Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 December 2011

The Real Antichrists


[For a brief comment on yellow journalism and Iran’s threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, click here.]

Now that I’ve revealed who I am, readers good at digging on the Internet will have discovered that I’m the son of a successful storyteller. Maybe that explains my fascination with myth, despite a lifelong immersion in fact-based careers: science, engineering and law.

Myth’s enormous power for good and for ill intrigues me. The older I get, the more I believe that culture matters more than anything, including law and science. That’s one reason why I’ve written so many posts about American culture.

Culture makes law, not vice versa. And the more I think about culture, the more I believe it depends on myth. To rationalists like me, the Bible is just one long and successful myth. And it’s still a global best-seller after two millennia.

When I was growing up, writers and producers in Hollywood, most of whom were Jewish, made American myths on the big screen. I knew of them through my father. Many were refugees (or sons of refugees) from war-torn Europe or (later) from Nazism.

To a man, they loved America. They were immensely grateful just to be here, and not where they had been or their parents had come from. They painted us as a just, egalitarian society in which everyone got a fair shake eventually, and government and the law were on the common person’s side.

Of course that was a just a myth. Every non-white, female and foreign-born person of my age knows how hard we have struggled to make that myth real and how far we still have to go. But that myth fixed our society’s direction for most of my lifetime.

Today our big myths are quite different. They teach that “government is the problem” and “winner take all” will make us strong.

What a difference from my youth! Just ask yourself how many films you’ve seen in the last ten years in which a bumbling or downright evil military, FBI, or CIA was the villain, and a rogue individual cop or Green Beret with supernatural skill the hero. Such myths would have been inconceivable in the last century, when organized American government, industrial might and military power saved the world from Nazism and militant Communism.

Running a capitalist society without strong government is like running a footrace with one leg cut off. We are now in the process of discovering that truth, as formerly “backward” societies like Brazil, China and India overtake us. Even as I write this, Europe is struggling to make its government stronger, while we are still in the process of dismantling ours.

But I digress. There is a another, much darker myth abroad in the land. Today it lives mainly in an extremist underground. But properly understood and applied, it has the potential to improve the human condition. I speak of the myth of the “Antichrist.”

As a Jew and an agnostic, I don’t for a moment believe in the myth in its traditional, Christian religious raiment. I’m not an apocalyptic. As I’ve written, I’m glad we avoided earthly Armageddon in 1962, and I hope we never come as close again.

But the myth of the Antichrist is a powerful, seductive metaphor. We all know people—mostly men—who smile and put their arms around you while they stab you in the back—figuratively or literally—at the first opportunity. Sadly, most adults have met such a person at least once in their lives. When it first happens to you, it’s an eye-opening experience, one you never forget.

An Antichrist is just such a person, but one whose evil and treachery affect a whole society. In extreme cases they can ruin the whole Earth.

An Antichrist plays the common people’s friend but secretly pulls the rug out from under them, for his own or cronies’ benefit, or in pursuit of some abstract ideology or absolute power. He spouts lofty phrases of good but promotes evil. He is in league with the Devil, or—in the extreme case—is the Devil himself. His hegemony (if he achieve it) could turn the whole Earth to the Dark Side.

The traditional myth paints the Antichrist as singular. But students of history know there have been many. We all can recite the names of several just from the last century and our own time: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the ruling Kims of North Korea, the late Muammar Gaddafi, the Assad family of Syria, and Robert Mugabe. Vladimir Putin may be in the process of becoming one of them if he doesn’t soon step down.

Many of these Antichrists—notably Stalin and Mao—fit the myth almost perfectly. At first, they unified and strengthened their respective countries. They bid to raise the common person up from poverty and ignorance, at least in theory. Spouting stirring phrases of Communism, they goaded their people toward what they promised would be a new and better society. Stalin even promised a new and better human condition, a new “Soviet Man.”

Then, personifying Lord Acton’s truth that absolute power corrupts absolutely, they nearly destroyed their countries. Stalin did it with the Terror, the Gulags and his part in the mutually mindless Cold War. Mao did it with the Great Leap Forward and the Red Guards, plus the personal atrocities described by his doctor in his famous biography. Both did it with absolute centralization of power—anathema to any modern, diverse, multi-ethnic society built on business, technology and science.

