Embrace of violence against political enemies and critics.

+28. Performative pomp, theatrical gatherings, recurrent menacing hate rallies, and an attachment to grandiose spectacles meant to promote a sense of greatness for the Nation and/or the favored and supposedly victimized racial, ethnic, national, and/or religious group.

+29. Emotionally potent and extreme statements (the “greatest ever,” the “worst ever,” “amazing,” “horrible” and so on) in defense of the favored/chosen nation/group and in denunciation of demonized Others and “enemies of the people.”

+30. The recurrent purging of those considered disloyal to the Leader and his party.

+31. A false populist posture that obscures service to and alliance with capitalist elites and capitalism.

“The Left” Can Distinguish Itself from Fascists

Trump and many millions of his backers – including but not limited to the fascists who stormed the Capitol in a brazen if failed Trump-instigated effort to cancel the certification of a presidential election and spark a coup three weeks ago – check(ed)-off all 31 of these boxes, as I will show in my next book This Happened Here. (There is not time or space to provide the evidence for this claim here, but my guess is that many readers easily noted numerous examples as they went through the list).

“Leftists” might want to reflect on this list before they leap to protect Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and other far-right hate mongers’ supposed “free speech right” to reach multiple tens of millions of American and world citizens via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and You Tube, and before they rush to defend the fascist minions who breached the Capitol complex and forced Congresspersons to flee for their lives under the banner of Trump’s Big Fascist Steal Lie – on the theory that the repression of the far right will only turn back on the portside. This is not a political tendency – fascism – that anyone on the Left should ever want to see shielded in any way in the world’s most powerful country (or anywhere else). Fascism spells ruin for all humanity. Anyone still saying “It Can’t Happen Here” after the Trump presidency needs to be laughed off the stage.

Do leftists seriously believe they are incapable of defending themselves against whatever repression they may face in connection with the repression that government and media and Internet companies impose on fascists from Trump on down? This list (and/or more abbreviated versions of it) could help portsiders more clearly distinguish their movements from those of the white-nationalist far right. In responding to blowback repression, it is important for leftists to be ready to make the case for how our movement(s) are different from, indeed militantly opposed to, fascism as well as to the capitalist, racist, sexist, eco-cidal, and imperialist order that gives rise to fascism. Already, the New York Times and other major “liberal” corporate media outlets are dropping whatever partial and halting references they were willing to make (accurately if belatedly) to the “F-word” during the final year and post-election climax of the criminal Trump-Pence administration. They are warning against “populism,” “extremism,” “radicalization,” “anti-establishment anger,” and “terrorism” without the slightest specificity about the fascist menace. They make no distinctions between the egalitarian, loving, and solidaristic real populism of the Left and the racist, sexist, nationalist, nativist, authoritarian, hateful, and eco-cidal fake populism of the far right. They falsely conflate the beautiful and liberationist anger, “extremism,” and “radicalism” of the Left with the ugly and oppressive anger, “extremism,” and “radicalism” of the far right. They falsely conflate the just burning of a racist police precinct that hatched a vicious white lyncher (Derek Chauvin) with a murderous fascist assault (the Attack on the Capitol) that was based on the belief that nonwhite votes don’t count.

Comrades, learn how to distinguish your movements for social justice, democracy, and environmental sustainability from fascist white nationalism. Keep my list handy for that task. Be ready at all times to recognize and spit out any of these 31 flavors; don’t swallow.

Meanwhile, if you are one of those lefties I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, hang on for my next CounterPunch essay, titled “The Anatomy of Fascism-Denial: 31 Flavors of Anti-Antifascism.” You’ll really enjoy that one.

Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.

Panic: The Untold Story of the 2008 Financial Crisis | Full VICE Special Report | HBO

Council on Foreign Relations VICE on HBO looks at factors that led to the 2008 financial crisis and the efforts made by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy Geithner, and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke to save the United States from an economic collapse. The feature-length documentary explores the challenges these men faced, as well as the consequences of their decisions. #HBO#VICEonHBO​ More on HBO: https://www.hbo.com/​ More on VICE on HBO: https://www.hbo.com/vice​ Subscribe to the HBO YouTube Channel: https://goo.gl/wtFYd7​ Like HBO on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HBO​ Follow HBO on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hbo​ Like HBO on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hbo/​ Subscribe to HBO on Tumblr: http://hbo.tumblr.com/​ Subscribe to our channel: https://goo.gl/WCYsH7​ The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher. Visit the CFR website: http://www.cfr.org​ Follow CFR on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cfr_org​ Follow CFR on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/councilonfor…

BOOK: “A CULTURE OF CONSPIRACY”

A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America

A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America

by Michael Barkun 

What do UFO believers, Christian millennialists, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have in common? According to Michael Barkun in this fascinating yet disturbing book, quite a lot. It is well known that some Americans are obsessed with conspiracies. The Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 2001 terrorist attacks have all generated elaborate stories of hidden plots. What is far less known is the extent to which conspiracist worldviews have recently become linked in strange and unpredictable ways with other “fringe” notions such as a belief in UFOs, Nostradamus, and the Illuminati. Unraveling the extraordinary genealogies and permutations of these increasingly widespread ideas, Barkun shows how this web of urban legends has spread among subcultures on the Internet and through mass media, how a new style of conspiracy thinking has recently arisen, and how this phenomenon relates to larger changes in American culture. This book, written by a leading expert on the subject, is the most comprehensive and authoritative examination of contemporary American conspiracism to date.

