All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Genocide reflections

The mass killings in Gaza have been called genocide. This got me thinking about other genocides, and how they are similar to or different from what’s happening in Gaza.

                  For years, I have read articles and books about genocide. It is a particularly horrific phenomenon that needs to be studied and addressed. It is a challenge for those, like me, who support nonviolent methods of resisting aggression and repression.

                  According to the United Nations Genocide Convention, genocide refers to intending to destroy all or part of an ethnic, religious or national group. Technically, then, the mass killings in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 do not constitute genocide, because the targets were members of the same national and ethnic group. The Cambodian killings could instead be called politicide. However, most scholars diverge from the Genocide Convention definition, instead applying the term genocide to any state-sponsored mass killing aimed at destroying groups of civilians.


Raphael Lemkin, the prime force behind the UN Genocide Convention

                  Some scholars are genocide specialists, devoting their entire careers to examining genocide in general, or specific ones. I have never been such a specialist, but I developed a framework for understanding the tactics used by powerful perpetrators of injustice, and found it applied to genocide, one of the greatest injustices of all.

                  In this framework, called the backfire model, powerful perpetrators commonly use five types of methods to reduce public outrage. They cover up their actions, devalue the targets, reinterpret events by lying, minimising, blaming and framing, use official channels to give the appearance of justice, and intimidate or reward people involved. I and others applied the model to censorship, sexual harassment, police brutality, massacres and torture.

                  I knew this model of outrage management would apply to genocide. For example, the Nazis used all these methods in their extermination of Jews, Slavs and others, known as the Holocaust, keeping the killing programme secret, devaluing their targets, and denying the extent of their culpability. The model would certainly apply, but given the massive documentation of the Holocaust, I decided to examine a different genocide, where it was more feasible to get on top of the evidence, and picked Rwanda.

Rwanda, 1994

In the course of studying the Rwandan genocide, I read about ten books and lots of articles, keeping an eye out for methods used by perpetrators to reduce outrage. It was shocking to read so much about the genocide. I knew it was bad, but it was much worse than I had imagined.

                  Rwanda is a small landlocked country in central Africa that had been a Belgian colony. The Belgian rulers introduced a formal racial distinction between the Hutu and the Tutsi, though they lived among each other and intermarried, and put Tutsi figures in charge, though they came from a much smaller group. These racial groups became a toxic legacy after independence, when Hutu politicians controlled the Rwandan government.

                  In 1994, the death of the president of Rwanda triggered a sudden and massive assault on the Tutsi minority, and on Hutu “moderates,” with over half a million people killed in a matter of months. Reading about the genocide, I learned several things that usually receive little attention.

                  Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa. The genocide involved Christians killing Christians, some of them slaughtered in churches where they had sheltered. Yet the worldwide Christian community paid little attention to the implications of this shocking violation of Christian precepts.


Aftermath of the killing of thousands of people in a Rwandan church

                  Before the genocide, the Rwandan government had been at war with Tutsi exiles based in the neighbouring country Uganda. Many other genocides have occurred during wartime, including the genocide of the Armenians during World War I and of the Jews during World War II. War seems to facilitate the unleashing of military force against civilians.

                  In Rwanda in 1994, there was a United Nations peacekeeping force, introduced to constrain the outbreak of war between the Rwandan government and the Tutsi rebels, who called themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF. After the genocide started, the RPF recommenced its attacks. The war was on again.

                  I found ample evidence of cover-up, devaluation and other methods of reducing outrage over the killings. For example, Western governments withdrew their nationals, thus aiding in cover-up. The head of the UN peacekeeping force, Canadian soldier Roméo Dallaire, desperately appealed to the UN for greater support and for permission to defend civilians, given that peacekeepers are normally expected to use force only to defend themselves. Dallaire’s hopes were dashed. Amid the worst killing, the UN withdrew most of the peacekeeping troops from the country.

                  Meanwhile, other governments did nothing to stop the ongoing massacres. Only the French government belatedly organised a military intervention, whose main purpose was to protect the killers.

Bangladesh, 1971

When India gained independence in 1947, it was accompanied by a horrific breakup, called the Partition, leading to the creation of Muslim-dominated Pakistan, which was divided geographically between West Pakistan (today called Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today called Bangladesh), separated by 2000km.

India operated as a parliamentary democracy, but Pakistan suffered from authoritarian politics. In 1971, the military ruler of Pakistan, General Yahya, called elections. To his surprise, a party in East Pakistan, the Awami League, won the majority of seats and should have become the government. To stop this, Yahya sent troops to East Pakistan that began a massive killing operation.


Yahya Khan

                  Most of the people in East Pakistan were Muslims, but there was a significant Hindu minority, perhaps 13 million people. They were prime targets in the killing. Soon there was a vast tide of refugees, mostly Hindus, fleeing East Pakistan for safety in India. Within a matter of months in 1971, there were nearly ten million refugees, while hundreds of thousands of people were massacred in East Pakistan.

                  In writing about this story, I’m relying heavily on Gary Bass’s book The Blood Telegram. Bass did extensive interviews and studied archives. There was a rich lode of information about the US role. President Richard Nixon secretly taped all his conversations, and those with national security advisor Henry Kissinger were especially revealing.

                  In Dacca (now Dhaka), the major city in East Pakistan, staff in the US Consulate witnessed the slaughter of Bengalis by West Pakistan troops. They reported their observations to the State Department in increasingly desperate terms. The consul general, Archer Blood, supported his staff, using the word genocide to describe the killings. They were supported by State Department staff in Washington DC.

                  Meanwhile, the Indian government and press were in an uproar about the killings and the refugees. Likewise, in the US, there was considerable media coverage. Senator Ted Kennedy, who obtained reports from the Dacca consulate, attacked the Nixon administration.

                  Lots of people knew about the killings, but this had little impact on US policy, because Nixon and Kissinger saw General Yahya as their friend, and they hated India and its prime minister Indira Gandhi. They were using Yahya as a go-between to engage with the Chinese government for the first time since the 1949 revolution. It was a strange configuration. Nixon and Kissinger supported a military dictator who was massacring his citizens, made friends with China’s Communist rulers, and were intensely hostile to the major democracy in Asia, India, which turned to the Soviet Union for arms and diplomatic support. Nixon and Kissinger illegally organised arms shipments to Yahya’s government and encouraged Chinese leaders to mount a military threat to India.

                  As in every genocide, things were more complicated than apparent on the surface. As the killings continued in East Pakistan, Bengalis organised a guerrilla resistance, supported by the Indian military. As the refugee numbers increased, and public pressure increased, Indira Gandhi prepared for war with Pakistan. When it happened, it took only two weeks for Indian troops to take Dacca, ending the genocide and enabling East Pakistan to become the independent country Bangladesh.

                  Nixon and Kissinger furiously condemned the Indian government, and cynically used the United Nations as part of their campaign. Yet, as Bass tells the story, the role of Nixon and Kissinger in supporting Yahya and one of the worst genocides in the twentieth century has largely been forgotten.


Kissinger and Nixon

Other genocides

Wars over the past century have killed more civilians than soldiers, and genocides may have killed even more than wars. Yet many genocides receive little attention.

                  Who now remembers the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66, a pogrom of Communists and others, with over half a million people killed? Western governments did nothing to stop the killing. As documented by Vincent Bevins in his book The Jakarta Method, the US government helped the killers. This “benign bloodbath” was welcomed by Western anti-communist leaders.

                  The record shows a remarkable lack of interest by foreign governments in intervening against genocide. During World War II, Allied leaders knew about the Nazi death camps, such as Auschwitz, and could have ordered bombing of the camps or rail lines leading to them. But they didn’t. They prioritised defeating the Nazis over ending the mass extermination.

                  Nor were the Allies all that concerned about civilian lives. In the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan during the war, civilians were the main casualties, despite this doing little to hinder the enemy’s war efforts. Some scholars have pointed to similarities between this bombing and genocide, but there seems to be little interest in examining strategic bombing through the lens of genocide.

                  Some of the greatest human disasters in the past century were in Communist states, especially the Soviet Union and China, where millions perished in purges and famines. These atrocities were covered up. The famine in China resulting from the Great Leap Forward, initiated in 1958, resulted in tens of millions of deaths, but information about this only became known outside the country decades later. Inducing famine, as in the case of Stalin’s ruthless policies against Ukraine in the early 1930s, can be a genocidal tool.

                  The human rights group Article 19 published a revealing report titled Starving in Silence, arguing that famine can usually be avoided when there is a free press. This helps explain why, in India, there have been no famines since independence, whereas famines have ravaged several African countries with authoritarian governments.

                  After the Gulf War in 1991, in which the Iraqi military was driven out of Kuwait, economic sanctions were placed on Iraq, leading to mass deaths due to hunger and disease, with perhaps two million people dying as a result over the following decade. In a widely publicised exchange, Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN, was asked whether the deaths of half a million children in Iraq was a price worth paying for keeping Saddam Hussein’s regime in check. She answered yes.


Madeleine Albright

                  Finally, it is necessary to mention colonialism. European militaries invaded, conquered and occupied much of the rest of the world — North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia — leading to the mass death of Indigenous people due to war, disease and cultural destruction. On a per capita basis, deaths due to colonialism probably outnumber all other mass killings.

                  Despite the carnage, governments today are prepared for even greater slaughter. Every government with nuclear weapons — US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — is poised to kill millions of civilians, and some of these governments reserve the right to launch a first strike. Nuclear arsenals are commonly justified as deterrence against aggression, but in human terms they are a form of collective insanity, a willingness to be prepared to kill millions of people. The Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into force in 2021, but none of the governments holding them seems to care.

Gaza, 2023–24

The Israeli military assault on Gaza, killing tens of thousands of Palestinians, has generated outrage worldwide. What lessons are there from earlier mass killings?

                  One important difference is the role of cover-up. From Nazi Germany to Indonesia to Rwanda, perpetrators and their supporters have tried to hide killings from wider audiences. But the killings in Gaza are in the glare of publicity, which is a key reason for the much greater public uproar. Nevertheless, it is plausible that future exposés will reveal Israeli actions even worse than those now reported in the media.

                  In nearly every genocide, there is devaluation of the targets. There is ample evidence of contemptuous Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians, for example as documented in the South African application to the International Court of Justice alleging Israeli responsibility for genocide in Gaza.

                  When mass killings are exposed, perpetrators and their allies provide explanations, or rationalisations, for their actions. I’ve called this reinterpretation, and it includes lying, minimising, blaming and framing. Lies include the claim that Hamas cut off the heads of babies. The Israeli government blamed Hamas’ 7 October attacks for its attack on Gaza, and framed the assault as defending against terrorists.

                  The US government has publicly warned the Israeli government about its actions, meanwhile providing arms for the Israeli military. In this context, foreign governments are a sort of official channel, giving the appearance of providing justice without much substance. The United Nations has been impotent.

                  Finally, there is the tactic of intimidating critics of the Israeli military attack on Gaza, including campaigns in several countries against critics of Israel, and the killing of journalists in Gaza itself.

                  According to the backfire model, counter-tactics to increase outrage include exposing the injustice, validating targets, interpreting actions as unjust, not relying on official channels but instead mobilising support, and resisting intimidation and rewards. Protesters against killings in Gaza have been using all these methods, including circulating information, humanising Palestinians through personal stories, emphasising the injustice of mass killing of Palestinian civilians, organising public protests, and standing up against threats.

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                  Reflecting on genocides past, present and future can be demoralising. It seems that social institutions are set up to be humans’ own worst enemies. But there are also many examples of sustained efforts to oppose domination, exploitation and killing. Just don’t rely on national leaders to be our saviours.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For valuable comments, thanks to Mark Diesendorf, Jørgen Johansen, Janet Mayer, Michael McKinley and Dalilah Shemia-Goeke.

The doubling danger

Think of someone you hate, someone you detest in your gut. Then ask yourself, is there anything about them that reveals something about you, something you’d rather not admit to yourself? What a frightening thought! It’s even more frightening when this hated other has the same name as you, looks like you or is like you in some other way.

            Naomi Klein’s new book Doppelganger delves into this eerie psychological domain. A “doppelganger” is a double, a person like you except with all the features you dislike or don’t want. Imagine encountering your doppelgänger.

In popular culture, this psychological dimension is often missing, and a doppelgänger is merely a lookalike. Klein’s analysis goes beyond appearances.

            Klein is an accomplished researcher, writer and social critic. She wrote the book No Logo, which exposed the ubiquitous process of commercial branding that has been taking over the world, and told about challenges to it. She later wrote The Shock Doctrine, about how powerful corporations zoom into areas hit by disasters — war, hurricanes — to make supersized profits. In several books, she has presented passionate arguments for action on climate change.

            As a prominent intellectual with a well-defined persona as a social critic, a scourge of neoliberalism, it might seem that Klein’s identity was both well-established and secure. But then she encountered a different Naomi, and many people confused the two of them.

            The other Naomi, Naomi Wolf, became a public figure with her first book, The Beauty Myth published in 1990, and was hailed as a next-generation feminist.

Later, Wolf went down a different path, which became especially distinctive during the Covid pandemic, when she endorsed views that, to Klein, seemed absurd and dangerous. Wolf started supporting what are conventionally called right-wing views, like gun-owners’ rights.

            People saw public statements by Wolf and unintentionally attributed them to Klein. This caused Klein to have strange feelings, as if Wolf were her evil twin, saying things she abhorred. Klein became fascinated and, with her usual energy for in-depth study, began exploring everything she could find about doppelgängers, including mythology, psychological analyses and fiction. There are novels and films about doubles. A well-known example is Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a man retains his youthful looks while a painting of him, hidden away, ages instead. Klein probed many such stories, looking for insights into her own situation.

