Fake news, Facebook and fanning emotions


March 30, 2018

Fake news, Facebook and fanning emotions

by Nathaniel Tan@www.malaysiakini.com

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COMMENT | Not so long ago, food trucks were a craze here in Kuala Lumpur. I enjoyed their novelty as much as the next guy. But at some point, it occurred to me… these aren’t new. We’ve had food trucks here almost as long as we’ve had trucks – lok lok, sugar cane, rojak and/or cendol, to name but a few.

Fake news is a little bit like that. It’s entered out lexicon in a way that suggests it was invented when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. The truth is, that stuff goes back way further.

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One 28-year-old example of fake news comes from when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was accused by UMNO of having Christian leanings, simply because a young woman in Sabah put traditional Kadazan headgear on his head that apparently had a cross somewhere in its design. Some say it cost him the 1990 general election.

Existing laws sufficient

One criticism of these new fake news bills, both here and in Singapore, is that there already exist plenty of laws to deal with the spreading of misinformation or lies.

This is entirely true. There is no way a country like Singapore would not already have plenty of ways to slap you six ways to Sunday for publishing something even remotely untrue.

The manner in which all these countries are now jumping on the fake news bandwagon and enacting unnecessary new legislation suggests that this action is not borne out of any genuine commitment to truth and responsible journalism, but merely a “fashionable” excuse to ramp up repression.

In Malaysia at least, the new laws are horribly worded and give an insane amount of power to the state to literally define what is true and what is not.

Giving this power to institutions that do not have the best reputation with regard to integrity and impartiality, to say the least, seems little more than an extension of the crackdown on legitimate dissent and satire.

The echo chamber

While fake news isn’t new, social media is – or relatively so, anyway. This basically means that now, like the AirAsia motto goes, everyone can publish fake news.

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Apparently, nobody understands this new power better than Russian trolls – the people some say played a pivotal role in Trump’s election. Cambridge Analytica has also apparently taken credit for that particular victory, citing its success in using data harvested from Facebook to guide micro-targeted political advertisements.

Amid these claims, I think what we should be most wary of regarding Facebook and other social media networks is the echo chamber effect.

I speculate that the success of the alleged Russian voter influence machine was predicated largely on the willingness of individuals to share material that appealed to them, and which they did not care to verify.

As our social media network often consists of people with similar views to us, what happens is that a lot of material gets bounced around similar networks – material that is often created and shaped with the explicit purpose of generating certain types of sentiment.

Over time, people often prefer platforms like Facebook, which essentially provides them with more of what they want to hear – either from like-minded people, or from microtargeted ads based on “psychographic” profiling.

Thus, a chamber where the same types of sentiment echo continuously back and forth.

What’s in a forwarded WhatsApp message?

One of the more interesting, ironic things about the “fake news” craze is that it’s used by every side.

In America, fake news probably helped get Trump elected. Simultaneously, “fake news” is also Trump’s favourite battle cry against his critics – saying for example, that the reports of Russians meddling in the American elections is, in fact, fake news.

As the circle goes round and round, it’s important not to think that it is only things we don’t like that are “fake news,” and that all other information that concurs with our pre-existing sentiment and views is genuine.

I likely share a number of demographic traits with your average Malaysiakini reader, and I speculate that many of you have received or forwarded material that is, essentially, fake news.

The examples I keep coming back to are material with an anti-Malay or anti-Muslim bent.

There are a couple of “favourites” that keep showing up again and again over the years. I think there’s one talking about how great Japan is because they don’t have any Muslims there.

Then, in the wake of the Robert Kuok controversy recently, there was another round of pro-Chinese, anti-Malay content circulating around again.

It’s a little bit of an uphill struggle, dealing with older generations in particular perhaps, but we should all do our part to encourage moderation and to make it harder for those trying to play on old prejudices and manipulate our various echo chambers for less than sanguine reasons.

