CBO, Public Opinion, and Institutions

Since Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign he and his surrogates have attacked the norms and institutions of our modern government and society. Trump has exploited doubt and distrust to rail against the pillar of truth and journalism and has used his followers zeal to effectively crush the  non-governmental political institutions: the Democrat and Republican parties. As he has continued his assault on the norms of governance from the executive branch, the Republican congress has begun assaulting other basic institutions of free and open society and government from the legislative branch.

Walter Lippmann published a seminal book in 1922 titled Public Opinion. In the work he describes the role, uses, and pitfalls of shared beliefs. Much of the book is focused on the control and dissemination of information, the nature and theory of democratic governance as it relates to the will of the people, and the biases and errors that are rife within people’s belief structures – and finally, the way our perceptions of public life can be manipulated. In the very last section of the book Lippmann promotes solutions that will help the public and politicians be better informed and allow them to make better decisions.

His greatest piece of advice is to create technical, scientific research councils that are independent of the direct control of Congress or the executive branch. These research organizations would collect and analyze data on social and scientific issues and would release the results to the public as well as to politicians, without making any decisions. Ideally, this would enable politicians to make decisions that were good for the public, and, because of the public release of information, would allow the public to hold politicians accountable for both sound and unsound decisions. Aside from some technical aspects of government, or organizations that are political and tangentially related to government (like think tanks, etc.) these ideas have never been truly adopted. Decision making in an increasingly complex world where more expertise is required to understand processes that are hidden from general view has certainly suffered from a lack of central research and publication of facts.

One organization that has generally been considered apolitical (or at least bipartisan) and has fulfilled Lippmann’s ideal well, has been the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO. Formed in 1974, the CBO was designed to provide accurate and credible analysis of the effects of bills submitted in Congress on the economy and social welfare of the United States. Since its inception the CBO has generally been insulated from Congressional pressure and its findings have been generally accepted. But recently some Republicans in Congress have been rejecting the accuracy and nonpartisanship of the CBO.

As part of the current Administration’s campaign against truth, and after particularly galling estimates about healthcare coverage under various Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, members of Congress and the Administration have attacked the integrity of the CBO. Many of the practices and policies of the Trump Administration have been destructive and dishonest, but these attacks are particularly frightening. Shamefully, Republicans in Congress have joined the attacks, as the shell of the Republican Party suffers further moral collapse. Out of all of the destructive and short-sighted policies coming from Trump, and of all the awful ministering of government, the most destructive longterm effect wrought by the current President will almost certainly be on public trust in institutions.

Liberals will not trust any conservatives, conservatives will distrust liberals. Not in the way they previously doubted the effectiveness of each other’s creeds, but in their fundamental sincerity of belief. Hacking away at the unspoken institution of truthfulness in society is corrosive, but tearing down the actual institutions of integrity, transparency, and science is an even swifter method of collapsing society.

