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.

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?


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.


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.


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,

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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, 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.


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.


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,

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.


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.


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,

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.


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,

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,

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


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,

Where is the real you?

Do you have an inner core, or are you constructed from your relationships?

            In 1999, I attended a short course titled “Self-managing leadership.” In our small group, each of us identified our purpose in life and figured out how to achieve it. I found this quite valuable but didn’t like one part. In one workbook manual, there was this passage:

“The only way to build true self-confidence is to go back to the roots, the innate. Never forget who you are deep within. Your innate values are your true personality. Allowing the innate to emerge is a ‘volcano process’. Allow your real self to emerge.”

I didn’t like this idea because I had tried to shed aspects of my previous self when I was more ambitious, competitive and self-centred, and create a different one. Innate values – no thanks!

            I also remember starting new jobs, moving from one sort of group to another, and adjusting to a different social dynamic. Was this a single me, my core self, behaving differently in different circumstances? Or does it make more sense to say I’m a different person depending on what’s going on around me?


Brian Lowery is a psychology professor at Stanford University. In his book Selfless, he presents the case that no one has an independent self. He argues that our inner feeling of continuity, of being an autonomous individual traversing through life, is in many ways an illusion. He says, instead, that each of us is made up of our relationships with others, and without these relationships there would be no “you” at all.

“I am asking that you consider the possibility that your self is a flux of interactions and relationships and your feeling of your self is created in that same flux.” (p. 30)

            I thought, what about those reclusive individuals who like nothing more than curling up with a book? To be sure, while growing up they had relationships with parents or caregivers, but thereafter they seemed to be on their own — except that reading books is having relationships with the authors via their words and the connections created by those words. Lowery illustrates this by asking his readers to wiggle their little fingers, just to show that action is possible at a distance, a writer connecting with a reader.

            So is the internal, self-directed self entirely an illusion that should be replaced with the social self created by relationships? My preference is to think of each approach to the self as a way of understanding the world, helpful for some purposes and less helpful for others. Even if you would rather believe in an unchanging inner “you,” it is potentially illuminating to think in terms of an interactive “you” that constantly adapts to its social environment, indeed is constructed from its environment.

            In Selfless, Lowery provides an accessible tour of ideas and implications, using personal stories and engaging examples, all backed up with references from research in psychology and beyond. I found Lowery’s examples thought-provoking.


Each one of us is located socially through a variety of categories, for example White, woman, teacher and daughter. One of Lowery’s key points is that we can assert specific identities but ultimately our identities are created and imposed by the people around us. He uses the example of Rachel Dolezal, who for years was committed to the cause of Blacks in the US, identified as Black and was treated as Black by those around her — until it was discovered that both her parents were White. Then she was rejected by some, not all, in the Black community, and condemned by many Whites. How can her experience be understood?

Rachel Dolezal

            Lowery notes that racial categories are not inherent in genes or physical appearance. Assignment to an ethnic group is carried out through social processes. If you self-identify as White but have a very dark complexion, many in the US will automatically identify you as Black regardless of your preference. Racial categories exist socially, and sometimes legally, which is an institutionalised social process, prior to any individual trying to assert their own category. When others accepted Dolezal as Black, that was what she was. But after being exposed for not having Black ancestry, her social definition changed. She was no longer accepted by all in the Black community even though she was Black according to her inner self.

            Lowery lists three main approaches to identity. One is that it is a personal choice; this was Dolezal’s view. A second is that it is determined by birth, through genetics or ancestry. When people believe identities are stable and derive from genetics, then Dolezal is threatening because her case suggests racial identity could be a choice.

            The third approach, preferred by Lowery, is that identity is based on relationships.

            “Whatever you believe about Rachel’s identity, the strength of the negative response to her is telling. People care about the integrity of group boundaries. It really upsets people when they think others are pretending to be something they’re not, especially when it threatens the integrity of a group they belong to because a threat to the integrity of the group is a threat to the social world the group’s members built and inhabit, and a threat to the selves of people in the group.” (p. 130)


Lowery applies his social-self perspective to another controversial issue, gender. He adopts the view that sex is determined by biology whereas gender is a social identity. When you are brought up as a girl or a boy, most others encourage you to behave and appear according to stereotypes corresponding to your sex. Because your relationships create your sense of your own identity, the resulting gender identity becomes a deep-seated facet of your self.

However, for some individuals, their inner gender identity clashes with their social gender identity. In recent decades, in some societies, it has become more acceptable to change gender, but doing this can clash with others’ expectations, and because expectations help construct the self, this is a prime arena for tensions. Anti-trans prejudice can be generated by the threat trans people pose to others’ senses of their selves.

            Behaviour that clashes with sex stereotypes is also problematic: the girl who plays with trucks, the boy who plays with dolls. In some male domains, like the military, being called a girl, or a sissy, is an insult. This is just one way sex-role stereotyping is enforced and selves are shaped.

