The Greatest Show on Earth

The odd feature of this singular situation is that we’ve come to accept as (more or less) normal persons and actions that would have struck everyone as patho-normal just a few decades ago, writes Michael Brenner.

By Michael Brenner

We all are familiar with that hoary saying: “There is nothing new under the sun.” It’s all been seen before – so we are told. Certainly true as regards human behavior if not innovative technology.

Yet, it is hard to deny that we are encountering things these days that seem to have no precedent or historical analog. American politics – and public life generally – is rife with the bizarre and the grotesque which would defy the imagination of a Margaret Mead or other venerable anthropologists from an earlier age.

The odd feature of this singular situation is that we have come to accept as (more or less) normal persons and actions that would have struck everyone as patho-normal just a few decades ago. Habituation and acculturation seem to have no limits.

The past few weeks of Covid-19/George Floyd protests/economic collapse have offered a plethora of striking examples. Consider these:

  1. The powerhouse economy of the United States is unable to produce swabs (cue tips) to acquire throat samples from possible Coronavirus carriers. The element of surprise is blunted by the concomitant shortage of face masks, medical gowns, rubbing alcohol, surgical gloves, testing reagents and ventilators. Crisis conditions lasted for several weeks and – in some places – still do. Pundits treat us to complicated explanations referencing globalized supply chains, the Constitution’s division-of-powers, or shortcomings in the nation’s training of manufacturing workers. Swab autarky is declared a national security goal.

The simple, appalling realities are sublimated. What is the supply chain for swabs? Wood slivers from Myanmar integrated with tiny cotton balls from Pakistan for assembly in Honduras transshipped through a distribution center in San Antonio whose workforce has been halved by ICE deportations to Mexico?

How is it that Tunisia is able to manufacture 30 million N95 face masks for a population of 10 million within a couple of weeks while we scour the world’s flea markets in the hunt for those rare materials?   Why does the Trump family find it impossible to allocate whatever supplies we do have when 115 years ago Teddy Roosevelt could ship 200,000 blankets to San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake within 4 days?

It took us less time to deploy half a million troops to the Gulf in 1991 that it has taken the zombie Jared Kushner (the Trump White House’s very own Roca Rey) to let go of the face masks he’s stored in his playroom.

  1. Renowned medical experts stand beside our mentally deranged President when he spouts absolute nonsense about quack cures and lies through his teeth. That includes the Director of the CDC Dr. Robert Redfield, and the Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Deborah Birx. Even–a times–Dr. Anthony Fauci has struck a surprisingly accommodating note. He still talks in interviews about a vaccine ready in January, declares Remdesivir a “game-changer” when it manifestly can neither prevent nor cure (it may ameliorate), says just a few days ago that there is “no definitive truth’ yet about the value of Hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, equivocates on the WHO’s reckless assertion that, indeed, asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers only rarely can spread the virus (until and unless they become symptomatic)* – same interview June 9 turns wishy-washy when it comes to requirements for safe re-openings – and now has jumped on the blame China bandwagon. In countries that have moved swiftly and intelligently to control the virus – Norway, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, Taiwan, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, Slovakia, Slovenia, Uruguay – governments don’t rush to find a scapegoat. It’s the derelict and incompetent who do – Brazil, the UK, Peru, Sweden and the USA. And let’s recall that we had an extra 3-week warning time compared to the Europeans; a month at least more than the Asians.
  1.  The CDC has totally abandoned its responsibility to inform and guide the citizenry about threats to the public health – having issued no statements or advisories for a month. Cringing at Trump’s abuse, its leaders however are back testing the disproven, and iatrogenic malaria drug, Hydroxychloroquine, allegedly useful in treating Covid-19 but certain to kill a substantial fraction of those who take it.  They seem to have dread visions of an enraged ‘O’ quadri-pedaling his way to Toledo Rd, Hyattsville bent on repeating his Rue Morgue frenzy.

Have any of these senior doctors thought of resigning? Of resigning with the éclat that would puncture the hot air balloon occupying the Oval Office – and perhaps save the Republic from the fatal head-on collision with reality that his reelection would ensure?

When at the sunset of one’s career (Fauci 79, Redfield 69, Birx 64), what’s the incremental value of additions to one’s collection of White House coffee spoons – especially when resignation would earn you even more time in the spotlight, speaker fees – and place you in the history books as an AMERICAN HERO forever. The predictable retort is : ”isn’t it better that I remain in a position close to the policy-maker so that a reasoned voice is heard.” 

Fauci and Birx (White House Photo)

The indisputable truth, though, is that Trump listens to no one, understands nothing, and hasn’t even met you for a month. He’s also forbidden you to give interviews not approved by the White House; your public voice is stilled – except when you agree to parrot some Trumpian talking point, e.g. China?** (Redfield, too, is wearing an ankle bracelet).