Russians today still revere Stalin as a national hero and a savior of Mother Russia from German fascism. They do so although, analyzed rationally, almost every one of his policies (let alone his numerous paranoid acts) made Russia weaker and a less desirable place to live. Mao’s record in China is similar, at least after he unified it.

That’s what makes the myth of the Antichrist so powerful. It’s not the Evil alone: that’s pedestrian and mundane, an apparently irreducible part of human nature. What makes an Antichrist is the ability for a time—and sometimes a long time—to impersonate God or Christ while doing the Devil’s work. Just such men wrote the darkest parts of human history.

We know there have been Antichrists at work in the world at large. Until recently, nearly all of them have been abroad, not here at home.

But what about among us? What about the West? Do we have them, too?

Yes, we do. I would submit one name above all. And no, it’s not Dubya. He was far too much an innocent blunderer. If the truth be told, he merely completed a process set in motion by Ronald Reagan and by useful idiots like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Phil Gramm. Even Bill Clinton was an unwitting accomplice to the financial deregulation that is busily destroying the West’s economies. And now Dubya is suffering a punishment to fit the crime: silently watching the country he sincerely loves decline, perhaps irrevocably, due in large measure to his own ineptness.

Nor is Karl Rove an Antichrist. He is a mere handmaiden of Evil. He missed half the myth: the veneer of good. He never pretended to have any goal but serving his masters by pandering to the basest human instincts, tribalism above all. In order to be an Antichrist, you have to have a plausible veneer of good. There is no way that Karl Rove could impersonate Christ.

No, my nominee for our Western Antichrist is someone whom most people seldom mention, except lately. He’s an old man now. His iron hand on his vast empire is weakening. But he has done more to destroy Western culture (and capitalism itself!) over the last two generations than anyone else I can name. He’s Rupert Murdoch.

Rupert fits the myth of the Antichrist almost perfectly. With his sensationalism, his gossip, his propaganda, and his daily “tit page” in the English tabloid The Sun, he put his arm around the common man and smiled. He said (and says), in effect, “I’ll give you what you want; I’ll make the ‘news’ interesting for you. And I’ll do it even if you have no interest in politics, business or anything serious.”

That’s how Rupert made himself enormously rich. He panders to humanity’s basest instincts. He serves gossip as policy, invasion of privacy as news, schadenfreude at famous people’s troubles and illnesses, and every possible disaster, foible and defect in industry and politics, no matter how minor or irrelevant. His propaganda organs make heroes of clowns like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry. Then they vilify, marginalize or destroy serious, dedicated people like the President, Jon Huntsman and Elizabeth Warren.

But while he’s titillating and entertaining us, Rupert has ulterior motives. He’s inculcating in us an entire world view—a gigantic myth—that is sheer fiction. He’s teaching us that democratic governments—the forces that make capitalism tolerable for the non-rich—are the common person’s enemy.

The kindly old man serving us those lovely tits daily is actually helping his cronies steal our substance, pollute our waters, poison our fish, and make the Earth’s skies look like Dickensian London. He’s working hard to return us to the hard and unenlightened times that Dickens described so well in his classics, with beggars on the streets and common folk dependent on largesse from their “betters.”

Even the few positive stories Rupert serves us are all designed to promote his own and his friends’ interests, as he sees them. He especially favors gas-driven cars (the bigger and faster the better) and fossil fuels—hence his constant denial of climate change, six years after the most prestigious bodies in the American scientific establishment confirmed it.

In Fox, Rupert has created human history’s greatest and most powerful propaganda machine. If Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, and Mao were still alive, they could only sigh with envy at what he has wrought. None of them was smart enough to make propaganda such titillating entertainment, such fun. And none was audacious enough to try to inculcate in their victims an entire, internally consistent fictional universe, let alone throw large segments of society into a state of collective delusion.

In those feats, Rupert has become a myth-maker far more influential than Hollywood at its height. But his myths are leading us toward a very different and much darker society than the uplifting myths of my youth.