            If gender is created by relationships, then changing one’s gender requires forging new relationships. By changing one’s own appearance and behaviour, others may respond differently and a new identity forged. On the other hand, to assert a different gender identity without making efforts to change appearance and behaviour may not be enough to persuade others to accept the different identity. If the self is socially constructed, self-identification alone is not enough.

“The possibility of a mismatch between people’s sense of their identity and others’ view of them points to what’s at stake in defining social groups. It’s nothing less than who we are and can be.” (p. 143)


Do you identify with a country, perhaps the one where you live or the one where you were born? Many, perhaps most, people do. Where does this identification come from? It’s not obvious because, in a population of millions, it’s not possible to have a personal relationship with more than a tiny percentage of other citizens.

            Yet it makes sense to think of one’s sense of national identity as growing out of relationships. When the people you know identify with the same nationality, this rubs off on you. The media helps, with “national news” connecting viewers to remote events assumed to be of relevance to every member of the national group.

            Nationality is a potent identity, enough to make some willing to die for it and others willing to kill those who threaten it. It can foster antagonism towards “aliens” who are deemed not to have or deserve it.

            Lowery cites Benedict Anderson’s illuminating idea that a nation is an imagined community. The community of a nation exists not in everyone getting together in a meeting or shared meal but in the minds of members. The “national self” is created through relationships with others, direct and indirect. No one is born with a sense of nationality.

Benedict Anderson


Lowery’s perspective of the social construction of the self got me thinking of areas he doesn’t discuss, and one of them is whistleblowers, those employees who speak out about corruption, abuse and dangers to the public. For their efforts, they are often subject to reprisals, including harassment, reprimands and dismissal. This experience is devastating. Not only do many whistleblowers suffer financially and health-wise, but often their understanding of the world is overturned. Prior to blowing the whistle, many were highly conscientious employees who believed in the system, including that people who do the right thing are treated fairly. Suddenly they learn that by doing the right thing, they are targeted for attack. This is deeply disorienting. In terms of self, their previous relationships with co-workers, bosses and outside authorities are shattered. Some survive by adopting a new identity, that of whistleblower.

In Whistleblowers Australia, we have repeatedly seen that whistleblowers benefit from meeting others who have gone through the same sorts of experiences. These new relationships create a new self, a new identity, that enables coming to terms with a traumatic transformation of life conditions.

            After an employee is labelled a whistleblower, many co-workers stay away because they are afraid for their own jobs, afraid of the taint of disloyalty. The result is ostracism, the cold shoulder, which research shows is incredibly hurtful. It is the breaking or withholding of relationships, and hence directly strikes at the constructed self.

            In another context, think of solitary confinement in prison. It is one of the cruellest punishments, precisely because it prevents the maintenance of relationships. It literally destroys the self.


Campaigners for a different world are constantly dealing with the use of relationships to create people’s sense of identity. You might imagine that people will attend a meeting or rally about climate change because they care about the issue. Researchers, however, have found the most common reason for attending is relationships. For a person new to the issue, it’s often because a friend invites them to come along. They are exposed to evidence and passion about climate change but just as importantly, by attending they foster a new self-identity, as someone concerned about the issue. After becoming involved, they learn more about climate issues. And they forge friendships that can keep them involved.

            Climate activists sometimes call those who question or reject evidence about global warming “climate deniers,” which is derogatory, implying they refuse to accept overwhelming evidence. Using the term “climate denier” can help build solidarity among climate activists but there’s a downside to applying this label to others: it can help solidify the identities of those with doubts about climate science and policy. They might start looking for evidence to support their imposed identity as sceptics.


Ideas about the self as constructed by relationships have been around for a long time. Brian Lowery in Selfless presents these ideas in an especially accessible and attractive way, especially by applying them to some of the most contentious contemporary issues. As well as race, gender and nationality, Lowery also addresses freedom, death and the meaning of life.

            You can learn a lot about issues important to you by forming a relationship with Lowery himself. For this, you don’t need to meet him. It’s enough to read his book.

Brian Lowery

Brian Martin,

US fascism?

In 1980, Bertram Gross warned that developments in the United States could be leading to a form of fascism. He saw an alliance of big business and big government as the basis for tyranny. How many of his worst fears have come true?

            Gross made his warnings in a long and detailed book titled Friendly Fascism. There had been plenty of left-wing analyses of power structures in the US and elsewhere, but this book was different. Gross had been part of the establishment, working in the administrations of US presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He had played an important role in developing full-employment legislation.

            Gross had seen the exercise of power in the US up close. He was an insider, so his book had more credibility. He was akin to dissidents and whistleblowers, those with inside knowledge who break ranks and reveal what goes on behind carefully constructed screens.

            I read Friendly Fascism in 1982 and took some notes. Recently, while going through my old files, I came across these notes and thought, “Gross had some astute insights back in 1980. I wonder how well they’ve stood up since.” Has the US continued to move in the direction that Gross warned against?