The importance of objectivity

Objectivity is not a particularly common trait among humans – not consistently anyway.It’s not easy to expect people to self-police, and be aware of when they are becoming the target of manipulation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Perhaps, just as we were expecting the impending demise of traditional journalism as a result of technological evolution, we are seeing that same evolution recreate a need for professional, objective and neutral, fact-based journalism.

If news organisations can, over time, develop a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to ethical journalism, I do hope and believe that over time, society will eventually self-correct and gravitate towards more reliable sources of information.

Of course, no change happens without sufficient pushing by people who care sufficiently. Let’s hope enough of us will answer that call.

 

Facebook, Google, your reign may soon be over


March 26, 2018

Facebook, Google, your reign may soon be over

For Facebook: It is now about rebuilding trust

We might look back on 2017 as the last moment of unbridled faith and optimism in the technology industry. The revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data — mining more than 50 million users’ personal information — came at a time when people were already considering appropriate ways to curb the handful of tech companies that dominate not just the American economy but also, increasingly, American life.

As the information revolution took off in the 1990s, we got caught up in the excitement of the age, along with the novelty of the products and their transformative power. We were dazzled by the wealth created by nebbishy 25-year-olds, who became instant billionaires — the ultimate revenge of the nerds. And in the midst of all this, as the United States was transitioning into a digital economy, we neglected to ask: What is the role for government?

The image of technology companies springing forth from unfettered free markets was never quite accurate. Today’s digital economy rests on three major technologies: the computer chip, the Internet and GPS. All three owe their existence in large part to the federal government. The latter two were, of course, developed from scratch, owned and run by the government until they were opened up to the private sector. Most people don’t realize that GPS — the global positioning system of satellites and control centers that is so crucial to the modern economy — is, even now, owned by the U.S. government and operated by the Air Force.

And yet, as these revolutionary technologies created new industries, destroyed others and reshaped communities and cities, we simply assumed that this was the way of the world and that nothing could be done to affect it. That would have been socialist-style interference with the free market.

But the result does not seem one that a libertarian would celebrate. We now have a tech economy dominated by just a few mammoth companies that effectively create a barrier to entry for newcomers. In Silicon Valley, new start-ups don’t even pretend that they will become independent companies. Their business plan is to be acquired by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple. The situation looks more like an oligopoly than a free market. In fact, through the age of big tech, the number of new business start-ups has been declining.

The other noticeable consequence has been the erosion of privacy, highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal. Because technology companies now deal with billions of consumers, any individual is a speck, a tiny data point. And since for most technology companies the individual consumer is also a product, whose information is sold to others for a profit, he or she is doubly disempowered. The tech giants would surely respond that they have democratized information, created products of extraordinary power and potential, and transformed life for the better. All of this is true. So did previous innovations such as the telephone, the automobile, antibiotics and electricity. But precisely because of these products’ power and transformational impact, it was necessary for the government to play some role in protecting individuals and restraining the huge new winners in the economy.

Change is likely to come from two directions. Regulatory action in the West will give more control to the individual. The European Union has established rules, which will go into effect on May 25, that will make it much easier for people to know how their data is being used and to limit that use. It is likely that the United States will follow suit.

The second direction is even more intriguing and comes from the East. Until recently, as Indian entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani pointed out to me, there were just a handful of digital platforms with more than 1 billion users, all run by companies in the United States or China, such as Google, Facebook and Tencent. But now India has its own billion-person digital platform: the extraordinary “Aadhaar” biometric ID system, which includes almost all of the nation’s 1.3 billion residents (and whose creation Nilekani oversaw). It is the only one of these massive platforms that is publicly owned. That means it does not need to make money off user data. It’s possible to imagine that in India, it will become normal to think of data as personal property that individuals can keep or rent or sell as they wish in a very open and democratic free market. India might well become the global innovator for individuals’ data rights.

Add innovations in blockchain technology, and we are likely to see even more challenges to the current gatekeepers of the Internet in the near future.

Whether from East or West, top down or bottom up, change is coming to transform the world of technology. Properly handled, it can produce freer markets and greater individual empowerment.

