Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fake News and “Postmodernism”: The Fake Equation

William E. Connolly
Author, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism

Everybody knows the first, fast moving story. During the 2017 electoral campaign in the United States a series of blogs spread Fake News, fake items about a candidate or party designed either to convince the base that they had committed horrible deeds or to counter evidence based assertions about Trump with one manufactured out of thin air to sow doubt and cloud the credibility of the first claim. These smears, many emanating from Russia and Cambridge Analytica, often finding expression in facebook, ran in tandem with endless repetitions of the Big Lie Scenario by Donald Trump. The latter are designed to create a media reality that would allow the aspirational fascist to reshape actuality until it slides close to the lies being spread. The fast moving situation points toward a probable crisis in which Trump, having prepped the base with lies about a Mueller hoax, fires or severely restricts Mueller, most Congressional Republicans stand by passively as the others cheer him on, and the fall into a kind of fascism distinctive to America depends upon whether a mass of citizens place militant pressure upon the regime. I wrote about those emergent dangers in a short booklet that came out in late 2017.
    This post explores a side light of this overall issue, perhaps important to the academy. Since neither Fake News nor Big Lies is based on solid evidence, some pundits, think tanks and academics have asserted that postmodernism or social constructivism launched the fake news parade. They did so by saying that there are no pure facts, that facts are soaked in prior interpretations. They had thus already undermined confidence in inquiry governed by simple facts. One essay from the Hoover Institute entitled “Fake News: Postmodernism By Another Name”, takes this tack. A Guardian article quotes Daniel Dennett, the deterministic philosopher of species evolution, to say a similar thing.[i] Some of my colleagues have asserted it.
     Often the Duke University scandal is invoked in these pieces, an instance a few years ago when Duke Lacrosse players were punished for a rape that did not occur. That example may resonate in these circles because it lumps together postmodernism with a demand for “political correctness” that are rather at odds with it, perhaps because both supporters of political correctness and constructivism tend to identify with the political Left in a broad sense of that term.
    The first thing to say about this equation, of course, is to remind people that Fake News and the Big Lie Scenario preceded the advent of postmodernism. A second thing is to attend to differences in affective tone and purpose that inform the two practices. Fascists assert Big Lies dogmatically and rancorously to smear opponents and to gain authoritarian power so that only the ruler’s word becomes legitimate; postmodernists--who often deny our ability to reduce competing metaphysical interpretations to one candidate alone--typically probe alternative interpretations to open a plurality of views for wider consideration. This fundamental difference between one ethos of dogmatism and another of presumptive generosity is, of course, not noted by accusers. Perhaps because one party making the charge holds an ethos of presumptive generosity in utter contempt. And because those positivists who seek to pin the blame for fake news on postmodernists often themselves fail to note how differences in ethos or sensibility make a difference to both public culture and political inquiry.
    I do not identify as a postmodernist of social constructivist, though I have been called one on occasion by people whose list of theoretical alternative is confined to two or three slots. It is essential to resist the insertion of Fake News, Big Lies and authoritarian dogmatism into democratic processes. It is also important, however, not to allow the responses to such an accusatory culture to return automatic hegemony in the academy to positivist notions of fact, explanation, and objectivity that have been subjected to severe critique for a few generations. If positivism (and its surrogates) is to make a comeback it must not be based on a fictive equation between postmodernism and Fake News. So let’s proceed.
    Some facts are well supported by evidence from several perspectives. You don't allow either Fascists or wide eyed constructivists--if any constructivists are indeed that wild--to say that all facts are equally ghostly, subjective or "fake". It is a fact that the United States invaded Iraq; it is also a fact that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before that horrendous invasion, despite what the Bush gang asserted. It is also a fact that a glucose reading of over 180 for a long period of time is apt to foster severe health problems. Three well supported facts.
    At a higher level of complexity, someone might insist either that the sun rotates around the earth or that the classical Newtonian theory fits the way of the world in itself. In the first case a well-rounded theory grounded in evidence of multiple sorts can be invoked to correct that insistence, even though unaided perception does support it. In the second instance, tests guided by quantum theory and newer instruments unavailable to Newton can be summoned. They involve, first, electrons forming wave patterns that collide (the two slit experiment) and, second, observations of a simultaneous change between two previously entangled particles now separated by millions of miles (entanglement or nonlocality). Together quantum theory and the tests linked to it correct Newtonian theory.
