Phil Torres

Musk wants to save humanity — for a future where we 'live' by the trillions inside Matrix-style cosmic simulations

Elon Musk, the richest person on the planet, has apparently struck a deal to buy Twitter, by all accounts "one of the world's most influential platforms." Many people are trying to understand why: what exactly is motivating Elon Musk? Is it just a matter of (his hypocritical notion of) free speech? Are there deeper reasons at play here? In truth, virtually no one in the popular press has gotten the right answer. I will try to provide that here.

Let's begin with an uncontroversial observation: Elon Musk does not care much about others, you and me, or even his employees. As his brother Kimbal Musk told Time magazine, "his gift is not empathy with people," after which the article notes that "during the COVID-19 pandemic, [Musk] made statements downplaying the virus, [broke] local health regulations to keep his factories running, and amplified skepticism about vaccine safety."

Nonetheless, Elon Musk sees himself as a leading philanthropist. "SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink, The Boring Company are philanthropy," he insists. "If you say philanthropy is love of humanity, they are philanthropy." How so?

The only answer that makes sense comes from a worldview that I have elsewhere described as "one of the most influential ideologies that few people outside of elite universities and Silicon Valley have ever heard about." I am referring to longtermism. This originated in Silicon Valley and at the elite British universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and has a large following within the so-called LessWrong or Rationalist community, whose most high-profile member is Peter Thiel, the billionaire entrepreneur and Trump supporter.

In brief, the longtermists claim that if humanity can survive the next few centuries and successfully colonize outer space, the number of people who could exist in the future is absolutely enormous. According to the "father of Longtermism," Nick Bostrom, there could be something like 10^58 human beings in the future, although most of them would be living "happy lives" inside vast computer simulations powered by nanotechnological systems designed to capture all or most of the energy output of stars. (Why Bostrom feels confident that all these people would be "happy" in their simulated lives is not clear. Maybe they would take digital Prozac or something?) Other longtermists, such as Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill, calculate that there could be 10^45 happy people in computer simulations within our Milky Way galaxy alone. That's a whole lot of people, and longtermists think you should be very impressed.

But here's the point these people are making, in terms of present-day social policy: Let's say you can do something today that positively affects just 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% of the 10^58 people who will be "living" at some point in the distant future. That means, mathematically, that you'd affect 10 trillion people. Now consider that there are roughly 8 billion people on the planet today. So the question is: If you want to do "the most good," should you focus on helping people who are alive right now or these vast numbers of possible people living in computer simulations in the far future? The answer is, of course, that you should focus on these far-future digital beings. As longtermist Benjamin Todd writes:

Since the future is big, there could be far more people in the future than in the present generation. This means that if you want to help people in general, your key concern shouldn't be to help the present generation, but to ensure that the future goes well in the long-term.

So why is Musk spending $44 billion or so to buy Twitter, after dangling and then withdrawing the $6.6 billion needed "to feed more than 40 million people across 43 countries that are 'on the brink of famine'"? Perhaps you can glimpse the answer: If you think that "the future is big," in Todd's words, and that huge numbers of future people in vast computer simulations will come into existence over the next billion years, then you should focus on them rather than those alive today. As Greaves and MacAskill argue, when assessing whether current actions are good or bad, we should focus not on their immediate effects, but on their effects a century or millennium into the future!

This doesn't mean we should entirely neglect current problems, as the longtermists would certainly tell us, but in their view we should help contemporary people only insofar as doing so will ensure that these future people will exist. This is not unlike the logic that leads corporations to care about their employees' mental health. For corporations, people are not valuable as ends in themselves. Instead, good mental health matters because it is conducive to maximizing profit, since healthy people tend to be more productive. Corporations care about people insofaras doing so benefits them.

For longtermists, morality and economics are almost indistinguishable: Both are numbers games that aim to maximize something. In the case of businesses, you want to maximize profit, while in the case of morality, you want to maximize "happy people." It's basically ethics as capitalism.

Musk has explicitly said that buying Twitter is about "the future of civilization." That points to his peculiar notion of philanthropy and the notion that no matter how obnoxious, puerile, inappropriate or petty his behavior — no matter how destructive or embarrassing his actions may be in the present — by aiming to influence the long-term future, he stands a chance of being considered by all those happy people in future computer simulations as having done more good, overall, than any single person in human history so far. Step aside, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr.

If you wonder why Musk wants to colonize Mars, this framework offers an answer: Because Mars is a planetary stepping-stone to the rest of the universe. Why does he want to plug our brains into computers via neural chips? Because this could "jump-start the next stage of human evolution." Why does he want to fix climate change? Is it because of all the harm it's causing (and will cause) for poor people in the Global South? Is it because of the injustice and inequality made worse by the climate crisis? Apparently not: It's because Musk doesn't want to risk a "runaway" climate change scenario that could snuff out human life before we've had a chance to colonize Mars, spread to the rest of the universe, and fulfill our "vast and glorious" potential — to quote longtermist Toby Ord. Earlier this year, Musk declared that "we should be much more worried about population collapse" than overpopulation. Why? Because "if there aren't enough people for Earth, then there definitely won't be enough for Mars."

There is a reason that Musk is on the scientific advisory board of the grandiosely named Future of Life Institute (FLI), to which he has donated millions of dollars. It's the same reason why he has donated similar sums to Bostrom's Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford) and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge), that he holds a position on the scientific advisory board of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and likes to talk about us living in a computer simulation and how superintelligent machines pose a "fundamental existential risk for human civilization."

By definition, an existential risk is any event that would prevent humanity from completely subjugating nature and maximizing economic productivity, both of which are seen as important by longtermists because they would enable us to develop advanced technologies and colonize space so that we can create as many happy people in simulations as physically possible. (Again, this is capitalism on steroids.) Bostrom, whom Elon Musk admires, introduced this term in the early 2000s, and it has become one of the central research topics of the "Effective Altruism" movement, which currently boasts of some $46.1 billion in committed funding and has representatives in high-level U.S. government positions (such as Jason Matheny). Reducing "existential risk" is one of the main objectives of longtermists, many of whom are also Effective Altruists.

From this perspective, the best way to be philanthropic is to not worry so much about the lives of present-day humans, except — once again — insofar as doing so will help us realize this techno-utopian future among the stars. Bostrom has described the worst atrocities in human history, including World War II and the Holocaust, as "mere ripples on the surface of the great sea of life. They haven't significantly affected the total amount of human suffering or happiness or determined the long-term fate of our species."

More recently, Bostrom has said that "unrestricted altruism is not so common that we can afford to fritter it away on a plethora of feel-good projects of suboptimal efficacy," such as helping the poor, solving world hunger, promoting LGBTQ rights and women's equality, fighting racism, eliminating factory farming and so on. He continued: "If benefiting humanity by increasing existential safety achieves expected good on a scale many orders of magnitude greater than that of alternative contributions, we would do well to focus on this most efficient philanthropy" [emphasis added]. In a 2019 paper, he suggested that we should seriously consider implementing a centralized, invasive, global surveillance system to protect human civilization from terrorists.

Indeed, another leading longtermist and Effective Altruist, Nick Beckstead, wrote in his much-cited-by-other-longtermists dissertation that since the future could be so large, and since people in rich countries are better positioned to influence the long-term future than people in poor countries, it makes sense to prioritize the lives of the former over the lives of the latter. In his words:

saving lives in poor countries may have significantly smaller ripple effects than saving and improving lives in rich countries. Why? Richer countries have substantially more innovation, and their workers are much more economically productive. [Consequently,] it now seems more plausible to me that saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country, other things being equal.

When one examines Elon Musk's behavior through the lens of longtermism, his decisions and actions make perfect sense. Sure, he makes misogynistic jokes, falsely accuses people of pedophilia, railsagainst pronouns and trans people, and spreadsCOVIDmisinformation. Yes, he exchanged messages with Jeffrey Epstein after Epstein pleaded guilty to sex trafficking minors, joked that he thought Bernie Sanders was dead, mocked support for the Ukrainian people and so on. (See here for a nauseating list.)

But the future may very well be disproportionately shaped by Musk's decisions — which are made unilaterally, with zero democratic influence — and since the future could be enormous if we colonize space, all the good that will come to exist (in the reckoning of longtermists) will dwarf all the bad that he may have done during his lifetime. The ends justify the means, in this calculus, and when the ends are literally astronomical value in some techno-utopian future world full of 10^58 happy people living in computer simulations powered by all the stars in the Virgo Supercluster, you can be the worst person in the world during your lifetime and still become the best person who ever existed in the grand scheme of things.

