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The Death of Civil Discourse

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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I still remember quite vividly my early days in college leading up to the 1992 presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. While traditionalists and older political analysts thought Clinton would have a very hard time overcoming a sitting president who had just won a war, Generation X voters were impassioned by the energy and intellectualism of the saxophone-playing candidate. While there were many issues that account for that Clinton victory, I always recall how excited us young voters were about finally getting someone into the White House who could TALK.

No matter what his flaws, Clinton could spit into the mic and we were enraptured! What I did not know at the time was that this would be the starting point in the United States in which the concept of civil discourse would not only deteriorate over an entire generation but would become an almost lost treasure. And this deterioration has perhaps achieved its nadir with the current president.

Looking back now I realize just how disrespectful our slightly ageist condescension was projecting onto our voting behavior: we didn’t want this old man who had no concept of the ‘vision thing’ and who almost stuttered any time he spoke before the public. It did not matter that this was a man who had spent a lifetime highly decorated, having served in various important positions throughout the federal government. We pretended that our rejection of Bush was based on the issues, but a lot of it was just our own dismissal of his ‘worthiness’ to represent us on a style level. Ultimately, as we all know, the two terms of Bill Clinton delivered in spades a lesson to all progressives of how easily the pendulum of disrespectful discourse can swing back against you: by the time Clinton left office, his various moral foibles had produced an atmosphere for civil discourse that was even worse, more derisive and corrosive, than anything seen back in 1991-1992.

Of course, as we all know, the problem with the exit of Bill Clinton from the Oval Office was that it signaled the entrance of George W. Bush. Cue the pendulum of disrespect, dismissal, and distaste to swing back in the other direction: once more, instead of new civil discourse about ideas, programs, policies, and vision, people were more obsessed with simply destroying each other. Once more we supposedly had an ignorant moron in the White House: someone who was either uncomfortable or simply unfamiliar with the English language. A simpleton who did not deserve to be in the Oval Office. So, while I had been concerned throughout the 90s at how severely civil discourse seemed to degrade from H.W. Bush to Clinton, I was thoroughly horrified by how much worse that discourse became – more harsh, more brazen, more vulgar – from Clinton to W. Bush throughout the 2000s.

As we started to ramp up for the 2008 election, I once more became caught up in the history of the moment, in the sense of bringing change to our system and structures. Even the campaign itself of Barack Obama focused on ‘hope.’ This would be the moment, I thought to myself. THIS would be the change the country has long needed. Except the change I wanted to see had nothing to do with party, ideology, or specific conservative-liberal policy debates. The change I thought would arrive with Obama, after eight horrific years of W. Bush, would be a change of open dialogue, intellectual engagement, and civil conversation over ideas. Alas, I was spectacularly wrong.

This article is not about which parts of the blame pie for this continued civil discourse degradation are bigger or biggest. Some have reason to believe the only reason things got worse under Obama was because of tried-and-true racism: the inability of closeted and not-so-closeted bigots to accept a black man as president of America. Others take a softer tactic and simply state it was verbal and intellectual payback time: after enduring so much dismissive derision and disrespect during Bush the Younger’s two terms, there were plenty of people determined to give back in kind to the new Democratic president. As is so often the case, my guess is that reality is best located with a mixture of all the factors and it therefore might not be so important to figure out exact percentages of blame. For me, again in terms of civil discourse, all that mattered was that my initial hope for finally establishing a positive trend for discussive engagement was dashed against the rocks of partisan vitriol and bile.

During Obama’s two terms I remember thinking to myself, ‘well, no matter what happens, it just isn’t possible that in 2016 this trend of progressively deteriorating civil discourse could get worse.’ After all, I had at this point literally spent my entire adult life under the tyranny of worsening dialogue, where the intellectual exchange of ideas meant to advance knowledge had been replaced by the shrill harping of empty platitudes serving no purpose but to cut, wound, and humiliate. Surely it could not be possible to take this environment and find a way to make it plumb to yet deeper, more disgusting depths? Citizens of the world, I give you President Donald Trump! Incredibly, we found ways to have the depths plumbed deeper and new layers of depravity now dominate the corridors of discourse.

