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Let’s Talk!

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoys sports, but professional sports have become a primary distraction keeping us from our due diligence to be well informed and actively engaged in the level of civil discourse our democracy requires.(This doesn’t apply to everyone who likes sports). So when folks are upset that politics is infringing on sports, they affirm the role of sport as a means to avoid uncomfortable conversations.

Most Americans have developed a superficial relationship to politics (Including many in the media who cover it like a sport). Politics as sport is all process and insider intrigue. It is devoid of real substance or depth behind the reported facts. We lose sight of the real world consequences that bad policy decisions have on our lives.

Current events are forcing us to confront politics as we haven’t done in years. It’s a good development, but it will take time to get use to talking about politics with our neighbors again. It will take time to gather the essential facts we should have, facts that have been missing or withheld from us for years. And it will test our patience and tolerance as we begin to bridge the gaps that have come to divided us. So let’s hang in there and keep talking.

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Should I Stand or Should I Kneel?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Are the NFL players who kneeled in protest at the National Anthem to be reviled, or were they being courageous?

Did they insult our nation, or is their freedom to action what our flag stands for?

Were the protesting players disrespectful or patriotic?

These questions vexed the nation in recent days. People argued and took sides. Tempers sometimes flared. Angry posts or tweets were exchanged. And somewhere in a Russian troll farm cyber warriors were smiling.

This National Anthem flap is a perfect example of how we are being manipulated by higher powers in the media sphere every day. Some of the bad actors are foreign, such as the Russia operatives at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, with its army of automated bots, who took to Twitter once again to polarize our public discourse over the NFL protest flap.

The truth is that Russia has been doing this type of thing for years; Using social media platforms on the internet to post extreme and inflammatory messages on opposite sides of every issue. This is just one of Russia’s many methods to sow discord and to splinter our national unity. Their goal: Polarize our politics, widen our political fault lines, pit us against one another and make America ungovernable. Russia is targeting other democracies this way in Europe as well.

But Russia isn’t the only player fomenting disunity and despair. They may even be minor players next to some of our own “stateless” oligarchs who benefit from governmental paralysis at every level. These billionaires don’t want to pay any taxes, support the public commons or be told what they can and can’t do. They are among a oligarchs from around the world who control more wealth and power than most countries. They see self-governing entities as obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of wealth, or as competition in their exercise of power, and some have been messing with our politics and social perceptions for years.

To borrow from a prior article:

… there is strong evidence that the rogue interests of certain Western billionaires and Russian oligarchs have converged. Breaking down the economic barriers that keep wealth and power in check under civilian controlled democracies, and the goal of undermining the strength and unity of Western democracies (strengthening Vladimir Putin’s global influence) are essential aligned.

This is the bigger picture. It is a picture so large it’s hard to take in and even harder to accept as true. Yet here we are, confronted by a clear case where a foreign power used Twitter to influence the personal conversations we are having with each other.

Mainstream media also has its part to play in this NFL protest story and countless others like it. It is the “for-profit” news outlets that select what we will be talking about tomorrow. NFL players protesting during the National Anthem is a real money topic. It attracts a much wider audience compared to another story about race relations. It’s important to remember here that we are the commodity the broadcast media delivers to advertisers. What they choose not to cover, we don’t talk much about. A simple internet search for “NFL protests” proves this point. Lost in the hoopla about the flag is any discussion of why there is a protest.

So what was the protest about?:

1. Police in this country kill too many civilians.

2. If your skin is black, you are twice as likely to be one of those killed.

NFL players were trying to bring attention to these issues, one superimposed on the other. On average, police kill about two people per day. For perspective, in all of Great Britain police kill about two people per year. If the rate of police homicides were that low in the US there wouldn’t be enough of them to reveal any sort of pattern. But a pattern does exist, and African-Americans are too often the victims.

These same racial patterns come up time and again in the American justice system because we have a pervasive and persistent problem with race. Whether we are looking at statistics about arrests, convictions, incarcerations, police stops, etc., the same pattern is superimposed on the data. Racial disparity, by far, is the more stubborn of the two problems listed above. We do need to address it. The other part of the problem, the high number of police killings, is a more solvable problem. We can all agree that the fewer number of civilians killed the better. That might mean better police training, better vetting of applicants and changes in police tactics or philosophy.

But here’s the thing. When we try to have that discussion, the social media platforms light up with extreme, emotionally charged messaging that polarizes our public discourse. Conversations quickly become adversarial. Efforts to separate one issue from another to make problem solving easier are sabotaged. Fake news stories begin popping up to further cloud the issues and crazy websites emerge to sustain the divisions thus created. These are often organized disinformation campaigns to reinforce political disunity. They can be so successful that we sometimes can’t even agree on the same set of facts. We get locked into an ideological battle and don’t how we got there. We can’t see the nefarious forces at work behind the scenes.