The Elders of Zion, Propaganda, and Emmanuel Macron

In the American and French presidential elections in the past year, hackers suspected to be working for the nation of Russia breached sensitive organizational information about the major political parties involved and leaked that information online to influence the electorates. In the case of the French email leaks there were suspected forgeries that attempted to make the leading, pro-EU candidate, Emanuel Macron to look like a criminal or otherwise dishonest person. What people may not know is that this is an old Russian trick with a new twist provided by the internet. Russia has been producing propaganda using forged documents for over 100 years – the first great example of which is an anti-Semitic document known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion released around 1900 in various publications and formats.
Jews in Europe have long faced discrimination and violence. Jewish populations faced expulsion, violence, and oppression in countries throughout Europe as far back as the Middle Ages. Much of that oppression and violence was fomented by libelous and slanderous lies and nefarious motives being ascribed to the population. Russia, which at times encompassed modern-day Poland, had a large Jewish population, especially in what was referred to as the “Pale of Settlement.” The “Pale” was an area Jews were forced to live by the Russian government.
Russia under the Tsars was not a progressive country. Across Russia the serfs (peasants legally bound to the land in a feudal system) were freed over the course of the 1860’s – many years after the rest of Europe under the “liberal” Tsar Alexander II. Many of these policies were reversed by his successor Alexander III who was a deeply conservative and obdurate ruler. One of Alexander III’s favorite tactics for unifying the disparate people of Russia was to organize anti-Jewish riots, known as pogroms, a tactic approved by his successor, the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II.
Secret Police
Tsar Alexander II established a secret police to monitor threats to rule of the regime known as the Okhrana in 1866. It was greatly expanded after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. From the beginning the Russians used the Okhrana in a ruthless and innovative manner, especially when compared to the spy-craft and law enforcement instruments of other nations. Operatives created and directed organizations, establishing a “controlled opposition” with which the regime could collect and monitor individuals they considered political threats. Part of the operations of the secret police involved producing and disseminating various types of propaganda.
The Protocols
The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a meeting between a group of elite Jewish Rabbis detailing their plots to overthrow the world order and establish Jews as the rulers of every regime and every financial and social institution on Earth.
As a tool of persuasion, The Protocols have a record of success any corporation or political organization would envy. A corrupt and inept government found scapegoating an effective tactic, and no one was smeared with disloyalty, corruption, and conspiracy as effectively as the much-reviled Jewish communities of Russia.
The completed forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was apparently disseminated as early as 1897 privately among members of the French aristocracy and was occasionally published in Russian newspapers in the years after.
Politically and socially active Orthodox Priests (closely allied with the Tsarist regime) published anti-Jewish screeds occasionally, and in 1905, an Orthodox priest named Sergei Nilus published the text in his book. Every new publication precipitated anti-Jewish violence in Russia, and certainly helped to turn attention from the corrupt and incompetent Russian government to “foreign” groups in the midst of the general populace.
A veil hangs between the authors of the document and the investigations of journalists and historians into its origins. Careful and painstaking scholarship has revealed enough about it to confidently say that much of the work was plagiarized and that it was a creation of the Okhrana. Stylistic critiques and information in the previously closed Russian archives points to members of the Okhrana writing and gathering the materials for the work, and then spreading it throughout Russia.
The wild success of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would prove instructive to future Russian regimes. Matvei Golovinski (the likely author of The Protocols) a propagandist for the Okhrana working in France, worked for the new Bolshevik government after 1917. Continuity between the different organizations of the secret police in Russia, no matter the ideology or the leader of the regime in power, allowed institutional knowledge in disinformation and propaganda to be passed through to the present age. When the Internet opened up the world to the free flow of information Russia understood their opportunity to push conspiracy theories, misinformation, and propaganda onto populations around the world.
Conspiracy theories echo into our time as fears of the “deep state” and “the new world order” proliferates and finds succor in the lofty quarters of state power. In the United States and elsewhere people filled with hate, and crafty actors, such as the Russian state, are expertly spreading paranoia and distrust to persuade the world to serve their purposes.

Even now, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is taken as fact in some corners of the world and is endorsed as truthful by powerful leaders and communicators. Anti-Jewish conspiracy is alive and well and amplified by the Internet. Forgeries, conspiracies, and propaganda are tools wielded effectively by dedicated actors in the Communications Age. The first successful example may be The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Death of the Classics

On the volumes written on the subject of education in the past 40 years, one strain has focused on the death of the so-called “classical education.” Through antiquity to perhaps 50 years ago, students studied the Classics. These Classics are the works of Ancient Greek and Roman writers, the foundation of Western literature and philosophy. Rapid changes and progressive knowledge have made much of this learning and writing dated and less relevant than they were to people before the Industrial Revolution. But what have we lost as a society and culture by not reading the “Classics”?

Critics of the death of the classical education point to the dearth of analysis and inference-based thinking in modern education – skills championed by reading the great authors of the past. But there are other aspects of the death of the classical education that strike me as relevant, especially as a lover of history. An unbroken chain of references, counterpoint, rebuttal, synthesis, and genesis have been violently severed in recent years.

Understanding our current moral and political debates without the guide of history and the Classics is almost impossible. Lack of imagination, of an understanding of the history of radical change and great thought, is perhaps responsible for some of our political dysfunction in the present moment in the United States. A reverence for the Constitution, but no understanding of how those ideas were formulated, is deleterious to a progressive and effective politics.