            Doppelganger is a long book. After writing best-selling books focusing on big issues like capitalism and climate change, it might seem self-indulgent to analyse a personal issue about an apparent real-life double. When there are so many pressing concerns in the world, ones for which Klein has well-developed capacities to explore, why bother with a seemingly trivial matter?

            Well into Doppelganger, Klein provides answers to this question. She finds the presence of doubles in ever wider facets of human life. She gives special attention to Covid. As noted, Wolf, during the pandemic, promoted some unorthodox ideas. Klein, in contrast, pretty much adhered to the standard line, conveyed by medical authorities, about lockdowns, distancing, masks and vaccines. To Klein, it seemed that Wolf was a mirror image of herself, adopting views that were an evil inversion of her own.

            But Klein, ever critical of her own thinking, wondered whether her mirror self had something to offer. By rejecting entirely any challenge to orthodox views about Covid, was something being lost, some insight into the dominant position? This is a crucial question for Klein and for the reader, and I think it’s an important one. But before addressing Klein’s big-picture examination, there’s one aspect of her treatment of Covid I need to mention.

Covid matters

Klein, by adopting the authorities’ position concerning Covid, is able to position Wolf and other Covid critics as delusional and dangerous, putting their own freedoms above the health of others. Klein sees this as individualism, a feature of neoliberal society, running rampant over collective concern about everyone’s welfare. But there is another way to frame this clash of worldviews.

            Throughout the pandemic, not all dissident views prioritised individual rights over collective welfare. Consider, for example, the Great Barrington Declaration, initiated by three accomplished medical researchers and signed by hundreds of thousands of health professionals. They supported protecting the vulnerable, the aged and the immune-system compromised, while letting Covid spread among the young and healthy, to whom it posed little threat. The young and healthy would develop natural immunity, which comes from having the disease, and could then safely contact the aged and infirm.

            Klein does not mention the Great Barrington Declaration, nor that its leading figures came under fierce criticism and were censored. For the purposes here, there is no need to examine the pros and cons of the declaration, only to note that Klein’s contrast between community-minded Covid orthodoxy and individually selfish Covid heterodoxy can be questioned. Furthermore, Covid-control orthodoxy involved many things that separated people from each other, including lockdowns, masks and distancing. Pandemic policies were devastating for many social-movement campaigns, inhibiting collective action. Klein does not address such perspectives but instead focuses on what she sees as Wolf’s aberrant beliefs.

            When examining contentious public issues, especially ones where credentialed experts play a big role, there’s a trap involved. Such issues include pesticides, genetically modified organisms, microwaves, fluoridation — and vaccination. On such issues, establishment experts are contrasted with citizen opponents, such as Wolf, who supposedly know nothing, and it is easy to dismiss all opponents as ignorant. But on every such issue, there are highly knowledgeable dissident experts. To understand the debate, it’s necessary to delve into both science and politics rather than assuming dominant experts are right and opponents are both ignorant and wrong.


Naomi Klein


Naomi Wolf

Projection

There is a psychological process called projection that involves taking a part of your own psyche and attributing it to others, in other words projecting it onto others. For example, every person has both masculine and feminine aspects, but some men are so repulsed by their feminine side that they project it onto women — and gay men. Homophobia can be thought of as a toxic form of this sort of projection.

            There’s also a parallel process called introjection, which is incorporating another’s psychological features into one’s own psyche. Demagogues take advantage of both processes. Followers project their own strength onto the great leader, and introject weakness and dependence.

            Klein’s idea of a Mirror World is that it can be a distorted version of unwanted parts of ourselves. This is a vivid way of describing projection, individual and collective. Referring to political views classified as left or right, Klein notes that when the left drops an issue, it is sometimes taken up by the right, and then the left further distances itself from the issue. She notes that the left supported official Covid control measures due to “the torrent of lies coming from the conspiratorial right” when it should have done more questioning.

            Klein offers a low-key critique of identity politics, saying that the left, by focusing obsessively on differences and using jargon, alienates many of those outside the university set. “Moreover, when entire categories of people are reduced to their race and gender, and labeled ‘privileged’, there is little room to confront the myriad ways that working-class white men and women are abused under our predatory capitalist order.” (p. 127) Klein supports coming together in a common cause rather than asserting identities.

Genocide and Jews

Moving on from Covid politics, Klein explores other domains where doubling can provide insights. One of them is genocide. Klein tells about her experiences as a Jew, learning about the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide of the Jews, and presents a parallel between colonialism and the Holocaust, one that had been developed by a series of writers.

            When colonialists settled in “new” lands, what are now the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, they justified their activities as taking over empty territories, empty of people of value. In Australia, this was the legal doctrine of terra nullius, a land owned by no one. The indigenous people were treated as non-owners, so their lives and cultures could be disregarded. Today this is called “settler colonialism” because settlers took over the land and pushed out the inhabitants, in contrast to colonialism in places like India and Indonesia where Europeans ruled but did not displace the native population.

            By the time Hitler came on the scene, much of the world had been colonised this way. But Hitler had the same idea, called lebensraum, of creating land for the chosen people, the Aryans of Germany. It meant clearing the land of its existing population, of Jews and Slavs. In this way of thinking, the Holocaust was not a unique event but rather a continuation of the European colonial project, turned inwards against other Europeans rather than outward towards other continents.

            Klein offers this perspective with the added insight of doubling. Just as Indigenous people were the dangerous doubles of settler colonialists, so Jews were the dangerous doubles of Aryans in Nazi Germany.

            Then there is the question of Israel, itself a settler colonial society, in which Palestinians were killed or expelled to make room for Jewish settlers. This took place during the creation of Israel in 1948 and has continued ever since. It’s not quite the same as earlier forms of settler colonialism, but there are similarities. In Klein’s telling, Israelis, or rather Zionists, have a doppelgänger — the Palestinians whose lands and livelihoods they have taken over. And if one’s double is seen as the repository of one’s own unacknowledged bad side, one option is to attack it.

            Doppelganger was published on 12 September 2023, shortly before the 7 October attack by Hamas and the subsequent Israeli military assault on Gaza, which many informed observers have called genocide. But there was an earlier allegation about genocide of the Palestinians, during an Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2014. At this time, Klein notes, her double Naomi Wolf had spoken against the assault, using the loaded word “genocide,” and encountered a storm of abuse for such sacrilege. It was after this experience, especially during Covid, that Wolf turned to a different constituency, becoming the darling of right-wing talk-show hosts.


Rwandan genocide

            Klein ends Doppelganger with a heartfelt plea to join together with others to address the urgent problems facing humans. This might be seen as a continuation of her campaigning on climate change, but she has arrived at this point by an unusual route, one through her personal double Naomi Wolf and through an examination of doubling through art and politics.

            In her journey through doubles, Klein covers many other topics, including autism, US political strategist Steve Bannon, personal branding, conspiracy theories, digital doubles, feminism, Jew-hatred, novelist Philip Roth, and social media cancellations. She highlights the value of studying and learning from those with whom you strongly disagree. Accordingly, you need not agree with Klein at every step, or even very many of them, to learn from her journey and to apply the lessons to your own.


Not the way Doppelganger ends

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For useful comments, thanks to Antoine, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Jungmin Choi and Erin Twyford.

Further reading: two highly critical commentaries on Klein and Doppelganger

Toby Rogers, “In Doppelganger, Naomi Klein scapegoats Naomi Wolf for the sins of Klein’s father

Naomi Wolf,  “Is Naomi Klein ‘Othering’ Me Due to Family Ties’ Multi-Millions in Vaccine Money?

An X account takeover

Someone took over my X account and tweeted in my name. I tried to regain control but couldn’t. Was an X insider involved?

On Sunday 5 November 2023, I received an email from X saying there had been a new login to my account.

It was from a computer in Sydney using Chrome with Windows, so I knew it wasn’t me: I live in Wollongong and use Safari with a Mac. I knew I needed to do something about it. A minute later, there was an email from Twitter saying my password had been changed.

            It seemed that my X account had been hacked. For convenience, I’ll refer to whoever did this as the hacker.

            Immediately, I submitted a request on the X webpage to change my X password, as recommended in the first email. This was supposed to generate an email to me with a confirmation code. But, after a few minutes, no email had arrived. I tried again. Still no email. Then a third time.

            Next stop: Mimecast, the university’s email filtering system. I went to my Mimecast area where all filtered messages to my email address can be inspected, but didn’t see any email from X.

            I tried to log into my X account but couldn’t. So I went to the X page to submit a support request, using the drop-down menu to say my account had been compromised. I included screenshots of the two emails I had received (above), plus a description of my problem. Here’s the bottom of my request.

Within seconds of submitting this request, I received an email saying I had control of my account. But I didn’t. This had to be an automated message.

            The University of Wollongong’s IT support service is called IMTS, Information Management and Technology Services. I contacted the IMTS support line and talked with Leon (not his real name), who was on call even though it was Sunday morning. He helped by giving me advice about the Mimecast area, which processes incoming emails, but couldn’t find anything from X.

            I rang my friend Marg (not her real name), who knows a lot about Twitter. She looked on X and didn’t see any tweets from my handle. She wondered, as I had already wondered, whether this takeover of my account was related to the takeover of my university email account a few weeks earlier, used to spam lots of people in my address book.

            A bit later, I received an email from X with a code for my request to change my password. Why had it taken so long to arrive? The code didn’t work, but I assumed it had been superseded by my later requests. I waited, trying each code as it arrived. Eventually one wasn’t rejected as wrong. Instead, the message said it had expired.

            My next password-change request was rejected because I had made too many requests. I gave up for the day.

            How could someone in Sydney take over my account? A brute force attack is implausible. My password was eight characters, nothing predictable.

Because I’ll never use this password again, here it is: 179583h5. I used this password only for Twitter, not other services. I never shared it with anyone, and it was not on my computer. Had someone installed a key logger on my computer? That seems unlikely given that I hadn’t logged into X since September.

            Marg had promised to let me know if the hacker had made any tweets on my account. On Wednesday, she rang to say there had been one, and sent me a screenshot.

For years, nearly every one of my tweets has contained a link to one of my recently published articles or blog posts. The hacker’s tweet on my account was so unlike anything I had ever tweeted as to be bizarre. Since this tweet, Marg tells me, there have been more about cryptocurrency.

            After a few days had passed, it was time to again try changing my X password. At 8.30pm on Wednesday 8 November I put in a request. It took 60 minutes for the confirmation email to arrive, and by then it was too late. I tried yet again Thursday morning, with the same result. Each time, the confirmation code arrived exactly 60 minutes after my request.

As a result, each password-change attempt was rejected.

An inside job?

Several things made me wonder whether more was going on than meets the eye. Let me sum them up.

  1. Someone took over my account despite there being no obvious way for them to obtain my password.
  2. Within seconds of every time I submit a request to X, an email from support@twitter.com arrives.
  3. These emails arrive so quickly that it’s obvious no one has looked at my requests. These automated replies falsely say I have access to my account. Each such reply is identical.
  4. Emails containing confirmation codes for my attempts to change my password, sent from info@x.com, take a long time to arrive, so they time out.
  5. On four occasions when I timed how long it took for one of these emails to arrive, it was exactly 60 minutes, even though my password-change requests were at different times of the day, when presumably delays due to online traffic or spam filtering would be different.
  6. Searching the web, I’ve been unable to find anyone else who has had similar problems.

            This evidence pretty much rules out problems due to regular processes of either X or Mimecast.

            When all plausible explanations are ruled out, it’s time to consider ones that are implausible a priori. Here’s one worth considering.

            The takeover of my account could have been by a hacker, an X insider, or someone with connections with a hacker or X insider. The hacker/insider programmed a one-hour time delay for messages from info@x.com to my email address, so my password-change attempts time out, and a standard false response from support@twitter.com to my support requests.

A precedent

In July 2020, there was a massive hack of Twitter accounts. Many prominent individuals, such as Elon Musk and Joe Biden, were targeted. The hackers used their control to send tweets soliciting Bitcoin payments that were never returned.

            My experience fits this template, with the difference that it’s not high profile, so X has no awareness of it. This means it’s harder to have my access returned. If you have suggestions, let me know.

Postscript

On 17 November, I received an email saying my X account had been suspended.

That was fine with me, because my account was being misused. I was in touch with a friend who was giving me assistance. Curiously, her X account was suspended within minutes of when mine was suspended.

Since then, I’ve been unable to regain access to my account or to figure out what’s going on. Periodically, I request to change my password. The confirmation code always arrives exactly 60 minutes later, which might as well be never.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Corruptions of power?

Does power corrupt or is something else going on?

When the Green Party was set up in West Germany in the early 1980s, it had a radical platform of ecology, nonviolence, social justice and grassroots democracy. It included a radical plan for candidates elected to parliament: they would serve only one term of office, then step aside for another candidate. But that’s not the way it turned out. Several of the initial Green members of parliament decided to continue in office, flouting the party principle, seemingly in favour of their own careers. Was this a case of power leading to corruption?

            Time to quote the famous saying by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is widely quoted because it seems to capture something often observed in politics, and beyond. Have you ever known a mild-mannered colleague who, on becoming the boss, became an oppressive bully? But is there any research to confirm informal observations about what power does to people, research that might back up Acton’s saying?