To understand how this is happening we have to consider the massive social media platforms though which we can broadly and anonymously communicate with millions of strangers. Never before have we had a cyber presence where everything we write or reveal about ourselves exists forever and is available to anyone. The whole internet is a gigantic, ever growing database that can be searched and analyzed. It’s a mercurial universe of ones and zeros. Yet, to an ever greater degree, our world view is molded by our social media experiences. Even as we become more enmeshed in the cyber world, this new medium is increasing falling under the influence of powerful people with weaponized information technologies and the motivation to alter our perceptions, our behavior and our culture. Our vulnerability to manipulation by bad actors has never been greater.

We need to educate ourselves about this new virtual world in which we find ourselves. We have lost control over our public discourse and need to win it back. We have to learn how to recognize when we are be targeted with propaganda messaging and how to resist falling victim to it. We mustn’t let our authentic narratives become hijacked by those who would alter our perceptions to serve their own ends? If democracy is to survive, if America is to survive, we have to overcome our differences and fight back against those who want to see our people’s Republic fail.

Heart of the Matter

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I knew a boy once who had a long red mark on his neck that someone thought was from physical abuse by his father. I talked to the boy. When I asked how he got the mark on his neck, he fell silent. Then he motioned for me to follow him.

He brought me outside to a shed in the back yard and opened the door. He pointed to a piece of rope on the floor and said,”I tried to hang myself, but the rope broke,” I put my hand on his shoulder as we both just stared at the rope.

I went back to the house to speak with his dad, The man clearly loved his son. He said he just wanted his boy to grow up “the right way.” He admitted he yelled a lot, but said he would never touch is son because of the way his own dad had beaten as a child.

I asked the father to show me his scars from those beatings. He pointed to his heart and said, “They are all here inside me.”

“That,” I said, “is where your son’s scars are as well.” Then I told him how his son got the mark on his neck. The man called his son into the room, grabbed him in a hug and wept. The scars that harm us most are almost always the ones no one else can see.

It Has A Name: FASCISM

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Fascism: A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. – Merriam-Webster

It’s time to call a duck a duck. Putin’s Russia is a fascist state.

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While scholars may debate what fascism is, we all know it when we see it, or so we think. We have been slow to see it in Russia. Perhaps the shadow of communism in the former Soviet Union is blinding us to what Russia has become, a totalitarian fascist regime.

Correctly applying that label to Russia is important to understanding our own national politics and the growing swirl of suspicious connections between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The most direct links, so far, appears to be a network of contacts between a shady collection of Trump’s operatives and shadowy Russian oligarchs. Whether or not Russia influenced our elections as alleged, this web of contacts by crony capitalists and intermediaries is just what one would expect between two fascist authoritarian leaders. Yes! Trump’s political movement in America has a name. Fascism!

Growing income inequality, the insurgence of the political right here and abroad, rising nationalism, the vilification of differences (racial, religious, ethnic, etc.), the ascension of an authoritarian leader in the U.S. and the confluence of billionaire capitalists bent on undermining democratic institutions for self-gain are unmistakable signs that fascism is reemerging in the 21st century.

A few words about fascism may be necessary since the term has been muddled, perhaps intentionally so. In general, it is an authoritarian form of government empowered by a multi-class nationalistic populism and a power sharing alliance with the wealthy elite. Fascism may take different forms as it metastasizes, but it is always built on three legs: A ruthless authoritarian leader, an extremely nationalistic base and a loyal cadre of uber-wealthy crony capitalists. The goal of fascism is always the same, to optimize power and prosperity for the fittest members of society, as defined by those aligned with their leader.

Without this understanding it is difficult to grasp the trans-national collaborations we see surfacing, not just between some conservative billionaires in the West and Russia, but also between them and other rich oligarchs the world over. Without understanding fascism it is impossible to grasp the national transition undermining our own democracy. It is impossible to grasp the extent to which fascism has already infected our democracy.