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(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Guna’s Take on Fake News


November 8, 2017

Guna’s Take on Fake News

One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.–P. Gunasegaram

by P. Gunaegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

QUESTION TIME | One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.

In its simplest form, fake news is just manufactured news but there are degrees. Some are outright lies while others combine untruths with elements of true news to project an image which is not wholly correct while appearing to give the impression that it comes from accurate news sources.

It is most easy to do this online by setting up websites and/or blogs to propagate the news and manufacture news to the benefit of the sponsoring authority. Thus, political parties and candidates up for election pay so-called cyber troopers large amounts of money to boost their image in the eyes of the public.

Simultaneously they engage in activities to drag down the image of the opponents through smear campaigns, sometimes unearthing true stories and twisting the context and at other times broadcasting outright lies.

In Malaysia, as elections loom large and have to be held by August next year, this whole idea of fake news, especially on social media, has grabbed the attention of politician and layman alike, especially when US President Donald Trump, who has propagated fake news against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, accuses US mainstream media of fake news in repeated tweets.

 

But in Malaysia, the situation is very different. We have had fake news with us for decades now, especially during general elections, when more or less the entire regulated media industry gets commandeered by the ruling government – BN and its predecessors.

Look at for instance, how newspapers either directly owned by political parties or those close to them behave at election time – UMNO’s Utusan group, MCA’s The Star, as well as New Straits Times, RTM1, RTM2, TV3, and even ntv7, the other broadcast media.

It is as if the government can do no wrong, it is as if the opposition is a major threat to the unity of the country. The only viable party that can rule the country is, of course, the BN, everyone else will take the country to ruin.

So the heavily-controlled mainstream newspapers, magazines and broadcast organisations not just spewed fake news but engaged in regular propaganda blasts about how the government was so great, with documentaries about what it did, and through advertisements. The poor opposition is denied any airtime or space in the newspapers while the ruling party of the day runs riot over the opposition in all the various broadcast and print media.

Is it any surprise that the ruling party thrashed the opposition soundly in almost all the elections since 1969 (until the tide turned in 2008) when the opposition denied the ruling party two-thirds majority for a while? BN regained it following the collapse of many opposition parties into BN in the aftermath of oppressive measures following the May 13 riots shortly after the elections, riots which many consider to have been manufactured.

 

And then came 2008 – BN did not lose but soundly lost its two-thirds majority and five states in the general elections, its biggest setback yet. And the opposition finally began to think about riding into Putrajaya in triumph. In 2013, despite all of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts, BN did not regain the two-thirds majority although UMNO did better.

So what made the change in 2008 and 2013? In two words, social media, which remained largely uncensored and unregulated and which gave the opposition a lot more space than it ever did before – there was a new medium to send news out instead of just print and broadcast and it was accessible to all.

A game changer

The control of the print and broadcast media no longer ensured that only some news of the favourable kind reached the general public. In Malaysia’s case, social media stopped the avalanche of fake news spewing out of the mainstream manufactured news factories.

But unfortunately, with fake news making such an impact on social media in the US for instance, with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the polls significantly attributed to it, the importance of social media is being increasingly recognised as a game changer for elections in Malaysia.

Thus, both Najib and his deputy have been increasingly talking about fake news on social media and the need to counter it effectively. But in all probability what they mean is that the true news is coming out from many sections of the social media, so we have to do something about it.

 

Their thinking goes something like this: We have to counter all these things which are true which are coming out from social media – we can blank it out from the print and broadcast media but we need a social media attack to counter these truths with lies.

Thus, we see Najib claiming in his blog rather preposterously that 1MDB will save RM200 billion in 20 years for Malaysia when the truth is that it has in all probability it has already lost as much as RM40 billion.

Expect this broadside by the BN on social media in Malaysia to increase – in the US, fake news may have reached epidemic proportions already, but in Malaysia, the process is just beginning but will increase very rapidly.