Elon Musk wants power. This is obvious. He's an egomaniac. But he also subscribes, so far as I can tell, to a big-picture view of humanity's spacefaring future and a morality-as-economics framework that explains, better than any of the alternatives, his actions. As I have noted elsewhere:

[Longtermism is] akin to a secular religion built around the worship of "future value," complete with its own "secularised doctrine of salvation," as the Future of Humanity Institute historian Thomas Moynihan approvingly writes in his book "X-Risk." The popularity of this religion among wealthy people in the West — especially the socioeconomic elite — makes sense because it tells them exactly what they want to hear: not only are you ethically excused from worrying too much about sub-existential threats like non-runaway climate change and global poverty, but you are actually a morally better person for focusing instead on more important things — risk that could permanently destroy "our potential" as a species of Earth-originating intelligent life.

It is deeply troubling that a single human being has so much power to determine the future course of human civilization on Earth. Oligarchy and democracy are incompatible, and we increasingly live in a world controlled in every important way by unaccountable, irresponsible, avaricious multi-billionaires. Even more worrisome than Elon Musk wanting to buy Twitter is his motivation: the longtermist vision of value, morality and the future. Indeed, whether or not the deal actually goes through — and there are hints that it might not — you should expect more power-grabs like this to come, not just from Musk but others under the spell of this intoxicating new secular religion.

Can we clean up the mess we've created? A philosopher warns the threat to civilization is here

There is a growing sense, among young people as well as older demographics, that humanity is in deep trouble, and that extracting ourselves from our current predicament is going to take a concerted effort unlike anything our species has attempted in recorded history — if it's possible at all. The IPCC recently issued a "code red for humanity" about climate change, as the UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, adding that "the alarm bells are deafening." Last year was the second warmest on record, and of the warmest 21 years, 20 have occurred since 2000. Right now, there are 416.96 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an increase of about 100 ppm since just 1960. As a point of reference, our Homoancestors lived and evolved for some 2.5 million years with ambient concentrations averaging about 250 ppm.

Advocates of the so-called "New Optimism," such as Steven Pinker, like to quote Bill Clinton's exhortation to "follow the trend lines, not the headlines." Right now, the headlines are overflowing with almost unbearably bad news, such as the bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has created heartbreaking scenes of human beings desperately clinging to the outside of passenger boarding bridges, and terrifying videos of people falling from airplanes — including a 17-year-old soccer star named Zaki Anwari. Yet this is, as most historically literate people know, the most recent culmination of many decades of failed Western-imperialist interventions in the region, including our misguided involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war, during which the U.S. backed the anti-communist Mujahideen rebels, one of whom was a Salafi jihadist known as Osama bin Laden. In 1988, bin Laden founded al-Qaida (meaning "The Base"), an apocalyptic group that was of course responsible for the catastrophic terrorist attacks of 9/11, which provided the pretext for subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and, later, Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11, nor was it manufacturing weapons of mass destruction).

So, what do the trend lines show? The rapid takeover of Afghanistan from the Taliban is fueling worries that al-Qaida could make a comeback, which once again raises the prospect of terrorist attacks against the U.S. Although al-Qaida is weaker than before, it is worth recalling that the core membership of the group in 2002 was only around 170 people. But this time around the inventory of political grievances that drive Islamist terrorism has grown, thanks to the U.S.-led pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, the indefinite detention of "detainees" in Guantánamo Bay, the use of torture as "enhanced interrogation" and so on.

One heard the slogan "never forget" from Americans ad nauseamafter 9/11, but the cultural memory of peoples in the Middle East is far more robust than ours. Consider "The Management of Savagery," an influential jihadist manual published in 2004, which foregrounds a number of past foreign policy missteps by the West, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the aftermath of World War I. As the now-deceased "caliph" of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared in 2014, "this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy." If events from the World War I era have prominently driven extremism over the years, imagine how long the atrocities committed by Western forces since 2001 will continue to motivate actions and recruitment in the future. To borrow an insight from Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, terrorism is a demand-driven rather than supply-limited phenomenon.

Add to this the fact that emerging technologies, most notably synthetic biology, cyber-technologies and artificial intelligence, will place unprecedented destructive power in the hands of non-state actors — e.g., terrorists — meaning that the next 9/11 could claim far more victims. In fact, ISIS — which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq and espoused an even more violently apocalyptic ideology — explicitly fantasized about weaponizing the bubonic plague. As an ISIS member who was educated in physics and chemistry wrote in a document obtained by the U.S., "the advantages of biological weapons is the low cost and high rate of casualties."

The growing power and accessibility of so-called "dual-use" technologies (those that can be used to benefit humanity or inflict terrible harms) is one of the main reasons global catastrophic risk scholars believe the threat of civilizational collapse and even human extinction is higher today than ever before. As Lord Martin Rees famously speculated in his 2003 book "Our Final Hour," civilization has no better than a 50/50 chance of surviving this century. Three years earlier, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy, compellingly argued in a much-discussed Wired article that, because of technology,

it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.

The intersection of these historical and technological trend lines — of religio-political terrorism and the democratization of science and technology — do not bode well for the future. Add to this the fact that climate change may have played an integral role in the creation of ISIS (by causing record-breaking droughts in Syria that fueled the Syrian civil war, which spawned the organization), and one wonders whether the mayhem since late 2001 might be a mere preview of what's to come.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the political backdrop of these developments is an unraveling of the fabric of democracy itself. A sizable portion of the Republican Party has backed the "Big Lie" that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, which led to the murderous Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden. As Ray Roseberry, a Trump supporter who recently parked his truck next to the Library of Congress claiming to have a bomb, said during a Facebook livestream: "You have two options here, Joe [Biden]: you shoot me, [and] there's two and a half blocks going with me. You're talking about a revolution, the revolution is on, it's here, it's today."

Republicans are painfully aware that their chances of winning the presidency are slim — the Democrats, for example, have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections — and consequently party leaders are taking flagrantly authoritarian steps to enable state legislatures to overturn the will of the people in 2024. Election law expert and University of California professor Richard Hasen recently described this as extremely alarming, stating on CNN's "New Day": "I never expected to say I'd be scared shitless on CNN, but that's how I feel."

What do these trend lines indicate? Internationally, the world has slid into a "democratic recession," with more than half of countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index of 2018 having seen their scores decline. According to Hoover Institution political scientist Larry Diamond, who coined the term, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the trend. Within the U.S., anti-democratic sentiment appears to be nearly unstoppable, as most of the Republican Party has hitched its political future to the former occupant of the Oval Office. Populism remains a defining feature of the political landscape, and the political right has wholeheartedly embraced what might best be described as a zeitgeist of radical anti-intellectualism. A case in point is the increasingly raucous outbursts, some caught on video, over basic public health measures like wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has been doused with fuel by right-wing pundits spouting conspiracy theories and anti-science rhetoric like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Phil Valentine, the last of whom recently died of the disease.

One also finds this zeitgeist behind the moral panic surrounding "woke" culture and, more specifically, critical race theory (CRT), which few people know the first thing about. The conservative commentator Mark Levin, for example, has repeatedly argued on camera and in his best-selling book "American Marxism" that this originated from the "Franklin School," (he means "Frankfurt School") based in Berlin (it was based in, well, Frankfurt). Does anyone care about such inaccuracies? No, because the political right has successfully established an epistemological regime, so to speak, in which experts, scientists, scholars and anyone else with genuine knowledge cannot be trusted. Our universities are infected by "postmodern neo-Marxism" (an oxymoron), Dr. Anthony Fauci is an "enemy to our nation," and members of the so-called "mainstream media" are, in Trump's words, "dopes," "scum" and "animals."

Reinforcing such dangerous delusions are social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that enable "fake news" and "alternative facts" to propagate like the common cold, infecting the minds of informationally illiterate consumers — mostly older people sympathetic with right-wing views. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier opines in "The Social Dilemma," social media has become one of the most pressing existential threats to democracy today. "If we go down the status quo for, let's say, another 20 years," he says, "we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance."