    To be objective in these latter instances means to conform to the most refined theory available in relation to tests that deploy sophisticated instruments. Thus to call C02 induced climate change a Chinese Hoax without advancing sophisticated evidence to overturn the evidence based consensus among climate scientists is to propagate Fake News.
    This complexity does mean, however, that what was objective at one time, say Newtonian theory, may become less so at a later date through the combination of a paradigm shift in theory, new powers of perception, tests with newly refined instruments, and unexpected changes in natural processes themselves. The emergence of new theories and tests, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galliston emphasize in Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007) does not reduce objectivity to subjective opinion. It is a mistake to say that the sun revolves around earth, as Spinoza knew when he corrected the common sense of his day grounded in a conjunction between everyday experience and Christian theology.
    But what counts as objective may shift, if and as a new theory joined to new events, refined instruments and tests points to anomalies in a previous theory somehow resolved in this one. Such a shift involves an array of complex exchanges, theoretical formulations, and refined modes of observation, as has been occurring now in the debates between genocentrism, epigenesis and symbiogenesis in biology. Amidst these exchanges, however, partially shared standards of factuality and objectivity can be invoked that exceed radically the evidence free assertions embodied in Fake News and Big Lie Scenarios.
   Let’s now move to more complex and contestable terrain, the terrain, perhaps, think tank drones have in mind when they hold constructivism responsible for a culture of Fake News. The figures to be invoked now would not call themselves constructivists or postmodernists. They are speculative philosophers who respect the traditions of science and cultural studies as they also strive to challenge classical notions of explanation in them in this or that way. According to Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze, some facts are both real and simmer with potentialities to become other than they are. Such facts are more than themselves. A genetic mutation may harbor diverse potentialities of gestation; one rather than others may find expression when it resonates with the specificity of an unfolding embryo. Or a student may place one or two far hazy ideas into competition with a dominant political theory. One of the former may then become consolidated out of that simmering facticity, as it drives others into obscurity. No Fake News here, but a process of emergence that renders facticity complex.
     It is unwise to cling so strongly to flat notions of facticity and objectivity that you rule out automatically the onto-intuition that real uncertainty and real creativity periodically arise in the world. This is precisely the territory that Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze explore, while retaining commitment to evidence based inquiry in the senses adumbrated above. Do positivist drives to equate Fake News with postmodernism seek to rule this latter possibility out before it has been subjected to live experimentation?
    Consider, then, Whitehead’s notion of “the scars of the past”. Often enough, Whitehead says, two partially unformed potentialities may simmer in an evolutionary process or the thinking of an individual or group. One becomes consolidated out of the mix (decoherence). However, the partially formed fork on the way that was not taken may fester again in a fecund future situation that calls it up again. He says “a feeling bears on itself the scars of its birth; it retains the impress of what might have been but is not. It is for this reason that what an actual entity has {in the past} avoided as a datum for feeling may be an important part of its equipment.” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 226-227)
    So, you fell for this potential lover over that one; or you supported one claim to a right over another potentiality that was simmering in a cloudy way. The festering fork Not Taken continues to subsist as a nodule of arrested thought-imbued energies. A new situation may activate that incipience again. In something like the way a new event can activate an old, slumbering memory. What is roused now, though, is a previous pluripotentiality rather than a consolidated memory; (many neuroscientists now think that memory recall involves subliminal reconstructions of the past). Out of subliminal movements back and forth between unconsolidated elements of the past and a new situation of uncertainty a creative formation may emerge. A new work of art may be shaped. A new responsiveness to plants may arise. Or a new sensibility of nontheistic gratitude may be staked out, lodged in between atheistic coldness and theological devotion. It is too much to say that you intended the new result from scratch. If a clean intention had preceded the result there would be no creativity in the event. It also may be too little to say that it just emerged from nowhere by chance. For no creativity would be in play in that either.