Over the years I thought this disturbing reality was a top-down problem: if only we could have that truly unique chief executive in the Oval Office, one who could transcend all of this vulgar bile and ideological hatred, then the situation across all layers of American society would begin to improve. Part of me still wishes to believe this. But I fear I must confess that this wish is indeed just that: wishful thinking based on no real evidence. I worry now that this problem was never a top-down problem to be remedied by some extraordinary individual. Instead, it is a bottom-up problem that reflects the degradation of our society overall: one in which people do not seek to learn, are fearful of ever being seen as ‘wrong,’ and avoid at all costs being challenged in any intellectual way whatsoever.

This version of the problem more accurately explains the cringe-worthy, vomit-inducing political environment holding America hostage on both sides of the aisle; it explains why the word ‘compromise’ is literally seen by the majority of Americans as cowardice and not as a symbol of reasoned and wise judgment; it accounts for the explosion of fake news and people’s apparent passion for following it; it exposes the truth behind college campuses seemingly more focused on limiting the discourse of ideas for their students rather than exposing them to as many ideas as possible and demanding that they hone their discourse skills to take on all comers and defeat anathema positions with sound arguments and logical persuasion.

We have dropped our society from an avenue that once held serious intellectual discussions on a justifiably high pedestal into a gutter that avoids substantive civil discourse and presumes none of us are able to participate in discussions at all unless we have a predetermined guarantee of being lauded and unchallenged. We do not even see the irony of not allowing the chance to be ‘wrong,’ even though the concept of falsifiability has literally been the bedrock upon which all serious research, scholarship, and thinking is based. It is only in being wrong, only in the free exchange of challenging and challenged ideas, that society in its entirety improves and moves forward. We have not just lost this simple axiom, we have rejected it. We now live in self-perpetuating sycophantic echo chambers, gilded towers of Babel built to ourselves.

How does this stop? How do we bring back civil discourse from the edge of the abyss where it presently sits? I have no illusions at how hard it will be. Not only does it demand a desire for change within the people themselves: to be accepting of the fact that they are not infallible, that their ideas are not the ONE TRUE PATH to which all others must bow, that engaging in debate must not be a gladiatorial fight to the death but a civil discourse aimed at making all in attendance more reflective, more contemplative, that the issues being discussed are enriched simply by the act of civility itself, and that ideas are meant to change and evolve, to be dynamic and not static. It also demands that our institutions, administrations, thought leaders and scholars, our intellectuals en masse must not be afraid to support the structures that create, facilitate, and maintain arenas for such discourse. Right now we live with institutes that are so afraid of people engaging that instead of leading the charge they are cowering in the rear, hiding from possible protests, bad press, or potential litigation.

I have long held a secret dream: to travel the country, indeed the world, visiting as many institutions and organizations as I can, openly engaging their best thinkers in a series of debates, on whatever topics are most important to them, to challenge and instigate and provoke. I want to do this not to embarrass people or destroy particular issues in favor of others. I want this initiative done so as to begin the process of making people realize that civil discourse is the only true way to create new ideas, new passions, and new progress. It is the only way we get better. It is the only way we grow. We, the intellectuals and scholars, the middle layer of society, are the ones best suited to begin this movement. But, so far, not a single institution and its resident experts have answered my call and my challenge. This is most unfortunate. Because this society we have created, a society of incivility and empty rhetoric in place of civil discourse and substantive engagement, is a society we must destroy before it literally destroys us.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Americas

American (And Global) Oligarchy Rapidly Moving Towards Monarchy

Rahul D. Manchanda, Esq.

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Many people do not realize that the proverbial “noose” of civil rights, civil liberties and property rights are rapidly coming to an end, in large part because of the unholy alliance by and between government and the global oligarchs (international banks and major corporations).

For example, people don’t realize that current U.S. federal law permits all banks and credit unions (such as Chase Bank owned by CEO Jamie Dimon) to close any account, at any time, and for any reason, even when their own employees commit fraud, make mistakes, commit unethical acts or otherwise screw the banking customer over for personal or political reasons, and that customer then files a legitimate complaint.

The financial institution is not required to divulge the reason(s) for account closure to the customer.