Unfortunately, this situation is likely to get worse in the coming years due to AI-enabled phenomena like "deepfakes." Imagine the difficulty of discerning truth from lies when a society, already in disarray from a broken educational system, is bombarded with high-resolutions, hyper-realistic deepfake audio-visual recordings designed to sow further chaos, distrust and enmity between rival factions. Who will any of us trust when our senses themselves become unreliable sources of information? Already, Trump has convinced his followers not to trust their eyes and ears: "What you're seeing and what you're reading," he said in 2018, "is not what's happening." But what happens when this becomes reasonable advice for all of us?

I am reminded here of Carl Sagan's prescient warning during a 1996 interview about the importance of understanding the nature of science and our rapidly evolving technological milieu:

We've arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces.

This is precisely what's happening today. It is, I would argue, one of the most important trend lines to watch, as it binds together everything mentioned above: the future of terrorism (at home and abroad), rise of anti-intellectualism, decline of democracy, rejection of public health advice, spread of conspiracy theories, proliferation of fake news and denial of anthropogenic environmental crises that now threaten the very livability of Spaceship Earth. How can we possibly reverse these trends? How can we hope to navigate the obstacle course of unprecedented hazards before us while the vessel of civilization is heading in the wrong direction? What if we are clever enough as a species to make a sprawling planetary mess of things but not clever enough to tidy things up — which is, in broad strokes, what astrobiologists call the "Doomsday Hypothesis," which states that advanced civilizations like ours self-destruct before colonizing space or becoming intergalactically communicable?

Some have in fact argued, plausibly, that "social media is making us dumber." Worse, studies suggest that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the ambient air will literally impair cognitive functioning, meaning that, as Daniel Grossman writes in a Yale Climate Connections article, "the fuel we burn might not only warm the planet but could also make us a bit dumber." And this is on top of an estimated 41 million IQ points that "Americans have collectively forfeited … as a result of exposure to lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides," according to calculations from the Harvard neurologist David Bellinger. (I am highly skeptical of IQ as a meaningful measure of intelligence, but the point stands: Neurotoxins like lead cause permanent brain damage.)

All of this is to say that at precisely the moment when humanity must confront problems of unprecedented complexity — at precisely the moment when the stakes, our survival, have never been higher — we find ourselves less capable than ever. To paraphrase Christopher Williams in his book "Terminus Brain," the human brain is the only organ in our bodies that is actively trying to destroy itself. This is unsettling on its own terms, but the fact is that, as already alluded to, "we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity," as the late Stephen Hawking wrote in 2016. According to a 2012 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, "humanity must now produce more food in the next four decades than we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined," while already upwards of 811 million people are undernourished, resulting in "the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN," to quote UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien. "We stand at a critical point in history."

Yet not only is the global population expected to grow to 11.2 billion by the century's end (as a point of reference, the population was about 2 billion in 1930), but climate change, soil degradation, ocean acidification, overfishing, habitat destruction, ecosystem fragmentation, pollution and other anthropogenic perturbations threaten to destroy large portions of the biosphere upon which we depend for our survival. Consider, for example, a 2006 study that estimated there would be no more wild-caught seafood by 2048, which could have devastating effects given that "fish now accounts for almost 17 percent of the global population's intake of protein." Meanwhile, a recent count from the marine biologist Robert Diaz and colleagues found more than 500 "dead zones" around the world, meaning hypoxic regions in which nearly all aquatic life is impossible.

Making matters worse, about 26 percent of the CO2 released into the atmosphere ends up being absorbed by the oceans, which then produces carbonic acid. Today, this process is occurring at an incredibly rapid rate — about four timesas fast as the oceans acidified during the worst mass extinction event in life's 3.8-billion-year history, called the "Great Dying" or "End-Permian Extinction," during which roughly 81 percent of marine species perished. The situation is so dire that the shells of "tiny marine snails that live along North America's western coast" are actually dissolving, resulting in "pitted textures" that give the shells a "cauliflower" or "sandpaper" appearance.

On land, the 2020 Living Planet Report, published by the WWF, finds that the global population of wild vertebrates has fallen by a mind-boggling 68 percent since 1970. Other studies have affirmed that, as a result of global biodiversity loss, we are entering the sixth major mass extinction in biological history, and that continued degradation risks initiating a catastrophic, irreversible collapse of the global ecosystem.

"Comparison of the present extent of planetary change," the authors write, "with that characterizing past global-scale state shifts, and the enormous global forcings we continue to exert, suggests that another global-scale state shift is highly plausible within decades to centuries, if it has not already been initiated." A more recent paper co-authored by some of the most prominent scientists in the world warns that "self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a 'Hothouse Earth' pathway even as human emissions are reduced." A "Hothouse Earth" scenario would, they add, likely "be uncontrollable and dangerous to many … and it poses severe risks for health, economies, political stability (especially for the most climate vulnerable), and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans."

Averting the worst-case outcomes will require a concerted global effort, a degree of geopolitical coordination and adoption of science-based policies never before seen in human history. Yet, as mentioned, many of the most important trend lines are pointing in exactly the wrong direction. Many people on the political right, for example, are no less worried than Greta Thunberg and her activist peers about societal collapse, although the spotlight of their attention is focused entirely on the illusory threats of "postmodern neo-Marxism," "wokeness" and CRT rather than the genuine risks associated with climate change, biodiversity loss, emerging technologies, future infectious disease outbreaks and so on. So far, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has not been encouraging: Even 1.5 years into this global disaster, "a whopping 29 percent of Republicans" refuse to get vaccinated. I have little doubt that even once the deleterious effects of climate change are ubiquitous in the U.S.— and we're quicklygettingthere — many will persist in denialism, as a strategy for alleviating their cognitive dissonance.

Alternatively, given the prevalence of evangelical dispensationalism in the U.S. — a view that, as the philosopher Jerry Wells observes, "inclines its adherents not only to despair of changing the world for good, but even to take a certain grim satisfaction in the face of wars and natural disasters" — ecological catastrophes could actually reinforce the expectation of an imminent apocalypse, thereby encouraging further inaction on curbing the environmental crisis. In other words, the environmental crisis could strengthen religious belief, which could in turn exacerbate the problem. Although Christianity is waning in the U.S., it is growing globally, with PEW projecting another 750 million Christians in total by 2050. (Meanwhile, the percentage of religiously "unaffiliated" people will shrink from 16.4 to 13.2 percent over the same time period.)

So, the trend lines are, in the most crucial respects, no less dismal than the headlines, contra New Optimists like Pinker — whose scholarship on "existential threats" is, as I have shown, seriously flawed. There is every reason to be pessimistic, not for mindless ideological reasons but because the balance of evidence suggests that humanity has dug itself into a hole from which escape looks increasingly impossible. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, slightly more than a year before the Cuban missile crisis — later described by Arthur Schlesinger as "the most dangerous moment in human history" — President John F. Kennedy gave an address before the UN General Assembly in which he declared that

today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

We still live under this nuclear sword, which is one reason the iconic Doomsday Clock lingers ominously at a mere 100 seconds before midnight, or doom. But the nuclear sword has been joined by the swords of climate change, biodiversity loss and dangerous new technologies, while deepfakes, social media, environmentally mediated cognitive decline, anti-intellectualism, the democratic recession and foreign policy blunders threaten humanity with "death by a million cuts," as it were. I have no idea how this ends — perhaps the Doomsday Hypothesis really does explain the eerie silence of our galactic neighborhood — but now is the time to do everything we can, together and as individuals, to steer the ship of humanity in the direction of safety. Time is of the essence, and the stakes are no less than our survival as a species.

Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

It was inspiring — really inspiring. I remember watching clip after clip of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens debating Christians, Muslims and "purveyors of woo," exposing the fatuity of their faith-based beliefs in superstitious nonsense unsupported by empirical evidence, often delivered to self-proclaimed prophets by supernatural beings via the epistemically suspicious channel of private revelation. Not that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens were saying anything particularly novel— the inconsistencies and contradictions of religious dogma are apparent even to small children. Why did God have to sacrifice his son for our sins? Does Satan have free will? And how can the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be completely separate entities but also one and the same?

The "New Atheist" movement, which emerged from the bestselling books of the aforementioned authors, was the intellectual community that many of us 15 or so years ago were desperately looking for — especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which seemed to confirm Samuel P. Huntington's infamous "clash of civilizations" thesis. As Harris once put it, with many of us naively agreeing, "We are at war with Islam." (Note: This was a dangerous and xenophobic lie that helped get Donald Trump elected. As Harris said in 2006, anticipating how his brand of Islamophobia would enable Trump's rise, "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.")