    What happens, Whitehead speculates, is that a previous fork not taken now resonates awkwardly with a new situation until a new possibility is ushered into the world out of the encounter. The new entity might be a new concept to be explored further in relation to others, a new work of art, a new political strategy, a new faith, or a proposal to add a new right to the roster of consolidated rights. Of course, the new event may overwhelm a thinker too, wiping out the promise of creativity in ways Whitehead may not emphasize enough.
    Whitehead’s theory of how creativity unfolds contains speculative dimensions. Not everyone will buy it, particularly those deeply invested in the prior ontology that everything actually in the world now must in principle be explicable all the way down. But his exploration is susceptible to a mix of philosophical explorations and living experiments. After absorbing it, for instance, you may find yourself attending more closely than heretofore to that uncanny threshold through which new ideas periodically bubble into life. Or you may ponder anew the intuition many people share that we do sometimes participate in real creativity.

     This speculative philosophy breaks simultaneously with positivist notions of simple facticity, postmodern resistance to metaphysical speculation, and the pursuits of Fake News, Big Lies, and mass manipulation inspiring aspirational fascism. It sustains together a certain respect for factuality, appreciation of objectivity, real creativity, and the role of speculation in thought. 
     A credible case can be made that sometimes something new emerges out of resonances back and forth between a cloudy fork from the past that was not taken and a current encounter. Such a speculative philosophy can be contested, of course. Nonetheless, the case for real creativity it sustains speaks to the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of life without either reducing everything to mere subjective constitution or flattening objectivity into the barren worlds of positivism and rational choice theory. All three of the latter traditions fail to appreciate the complexity and wonder of the world.

[i] See Victor Hansen, Fake News or Postmodernism by Another Name.

And Chen, “Is Postmodernism Responsible for Fake News?”

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

"Entirely Consensual"? Stormy Daniels’ #MeToo moment

Bonnie Honig
Brown University 

“A guy walked up on me and said to me, ‘Leave Trump alone. Forget the story,’” Stormy Daniels told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes Sunday night. It was 2011 and she was in a parking lot. Her baby daughter was in the car seat and she was on her way to the gym. The man then “leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, ‘That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.’” The threat worked: Daniels was “rattled.”

The scene is straight out of one of those movies where nothing good happens to women in parking lots and the words “It’d be a shame if …” are downright terrifying. It is quite credible that such a threat would stay with a person and shape their decisions for a long time to come.
 Five years later, when Daniels signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement, and then some statements denying she had ever had sex with Trump, there was no explicit threat of physical violence, but Daniels was again intimidated. “The exact sentence used was, ‘They can make your life hell in many different ways,’” she told Cooper.
 Regarding these two experiences, Daniels is willing to say she was afraid and felt she had no choice. Why then does she offer such a different account of the events that took place in the room in Lake Tahoe in 2006, where, by her own account, she felt pressured to have sex with Trump and also felt she had no choice?
 It was her own fault, she says: “I realized exactly what I'd gotten myself into. And I was like, "Ugh, here we go." (LAUGH) And I just felt like maybe-- (LAUGH) it was sort of-- I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone's room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, "well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this."”

The bad thing was sex with Trump. The voice in her head that told her she deserved it? That was her #MeToo moment.

She had gone to have dinner with a wealthy, powerful man, hoping to get ahead. She was not attracted to him. When she went to the bathroom, he moved from the dining table to the bedroom. When she returned, she found him “perched” on the bed. His body language was clear. She even imitated it during the interview, miming with her body the open torso of male expectation.
Anderson Cooper: Did you view it as “this is a potential opportunity. I'm gonna see where it goes?"

Stormy Daniels: I thought of it as a business deal.