            To find out, I bought a copy of the book and reread it, more carefully this time around. The original 1980 edition was published by M. Evans and Company. The edition I bought was published by Black Rose Books in Montreal.

            On my second reading, I was surprised by the large amount of information and insight offered in Friendly Fascism. It is a comprehensive treatment of a system of rule. Here, I will outline some of Gross’s assessments of power in the US, giving examples of how some of these have foreshadowed subsequent developments, plus examples of predictions that did not pan out. Finally, I offer a few comments about how Gross was able to anticipate so many developments.

Fascism, classic and friendly

By using the term “fascism,” Gross comes up against the many associations people have with the word. Those familiar with history will think of the dictatorial regimes in Italy, Germany and Japan in the 1920s and 1930s that were defeated in World War II.

These regimes were racist, militarist, imperialist and brutal, so “fascism” takes on connotations of these characteristics. Gross carefully lays out his argument that the core of fascism is something different. It is rule by a symbiotic system of big business and big government.

            He refers to fascism in the first half of the 1900s in Italy, Germany and Japan as “classic fascism.” He notes that their racism, militarism and imperialism were nothing new; they simply followed the path of successful capitalist powers. Given this, the WWII allies were a temporary military alliance against the German and Japanese empires, “not an alliance against fascism as such.” (p. 27).

            Gross questions some of the usual accounts of fascism, saying it’s a myth that it was a revolt of the lower middle class, but instead that fascist regimes had supporters from a range of classes, and the lower middle class didn’t hold power. He points out that analysts of classic fascism in terms of an authoritarian personality miss the political economy of capitalism. Finally, he emphasises that brutality is not peculiar to fascism, so calling police brutality “fascist” isn’t a serious analysis.

            Despite Gross’s strictures about the word “fascism,” most readers will find it difficult to completely separate it from mental images of Nazism and Hitler. That is what gives “friendly fascism” a sting.

The Establishment

Gross devotes considerable space to explaining “the Establishment,” the system of rule in the US. To even talk of this is to enter a perspective that clashes with the surface commentary in the media and civics textbooks, which focus on formal structures of representative government and on particular individuals. In the decades prior to the publication of Friendly Fascism, a few political analysts tried to specify the who and how of the US Establishment. Gross draws on the work of authors such as G. William Domhoff, Ferdinand Lundberg and C. Wright Mills. These authors were familiar to me: in the 1970s, I read their books. Gross supplements his analysis using his own experience working within the US Establishment.

            One of Gross’s most intriguing insights is that the Establishment in the US is not monolithic: there’s no central conspiracy. On the contrary, conflicts go on all the time, both jockeying for power and clashes over how best to rule, for example whether to introduce social welfare measures that may limit profits but will pacify discontent. In the media, we can read about divisions among dominant groups concerning investment policy, taxation and various other issues, but seldom do we hear questioning about fundamentals, for example private ownership or processes for citizen participation. The system seems to be in constant turmoil but its basic features do not change. That is the genius of rule by a sort of government-business consortium.

            In this system, the US president is a key node in many networks. Gross notes that the Chief Executive Network — the President and various White House agencies, among others — is analogous to a Communist Party leadership group.

            Gross emphasises that business interests don’t just influence government from the outside; they are part of it. The implementation of policies occurs at lower levels of the Establishment. Those from these lower levels who show loyalty can find a place in the system. He says intellectuals who obtain government or foundation grants become technicians for hire, and are no longer interested in ideas on their own.

            Gross describes the ideology of the Establishment in terms of three beliefs. The first is that Communism and socialism are bad. Anti-communism served to restrain the expansion of the welfare state, and anything aiding the poor and disadvantaged was attacked as creeping socialism. Has this changed since Gross wrote? Not much. In the US, there continues to be scaremongering about socialism, far more extreme than in most other countries. A comprehensive government health insurance system, common in industrialised countries, is called “socialised medicine,” a term intended to stigmatise it.

            The other two beliefs comprising the ideology of the Establishment are that capitalism is good and that capitalism doesn’t exist. These seem contradictory, but only on the surface. The message that capitalism — conceived as free enterprise — is good was promoted by corporate propaganda after World War II, to counter the unflattering public image of corporate greed. This has continued, with “corporate social responsibility” one of the more recent iterations.

            The belief that capitalism doesn’t exist was encouraged by never using the term, instead talking of “the market,” a “mixed economy” or “post-industrialism.” Gross comments that scholars vied with themselves to focus on research methods while ignoring the elephant in the room: the existence of capitalist society.