New Atheism appeared to offer moral clarity, it emphasized intellectual honesty and it embraced scientific truths about the nature and workings of reality. It gave me immense hope to know that in a world overflowing with irrationality, there were clear-thinking individuals with sizable public platforms willing to stand up for what's right and true — to stand up for sanity in the face of stupidity.

Fast-forward to the present: What a grift that was! Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized. This may sound hyperbolic, but it's not when, well, you look at the evidence. So I thought it might be illuminating to take a look at where some of the heavy hitters in the atheist and "skeptic" communities are today. What do their legacies look like? In what direction have they taken their cultural quest to secularize the world?

Let's see if you can spot a pattern:

Sam Harris: Arguably the progenitor of New Atheism, Harris was for me one of the more entertaining atheists. More recently, though, he has expended a prodigious amount of time and energy vigorously defending the scientific racism of Charles Murray. He believes that IQ is a good measure of intelligence. He argued to Josh Zepps during a podcast interview not only that black people are less intelligent than white people, but that this is because of genetic evolution. He has consistently given white nationalists a pass while arguing that Black Lives Matter is overly contentious, and has stubbornly advocated profiling "Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim," at airports. (When Harris believes he's right about something, it becomes virtually impossible to talk him out of it, no matter how many good arguments, expert opinions or hard data are presented to him. Like Donald Trump, he's pretty much unteachable.) Harris has also partly blamed the election loss of Hilary Clinton on "safe spaces, trigger warnings, [and] new gender pronouns," released a private email exchange with Ezra Klein without Klein's permission, and once suggested that New Atheism is male-dominated because it lacks an "extra estrogen vibe."

His primary focus these days is boosting the moral panic over "social justice warriors" (SJWs), "political correctness" and "wokeism," which he apparently believes pose a dire threat to "Western civilization" (a word that has a lot of meaning for white nationalists). Consequently, Harris has become popular among right-wingers, and the sentiment of solidarity appears to be mutual. For example, he's described Ben Shapiro as being "committed to the … rules of intellectual honesty and to the same principles of charity with regard to other people's positions," which is odd given that Shapiro is a pathological liar who routinely misconstrues his opponents in service of a racist, misogynistic, climate-denying agenda.

Michael Shermer: The founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, which once published a favorable review of Milo Yiannopoulos' book "Dangerous" and a defense of child-rapist Jerry Sandusky, Shermer made a name for himself as a "skeptic." However, his legacy has been overshadowed by, among other things, a protracted history of sexual harassment and assault allegations, with James Randi once calling him "a bad boy" whom numerous people at atheism conferences had complained about. In 2014, he was accused of rape, which he later flippantly joked about on Twitter. Since then, he has dedicated an impressive amount of time belittling "SJWs" and "the woke," often hurling ad hominem attacks and middle-school insults towards those with whom he disagrees. For example, Shermer has referred to "SJWs" as "mealy-mouthed, whiney, sniveling, and obsequious," and "a bunch of weak-kneed namby-pamby bedwetters." He once tweeted, in Trumpian fashion: "Know this Regressive Lefters/SJWs — you will lose. Those of us who believe in truth & justice will prevail. Yours is a failed ideology. Losers." After I wrote a critique of Steven Pinker's recent book "Enlightenment Now!", which contains many serious errors, Shermer took to Twitter to call me a "cockroach." None of this should be that surprising, since he describes himself as an anti-woke, anti-reparationslibertarian who thinks Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is "a remarkable book."

But be careful: Shermer has also acknowledged, in writing, that he's fantasized about murdering people. "Or, if not actually killing the particular bastard," he reports, "at the very least I imagine dislocating his jaw with a crushing roundhouse knuckle sandwich that sent him reeling to the pavement." This comes from his book "The Moral Arc," which received an extended, glowing blurb from Steven Pinker.

Lawrence Krauss: A world-renowned cosmologist who authored "A Universe From Nothing" and ran the Origins Project formerly at Arizona State University, Krauss was among the most academically accomplished of the New Atheists. In 2018, though, he was dismissed from his job as director of the Origins Project after an investigation found that he had violated the sexual harassment policy of the university "by groping a woman's breast while on an ASU-funded trip in late 2016." He has also repeatedly and vigorously defended his onetime friend Jeffrey Epstein, the child sex trafficker, who "donated $250,000 to the Origins Project over a seven-year span." According to a 2011 Daily Beast article, Krauss claimed, "I don't feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it," adding that he didn't believe the "beautiful women and young women" surrounding Epstein were underage. (Plenty of other people have said it was impossible not to realize that, and Krauss himself has acknowledged that Epstein favored "women ages 19 to 23," which surely should have been a red flag.) After a 2018 BuzzFeed article detailing some of the sexual harassment allegations against Krauss was published, a flood of further accusations emerged online, some of which I catalogued here.

Richard Dawkins: Once a heavyweight within the world of evolutionary biology, Dawkins energized atheists the world over with his book "The God Delusion." Over time, though, it became increasingly clear that he's neither an adult-in-the-room nor a particularly nice guy. For some bizarre reason, he obsessively targeted a Muslim teenager in Texas, who was arrested after a homemade clock he brought to school was wrongly thought to be a bomb. He also flipped out over what came to be called "Elevatorgate," which began with Rebecca Watson calmly asking men to be thoughtful and considerate about how they make women feel at conferences — for example, in the enclosed space of an elevator. This resulted in a flood of rape and death threats directed toward Watson, while Dawkins mocked the situation by writing a shocking letter addressed "Dear Muslima," in which the first line was "Stop whining, will you." More recently, he's made it clear that he isn't bothered by the allegations against Krauss, and posted seemingly anti-trans comments on Twitter. When asked why Twitter has caused him so much trouble, he claimed: "I love truth too much." (For Dawkins' troubling views on aborting fetuses with Down Syndrome, see this.)

James Lindsay: Once a promising young atheist, Lindsay published "Everybody Is Wrong About God" in 2015 and, three years later, "How to Have Impossible Conversations," co-authored with Peter Boghossian (below). Referring to himself as "apolitical" but boasting a profile page on the right-wing, anti-free-speech organization Turning Point USA, he is now one of the most unhinged crusaders against "critical race theory" (CRT), an idea about which he seems to have very littleactual knowledge. (This is unsurprising, given that Lindsay has literally argued that he doesn't need to understand "gender studies" to call for the entire field to be canceled. See #10 here.) Over the past few years, he has teamed up with Christian nationalist and COVID conspiracist Michael O'Fallon, and now rakes in plenty of cash via Patreon — proof that grifting about "free speech" and "CRT" pays. Known for his social media presence, Lindsay has called women he disagrees with "bitches," while — seriously — hurling "your mom" insults at intellectual opponents who point out his mendacities. He recently argued that antisemitism is caused by woke Jews (i.e., they're doing it to themselves), spread COVID conspiracy theories, and claimed in 2020 that people should vote for Donald Trump (as he did) because Joe Biden is a neo-Marxist, or will succumb to the influence of scary neo-Marxists like Black Lives Matter.

Last year, Lindsay co-authored the commercially successful book "Cynical Theories," which received a glowing endorsement from Steven Pinker but repeatedly misrepresents the ideas of those it hysterically, and incorrectly, claims are tearing down "Western civilization." And let's not get into his wildly delusional conspiracy theories about the "Great Reset," which apparently, as someone Lindsay retweeted put it, "aims to introduce a new global planetary diet"! If you want to understand Lindsay's worldview, I suggest reading Jason Stanley's excellent book "How Fascism Works," which captures the anti-intellectual, anti-academic, anti-social justice spirit of Lindsay's activism perfectly.

Peter Boghossian: A "philosopher" at Portland State University and "longtime collaborator of Stefan Molyneux" (a white supremacist demagogue who once declared, "I don't view humanity as a single species …"), Boghossian wrote "A Manual for Creating Atheists" in 2013. A year later, he tweeted: "I've never understood how someone could be proud of being gay. How can one be proud of something one didn't work for?" This was followed by a defense of Nazis (no one outside Hitler's Germany should ever be called a "Nazi"), and a stern rejection of the historically accurate claim that "slavery … was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. It was an … American institution, created by and for the benefit of the elites."