Great works of literature that could point to the Iliad and Odyssey as their spiritual and contextual predecessors are rendered foreign and unintelligible by an uncomprehending populace. General narrative structure for novels, plays, movies, and non-fiction works all owe their form to their predecessors. More than that, most great works up until the recent era have spoken and argued with the great thinkers of the classics. Many of those works survived by luck, but also by a kind of intellectual natural selection. Great works were copied and reproduced and emulated because they were recognized as being great works. Unmoored works produced in the recent era by those uneducated in the Classics run the risk of being intellectually inefficient, they may rehash old arguments and reinvent the wheel without producing original works. Historical references to the great moral dilemmas, matters of state, and war are lost and must be learned again without thoughtful guides.

Another, perhaps trivial matter, is what I would term the loss of Churchillian Moments. Someone well-read in Thucydides or Herodotus might recognize the importance of a historical turning point as its happening. Sensing pivotal moments, some leaders of the past knew they would be playing to history and therefore took altruistic, ruthless, and massive efforts to move public opinion or undertake certain actions. Winston Churchill, during the period leading up to World War 2, and during the War, made repeated references to the great victories and achievements of the past. Great Greek and Roman battles were his guide and he reacted with ferocity to any attempt to surrender to Nazi Germany because he understood how Britain would be viewed by history for its stubborn defense. For instance, if a great political challenge, like reacting to climate change, was undertaken in a historical context – that is, as if it were going to be read about like we read about the Fall of the Roman Republic, politicians might well stake everything on finding a solution.

Dynamic education, education that effects the processes by which people learn, understand, and make decisions, is important. But so is the material itself. STEM’s ascendancy does not eliminate learning about history, philosophy, and politics. We should make sure that if we are replacing the Classics that there is an understanding of what we are discarding.

Dostoyevsky and Internet Outrage

Dostoyevsky’s novella “The Double” and several of his short stories examine a narcissistic and shame-based personality schema that is still in evidence, maybe even in increasing prominence, in the modern world as much as in the mid-1800’s. The rigid social structures and bureaucracies of Imperial Russia have been replaced by the strict impression management of social media, but the emotions remain the same. Shame is the emotion of social failure, and a relentless self-obsession that relies on examination of others fuels that core emotion. Shame is to be guarded against at all cost, people must succeed, especially in relation to others, while also concealing themselves from negative exposure.

The end of “The Double” exposes the narrator to his tremendous social failure, but it is also a failure related to his sense of enititlement. This type of emotional transaction, the transmission of outrage from the observer to the subject, where it’s transformed into shame, is the basic emotional currency of the Internet. Emotion is an easily received thrill. Just as the youngest generation is increasingly seeking “experiences” over material goods, so are we all seeking emotional highs and lows through media. The problem with this is that it undermines reason and sustained action. Interacting with other people this way is a precursor for nihilism, and phenomena like the popularity of Donald Trump can be directly tied to this social disease of sensation seeking.

The Destruction of the Western Canon: The Unnoticed Casualty of Progress

Modernity’s movement of inclusiveness is reversing monstrous injustices. Old, white, male intellectuals and artists are rightly downgraded in importance and their authoritativeness disavowed in the face of modern writers and artists from marginalized communities. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is the destruction of history. A thread of thoughts and a conversation can be stretched from Homer to Cicero to Pope to Orwell but then slowly is thinned into nonexistence. What happens when we no longer value the ideals and conversations that have formed Western Culture? The values of justice, individualism, freedom of thought, and political thought have all sprung from the Western Canon. Numerous individuals and artists were enriched from their participation and examination of those works. It is ironic that a white, Western, male-dominated strain of thought that centered on the superiority of logic and on the equality of mankind has undermined the august position of the progenitors of those ideals.

A sad fact is that minorities in Western society fundamentally lack power. Many gains made by minorities in the realms of social justice and equality are, in fact, granted by the majority. In much the same way, works reacting to the dominance of the white patriarchy are derivative of that same system of thought. If artists truly want to break from current power structures, radical, original art must be produced AND disseminated from sources that are entirely minority. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” has generally been viewed as a pop-cultural piece rooted in minority experience, but it is promoted and released through corporate structures that are largely owned by white males.

If the Western Canon is to be disavowed, a new, radical minority-driven Canon should replace it with original thought and ideals, instead of being a reaction, there must be creation as well as destruction. If this does not occur then we will have abandoned the good of Western culture while disposing of the evil without actively replacing the missing virtues.