I have written a whole essay on how Rupert subverted and destroyed the Wall Street Journal, so I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that he took what was once America’s leading business newspaper (at least outside its editorial pages) and converted it into a tawdry and transparent propaganda organ, a sort of Pravda of extremist capitalism. He even took a page from the old Soviet playbook. Instead of calling his propaganda machine “truth” (pravda in Russian), he calls it “fair and balanced.” (If you actually tell the truth, you don’t have to say so; people will know. Only liars tout their own truth telling.)

Like the EU, Fox is something new under the Sun. The closest thing the human race has ever had was the emperors’ “bread and circuses” in ancient Rome as it declined. But the bread and circuses had nothing like the focus, power, nuance and dogmatic consistency of Fox. You would have to look to the Nazis or Soviets for comparison there.

No, Rupert is one of a kind. At first he seemed much like William Randolph Hearst from the last century—a man who practically single-handedly ginned up his own needless war (in Cuba and the Philippines).

But Rupert has outdone Hearst in all but Hearst’s obscenely opulent castle at San Simeon. Where Hearst was American only, Rupert sits astride most of the English speaking world, dominating media markets in his native Australia, the UK and the US. He’s now moving into India. Where Hearst was just a particularly powerful voice among many in a rich, highly competitive media market, Rupert controls one of a dying few. In most markets, his is by far the dominant voice speaking to the common person.

Most of all, Rupert has achieved a level of direct political influence that Hearst never did. The best measure of that influence is our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, each of which Rupert supported and helped instigate, and each of which has been infinitely larger, more costly and less effective than the Spanish-American War that Hearst fomented. Rupert is indeed the Dark Prince whispering in the ears of global leaders.

With his knighthood and all the rest, Rupert has made the Dark Side respectable, just like the Antichrist. Whoever thought of granting him knighthood and American citizenship—by special act of Congress—should forever twist in purgatory.

He is a boy who, figuratively speaking, never stopped pulling the wings off flies. Today, even in his dotage, he is strong enough to pull the legs off presidents and prime ministers. One can only hope that the recent scandals and his advancing age presage the downfall of his Evil Empire.

But don’t for a moment underestimate him, even now. An Antichrist’s work is never done.

Footnote 1: No, I’m not a prude. I enjoy seeing breasts as much as any male. But their proper place in media is in art, appropriate movies and even specialized erotic publications like Playboy and Hustler. Tits are not news. Like gossip, their display in news media debases the media’s prime function of telling people what they need to know to survive and prosper in an impossibly complex and ornery world. I mention tits here only because they provide a striking visual image of Rupert’s modus operandi: distract, delude, and destroy.

Footnote 2. Sorry. I can’t bring myself to use the word “news” in the same sentence with Fox. And I can no longer use the cutesy term “Faux News” or my own “Fox Propaganda.” They trivialize the Antichrist. So I’ll just use “Fox,” which, like “the Antichrist” is sui generis and defies easy marginalization. It also reminds us that, so far, this particular Antichrist has outfoxed all the better angels of our nature.

Our Banks, Our Media, Oil and War

You would hope that the Antichrist Rupert and the greedy and stupid bankers who are doing their best to create a second Great Depression would just shut up.

But no, they still want to be heard. They now are trying to goad our exhausted military and population into a new war with Iran. And the New York Times—once a responsible newspaper—has apparently taken up the cudgel.

The reasons appear today in an article ostensibly on oil prices—a classic example of fuzzy thinking. The Times does acknowledge what has been obvious for at least 3.4 years: except for fluctuations due to recessions and maybe a new depression, the price of oil is going nowhere but steadily up. Yet the article leads with the absurd notion that a recent threat of Iran to block the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic is to blame.

After a two-sentence lead on rising oil prices, the Times’ second paragraph states the thesis in a single sentence:
With Iran threatening to cut off about a fifth of the world’s supply of oil by closing the Strait of Hormuz and unrest in Iraq [also] endangering [the world’s oil supply] . . ., financial analysts say” that global crude oil prices “will average from $100 to $120 in 2012.”

Nowhere does it mention who these unnamed “financial analysts” are. If they are indeed financial analysts, and not energy analysts, they are probably the same greedy morons who insist that further massive gambling at our “too big to fail” casinos is essential to advance our failing economy.