In 2017, Boghossian and Lindsay attempted to "hoax" gender studies by publishing a fake article in a peer-reviewed gender studies journal (note: the journal had nothing to do with gender studies). But it turned out this was based on a demonstrable lie, which they of course never admitted. Their paper ultimately ended up in a pay-to-publish journal. That was followed by an even more elaborate and even more bad-faith "hoax," which resulted in a response from Portland State University professors alleging that "basic spite and a perverse interest in public humiliation seem to have overridden any actual scholarly goals." Indeed, Boghossian and his crew failed to get institutional review board approval for this experiment, resulting in serious accusations of unethical actions. "I believe the results of this office's view of your research behavior," wrote the vice president for "research and graduate studies" at Boghossian's university, "raises concerns regarding a lack of academic integrity, questionable ethical behavior, and employee breach of rules." On May 6 of this year, Boghossian — a vocal critic of "cancel culture" — called for "the defunding of Portland State University," which he incorrectly described as promoting "illiberal ideologies." (See here for more.)

David Silverman: Silverman made a name for himself as a "firebrand" atheist, even appearing on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show several times to take on "Papa Bear" himself. But "explosive … allegations of sexual assault and undisclosed conflicts of interest" got Silverman fired from American Atheists, where he was president. In the years since, he has given voice to a stream of grievances about feminism, social justice and the like, referring to social justice as "a cancerous social movement" that "has to be undone," adding: "I have a lot of regrets for being in your whiney culty immitation [sic] of feminism." The same day, he spoke with Sargon of Akkad (aka Carl Benjamin, a member of Britain's far-right party UKIP) about "Feminist Tyranny." (More here, here and here.)

Steven Pinker: To many of us early on, Pinker seemed to genuinely care about maintaining his intellectual integrity. But, once again, high expectations only meant a harder crash. Consider that Pinker has claimed that rape is often "over-reported." To support this, he cites right-wingers like Christina Hoff Sommers and Heather MacDonaldas primary sources. Over the past few years, he has become unhealthily fixated on "political correctness," social justice and "wokeness," and participated in the 2017 "Unsafe Space Tour" of college campuses, organized by the right-libertarian magazine Spiked. It also came out, much to Pinker's chagrin, that he'd assisted the legal defense of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, even appearing in photographs with Epstein taken after the latter was convicted of sex crimes in 2008. Here's a picture of Pinker with Dawkins (and fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett) flying to a TED Conference with Epstein. Pinker's response? It's hard to make this up: despite being a vociferous "opponent" of censorship — bad ideas must be exposed to the light! Free speech must never be hindered! — Pinker blocked half of Twitter to stop people from mentioning his past links to this rapist and pedophile. Of course this backfired, drawing even more attention to the issue, a phenomenon that I call the "Pinker-Epstein Effect" (which is nearly identical to the Streisand Effect but specific to, well, Pinker and Epstein). Although Pinker was never as prominently connected to "New Atheism" as the others, his influence within the movement, partly because of his advocacy for secularism, is undeniable. (See here for more.)

This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it's enough to make clear the epistemic and moral turpitude of this crowd. There is nothing ad hominem in saying this, by the way: The point is simply that the company one keeps matters. What's sad is that the New Atheist movement could have made a difference — a positive difference — in the world. Instead, it gradually merged with factions of the alt-right to become what former New York Times contributing editor Bari Weiss calls the "Intellectual Dark Web" (IDW), a motley crew of pseudo-intellectuals whose luminaries include Jordan Peterson, Eric and Bret Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro, in addition to those mentioned above.

At the heart of this merger was the creation of a new religious movement of sorts centered around the felt loss of power among white men due to the empowerment of other people. When it was once acceptable, according to cultural norms, for men to sexually harass women with impunity, or make harmful racist and sexist comments without worrying about losing a speaking opportunity, being held accountable can feel like an injustice, even though the exact opposite is the case. Pinker, Shermer and some of the others like to preach about "moral progress," but in fighting social justice under the misleading banner of "free speech," they not only embolden fascists but impede further moral progress for the marginalized.

Another way to understand the situation goes like this: Some of these people acted badly in the past. Others don't want to worry about accusations of acting badly in the future. Still others are able to behave themselves but worry that their friends could get in trouble for past or future bad behavior. Consequently, the most immediate, pressing threat to their "well-being" has shifted from scary Muslim immigrants, evangelical Christians and violent terrorists to 19-year-old kids on college campuses and BLM activists motivated by "wokeness." This is why Lindsay has teamed up with a Christian nationalist and why Boghossian talks about the "Great Realignment" in which anti-woke alarmists, like him, end up joining hands with "conservative Christians" in "Culture War 2.0."

What ties these people together is an aggrieved sense of perpetual victimhood. Christians, of course, believe that they are relentlessly persecuted (note: they aren't). The IDWs similarly believe that they are the poor helpless victims of "CRT," "standpoint theory" and other bogeymen of woke academia. But really, if "Grievance Studies" studies anything, it should be how this group of extremely privileged white men came to believe that they are the real casualties of systemic oppression.

An excellent example of this delusion comes from an inadvertently hilarious interview with Boghossian for the Epoch Times, a media company associated with the Falun Gong movement that is "fueling the far-right in Europe" and has spread COVID conspiracy theories. In it, Boghossian warns that "woke ideology" has produced "a recipe for cultural suicide." This has led him — the co-author of "How to Have Impossible Conversations"— to spout extremist rhetoric like this:

I'm done playing. … I am waging full-scale ideological warfare against the enemies of Western Civilization. … We must broker absolutely zero tolerance with this ideology, and the only way forward at this point is full-scale ideological war, and I will take no prisoners, … . I seek the complete eradication and extirpation of the ideology from every facet of life.

That's scary, intolerant and even fascistic. And it's exactly where the New Atheism movement has ended up, to the exasperation of those who still care about secularism.

To conclude, let me bring things full circle: At least some studies have shown that, to quote Phil Zuckerman, secular people are "markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian" than religious people. It's a real shame that New Atheism, now swallowed up by the IDW and the far right, turned out to be just as prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian as many of the religious groups they initially deplored.

Sam Harris is a lot like Donald Trump

Sam Harris is a lot like Donald Trump. To many readers, this may sound either obviously false or trivially true — after all, everything is like everything else in at least some way. But what I mean is quite substantive: There are important ways in which the strategy that Harris uses to communicate with his audience is strikingly similar to Trump's. This should worry us, because both speak with unwarranted confidence about topics they don't understand and have sizable audiences that are generally inclined not to question the wisdom and omniscience of their chosen leaders.

Keep reading...Show less

The problem with Steven Pinker, Sam Harris and the epidemic of annoying white male intellectuals

In a recent article for Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson describes Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker as “the most annoying man in the world” because Pinker is the type of person who constantly insists he’s “Just Being Reasonable” while he is actually “being extremely goddamn unreasonable.” Although Robinson’s article was a bit harsh in tone, it gestures at something very real: we’re in the midst of an epidemic of “intellectuals,” almost entirely white men, who claim to embody Reason and Rationality while flagrantly and habitually succumbing to the same tribalistic tendencies that they identify as the Ultimate Enemy.

Keep reading...Show less

What Happens After the Next Big Terrorist Attack? Trump Is Paving the Way Toward a Terrifying Crackdown

Terrorism has never been so dangerous. Even a single terrorist attack against American troops abroad or — more worrisome — a “soft target” here in the United States could have potentially catastrophic consequences for the stability and future of Western civilization.

Perhaps you’re skeptical of this claim, and you should be. After all, the average American has a greater chance of dying from a meteorite strike than a terrorist attack. But there are other reasons for considering the threat of terrorism to be greater today than at any moment since, say, the 18th century, when the word “terrorism” emerged from the French Revolution.

Consider some remarks made by our former president, that tyrannical Muslim socialist who never should have been president because he was born in Kenya. During the 2010 State of the Union address, Barack Obama said the following:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.

Many people, including conservatives, were outraged. A Republican from Utah called it “rude,” while even Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a Democrat, described these comments as “inappropriate.” As the Washington Post put it,“legal experts [have] never seen anything quite like it, a rare and unvarnished showdown between two political branches during what is usually the careful choreography of the State of the Union address.”

The reason for such outrage is that, as the political scientist Alastair Smith notes in an interview with Salon, an independent judiciary is an absolutely critical bulwark against dictatorship. In Smith’s words, “A dictator closes down courts and gets rid of the independent judiciary.” Indeed, this is what one must do to consolidate political power on the road to autocracy. Thus, any perceived challenge to the legitimacy of the courts from the executive branch is a potential threat to democracy itself.