  Trump had lured Daniels with Weinstein-style promises. At dinner, she says, he said: "Got an idea, honeybunch. Would you ever consider going on and-- and being a contestant?" On Celebrity Apprentice, he meant. “And I laughed and-- and said, "NBC's never gonna let, you know, an adult film star be on.” On the contrary, he reassured her: "That's why I want you. You're gonna shock a lotta people, you're smart and they won't know what to expect.’" He knew what he expected, though.
Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.

Stormy Daniels: Yes.

She says she didn’t want to; but she did it of her own volition, she insists. Thus, Daniels rejects the #MeToo label. She does not want to be a victim. She was not raped, she says, and she does not want to undo the valid claims of the women she calls the “true victims” - women in the #MeToo movement who were raped or coerced. Her concern for the other women is laudable. But it misses the point: the offenses against women charted by #MeToo range from outright sexual violence to coercion to pressure to quid pro quo.

Did Daniels comply because she worried about what might happen if she didn’t? Did she not want to risk making a scene? Or losing out on a job she wanted, that he had said she was right for? Many women will recognize the #MeToo calculation. It is easier to relent to the known than to refuse and court the unknown: his anger, his disappointment, perhaps his vengeance. Women who make those calculations also seek to own their choices, constrained as they are, so that they will not be seen as “victims.” Nobody wants to be a victim.
 A Washington Post article about Daniels puts her in the context of powerful women in the adult film industry. Daniels is impressive, unblinking in the media spotlight, and self-possessed. But that doesn’t mean she could— until now — totally burn the standard script of misogyny, nor does it mean she had the power fully to rewrite her role in it. The #MeToo movement calls attention to the scripts that are foisted upon us while we nonetheless assume we are responsible for them: the ones that oblige and then silence women, while falsely promising all sorts of opportunities or rewards.
 We need not call her a victim, nor a survivor, in order to see that the power that had earlier that evening allowed Daniels to playfully spank this man out of his self-regard was momentary and had in any case been granted to her as a noblesse oblige. In patriarchy, women with spunk are allowed to spank men who enjoy the temporary release from having to be powerful ALL the time. For the men, it is just role-play. The women are sometimes left rattled.
 Does it matter that Daniels was in that hotel room hoping to advance her career? Yes, it matters, but not in a way that leads to her undoing. How many men have had dinner with potential employers -- seeking professional advancement -- without fear of such extortion?
  Daniels says she KNEW Trump wasn’t going to deliver on his promises. She was way too savvy to fall for that, she says. But she lets her hope show for a second and anyone moved by #MeToo should be moved by this too. Trump later called to say he “’just wanted to give [her] a quick update, we had a meeting, it went great… [and] they're totally into the idea." He was suggesting she would get her shot on his show. Her response, she says, “was like ‘mhmm,’” and she adds: “that part I never believed.” But when Anderson Cooper asks: “Did you still get the sense that he was kind of dangling it in front of you…To keep you interested, to keep you coming back?” Daniels replies: “Of course, of course. I mean, I'm not blind. But at the same time, maybe it'll work out, you know?”
 Her cynical knowingness (“I mean, I'm not blind”), which makes her NOT a victim, does not quite extinguish the still faintly hopeful optimism (“maybe it'll work out, you know?”) that makes her if not a victim then perhaps a casualty of the misogyny we all live with. If she thought she deserved what she was getting that night, it was not simply because she had made the bad call to go for dinner “to someone's room alone.” It is surely because she allowed herself to go to that dinner hopeful; hopeful that she could get into a more respectable and better-paid line of work, out of pornography and into the Celebrity Apprentice (that 50 shades of upward mobility that can make quite a difference). The offense was not that Daniels went to a powerful man’s hotel room. It was that she did so because she did not want to accept her place in the world, because she hoped for more. And rather than her abusing his desire, he abused hers as he used the illusion of consent to maneuver her onto a casting couch for a role that did not exist and never would.
  When Daniels says “I was not a victim. I've never said I was a victim,” she may be thinking of her second meeting with Trump. A year later she was in a similar position, this time in Trump’s Beverly Hill Hotel bungalow, and she flipped the script: when Trump approached her for sex, 4 hours after she arrived, she said: "Well, before, you know, can we talk about what's the development?" And he was like, "I'm almost there. I'll have an answer for you next week." And I was like, "Okay, cool. Well-- I guess call me next week." And I just took my purse and left.” Fool me once, shame on you…as the saying goes. Fool me twice? Nah. 
   Alyssa Rosenberg rightly notes in the Washington Post that “as a cultural milestone, the most radical thing Cooper did was refuse to treat [Daniels] as if she was irresponsible or immoral, or as if she were less than credible simply because of what she does for a living.” He did not shame her or suggest her job – which is legal – made her less credible.