Barkun discusses a range of material—involving inner-earth caves, government black helicopters, alien abductions, secret New World Order cabals, and much more—that few realize exists in our culture. Looking closely at the manifestions of these ideas in a wide range of literature and source material from religious and political literature, to New Age and UFO publications, to popular culture phenomena such as The X-Files, and to websites, radio programs, and more, Barkun finds that America is in the throes of an unrivaled period of millennarian activity. His book underscores the importance of understanding why this phenomenon is now spreading into more mainstream segments of American culture.

(Contributed by Bulent Tokgoz)

First 100: Democrats Reconcile Themselves to Reconciliation

The American Prospect

Also, another vaccine on the horizon.

BY DAVID DAYEN

JANUARY 29, 2021 (Prospect.org)

First100-012921

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP PHOTO

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer isn’t waiting around for Republicans.

It’s January 29, 2021 and welcome to First 100. You can sign up to have First 100 delivered to your email by clicking here.

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The Chief

The fate of Joe Biden’s first and most important legislative priority looks like it will become an all-Democratic affair. After some discussions yesterday, Democrats are ready to take the first steps to use the budget reconciliation process to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. That begins with passing a budget resolution through the House and Senate, which will happen as soon as Tuesday, a congressional source tells me.

Once the budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2021 passes through both houses of Congress, with specific reconciliation instructions, than a reconciliation bill can be readied. It does look like that reconciliation bill will be set at the $1.9 trillion level. As Lindsay Owens of Groundwork Collaborative explains, that means that any amendments that cost money will take the bill over that limit and force some bargaining over what to keep in or take out. There are some mitigating factors that I’ll explain in a separate post, but it would be better to write in some flexibility there.

That’s a minor issue, however. The big thing here is Democrats want to retain the size of the package and have the threat of going it alone available. They might put the full bill on the floor for Republicans to reject, but at that point, reconciliation will take over. In theory that forces Republicans to the table if they want to have any say over the bill. In practice I think it means that you just get a reconciliation package. But Democrats aren’t wasting their time on bipartisanship, which is a sea change.

Read all of our First 100 Reports

It does not look like the bill will be split, at the White House’s request, meaning the checks and shots strategy is dead. It was my strategy, so of course I think this is a mistake. But it was going on a bad trajectory anyway. Republicans and some Democrats were looking to nickel and dime the checks, bringing eligibility down to individuals making under $50,000/year ($75,000 for couples). Even the vaccine money was said to be on the way to crushed down. A checks and shots strategy doesn’t mean little checks and fewer shots. It means daring Republicans to vote down popular bills that they have previously supported. So at this point, maybe reconciliation is the safer ground.

However, it’s a much more lengthy process. Once you get the budget resolution done, hopefully smoothly, you have to write the reconciliation package, and with Biden determined to give bipartisanship a chance you have to put the full bill to a vote to see what it can garner. Then reconciliation itself is a protracted process in the Senate, with a “vote-a-rama” that could lead to dozens if not hundreds of short votes (there could be as many as 1,000 amendments introduced). And after the amendment process you have to reconcile the reconciliation bill, meaning you have to make sure the Senate’s bill matches the House’s.

Through all of that, there are going to be negotiations, as literally every Senator will be in the position to make demands on the bill, not to mention every small group of House members given the narrow Democratic majority there. (Progressives are talking about recurring stimulus checks, for example, rather than another one-time check.) The sort-of deadline is when extended unemployment expires in mid-March. Obviously Democrats would like to pass something before then, but I don’t think that’s going to be all that possible.

The main cost of reconciliation is time. We need the vaccines out as fast as humanly possible, as we’re in a race with the more contagious variants. (Here’s Ezra Klein with more.) Delaying the money needed to really ramp up distribution is unconscionable. And this really puts out to dry the Georgia Senators who won Democrats back the majority. They finally spoke up yesterday, arguing that they made a distinct promise on the checks that needed to be honored quickly. Maybe March is good enough for them, but you can sense the discomfort.

If checks and shots hit the floor next week along with the budget resolution, in a way that forced Republicans to go on the record against very popular programs they themselves have said they support, that would be politically valuable whether Republicans block them or not. The policy value of passage is significant, especially on the vaccine side, where even red-state governors are begging for more support. Checks and shots appear dead, but the idea was never taken in the proper spirit anyway: make your opponent take a tough vote. Why else hold the majority?

Pfizer & Moderna & Johnson & Johnson

The big news this morning is that Johnson & Johnson revealed results on its one-dose coronavirus vaccine, which doesn’t require the ultra-cold storage of the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. It’s also not quite as effective as those two. The vaccine was 72 percent efficacious in the U.S., but only 57 percent in South Africa, where a variant of the disease has been dominating.