Some uncanny predictions

On the first page of Friendly Fascism, Gross writes about the future of the US. Rather than moving towards genuine democracy, he saw “… a more probable future: a new despotism creeping slowly across America.” The consequences for citizens would “include chronic inflation, recurring recession, open and hidden unemployment, the poisoning of air, water, soil and bodies, and, more important, the subversion of our constitution. More broadly, consequences include widespread intervention in international politics through economic manipulation, covert action, or military invasion.” Aside from chronic inflation, this seems pretty much how things have turned out.

            Let’s consider some of Gross’s other assessments to see how much they apply to US society decades later. Gross didn’t make predictions but rather noted a logic of capitalism, US-style, that he suggested might play out in various ways, usually not as he wished but as he feared. I call these things predictions to emphasise how prescient his analysis was in so many ways.

  • “Even in its more expansive and successful moments a deep malaise corrodes the atmosphere of every advanced capitalist society” (p. 98). Work, community and family are falling apart. This is a result of job specialisation, consumerism and labour markets. Assessment This process has continued, and indeed is a key feature of US society.
  • For knowledge workers, disciplinary specialisation means ignorance of the bigger picture, enabling service to the Establishment. Assessment In 2000, Jeff Schmidt made a detailed examination of this process in his book Disciplined Minds.

  • Mental breakdown is a result of breakdowns in social relationships. Assessment In 2018, Johann Hari provided a moving account of this process in his book Lost Connections.

  • Businesses are involved in crime and corrupt practices, while police, prosecutors and judges are soft on corporate crime. Assessment This pattern of corruption and lax regulation has continued. A few corporations collapse, like Enron. In others, massive fines for criminal conduct are absorbed by corporations as the cost of doing business, as in the pharmaceutical industry.
  • The authority of major institutions — Congress, business, police, courts — is in decline, as shown by opinion polls. Assessment The decline has continued, as documented and lamented by numerous commentators.

In summary, many of Gross’s assessments of the social impacts of US capitalism seem just as relevant today as when he made them. This suggests he has accurately gauged a relationship between the capitalist system and society that has turned out to be long-lasting. See the appendix for more examples of uncanny predictions.

Some lousy predictions

In a chapter titled “The challenge of a shrinking capitalistic world,” Gross makes several predictions that have not panned out.

  • Communist regimes might expand compared to capitalism. Assessment As we know, the reverse happened. The Soviet Union and Eastern European Communist governments collapsed, while the Chinese economy was transformed into state-managed capitalism.
  • In the 1980s, Communist China could become “a new source of aid to communist movements in many parts of the world.” (p. 124) Assessment What actually happened is that communist movements have been in decline worldwide. The Chinese government, through its belt-and-road initiative, supports development projects, not communist movements.

  • In the 1980s, suggested Gross, Central America and the Caribbean could become socialist. Assessment This didn’t happen. The outcomes were worse, with severe repression in several countries, including genocide in Guatemala.

Gross overestimated the strength of communism and underestimated the dynamism of capitalism, which entered a neoliberal phase in which socialist tendencies were squashed. However, Gross probably would recognise what has been happening in Russia and other successor states following the breakup of the Soviet Union, in which a type of predatory capitalism has taken over that has many characteristics of friendly fascism.

            Gross made accurate predictions when he pointed to the internal logic of capitalist societies, with the breakdown of traditional family and community structures. What he didn’t anticipate was the collapse of the Second World, the state socialist world, which was the major competitor to capitalism.

Exploitation versus welfare

One of the important clashes within the Establishment that Gross recognises is between those who seek short-term profits via the exploitation of workers and those who think that for long-term social stability and sustainable profits, it is necessary to provide social support for disadvantaged groups because otherwise they might become the basis for a challenge to the system. This clash has been apparent since the late 1800s, during which far-sighted rulers introduced unemployment protection and other government measures to provide relief from poverty and misery. In the United States, every measure to protect citizens — a universal pension system (called Social Security), unemployment payments, environmental protection and much more — has been furiously opposed by some sectors of the Establishment, while supported by far-sighted defenders of the system. What is most interesting is how, in the US, the more exploitative tendencies have prevailed so often compared with other comparable societies.

            Gross tells about two episodes in US political history that seem to have been forgotten, episodes with which he was closely involved. After World War II, there was a proposal before Congress to guarantee full employment, with the government providing a job for anyone unable to obtain one in the private sector. Supporters said this would calm social unrest and provide a basis for stable markets and profits.

But opponents didn’t want government intervention and, more importantly, didn’t want to give workers and unions more power. The bill for this initiative was passed, but its provisions were so thoroughly weakened that employment goals were symbolic only. Some 25 years later, there was a similar proposal during the Nixon administration. It was seriously considered but again the bill was weakened to become only symbolic. In both cases, those favouring measures harsh on the most vulnerable prevailed. In both cases, there were capitalists who recognised that pursuing short-term profits can undermine long-term profitability.

The unfolding logic

Gross aimed to reveal a powerful logic in the world’s contending forces.