But he did miss one big opportunity when asking her about that first meeting with Trump in Tahoe:

Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.
Stormy Daniels: Yes.
Anderson Cooper: You were 27, he was 60. Were you physically attracted to him?
Stormy Daniels: No.
Anderson Cooper: Not at all?
Stormy Daniels: No.
Anderson Cooper: Did you want to have sex with him?
Stormy Daniels: No. But I didn't-- I didn't say no. I'm not a victim, I'm not--
Anderson Cooper: It was entirely consensual.
Stormy Daniels: Oh, yes, yes.

“It was entirely consensual” is a sentence that bears little connection to the event described. And Daniels’ “Oh, yes, yes” is a clue that should not be overlooked: it literally doubles down on her insistence she is not a victim, while sounding the trite refrain of faked orgasms heard round the world.
 *First Published at Politics/Letters
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Monday, March 19, 2018

John Buell — Will Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Become Another Attack on Democracy?

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. 

President Trump promises rapid economic growth compliments of his tax cut. Even if he is correct, however, the private sector expansion he celebrates will likely leave huge holes acknowledged even by many conservative economists.   California is burning. Our highways, sewers, bridges, and tunnels are now graded at nearly failing. There is widespread agreement that repairs and restoration of our infrastructure must be funded on a massive scale. Yet what shape will this spending assume? Which projects will be funded? Who will own the new and renovated structures and with what responsibilities? If the tax cut model of gifts to the wealthy and well positioned is followed, the damage will include not only inconvenient or poorly maintained rails, roads, and other public services but also further erosion of our democracy itself.

In a prophetic essay a year ago in Boston Review Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig, author of Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair, pointed out that the Trump family’s decision to opt out of residence at the White House in favor of life in Manhattan or Florida reflected a disdain for pubic things. Neoliberals differ on some issues, but one key notion most hold is the right to opt out of publically provided services or goods one does not need or want. This neoliberal mindset imposes substantial burdens on the rest of us. A recent Wall Street Journal article only confirms Honig’s concerns. The Wall Street Journal  found  that the president has spent more than 100 days at one of his properties, including more than a month each at his golf course in New Jersey and at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington points out: ”visits to his properties in Florida costs the local Palm Beach government so much that it considered raising taxes.”

The opt- out culture has more widespread and destructive effects. As Honig puts it: “Charter schools and voucher programs invite locals to opt out of public schools while drawing on public funds that might have improved the public education system rather than provide an alternative to it.” When these schools succeed, often by excluding special needs children, their success is taken as proof of the inadequacy of public education.

Neoliberals generally resist or seek to limit the services that are provided by public entities.  When these must be provided, the service should be privately owned and run like any other profit maximizing business.  This requirement, however, exposes some of the tensions and contradiction within neoliberalism. What if, as is often the case, there are very few businesses that can provide the service? Won’t these firms be in position to charge monopoly prices for their services? If you believe in limited government—at least limited with respect to any possible downward redistribution—you will allow monopoly to serve in the faith that in the long run everything will work out. Economists more attuned to the real concerns that Smith, Mill, and Ricardo voiced regarding monopolies will demand anti trust or insist on regulation of “natural monopolies.”