It is not going to be easy to differentiate the truth from the fake news but if you stick to respected and established online new organisations such as … – you know who they are, I don’t have to tell you – you will be safe.

Stick to independent news organisations who have a strong tradition of respect for truth, accuracy and balance and who cover both what the government as well as what the opposition has to say. Look at who are behind news portals – if they are not specific enough about ownership and editorial team, be suspicious.

Verify and crosscheck sources of information. Much is passed on over social media websites such as Facebook and WhatsApp with not even a mention of the source. If you want to check the source, type a key extract into a search engine and look at the results.

Please remember, especially at election time – you are more likely to get fake news and inadequate news of the right kind from mainstream media who have had a long track record compared to some of the online news portals who may not have as long a record.

And finally, please support those who supply good, fair information at reasonable prices (less than 60 sen a day) by subscribing to them (instead of sharing passwords indiscriminately), and take out advertisements with them and donating to them. It’s a small price to pay.

The sad truth is that information that is free is more likely to be tainted. Now, who was it who said that there is no such thing as a free lunch?


P GUNASEGARAM says truth often lies hidden under a pile of lies. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

Book Review: The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture


November 8, 2017

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The Cultural Axis

by Robert O.Paxton

 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/10/26/nazi-fascist-cultural-axis/
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Benjamin G. Martin
Harvard University Press, 370 pp., $39.95

 

“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.” This philistine wisecrack is often attributed to Air Marshal Hermann Goering, or some other Nazi notable. Benjamin Martin sets us straight on its source: the 1933 play Schlageter by the Nazi Party member Hanns Johst, in which a character says: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I release the catch on my Browning.”

Martin’s illuminating book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture shows how badly astray this famous quip leads us: cultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.

German power and success gave the Nazi case particular salience. The special meaning of Kultur in Germans’ evaluation of themselves is an important part of the story. According to a famous essay by Norbert Elias, the meaning of Kultur for Germans is hardly comprehensible without reference to a particular historical development.*Kultur, he explains (along with Bildung, or education), denoted in pre-unification Germany those qualities that the intellectuals and professionals of the small, isolated German middle class claimed for themselves in response to the disdain of the minor German nobles who employed them: intellectual achievement, of course, but also simple virtues like authenticity, honesty, and sincerity.

German courtiers, by contrast, according to the possessors of Kultur, had acquired “civilization” from their French tutors: manners, social polish, the cultivation of appearances. As the German middle class asserted itself in the nineteenth century, the particular virtues of Kultur became an important ingredient in national self-definition. The inferior values of “civilization” were no longer attributed to an erstwhile French-educated German nobility, but to the French themselves and to the West in general.

By 1914, the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation had taken on a more aggressively nationalist tone. During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.

In a parallel and even less enduring effort, Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried to establish the primacy of Italian culture under the umbrella of Hitler’s conquests. Mussolini’s cultural executives, such as his Minister for Press and Propaganda Dino Alfieri, asserted that the Mediterranean and classical tradition of Italy was the proper foundation of a European “cultural Axis.” Having thrown in their lot definitively with Hitler, the Italians could hope to be the contemporary Greece to Germany’s new Rome, but the Nazi leaders never entertained the slightest doubt that German Kultur was the foundation stone of the “new cultural order” for Europe.

An extensive network of international cultural organizations already existed before Hitler came to power. They had been greatly expanded after 1919 in the orbit of the League of Nations. Hitler saw them cynically as instruments of French cultural influence and as a reinforcement of Allied hegemony. Just as he planned to overthrow the political system set up by the victorious Allies after World War I, he was determined to overthrow the democratic cultural network. He intended to replace it with his own organizations headquartered in Berlin and dedicated to spreading throughout Europe the Nazi conception of the unique racial character of each national culture.

The word “international” acquired a special meaning in its usage by Nazi and Fascist cultural officials. The Allies’ international cultural associations had rested on a set of liberal democratic assumptions: that works of art and literature should be evaluated by universal standards of quality; that masterpieces were the product of individual creativity; and that no national culture deserved hegemony over another. The Nazi and Fascist dictators reversed all of these assumptions. They measured the merit of works of art and literature by their significance within unique national cultural traditions. Masterpieces, in their view, grew out of community roots. And national cultural traditions were ranked in a natural hierarchy, with the German and Italian ones at the top.

