Saturday, June 30, 2018

GOEBBELS WOULD BE SO PROUD

(PHOTO: Arabian Business)
When George Orwell wrote 1984, the idea of having an institution as formidable as his Ministry Of Truth operating in the for-profit sector probably would have seemed ludicrous. Propaganda, as potent of a tool as it turned out to be in the early years of the twentieth century for helping to grind Europe’s great empires and their dominions to powder, would not have been something to handle so lightly.

But that was before the nuclear bomb, before the Cold War and the era of global public opinion, before the rise of transnational conglomerates and their desire to control markets in far-flung regions. Before globalism and the Internet mass surveillance and the ability to compartmentalize reality itself. These days, there just aren’t enough hours in the day for MiniTrue to be operated by governments alone.

Propagandizing has become a thoroughly for-profit enterprise, as PR firms work to launder the truth minute by minute, second, by second. One of the worst offenders you’ve never heard of is – or should I say was, as the company is now defunct – Bell Pottinger, a British firm with a long history of serving, oligarchs, autocrats, and flat-out dictators all over the world.

The campaign that led to their demise, according to Ed Caesar of The New Yorker, involved helping a wealthy family of Indian business owners collude with the South African government to deliberately inflame racial tensions across the country, using the chaos to cast themselves as racial underdogs in order to lend cover to expanding their business operations. Here’s but a sample of their high-powered shenanigans:
After the account was renewed, Bell Pottinger continued to draft talking points on economic emancipation, including one noting that “inequality in South Africa is greater today than at the end of apartheid.” It also commissioned advertisements claiming that South African banks had threatened the livelihoods of Oakbay employees. On April 18th, the Bell Pottinger team asked an Israeli digital-reputation service, Veribo, to help suppress negative Google results about the Guptas. (The company, which has changed its name to Percepto, has said, “We now regret our involvement.”)

Bell Pottinger’s efforts on behalf of the Guptas became increasingly ugly. I recently reviewed sections of a 2017 report about the Gupta affair, which Henderson commissioned from the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. (The full text has not been released to the public.) According to the report, in the summer of 2016 a publicist on the Oakbay account set up a Web site, voetsekblog.co.za, with a related Facebook page and Twitter feed. In Afrikaans,
voetsek means “go away.” The Web site’s content, which was mostly aggregated from other sources, highlighted racial and economic disparities in South Africa. Its home page read “You know what they say, don’t get mad get even so it’s time to cause some havoc. For too long black South Africans have been left out of the economy . . . our economy.”
The Twitter account, @Voetsek_SA, posted similar messages and many cartoons. Some of the drawings were produced by the Guptas’ newspaper network; others were commissioned by Bell Pottinger. Many of them were offensive. One image that appeared on @Voetsek_SA shows a table of fat, rich-looking white people—one of whom resembles Johann Rupert—gorging on food while emaciated black people eat crumbs off the floor. An army of bots linked to the Guptas promoted the cartoons on Twitter.

The Web site, the Facebook page, and the Twitter feed have since been scrubbed from the Internet. Branko Brkic, the editor of the South African newspaper the
Daily Maverick, whose reporters covered the Bell Pottinger story, told me that the firm’s deployment of the Guptas’ cynical strategy was “beyond the pale.” He said, “Bell Pottinger literally stole the page from Goebbels and applied it to twenty-first-century South Africa. That’s just plain evil. They were going well beyond their brief. It’s almost as if they felt pleasure doing it.”
A record of the whole sordid affair can be found here. Happy reading, or something.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

WE'RE WELL PAST GODWIN'S LAW BY THIS POINT

Immigrant detention center, Nogales, Arizona. (PHOTO: Houston Public Media)
There are concentration camps. Real-life concentration camps. In the United States. Right now. This is insane. I can hardly believe it with my own two eyes. How did this happen? Again? Believe me, I know that’s a rhetorical question – and I fucking hate rhetorical questions – but as I stare in horror at what’s happening in the face over my computer screen every single day, I can’t help but ask it, over and over and over again.

People are being made to disappear at our Southern border. Children are being separated from their parents. Profits are being made at nearly every step of the process. This is madness. This is Germany after Hitler nabbed the Chancellor’s seat. We’re on the verge of doing something yet again that history will never forgive us for, and there seems to be little sign of hesitation.

I suddenly feel a pang of sympathy for the average suburban dissident of the Weimar Republic, whose sense of dismay might only be matched by a sense of powerlessness when caught up in such a great wave of nationalism and xenophobia. What can I do to help these people? What can any of us really do, short of storming these facilities and burning them to the ground? Would that even be enough?