First of all, even 57 percent is on par with things like the annual flu vaccine. Getting more shots of this level of effectiveness out gets you closer to herd immunity and reduces hospitalizations and deaths. Second, as a one-shot vaccine, every dose is effectively doubled, compared to Pfizer and Moderna. J&J expects 30 million doses by April, so that’s 10 percent of the population that could get the shot; it really helps with the supply snag. Third, the better results in the U.S. argue for faster approval here, before the variants take hold. The South African variant has been found in the U.S., but it’s not yet dominant, and getting people inoculated now would reduce the worst effects of that changeover, and potentially prevent the mutations from becoming dominant.

Johnson & Johnson will apparently file for emergency use authorization next week. How about today instead?

What Day of Biden’s Presidency Is It?

Day 10. There were supposed to be executive actions on immigration today but they have been delayed, for unclear reasons.

Today I Learned

  • Charlie Pierce takes a well-deserved shot at the New York Times’ sudden distaste for executive action. (Esquire)
  • The right tried to smear Rob Malley but it looks like he’s got the Iran envoy position anyway. (The Intercept)
  • I missed where Janet Yellen floated a global tax on tech firms, but Europe didn’t. (CNBC)
  • Trump tried to fill up Defense Department advisory boards with loyalists, but the Pentagon just kicked them off. (Politico)
  • The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s rule forcing banks to lend to oil and gun companies has also been suspended. (The Hill)
  • A power-sharing agreement is imminent in the Senate, enabling the Biden agenda to move forward. (Politico)
  • I’m starting to get concerned that the old “we can’t leave Afghanistan because then it’ll look like we lost it” mentality is taking hold. (Associated Press)
  • We could see troops giving shots soon. (New York Times)
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DAVID DAYEN

David Dayen is the executive editor of The American Prospect. His work has appeared in The Intercept, The New Republic, HuffPost, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and more.

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Biden Continues Reading ‘The Pet Goat’ To Schoolchildren After Being Informed Of GameStop Situation

Thursday 2:10PM (theonion.com)

SARASOTA, FL—The nation teetering on the edge of chaos far greater than he had yet comprehended, President Joe Biden reportedly continued reading a passage from The Pet Goat to schoolchildren Thursday after being informed of the GameStop situation. According to observers, White House chief of staff Ron Klain entered the Booker Elementary School classroom Biden was visiting and approached the president at precisely 9:06 a.m., leaning down to whisper the news of the attack on Wall Street into his right ear as the group of second-grade students looked on. Upon receiving the information, Biden reportedly paused for a moment and stared into space before returning to sharing the story, while at the same time across the country, Secret Service agents had whisked Vice President Kamala Harris away into an underground bunker deep below the White House. Sources at the scene of the atrocity in New York City confirmed that though Wall Street was in ruins, a large steel beam twisted into the shape of a dollar sign had been discovered, which surviving investors had fashioned into a makeshift shrine. At press time, President Biden was delivering a somber speech to the nation from the Oval Office, vowing to draw no distinction between shitposters and the subreddits that harbor them.

Has the Chron even noticed that we are in a national reckoning over racism?

From the coverage of the school names changes, apparently not.

ByTIM REDMOND

JANUARY 28, 2021 (48Hills.org

I have to ask: Has the San Francisco Chronicle even noticed that this country is in the middle of a badly needed and way overdue discussion and reckoning about race?

Apparently not.

My kids went to McKinley Elementary, a really wonderful school named after a really terrible president.

Let’s take a look at the way the paper has covered the recent School Board decision to rename 44 schools that honor someone linked to the nation’s ugly history.

The Chron, by the way, continues to argue that it’s a fair and objective news source.

I’ll start with the headline:

Washington and Lincoln are out. S.F. school board tosses 44 school names in controversial move

Naturally, the paper has to start with our Great Founding Father Washington and the venerable Abe Lincoln, to stir up agitation among its mostly older readers. And “tosses 44 school names?” that makes it appear the action was random and done for no reason.

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Now let’s look at the first few paragraphs:

The names of presidents, conquistadors, authors and even a current U.S. senator will be removed from 44 San Francisco school sites after the city’s school board Tuesday deemed the iconic figures unworthy of the honor.

The 6-1 vote followed months of controversy, with officials, parents, students and alumni at odds over whether Abraham Lincoln and George Washington high schools, Dianne Feinstein Elementary and dozens of others needed new names with no connection to slavery, oppression, racism or similar criteria.

Critics called the process slapdash, with little to no input from historians and a lack of information on the basis for each recommendation. In one instance, the committee didn’t know whether Roosevelt Middle School was named after Theodore or Franklin Delano.

Excuse me: The conqistadors, the slave-owners, the people responsible for killing native Americans are all by definition “iconic?” And they are “deemed unworthy of the honor?”

Even the description of the criteria for renaming seems snarky: “no connection to slavery, oppression, racism or other similar criteria.”