The Times does report the real reasons for rising oil prices later in the same article. It notes that “Markets seemed to shrug off Iran’s threats.” Even later, on the second on-line page, it notes that economists expect oil prices to stay high “because global demand for oil—especially diesel—is escalating and outstripping supply.”

Duh! Using Economics 1A and simple arithmetic, this blogger has repeatedly predicted as much for the last 3.4 years. (See 1, 2 and 3). Sage oil analysts have been predicting Peak Oil for decades.

Now that Peak Oil has arrived—as confirmed by Exxon Mobil’s deeds, not just words— prices are going steadily up, except for brief drops occasioned by economic crashes. The reason is simple: China and India, which account for one-third of the world’s population, are just now reaching the exponential part of their middle-class growth and consequent car use. And the rest of the developing world is hard on their heels.

But some idiot bankers predict the West’s threat to boycott Iran’s oil will make things even worse in the short term. What nonsense! There will always be countries to which Iran can sell its oil. There isn’t enough oil in the world to keep prices low on today’s global market, let alone future markets with emerging economies building new cars and new roads just as fast as they can. China will probably shun any boycott, as might South Korea and Japan, because they all desperately need oil to keep their economies running, let alone advancing.

If the truth be told, the President’s quixotic effort to create a global boycott of Iran’s oil is just a ruse to reduce the pressure for war. We have to look as if we’re doing something (and everything) about Iran’s push to create nuclear weapons. But the most effective actions still are: (1) clever sabotage, including the Stuxnet virus, (2) isolating Iran from the international banking system, making it hard for Iran to purchase materials and supplies available only (or most easily) from the West, (3) pressuring Russia and China to try to prevent a conflagration in the Middle East that would ruin the global economy, and (4) preparing drones and non-nuclear missiles to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities in the worst case.

As for Iran’s nuclear program, some day we might have to bite the bullet and accept it. The only rational use of nuclear weapons is to deter others’ first strikes and conventional invasions. (See 1 and 2.) They are not offensive weapons. They never have been used as such, even by Pakistan or North Korea’s Kims (unless you consider our own use to end the world’s most disastrous armed conflict offensive). Just like the Soviets in their day, Iran’s leaders are smart enough to know this, despite all their bluster.

And if it comes to that, a single American or Russian nuclear submarine, hiding unseen in the oceans near Iran, could utterly annihilate Iran’s major cities—Tehran, Qom, Isfahan and Masshad—in less than fifteen minutes. Israel’s air force could do the same in a bit longer time: a few hours. So if Iran’s leaders are stupid enough to waste the money, time and effort, and incur the global opprobrium, of developing nuclear weapons, the rest of the world just may have to sigh and let them.

Our choices are quite clear: (1) a totally unnecessary hot conventional war now or (2) perhaps a new cold war later. Long before Iran develops the technology to pose anywhere near the military threat that the Soviet Union once did, its present leadership will likely succumb to something like the Arab Spring, and Iran will become a much more normal country. At least old age and natural death will change the players.

Fomenting another unnecessary conventional war would only delay that process. It would be utter folly. And blaming Iran’s idle threats for the steadily rising rice of oil is as inaccurate economics as 2 + 2 = 5.

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2 Comments:

  • At Tue Jan 03, 07:14:00 AM EST, Anonymous MAQX said…

    Jay,

    Nice to read this post. Provides additional justification for my decision to cancel my WSJ subscription in early 2009. I saw this train wreck unfold as the Murdoch form of "journalism" took hold of the WSJ's staff over the period of a year. It was like I was reading one of the English tabloids in their opinion section. It's a shame because I miss the old WSJ's good economic and financial journalism.

     
  • At Thu Jan 05, 12:42:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear MAQX,

    Thanks for the support. Apparently you were smarter and quicker than I, who held on out of misplaced brand loyalty for another two years, despite strong skepticism.

    What finally forced my hand was the thought that my own money was contributing—even if in a very small way—to Murdoch’s evil empire.

    As for missing good financial and economic reporting, try Bloomberg.com. You’ll be surprised at how good it is, and how free from propaganda.

    Best,

    Jay

     

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