            For decades, I’ve been fascinated by studies of power, and read books and articles by various authors. For example, Pitirim Sorokin and Walter Lunden in their 1959 book Power and Morality provided data that government and business leaders were much more likely to commit serious crimes than the average citizen. This sure fits Acton’s saying.

            Among academics, one of the most-cited books is Power by Steven Lukes. It is an insightful analysis of concepts, proposing that it is useful to view power in terms of one, two or three dimensions.

The one-dimensional view is the one we usually think of: the capacity to make others do things they don’t want to, for example the power of a boss to instruct an employee. The two-dimensional view includes what’s called non-decisionmaking. Sometimes employees don’t need to be asked. They try to anticipate what the boss wants and do it, without any conscious decision-making process. The three-dimensional view includes structural arrangements. A workplace run with a hierarchical system of bosses and subordinates sets the agenda for all decision-making.

Klaas’ view

A recent book by Brian Klaas challenged my long-standing views. In Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, Klaas raises a number of objections to the power-corrupts narrative. What if those seeking power were more prone to corruption? What if the earliest Green politicians were the members keenest to become candidates and obtain positions of status and influence? This would be a different process: it would be positions of power being especially attractive to those individuals most easily corrupted.

            Corruptible also challenged my view that books about power are pretty boring, of interest only to specialists. Corruptible is entertaining. Klaas travelled the world interviewing a range of people, including brutal dictators, trying to figure out what makes them tick. And he tells fascinating stories about corrupt individuals.

Recruitment to positions of power

Consider a police department, one where some officers are venal and brutal, taking opportunities to steal and to lord it over others. Think of the officer in Minneapolis in 2020 who held down George Floyd, while he cried out that he couldn’t breathe, for nine minutes until he died. This became infamous, but unfortunately there are lots of other incidents, large and small, in which officers abuse their power.


The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, 1991

            Is the problem that police, because they have power, become corrupt, or is it that corruptible individuals are attracted to joining the police? Klaas describes revealing research findings showing how some police job advertisements are more attractive to bullies.

            The usual response to police abuses is to institute training, to try to change the behaviour of the officers who have been hired. Klaas describes a different, additional idea: spend more effort recruiting individuals who are different, who normally would not be attracted to a police career, such as gentle, compassionate, honest individuals who are reluctant to use violence. The idea is to avoid recruiting people who are attracted to the sort of power wielded by police.

            Maybe the Greens should adopt this approach: encourage the members who are least interested in leadership roles to become candidates for office. Dream on!

Don’t (always) blame the powerful

Klaas offers another challenge to the idea that power tends to corrupt: he notes four things that are commonly overlooked when examining the actions of people in positions of power. The first is “dirty hands.” When Green parliamentarians have to choose between two evils, their vote will cause harm no matter what choice is made. In Australia, the Greens had to decide whether to support or oppose weak legislation on climate change. They either disappoint their supporters for compromising or are condemned for being blockers. Klaas tells of cases in which rulers have had to make decisions and, whatever choice they made, people would die. Not nice, and not about power corrupting.

            Another thing commonly overlooked is that those in power have more opportunities to do bad, so they look worse than others. Earlier I mentioned the study by Sorokin and Lunden about political and business leaders being higher than average in criminality. Maybe this wasn’t because they were corrupted by power but because they had the power to get away with murder.

            Yet another factor is that people in positions of power are closely observed, so they seem to be up to more mischief. Green parliamentarians receive a lot more scrutiny than ordinary members of the party, so anything they do that’s wrong is more likely to be discovered and publicised. Again, greater scrutiny of the powerful might give the mistaken impression that power corrupts. Klaas summarises his analysis:

“Corruptible people are drawn to power. They’re often better at getting it. We, as humans, are drawn to following the wrong leaders for irrational reasons linked to our Stone Age brains. Bad systems make everything worse. Yet, our intuitions about power can be flawed and mistaken. Four phenomena — dirty hands, learning, opportunity, and scrutiny — make it seem that power makes people worse than they actually are. We sometimes confuse the effects of power with intrinsic aspects of holding it.” (p. 148)


Brian Klaas

But power does tend to corrupt

After canvassing many challenges to Lord Acton’s comment about power, Klaas finally addresses it, and he agrees with him: power does tend to corrupt. Klaas cites studies showing that gaining power makes behaviour worse, with powerholders interrupting and stereotyping others more, and being more hypocritical.

            Klaas says that “for decades, the scientific literature on how power affects us was limited,” but he missed the work of one important researcher in the field, David Kipnis, who carried out careful experiments that showed the psychological effects of having power over others. For example, it makes the powerholder think their subordinates are not autonomous and hence deserve less respect, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation.

What to do

Most academic writings on power focus on analysis, on what it is and how it operates. Klaas does something else: he gives a lot of attention to solutions to the corruptions of power. As well as arguing for the recruitment of individuals who are less susceptible to temptation, he recommends choosing decision-makers by lot, called sortition, like the selection of jurors for a trial. With random selection, power-seekers have no better chances of being chosen than anyone else.


Me boss. You not.

            Yet another option is rotation of office-holders. This is just what the German Greens initially planned: elected parliamentarians would serve only one term of office. The Greens couldn’t do it on their own, but what if all parliamentarians were allowed only one term? This would cut corruption, because those in office for short periods are less susceptible to special interests.

            Decades ago, I corresponded with an unusual political activist in the US. He sent me leaflets and bumper stickers with the slogan “Re-elect nobody.” His idea was that voters should always vote against whoever was in office. If enough did this, members of Congress would serve only one term. Predictably, his idea never caught on. And it’s crazy to imagine the members of any parliament legislating to restrict their terms of office. They’re not likely to listen to anyone, even if Klaas has a great idea for getting better people into positions of power.

            Klaas notes that there are far more studies of disasters than of successes. Assuming for the moment that the Australian Greens opposing a carbon-price scheme in 2009 was a poor decision, Klaas’s point is that there has been much more attention to it than to good decisions by the Greens. He argues that as well as examining the results of decisions, there should be audits of decision-making processes.

“Better people can lead us. We can recruit smarter, use sortition to second-guess powerful people, and improve oversight. We can remind leaders of the weight of their responsibility. We can make them see people as human beings, not abstractions, before the powerful turn them into victims. We can rotate personnel to deter and detect abuse. We can use randomized integrity tests to catch bad apples. And if we’re going to watch people, we can focus on those at the top who do the real damage, not the rank and file.” (p. 246)

            I’ve mentioned just a portion of the fascinating material in Corruptible. Even so, there is one topic about which I would have liked more: getting rid of positions of power altogether. It’s often assumed that hierarchies are inevitable, and someone has to be the boss. But there are many examples of cooperative endeavours in which no individual has a great deal of formal power. This is a big topic, so I’ll just mention consensus decision-making techniques, worker co-ops like Mondragon in Spain, participatory budgeting like in Brazil, and all sorts of voluntary groups.

            So imagine this. The Greens, instead of trying to get their own members elected to parliament, push for a different sort of decision-making system, one in which no individuals have a great amount of power. Well, it hasn’t happened yet, but it can be added to the agenda for those concerned, like Lord Acton, with power and corruption.


Lord Acton

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Comment from “Alicia Verde,” who has close familiarity with the Greens New South Wales

The Greens have historically had fewer problems with power and corruption than other major parties. Our grassroots focus helps reduce these problems.

         However, in the Greens NSW we do occasionally experience those who abuse power, both those who are corrupted by power and those who are already corrupt and seek power for its own sake.

         As the Greens NSW Party grew, the career path to becoming an MP (member of parliament) became easier and more attractive, potentially attracting those who desire power, including those who want power for power’s sake. This is far more evident in the two larger Australian political parties for obvious reasons. This defined career path has led to several instances of prospective and elected MPs abusing power.

         Any new political party with no guarantee of electing an MP is less attractive to those who are driven to seek power.

         Greens NSW enshrined grassroots democracy in its constitution, rather than an MP-focused perspective. That was early on in our formation. I believe it would have been more difficult to achieve this with the current number of MPs.

         In the Labor Party and the Liberal-National Party Coalition, power rests in their party rooms, caucuses and party elites. In Australian politics, the Greens NSW are unique in successfully seeking to devolve power from MPs to grassroots membership at the heart of our constitution and processes.

         The Greens NSW constitution facilitates dealing with toxic MPs by any local group bringing a proposal to a state delegates council (held six times a year) that can reprimand or, as happened on at least one occasion, force an MP to resign. This is despite MPs having considerable soft power (instinctive deference to MP opinions) within the party. There is constant pushback against soft power due to a significant commitment to a non-hierarchical structure. Though this isn’t easy, the Greens’ consensus decision-making model can be effective in dealing with power-related toxicity, far more so than in the other major parties, that either rely on popular votes or have a structure that effectively silences voices from the membership.

         Yes, power does tend to corrupt, and yes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s inherent that MPs start to believe their own media, while sycophants prop up their egos. However, it really gets toxic when external groups with vested interests become involved, such as via political donations, which the Greens don’t take from corporations. These donations enshrine and feed power imbalances; the corporations need the imbalance to protect their influence. This is a really corrosive problem in Australian and Western democracies, corrupting even those who are not “power-hungry.”

         Given inherent problems with power corrupting groups, it is the robustness of the structures and processes underpinning organisations that count to derail the corrosive aspects of power.

         In Greens NSW, what helps to ensure that a non-hierarchical perspective is not eroded over time is the constitution and the willingness of state delegates councils to dictate policy, reprimand abuses or over-reach, plus party members’ wariness of those in power and of power itself. This has enabled maintaining policy positions on many very difficult issues and reduced the “protecting my re-election prospects” agenda where MPs are conflicted in difficult situations.

         On limited terms for MPs, this was contemplated in Greens NSW but rejected as it also serves to end the careers of some really great MPs. It can be a double-edged sword.

         Randomly selecting MPs would be effective if it were also for the entire parliament but this would mean abandoning our Westminster system for something far more progressive, which is not an option in the next few years I imagine! Sadly!

Are US conservatives the new defenders of free speech?

On 12 July, Matt Taibbi made a post on Racket News with the title, “Where have all the liberals gone?” Taibbi is a journalist who has provided exquisite analyses of a range of issues over the years. I was especially impressed with his cutting examination of the Global Financial Crisis in his 2010 book Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. In recent years, on Racket News, he has provided running commentaries on US politics. One of his special interests is censorship.

            In his 12 July post, Taibbi opened with an account of US government documents revealing that the FBI had forwarded requests to various platforms — Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter — asking for certain topics to be censored. The FBI’s requests were made on behalf of the SBU, the Ukrainian security agency. As Taibbi put it, censorship had been outsourced to a foreign power.

            This wasn’t the only example, just a particularly striking one. Taibbi referred to many other instances in which the US government has requested private companies to undertake censorship.

            The government documents revealing this were released by a committee of the US House of Representatives. Here’s the cruncher: a majority of the committee members were Republicans. Taibbi was shocked and aggrieved. Then he posed his key question: “where are the rest of the ‘card-carrying’ liberals from the seventies, eighties, and nineties — people like me, who always reflexively opposed restrictions on speech?” Liberals who Taibbi calls “card-carrying” were those fully committed to liberal values.

Liberals and conservatives

In the US, a liberal is on the political left and a conservative is on the right, and these more or less align with Democrats and Republicans. Compared with other countries with representative governments, the whole US political spectrum is skewed to the right — uniquely, there has never been a significant socialist party in the country — but that does not detract from Taibbi’s concerns. Through his own experience over decades, he perceives that the liberals, who used to be at the forefront of anti-censorship efforts, are now complacent or supportive of the government aiding censorship.

            At the conclusion of his short article, Taibbi put out an invitation: “I’d like to hear from anyone who has an explanation, a personal testimonial, anything. Comments are open to everyone here.”

            I had my own ideas about what has been going on, and thought to add a comment. But by the time I got around to it, there were already 2500 comments. Would one more be noticed? Anyway, I was uncertain about what I would say. What follows is not a rigorous argument backed by extensive documentation, but rather an exploratory effort, an exposition of possibilities, perhaps better described as speculation, as a set of ideas that might be worth pursuing in greater depth.

Questioning the premise

Taibbi’s question assumes some sort of affinity between being a liberal and being anti-censorship. But is this correct? In wartime, there is massive censorship, and it is especially severe against opponents of war. It’s more than censorship: war resisters during US wars have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Many major wars were conducted under Democrat administrations: World War I, World War II and the first years of the Korean and Vietnam wars. These administrations were not reluctant to censor dissent and to imprison war resisters.

            War seems to be a unifier, at least for the state, against critics. How does this relate to the left-right political spectrum? Traditionally, this spectrum refers to workers versus capitalist owners, in a quasi-Marxist sort of analysis. Those on the left back the working class whereas those on the right back the capitalist or ruling class. The trouble is that many issues do not map neatly onto this spectrum. War is one of them. Prior to the First World War, socialists imagined that workers would refuse to fight, in international solidarity against rulers. But instead, most workers’ parties supported their own governments. Propaganda, pioneered by the British during the so-called Great War, helped mobilise support for the war.

            In subsequent decades, some on the left were active in pacifist movements, but some on the right supported isolationism, opposing US involvement in foreign wars. That same configuration has continued, in various forms, into the 2000s.

            Rather than assuming liberals have some special affinity with free speech, an alternative idea is that both liberals and conservatives are keen to defend their own free speech while being ready to censor opponents. This idea is highlighted by the title of a revealing book by free-speech campaigner Nat Hentoff: Free Speech for Me — but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other.