But note how Obama couched his criticism: “With all due deference to separation of powers …” This is an explicit affirmation of the judiciary being, and remaining, an independent entity capable of “checking and balancing” the other two governmental branches.

In contrast to such careful language, though, our current authoritarian leader, Donald Trump, recently engaged in an attack on the courts that should utterly horrify every champion of democracy, whether on the left or right end of the political spectrum. First, Trump attacked the U.S. District judge, appointed by George W. Bush, who ordered a nationwide halt on Trump’s “Muslim ban,” saying, “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”

Here Trump is attacking an individual rather than the judiciary in general. But it quickly gets worse. Several hours later, Trump decided that it was a good idea to tweet, “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?”

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that zero — that’s zero — Syrian refugees allowed into the U.S. through our procrustean refugee program have been involved in a fatal terrorist attack. Virtually all of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. have involved American citizens, not refugees or immigrants. And some attacks, like the recent incident in Quebec that resulted in six deaths and 19 injuries, aren’t typically even characterized as terrorist attacks, since white males who commit atrocities are almost invariably described as “mentally ill” rather than inspired by some noxious or terrorist ideology.

The most bone-chilling tweet, though, came a day later, on Feb. 5: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”

The key phrase here is “blame him and court system.” I don’t think Trump has the intellectual capacity to plot diabolical schemes — despite his claim to have one of the highest IQs in the world — but what’s taking shape here is a situation in which just one terrorist attack abroad or at home will enable Trump to point the finger of responsibility at the judiciary: “If only they’d listened to me,” he might declare, “then we’d be safe. Because our country is under attack. They want to kill us and chop off our heads! We need to shut down these bad, bad judges and their horrible courts before a mushroom cloud rises over New York City.”

A significant portion of the conservative right will eagerly believe Trump, because another of Trump’s alarming tactics has been to delegitimize the press, which he now routinely calls “the opposition party.” Using Twitter to gain direct access to his followers, Trump will try to mobilize a small army of angry, ignorant xenophobes to see the independent judiciary as an enemy against America — essentially, as traitorous elites who don’t have national security in their best interest. Consequently, this group of followers will welcome an erosion of the court’s power — again, in the name of domestic protection against “the Muslims.”

So the dominos are in place for a major, sudden constitutional crisis. What’s frightening about this unstable equilibrium is that another terrorist attack will almost certainly happen within the next four years, if not the next year or coming months. It’s not so much a matter of if but when this takes place, as terrorism scholars unanimously agree. And once this does happen, those who still believe in American democracy will need to be vigilant and proactive in defending the only branch of government that currently stands between democracy and autocracy.

But there is an additional layer of complexity to this situation. Not only is terrorism going to continue to threaten the West, but Trump’s rhetoric and travel ban themselves will exacerbate the threat. Indeed, Trump has already appeared in propaganda by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia, and as Jeb Bush judiciously noted during the Republican primary, we need allies in the Middle East to help combat the problem of terrorism overseas. Implementing what appears to be a “Muslim ban” will only serve to alienate these groups.

Just recently, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, thanked Trump for showing “the true face” of the U.S., a claim that further reinforces the self-fulfilling prophecy of a “clash of civilizations.”

Another egregious consequence of this debacle is that it will fuel Islamophobia in the U.S. — that is, feed an irrational fear of Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom are peaceful. There are multiple ingredients that contribute to radicalization, and identity crises are one. When someone feels isolated and ostracized from society, for example, because the president suggests that Muslim terrorist attacks occur so often that they don’t even get covered, that person is more likely to find extremist ideologies palatable. This is a fact of human psychology in general, not of Islam in particular.

Once adopted, such ideologies can lead otherwise moderate believers to pursue atrocities like the San Bernardino attack or the Bowling Green massacre — if, that is, the latter had actually happened. (It didn’t.)

As Steven Pinker states in an interview, Trump does indeed pose a threat to democracy. He adds:

I think that after 240 years, American democracy is too robust to be overturned by one man. To convert a democracy into an autocracy requires disabling an enormous, distributed infrastructure: legislators who have to respond to constituents and lobbyists, judges with reputations to uphold, bureaucrats who are responsible for the missions of their departments, and the tens of millions of people who have to carry out their jobs in order that the government and society function.

The point is that Americans must not let down our guard, not even for a moment. It will ultimately be up to us — the voters, our representatives and the judges who constrain Trump’s haphazard executive orders — to fight the inevitable backlash against democracy after the next terrorist attack occurs.

Keep reading...Show less

Just How Close Is Donald Trump to Becoming a Full-Blown Dictator?

There is widespread agreement among political commentators that Donald Trump is a unique figure in the political history of the United States — and a uniquely dangerous one as well. David Frum recently published a chilling article in The Atlantic titled “How to Build an Autocracy,” and The Washington Post’s John McNeill suggested last year that Trump was a “semi-fascist,” according to a set of robust criteria assembled by “dozens of top historians and political scientists.”

As the comedian Jon Stewart recently said on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “We have never faced this before: purposeful, vindictive chaos.”

There are many immediate reasons to be worried about a Trump presidency, from his “Muslim ban” that will almost certainly exacerbate terrorism to his normalization of bad epistemology, which has taken the form of fake news, “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories. But what about the long-term stability of American democracy? What might be the consequences of Trump’s policies for the younger generations among us? Could our democracy sink into autocracy, as some fear?

To answer these questions, I contacted Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, professors at New York University and the co-authors of “The Dictator’s Handbook.” Published in 2011 but more relevant than ever, this book offers a fascinating exploration of how people gain and sustain control over power structures like governments and corporations. For a marvelous overview of their ideas, I encourage readers to watch “The Rules for Rulers,” a video based on “The Dictator’s Handbook” that went viral last year.

I contacted Bueno de Mesquita and Smith over Skype for an engaging 38-minute chat. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity; hyperlinks have also been added.)

What are, in your opinions, the most important differences between democracy and dictatorship?

Alastair Smith: We like to think of them as not being distinct but existing on a continuum. They actually share many features. At the top of an organization there’s a person who wants to stay at the top of the organization, and so they generate policies that get people who enable them to stay there to support them. So the difference is a degree of magnitude as to how many people you need.

To win the presidency in the U.S., you’re looking at tens of millions of voters, although the number is much smaller than you might first expect because of the Electoral College. You only really need two and a half of the seats in the marginal districts of the marginal states. But it’s still a very large number. Whereas somewhere like North Korea, we’ve had experts arguing with us about whether it’s 11 people that are really important and whether the 12th guy is really that important or not.

So for us they’re not inherently different, merely different in scale. The fundamental dimensions of politics are the same: You want to keep power and you need supporters to keep you in power; the question is how many supporters you need to do this.

What are the hallmarks of a society shifting from one to the other — let’s say, of a democracy sliding into dictatorship, which many people are concerned about today?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: The key issue is how many people the leader needs to depend on and keep happy so as not to lose power. For an autocracy becoming a democracy, it’s a question of expanding the number of people to which you’re accountable. For a democracy to become more autocratic, it’s an issue of depending on fewer people. But this is not a linear process.

If I may be a little technical: When you depend on very few people, they’re getting a lot of private benefits. As you start to expand the number of people you depend on, they’re getting fewer and fewer private benefits while society is getting more and more public benefits. Eventually the public benefits come to exceed the private benefits and even the supporters are better off than under autocracy. Once this happens, there’s no incentive to move backwards because people will be made worse off rather than better. So mature democracies don’t become authoritarian. They can oscillate a bit and become more or less democratic, but they don’t become dictatorships. Indeed, if we’re talking about a mature democracy, one where the institutions are in place, it has never happened before. This offers a little hope.

Having said that, it’s not a super-rare thing for presidents to get elected without a majority vote. In fact, it’s very common. And there are multiple instances of presidents losing the popular vote: For example, George W. Bush and Rutherford B. Hayes. But in Trump’s case, the number of critical, pivotal voters whose support made the difference between winning and losing is only about 70,000 people. If Trump can keep those 70,000 people really happy, and keep the looser part of his coalition adequately happy, then he can do a lot of what he wants.

How did you come up with the number 70,000?