Hitler concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. He purged the German section of PEN International of “leftist” and Jewish writers. When PEN International protested, Hitler dissolved the German section altogether at the end of 1933. During this dispute the president of the Italian PEN club, the provocateur Futurist intellectual Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, supported the German position. Thus from the earliest days, Nazi cultural projects proved capable of enlisting foreign support.

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Hitler made his ambitions for German culture clear from the beginning. At a Nazi Party Congress on Culture in September 1933 he promised that the Nazi state would intervene more actively in cultural matters than the Weimar Republic had done, in order to make art an expression of the “hereditary racial bloodstock” and to transform artists into defenders of the German Volk.

Hitler left the daily tasks of his bid to reorganize European culture under German dominance to his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels—another would-be intellectual and a failed novelist—threw his frenetic energy, his ideological passions, and a generous budget into spreading abroad the Nazis’ racialist and nationalist approach to the arts.

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Disaster strikes when men do nothing about tyranny and abuses of power

Cinema was the Nazi leaders’ first cultural target. Goebbels and Hitler were as obsessed with movies as American adolescents are today with social media. Convinced that cinema was their era’s main engine of cultural influence, they tried to control filmmaking as far as their influence could reach. At the Venice Film Festival in 1935, at Goebbels’s instigation, delegates of twelve nations agreed to create an International Film Chamber (IFC) designed to establish a continent-wide system of film exchange and regulation. As the possessor of the continent’s largest and most powerful film industry, Germany became the dominant force in the IFC. Fascist Italy, however, assured for itself a strong second position by exploiting its considerable film-producing assets, such as the technologically advanced studios of Cinecittà and the Venice Film Festival, which continued to be the main venue of IFC activities.

The IFC was a genuinely European organization, and even had a French president in 1937. Its inspiration had been German, however, and its organizational form was less international than something Martin usefully calls “inter-national,” a federation of national arts organizations on the model of the Reich Film Chamber, which Goebbels had formed in July 1933 on corporatist principles. Corporatist doctrine required that capital, management, and labor abandon their separate advocacy groups and sit down together to find their common interests, alongside state representatives. Corporatism smothered internal conflict in film production and gave determining influence to the state rather than to the market.

Each IFC member nation was expected to have a national film organization similar to the Reich Film Chamber. Within Germany the Reich Film Chamber became the instrument through which the Nazi regime controlled an increasingly concentrated German film industry purged of Jews. In 1942, the largest production companies, such as UFA and Tobis, were merged into one state-controlled entity.

Benjamin Martin shows most interestingly that the Nazi and Fascist “inter-national” organizations had authentic appeal to some European intellectuals and arts executives who were not themselves Nazis or Fascists. These organizations promised material as well as intellectual advantages. The IFC provided access to a market of continental dimensions, a feature particularly attractive to European filmmakers who all suffered from the limited size of their national audiences. It also simplified thorny problems of cross-boundary payments and differing copyright laws.

The main role of the IFC was to combat the Hollywood menace. The dominance of American films had troubled European filmmakers and intellectuals from the beginning. By 1928 54 percent of all films shown in France, 72 percent in Britain, and 80 percent in Italy came from Hollywood. Already in the 1920s most European countries had imposed quotas on American films or limited them by reciprocity agreements. The respite given to European films by the arrival of “talkies” in 1929 had been brief, as expert dubbing soon allowed Hollywood films to predominate again. Many Europeans endorsed the IFC position that American films were trivial entertainment designed to make money, while European films were artistic creations that deserved protection. Although the British and Dutch refused to join, IFC membership extended by 1935 “from Belgium to Hungary [and] revealed a Europe,” according to Martin, “ready to accept German leadership.”