These are frightening times, especially without knowing how we got here. I can’t count the number of posts across the social media landscape that say things like “this is not who we are,” or “my country doesn’t do this,” or some other such nonsense. As far as empires go, we’ve got as bloody of history as any when it comes to the subjugation of “lesser” peoples. We just haven’t reached the “Truth And Reconciliation” portion of our national story as of yet, wherein we own up to all of the horrible things we’ve done over the ages and finally start to make reparations for them. Which is precisely why we keep repeating the same bloody historical mistakes.

The only thing that’s helped me alleviate any sense of powerlessness is arming myself with the knowledge of how these things came to pass, and try to educate others on the same. About two months ago, WNYC’s Radiolab did some incredibly prescient reporting on the history of immigration along the Southern border. Their story focuses on the city of El Paso, Texas, and a series of events that took place there in the nineties that would lead to the Orwellian “Prevention Through Deterrence” measures that have drastically changed the US-Mexico border forever.


Malcolm Gladwell took a similar approach on a recent episode of his podcast Revisionist History, “General Chapman’s Last Stand.” In 1972, Marine Corps General Leonard F. Chapman retired from military service and became Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, wherein he created a problem that didn’t really exist – a rise in illegal immigration – simply by being good at his job. The episode really goes to show how the idiosyncrasies of individuals, when in the right place at the right time, can have a tremendous impact in the shaping of history that is almost never forseen. All the more reason to keep your eyes and ears peeled, amirite?

I know this stuff is horrifying, and that it seems like there’s very little anyone can do to stop it. But the mid-terms are just a couple of months away, and if there’s one thing we can do, it’s vote blue like fucking crazy and at least take back the House this November. If we don’t, there will be nothing standing in the way of ramping the horrors up even further. Arm yourself with knowledge, act accordingly, and do your best to stay sane. The alternative is simply too horrifying to think about.

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Friday, June 22, 2018

PINK ELEPHANTS PODCASTS #15 - RON SOODALTER: THE BATTLE OF BLAIR MOUNTAIN

Sept 1, 1921 Washington Times headline on the Battle of Blair Mountain. (PHOTO: The Clio)

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Ron Soodalter.
As far as energy resources go here in the United States, coal is a dying breed. The coal industry has been in a downward spiral for years, as alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and natural gas continue to offer cleaner, safer, and cheaper means of meeting the country’s energy needs.

While decreasing our reliance on coal may certainly not be a bad thing, what threatens to disappear along with the coal industry is the history of the very people it was built upon: the miners. Coal country is the center of some of the most violent battles of America’s labor movement, including the Battle Of Blair Mountain, West Virginia, is America’s largest armed uprising outside of the Civil War, and one of the bloodiest battles in our nation’s history.

For four days in 1921, miners clashed with law enforcement, hired security, and local vigilante groups along the Logan county line, trying in vain to free hundreds of their brothers and sisters who had been imprisoned throughout the region under a recent declaration of martial law. The conflict left dozens of miners dead and hundreds more arrested once the National Guard was called in, and all but completely sealed the demise of the fledgling United Mine Worker’s Union.

Ron Soodalter is a freelance journalist, historian, and the author of two books: Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, and The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. He’s also somewhat of an authority on the Battle Of Blair Mountain both past and present, and he sat down with me recently to discuss why the history of Blair Mountain matters so much today.

By the way, my apologies for the intermittent static that you’ll hear throughout the episode; Ron and I had some connectivity issues that just couldn’t be resolved. I promise we’ll do better next time.

MUSIC:
Pandaemoneon – Chalice And Blades
The Roughies – Troy Davis Blues
LoFi Satellites – Feet To The Fire

REFERENCES:

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

LIFE IN THE TRENCHES

(PHOTO: First World War Centenary)

If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that the blogosphere just ain’t what it used to be. I’m surprised by just how many of the old vanguard from the early aughts are still in the trenches, flogging the sociopolitical horse race for every last bit of its worth; I’ll never stop believing in people like Digby, Tengrain, or Driftglass, who do the Lord’s work every single day, so to speak. But it’s impossible to mistake the impression of the consensus that the days where the “vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers of the Left,” are not only long gone, but they’re never, ever coming back. The most any of us can hope for these days is a robust comments section.

Of course, it was pretty much like that when I got here back in the fall of 2011, during the heady days of Occupy Wall Street. Suddenly the general public seemed have a voice again, and places like Facebook and Twitter became these titanic battlegrounds of savage political discourse that the media simply couldn’t ignore. Suddenly, we the people were the story again, first as a curiosity, then as a part of the daily digest.

I got swept up in a wave of righteous indignation along with rest, spilling thousands and thousands of words in comment threads, on bulletin boards, and then in the blogosphere itself, when I started my first blog Soapbox in the summer of 2012. We really felt like we were all a part of something, and that our war of words was really making a difference.