            Hentoff’s perspective raises a new set of queries. How can we explain patterns of censorship? A preliminary hypothesis is self-interest: groups with the power to censor do so against those who threaten their interests.

Threats and censorship

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, many in the US government saw communism as the greatest threat. Communism, Soviet-style, was left-wing, so most US government surveillance, harassment and repression was against communists and their perceived allies. Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade against communists in government and beyond, and this spilled into universities and Hollywood, among other areas. During that time, the most powerful forces in the US targeted those associated with the left.

            In the late 1960s, one of the biggest issues in the country was the war in Vietnam, and it was against communists, so the antiwar movement was treated as left-wing. But this had little connection with the classic left-right dichotomy based on labour versus capitalists. The other big issue in the 1960s was racism. Like the antiwar movement, the civil rights and black power movements had little logical connection with the labour-capitalist framework, though in practice campaigners in these movements can find affinities with labour activists.

            The FBI, under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, targeted any group seen as a threat to security. Whose security? It was later revealed that the main targets in the 1960s were antiwar activists and blacks. Somehow, these groups were seen as being on the left. It might make more sense to see antiwar activists as anti-state and blacks as threats to white supremacy.

            Taibbi remembers what it was like back then, when liberals defended free speech, and when the targets of censorship and repression included antiwar and civil-rights campaigners. But perhaps that configuration was not inherent in the positions of these groups, but depended more on who had power and who threatened it.

Friendly fascism?

Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism was published in 1980. Gross, who had worked in the US government at a policy level in the 1940s and 1950s, saw signs of a US version of fascism. Gross saw the essence of fascism not in the racism and brutality of regimes in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, but in something else: an alliance between big business and big government. Much of his analysis applies today.

            It’s not necessary to accept Gross’s full picture to see that the ties, in the US and beyond, between business and government have become ever stronger, with powerful industries heavily involved in making the policies that affect them, and government running foreign policy to serve US business interests. Highlights include structural adjustment programmes to pressure governments of poor countries to adapt their economies to serve international capital, and pressure to impose expansive rules for intellectual property, again serving the interests of big capital.

            If there is an alliance between, or rather interpenetration of, big government and big business, what then is the role of the distinction between left and right? On many issues, there are differences between liberals and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans, but many of these differences are more cultural than related to political economy. Both sides support neoliberalism or what used to be called monopoly capitalism. How does this play out in relation to censorship?

            In addition to the left-right political dimension, there is another distinction, between statist and anti-statist orientations. On the left, statists support big government, the welfare state and benevolent paternalism. Anti-statists on the left, in contrast, support local empowerment of communities, what has been called neighbourhood power, and workers’ control and community self-reliance.

            On the right, statists support aid to corporations, military power and police power against workers and activists. Right anti-statists, in contrast, support markets, small business, limited government regulation, and local initiative. Right anti-statists include libertarians. Note that the libertarian tradition in the US is far stronger than in nearly any other country.

            In this rough classification of statist and anti-statist orientations, I’ve left out connections with big business. If big government and big business are symbiotic in the US, then anti-state positions become more complicated: anti-state can become, in part, anti-big-business. This clashes with the usual idea that the right is pro-business.

Covid politics

The arrival of Covid-19 was a shock to the political system. Political leaders treated the pandemic as an emergency that warranted the most severe restrictions on freedoms outside of wartime. In terms of political economy, this can be thought of as the state exerting its power against dissent, in alliance with several powerful corporations, notably in the pharmaceutical and tech industries.

            There is extensive evidence of censorship, in the US and elsewhere, of views contrary to the official line concerning the pandemic and control measures: lockdowns, masks, vaccines and the origin of Covid. Platforms including Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube censored heterodox commentary, including correct information — such as about adverse events from vaccines — that clashed with the dominant narrative. The US federal government and various agencies aided in this effort. Claims about disinformation were used to justify silencing dissent. Beyond censorship, scientists and doctors who questioned orthodoxy were targeted, with their online accounts cancelled, their medical privileges revoked and their jobs threatened.

            Where were the liberals, those Taibbi thought of as the traditional defenders of free speech? The answer to this question, it seems, is nowhere. Liberals were the most enthusiastic backers of control measures. The left’s negativity about capitalists, in this case mainly the pharmaceutical and tech industries, seemed to have evaporated. Or perhaps the left, being supportive of government experts, always endorsed mainstream medicine and was hostile to natural alternatives.

            But there was opposition to the orthodox line: individuals who questioned mask mandates and refused Covid vaccines. And in the US there was some pushback by figures in the media — and they were mostly associated with the political right.

            When President Donald Trump came out in support of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid, he was ridiculed by defenders of orthodoxy. Trump’s role may have contributed to the assumption that questioning official medical views was the preserve of the right. Later, when there were rallies against lockdowns, the media pointed to the presence of fascists, dismissing the entire movement as right-wing, indeed lunatics. Today much of the US left lacks a strong anti-corporate thrust.

Moral foundations

Given that the right has traditionally supported big business, the next question is why certain figures spoke out in defiance of Covid orthodoxy. I don’t know the answer. One possibility relates to the difference in values between conservatives and liberals, as elucidated by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues. According to Haidt, liberals are more likely to prioritise care, fairness and liberty. Care is also a conservative value, but not to such a high level. During the pandemic, control measures like lockdowns could resonate with liberals’ care impulses. But what happened to liberty, another moral foundation prized by liberals?

            Although looking at values is intriguing, I don’t think it provides that much of an explanation, because each value can be interpreted differently. What about care for those adversely affected by lockdowns or vaccinations?

Polarisation

Here’s another possibility. When a few individuals identified with the right challenged Covid orthodoxy, it became convenient to tar all critics as right-wing. After this, the highly polarised state of US politics — see Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized — took over. If some individuals seen as right-wing challenged pandemic rules, liberals instinctively adhered more strongly to them, backing their views by stigmatising those on what became the other side. How much this was about Trump and how much about political views deserves investigation.

            What then of the mass media and social media platforms? Why did they line up with Covid orthodoxy, taking measures to silence critics? Does this mean they don’t want to be associated with the right? Maybe not. Maybe they just went along with the dominant perspective, which is nearly always pro-big-business.

            In looking at this issue, it’s useful to note that few individuals were highly informed about the evidence and arguments. Not many members of the public studied scientific papers on both sides of contentious issues like lockdowns, masks and vaccines. Most followed the lead of authorities, most commonly dominant medical and government authorities, but in some cases counter-authorities, scientists and public figures who questioned the dominant view.

Scientific controversies

For decades, I’ve been studying scientific controversies, for example over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation and vaccination. There is little qualitatively new about Covid controversies. Whenever experts line up with the most powerful groups with vested interests — governments, corporations or professions — there are attempts to suppress expert critics of the dominant view. That’s just what happened with Covid. The main difference is the tarring of Covid critics as right-wing. Is there any precedent for that?

            Consider social movements in US history. Predictably, the labour movement has been seen to be on the left, because that’s how left and right are conceptualised. But what about movements not obviously connected to the labour-capital framework? The peace movement has been treated as left-wing, and so has the civil rights movement.

            Perhaps more related to Covid is the environmental movement. Historically, you might think it aligns more naturally with conservative politics, because conservation — protection of the natural environment — is about the preservation of traditional values. This was indeed a strand of the environmental movement, at least until the 1960s, when environmentalism became associated with radicalism. Paradoxically, resisting changes in long-standing relationships became seen as radical, whereas accepting radical change caused by industrialism was seen as a conservative value.

Fluoridation

Of all the issues I’ve studied, the one with the most parallels with Covid politics is fluoridation, the adding of fluoride to water supplies to reduce tooth decay in children. Studied in the 1940s and promoted by the US Public Health Service beginning in the 1950s, fluoridation was pushed mainly by campaigners in the dental profession and governments. And there was opposition.

            How might fluoridation line up on a left-right political spectrum? It’s not immediately obvious. Although some companies stand to make money from fluoridation, it’s not a big money-spinner. One important industrial connection is with sugary-food manufacturers: dietary sugar contributes to tooth decay, so it’s convenient to instead blame a lack of fluoride. Another connection is with the aluminium industry, which generates toxic fluoride wastes: fluoride being seen as beneficial takes the pressure off industrial polluters. Given these vested interests, you might think that anti-fluoridationism would be seen as left-wing.

            But no, there was another factor. Fluoridation was promoted by governments, and in the US this triggered opposition by some right-wing groups, including the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan.

The American Dental Association used this to link anti-fluoridationists with right-wing extremists (and with those labelled health nuts), and this association stuck despite the lack of an obvious tie with conservative politics.

         If fluoridation had been initiated twenty years later, after the rise of the environmental movement, it’s possible that fluoride would have been seen primarily as a pollutant to be opposed. In this alternative history, anti-fluoridationism might have been painted as left-wing rather than right-wing. The implication is that categorising issues politically can depend on the times, rather than being inherent in the issue.


This page is from a 1965 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association, introducing a dossier on opponents of fluoridation, including the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, various fringe groups and a few respectable doctors and scientists who were tarred by association.

Conclusion

Matt Taibbi asked, in essence, “In Covid times, where are the anti-censorship liberals?” In other words, why have figures on the right in the US taken the lead in opposing censorship? I started by questioning the assumption that, in the US, the left has an automatic affinity with free speech, noting that in wartime, the left and right are equally likely to support censorship.

            Another explanation for patterns is that groups defend their own free speech but not that of political rivals. Throughout the Cold War, anti-communism was dominant in the US, so leftists were prime targets for silencing. But that was decades ago, and on many issues the framework of labour-versus-capital provides limited insight.

            Furthermore, strangely, the left is no longer automatically suspicious of big business. During the pandemic, Big Pharma had the greatest stake in control measures, especially vaccination, and in silencing critics. Contrary to the usual assumption about political alignments, certain voices associated with conservative politics were most prominent in supporting free speech in the face of government and big tech censorship.

            It might be argued that stigmatising challengers to Covid orthodoxy as right-wing extremists was a convenient manoeuvre that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a country with highly polarised politics, issues that are not inherently left or right can nevertheless end up being identified with one position, and tribal tendencies accentuate the tendency.

            This explanation is speculative, and there are quite a few anomalies, for example left-wing voices defending free speech against Covid-related censorship. For deeper understanding, a more comprehensive historical and political analysis would be needed. In any case, whatever your preferred answer, Taibbi’s question is a good one.


Matt Taibbi

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Jungmin Choi, Sue Curry Jansen, Julia LeMonde, Susan Maret and Lorraine Pratley for valuable suggestions.

Comment by Sue Curry Jansen

I agree with much of what you say in this post. In my view, the counter-currents of contemporary U.S. censorship debates are mind-boggling. Left-Right, Liberal-Conservative hardly expresses it. The billionaire donors behind the scenes have captured both sides as political campaigns for any national office are insanely expensive with national media among the major beneficiaries of the largesse. The misnomer “populism” is attached to the polarization and the so-called culture wars keep the fires burning.

A recent book review I wrote comes close to identifying what I think is at stake. It is not whether speech is to be protected, but whose speech. The U.S. right wants to maintain the status quo ante by silencing the emergent voices of historically marginalized groups, banning books, controlling curricula and negating educators’ and librarians’ professional expertise and autonomy, funding extreme right-wing speakers on campuses in hopes of inciting violence that will backfire against the left, controlling women’s bodies, fighting gay and trans rights; while the left has imposed speech codes on campuses in attempts to peacefully integrate higher education and avoid sanctions from equal opportunity commissions. It has created feminist, ethnic, and gay studies courses or majors, avoided hosting speakers opposed to diversity/multiculturalism, and when possible influenced major media to give greater voice to historically marginalized groups, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. In so doing, it has played into the hands of the right as shown by these college free-speech rankings.

The solution, as most college administrators and librarians have affirmed, is freeing free speech: that is, modeling open, civil, debate in a search for truth. Unfortunately we are way past that. The mainstream U.S. press is in a similar bind as indicated by this thoughtful analysis by the editor of The New Republic.

Comment by Lorraine Pratley

I agree that “…groups with the power to censor do so against those who threaten their interests.” In the case of Covid, liberals closed ranks with the pharmaceutical industry because their views were aligned. The liberal mindset can be attributed to the nature of the educated middle classes, who wield social power through ideological influence in academia, media, public service, and government. Seeking a ‘rational’ and ‘inclusive’ society that reinforces their livelihood and status, they value their opinions as superior to the “uneducated masses”, many of whom look to outsider populists like Donald Trump. Hence the calls to restrict the speech of those they see as a threat to liberal society.

Taibbi’s confusion is somewhat naive. Even before Covid, liberals barely ever objected to the industry-funded model of scientific research in medicine, food and agriculture (bear in mind, even public ‘healthcare’ is merely state-subsidised Big Pharma-based medicine). Liberals often play a role in furthering corporate and imperialist interests, in collaboration with the Right, exemplified by their role in garnering public support for the racist Northern Territory intervention in 2007 ostensibly in order to protect children, and for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 under the pretext of liberating women. Liberals’ embrace of identity politics is a distraction from class politics and class-based solutions, both for the oppressed and the working class as a whole.

As for the organised Left, led by the union bureaucracy, it has long been co-opted by the pharmaceutical industry and the prevailing scientific research grant paradigm. Public sector white collar workers, who now represent a significant portion of the modern labour force, tend overwhelmingly to be hesitant to challenge dominant scientific paradigms. Indeed one in 16 working Australians is a registered (AHPRA) health professional, in addition to vast numbers in education, academia, and the public service. These sectors are also overrepresented in union density. These people, along with their union leaders, whether conscious of it or not, ended up favouring medical industry interests over human health.