German military conquests early in World War II enabled the Nazis to tighten even further their control of European cinema. In August 1940 they banned American films altogether in the territories they occupied. A similar ban within Germany itself followed in 1941. The Fascist regime had already reduced the number of Hollywood films shown in Italy by the “Alfieri law” of 1938 that created a state monopoly with sole authority to buy and show foreign films (Hollywood’s four biggest studios withdrew from the Italian market in response). The unintended result of such protectionism was to give Hollywood films the allure of forbidden fruit and to prepare their triumphant return to Europe in 1945. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance film Army of Shadows, two underground leaders are smuggled out of France to consult personally with Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle. The first thing they want to do in London, after eating a filling meal, is to go see Gone with the Wind.

Beyond cinema, the Nazis meant to reorganize the whole range of German cultural activities along corporatist lines. The Reich Chamber of Culture contained subgroups for music, literature, theater, press, radio, and so on. The Nazis soon tried to extend the reach of these cultural corporations to the entire European continent, according to their geopolitical vision of a world divided into blocs, or “great spaces,” continent-scaled, self-sufficient economic systems aligned with the appropriate cultural associations protected by authoritarian states. Their European “New Order” was meant to be cultural as well as economic and political.

Music was a realm that Germans felt particularly qualified to dominate. But first the German national musical scene had to be properly organized. In November 1933 Goebbels offered Richard Strauss the leadership of a Reich Music Chamber. In June 1934 Strauss invited composers from thirteen countries to the annual meeting of the German Music Association in Wiesbaden. The delegates created a Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers.

The Permanent Council grew by exploiting an aesthetic rift in European musical culture. Since the early twentieth century a generation of gifted innovators had created new musical languages, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Organized in the influential International Society for Contemporary Music, the avant-garde had come to have a powerful influence on the European musical scene. Traditional composers resented the modernists’ celebrity, and the Nazis (Mussolini remained more open to modernism) attracted conservative support by attacking the avant-garde as internationalist, rootless, and Jewish. In a famous speech in December 1934 Goebbels derided “an atonal noise maker,” by whom he was generally assumed to mean the composer Paul Hindemith (who was not Jewish). Goebbels organized in Düsseldorf in 1938 a presentation of “degenerate music” following the better-known 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art.”

Most of the composers who were affiliated with the Permanent Council, advocates generally of a national, rural, or folklorist approach to musical composition, are forgotten today. The council did draw some prestigious composers who were not really Nazi or Fascist, like Jean Sibelius and Albert Roussel. The presence of Richard Strauss, a onetime moderate modernist who resented the decline of his fame, gave legitimacy to the IFC. He continued to preside over it even after he had been removed from the Reich Music Chamber in 1935 in a dispute over his continued association with Stefan Zweig, who had written the libretto for his opera Die schweigsame Frau.

The Permanent Council’s attention to composers’ material problems was an additional attraction. These included inconsistencies among different national copyright codes, problems of international royalties payments, and droit moral—the right claimed by authors and composers to assure that their work was not presented in a deformed way or with offensive associations. Thus the Permanent Council was able to fill a busy schedule of concerts in various European capitals through the late 1930s.

The Nazi organization of European literature came later, but by similar tactics: a federation of national corporative bodies. German authors already gathered annually in Weimar. In connection with the 1941 Weimar authors’ meeting, Goebbels invited fifty foreign writers to visit the city of Goethe and Schiller at the expense of his Propaganda Ministry (an indulgence that caused many of them trouble after the war). The following October authors from fifteen European countries met at Weimar to found a European Writers’ Union.

As with music, the Nazis were able to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary styles against modernism, by mitigating copyright and royalty problems, and by offering sybaritic visits to Germany and public attention. Some significant figures joined, such as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, but most were minor writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance of landscape. Martin unravels these multinational connections with clarity and precision, aided by research and reading in at least five European languages.