Boy, were we wrong.

For all of our collective efforts, left and right, the public square has been reduced to an endless variety of ideological corners that are more recalcitrant than ever, coming to view any nearly any breach of orthodoxy as irredeemable within moments of the transgression. Social media has made us paranoid, a nation of virtue signallers, incurious and hostile to anything that deviates from our worldview. Both sides can argue, quite justifiably, that many of the behaviors they exhibit are perfectly justifiable given the behaviors of their opposition, but if we spend too much time arguing over who shot first we tend to forget that there’s a bloody corpse on the ground, which in this case would be the United Fucking States of America.

All of this is to say that it has been incredibly easy to retreat from the front lines of the blogosphere, especially since the ascension of President Stupid (thanks Driftglass!). The goat rodeo that has ensued on Capitol Hill ever since is something nobody was prepared for, certainly not me. After a point I just had to look away for a while. My stomach just couldn’t take it anymore. Literally.

These days, I’m perfectly content to put out my podcast every couple of weeks, and scribble out the occasional blog post. I’ve pontificated enough, for the most part. We’re living in a historical moment of which not a single living soul has a legitimate claim upon the outcome, and I feel neither qualified nor compelled to constantly dissect the maneuvers of a party machine whose sole purpose, knowingly or not, is to rend the very fabric of society to shreds, leaving us all competing for the scraps. Getting rid of them is all that matters now. But I digress.

As you can probably imagine by what you’ve read so far, I miss writing in general, and blogging in particular. There was a time where I was churning out eight-hundred to thousand-word articles nearly every single day, and it felt damned good to do it. My narrative voice had become incredibly strong and consistent, along with my knowledge of the issues and my ability to derive context from them. But doing so was exhausting. And tedious. And boring.

I want to continue writing, and I want to continue writing about issues that matter, but I also want to use my writing as something more than just a tool for sounding off whenever some Facebook link gets my blood boiling.

Community and interdependency are values that I hold dear, but toiling for years under the yoke of depression have made it extremely difficult for me to embody them. But after my recent medical debacle, I’ve been forced to confront the fact that I can no longer isolate myself from the world at large and expect to survive for much longer than I have. Depression made it all too easy for me to isolate myself from the world at large over the years, and I have suffered greatly for it. It’s simply too dangerous for me to continue suffering in silence.

My biggest fear in merging the political with the personal has been that of judgment, even reprisal, from friends, loved ones, or the community at large. There’s a real challenge in managing life’s confrontations while asserting your right to exist as you truly are, and it’s one that I’ve not been able to rise to all that well over the years. But I’ve slowly begun to build a bigger, better support system, one that will hopefully rise to the challenges that lie ahead. And I want you, Dear Reader, to be a part of it.

Like I said, the most any of us bloggers (or podcasters) can really hope for anymore these days in terms of success is a robust comments section. That’s where you come in. I want to hear from you, for Chrissake. I know you’re out there, and I know you’re listening. My podcast is all about creating a space for people to be heard, and I want my blog to be the same. Tell me your stories, tell me what lifts you up or brings you down. We have so much to learn from each other, you and I. Leave me a comment, send me a message. Be more than just a statistic on my dashboard. Be a part of something with me, something fun and weird and interesting and spectacular, warts and all.

As the Internet slowly continues to merge with the public consciousness, the more important our digital connections become, like it or not. Insofar, our connections have been dispassionate, and arbitrary. Let’s make them matter again, even if it’s just for a little while.

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Friday, June 8, 2018

PINK ELEPHANTS PODCAST #14 - ALL HAIL THE DONUT KING

Ted Ngoy, The Donut King of California. (PHOTO: Orange Coast Magazine)

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There are few pastries more quintessentially American than the donut. Nearly 200 million Americans ate at least one of these beloved confections in 2017, making them one of our nation’s most popular desserts.

And there’s one man more responsible than any other for elevating the donut from its humble origins to  the celebrity status it enjoys today: Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who forged an empire of independent donut shops throughout the state of California to rival that of major chains like Winchell’s and Dunkin.

In his new book, The Donut King: The Rags to Riches Story of a Poor Immigrant Who Changed the World, Ted recounts an incredible tale of a young man risking everything to come here with nothing, and finding a pathway to prosperity that few could only dream of. Along the way, he helped hundreds of his fellow Cambodian citizens follow that same path, opening thousands of donut shops with their help all along the Western seaboard.

I recently had the privilege to speak with Ted about his life and work, and the entrepreneurial legacy he left behind. He’s got one incredible story to tell.

MUSIC:
Blonde Toledo – The King’s Lunch
Mari Mack – Sometime
Relapse – Confetti

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