And the “critics” cited in the link? That’s Families for San Francisco. It’s an organization run by people who are connected to some of the most conservative movements in the city.

I know the process hasn’t been perfect (but not, I would say, a “travesty,” as Joe Eskenazi puts it) and maybe Abe Lincoln’s name should still be on a school, and we can debate this forever. (There’s a lot of discussion about whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein allowed a confederate flag to fly at City Hall, but nobody mentions that she vetoed the city’s first bill that would have allowed LGBT domestic partners some basic rights. She sided with the Archdiocese and talked about LGBT people as “changing life styles.”)

But this is, and ought to be, a serious discussion, and the School Board has every right and responsibility to take it on. My kids went to McKinley Elementary, named after a terrible racist imperialist anti-labor president, and wore his name on their shirts. What’s wrong with changing the name?

In fact, what’s wrong with updating a lot of the school names to reflect people who worked for and represent the values of this city and community?

Oh: It’s “expensive.” At $1 million, spread over several years? That’s 0.001 percent of the SFUSD annual budget. You want to talk about things the district spends $1 million on that are far less important than this?

And this discussion has nothing to do with the discussion of re-opening the schools. You can be unhappy about the fact that so many schools are old and the classrooms have almost no ventilation and many teachers are, or have partners who are, at high risk for COVID, and that the board hasn’t figured out a way to re-open safely (and I agree). But addressing a history of systemic racism right now isn’t interfering with the re-opening in any way.

Seriously: Can anyone argue that if the board had dismissed this discussion the schools would be opening one day sooner?

I clearly have an opinion about this. So does the Chron news department. One of us is being honest about it.

ESCAPE THE ECHO CHAMBER

First you don’t hear other views. Then you can’t trust them. Your personal information network entraps you just like a cult

C Thi Nguyen is an assistant professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University working in social epistemology, aesthetics and the philosophy of games. Previously, he wrote a column about food for the Los Angeles Times. His latest book is Games: Agency as Art (forthcoming).Listen here

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Edited by Sam Dresser

9 April 2018 (aeon.co)

Something has gone wrong with the flow of information. It’s not just that different people are drawing subtly different conclusions from the same evidence. It seems like different intellectual communities no longer share basic foundational beliefs. Maybe nobody cares about the truth anymore, as some have started to worry. Maybe political allegiance has replaced basic reasoning skills. Maybe we’ve all become trapped in echo chambers of our own making – wrapping ourselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of likeminded friends and web pages and social media feeds.

But there are two very different phenomena at play here, each of which subvert the flow of information in very distinct ways. Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

Current usage has blurred this crucial distinction, so let me introduce a somewhat artificial taxonomy. An ‘epistemic bubble’ is an informational network from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission. That omission might be purposeful: we might be selectively avoiding contact with contrary views because, say, they make us uncomfortable. As social scientists tell us, we like to engage in selective exposure, seeking out information that confirms our own worldview. But that omission can also be entirely inadvertent. Even if we’re not actively trying to avoid disagreement, our Facebook friends tend to share our views and interests. When we take networks built for social reasons and start using them as our information feeds, we tend to miss out on contrary views and run into exaggerated degrees of agreement.

An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited. Where an epistemic bubble merely omits contrary views, an echo chamber brings its members to actively distrust outsiders. In their book Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (2010), Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Frank Cappella offer a groundbreaking analysis of the phenomenon. For them, an echo chamber is something like a cult. A cult isolates its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy. A cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices.

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust.

Let’s start with epistemic bubbles. They have been in the limelight lately, most famously in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble (2011) and Cass Sunstein’s #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (2017). The general gist: we get much of our news from Facebook feeds and similar sorts of social media. Our Facebook feed consists mostly of our friends and colleagues, the majority of whom share our own political and cultural views. We visit our favourite like-minded blogs and websites. At the same time, various algorithms behind the scenes, such as those inside Google search, invisibly personalise our searches, making it more likely that we’ll see only what we want to see. These processes all impose filters on information.

Such filters aren’t necessarily bad. The world is overstuffed with information, and one can’t sort through it all by oneself: filters need to be outsourced. That’s why we all depend on extended social networks to deliver us knowledge. But any such informational network needs the right sort of broadness and variety to work. A social network composed entirely of incredibly smart, obsessive opera fans would deliver all the information I could want about the opera scene, but it would fail to clue me in to the fact that, say, my country had been infested by a rising tide of neo-Nazis. Each individual person in my network might be superbly reliable about her particular informational patch but, as an aggregate structure, my network lacks what Sanford Goldberg in his book Relying on Others (2010) calls ‘coverage-reliability’. It doesn’t deliver to me a sufficiently broad and representative coverage of all the relevant information.