Painting and sculpture, curiously, do not figure in this account of the cultural fields that the Nazis and Fascists tried to reorganize “inter-nationally,” perhaps because they had not previously been organized on liberal democratic lines. Within Germany, of course, modernists could not show or sell their work, but this was not the case in occupied Paris, where Picasso and Kandinsky painted quietly in private and Jean Bazaine organized an exhibition with fellow modernists in 1941. Nazi cultural officials thought “degenerate” art appropriate for France.

Hitler made effective use of some German intellectuals’ resentment at being shut out of international cultural institutions after 1919. Martin seems to accept this sense of victimhood as legitimate, but it is difficult to square with the prestige of German cinema, music, and science in the 1920s.

Science would have made an interesting case study, a contrary one. Germany dominated the world of science before 1933. Germans won fifteen Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine between 1918 and 1933, more than any other nation. Far from capitalizing on this major soft power asset, Hitler destroyed it by imposing ideological conformity and expelling Jewish scientists such as the talented nuclear physicist Lise Meitner. The soft power of science is fragile, as Americans may yet find out.

Without specifically setting out to do so, Martin casts interesting light on soft power and the conditions for its success. Nazis and Fascists turned out to be poor at it. Inherent contradictions undermined their attempts at cultural dominance. Dictatorial methods clashed with literary and artistic independence. Nazis had burned books, and both Germany and Italy had excluded prominent writers and artists. Their evident desire to put their own cultures first undermined their lip service to “inter-national” cooperation.

Within the “cultural Axis,” the relationship between Germany and Italy was strained. Martin was right to include the Italian case, even if Mussolini’s parallel bid for cultural power, like his parallel war, accomplished little. Hitler always accepted that Mussolini was his forerunner—the Duce’s bust stood on his desk—and while always ready to try to upstage him never let him drop. And so his “inter-national” organizations often attributed a strong second role to the Italians. But the Italians worked from within to subvert German claims to primacy.

A major obstacle to the success of Axis “inter-national” cultural organizations—especially with the Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with militant antimodernism attracted conservative writers and artists, these generated little excitement compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal of Hollywood films and jazz only made them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for the triumph of American music, jeans, and film in the postwar world by trying to make them taboo.

Soft power seems to have thrived best without direct military occupation. The global influence of French language, manners, and ideas began in the seventeenth century, and depended little on the conquests of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The ascendancy of the English language began with the commercial and financial power of the City of London in the nineteenth century, and owed little to conquest or colonial occupation, though those helped. The soft power of the United States, the most successful yet, spread far beyond direct American military presence. It prospered by appealing to mass popular tastes in music, dress, and entertainment, while the “cultural axis” aimed at conventional forms of high culture. The United States government did not ignore high culture—consider the activities of the United States Information Agency and the Congress for Cultural Freedom after World War II. But American soft power thrived mostly through the profit motive and by offering popular entertainment to the young.

Far from reaching for a revolver to deal with “culture,” Hitler (with Mussolini struggling behind) tried with at least some initial success to use international cultural organizations to enhance his military power. This story has been approached mostly, if at all, in individual national terms, but Martin has brought the whole Axis cultural project admirably into focus.

  1. *

    Norbert Elias, “Sociogenesis of the Antithesis Between Kultur and Zivilisation in German Usage,” in The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, revised edition (Blackwell, 2000). 

     

Smooth Talking New Yorker Le Mooch–Trump’s Hatchet Man in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave


July 28, 2017

Smooth Talking New Yorker Le Mooch–Trump’s Hatchet Man in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave

by David Remnik

http://www.newyorker.com

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Le Mooch–Trump’s Lapdog–Hatchet Man. Scaramucci seems to have been installed to carry out Trump’s form of personnel management—to help demean and get rid of retainers who have proved disappointing or threatening to his interests.

Customarily, when you are in the first couple of weeks of a new job, it’s best to learn the names of the people around you, absorb the rudiments of your new workplace, maybe figure out the lunch situation. This was clearly not the way of Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director for the Trump White House. The Mooch is a man in a hurry. But while he looks to most like someone racing into a wall, he is, to his patron, doing precisely what is required.