Deepfakes: an introduction

Using artificial intelligence, it is now possible to create fake photos and videos almost indistinguishable from real ones. These are called deepfakes.

To appreciate what’s involved with deepfakes, it’s useful to look at fake images historically. Consider the famous artist Michelangelo (1475-1564).

When he was young, Michelangelo created a sculpture in the style of ancient Romans, which his agent sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario. When the cardinal found out it wasn’t authentic, he blamed the agent and gave Michelangelo an opportunity that helped launch his career. Centuries later, the actual sculpture was lost; this is one in the same style.

            Forgeries have been a staple of the art world ever since. Talented painters can produce works in the style of past masters, and often only experts can tell the difference. For example, Charles Brooking (1723-1759) painted marine scenes. This sea battle, in the style of Brooking, was actually painted by Ken Perenyi, 232 years after Brooking died.

Photography

New technologies enable new forms of fakery. In the 1800s, photography became popular. In the mind of the public, photos were faithful representations of reality, and photographers took advantage of this assumption by manipulating images in various ways. This 1846 photo of four monks in Italy, the Capuchin Friars, was by Calvert Richard Jones.

Later, the negative was discovered. It shows a fifth figure (black in the negative) in the background, which has been removed.

Later still, it was discovered that the fifth figure was not another monk but a statue. Jones removed it to make the photo look less cluttered.

            Consider this photo of General Ulysses Grant, US civil war hero and later president.

            The photo is by Levin Corbin Handy, but it is not authentic. Produced in 1902, it was created from three 1864 photos. The head is from a photo of Grant standing.

The horse and torso are taken from a photo of a different general, Alexander McCook.

Finally, the background is from a photo of an internment camp.

Here’s a clue that the composite photo is not genuine: although Grant was a famous general, the soldiers in the background are paying no attention to him.

            The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin tried to rewrite history. He employed a crew to retouch photos, often to remove individuals conflicting with Stalin’s preferred storyline of his regime. For example, consider this photo with Stalin in the middle. On his left, next to the canal, is Nikola Yezhov, who oversaw Stalin’s purges.

Later, at Stalin’s command, Yezhov himself was killed. He was also removed from photos.

For several of these examples, I have drawn from the fabulous book Faking It by Mia Fineman. It is filled with faked photos and explanations of their social context, and counters the common assumption that photos are a more realistic portrayal of reality than paintings.

Retouching

Photos are routinely “retouched” to serve the desires of the photographer or the subject. With the arrival of the software program Photoshop, retouching became far easier. Retouching is regularly used to make people look younger and more attractive. Just putting “retouched photos” into a search engine gives numerous examples of faces before and after. Most of them show women, especially young women.

Some, though, are of men.

You might imagine that with the manipulation of images now being so easy, their credibility would be undermined, but a logical, rational assessment of a photo can be overwhelmed by an intuitive emotional response. When girls see pictures of models in magazines, billboards or social media, do they dismiss them saying “That isn’t real”? Or do they feel personally inadequate because they don’t measure up to a curated version of beauty?

Video manipulation

A video is basically a sequence of photograph-like images, presented fast enough to give the impression of movement. It is technically possible to retouch a video by retouching each of the images, but that is labour-intensive. There are easier ways to fool people, especially people who are ready to be fooled.

            One technique is to start with a real video and slow it down. The sound will also be slowed down, making it lower in pitch, but there is software to restore the original pitch. Consider a video of Nancy Pelosi, formerly speaker of the US House of Representatives.

An editor slowed down a video of Pelosi speaking, so she sounds as if she is drunk or disabled. This manipulated video was widely circulated, finding a ready uptake among those who disliked Pelosi’s politics.

Exposé of the manipulated Pelosi video

Another technique is to splice together separate videos, giving the impression that they are part of the same event. Consider a video of Dwayne Johnson, known as the Rock, seeming to serenade Hillary Clinton.

Video of the Rock singing to Hillary

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the segments showing Clinton are from a different event than the one where the Rock was singing. This type of video is called a shallowfake. It does not require advanced technology. Despite its obvious flaws, this particular shallowfake was widely circulated and, according to comments on YouTube, many viewers thought is was genuine. These viewers would have been confused when, during the 2016 US presidential election, the Rock came out in support of Clinton.

AI

Artificial intelligence or AI is the ability of a machine to do things usually thought to require human intelligence. In recent years, AI capacities have greatly increased. AI can be installed in human-like robots, as in the case of Sophia, who became a citizen of Saudi Arabia in 2016.

One application of AI is chatbots, several of which have been released, most famously ChatGPT. Other applications include autonomous weapons, facial recognition, social media analysis — and deepfakes.

Imagine pitting an art expert against a forger. The art expert develops sophisticated techniques to distinguish a genuine original from a forgery, like the Ken Perenyi painting in the style of Charles Brooking.

But the forger learns about art-expert techniques and develops ways to produce more convincing fakes.

As this contest continues, both the art expert and the forger become more skilled, and the forgeries become ever better, detectable only by experts, and sometimes fooling them.

Deepfakes

A deepfake is an AI-created image showing something that didn’t happen. It can be a photo or video. One way to create a deepfake is by using a “generative adversarial network” or GAN.

Two AI programs are pitted against each other, analogously to the art expert versus the forger. One AI program tries to produce a convincing fake and the other program tries to distinguish the fake from a genuine image. Unlike the art expert and forger, these AI programs can operate at great speeds, so the contest quickly results in a fake image that is hard to distinguish from a genuine article.

            Consider this photo.

It was produced by a GAN, and is not an actual photo or even a modified photo. It was created, essentially, out of nothing. If you go to the website http://this-person-does-not-exist.com, you can see a GAN in action. When you refresh the page, within seconds the GAN produces a new face of someone who never existed. This is the digital equivalent of rapid-fire fake artistry in action, with realistic faces produced before your eyes.

This technology can also be used to create videos, for example this video of former US president Barack Obama seeming to say things he never actually said. Someone else speaks, and AI creates Obama’s face and voice saying those words, with appropriate accents and facial expressions.

Deepfake video of Obama speaking

Sadly, most deepfakes so far are porn. Using actual video of an actor speaking, AI is trained to be able to reproduce the actor’s face and position it on someone else’s body. One popular target is Scarlett Johansson.

Online there are hundreds of videos in which a porn star’s face is replaced by Johansson’s face, so it seems like Johansson is participating in the pornographic activities. The men who create these deepfake porn videos of course do not seek Johansson’s permission, nor the permission of the porn stars whose faces are replaced by Johansson’s.

Only a few years ago, considerable skill was needed to create convincing video deepfakes, but the technology has advanced so much that less know-how is required. This means that non-celebrities are more likely to be targeted, nearly all of whom are women. One woman subject to deepfake porn was Noelle Martin. She fought back, becoming a law reform activist.

Deepfakes can also be used for political purposes, such as a fake video of Zelensky calling on Ukrainian troops to surrender.

It didn’t have much of an impact; it lacked realism and credibility. But more sophisticated political deepfakes are possible.

Benefits

Before raising the alarm about deepfakes, it’s important to recognise their possible benefits. For educational purposes, deepfakes can reproduce historical events, let’s say Hitler talking to his generals, providing greater understanding. Individuals who lose their voice, or who are seriously disfigured, might use deepfakes to communicate, with their actual words conveyed by a simulated version of themselves.

            Another possibility is to enable a person to convey the same message in different languages, including ones they cannot speak. Manoj Tiwari, an Indian politician, authorised deepfakes of himself speaking in several different languages.

In this advertisement raising awareness about malaria, famous British footballer David Beckham seems to be speaking in nine different languages.

What distinguishes positive uses of deepfakes from damaging uses? A key consideration is consent. Manoj Tiwari and David Beckham agreed to the production of videos showing them speaking in languages they did not know, whereas Scarlett Johanssen and Noelle Martin did not consent to being in deepfake porn.

But what about those who are dead? We may not care about obtaining permission from Hitler and his generals, but would you be pleased if, after you died, a deepfake of you was used in a film? It might depend on the film or the role. Maybe it would be okay if your face replaced that of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

On the other hand, you might not be pleased for your face to replace that of actor Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

Implications

With the advent of technology that makes it easy to make deepfakes, many people are potentially at risk. Is there a video online of you speaking for a minute or more? If so, this video could be used to make a deepfake video. Even a single photo, in someone else’s hands, can be used to create a deepfake photo. If the deepfake shows you in a compromising situation, it could be used for blackmail or humiliation. If you’re not a celebrity or don’t play a prominent role in some enterprise, your risk of being targeted is probably low. But Noelle Martin’s experience shows anyone can be attacked. So maybe you should prepare, just in case.

There’s another implication. As more people become aware of deepfakes, genuine photos and videos may be questioned, claimed to be deepfakes. This is especially important for groups trying to expose human rights violations, using images to raise awareness and stop harmful practices, like New Tactics in Human Rights and Witness. If pictures of atrocities can be dismissed as fakes, the efforts of human rights campaigners will be more difficult. We need to be prepared for loss of trust.

Some sources

There is a lot of writing about deepfakes. Much of it is highly technical. Even social analyses are mostly found in academic journals. The most entertaining treatment I’ve found is the book Trust No One by journalist Michael Grothaus, who was able to contact some of the producers of deepfake porn, hearing their side of the story.

For a scholarly yet accessible treatment, see Graham Meikle’s book Deepfakes. Meikle’s discussion led me to Mia Fineman’s book Faking It, about fake photography before Photoshop.

If you look online, there are ever more clever videos showing the power of deepfake technology, some of them providing warnings about implications. Here are a few that I found revealing and entertaining.

Former US president Richard Nixon reads a script prepared for him to use if the first men on the moon had not come back. Fortunately, they returned safely, but with this deepfake we can see what the world would have seen if history had been different.

Deepfake of Kim Joo-Ha, news anchor for Korean TV channel MBN.

This is not Morgan Freeman.

What if world leaders imagined living in peace?

I’m especially interested in what peace and human rights activists should be doing to prepare for a future in which deepfakes are more common, and potentially used against them. Let me know if you have suggestions.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

A Covid cure?

Could ivermectin have ended the pandemic?

The official story on ivermectin. It’s a horse dewormer. There’s no evidence that it’s effective for treating Covid. It’s dangerous. The only people advocating it are loony right-wingers, conspiracy theorists. It should not be used. Only trust medical authorities. They say it’s no good.

            Ivermectin is toxic in another way: anyone who thinks it should be taken seriously as a possible treatment for Covid is suspect. They are deluded. In fact, just by discussing ivermectin, they harm public health by raising doubts about health authorities.

            So by treating positive claims about ivermectin seriously, I’m taking a risk of contributing to the spread of dangerous misinformation.

            Okay, I’m taking the risk. I read The War on Ivermectin by critical-care physician Pierre Kory, and I’m going to say a bit about the book. Kory tells a story so contrary to the official line that it is like entering an alternative reality, one in which health authorities turned away from a cheap, safe drug that could have ended the pandemic and saved millions of lives, indeed a drug that did save millions of lives in parts of the world where it was used extensively.

The Kory story

Medical authorities and the mass media denounced Kory when he publicly challenged the official Covid line, but for many he is a hero, fighting the establishment. I haven’t read all the research papers addressing ivermectin and other treatments for Covid, so I’m not proposing to offer an authoritative evaluation of Kory’s claims. Instead, I will just summarise some of his views and, based on my study of the politics of medicine, comment on whether I think these views are outlandish — or plausible. If Kory’s views are potentially correct, the attack on ivermectin may have enabled one of the greatest medical disasters ever.

            Kory was an emergency care physician, working in the US, handling the most acute cases in crisis conditions. Before Covid hit, he was involved in using intravenous vitamin C for sepsis, following the finding by Paul Marik, a leading figure in critical-care medicine. Discovering an effective treatment is one thing.


Paul Marik

More difficult is convincing practitioners and authorities, and Kory helped win allies to promote intravenous vitamin C.

            In this story, there’s something important to remember later. Doctors regularly prescribe drugs “off-label” when a drug is approved for one condition but is found useful for others. It’s not only legal to prescribe drugs off-label, it’s quite common. For example, doctors might note that a drug approved for heart problems is effective against migraines and prescribe it for migraine years before regulatory approval.

            At the beginning of the pandemic, Kory was one of many doctors putting heart and soul into treating patients on the frontlines, conferring with doctors internationally, learning everything he could about Covid, and especially searching for treatments. He helped form a group called the Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care (FLCCC) Alliance. The group posted a protocol for early treatment of Covid using methylprednisolone, vitamin C, thiamine, heparin, melatonin, zinc and vitamin D. Doctors using the protocol had great results, but the medical establishment and mass media showed no interest.

“The first six months of the FLCCC [in 2020] certainly resulted in better outcomes for many patients, but little did we know that we were teetering on the brink of a revolution. Paul was about to identify ivermectin, an inexpensive, incredibly safe, generic, repurposed drug as an immensely effective and potent therapy against SARS-CoV2. It was a discovery that could and should have saved lives and ended the pandemic — if not for one major problem: Repurposed drugs like ivermectin are generally off-patent, which means the manufacturer has lost exclusive marketing rights. In other words, competitors can make and sell dirt-cheap versions.” (p. 90)

            To cut a long story short, there was more and more evidence that ivermectin was effective against Covid, so effective that it was almost a miracle cure when used early and with strong enough dosages. Patients who were extremely sick recovered quickly. And there was other information. Places where ivermectin was introduced population-wide saw dramatic falls in Covid morbidity and mortality.