 “This logic points toward tighter integration of every First World Establishment. In the United States it points toward more concentrated, unscrupulous, repressive, and militaristic control by a Big Business-Big Government partnership that — to preserve the privileges of the ultra-rich, the corporate overseers, and the brass in the military and civilian order — squelches the rights and liberties of other people both at home and abroad. That is friendly fascism.” (p. 161)

As soon as Gross referred to a powerful logic, he was quick to say, yet again, that capitalist leaders have no single plan, and that there are no central planners. This point is crucial, because it is easy to believe that if developments are serving particular interests, then surely someone is behind the scenes manipulating things. The “logic” to which Gross refers is the outcome of contending forces within the Establishment, like the groups pushing for or against welfare measures.

            Gross warned that “the various crises in American society provided opportunities for Establishment leaders to do things that would accelerate — often unintentionally — the tendencies toward a repressive corporate society.” (p. 163) This was two decades before the 9/11 attacks and the launching of the so-called War on Terror.


Back in the 1980s, Gross’s assessments might have made some readers feel that friendly fascism had already arrived. Gross said no, it hadn’t. He noted that there was still much democratic openness and opportunity in the US. Government misdeeds continued to be exposed, civil liberties continued to be asserted and workers continued to strike. Gross pointed to citizen activism, especially against nuclear power, conscription and military interventions. We now know that this activism was successful in stopping nuclear power and conscription, and continued in other areas, most notably climate change.

            Gross addressed the perennial question, “What can you do?”, recommending action (rather than resignation), learning from failures, having aspirations, avoiding co-option, being part of a larger movement, and involving people on the inside of the system. He said not to expect quick success but instead to have a realistic schedule, with aspirations high enough to encourage continued action. This is just the sort of advice provided by far-sighted activists, for example Chris Dixon, Another Politics, L. A. Kauffmann, Direct Action, and George Lakey, How We Win.

How could Gross make so many accurate predictions?

Gross didn’t set out to make predictions about the future trajectory of the US political system, as he was more concerned with warning about what might happen. Nevertheless, many of his observations seem to have been borne out, as already noted. What enabled this? Here are my best guesses.

            Gross analysed the core of fascism as being a partnership between big government and big business, saying this did not require the brutality commonly associated with classic fascism. Whatever the label, he identified government-business as a central dynamic of political economy in the US. If this dynamic continued and became stronger, then it’s possible to extrapolate to the future, and this is just what Gross did.

            Another of Gross’s insights is that the US Establishment is not unified but conflictual, with contending pressures. With this insight, Gross identified the strength of the US capitalist system in responding to pressures and threats in a flexible way. This also means that what usually passes for political debate, including between government and business, and which seems to be about the most important issues of the day, operates within assumptions that maintain the system. In other words, Gross saw through the usual cut-and-thrust of everyday politics to a core dynamic that is seldom addressed in media coverage and popular understanding.

            A related insight is that the system needs to maintain its legitimacy and prevent grassroots insurgency. This is done not through central planning but through the clash of priorities within the Establishment as it responds to challenges from below. Gross could see trends, for example the breakdown of community and the use of education and the media to pacify the masses, that have continued ever since.

            Finally, Gross recognised the importance of democratically-minded challengers to the system. He was quite aware that citizen activism would continue to play a crucial role in preventing moves toward a more repressive political system, whether or not it was called fascism.

            As well as making uncanny predictions, Gross also made predictions that did not come true. This is hardly surprising. Who can accurately say what will happen in the next 40 years? What we can learn from Gross’s diagnosis is the importance of identifying key driving forces, not being too distracted by the everyday clash of contending forces, and seeing what can be done.

            What would Gross say about Donald Trump, the rise of right-wing violence and the efforts of anti-fascist activists, notably Antifa? Are these symptoms of a turn to overt fascism or are they a sideshow, with government-business synergy becoming more entrenched? For an analysis of Trumpism as a neofascist political movement, see Anthony DiMaggio’s 2022 book Rising Fascism in America. If Gross were here, perhaps he would say we need to look beyond the surface struggles to the driving forces leading towards friendly fascism.


Brian Martin

I thank Susan Engel, Michael McKinley and Ian Watson for valuable comments.