With or without Russia’s help, Donald Trump won the election without the popular vote through every available method used to rig elections. These included voter suppression measures in all its forms, traditional precinct dirty tricks, exploitation of electronic and mail-in voting, publication of hacked DNC emails, an FBI email investigation dust-up days before the election and the latest in mass marketing methods funded by billionaire campaign supporters. But it also included something new, the latest in “cognitive warfare” technology. These are essentially internet mind control techniques unleashed on us by Cambridge Analitica, a political propaganda company employed by Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. (See Propaganda in the Digital Age – Mind Control on a Massive Scale)

All of this activity requires coordination among highly loyal followers, the kind of coordination that the Alt-right’s alternative media machines and crony capitalists’ connections can accomplish. And it requires the kind of loyal followers who know what Donald Trump will do for them when in power regardless of what he says to get there.

Does all this seem too incredible to believe?

Good! We should all be skeptical about what we read on the internet and what messages issue from the halls of power. So in keeping with my Data Drive Viewpoints theme, let’s conduct a rigorous, scientific style thought experiment to test my hypothesis.

The hypothesis is: Donald Trump is the leader of an American fascist movement.

The goal of experimental methods is to disprove the hypothesis by proving the opposite to be true. This thought experiment must therefore prove the opposite by showing that Trump does not do what fascist dictators do. Here there is space for readers to pick their most important markers of fascist dictators. There are many such lists to help you choose fascist characteristics.  Select the characteristics most convincing to you and state them as their opposite. Wikipedia offers helpful lists under their definition of fascism page. So for example, characteristic on one of the list, entry #4 reads:

#4. Anti-equality: Fascism loathes the principles of economic equality and disdains equality between immigrant and citizen. Some forms of fascism extend the fight against equality into other areas: Gender, sexual, minority or religious rights, for example.

To state this in its positive form, the null hypothesis is: Donald Trump and his administration will:

  • Assure all immigrants are afforded the same rights and due process as U.S. citizens
  • Respect and enforce the civil rights of members of LGBT community
  • Respect  and enforce the civil rights of ethnic and racial minorities
  • Guarantee freedom of religion and civil liberty for all religious groups, including Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities in America.

We can now count up all the qualifying future incidences where this proves true or false. Let’s try one more example from a different list of fascist characteristics. This list contains the following point:

Disagreement Is Treason” – Fascism devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action, as well as out of fear that such analysis will expose the contradictions embodied in a syncretistic faith.

[Note: The word syncretistic used here means the merging of different ideological strains to assert an underlying unity that may or may not exist.]

The null hypothesis to prove might read:

Donald Trump and his administration will: Encourage intellectual discourse from a diverse variety of stake holders to critically examine and analyze legislative and policy options best suited for the common good.

Or this:

Donald Trump and his supporters will: Express appreciation for those who may disagree with him).

The point here is to keep looking for signs that President Trump, his administration and supporters are not acting like fascists. Be as objective as possible and take a fairly large sample over the next several months. Once you have your own results you can decide for yourself if my hypothesis is true.

Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Algorithms are powerful programs that increasing influence an individual’s world view. Their ubiquitous use may explain our growing political polarity, our growing knowledge gap in current affairs and even why our neighbors seem radicalized. But for impressionable or vulnerable individuals the impacts can be devastating.

Dylann Foot Roof is a case in point. You will recall he was a 21 year old white male who killed nine people in a 2015 massacre at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  He left behind a manifesto that showed he was  involved with white nationalist websites on the internet for about three years. A recent report by the Southern Policy Law Center details how Google search engine algorithms served a key part in radicalizing this young man who grew up in an otherwise stable, normal home.

dylannfoot

Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published or censored in our search for knowledge on the internet. It is a powerful force with unforeseen consequences at best. Just as easily they can be used for sinister purposes as well if we aren’t careful.

The following are excerpts from a report presented by the Center for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) entitled, Ethic of Algorithms. It serves as a good primer on what these powerful programs are and can do.  CIHR promotes academic research about technology and society to inform public and academic debates.

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  • Algorithms are increasingly used  in hiring (and firing), deciding who gets a job and who doesn’t. It is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
  • Algorithms influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. by channeling our attention.
  • Facebook algorithms decide what we see or don’t see. Newsfeed algorithm filters content without our knowing why.
  • Facebook won’t say how the algorithm works, It’s proprietary. Without knowing the exact code, nobody can evaluate how your newsfeed is composed.
  • Complex algorithms are incomprehensible to outsiders but they have values, biases, and potential discrimination built in
  • Without algorithms many applications would be unusable. We need them to cope with the enormous amounts of data. But we must be aware how they work
  • Algorithms are not neutral, but rather they perpetuate the prejudices of their creators.

They must be known to the user

“Since algorithms make increasingly important decisions about our lives, users need to be informed about them. Knowledge about automated decision-making in everyday services is still very limited among consumers. Raising awareness should be at the heart of the debate about ethics of algorithms.”