Now, when a business account is closed by a bank, the bank can (and will) retain the funds in the account for 90 to 180 days in order for checks, debits, chargebacks, etc. to post to the business account before the bank will mail the business customer the remaining proceeds from the account.

However the account holder is of course not allowed access to their own hard-earned funds at all.

What this means is that these banks and credit unions have been given a universal right to steal any and all monies placed within their coffers by anyone at all, which can then be “confiscated” for any reason.

It is even so absurd that these banks and credit unions, even after they have seized or stolen your money/property, do not even have to give you a reason, and can then ban you for life from ever getting your money/property back.

This same reasoning applies to nearly all of the major businesses and corporations, wherein due process has gone the way of the extinct “dodo bird.”

This is what it means, when an administration (in this case Republican) talks about “bank deregulation.”

In many ways, Democrats had the right idea over Republicans when they created and enacted such banking regulatory agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”), recently gutted and decapitated by the Trump Administration and his coterie of bought and paid for Republican conservatives.

The problem is that the same global Oligarchs and International Banking Cartels that controlled the Democrats, and enacted even more stifling Communist type regulation to further control, cull, and choke off the American (and global) population (think Obama’s “Operation Chokepoint”), simply use Republican “deregulation” as another mechanism to screw over, steal from, and rob the working and middle class, by allowing these international banking cartels, credit unions, and corporations to completely do whatever they want, to anyone, for any reason, in the absence of any regulation.

Herein lies the rub, and there has to be a middle ground, but only if the American people (and their global population counterparts) push back and vociferously tell their elected leaders to take legal and equitable action against these global thieves and criminals.

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War, Anniversaries and Lessons Never Learned

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the Second World War.  A war of horrors, it normalized the intensive, barbaric bombing of civilian populations.  If the Spanish Civil War gave us Guernica and Picasso’s wrenching painting, WW2 offered up worse:  London, Berlin, Dresden to name a few, the latter eloquently described in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five.”  Against Japan, the firebombing of Tokyo, and above all the revulsion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki radiated a foretaste of ending life on the planet.

Reparations demanded from Germany had led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and a thirst for revenge.  Thus Hitler demanded France’s 1940 surrender in the same railway carriage where the humiliating armistice was signed in 1918.

If the war to end all wars — its centenary remembrance a month ago — killed 20 million plus, the successor tripled the score.  Disrupted agriculture, severed supply chains, fleeing civilians, starvation and misery; civilian deaths constituting  an inordinate majority in our supposedly civilized world.

One of the young men baling out of a burning bomber was George H. W. Bush.  He was rescued but his crew who also baled out were never found, a thought that is said to have haunted him for the rest of his life.  He went on to serve eight years as vice-president under Ronald Reagan and then four more as president.  Last week he passed away and was honored with a state funeral service in Washington National Cathedral.

His legacy includes the first Iraq war and the liberation of Kuwait.  While he avoided the hornet’s nest of ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq itself, the war’s repercussions led to the Clinton sanctions and the deaths of half a million children.  The UN representative overseeing the limited oil-for-food program, Irishman Denis Halliday, resigned in disgust.  Not to forget the infamous answer by Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.  Asked by Leslie Stahl if it was worth the lives of 500,000 children … more than that died in Hiroshima, she answered:  “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”  (CBS 60 Minutes program, May 12, 1996).

Note the “we” in her answer.  Who else does that include but our “I-feel-your-pain” Bill Clinton.  Hypocrisy, arm-twisted donations to the Clinton Foundation while wife Hillary was Secretary of State in the Obama administration; her shunning of the official and secure State Department email server in favor of a personal server installed at her request and the subsequent selective release of emails.  Well who cares about verifiable history these days anyway as the following demonstrates.