In recent times, both here and internationally, the former course has prevailed. Things have not worked out and privatization has become a means by which politically and socially well positioned have increased their power. But it was not always that way. University of Missouri-Kansas City economist Michael Hudson puts it thus:

“To prevent such price gouging and to keep economies competitive with low costs of living and doing business, Europeans kept the most important natural monopolies in the public domain: the post office, the BBC and other state broadcasting companies, roads and basic transportation, as well as early national airlines. European governments prevented monopoly rent by providing the basic infrastructure services at cost, or even at subsidized prices or freely… The guiding idea is for public infrastructure to lower the cost of living and doing business…[With privatization] the economy ends up being turned into a collection of tollbooths instead of factories…”

Trump’s detailed infrastructure proposals still are not out, but early suggestions about tax credits to corporations that supply such infrastructure are problematic. Corporations are likely to invest only in those projects with likelihood of monopoly profits, i. e. those where they can impose their own tollbooth. This will leave some very important services underdeveloped and others overly costly or inconvenient.

Converting public things into private goods reinforces a trend toward corporate oligarchy. Traditional fiscal conservatives hide their support of oligarchy behind warnings of dire consequences of government overspending. Their stated reason for opposition to generous public spending on public goods is a concern about possible bankruptcy. Ad nauseam they chastise us: Just as families that splurge beyond their means go bankrupt so too will nations that spend too much on public goods. The analogy is false. Our government, unlike its citizens, controls and issues its own currency. Trillions poured into the economy by the Federal Reserve for the bank bailout occasioned little more than a yawn in world financial markets and no inflation.  

Republicans’ and centrist Democrats’ concerns about the debt are a smoke screen to attack Social Security. Neoliberals’ real fear is the greater equality generous public things might foster and the coalitions across borders, ethnicities, and faiths the construction and maintenance of such goods might encourage. Honig puts the case in Whitmanesque language: “The democratic experiment involves living cheek by jowl with others, sharing classrooms, roads, and buses, paying for them together, complaining about them together, and sometimes even praising and enjoying them together, as picnickers will do on a sunny afternoon in Central Park. But the neoliberal corrective absolves us of this necessity and responsibility. That Central Park—landscape architecture’s ode to the power of democratic beauty—is just a stone’s throw away from the barricaded Trump Tower is only one of the many sad ironies of the story to be told here.”

Public things and the democratic space they foster and are fostered by encourage both collective responses to common problems and an opportunity to address the injustices (remainders) that emerge from even the most egalitarian and idealistic processes. The physical state of our infrastructure reflects more than conventional faith in balanced budgets. It is an attack on democracy and must be resisted by appealing to and enhancing democracy itself.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Jairus Grove — Living on the Wrong Side of the Redline

Jairus Grove
Director, University of Hawai'i Research Center for Futures Studies 
Associate Professor of International Relations

Department of Political Science
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

On Valentine’s day 2018, Admiral Harry Harris revealed that an evacuation plan for Non-essential personnel and military dependents was being developed for South Korea. A few weeks earlier the public was given a brief preview of this policy when almost-U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, announced that he was dismissed by the Trump administration in part because of his resistance to undertaking an evacuation. In his words, an evacuation would provoke North Korea and hasten the pace of invasion plans by the White House. Admiral Harris’ testimony before congress confirmed Cha’s incredulity regarding such a plan as he described the unrealistic logistics of moving thousands of American military dependents and potentially hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens residing primarily in Seoul. Adm. Harris’ testimony is not encouraging, particularly in light of Trump’s ominous foreshadowing of a world-threatening “phase II” if another round of sanctions do not produce complete nuclear disarmament on the part of North Korea.

From the island of Oahu the response is: what about us? Seoul is 5 to 10 minutes from North Korean retaliation but Honolulu is only 15 minutes further away by ICBM. Where is our evacuation plan? The already unimpressive track record of U.S. nuclear interceptors has been joined by another very public failure of an interceptor test here in Hawai’i. Add to this the lingering collective dread after our mistaken missile alert on January 13th of this year, and we want to know where our military-assisted evacuation plans are. Unlike South Korea which has thousands of bomb shelters, Honolulu has no approved public bomb shelters. This is a fact reinforced by recent statements by state civil defense authorities recommending that we all shelter in place despite the fact that most Honolulu homes are of wooden construction and do not have basements. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and we have received a taste of what it is like to wait for unstoppable death with those we love most.