We are already at the point where regulating computer algorithms is essential for our collective well being, yet most people aren’t even aware the threats and problems they pose. I know I wasn’t until very recently. I hope this brief blog posting and the links above encourage others to explore this topic further.

Of Poverty and Proverbs – An Excuse to Blame the Poor

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

There is some wisdom in this old English proverb. It seems obvious that our survival instinct compels us to use our skills to meet our basic needs. The point being made by this proverb is that It’s more worthwhile to teach someone to do something for themselves than to do it for them.

As a nugget of wisdom, however, the expression is also insufficient. It assumes that resource and circumstances are otherwise favorable for the fisherman. The proverb shouldn’t be taken too literally or applied too broadly, but it often is. This is especially the case when it is applied to social welfare.

Specifically, it becomes a problem when policy makers believe that all you have to do is give someone the skills they need they can do the rest on their own. It’s the notion that skills plus self-determination are sufficient for success. This reductive thinking forms the rationale behind the conservative politics of poverty. It’s destructive corollary is a belief that when skills have been properly transferred, yet success remains elusive, the fault lies within the character of the person. It is a belief that fails to consider scarce resources or other barriers beyond a person’s control.

To make this point, take the proverbial fisherman as an example and ask yourself the following question: What else, other than skills, might be required for the fisherman to catch his daily meal?

You won’t get very far down your list before you see the point here. The fisherman’s success still requires the right conditions, many of which are beyond his personal control. And some of the conditions are dependent on social factors, or environmental factors over which we have societal influence. Examples of these include having clean water, allowing public access, or requiring a fishing license.

The devil is always in the details. There are no simple formulaic ways to think about poverty. There is only the need to critically evaluate the impact of policies that influence everyone’s well being, and to seek out, and overcome the barriers people face every day to putting food on their table. Do that and every able bodied person will act with self-determination.

Police Involved Homicides – Where’s Our Outrage?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Here’s a very disturbing story that has not been reported in the national press. You may not have heard about this even though it has been happening for decades.

There is a growing number of African-American men infiltrating local police departments and abusing their authority to intimidate predominately white men within their communities. Some of these black officers are bulking up on steroids. In some cases these black cops are affiliated with Black Power movements. These rogue officers of color are stopping and harassing white men on the street, frisking them without cause or illegally searching their cars. When white citizens object or complain, these black cops turn hostile and become aggressive. Hesitate to comply with an order and these innocent detainees are taken down, handcuffed and arrested. Any further resistance or any small suspicion that these guys are armed leads to the threat or use of deadly force.

In March of 2004 the US Department of Justice issued a report on the use of anabolic steroid abuse by police officers. Reported as specific concerns related to the psychological side effects anabolic steroid use were these:

  • · Mood swings (including manic-like symptoms leading to violence)
  • · Impaired judgment (stemming from feelings of invincibility)
  • · Depression
  • · Nervousness
  • · Extreme irritability
  • · Delusions
  • · Hostility and aggression

The infiltration of American police departments by radical racist cops was document by the FBI in a report and warning written in October of 2006. The report’s release was held up by Congress for years out of fear of the political repercussions.

And despite the growing number of police involved homicides of civilians every year, the FBI is unable to keep accurate statistics on how many white citizens are being killed by overly aggressive black cops. By some non-government sources the number is as high as 600 deaths per year.

Where is our outrage? Where is the media? Why aren’t government officials putting a stop to this carnage? Why aren’t they holding these black cops accountable for the deaths of hundreds of innocent white men every year?

If this reporting shocks you or doesn’t sound familiar, then you are among the millions of American’s who aren’t paying attention. If you can’t see the little white lies I told you above, you are part of a much bigger problem.

The white lie above is that it is actually white cops who are actually abusing their authority and victims of abusive policing are disproportionately African-American. The truth is that it is white supremacists that are infiltrating police departments. The rest is all true. It is true that hundreds of innocent black males are killed in police actions every years. It is true that the FBI is not able to collect accurate statistics on civilians killed in police actions in the US because all such reporting is voluntary. And if you didn’t recognize where my story was going, if you thought black cops are killing white civilians, then you just discovered that the media is failing us and government officials aren’t doing all they can to stop this carnage.

If my story above hadn’t contained those few white lies, if white men really were being killed by overly aggressive black cops,  you would lionize a football player sitting down during the National Anthem to call your attention to the problem. You would recognize his courage and commitment.  As it is, the misplaced outrage of sports fans against Colin Kaepernick for his lonely protest is a self indictment of our complacency and callous disregard for our fellow citizens.