An exploration of the political techniques used by the powerful in the recent past – and suggestions on how citizens can use one technique in the future – to cultivate desirable geopolitical conditions.
On a weekend in which Americans are listening to the sitting President accuse his predecessor of wiretapping his phones without evidence or corroboration while reading reports about a sustained cyberwar with North Korea and the current administration caught in an apparent web of lies concerning contact with Russian agents during the election, folks at all points of the political spectrum would agree: the United States is experiencing turbulent times, both domestically and abroad.
The forceful pace of the news cycle, combined with the sheer volume of media in the internet age, can overwhelm citizens trying to understand and reflect upon how we got to this point and where to go from here to achieve a more peaceful and productive government. Public feelings of political disorientation and distrust pervade without a clear sense of how the current geopolitical conditions arose, a shared understanding of facts related to the current political landscape, or access to the tools available to guide representatives and hold them accountable for policy and action in the near future.
The African word & concept of Sankofa, from the Akan tribe of Ghana, comes to mind. Literally translated to mean “it is not taboo to fetch what at risk of being left behind”, it reminds us that the past can and should serve as a guide for planning the future.
Below are several resources that I have found helpful in understanding the current geopolitical conditions of the Brave New World in which we find ourselves. Two lengthy documentaries from the BBC and two lengthy articles from the most recent The New Yorker.
“Active Measures” by Evan Osnos, David Reminick, & Joshua Yaffa.
The New Yorker. March 6th, 2017.
What lay behind Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – and what lies ahead.
This article reveals 21st century international relations and political control as reliant upon technological and psychological tactics more so than armed warfare. It’s especially interesting and haunting given the New York Times reports about our cyberwar with North Korea. Eerily, Aldous Huxley predicted much of this in his mid-20th century novels including Brave New World. Stranger than fiction, or equally as strange as Huxley’s then-fiction?
The U.S.’ successful use of the Stuxnet virus in 2008 to slow Iran’s nuclear production was our first notable cyberwar success & provided an example for other governments for how to wage technological warfare against enemies of the state.
“A new doctrine was taking shape, under which Russia sought to study the nefarious tools of the West, as it understood them, so as to counteract them at home and put them into practice abroad…the article identified and urged the adoption of a Western strategy that involved military, technological, media, political, and intelligence tactics that would destabilize an enemy at minimal cost. The strategy, which came to be known as ‘hybrid war’, was an amalgam that states have used for generations, but the text took on the status of a legend, and is now known in international military circles as the Gerasimov doctrine.”
“Gerasimov suggested that, in the future, wars will be fought with a four-to-one ratio of nonmilitary to military measures. The former, he wrote, should include efforts to shape the political and social landscape of the adversary through subversion, espionage, propaganda, and cyber attacks.”
“Manipulation of TV coverage is a crucial factor in Putin’s extraordinarily high popularity ratings, typically in excess of eighty percent – ratings that Donald Trump both admires and envies.”
“Manipulation in the information sphere is a very effective tool.”
“In the final three months of the campaign, fabricated pro-Trump stories were shared four times as often as fabricated pro-Clinton stories. The researchers also found that roughly half the readers of a fake-news story believed it…Automated Twitter accounts, known as ‘bots’, generated four tweets in favor of Trump for every one in favor of Clinton, driving Trump’s messages to the top of trending topics, which mold media priorities.”
“Putin probably didn’t believe he could alter the results of the election, but, because of his antipathy toward Obama and Clinton, he did what he could to boost Trump’s cause and undermine America’s confidence in its political system.”
Alexey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, and a figure with deep contacts inside the Russian political elite:
“We have to create turbulence inside America itself. A country that is beset by turbulence closes up on itself – and Russia’s hands are freed.”
The Century of the Self & Hypernormalisation
BBC Documentaries Directed by Adam Curtis. Released 2002 and 2016, respectively.
Both of these films are phenomenal portrayals of power and how it works in modern society.
The Century of the Self concerns how Freud’s theories on the unconscious led to the development of public relations by his nephew Edward Bernays; the use of desire over need; and self-actualization as a means of achieving economic growth and the political control of populations.
Hypernormalisation starts in 1975 and concerns the rise of Islamic Extremism, the American corporate-political class, the fall of the Soviet Union, and, most importantly, how we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion where those who are supposed to be in power are paralyzed and have no idea what to do.