Opposition

Many medical authorities, it seemed, didn’t want to know. Rather than enthusiastically exploring possibilities for using and studying ivermectin, some hospital administrators refused to allow it to be used. A common argument was that the drug shouldn’t be offered until it had been proven effective in randomised controlled trials (RCTs).

            Kory kept a record of evidence, and co-authored a paper showing ivermectin’s effectiveness, including evidence from RCTs. He thought the evidence was overwhelming, and that ivermectin was so effective against Covid that it would end the pandemic then and there.

            The opposition grew stronger. There was hostile media coverage and official statements condemning ivermectin. Kory and others were dismissed from their positions. There was a publicity campaign to discredit ivermectin, introducing the label “horse dewormer.”

            Pharmaceutical companies ran their own RCTs, which showed limited benefits from ivermectin. Kory and others examined these studies and discovered serious flaws. For example, the dosages of ivermectin used were too small, or treatment was started too late. However, each negative RCT received saturation media coverage, while critiques of these studies, and RCTs supporting ivermectin, were ignored by the media.

            What was going on? For Kory, this was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. Here was a cheap, safe drug that seemed to work amazingly well against Covid, yet it was attacked, and so were those who advocated it. It even got to the stage that when doctors prescribed ivermectin for patients, some pharmacists refused to fill their orders, something Kory had never encountered in his career.

            When hospital administrators refused to allow patients to access ivermectin, an attorney named Ralph Lorigo took them to court, winning half the time. Kory reports that of 40 cases that Lorigo won, only 2 of the patients he represented died; of the 40 cases he lost, 39 of the patients died.

            The easiest explanation for the attack on ivermectin was that big pharma shaped the entire response to the pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies stood to make billions of dollars from expensive drugs and from vaccines. This massive income stream was in jeopardy if there was a cheap and safe treatment, so it had to be discredited. Big pharma has penetrated hospitals, medical associations, governments, media and tech companies, all of which acted to shut down ivermectin and its advocates.

A revealing table

One table in the book especially impressed me. It lists all the treatments for Covid ranked by treatment benefit. Here I only list a few illustrative items from the table.

ivermectin, 62%, 95 studies, $1
Casirivimab/imdevimab, 52%, 27 studies, $2100
Bamlanivimab/etesevimab, 51%, 15 studies, $1250
diet, 48%, 24 studies, $0
vitamin D, 36%, 109 studies, $1
Paxlovid, 34%, 28 studies, $529

The percentage figures indicate the estimated treatment benefit, 62% for ivermectin (higher is better). The next figure is the number of studies on which the benefit estimates are based, 95 for ivermectin. The final figure is the cost of a full course of treatment. Now guess which items from this list were recommended by the US government during the pandemic. Yep: Casirivimab/imdevimab, Bamlanivimab/etesevimab and Paxlovid. The same pattern holds for the full table. Only high-priced therapies were recommended, with one exception, acetaminophen, whose treatment benefit is negative, -28%.

Is it plausible?

The War on Ivermectin is filled with information, though with two weaknesses: there is no index and all the references are in the form of URLs. Even so, it is not hard to track down sources for most of the points covered.

            The book is also Kory’s personal story, well told in part due to co-author Jenna McCarthy. It is filled with Kory’s rage and anguish: his rage at the forces blocking a treatment for Covid and his anguish over the people who died unnecessarily.


Jenna McCarthy

            But are Kory’s central claims plausible? I haven’t studied the original articles in medical journals, for example to assess Kory’s claim that RCTs showing ivermectin is ineffective were flawed. However, I can assess some of the general claims that underpin his arguments. These are shocking enough.

1. Big pharma corruption To believe that Kory might be right, it is necessary to accept that large pharmaceutical companies are so corrupt and unethical that they will promote their own products and attack cheap alternatives at the expense of large numbers of lives. Some people just can’t accept this, but it’s plausible to me. One revealing bit of evidence is that many of the companies have been fined billions of dollars for illegal actions. Kory cites a book by Peter Gøtzsche, Deadly Medicine and Organised Crime.

Gøtzsche gives extensive documentation of corrupt behaviour by big pharma, and it is eye-opening. I read it and wrote a blog post about it. I had also read Sergio Sismondo’s book Ghost-managed Medicine, which offers a close-up account of big-pharma manipulations, and was so impressed that I wrote a review of it. With this background, believing there could be more criminal behaviour during the pandemic is not a stretch.

2. Fiddling RCTs Kory alleges that six important randomised controlled trials of ivermectin were fudged to give negative results. It is shocking to imagine that companies, and the researchers who work for them, would traduce scientific principles to obtain a desired result. This is shocking for anyone who believes scientists operate on a higher ethical plane than other mortals, but it was not surprising to me, having studied bias in science since the 1970s.

            Ben Goldacre wrote a book, Bad Pharma, in which he described the many ways in which companies manipulate research to give desired results. Reading Bad Pharma, and other similar accounts, gives reason to believe pharma-run ivermectin RCTs might have been fiddled.

3. Mass media partisanship Kory says the US mass media trumpeted every pharma RCT showing ivermectin was ineffective, while ignoring evidence that it is effective. How could the mass media — including prestigious outlets such as the New York Times — be so one-sided? This was no surprise to me. Critiques of the mass media abound, especially of the US mass media. For several years, there was even a magazine titled Lies of Our Times — I subscribed to it —with critical analyses of stories (and the absence of stories) in the New York Times and other US media. You can also turn to Project Censored for media analysis.

            Given the power of the pharmaceutical industry, with its vast profits and sway over the media, mass media partisanship during the pandemic was only to be expected.

4. Censorship Kory tells about having YouTube videos taken down and a host of other actions taken to silence anyone questioning the government line on Covid. There is a large body of evidence for this sort of censorship. I wrote about it, and a group of us reported on interviews with scientists and doctors who were censored. With the release of the Twitter files, more evidence has become available. Kory’s stories of being censored are typical features of this wider picture.

5. Neglect of generic drugs There is plenty of evidence for the neglect of cheap alternatives to drugs. One example is exercise as a way of addressing depression. Many studies show that exercise is just as effective against mild and moderate depression as antidepressants, and furthermore has beneficial side-effects — physical health — rather than negative ones. Yet this finding, rather than being trumpeted by the media and in medical circles, receives relatively little attention. Initially during the pandemic, evidence for the effectiveness of ivermectin was ignored. As Kory recounts, a full-scale attack began when ivermectin began to gain attention.

6. Political retractions When a scientific paper is exposed as fraudulent, for example based on manufactured data, journal editors may withdraw it. It is “retracted” and usually this means it is discredited. Just being wrong is not considered a sufficient reason for retraction, because many if not most scientific papers are wrong. However, in recent years, there has emerged a new sort of retraction, not because of fraud or gross error but because of hostility towards a paper based on disagreement with its findings. Sometimes there is a pretext for such retractions, such as conflict of interest, but these sorts of retractions are quite different from the usual sort. Kory’s claim that retractions of papers supporting ivermectin were unwarranted is compatible with evidence for “political retractions.”

7. Guilt by association One of the most effective attacks on ivermectin was to label it a horse dewormer. This is an example of guilt by association, in which a person or thing is stigmatised by being linked to something with negative connotations. Another example is claiming that scientists advocating ivermectin are right-wing. Kory says he and most of his FLCCC colleagues are liberals politically, yet the only media willing to report on their findings were identified as right-wing. By this association, Kory thus was tarred as right-wing. Ivermectin was caught in US left-right political polarisation.

Conclusion

The War on Ivermectin presents a shocking story. If we are to believe Kory and others in FLCCC, the actions of the pharmaceutical company and its allies — including medical authorities, governments and tech companies — have allowed the unnecessary deaths of millions of people, by discrediting the use of a cheap, safe and effective treatment for Covid, a treatment that could have stopped the pandemic in its tracks.

            I examined general claims underlying Kory’s arguments, for example that pharmaceutical companies are capable of corrupt actions on a large scale. To the extent that Kory’s story seems shocking, it is because such general claims are shocking, yet for every one of them there are ample precedents. In short, Kory’s arguments should not be dismissed out of hand simply because they clash with widespread beliefs, for example that decisions by medical authorities are always in the public interest. Instead, it is worth the effort to independently assess Kory’s claims carefully and systematically. Millions of lives were at stake with Covid, and millions more may be at risk in future pandemics.

            It might seem that Kory is proposing there is a giant conspiracy to serve big-pharma profits, but there is another way of thinking about the story.

The belief system in which salvation from Covid is provided by vaccines and expensive drugs can be likened to a paradigm, a way of understanding the disease and how to respond to it that shapes research priorities and policies. If you believe that only vaccines and proprietary drugs can be trusted and that “natural” remedies are inherently suspect, then claims about the benefits of ivermectin can be ignored, as they are bound to be bogus or, worse, they may discourage people from being vaccinated. This belief system serves the interests of big pharma, but it does not mean those who subscribe to it are consciously conspiring to hide the truth.

            Kory was previously an uncritical believer in the standard view of medicine. Pursuing the wellbeing of his patients led him into an alternative reality in which everything he thought he knew about medicine was turned on its head. He has provided his story so readers can decide whether to venture into this alternative reality.


Pierre Kory

            There is much more to The War on Ivermectin than I’ve been able to cover here, including hospital power plays, mass media bias and the politics of vaccination. One highlight is Kory’s account of the founding and operation of FLCCC in the face of powerful opposition. If you plan to help organise a challenge to a ruthless opponent during an emergency, you can learn a lot from the FLCCC’s methods and efforts. Just be prepared to lose your job and be labelled a conspiracy theorist.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Kelly Gates, Kurtis Hagen, Anneleis Humphries, Julia LeMonde, Susan Maret and Erin Twyford for helpful comments. None of them necessarily agree with Kory’s views or my own.

The technology of occupation

What should we think about the Israeli government and companies selling weapons to repressive governments?

Before I get to this question, let me tell you a bit about Steve Wright. He was amazing. For years, he worked at the Omega Research Foundation in Manchester, which investigates the production and trade in military and police technologies. Steve would regularly visit security fairs. These “fairs” are like arms fairs where weapons manufacturers exhibit their products to potential buyers from around the world. At security fairs, the products for sale include surveillance equipment, leg irons and thumb cuffs, sound cannons, and instruments used for torture such as electroshock batons and stun belts.

Steve would visit these fairs, pretending he was a potential buyer, chat up staff at company stalls, collect brochures and covertly take photos. This was a risky activity, especially for fairs in repressive states like Turkey. Steve and I began corresponding in the 1980s. Once, after visiting me in Australia and before leaving for a security fair in China, he left behind all evidence that might indicate his real intentions.


Steve Wright

After getting back home to Britain, Steve would provide relevant information to human rights groups like Amnesty International, which ran an anti-torture campaign. If, for example, he found German equipment being used for surveillance or torture in some other country, he would notify German human rights groups. Most companies and governments keep quiet about their trade in technologies used to repress dissent. Sometimes Steve would write articles using a pseudonym.

Sadly, Steve died in 2019. I thought of him and his work when reading a new book by Antony Loewenstein titled The Palestine Laboratory. The subtitle of the book shows the connection: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation around the World. Loewenstein tells a shocking story, backed up with comprehensive referencing.

Israeli military exports

The Israeli government and Israeli companies are major producers and exporters of military equipment and training. There’s nothing all that special about being involved in arms manufacture and sales. After all, this is a huge global enterprise, with the United States, Russia, France, China and Germany being the biggest exporters. What’s surprising is that Israel, with a fairly small population, punches far above its weight — and in the way it pursues arms sales.

Loewenstein documents how Israeli companies export arms to just about any country in the world, including ones whose governments are highly repressive, known for gross human rights abuses. He writes, “The sheer number of dictatorships with whom Israel has had relations is staggering,” and goes on to discuss connections with South Africa under apartheid, Iran under the Shah, Indonesia under Suharto, Romania, Haiti, Paraguay, Nicaragua and others. Among the recipients of Israeli arms are regimes that are officially hostile to Israel, and regimes that have persecuted Jews. You can open just about any page of the book and find damning material. For example, during the dictatorship in Argentina,

“The military junta tortured Jews in its prisons, and declassified documents show that Israel did not seem to care.
Israel knew about the repression from the beginning, but did not express any opposition because it viewed its agenda of getting Argentinian support for its West Bank occupation as more important. It claimed that weapons sales to the junta would help Argentinian Jews, but this was a feeble excuse. Blatant anti-Semitism was ubiquitous across Argentina, special torture techniques were reserved for Jewish women, and Argentinian concentration camps were filled with pictures of Hitler and Nazi emblems.” (p. 38)


Members of  Madres de Plaza Mayo hold photos of victims who were “disappeared” during Argentina’s dictatorship.

It seems that Israeli arms export is not limited by any ethical barriers. This could serve as an example of realpolitik, which means making decisions based on the interests of the state, disregarding morality. The Israeli government uses arms sales as a means of cultivating support among governments throughout the world, despite the use of the weapons against populations. This is common internationally but Israeli leaders seem to have taken it to an extreme level.