What makes our collective vulnerability all the more terrifying is the palpable panic on the faces of our active duty service personnel in our communities, classrooms, and families. They are being told to prepare themselves to die for their country in Korea, are being issued a new generation of body armor, trained for tunnel warfare, and tasked to move the last of the necessary tactical equipment to South Korea. States move B-2 bombers to Guam to send a signal to North Korea. They move body armor to Seoul to prepare for invasion. Here in Hawai`i, we take the Trump administration at its word when they say there is no ‘bloody nose strike’ in the works. That is because we know a full scale attack is being planned. If this seems unthinkable on the mainland, consider how often you have said Donald Trump’s behavior was unthinkable just before he proved you wrong.

If all of this seems alarmist, just read the news. Another career diplomat and one of the last veteran experts on North Korea, Joseph Yun, is unexpectedly retiring this Friday. The administration’s active pursuit of war is further corroborated by leaks inside the DoD that war planners were purposely slowing down the development of new scenarios for invading North Korea out of fear that it would empower Trump to enact one of the scenarios. To further complicate the possibility of peace, North Korea has responded to the weak U.S. offer of post-Olympic talks by staying that diplomacy cannot happen if nuclear disarmament and North Korean vulnerability are not negotiable. Further, the U.S. administration is trumpeting the U.N. announcement that North Korea is aiding Syria’s chemical weapons development; this is an accusation hauntingly reminiscent of the ramp up to invade Iraq. And as Honolulu Star-Advertiser journalist, William Cole, has confirmed, Fort Schafter here in Honolulu is furiously at work on a plan to evacuate the dependents of military and diplomatic personnel from South Korea. The graveness of the situation has been publicly underlined by statements from Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Tammy Duckworth who both believe that war is an imminent threat to U.S. citizens. Finally, the troops, air power, naval power, and the munitions to supply them have all already been moved to the theatre of our impending war. To bring it all to a point, and repeat the tragic history of the 2003 Iraq invasion, February 28th, the Wall Street Journal published John Bolton's editorial "The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First." The only thing left standing between the U.S. and war is a decision by President Donald Trump.

The wrong people have been making the decisions over war and peace for too long and with tragic consequences. We have a generation of soldiers with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and permanently life-altering wounds because President George W. Bush decided to prosecute a war of opportunity in Iraq. If President Donald Trump were to make a similar decision on the Korean peninsula, the consequences for the United States would be incomparably catastrophic. Figures reported by Adm. Harry Harris as well as regional expert and CSIS director Ralph Cossa estimate that more than 200,000 U.S. civilians would be in harm’s way in South Korea, 162,000 in Guam, and another 1.4 million Americans would be targeted in Hawai’i. The overwhelming majority of all of these populations live just a few miles from the most probable military targets. Seoul, all of Guam, Pearl Harbor, Fort Schafter, are all densely populated civilian areas that would be engulfed in fire.

Those on the periphery would face nuclear fallout of a kind for which we have no models to predict the consequences. We have never fought a nuclear war with weapons in the range of a hundred kilotons. The only thing we can know for certain is that a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and North Korea would kill millions in the first hours of combat. What happens next, a potential strike on the mainland with biological or chemical weapons? The sudden discovery that North Korea does have the potential to reach the U.S. mainland with nuclear ICBMs? With both sides fighting for their very survival and the potential to draw in China and Russia, the gamble on the Korean peninsula risks not only the first global nuclear war but the first time as many as four nuclear powers could be engaged simultaneously.