Epistemic bubbles also threaten us with a second danger: excessive self-confidence. In a bubble, we will encounter exaggerated amounts of agreement and suppressed levels of disagreement. We’re vulnerable because, in general, we actually have very good reason to pay attention to whether other people agree or disagree with us. Looking to others for corroboration is a basic method for checking whether one has reasoned well or badly. This is why we might do our homework in study groups, and have different laboratories repeat experiments. But not all forms of corroboration are meaningful. Ludwig Wittgenstein says: imagine looking through a stack of identical newspapers and treating each next newspaper headline as yet another reason to increase your confidence. This is obviously a mistake. The fact that The New York Times reports something is a reason to believe it, but any extra copies of The New York Times that you encounter shouldn’t add any extra evidence.

But outright copies aren’t the only problem here. Suppose that I believe that the Paleo diet is the greatest diet of all time. I assemble a Facebook group called ‘Great Health Facts!’ and fill it only with people who already believe that Paleo is the best diet. The fact that everybody in that group agrees with me about Paleo shouldn’t increase my confidence level one bit. They’re not mere copies – they actually might have reached their conclusions independently – but their agreement can be entirely explained by my method of selection. The group’s unanimity is simply an echo of my selection criterion. It’s easy to forget how carefully pre-screened the members are, how epistemically groomed social media circles might be.

Luckily, though, epistemic bubbles are easily shattered. We can pop an epistemic bubble simply by exposing its members to the information and arguments that they’ve missed. But echo chambers are a far more pernicious and robust phenomenon.

Jamieson and Cappella’s book is the first empirical study into how echo chambers function. In their analysis, echo chambers work by systematically alienating their members from all outside epistemic sources. Their research centres on Rush Limbaugh, a wildly successful conservative firebrand in the United States, along with Fox News and related media. Limbaugh uses methods to actively transfigure whom his listeners trust. His constant attacks on the ‘mainstream media’ are attempts to discredit all other sources of knowledge. He systematically undermines the integrity of anybody who expresses any kind of contrary view. And outsiders are not simply mistaken – they are malicious, manipulative and actively working to destroy Limbaugh and his followers. The resulting worldview is one of deeply opposed force, an all-or-nothing war between good and evil. Anybody who isn’t a fellow Limbaugh follower is clearly opposed to the side of right, and therefore utterly untrustworthy.

They read – but do not accept – mainstream and liberal news sources. They hear, but dismiss, outside voices

The result is a rather striking parallel to the techniques of emotional isolation typically practised in cult indoctrination. According to mental-health specialists in cult recovery, including Margaret Singer, Michael Langone and Robert Lifton, cult indoctrination involves new cult members being brought to distrust all non-cult members. This provides a social buffer against any attempts to extract the indoctrinated person from the cult.

The echo chamber doesn’t need any bad connectivity to function. Limbaugh’s followers have full access to outside sources of information. According to Jamieson and Cappella’s data, Limbaugh’s followers regularly read – but do not accept – mainstream and liberal news sources. They are isolated, not by selective exposure, but by changes in who they accept as authorities, experts and trusted sources. They hear, but dismiss, outside voices. Their worldview can survive exposure to those outside voices because their belief system has prepared them for such intellectual onslaught.

In fact, exposure to contrary views could actually reinforce their views. Limbaugh might offer his followers a conspiracy theory: anybody who criticises him is doing it at the behest of a secret cabal of evil elites, which has already seized control of the mainstream media. His followers are now protected against simple exposure to contrary evidence. In fact, the more they find that the mainstream media calls out Limbaugh for inaccuracy, the more Limbaugh’s predictions will be confirmed. Perversely, exposure to outsiders with contrary views can thus increase echo-chamber members’ confidence in their insider sources, and hence their attachment to their worldview. The philosopher Endre Begby calls this effect ‘evidential pre-emption’. What’s happening is a kind of intellectual judo, in which the power and enthusiasm of contrary voices are turned against those contrary voices through a carefully rigged internal structure of belief.

One might be tempted to think that the solution is just more intellectual autonomy. Echo chambers arise because we trust others too much, so the solution is to start thinking for ourselves. But that kind of radical intellectual autonomy is a pipe dream. If the philosophical study of knowledge has taught us anything in the past half-century, it is that we are irredeemably dependent on each other in almost every domain of knowledge. Think about how we trust others in every aspect of our daily lives. Driving a car depends on trusting the work of engineers and mechanics; taking medicine depends on trusting the decisions of doctors, chemists and biologists. Even the experts depend on vast networks of other experts. A climate scientist analysing core samples depends on the lab technician who runs the air-extraction machine, the engineers who made all those machines, the statisticians who developed the underlying methodology, and on and on.

As Elijah Millgram argues in The Great Endarkenment (2015), modern knowledge depends on trusting long chains of experts. And no single person is in the position to check up on the reliability of every member of that chain. Ask yourself: could you tell a good statistician from an incompetent one? A good biologist from a bad one? A good nuclear engineer, or radiologist, or macro-economist, from a bad one? Any particular reader might, of course, be able to answer positively to one or two such questions, but nobody can really assess such a long chain for herself. Instead, we depend on a vastly complicated social structure of trust. We must trust each other, but, as the philosopher Annette Baier says, that trust makes us vulnerable. Echo chambers operate as a kind of social parasite on that vulnerability, taking advantage of our epistemic condition and social dependency.