Rubble in Gaza after Israeli shelling

That is shocking enough, but there’s another crucial element of Israeli arms sales. A key selling point is that the arms have been “battle-tested.” In Palestine. For decades, the Israeli military has been running operations against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. These are one-sided affairs, with the numbers of deaths and injuries of Palestinians vastly outnumbering those of Israelis. Perhaps this too is a selling point, because many of the customers of Israeli weaponry face no external threats, only internal opposition. The title of Loewenstein’s book, The Palestine Laboratory, references the value to Israeli weapons exporters of the desirable attribute “battle-tested.”

Israeli surveillance exports

But it’s not just weapons. Israeli firms are leading producers of surveillance technology such as facial recognition and spyware for listening in on people’s conversations.

One of the most significant exports is software called Pegasus, which can be used to extract information from the phones of targets. Any government wanting to monitor dissidents is keen to intercept phone communications, especially when they are encrypted. Israeli firm NSO has sold Pegasus to a large number of buyers, including some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

In Togo,

“ … the regime could read activists’ private WhatsApp messages. Arrests and torture were based on details contained in these conversations. How that had occurred was revealed in a 2018 report by Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity research group, after they uncovered the presence of Israeli company NSO Group Pegasus spyware on activists’ smartphones, a tool that allows the complete capture of all data on the device. It was bought from NSO by the regime in 2016.” (p. 163)

The Israeli government sometimes disowns responsibility, saying it does not control the activities of private firms. Loewenstein provides information to the contrary, showing that surveillance exporting companies are tightly linked to the Israeli government’s security operations.

Once again, Palestine is a selling point. Surveillance of Palestinians, in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and beyond, is pervasive. It occurs via face recognition technology and monitoring of electronic communication, among other means, and enables the creation of detailed dossiers on numerous individuals.

Border control

As well as exporting arms, Israel provides a different sort of export: a model of what Loewenstein calls ethnonationalism, a combination of policies and beliefs that support a national group at the expense of outsiders. For Israeli policy-makers, the outsiders are Palestinians. For the European Union, they are asylum seekers fleeing wars and oppression in Africa and elsewhere. For the United States, they are asylum seekers from Central America.

The ethnonationalist response to undesired peoples is to put up barriers. That includes walls, such as the one in Palestine.

It also includes weapons.

“At the Evros land border with Turkey, Greece uses deafening long-range sound cannons to scare refugees. Although only the size of a small TV set, it emits sounds as loud as an airplane or shotgun blasted right next to the ear. It can cause permanent hearing damage. Greece purchased the devices from US company Genasys, and they have been deployed by law enforcement officers around the world.” (p. 112)

This example reminded me of Steve’s work. In “Looming struggles over technology for border control,” we wrote, in the abstract,

“New technologies under development, capable of inflicting pain on masses of people, could be used for border control against asylum seekers. … We focus on taser anti-personnel mines, [and] also outline several other types of ‘non-lethal’ technology that could be used for border control and raise human rights concerns: high-powered microwaves; armed robots; wireless tasers; acoustic devices/vortex rings; ionizing and pulsed energy lasers; chemical calmatives, convulsants, bioregulators and malodurants. Whether all these possible border technologies will be implemented is a matter for speculation, but their serious human rights implications warrant advance scrutiny.”

It seems Israeli exporters are now at the forefront of border-control technology. It comes along with an endorsement that might be called “occupation-tested.”

Controlling the narrative

Just when you think Loewenstein has provided sufficient damning material, there’s more. Israeli government actions have led to concern not just among the Palestinians but more widely, in international circles, as exemplified in the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to support Palestinian rights. Israeli exports of weapons and surveillance technology serve to counter this by winning diplomatic support from autocratic regimes. There’s another dimension: discrediting and harassing critics.

An important battleground is the media, both mass media and social media. Prominent critics can expect to be criticised online, sometimes harassed. Loewenstein documents the attempts by supporters of the Israeli government to censor or discredit critics.

“When Palestinian homes in the occupied East Jerusalem area of Sheikh Jarrah were slated for removal by Israel in April 2021, activists found that posts with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah were disappearing from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Twitter accounts were suspended and Facebook posts removed. Graphic warning labels were placed on text-only Instagram posts and live streams from Sheikh Jarrah were made inaccessible.” (p. 183)

This illustrates how Western tech companies serve Israeli government agendas.

A key rhetorical technique is to label any criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic, in other words as anti-Jewish. This is a powerful technique because there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in the world today, following a long history of hostility to Jews, including pogroms and, most notoriously, the Holocaust, in which Nazis systematically murdered millions of Jews during World War II. This history is important in several ways. It provides a rationale for defending a Jewish state. It generates sympathy for Jews as victims of one of the most horrendous crimes in history. And it serves as a way to associate any criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.

This raises a more general issue. When a group is subject to a crime, generating sympathy, at what point does it become acceptable to criticise the group for its own actions? In Rwanda, there was a genocide in 1994 targeting the Tutsi minority population. It was only brought to an end by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, which defeated the Rwandan government that was leading the genocide. Paul Kagame, commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has been president since 2000; it is more difficult to criticise his government because of what was done to the Tutsis.

Managing outrage

Steve and I collaborated on an article examining the tactics associated with the export and use of torture technology. The same sorts of tactics are readily observable in relation to Israeli technology exports. Consider some methods to reduce public outrage over these exports, and counter-methods to increase outrage.

1. Cover-up and exposure. The Israeli government and companies operate behind the scenes as much as possible, so few members of the public know about their production and trade in weapons and surveillance equipment. Loewenstein’s book is a prime example of the counter to cover-up: documenting the exports.

2. Devaluation and validation. The Israeli government, and many Israelis, denigrate Palestinians, for example labelling them terrorists, and treating them as a subject people by extensive surveillance, destruction of property and attacks. Critics of the government are called anti-Semitic. In contrast, Loewenstein and others treat Palestinian human rights as important as anyone else’s.

3. Interpretation struggles. The Israeli government regularly lies about its military exports and, when there are abuses, blames companies. Loewenstein exposes lies and the falsity of blaming companies. He points out double standards internationally, for example Western governments’ condemnation of Russian attacks that kill Ukrainian civilians but silence about Israeli attacks that kill Palestinian civilians.

4. Intimidation and resistance. Defenders of the Israeli government threaten and harass critics. Some of these critics persist despite attacks. Loewenstein is one of them.

Conclusion

The Palestine Laboratory is a powerful exposé of the Israeli arms and surveillance export industry. It is relentless in providing facts and figures about unsavoury deals, showing Israeli leaders as seemingly indifferent to the harmful uses of its technology exports, even against Jews in other countries, so long as this serves the interests of the Israeli state.


Antony Loewenstein

Loewenstein’s exposé is powerful but can also be demoralising. On a positive note, he reports on the efforts of a range of critics of Israeli policies. For greater hope, you can turn to accounts of Palestinian resistance, especially nonviolent resistance, for example Souad Dajani’s Eyes without Country, Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby’s Popular Protest in Palestine, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta’s Refusing to be Enemies, and Mary Elizabeth King’s A Quiet Revolution.

Despite Israeli government efforts to build international support, Loewenstein reports that public opinion in much of the world is turning against it due to awareness of the oppression of Palestinians, which is increasingly seen as a form of apartheid. How long Israeli military exports can continue to win friends among rulers worldwide and stave off a reckoning over human rights abuses remains to be seen.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anita Johnson, Olga Kuchinskaya and Andrew Rigby for valuable comments.

The narrow corridors of US power

A new documentary film, “The corridors of power,” portrays how US government decision-makers agonised over what to do about genocide. It also shows, unwittingly, their narrow perspective.

At the Sydney Film Festival in June this year, I saw a new film, “The corridors of power.” It is about human rights violations and US policymakers, showing how they responded — or didn’t. The background was World War II. The Allies had reliable evidence that the Nazis were undertaking genocide against the Jews, now known as the Holocaust, but did nothing about it, not even bombing rail lines conveying Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps.

The filmmakers don’t try to explain this but present it as the motivation for the United Nations genocide convention, passed soon after the war. The slogan was “Never again.” Never again should the world — meaning governments — be bystanders to genocide.

            The film focuses on events following the end of the Cold War in 1989. It features high-level policy-making discussions under US presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The film is built around interviews with high-level players in the decision-making process, plus photos and videos of the victims of massacres and genocides. There is vintage footage of presidential speeches, UN Security Council meetings, and meetings of world leaders.

            The filmmakers were able to obtain interviews with many high-level figures and their advisers. A few, like Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, are prominent public figures. Others are well-known to those who follow US foreign affairs, like Madeleine Albright, George Moose, George Schultz and Paul Wolfowitz.


Colin Powell

            As the film presents it, the end of the Cold War unleashed ethnic warfare in former Yugoslavia, and in 1992 there was a war in Bosnia with so-called “ethnic cleansing,” which included forced relocation by ethnicity plus much killing. For US policymakers, the question was “What to do?” If this was genocide, then by the Genocide Convention there was a responsibility to do something about it.

            Next was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which a half million or more members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group were massacred in just a hundred days. Rather than intervening, Western governments withdrew their citizens and then the United Nations withdrew most of its peacekeeping force.


Roméo Dallaire was head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the genocide

            The film continues with the story of Serbian massacres in Srebrenica and Kosovo, the NATO bombing of Serbia, 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama came to office with a human rights rhetoric. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 before he had done anything for peace. The film tells of the advisers who helped with Obama’s Nobel lecture, including how it was carefully worded not to make definitive promises of action.


Barack Obama giving his Nobel address

            If the film could be said to have a central figure, it is Samantha Power. She had direct experience with US policymaking and wrote a book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. Published in 2002, it is a scathing critique of US government policy in relation to genocide. She wrote, “The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred,” the only possible exception being the 1999 bombing of Serbia. She said that US politicians saw no political cost — namely, citizen protest — in doing nothing. I read the book when working on an article about the Rwandan genocide.

            Obama, before he ran for president, read Power’s book and sought her out for discussions. She joined his administration and became US ambassador to the UN, and was a persistent voice pushing for US government action against genocide and mass killing.

            In 2010 and 2011 there were uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt, overthrowing long-time dictators, and these inspired uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Syria. The governments of the US and European allies led a military attack in Libya to stop impending massacres, but then withdrew as fighting spread throughout the country.


Bombing of Libya, 2011

Chastened by this disastrous intervention, the next question was what to do about horrendous violence in Syria, including chemical weapons attacks. Obama initially supported US military intervention but then had second thoughts, and sought Congressional approval, which meant no intervention although the Syrian government, by using chemical weapons, had transgressed Obama’s “red line.” Through this time, Power was the voice arguing for doing something, with the argument that early intervention could prevent worse consequences later.

            “The corridors of power” is a long film and, with so much graphic footage of bombings and dead and mutilated bodies, is not easy to watch. For me, it was incredibly frustrating, because for decades I’ve studied these issues and I had a good idea of what was missing.

Nonviolent action

Throughout the film, there is no mention of nonviolent action. Over previous decades, there have been numerous dictatorships overthrown via people power — protests, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other methods — so it might be imagined that this sort of resistance could be supported by policymakers. Maybe some of them knew about it, but it doesn’t come through in the film.

            In Kosovo, there was a society-wide nonviolent struggle for a decade, but it was not supported by the US government, perhaps not even known about or understood by policymakers. Instead, the US government only took notice when an armed group in Kosovo took action.

            The Arab spring uprisings are discussed briefly, but without acknowledgement that in nearly every country — including Libya and Syria — the protests began largely peacefully. Policymakers seemed completely unaware of the dynamics of nonviolent action.

            The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia is covered, with no mention that a year later the authoritarian Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, was ousted from power following a massive nonviolent movement led by the group Otpor. US policymakers, as shown in the film, seem oblivious to people’s movements.


Otpor protest

Military intervention

The president and his advisers seemingly discussed only two options: do nothing or use military force. In only one case was a diplomatic resolution discussed. Not only were nonviolent alternatives ignored, so were arms embargoes, offering safe havens for defectors, and collecting documentation of human rights crimes.

            Imagine a different sort of intervention: providing information and training in nonviolent strategy and tactics. Of course, that might get out of hand, with skills used against US-backed rulers in places like Saudi Arabia.

US perspective

The film shows the world as seen from the perspective of US leaders, and this may lead viewers to see the world the same way. It’s all about whether and how to use US military power to fix other people’s problems. How different it would be to see discussions in a peace movement or in other countries. In the film, that others might see things differently only arose when joint operations were considered. Everything that happens seemingly is from a US government point of view. Policymakers regularly refer to “we,” taking for granted their identification with the US government.

Invisible conflicts

The plotline of the film follows the major international crises involving major human rights violations, as recognised by US policymakers. What it omits are massacres and genocides that don’t conform to the assumption that the US is the solution.

            In 1965-1966, there was a genocide in Indonesia, with up to a million people killed. It was an anti-communist purge, and the US government did nothing about it except aid the killers behind the scenes. So much for “never again.” In 1971, there was genocide in Bangladesh, with one to three million killed. Unmentioned. In 1975, the Cambodian genocide began. The conditions for it were laid by covert US bombing as part of the Indochina war. This genocide is mentioned in the film, but not the US government’s role in its genesis. Nor is there any mention that when, in late 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and stopped the genocide, the US government continued to support the deposed genocidal Cambodian regime. So much for “the responsibility to protect.”

            Those cases were during the Cold War. Subsequently, there was a genocide in Iraq, almost entirely hidden and forgotten. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqi troops were driven out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein remained in power. International sanctions were imposed, and they had a devastating impact on ordinary Iraqis. In the 1990s, as many as two million Iraqis died because of the sanctions, which were led by the US government.