Within moments of arrival, Scaramucci was declaring his everlasting fealty to the President (“I love the President”), erasing the digital evidence of his previous contempt for the President (“an inherited money dude from Queens County”), and comparing his relationship with Reince Priebus, the White House Chief of Staff, to that of Cain and Abel, the killer and the killed. And then, the other night, he called Ryan Lizza, of The New Yorker. First, Scaramucci tried in vain to unearth the source who revealed that he had dined at the White House, and wrongly presumed it was Priebus. He then went on an obscene tirade about Priebus’s mental stability, Steve Bannon’s dorsal flexibility, and, most alarming of all, his intention to “fucking kill all the leakers” by employing the capacities, human and technological, of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“O.K., the Mooch showed up a week ago,” Scaramucci told Lizza. “This is going to get cleaned up very shortly, O.K.? Because I nailed these guys. I’ve got digital fingerprints on everything they’ve done through the F.B.I. and the fucking Department of Justice.” He then ended the nearly nine-minute colloquy by saying, “Yeah, let me go, though, because I’ve gotta start tweeting some shit to make this guy”—meaning Priebus—“crazy.”

The reaction to all this was predictable. It roiled, yet again, the sense of vertigo that has accompanied the Trump era. And there were laughs all around, can-you-top-this jokes on Twitter, gleeful one-liners on late-night television, grave pronouncements on the morning shows. And yet the reaction that matters most was that of Scaramucci’s patron, the President of the United States. Mike Allen, the co-founder of the Web site Axios, wrote, “We’re told the President loved the Mooch quotes.”

Of course he did. After all, Scaramucci was, in language and in manner, channeling Trump himself. What about Scaramucci’s rant could possibly have offended Trump’s sense of propriety, dignity, or politics? As so many audiotapes, tweets, interviews, and speeches have made clear, Trump has no compunction about treating people, even his most self-abnegating loyalists, as vassals; he speaks in the language of obscenity and contempt. What previous President could have delivered an oration so filled with political bile that his host, the Boy Scouts of America, would find it necessary to apologize to anyone who might have been offended? He is unique.

Scaramucci, who was endorsed by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, seems to have been installed to carry out Trump’s form of personnel management—to help demean and get rid of retainers who have proved disappointing or threatening to his interests. Sean Spicer. Reince Priebus. Steve Bannon. Jeff Sessions. And, ultimately, Robert Mueller.

In other words, the Mooch matters because the Mooch–The new White House Iago- helps to clarify what matters most to the President and his family. What matters most is Trump’s grip on his base voters and his survival in office. Everything else—a sane health-care policy, the dignity of the transgender people who have volunteered to serve their country, a rational environmental policy, a foreign policy that serves basic democratic values, rule of law—is of tertiary interest.

Trump’s focus is not impossible to divine. He is increasingly anxious that Mueller and congressional investigators are exploring the details of his business transactions and financial holdings, and how they might have exposed him to being targeted by the Russian government.

In the meantime, Trump’s capacity to demean and diminish everyone in his proximity continues apace. H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, is said to have an increasingly rocky relationship with the President, and to have been on the receiving end of his contempt; Secretary of Defense James Mattis was informed of the ban on transgender soldiers merely as a courtesy; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finds himself in a turf battle with Trump’s son-in-law, who believes himself capable of untold diplomatic achievements. How long can these people last? Priebus, Bannon—if they are swept away, do not expect them to be replaced by models of probity.

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Lapdog Le Mooch and his Master, Donald J. Trump–The 45th POTUS

Last week, while Trump was battling to repeal Obamacare, Scaramucci told CBS, “I don’t know if he’s going to get what he wants next week, but he’s going to get what he wants eventually, because this guy always gets what he wants. O.K.?” Scaramucci matters because he has divined what Donald Trump wants, and he is speaking in his language. Last night, John McCain and many others refused to be cowed or intimidated. They acted in favor of the most elemental notion of rationality and principle. Who else will follow?

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David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.