Appendix: additional uncanny predictions

  • In the 1980s, the “free world” empire could be broken up or, more likely, reconstituted. “Remodeled under pressure, the ‘Free World’ might then, conceivably, be capable of reexpansion, effectively absorbing various communist regimes back into the capitalist world order.” (p. 173). Assessment This pretty much describes what happened with the former Soviet Union and Eastern European communist regimes.
  • The militarism of friendly fascism would be global, science-based, integrating civilian and military elements, and sanitising violence (in contrast with classic fascism’s glorification of violence). Assessment Drone killings are one example of science-based violence that is hidden from the US public, and thus sanitised. On the other hand, the “shock-and-awe” bombings that initiated the 2003 invasion of Iraq are closer to a glorification of violence.
  • The “Radical Right” now seeks change, making the Establishment more authoritarian with themselves part of it. “Today, the momentum of the Radical Right is impressive.” (p. 198) Assessment Since then, its momentum is even more impressive.
  • Ways of maintaining the legitimacy of the Establishment include continual fear-mongering about socialism and communism, extolling the wonders of the market, and remaining silent about corporate power. Those pushing in egalitarian directions need to be dismissed as “levellers” and lower classes seen as inferior and hedonistic. Hierarchy needs to be validated. Assessment Tick.
  • Dangers loom from ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and lab-produced viruses. Assessment As it turned out, international measures were taken to protect stratospheric ozone, so that danger has mostly been averted. The greenhouse effect refers to what is now commonly called climate change or global warming. In 1980, this was just a blip on the environmental radar. It has now become front and centre. As for lab-produced viruses, the lab-leak theory of the origin of Covid is either correct or could have been correct.
  • Television serves as a pacifying medium. Assessment Since 1980, television has been supplemented by social media and video games, each with addictive capacities.

  • “Almost every component of America’s mammoth school system serves as a training ground in the submission to authoritative rules and procedures.” (p. 277) There is more docility at university and graduate student levels. Assessment Not much seems to have changed. Free schools remain at the margins.
  • Under friendly fascism, the rewards of jobs or welfare are contingent on loyalty and conformism. Assessment This process has been institutionalised through the increase in precarious employment, in the so-called gig economy.
  • Economic inequality will become entrenched. There are incentives for making more money and accumulating wealth but no incentives for promoting equality. Assessment Economic inequality has increased in the US, where it is more extreme than in most affluent societies, with dysfunctional consequences perceptively analysed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level.

  • Liberal feminism is not a threat to the system. Getting more women into elite positions can actually strengthen the system.

“No matter which way America goes during the remainder of this century, more women will undoubtedly reach positions of higher prestige and visibility. Whether or not we get a woman president eventually, the time is not far off when there will be a woman Supreme Court justice, women astronauts, and more women as corporation executives, generals, police officers, legislators, politicians, professionals, and middle- and top-level bureaucrats. Such a development is not at all inconsistent with the crystallization of a full-fledged oligarchy. Indeed, it could help. By bringing more women into well-established masculine roles, it could undermine system-transforming tendencies in the women’s liberation movement and maintain, if not strengthen, the manipulatory machismo that seems inherent in many of the tendencies toward friendly fascism.” (p. 327)

Assessment This trajectory has been documented in exquisite detail by Hester Eisenstein in her book Feminism Seduced.

Defending Ukraine: an untried option

Imagine a different way to defend Ukraine — a way that costs less, leads to less death and destruction, and has a chance of bringing about a revolution in Russia. It sounds good, but it’s not going to happen. It’s too late.

            Let’s go back a step and look at military defence, and how it affects the psychology of enemy soldiers. Many Russian soldiers have no personal grudge against Ukraine. Indeed, many didn’t want to join the army. They were fed propaganda about the purpose of the invasion and then brought to the front lines. And what did they encounter? Ukrainian troops trying to kill them. So naturally they were going to fight back.

            This is perfectly logical. The best way to turn someone into an enemy is to threaten and assault them. To make them hate you, attack and keep attacking. The process works on everyone involved in the war. Troops, commanders and civilian populations, outraged by enemy atrocities, are brought together in a common cause.

            This twisted process is inherent in the system of militaries throughout the world, because militaries can be used for both attack and defence. My defence is a threat to you, and your defence is a threat to me. This is the basis for arms races. Why else do military expenditures continue even when there is little threat of war?

An alternative?

Imagine a plan to tempt Russian soldiers to defect, call in sick, not do their jobs, sabotage machinery or just go slow. This would be a plan to undermine their morale, make them less likely to perform their duties and ultimately undermine their willingness to support the Russian state.

            How about this? The Ukraine government solicits support from allies to offer an attractive package to any Russian soldier who defects. Perhaps a job, a house or a million euros. That might be tempting, especially to young conscripts looking for a way to avoid killing and being killed. (Dave Grossman in his well-known book On Killing showed that most front-line soldiers do not fire their rifles at the enemy unless they have been given special training to overcome their natural reluctance to kill.)

            A million euros for each defecting soldier? It sounds impossibly expensive. But even if one hundred thousand soldiers defected, the cost would be less than the cost of the Ukraine war.

            There’s another important part of this plan. The threat of hurting Russian soldiers needs to be removed. The solution, this time, saves money: get rid of the Ukraine military. Then there would be only civilians, who pose no personal danger to Russian soldiers.

No army?

This would mean the country has no army. Surely that is a prescription for being taken over by any aggressive neighbouring state. No military defence means certain defeat, doesn’t it?