Yes, there was another anniversary this week for a different kind of war.  This time in India.  After securing freedom from the British, a secular tradition was proudly espoused by the patrician Nehru and the epitome of nonviolence, Gandhi.  It is now in the process of being trampled in a war against minorities.  The communal war includes the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat for which Narendra Modi was barred from the U.S., a ban lifted only when he became prime minister.  He, his party and his allies have been also responsible for the destruction of the Babri Mosque.  An organized Hindu mob tore it down on December 6, 1992; hence the shameful anniversary.  Built on the orders of the first Mughal emperor Babur, its purpose was to cement relations with Hindu rajas by also sanctifying for Muslims a place holy to Hindus and held traditionally to be the birthplace of Rama — famous from Hindu epics for fighting evil with the assistance of a monkey god’s army … although one is advised to avoid close contact with temple monkeys when visiting.

As the first Mughal, Babur’s hold on India was tenuous and he actively sought alliances with Hindu rulers of small states against the pathans whose sultan he had just defeated.  That affinity continued during the entirety of Mughal rule and one manifestation was frequent intermarriage with Rajputs.  Several emperors had Hindu mothers including Shah Jahan the builder of the Taj Mahal.  In the end, Babur’s fears were warranted because Sher Shah Suri did marshal those pathan forces and throw out his son Humayun, the second Mughal ruler.  It was only Sher Shah’s untimely death during the capture of Kalinjar (a Hindu fort then held by Raja Kirat Singh) that made Humayun’s return possible.

The destruction of the mosque was a historical wrong if ever there was one, but then Mr. Modi has never been bothered by history.  He is also not bothered that his party’s fairy tale revision of school history books is a scandal.  For similar reasons, Indian history on Wikipedia is too frequently tarnished, requiring verification from other sources to be properly informed.

The wrongs of communities, just as the wrongs of war, can lead to repercussions unanticipated and cataclysmic.  Yugoslavia is an example in living memory.  Clearly, any ruler of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country contemplating a path of communal dominance must take note before he is hoisted with his own petard.

Author’s Note:  This article first appeared on Counterpunch.org  

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Racism does not need racists

Jorge Majfud

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In my classes, I always try to make clear the difference between opinions and facts. It is a fundamental rule, a very simple intellectual exercise that we owe ourselves to undertake in the post-Enlightenment era. I started becoming obsessed with such obvious matters when I found out, in 2005, that some students were arguing that something “is true because I believe it” – and they weren’t joking. Since then, I’ve suspected that such intellectual conditioning, such a conflation of physics with metaphysics (cleared up by Averroes almost a thousand years ago) – which year by year becomes increasingly dominant (faith as the supreme criterion, regardless of all evidence to the contrary) – has its origins in the majestic churches of the southern United States.

But critical thinking involves so much more than just distinguishing facts from opinions. Trying to define what a fact is would suffice. The very idea of objectivity itself paradoxically originates from a single perspective, from one lens. And anyone knows that with the lens of one photographic or video camera, only one part of reality is captured, which quite often is subjective or used to distort reality in the supposed interest of objectivity.

For some reason, students tend to be more interested in opinions than facts. Maybe because of the superstitious idea that an informed opinion is derived from the synthesis of thousands of facts. This is a dangerous idea, but we can’t run away from our responsibility to give our opinion when it’s required. All that we can and should do is take note that an informed opinion continues to be an opinion which must be tested or challenged.

An opinion

On a certain day, students discussed the caravan of 5,000 Central Americans (at least one thousand of whom were children) fleeing violence and heading for the Mexican border with the US. President Donald Trump had ordered the border closed and called those looking for refuge “invaders”. On 29 October 2018, he tweeted: “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”. The military deployment to the border alone cost the US about $200 million.

Since one of my students insisted on knowing my opinion, I started off with the most controversial side of the issue. I observed that this country, the US, was founded upon the fear of invasion, and only a select few have always known how to exploit this weakness, with tragic consequences. Maybe this paranoia came about with the English invasion of 1812, but if history tells us anything, it’s that the US  has practically never suffered an invasion of its territory – if we exclude the 9/11 attacks in 2001; the one on Pearl Harbor, which at the time was a military base in foreign territory; and, prior to that, at the very beginning of the twentieth century, the brief incursion of a Mexican named Pancho Villa mounted upon a horse. But the US has indeed specialized in invading other countries from the time of its founding – it took over the Indian territories, then half of Mexico, from Texas, to reinstall slavery, to California; it intervened directly in Latin American affairs, to repress popular protests and support bloody dictatorships – all in the name of defence and security. And always with tragic consequences.