Bueno de Mesquita: It’s the number of votes — specific votes — that would have to be moved for the Electoral College to have gone for Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump. Trump positioned his votes, in that sense, really efficiently. Abraham Lincoln, by the way, moved something like 7,000 votes. If he had not done so, Stephen Douglas would have been president! Lincoln was incredibly efficient in converting votes into victory.

In your view, how worrisome is Donald Trump’s apparent delegitimizing of the press? For example, Trump called CNN “fake news,” Steve Bannon told the media to “keep its mouth shut.” And both have repeatedly described the media as the “opposition party.” Is this a dangerous push towards a less democratic form of governance?

Smith: People tend to think of democracy as just being about free and fair elections. But democracy is about a lot more than that, at least in the way we view things. For example, Iran actually has very free and fair elections, but there are real restrictions on who can run. And there are real media restrictions as well.

What’s very important is that people have the rights of free speech and an independent media. I don’t see Trump being particularly successful at making the media be quiet. It’s worrying that he gets away with some of it. But he’s now being called out for basically living in a post-factual world where these things don’t matter. So, I’m less concerned in the long run. If Trump were to start banning newspapers and prosecuting them, that’s very much how dictators like to do things: Bankrupt newspaper owners if they print stories that they don’t like and lock up journalists. I don’t think that anybody perceives that Trump is going to do this in the near future. The press will continue to talk about Trump; indeed, you’re writing and you’re not feeling the risk of being censored.

[This is correct: My greatest fear right now is being trolled.]

Bueno de Mesquita: I think there are three pillars to an accountable government. Many of the things that people think of as being pillars, like the rule of law, follow from these three pillars. You need freedom of assembly, free speech and free press.

That is, people have to be in a position to exchange information and find out that they’re not alone in disliking what the government is doing — and to organize and coordinate to oppose the government. The two threats to the free press are a) fake news, although “noisy news” has always been prevalent, like if you were to go back to colonial times, you’d find that this was true, and b) self-censorship: When Bannon says the press should shut up, he means censor yourselves. That’s a real danger because, to put it harshly, the press is not in the business of telling the truth. The press is in the business of selling advertising space to make money. So if telling the truth turns out to be a liability, then they might begin to self-censor. That is certainly what happened in Hong Kong after the return to China.

There was a little bit of a negative sign [this week] that made me concerned: President Trump made the selection of the Supreme Court justice into a game show by bringing in candidates rather than the one person he’s going to designate and then designating one — essentially humiliating the other. In my view, if I controlled a network or newspaper, my coverage would have been “President Trump has nominated Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.” I would not have given live television coverage of the farce as all the networks did because they were simply feeding Trump publicity that was not news. So I found that a little worrisome.

But the bigger threat is if there’s a loss of freedom of assembly. So far this freedom is working well — enough people have been actively protesting. For example, earlier this week Trump was essentially compelled to stay in the White House rather than go to Milwaukee and face opposition. That’s what has to happen: People have to be active in making known that they are concerned.

To paraphrase Barry Goldwater from a very long time ago, vigilance is the price of freedom. If people just sit back and say, “Well, democracies don’t become autocracies, so I don’t really have to bother.” People have to be using the freedom of assembly, using the free press and free speech to make it costly for members of Congress to go along with what the president wants when they believe it’s a mistake. Members of Congress have to believe that it threatens their re-election not to be a constraint on Trump.

So what worries you most about the Trump administration?

Smith: I’m more worried about the policies that he could implement, rather than deep-seated, long-term institutional changes. The courts are independent and already we’ve seen them rule that some of Trump’s policies are illegal. In the long run, of course, Trump can close down courts. A dictator closes down courts and gets rid of the independent judiciary. But that process takes a while. For a very long time in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was actually held in check precisely because the courts were independent. It took him a very long time to erode that power. So Trump is not in a position to completely erode the courts. He’s going to shift the policy focus of the Supreme Court, which worries a lot of people: It’s going to have a much more conservative outlook. But he’s not fundamentally going to take away courts where people can get reasonably independent rulings. 

In terms of changing electoral law, again that’s going to be difficult. The Republicans like to do this. They love to gerrymander, and so do the Democrats, although [Republicans] seem to have the upper hand right now. They also like to restrict voter access, for example, to reduce the number of people who are going to vote against them. But at the end of the day, are the Republicans in Congress going to go along with Trump undermining the democratic system? That seems unlikely to be in their interest. Let’s have “King Trump.” This is not in the interest, I think, of the Republicans in Congress.

Bueno de Mesquita: If I can go back to Alastair’s first answer [above]. We prefer to think of governance forms as a continuum, not a dichotomy. We argue forcefully in “The Dictator’s Handbook” that all political leaders, if unconstrained, would rather be dictators — all, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln. So the constraints are exactly as Alastair has pointed out: these deep institutions that are very hard and slow to erode.

Speaking of the courts, how plausible is it that the federal government could simply ignore the courts — a situation that apparently happened following a federal court order on Trump’s travel and immigration ban?

Bueno de Mesquita: Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in order to pursue his policies at the beginning of his term. He met the chief justice of the Supreme Court on the street at the time, and the chief justice told Lincoln that he was acting unconstitutionally. And Lincoln said, “Well, that may be so, but you don’t have a session for another however many months. And in those months I’m going to save the Union.” So presidents can thwart the courts for a while but not indefinitely. But it’s worth noting that thwarting the courts is the fast track to impeachment.

This segues to my next question: How likely is impeachment in the next four years? My understanding is that an emoluments clause violation is sufficient for impeaching Trump. The means are there. What’s needed is the politicalmotivation.

Smith: I’m not going to weigh in on the legal issues because I’m not a lawyer. This is not where our expertise lies. But impeachment has always been very much a “political will” issue. It’s costly for Congress to impeach a president, so they don’t want to do it all the time. But the president is constrained: He can only push Congress so far before it will remove him from office.

Bueno de Mesquita: I would add that as a matter of historical record the only times that a president has faced a serious threat of impeachment — or serious talk of impeachment — is when he had a divided government — that is, when the Congress was of a different party from the president. Trump is an interesting case because it’s not obvious that he’s a Republican. He’s certainly not a Democrat. Rather, he’s something else. So the divided government may or may not be in place.

My own personal opinion — again, not being a lawyer — is that Trump is much more likely in the next four years to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment, whereby the president is deemed to be incapacitated. I think if he persists in using, as they have called it, “alternative facts,” when the evidence does not support what he is saying, and he nevertheless tries to shape policy on that basis, there’s going to be a point at which there will be a judgment that he is not mentally stable.

Any final thoughts about the current trajectory of human civilization?

Bueno de Mesquita: The implication of our theorizing is that, loosely speaking, democratic government is the more dominant long-term form, but it’s not the unique form. It is not in equilibrium to have no dictatorships. Part of the reason is that while democratic leaders say they want to promote democracy around the world, in fact they don’t. What they want instead is foreign governments that, at the margin, will be compliant with policies that the democratic leaders’ constituents want back home. It’s very hard for a democratic leader in another country to comply with what you want if their voters don’t agree with you. But it’s very easy for autocrats to comply because all you have do is to give them what they need to stay in power, which is money to bribe their small group of cronies. And for you to stay in power, you need, at the margin, policy compliance. So there’s always a place for dictatorship.

Keep reading...Show less

How 'Fake News' Exploded - and How to Tell When the Label Is Misused

“Fake news” has become a ubiquitous buzzword among pundits, politicians, news media and bloggers. A Google Trends search finds that the term was virtually unknown until late October, just before the presidential election, at which point it underwent a sudden and significant spike. Stories like those about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring from a Washington pizzeria, or about Democrats wanting to impose Sharia law in Florida were widely shared among conservatives. Reports also continued to suggest that Russia ran a disinformation campaign to get Donald Trump elected, a claim that Trump stubbornly rejected until his first press conference.

Now, in Orwellian fashion, the term “fake news” itself is being stretched and deformed into its semantic opposite. Consider that on Jan. 11, Fox News ran the front-page headline: “Fake News? Trump blasts Russia dossier report …” after a press conference in which Trump explicitly dismissed a CNN reporter by saying “You are fake news!” A day earlier, Breitbart posted an article titled “Fake News: Gizmodo Falsely Claims Trump Sacked Heads of Agency That Maintains Nuclear Weapons,” and the New York Post published a piece the same day called “Buzzfeed’s Trump report takes ‘fake news’ to a new level.”

For the sake of intellectual clarity — that is, to disentangle this knot of obfuscation — let’s take a moment to consider what fake news really is.