            Since World War II, countries in Central America — think, for example, of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala — have been plagued by repressive governments, civil wars, criminal violence and even genocide, leading to massive emigration. There is one shining exception: Costa Rica. In 1948, its army was abolished. Since then, it hasn’t been involved in any wars. Instead, it has experienced decades of peace and prosperity, with an enviable life expectancy.

            Not having a military seems to have helped Costa Rica to thrive, in many ways. One example isn’t proof, but it does raise the question of whether Ukraine might have been safer without an army.

Social defence

Getting rid of the army is only one step towards improving security. Just as important is preparing to defend against attack without using force. There is much that can be done. Citizens can learn foreign languages so they can easily communicate with potential invading soldiers. They can learn about cultures, to better understand how to communicate effectively. They can build up relationships with citizens in other countries. With this sort of preparation, it becomes harder for any foreign government to convince its population to support aggression.

            There’s more. Industry could be decentralised so there are no easy targets. A big power plant, when put out of commission, leads to blackouts. In contrast, energy efficiency and local renewable energy sources offer meagre targets. When most of the population can get around by walking and cycling, there is less heavy industry vulnerable to attack.

Not a likely military target

            Communication systems could be set up to support resistance to aggression, enabling defenders to talk with each other, with attackers and with people around the world. Citizens could be prepared to deal with propaganda, disinformation, fake videos and other means of deception, and have practised how to prove authenticity in their own messages. They would have developed several independent publicly-shared intelligence operations, monitoring potential threats and opportunities.

            Put these and other measures in place and the result is a system of defence. It has been called social defence, nonviolent defence, civilian-based defence and defence by civil resistance.

A Czechoslovak story

In 1968, the Soviet Union still existed, and it held sway over the Communist-controlled countries in Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, the Communist government introduced reforms to ease heavy-handed repression and respond to popular demands. This flowering of enlightenment was a threat to the Soviet government, which in August invaded Czechoslovakia with a Warsaw-Pact force of half a million soldiers. The leaders of the Czechoslovak military, which was prepared to defend against an attack from the capitalist countries to the west, decided armed resistance was futile and did not act. Instead, there was a spontaneous unarmed people’s resistance.

            Czechoslovaks had learned Russian in school. They talked to the invading soldiers, who had been told they were there to stop a capitalist takeover, saying them “We are socialists too.” This process of fraternisation led many of the invading troops to be “unreliable” and withdrawn. Meanwhile, people removed street signs and house numbers to make it harder for the invaders to track down leaders of the resistance. The radio network — built for military use — was used to support morale, provide information about troops and counsel against using violence. When the Soviets brought in jamming equipment, the radio raised the alarm and the train was stranded on a siding.

            The active resistance lasted only a week because Czechoslovak leaders unwisely made concessions. Even so, the Soviets were unable to impose a puppet government for eight months. Meanwhile, Western governments did little to aid the Czechoslovak resisters.


Military personnel go through intensive training to become effective in their jobs in front-line fighting, surveillance, intelligence, weapons development and every other aspect of a high-functioning force. The same applies to developing a system in which citizens have the skills and organisation to deter and defend against aggression without arms.

            Would you judge the potential of military defence by referring to an army in which the soldiers had no training, there was no planning and no industry infrastructure? Of course not. Likewise, it’s inappropriate to judge the potential of unarmed citizen defence by looking only at the Czechoslovak example, as promising as it is. The real test is when a society is fully prepared and trained to defend itself without arms.

            Even after the war started, there are ways Ukrainians have resisted nonviolently and ways to encourage Russian soldiers to defect. But such important efforts are undermined by Ukrainian military resistance.

An untried option

So why hasn’t it happened? Why haven’t governments moved to educate all citizens in nonviolent defence methods, and set up training for anyone interested? The benefits are obvious enough: reduced military expenditure, an empowered citizenry, and technological systems resilient against both external and internal threats.

            No one has carried out a comprehensive study into why governments show so little interest in unarmed defence systems. A plausible explanation is that governments don’t want to empower their populations with skills to resist aggression, because those same skills could be used against the government and against groups in charge of the economy.

            If an aggressor tried to take control of a factory, the workers could be prepared to resist by shutting down production. Eminent peace researcher Johan Galtung suggested that a factory could be designed with a crucial piece of equipment that could be disabled in an emergency, with a replacement available only from another country. Coercing the workers then would not get the factory working again. But designing factories this way would put a lot of power in the hands of workers. No wonder managers and governments prefer military defence.

            Every single aspect of a nonviolent defence system requires giving power and responsibility to ordinary citizens, in agriculture, transport, health and education. That’s the lesson from long-term unarmed struggles in Kosovo and Palestine. It is also, plausibly, why governments do not want to build their citizens’ capacity to resist. Instead, citizens are treated as children who need protection provided by professionals, namely by governments and militaries.