Most of the examples I’ve given so far, following Jamieson and Cappella, focus on the conservative media echo chamber. But nothing says that this is the only echo chamber out there; I am quite confident that there are plenty of echo chambers on the political Left. More importantly, nothing about echo chambers restricts them to the arena of politics. The world of anti-vaccination is clearly an echo chamber, and it is one that crosses political lines. I’ve also encountered echo chambers on topics as broad as diet (Paleo!), exercise technique (CrossFit!), breastfeeding, some academic intellectual traditions, and many, many more. Here’s a basic check: does a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber.

Unfortunately, much of the recent analysis has lumped epistemic bubbles together with echo chambers into a single, unified phenomenon. But it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between the two. Epistemic bubbles are rather ramshackle; they go up easily, and they collapse easily, too. Echo chambers are far more pernicious and far more robust. They can start to seem almost like living things. Their belief systems provide structural integrity, resilience and active responses to outside attacks. Surely a community can be both at once, but the two phenomena can also exist independently. And of the events we’re most worried about, it’s the echo-chamber effects that are really causing most of the trouble.

Jamieson and Cappella’s analysis is mostly forgotten these days, the term hijacked as just another synonym for filter bubbles. Many of the most prominent thinkers focus solely on bubble-type effects. Sunstein’s prominent treatments, for example, diagnose political polarisation and religious radicalisation almost exclusively in terms of bad exposure and bad connectivity. His recommendation, in #Republic: create more public forums for discourse where we’ll all run into contrary views more often. But if what we’re dealing with is primarily an echo chamber, then that effort will be useless at best, and might even strengthen the echo chamber’s grip.

There’s also been a rash of articles recently arguing that there’s no such thing as echo chambers or filter bubbles. But these articles also lump the two phenomena together in a problematic way, and seem to largely ignore the possibility of echo-chamber effects. They focus, instead, solely on measuring connectivity and exposure on social media networks. The new data does, in fact, seem to show that people on Facebook actually do see posts from the other side, or that people often visit websites with opposite political affiliation. If that’s right, then epistemic bubbles might not be such a serious threat. But none of this weighs against the existence of echo chambers. We should not dismiss the threat of echo chambers based only on evidence about connectivity and exposure.

Crucially, echo chambers can offer a useful explanation of the current informational crisis in a way that epistemic bubbles cannot. Many people have claimed that we have entered an era of ‘post-truth’. Not only do some political figures seem to speak with a blatant disregard for the facts, but their supporters seem utterly unswayed by evidence. It seems, to some, that truth no longer matters.

This is an explanation in terms of total irrationality. To accept it, you must believe that a great number of people have lost all interest in evidence or investigation, and have fallen away from the ways of reason. The phenomenon of echo chambers offers a less damning and far more modest explanation. The apparent ‘post-truth’ attitude can be explained as the result of the manipulations of trust wrought by echo chambers. We don’t have to attribute a complete disinterest in facts, evidence or reason to explain the post-truth attitude. We simply have to attribute to certain communities a vastly divergent set of trusted authorities.

Members of an echo chamber are not irrational but misinformed about where to place their trust

Listen to what it actually sounds like when people reject the plain facts – it doesn’t sound like brute irrationality. One side points out a piece of economic data; the other side rejects that data by rejecting its source. They think that newspaper is biased, or the academic elites generating the data are corrupt. An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.

Notice how different what’s going on here is from, say, Orwellian doublespeak, a deliberately ambiguous, euphemism-filled language designed to hide the intent of the speaker. Doublespeak involves no interest in clarity, coherence or truth. It is, according to George Orwell, the language of useless bureaucrats and politicians, trying to go through the motions of speech without actually committing themselves to any real substantive claims. But echo chambers don’t trade in vague, ambiguous pseudo-speech. We should expect that echo chambers would deliver crisp, clear, unambiguous claims about who is trustworthy and who is not. And this, according to Jamieson and Cappella, is exactly what we find in echo chambers: clearly articulated conspiracy theories, and crisply worded accusations of an outside world rife with untrustworthiness and corruption.

Once an echo chamber starts to grip a person, its mechanisms will reinforce themselves. In an epistemically healthy life, the variety of our informational sources will put an upper limit to how much we’re willing to trust any single person. Everybody’s fallible; a healthy informational network tends to discover people’s mistakes and point them out. This puts an upper ceiling on how much you can trust even your most beloved leader. But inside an echo chamber, that upper ceiling disappears.

Being caught in an echo chamber is not always the result of laziness or bad faith. Imagine, for instance, that somebody has been raised and educated entirely inside an echo chamber. That child has been taught the beliefs of the echo chamber, taught to trust the TV channels and websites that reinforce those same beliefs. It must be reasonable for a child to trust in those that raise her. So, when the child finally comes into contact with the larger world – say, as a teenager – the echo chamber’s worldview is firmly in place. That teenager will distrust all sources outside her echo chamber, and she will have gotten there by following normal procedures for trust and learning.