So, why not quit – and bring down the profaned Temple on your way out. Don’t relish getting embroiled in a public row?; grab your briefcase, close the door quietly, and head home to watch the Cuomo Brothers show with a drink in your hand. The ‘O’ wouldn’t even realize that you’d gone – and a week later will have forgotten your name.

  1. TrueSurrealism was reached when Trump doused the White House lights to take refuge in the sub-basement Bunker. The vision of our blustering leader scurrying like a cockroach into the darkest corner of the building would have destroyed totally the standing of any President had it occurred any time before the country entered our current  twilight world where farce is unrecognizable. The ‘O’s cowardice is hardly a state secret, but this advertisement of it is a marker for our times. He later concocted a story that he had gone down only for an ‘instant’ on an inspection tour (to check on available supplies of Diet Coke, frozen Big Macs, fries and Kushner’s trove of face masks?). He took the entire family with him not just to serve as a darkness trauma support group; he also needed twelve sets of fingers to get an accurate count. 
  1. Trump managed to outdo even that burlesque with his Bible photo-op before St. John’s church. Posing with an upside-down copy of a book he probably never read or had touched in 60 years or so, flanked by the bemedaled – 8 rows – Chief of Staff General Mark Milley, decked out in the Pentagon’s latest jungle camouflage fatigues, who disgracefully lent himself to this insult to the Constitution he swore to uphold and to the multi-racial personnel he commands, by Bill Barr – the grumpy toad who smirks at having just tongued a swarm of bugs, and – not least – Trump’s latest wacko press-liar, Kayleigh McEnany, dressed for the occasion in tapered, black satin pants – skin-tight, and 5-inch heels which made her look like she was ready for night duty at Logan Circle.  They hardly missed a trick – except forgetting to autograph the Bible destined to be the centerpiece for the chapel at the Trump Presidential Library in Mar-A-Lago. 

Is this perverted rulership? A comedy skit? Both – two sides of the same reality.

  1. Then there was the ignominious Minneapolis police retreat from that precinct house where they had holed up when ‘confronted’ by a few score, largely peaceful demonstrators. The obverse of Fort Apache. More like the Foreign Legion caravan straggling out of Diem Ben Pho. Why? Well, let’s remember that in nihilist America everything is possible. The proximate reason? Try these: 

It was judged time to test their emergency evacuation planning under ideal rehearsal conditions.; Or,

The City desperately needed the pay-out from the fire insurance, Or

Their pizza order had been delayed by a sudden outbreak of Covid-19 in their favorite joint, and the cops couldn’t agree on whether it would be patriotic to substitute Chinese take-out. 

Or, as sports deprived Twins fans they saw an opportunity to scoot off to a sports bar to see highlights of the 1965 World Series on the MLB network. 

Who are these guys anyway?

  1. Our European friends, too, are making an appearance on the burlesque stage, albeit a bit tardy as usual. Yesterday, the EU Commission waltzed into the limelight with a solemn declaration that “Russia and China are the main perpetrators of the spread of online misinformation about Covid-19.” It was issued by the vice-president for values and transparency, Vera Jurová. ”If we have evidence, we should not shy away from naming and shaming,” she told reporters.  Predictably, no hard evidence was exhibited. Nor was a distinction drawn between sources with national addresses and government bodies.  Nor a plausible motive suggested. And of course, the names named did not include Donald ‘Hoax” Trump, Michael Pence, Michael Pompeo or any other U.S. misinformation artists. One can only wonder how many of these brave European “followers” injected themselves with bleach to ward off the Coronavirus.

Ursula von der Leyen (CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019)

Still, optimists in Brussels may interpret these doings as supporting the claim of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that the collective response to the Coronavirus crisis made this “Europe’s moment.” One is reminded of June 1991 when, with the ex-Yugoslavia blowing apart, then EU Commission President Jacques Delors announced their intention to take charge of the crisis with the proclamation that “the Hour of Europe has struck.” As things turned out, “For Whom The Bell Tolls” was more appropriate. Today, the EU is beset by multiple mortal threats – BREXIT, a renewed debt crisis, an economic collapse, the virus – that should make it concentrate on its survival rather than on what some anonymous person in Chongqing  might have floated onto social media.

  1. Perhaps the ultimate grotesquerie was the pas de deux between Trump and Zuckerberg. The President of the United States beseeching the IT hustler for the electronic ages not to blacklist him from Facebook due to his latest obscenities. This, a day after the ‘O’ threatened to take command of all social media – as soon as he had completed the military occupation of 22 insurrectionist American cities.  This perverse interaction between two self-invented ego-maniacs who rule different fiefdoms of the realm should be viewed as an exhibit of deformations.