“Call and Response” by Kathryn Schulz
The New Yorker. March 6th, 2017.
What happens when you phone Congress?
Now, let’s shift our focus to what we as citizens can do to be active participants in our democracy beyond the ballot box. In the past, I’ve championed Ralph Nader’s approach (now adopted by Indivisible groups across the U.S.) to making your voice heard: get the attention of your Representative and Senators and don’t let them off the hook!
Schulz’s article outlines the basics of what happens when you contact Congress and suggests the most effective ways in affecting their behavior as lawmakers. One huge hint: focus on your own reps rather than those out-of-state/district!
This article also pinpoints one of the most interesting and enduring aspects of political theory: to what extent is it the job of an elected official or representative to represent their constituents? Conversely, to what extent is it the job of our political representatives to lead their constituents? Should it be difficult for average citizens to influence a lawmaker’s vote considering they have access to information and expertise that is unavailable to the rest of us?
“Most communications to Congress fall into one of two categories. In the first, known as constituent services, callers have a specific problem with a federal agency and want their senator or representative to help solve it: by securing an honor guard for a veteran’s funeral, resolving a filing issue with the Social Security Administration, nominating an aspiring cadet to West Point, obtaining political asylum for an imperilled relative, or helping out with an overseas adoption. The second category, conversely, might be called constituent demands: someone calls and expresses a political preference to anyone who answers the phone and hopes that his or her legislator will act on it. It is a curious thing about Americans that we simultaneously believe nothing gets done in Congress and have faith that this strategy works.”
“Actually, this strategy does work in a surprising number of cases, though probably not the ones that you’re thinking of. If you ask your senator to co-sponsor a bill on mud-flap dimensions or to propose a change to the bottling requirements for apple cider or to vote in favor of increased funding for a rare childhood disease, you stand a decent chance of succeeding. This is not a trivial point, since such requests make up the majority of those raised by constituents. If, however, you want a member of Congress to vote your way on a matter of intense partisan fervor—immigration, education, entitlement programs, health insurance, climate change, gun control, abortion—your odds of success are, to understate matters, considerably slimmer. To borrow an example from the C.M.F.’s Brad Fitch, four well-informed doctors might persuade a senator to support the use of a certain surgical procedure in V.A. hospitals, but four hundred thousand phone calls to Senator John McCain are unlikely to change his position on the appropriate use of American military power overseas.
“How seriously those messages are taken by Congress varies widely, chiefly because, when it comes to interacting with the public, there’s really no such thing as Congress per se. There are five hundred and thirty-five small businesses that together form the legislative arm of government, and their way of dealing with constituents can differ as much as their politics. As a logistical matter, however, most congressional offices function in roughly the same way. No matter how a message comes in—by phone, e-mail, post, fax, carrier pigeon—it is entered into a software program known as a constituent-management system.”
“Calling your members of Congress is not an intrinsically superior way to get them to listen. But what makes a particular type of message effective depends largely on what you are trying to achieve. For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention. E-mails get the message through but are comparatively swift and easy for staffers to process, while conventional mail is at a disadvantage when speed matters, since, in addition to the time spent in transit, anything sent to Congress is temporarily held for testing and decontamination, to protect employees from mail bombs and toxins. Afterward, most constituent mail is scanned and forwarded to congressional offices as an electronic image. In other words, your letter will not arrive overnight, and it will not arrive with those grains of Iowa wheat or eau de constituent you put in it. But, once it shows up, it will be taken at least as seriously as a call.”
“Some forms of correspondence, however, do not carry quite as much weight, starting with anything that comes from outside a legislator’s district or state. “
“Activism works in part simply by making previously hidden segments of the population more visible to legislators…in a series of surveys and experiments, [University of Maryland political scientist Kristina] Miller found that hearing from citizens changed lawmakers’ mental maps and, in doing so, altered how they legislate.”
“A huge quantity of people acting in concert, an unusually high pitch of passion, a specific countervailing vision, and consistent press coverage unfavorable to sitting politicians..can create the most potent condition of all: the possibility (or, at any rate, the fear) that the collective restiveness could jeopardize reelection.”
Until the next time, Everlastin Spoof signing off….
(3/5/2017 – Coffee with a Beat, Adams Point, Oakland, California)