It certainly seems like our teenager is behaving reasonably. She could be going about her intellectual life in perfectly good faith. She might be intellectually voracious, seeking out new sources, investigating them, and evaluating them using what she already knows. She is not blindly trusting; she is proactively evaluating the credibility of other sources, using her own body of background beliefs. The worry is that she’s intellectually trapped. Her earnest attempts at intellectual investigation are led astray by her upbringing and the social structure in which she is embedded.

For those who have not been raised within an echo chamber, perhaps it would take some significant intellectual vice to enter into one – perhaps intellectual laziness or a preference for security over truth. But even then, once the echo chamber’s belief system is in place, their future behaviour could be reasonable and they would still continue to be trapped. Echo chambers might function like addiction, under certain accounts. It might be irrational to become addicted, but all it takes is a momentary lapse – once you’re addicted, your internal landscape is sufficiently rearranged such that it’s rational to continue with your addiction. Similarly, all it takes to enter an echo chamber is a momentary lapse of intellectual vigilance. Once you’re in, the echo chamber’s belief systems function as a trap, making future acts of intellectual vigilance only reinforce the echo chamber’s worldview.

There is at least one possible escape route, however. Notice that the logic of the echo chamber depends on the order in which we encounter the evidence. An echo chamber can bring our teenager to discredit outside beliefs precisely because she encountered the echo chamber’s claims first. Imagine a counterpart to our teenager who was raised outside of the echo chamber and exposed to a wide range of beliefs. Our free-range counterpart would, when she encounters that same echo chamber, likely see its many flaws. In the end, both teenagers might eventually become exposed to all the same evidence and arguments. But they arrive at entirely different conclusions because of the order in which they received that evidence. Since our echo-chambered teenager encountered the echo chamber’s beliefs first, those beliefs will inform how she interprets all future evidence.

But something seems very suspicious about all this. Why should order matter so much? The philosopher Thomas Kelly argues that it shouldn’t, precisely because it would make this radical polarisation rationally inevitable. Here is the real source of irrationality in lifelong echo-chamber members – and it turns out to be incredibly subtle. Those caught in an echo chamber are giving far too much weight to the evidence they encounter first, just because it’s first. Rationally, they should reconsider their beliefs without that arbitrary preference. But how does one enforce such informational a-historicity?

Think about our echo-chambered teenager. Every part of her belief system is tuned to reject the contrary testimony of outsiders. She has a reason, on each encounter, to dismiss any incoming contrary evidence. What’s more, if she decided to suspend any one of her particular beliefs and reconsider it on its own, then all her background beliefs would likely just reinstate the problematic belief. Our teenager would have to do something much more radical than simply reconsidering her beliefs one by one. She’d have to suspend all her beliefs at once, and restart the knowledge-gathering process, treating all sources as equally trustworthy. This is a massive undertaking; it is, perhaps, more than we could reasonably expect of anybody. It might also, to the philosophically inclined, sound awfully familiar. The escape route is a modified version of René Descartes’s infamous method.

Descartes suggested that we imagine an evil demon that was deceiving us about everything. He explains the meaning behind the methodology in the opening lines of the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). He had come to realise that many of the beliefs he had acquired in his early life were false. But early beliefs lead to all sorts of other beliefs, and any early falsehoods he’d accepted had surely infected the rest of his belief system. He was worried that, if he discarded any one particular belief, the infection contained in the rest of his beliefs would simply reinstate more bad beliefs. The only solution, thought Descartes, was to throw all his beliefs away and start over again from scratch.

So the evil demon was just a bit of a heuristic – a thought experiment that would help him throw away all his beliefs. He could start over, trusting nothing and no one except those things that he could be entirely certain of, and stamping out those sneaky falsehoods once and for all. Let’s call this the Cartesian epistemic reboot. Notice how close Descartes’s problem is to our hapless teenager’s, and how useful the solution might be. Our teenager, like Descartes, has problematic beliefs acquired in early childhood. These beliefs have infected outwards, infesting that teenager’s whole belief system. Our teenager, too, needs to throw everything away, and start over again.

Groomed from childhood to be a neo-Nazi leader, he left the movement by performing a social reboot

Descartes’s method has since been abandoned by most contemporary philosophers, since in fact we can’t start from nothing: we have to start by assuming something and trusting somebody. But for us the useful part is the reboot itself, where we throw everything away and start all over again. The problematic part happens afterwards, when we re-adopt only those beliefs that we are entirely certain of, while proceeding solely by independent and solitary reasoning.

Let’s call the modernised version of Descartes’s methodology the social-epistemic reboot. In order to undo the effects of an echo chamber, the member should temporarily suspend all her beliefs – in particular whom and what she trusts – and start over again from scratch. But when she starts from scratch, we won’t demand that she trust only what she’s absolutely certain of, nor will we demand that she go it alone. For the social reboot, she can proceed, after throwing everything away, in an utterly mundane way – trusting her senses, trusting others. But she must begin afresh socially – she must reconsider all possible sources of information with a presumptively equanimous eye. She must take the posture of a cognitive newborn, open and equally trusting to all outside sources. In a sense, she’s been here before. In the social reboot, we’re not asking people to change their basic methods for learning about the world. They are permitted to trust, and trust freely. But after the social reboot, that trust will not be narrowly confined and deeply conditioned by the particular people they happened to be raised by.