Therefore, the idea that a few thousand poor people on foot are going to invade the most powerful country in the world is simply a joke in poor taste. And it’s likewise in bad taste for some Mexicans on the other side to adopt this same xenophobic talk that’s been directed at them – inflicting on others the same abuse they’ve suffered.

A critical view

In the course of the conversation, I mentioned in passing that in addition to the foundational paranoia, there was a racial component to the argument.

“You don’t need to be a racist to defend the borders,” said one student.

True, I noted. You don’t need to be a racist to defend borders or laws. At first glance, the statement is irrefutable. However, if we take history and the wider current context into consideration, an openly racist pattern jumps out at us right away.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the French novelist Anatole France wrote: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.” You don’t need to be an elitist to support an economically stratified culture. You don’t need to be sexist to spread the most rampant type of sexism. Thoughtlessly engaging in certain cultural practices and voicing your support for some law or another is quite often all it takes.

I drew a geometric figure on the board and asked students what they saw there. Everyone said they saw a cube or a box. The most creative variations didn’t depart from the idea of tri-dimensionality, when in reality what I drew was nothing more than three rhombuses forming a hexagon. Some tribes in Australia don’t see that same image in 3D but rather in 2D. We see what we think and that’s what we call objectivity.

Double standards

When President Abraham Lincoln emerged victorious from the American Civil War (1861-1865), he put an end to a hundred-year dictatorship that, up to this day, everyone calls “democracy.” By the eighteenth century, black slaves had come to make up more than fifty percent of the population in states like South Carolina – but they weren’t even citizens of the US, nor did they enjoy even minimal human rights.

Many years before Lincoln, both racists and anti-racists proposed a solution to the “negro problem” by sending them “back” to Haiti or Africa, where many of them ended up founding the nation of Liberia (one of my students, Adja, is from a family which comes from that African country). The English did the same thing to “rid” England of its blacks. But under Lincoln blacks became citizens, and one way to reduce them down to a minority was not only by making it difficult for them to vote (such as by imposing a poll tax) but also by opening the nation’s borders to immigration.

The Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French people to the American people to commemorate the centenary of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, still cries with silent lips: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” In this way, the US opened its arms to waves of impoverished immigrants. Of course, the overwhelming majority were poor whites. Many were opposed to the Italians and the Irish because they were red-headed Catholics. But in any case, they were seen as being better than blacks. Blacks weren’t able to immigrate from Africa, not just because they were much farther away than Europeans were, but also because they were much poorer, and there were hardly any shipping routes to connect them to New York. The Chinese had more opportunities to reach the west coast, and perhaps for that reason a law was passed in 1882 that prohibited them from coming in just for being Chinese.

I understand that this was a subtle and powerful way to reshape demographics, which is to say the political, social and racial make-up of the US. The current nervousness about a change to that make-up is nothing more than the continuation of that same old logic. Were that not the case, what could be wrong with being part of a minority group or being different from others?

You don’t need to be a racist…

Clearly, if you’re a good person and you’re in favour of properly enforcing laws, it doesn’t make you a racist. You don’t need to be racist when the law and the culture already are. In the US, nobody protests Canadian or European immigrants. The same is true in Europe and even in the Southern Cone of South America [the southernmost region of Latin America, populated mainly by descendants of Europeans]. But everyone is worried about the blacks and the hybrid, mixed-race people from the south. Because they’re not white and “good”, but poor and “bad”. Currently, almost half a million European immigrants are living illegally in the United States. Nobody talks about them, just like nobody talks about how one million United States citizens are living in Mexico, many illegally.

With communism discarded as an excuse (none of those chronically failing states where migrants come from are communist), let’s once again consider the racial and cultural excuses common to the century prior to the Cold War. Every dark-skinned worker is seen as a criminal, not an opportunity for mutual development. The immigration laws are themselves filled with panic at the sight of poor workers.

It’s true that you don’t need to be racist to support laws and more secure borders. You also don’t need to be racist to spread and shore up an old racist and class-based paradigm, while we fill our mouths with platitudes about compassion and the fight for freedom and human dignity.

UNESCO

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