            For years, leading nonviolence researcher Gene Sharp tried to promote civilian-based defence. He tried to convince US military and government leaders that this sort of defence would be more effective, but his efforts, despite being lauded, had little impact. Governments, least of all the US government, are simply not interested in these sorts of alternatives, even to investigate them or run experiments to test their feasibility.

Gene Sharp

            Ukraine, like all other major governments, relied on military defence. We will never know whether a different sort of defence system, one based on citizen resistance without arms, would have been more effective in deterring and resisting invasion. All we know is that military defence is the standard model, and so far it seems to be part of the problem.

Brian Martin,

Thanks to Tonya Agostini and Julia LeMonde for helpful comments.

Korean translation

Future sports

Most popular sports today were created in an earlier era, and by all rights should be obsolete. Some sports, like archery, shooting and the javelin throw, have hunting connections. Many others emphasise physical strength, skill, speed and endurance. Think of weightlifting and swimming. Team sports like football reflect the importance of coordinated action, which is vital on the battlefield. Coordinated action remains important in contemporary life, for example in numerous offices where teams of workers seek to outdo competitors.

            Elite sports also attract spectators, an important function especially when entertainment is tied to marketing.

Despite these functional connections between sport and society, it is curious that so few sports give priority to skills needed to survive and thrive in a world in which mental skills are a central feature. Consider a few new sports inspired by contemporary life.

Congestion challenge Contestants sit in their cars, wired up to monitor their brain waves, and spend hours in a heavy traffic scenario specially engineered to provoke road rage. The winner is the person who can maintain the most stable brain waves while simultaneously negotiating the traffic in a skilled manner, as judged by an artificially intelligent (AI) driving-skill monitor.

Question dodging Contestants ask each other challenging questions. Answers are judged according to how successfully they avoid giving a straightforward answer. Two or more can play, each asking questions and dodging the questions they are asked. Rambling responses receive a low score, whereas responses that seem plausible while having little substantive content are scored highly, by an independent panel. Laughing leads to disqualification. Career politicians are excluded as having an unfair advantage.

Shopping marathon This is a competitive enactment of “shop till you drop.” Contestants are given a credit limit and then must shop continuously for as long as possible, finishing when they spend their last cent. Most events last for days, during which time no food is allowed, only water. Keeping eyes shut for more than a few seconds is not allowed.

Sit-out Two dozen contestants sit at desks in a room facing the front and listening to a speaker. Each contestant is monitored for physical motion and brain waves. The winner is the person who remains awake and maintains focus on an incredibly boring speech, with calm and natural body motions and no tensing of muscles throughout the body.

Smile-a-thon Contestants must maintain a smile and associated positive body language while being exposed to rudeness, verbal abuse and absurd behaviour. They take turns trying to disturb the smiles of other contestants. Smiling authenticity is judged by an independent panel supported by AI.

Binge-watch This is an endurance event. Contestants watch a boring show on a screen while their brain waves are monitored. Beta waves must be maintained, and even a short period of sleep or daydreaming means disqualification. Body movement incurs penalties. The event continues until only one contestant remains.

Kafka challenge Contestants have to negotiate bureaucratic regulations that change in an unpredictable pattern designed to prevent the completion of an assigned task and to generate frustration. To win, it is necessary to keep going longer than any other contestant. Some games last for weeks or months. Psychiatrists are at hand to treat psychological injuries.

Franz Kafka

The new frontier for competitive endeavour is mental rather than physical. Using muscles is very much the old paradigm, suitable for when farm and factory work predominated. Today, in a post-industrial society, mental and emotional capacities are more valued, so it is only appropriate that sports encourage and recognise extreme ability in these domains.

            You might think new sports like these would not be entertaining, but there is great scope for dramatising ordinary actions. Reality television paved the way for the entertainment value of dull everyday activity. There are endless possibilities for close-ups of faces, brain-wave monitors, contestants who drop out or crack up, interviews with contenders, and commentators giving opinions about the course of the competition. After all, many physical sports are either incredibly slow, like cricket, or incredibly repetitious, like tennis. Spectators are attracted by the contest. Who, after all, watches reruns of last year’s events?

            Future mental-emotional sports will be just as exciting as old-style muscle-based ones and will lead to new sporting celebrities, valued for their minds rather than their bodies. Just think how many children will be inspired by these celebrities to practise for years to develop their minds. Rather than perfecting a golf swing, the next frontier is mind control.

Brian Martin,


Just to be clear, this is a satire. Actually, I’m a critic of elite sports (while admiring the athletes), especially the Olympics, and support participation in cooperative games.

            Thanks to Aloysia Brooks, Sharon Callaghan, Suzzanne Gray, Tim Johnson-Newell, Olga Kuchinskaya and Yasmin Rittau for valuable feedback. Sharon and Yasmin pointed to present-day versions of some of these “future sports,” and noted that they can foster valuable skills or undesirable behaviours, or both. So far, though, there are no world championships for any of these mental sports. Meditation may be good for you, but should it be a competitive event?