Let’s take a step back. A ruthless entrepreneur who has carved out a global empire cemented by a universal impulse of today’s aimless souls for self-affirmation has surreptitiously become the de facto censor of all communication that passes through his space – like an empowered Medieval toll gate inspector.

No legislative act has authorized this. No national debate has occurred. This draconian control has imposed itself on we the people who gurgle ourselves hoarse about the right of privacy, about our Constitutional freedoms, about the will of the people – yet, who accept it as natural and inevitable and – for most of us – a wonderful thing.

Zuck holds no official position. Still, he has hired a legion of 15,000 (mainly) kids – “off-the-street” –  to monitor literally everything that is placed on Facebook – using an elaborate arsenal of algorithms designed in collaboration with the NSA (which does pretty much the same thing – with more follow-through). They operate within ever-shifting guidelines decreed by a Zuckerberg ukase and now to be codified by a board of a few dozen people hand-picked by Zuck, his wife, and his equally arrogant, amoral lieutenant Sheryl Sandberg, another celebrity darling for the media.

Orwell. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is George Orwell on a cocktail of steroids and LSD.

At present, Facebook collaborates with the FBI to identify and block numerous sites that are declared to be associated with states/organizations hostile to the United States. The terms are nowhere stipulated and, in practice, are very loosely defined. To date, Facebook has taken down sites where articles critical of American foreign policy are published – many of which are written by citizens of the U.S., including some who have held high government positions. 

This is outright censorship on a reverse extraterritorial basis. All is done in secrecy. There appears no institutional obstacle to the FBI telling Zuck that ‘we’ have national security grounds for applying a similar ban on domestic sites. This censorship is roughly analogous of the Obama policy whereby he arrogated to the president the authority to kill American citizens outside the United States without any regard to constitutionally guaranteed due process. 

Zuck the IT potentate has given the ‘O’ a free pass to circumvent the censors. That wins him favor (and favors) in the White House and distances him from his rivals at Google and Twitter.

Give the hustler credit: he plays Washington masterfully. He invests in critically placed bureaucrats and politicos; forges mutual benefit ties with regulators; butters up the press where high-tech groupies cover Silicon Valley; and treats Congressional committees with noble distain – lying, breaking promises, withholding documents – knowing full well that they dare not touch him despite his being inarticulate to the point of incoherence (a neophyte Alan Greenspan) and transparently mendacious.

Admittedly, that says more about his governmental interlocutors than it does Zuck’s Machiavellian genius.

Let’s get serious. The whole social media phenomenon lacks any dimension of public interest. It has twisted our world inside-out without anyone in authority paying it close attention.

Logically, there are two ways to approach the multiplicity of issues they raise. One is to treat it as a straightforward public utility – just like the traditional telephone company.  The other approach is to make the fundamental decision that the nation’s welfare requires the monitoring and censoring of everything that passes through the social media. Then choose either to lodge that responsibility in a federal regulatory agency or parcel it out among private companies – Zuck and his counterparts. Failure to do one or the other is certain to perpetuate havoc.

Graham Bell. (Timoleon Marie Lobrichon/Library of Congress.)

The oddity of the present situation comes into relief when we compare it with the management of earlier technological innovations – even those in the communications sector. Take the telephone. From the outset, it was conceived in strictly instrumental terms. Companies made service available for which the customer paid a monthly amount. They handled the technical side and the financial side. The uses to which it was put was up to you or me. It was none of Bell’s or anyone else’s business. Certainly, Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t called upon to identify purveyors of “fake news” transmitted over the lines and to alert all telephone users whom to watch out for.

Of course, the telephone has been used for criminal purposes, for seditious purposes in extremely rare instances, and for all sorts of nuisance purposes. The answer: have legal authorities pursue possible criminals. As for the rest, it was up to the user to deal with crank calls, sellers of noxious products or ideas, obscenity calls, etc.

Nor, we should remind ourselves, were telephone calls interrupted by audio pop-ups recorded by outfits offering their services to clear clogged drains. Selling that audio space (along with personal data culled from your telephone log) would indeed have made the telephone companies’ owners even richer than they were. They might have risen into the ranks of the billionaires and qualified for a cabinet position in Washington. But to do so would have brought down the public’s wrath and the intervention of a state’s public utilities commission (aka a repressive government bureaucracy intent on curbing our freedoms).

It is stunning how far we have regressed in the loss of any sense of collective good and public authorities as its safeguard. Nowadays, we accept the commercialization of an instrument of communication for no other purpose than to enrich Zuck and his fellows. Nobody else benefits.

And then we turn to them for protection from the menace of “fake news” which those companies have created – in two ways. By fostering addiction to means of so-called communication that transmit very little information and by using their control of the medium to manage content by acting as a customized electronic newsstand.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. mbren@pitt.edu

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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