The social reboot might seem rather fantastic, but it is not so unrealistic. Such a profound deep-cleanse of one’s whole belief system seems to be what’s actually required to escape. Look at the many stories of people leaving cults and echo chambers. Take, for example, the story of Derek Black in Florida – raised by a neo-Nazi father, and groomed from childhood to be a neo-Nazi leader. Black left the movement by, basically, performing a social reboot. He completely abandoned everything he’d believed in, and spent years building a new belief system from scratch. He immersed himself broadly and open-mindedly in everything he’d missed – pop culture, Arabic literature, the mainstream media, rap – all with an overall attitude of generosity and trust. It was the project of years and a major act of self-reconstruction, but those extraordinary lengths might just be what’s actually required to undo the effects of an echo-chambered upbringing.

Is there anything we can do, then, to help an echo-chamber member to reboot? We’ve already discovered that direct assault tactics – bombarding the echo-chamber member with ‘evidence’ – won’t work. Echo-chamber members are not only protected from such attacks, but their belief systems will judo such attacks into further reinforcement of the echo chamber’s worldview. Instead, we need to attack the root, the systems of discredit themselves, and restore trust in some outside voices.

Stories of actual escapes from echo chambers often turn on particular encounters – moments when the echo-chambered individual starts to trust somebody on the outside. Black’s is case in point. By high school, he was already something of a star on neo-Nazi media, with his own radio talk-show. He went on to college, openly neo-Nazi, and was shunned by almost every other student in his community college. But then Matthew Stevenson, a Jewish fellow undergraduate, started inviting Black to Stevenson’s Shabbat dinners. In Black’s telling, Stevenson was unfailingly kind, open and generous, and slowly earned Black’s trust. This was the seed, says Black, that led to a massive intellectual upheaval – a slow-dawning realisation of the depths to which he had been misled. Black went through a years-long personal transformation, and is now an anti-Nazi spokesperson. Similarly, accounts of people leaving echo-chambered homophobia rarely involve them encountering some institutionally reported fact. Rather, they tend to revolve around personal encounters – a child, a family member, a close friend coming out. These encounters matter because a personal connection comes with a substantial store of trust.

Why is trust so important? Baier suggests one key facet: trust is unified. We don’t simply trust people as educated experts in a field – we rely on their goodwill. And this is why trust, rather than mere reliability, is the key concept. Reliability can be domain-specific. The fact, for example, that somebody is a reliable mechanic sheds no light on whether or not their political or economic beliefs are worth anything. But goodwill is a general feature of a person’s character. If I demonstrate goodwill in action, then you have some reason to think that I also have goodwill in matters of thought and knowledge. So if one can demonstrate goodwill to an echo-chambered member – as Stevenson did with Black – then perhaps one can start to pierce that echo chamber.

Such interventions from trusted outsiders can hook up with the social reboot. But the path I’m describing is a winding, narrow and fragile one. There is no guarantee that such trust can be established, and no clear path to its being established systematically. And even given all that, what we’ve found here isn’t an escape route at all. It depends on the intervention of another. This path is not even one an echo-chamber member can trigger on her own; it is only a whisper-thin hope for rescue from the outside.

If the powers that be are able to fuck over WSB and save hedge funds, it would be the perfect opportunity to revitalize Occupy Wall Street

Posted by u/anarcho-cannabist1 day ago

All-Seeing Upvote

Or hopefully a movement even more radical!

Say what you will about the wall street bets GME/AMC investing circlejerk, but it has undeniably made people realize that the market is arbitrary bullshit. And I bet that consciousness will shift further when people realize that it’s just a tool that oligarchic multi billionaires use to exploit, and that the U.S. federal government is their safety net. I dont imagine the WSB ploy to end favorably for redditors, so why not take this opportunity to channel that collective frustration into an occupy wall street type movement? Spread the word that if these hedge funds win, we will be in the streets! (With masks!)

A STEALTHY REIMAGINING OF URBAN PUBLIC SPACE

Elizabeth Diller|TEDWomen 2020 (ted.com)

Cities are becoming increasingly privatized: commercial real estate dominates the streets, carving up open space that once belonged to the public and selling it as a commodity to the highest bidder. Architect Elizabeth Diller explores the causes and effects of this growing threat — and takes us on tour of her groundbreaking projects aimed at creating landscapes for the public to enjoy, from the High Line in New York City to Zaryadye Park in Moscow.

This talk was presented at an official TED conference, and was featured by our editors on the home page.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Elizabeth Diller · Architect, artist, designerElizabeth Diller and her maverick firm DS+R bring a groundbreaking approach to projects in architecture, urban design and art by playing with new materials and tampering with space and spectacle in ways that make you look twice.