Madeleine Albright was interviewed in the film, and sympathetically presented. No mention was made of the time she was questioned about half a million Iraqi children dying due to sanctions. She replied that the price was worth it.


Madeleine Albright

            If there is an imperative to intervene against human rights violations, then why has the US government supported so many ruthless governments, for example Argentina 1974-1983, Brazil 1964-1985, Chile 1973-1990, Iran 1954-1979, and others since?

            Virgil Hawkins wrote a revealing book titled Stealth Conflicts. He documented how and why most major lethal conflicts have been ignored by governments, media, academics and the public — including human rights organisations. How much have you ever heard about the world’s most deadly wars since 1989, which include those in the Congo, Burundi, Algeria, Angola and Zaire, each with hundreds of thousands of deaths? The deadliest was in the Congo, where as many as five million died.

The blob

Ned Dobos is the author of Ethics, Security, and the War Machine, in which he presents a powerful non-pacifist argument against having a military. Recently, Ned alerted me to a recent article titled “The beliefs of the blob,” by political scientist Christopher J. Fettweis. Contrary to my usual mental image, “the blob” here refers to a set of assumptions underlying US foreign policy. These assumptions are familiar to many political scientists. Fettweis summarises them beautifully. Watching “The corridors of power” reminded me of the six beliefs he outlines.


Christopher Fettweis

#1. The US is the indispensable world leader. Several of the interviewees say explicitly that the US is the world’s superpower and needs to use its power accordingly. Fettweis notes that this belief leads to overconfidence and a preference for action over inaction.

#2. The world is dangerous. The entire film is about how the US government should respond to international dangers, especially to US citizens and soldiers. As well as shots of the 9/11 attacks, there is a scene showing the desecration of corpses of US soldiers killed in the 1993 mission in Somalia.

            Fettweis notes one consequence of this assumption: there is no limit to military expenditure, because more of it means greater safety. In the film, there is no hint that some military spending might be usefully redirected to diplomacy or foreign aid.

#3. US rivals are realists. Hence, enemies are assumed to respond only to force, and lack any concerns beyond their national interests. Repeatedly in the film, policymakers assume that the only alternative to doing nothing is the use of force, which will achieve their objective: peace.

#4. US foreign involvement is beneficial. In the film, the only question for many interviewees is whether to intervene. They always assume that any such intervention is beneficial to everyone concerned, except to enemies.

#5. It’s worth maintaining credibility. Several times in the film, the point is made that the US government, especially the US president, must avoid making any promise that is not fulfilled. For Obama’s Nobel lecture, his advisers didn’t want him to say anything that would constrain policy options. The assumption was that promises were somehow binding, and this only makes sense if credibility is crucial. Indeed, one of the segments of the film is titled “credibility.”

            A corollary is that credibility is assumed to be maintained by aggressive action, not inaction. This comes across repeatedly in the film.

#6. Don’t appease dictators.

Fettweis notes that sometimes appeasement is better. But viewers of “The corridors of power” would never get this impression.


Obama and Power

One of the central tensions in the film is disagreements about intervention, notably the disagreements between Obama and Samantha Power. But these disagreements are not fundamental: they all take place within the blob.

            Although I found “The corridors of power” annoying because of its unarticulated assumptions about the role of the US government and military in world affairs, on reflection I think there could be value in students reading Fettweis’s article and other critiques of US policymaking and then undertaking a minute-by-minute scrutiny of the film, pointing to examples of each of the beliefs of the blob.


Nothing can stop the blob!

            By the way, at the film festival “The corridors of power” was “presented” by the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Ned Dobos, Anneleis Humphries and Michael McKinley for valuable comments.

Trans dilemmas

Is it possible to support trans people but question gender identity theory?

            Several years ago at the University of Wollongong, the Ally Network was set up. It is about supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people, who are vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. According to the network’s webpage, “An Ally Program sets out to develop a visible network of empathetic people who are allies of students and staff who are gender, sex and sexuality diverse people.”

            Members of the network received information and brief training and then made themselves known by posting stickers on their office doors. Anyone identifying as LGBTI could consult an “ally” in the network to talk about concerns and to find support if they requested it. Similar networks were set up at universities across the country.

            I thought this was a valuable initiative, and joined when the UOW network was set up. I learned a lot by attending workshops and reading the detailed information provided, including the distinctions between the identities referred to by the letters LGBTI, which soon became LGBTQ+, with Q for queer and the plus sign indicating other identities. Hundreds of staff members joined the Ally Network, and there are student members too, though I haven’t heard much about any of them being contacted for support. Maybe this doesn’t matter. One of the most important functions of the network is holding public activities in support of LGBTQ+, for example holding stalls on open days and a ceremony when rainbow stairs were officially launched.


Rainbow stairs at the University of Wollongong

Dissent

While opposing harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, I also had another role. For decades I have been researching and writing about suppression of dissent, for example the silencing of critics of nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation, among many others. This is closely connected with support for whistleblowing, which refers to speaking out in the public interest, typically by employees raising concerns about corruption and dangers to the public. Dissenters and whistleblowers encounter similar sorts of adverse actions, including censorship, character assassination, harassment, and loss of jobs.

            Dissent and whistleblowing can occur in just about every domain you can think of. I’ve talked with teachers, police, public servants, corporation employees, researchers, soldiers and members of churches, all of whom have suffered reprisals for speaking out and challenging dominant viewpoints or vested interests. In some controversies, like climate change, there are attempts from both sides to silence opponents.

Dissent and trans issues

So, what about dissent and whistleblowing on the trans issue? I learned about this from my friend Isla MacGregor, who lives in Tasmania. Isla and I have worked together on dissent issues since the 1990s, for example organising a conference on it. In recent years, Isla has become involved in the trans debate, supporting free speech and supporting critics of trans rights activists’ claims about science and law. Isla told me about how she was deplatformed from public forums in Hobart and about attempts to ban a forum she was helping to organise.

            From Isla and other sources, I learned it is risky to question gender identity theory, and risky to question whether adolescents should be affirmed in their gender preferences. To do this makes one liable to be labelled a TERF, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This label is the opposite of a compliment. Other labels applied include bigot, hater and Nazi.

            There are two issues involved here. One is discrimination against and harassment of trans people, which is extremely serious in many parts of the world, even deadly. I take for granted that this should be opposed.

            My concerns here are about a different but related issue, free speech and open debate on the tension between trans rights and women’s rights. In some places, especially where there is official support for trans people, there can be hostility in some circles to anyone who openly questions certain trans-related positions.

            On issues of social importance, I believe it is valuable to be able to discuss a range of views, including ones that are stigmatised. For example, it’s possible to support free speech for vaccine critics without necessarily agreeing with them. As I wrote in “Censorship and free speech in scientific controversies,” “In some cases, campaigners seek to censor opponents, most commonly on the grounds that their views are false and dangerous.” I concluded,

“The impulse to censor is often stimulated by worthy objectives, including improving public health. However, on both principled free-speech grounds and pragmatic considerations, it may be better to welcome open debate and to treat audiences as capable of assessing evidence and arguments and making informed judgements.”

Sex and gender

Decades ago, when I first learned about feminism, the standard idea was that sex is determined by genetics and gender is socially constructed. Someone with XX chromosomes is biologically a female, but they might express themselves in typically masculine or feminine ways, depending on their upbringing and social conditioning and expectations.

The problem was that biological females were rigidly channelled to conform to the female role, and biological males were rigidly channelled to behave like stereotypical men. The feminist movement challenged this, with some feminists wanting to abolish gender and others saying gender could be more fluid. With different social influences and different conditioning, a person could express sex role stereotypes different from their biological sex, and this was okay.

            There is now a different story, but I didn’t know much about it, having not explored the ideas. So when I saw a new book by Kajsa Ekis Ekman about gender theory — On the meaning of sex — I thought it would be an opportunity to learn more about it and to better understand what is driving attempts to silence critics. Ekman is Swedish and uses many examples from Sweden, plus ones from the US and a few other places.

On the meaning of sex

According to Ekman, spokespeople for gender identity theory (GIT) say gender is not connected to sex, but they don’t agree on how to define gender. If gender is innate, as GIT says, there’s no way of examining the brain to find out what it is. So how is one’s gender determined? The answer, according to Ekman’s account of GIT, is to look at behaviour. A boy who likes playing with dolls and wearing dresses is thought to be more stereotypically female while a girl who is boisterous and plays with trucks is thought to be more stereotypically male.

            The trouble with this way of determining gender identity is that it relies on stereotypes of masculine and feminine. In the old days (and still today), many children were expected to behave according to sex role stereotypes, in order to make gender expression conform with their sex. With the new world of GIT, children are encouraged to modify their bodies to conform to their personal sense of their own gender. It turns out to be a new way to discourage people from behaviour deviant from sex stereotypes.

            Ekman does her best to extract the core ideas of GIT from writing by its supporters and, in doing so, exposes what she thinks are deep contradictions. According to GIT, gender is the essence of a person and sex is irrelevant, and each of us is the best judge of our own gender. If I say I am a woman, then I am. But then there is the curious label cis. A person who is cis — a cis-man or cis-woman — experiences their gender being in agreement with their bodies. Cis is the converse of trans. But if biological sex is no longer of importance, how can someone be labelled cis? Only by looking at chromosomes. This is what leads Ekman to say GIT smuggles in biology by the back door.

            With self-identification of gender, it’s possible to call oneself trans. Someone born male can become a transwoman; someone born female can become a transman. But, according to Ekman, you are not permitted to call yourself trans if you are cis.

“It has become taboo to say ‘woman’ if one means only biological women, yet there is now a different word to refer to this group, one with the obligatory prefix ‘cis’, which equals privilege. Thus, according to gender identity theory, it is only possible to speak of the group biological women as a privileged group.” (p. 234)

            Ekman argues that conservatives and progressives agree about one thing: sex and gender identity should be aligned. Conservatives want sex to determine gender identity whereas GIT seeks alignment by having gender identity determine sex. Tomboys and effeminate boys are targets for change, either their behaviour or their bodies.

Clashing views

There are many issues concerning women’s versus trans rights. Some of them have straightforward solutions, albeit costly. What about toilets and changerooms? Should trans people be allowed in? In particular, should transwomen who have made no attempt to change their appearance or bodies be welcome in women’s toilets and changerooms? One way to sidestep this contentious issue is to convert all multi-user facilities to numerous separate ones available for just one individual at a time. (To be clear, I’m not talking about unisex facilities that have several stalls within a single large room; I’m referring to completely independent units, like at some large Sydney railway stations.)

            There is no such solution for the most vexing issue: hormone treatments for children who have a gender identity different from their birth sex. In a few cases, feelings of being in the wrong body emerge persistently from a young age. I think of the famous whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who describes this experience in her memoir Readme.txt.


Chelsea Manning

            However, in some individuals, such feelings emerge suddenly, often around puberty. When a 13-year-old tells their parents that they are distressed about their bodies not matching their sense of gender identity, and want to change, what should be done? It used to be that the more common change was from male to female, but now the reverse is more common: adolescent girls who request to be boys. At clinics where gender affirmation is the protocol, such girls might be sent to a psychiatrist and an endocrinologist and then put on puberty blockers. Some parents support this but others are concerned about their children making life-changing decisions without greater investigation and warnings.

            Ekman highlights an impact of puberty blockers that is not well publicised: some of the changes are irreversible, and sterility is a common consequence of the drugs used. Other problems include sexual dysfunction, depression and osteoporosis. Another thing: going on drugs to change one’s gender requires taking the drugs ever after, for a lifetime. How many adolescents have the maturity to make life-changing decisions with such wide-ranging consequences? Ekman notes that “The age limit on voluntary sterilisation for the general public is 25 for this very reason — not even at the age of 18 are our brains sufficiently developed to contemplate the consequences of such a decision.” (p. 138)

            Given the money involved in lifetime drug treatment, it is perhaps no surprise that pharmaceutical companies are involved. Ekman notes that trans rights have progressed far more rapidly than rights for women or homosexuals. She thinks the difference is the money to be made in transitions.

            There are so many topics covered in Ekman’s book — including women’s sport, male violence, suicide threats, intersectionality and hate speech — that I can only mention a few. One of the most important is her view that GIT and trans issues are a way for patriarchy to enter by the back door, with restrictions on women’s rights gaining support among progressives. With this way of thinking, attempts to denigrate and silence critics of GIT are a politically correct way of attacking radical feminists.

            Ekman says most of the debate is about the right of transwomen to enter women’s spaces, with hardly anything said about the rights of transmen. Indeed, transmen seem to be invisible in much of the commentary about trans issues. Recently, I read a commentary in defence of trans rights. Transwomen were mentioned ten times, transmen not at all. In sport, all the attention is on whether transwomen can compete in women’s events and teams, with no attention to transmen entering men’s events and teams. Ekman says there is no effort to adjust rules to enable transmen to succeed in men’s sport.


Kajsa Ekis Ekman

            Well, I could go on, as there is much more in On the Meaning of Sex. But what I would like to see is a calm response to the book by defenders of GIT and self-identification, laying out points of agreement and disagreement. My concern is less about trans issues and more about there being a fair and open discussion, without attempts to denigrate and silence opponents.

            I started out by asking whether it’s possible to support trans people while questioning gender identity theory. Surely the answer should be yes.

Acknowledgements Several individuals read drafts of this post and gave me valuable comments, from different points of view. Because of the sensitivity of the topic, I am not naming any of them, but I do appreciate their engagement and concern.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au