Take the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory. This started when 4Chan users noticed that John Podesta had exchanged emails with the owner of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizzeria, and concluded that they were using the word “pizza” as a cryptic code word for pedophile sexual activities.” (Seriously.) A white supremacist then tweeted the following: “Rumors stirring in the NYPD that Huma’s emails point to a pedophila [sic] ring and @HillaryClinton is at the center. #GoHillary #PodestaEmails23.” From there, numerous right-wing websites picked up the story and presented it as reliable information. One man from North Carolina became so convinced that the story was true that he drove to the pizza shop with an AR-15-style gun to “self-investigate” the story.

Or take the assertion that Florida Democrats voted to impose Sharia law on women. This false headline originated on “a blogging platform for conservative, libertarian, free market and pro-family writers” called Western Journalism. As the post’s author put it, “Anyone who isn’t certain that Democrats are devoted to destroying America need only take a look at their despicable conduct in the Florida Senate. In a vote that never should have had to be taken, every single Democrat voted to force Sharia law on the people of Florida. By doing so, they placed women and children in very real danger. The vote was 24 votes for America and 14 votes for al-Qaida and the Taliban cast by loathsome Democrats.” Once again, this turned out to be demonstrably false: it confuses, and then exaggerates, a law that enables judges “to apply foreign law as long as it doesn’t contradict public policy in the U.S.”

These are unambiguous instances of dishonesty and foolishness, not unlike some of the central claims made by Trump and his supporters, including that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that the 2016 presidential election was going to be “rigged,” that millions of “illegals” voted for Clinton, that U.S. intelligence agencies are wrong about Russian hacking and that Obama is “literally” the founder of ISIS — to cite only a few egregious mendacities.

But what about Gizmodo and BuzzFeed? Do charges that they propagated “fake news” hold any weight? Taking these in turn: Gizmodo recently published an article that reported,

According to an official within the Department of Energy, this past Friday, the President-elect’s team instructed the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and his deputy to clean out their desks when Trump takes office on January 20th.

This report even made it onto “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert“ as a source of anxious laughter.

Later, Gizmodo added a correction:

Another NNSA official, speaking on background to Gizmodo and Defense News, has disputed this report as “inaccurate” while confirming that “there have been no discussions between the president-elect’s transition team and any of NNSA’s political appointees on extending their public service past Jan. 20.”

Gizmodo further clarified: “In other words, the Trump transition team has not asked the top two NNSA officials to stay on until they can be replaced.”

Does this constitute fake news, as Breitbart asserts? I would strongly urge an answer in the negative. Here’s why: It constitutes bad journalism, and bad journalism should be called out as always unacceptable. But the folks at Gizmodo also displayed a degree of intellectual honesty: They made a mistake and then posted a correction.

Compare this to the debacle surrounding a recent Breitbart article: “Global Temperatures Plunge. Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists.” The author, James Delingpole, wrote:

Global land temperatures have plummeted by one degree Celsius since the middle of this year — the biggest and steepest fall on record. … But the news has been greeted with an eerie silence by the world’s alarmist community. You’d almost imagine that when temperatures shoot up it’s catastrophic climate change which requires dramatic headlines across the mainstream media and demands for urgent action.

This is a wildly inaccurate account of what’s really going on — so inaccurate, in fact, that the Weather Channel published a frustrated response titled “Note to Breitbart: Earth Is Not Cooling, Climate Change Is Real and Please Stop Using Our Video to Mislead Americans.” According to this article, which cites actual experts who understand actual science, Delingpole’s argument is “a prime example of cherry picking, or pulling a single item out of context to build a misleading case.” So how did Breitbart react to this opprobrium? Did its editors add a correction to the article like Gizmodo? Did they apologize for reinforcing false beliefs widely held by their largely uneducated audience? No. As of this writing, the article remains undisturbed in its original form.

As for BuzzFeed, a now famous post from Jan. 10 went viral because it links to a dossier claiming that Russia has “compromising information” about Trump. There are two reasons such information could be important: First, it would further confirm that the Kremlin wanted Trump in the Oval Office, and second, it suggests that Russia could manipulate Trump through the mechanism of blackmail.

Why did BuzzFeed release this dossier? In short, because John McCain — who Trump once said isn’t a war hero — gave this information to the FBI. This led to a report by CNN that both Obama and Trump had received the information, some of which had been “circulating as far back as last summer.” Once the CNN report went live, the door was opened for other media to take the extra step and make the entire dossier so readers could, in BuzzFeed’s words, “make up their own minds.”

Once again we can ask: Is this an instance of fake news, as the New York Post claims? And again the answer is a resounding “No!” Consider the subtitle of BuzzFeed’s article, which explicitly states that “The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” The article itself states that the dossier “includes specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts documented by the Russians,” and that it “was prepared for political opponents of Trump.”

Such caveats — made multiple times throughout the article — are symptoms of intellectual honesty, not fake news trickery. BuzzFeed is clear that the information in the dossier is unproven, and may not be true. The point of the article was to make known that such material is circulating at the very highest levels of government (which CNN did as well), and then to provide the dossier for readers to see for themselves.

People are free to make their own judgments about the ethics of BuzzFeed’s decision. (Salon, for instance, chose not to publish the contents of the dossier or to recycle its allegations except as they affected the political news cycle.) This dissemination of potentially explosive information into the public sphere is not even close to Breitbart reporting that climate change isn’t real, that Clinton was running a child sex ring, or that Democrats in Florida attempted to implement Sharia law. Lumping all of these under the category of “fake news” is completely disingenuous.

I strongly recommend that people think hard about the epistemological underpinnings of the term “fake news.” Fake news is not merely reporting a falsehood. Even the most honest and highly skilled journalists are susceptible to mistakes, because all humans are fallible. Rather, fake news is reporting a distortion of the truth either for ideological or commercial reasons, accompanied by total carelessness and/or a dogmatic refusal to acknowledge one’s mistakes once revealed as such. The fact that Gizmodo failed to double-check its reporting makes me trust the site a bit less, but the fact that it published a correction makes me trust the site a bit more. The fact that BreitbartFox News and other right-wing media outlets consistently refuse to admit when they distort the evidence, fudge the facts and disregard expertise gives me almost no confidence in anything they publish. And the same should apply to you.

How do we fix this multilayered mess of fake news and Orwellian doublespeak? The answer is that those of us who value truth must heed Glenn Greenwald’s exhortation to be extra-careful when it comes to our beliefs, the articles we share with others and the memes that we spread around social media. To date, seven academic studies have shown that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed audience in America. It is progressives rather than conservatives who have the intellectual and moral high ground. Moving forward, we need to ensure that intellectual integrity continues to be a value of paramount importance. If we do this, we might just be able to counteract the Zeitgeist of radical anti-intellectualism that has seemingly swept across the nation’s media landscape.

Keep reading...Show less

We’re Speeding Toward a Climate Change Catastrophe...and That Makes 2016 the Most Important Election Year in a Generation

Before dropping out of the presidential race last month, Marco Rubio repeatedly declared that the 2016 presidential election is “the most important in a generation.” Such language is, of course, not uncommon to hear during election seasons. Politicians have been assuring the public for decades that the “next election” will be more significant than ever before, and that if the opposition party wins, the consequences will be catastrophic. As Rubio once stated in overtly apocalyptic language, “if we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.”

Keep reading...Show less

Too Loony for Fox News: Fox Created the Fact-Free GOP, Then Trump Stole It Away

On a recent “Face the Nation” appearance, Marco Rubio blamed Donald Trump’s extraordinary success as a presidential candidate on — you guessed it — “the media.” In his words, “the media coverage for Donald Trump has almost been cheerleading over the last couple weeks and I’m convinced [it’s] because many in the press want him to be nominee.” Why? Because it would provide Hillary Clinton “a clear shot to the Oval Office.” Rubio then added, “So I think there’s a kind of weird bias here in the media rooting for Donald Trump because they know he’s the easiest Republican to beat.”

Keep reading...Show less

Donald Trump Talks at a 4th-Grade Level. Maybe That’s Why the Fox News Audience Loves Him

It’s a cliché to say that democratic states can’t function properly without an informed electorate. But it’s absolutely true. And this is why, heading into the 2016 election year, I’m nervous about the future. With Donald Trump leading the Republican presidential contenders, even many Republican die-hards are shaking in their boots.

Keep reading...Show less
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by