Even in the best case scenario, that is, unprecedented accuracy and execution, 100 percent of U.S. missile interceptors would be spent before a small fraction of the potential nuclear missiles were launched by any of these powers. Many will certainly scream that this is exactly why we need a more robust national missile defense and they may be right. Unfortunately, this war is going to be fought in the next few months and in addition to the major technological breakthroughs that will need to occur at a pace we cannot control, even the construction and deployment of existing technology will take years. A future defense system cannot save my children in Hawai’i and it will not save yours on the mainland either.

We must demand the democratic control of war and peace now. Unlike the floundering development of the national missile defense system, the technology for U.S. war control was deployed March 4th, 1789. The U.S. constitution gives the war powers to Congress, a body held accountable by citizen voters, not an electoral college. The U.S. Congress can make peace with North Korea and begin the process of normalizing relations so that real diplomacy can begin for a lasting peace. The lesson of the Cold War is that diplomacy and the institutionalization of enmity saves lives. Nuclear hotlines, arms control treaties, and diplomacy save lives. Deterrence did not save us from the Soviet menace; deterrence held each of the parties at bay until co-existence could be successfully negotiated.

What we face on the Korean peninsula is even more terrifying than the Cuban Missile Crisis. What Trump is planning for North Korea would be the equivalent of President Kennedy thinking he could preemptively invade the Soviet Union, safely destroy or secure all of their missiles, and all before a retaliatory response could be mustered. Add to this insane scenario that we live in a world with China and Russia both better equipped than the Soviet Union of 1962 and you begin to get a glimpse of the hubris of our current administration. A decision of this magnitude should not be made in the oval office. If democracy has any value at all, if the right of representation has ever mattered, it is at the moment in which the decision could mean the end of our world as we have known it.

What would democratic control look like? To begin with, Congress should reciprocate North Korea’s public declaration not to use nuclear weapons offensively. At the same time that Congress declares our own nuclear no-first use policy, it should direct Strategic Command that the President only has retaliatory nuclear authority. It must be made clear that this includes the use of so-called tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear bunker busters. Defanged of a nuclear first strike, Trump’s ability to escalate the conflict too quickly for Congress to act becomes equal parts impractical and unthinkable. The next step should be a concerted effort to normalize relations with North Korea and support the bilateral dialogue between North and South Korea. You cannot successfully negotiate with another country while you also have a stated policy of overthrowing the government of that country’s regime. Mutual recognition of sovereign equality is a precondition to any real discussion. If these efforts fail, if North Korea truly is undeterrable and launches their weapons, thereby committing national suicide, the U.S. is no worse off than it would be minutes after a preemptive invasion. We must exhaust real diplomacy or face a world in which sacrificing a few million Americans at a time is a rational foreign policy objective. Maximal Pressure is not a strategy for peace. It is a prelude to war and it must be stopped. Our President will not protect us. Our lives are in our hands and it is time to fight for survival.

Suggested Reading and Public Evidence of Claims Made

Admiral Harry Harris Before Congress on Effort to Evacuate U.S. Citizens from South Korea

Tammy Duckworth Urges Evacuation of South Korea

Lindsey Graham and Others Urge Evacuation of South Korea

U.S. Sends Hundreds of Thousands of Bombs to Guam for War with North Korea

Hawaii and Guam Will Be Targeted and Escalation Will Not Be Controllable

U.S. Envoy to North Korea, Joseph Yun, Unexpectedly Retires

Victor Cha Dismissed In Part Because of Discussion Over North Korea Strike and Evacuation

DOD Fears Too Many Options for War Will Increase Trump’s Confidence to Go To War

Trump Has Sole Authority to Launch Nuclear Attack

How a War With North Korea Would Unfold. Millions Dead.

B2 Nuclear Stealth Bombers Deployed to Guam

F-35’s Stealth Fighters Deployed to Okinawa

Three Aircraft Carrier Groups Deployed to North Korean Theatre

U.S. To Deploy Missile Capable Drones to South Korea

U.S. Soldiers Training for Tunnel Warfare

CIA Head Predicts North Korean Nuclear Capability will Reach Mainland U.S. in Months not Years.

Trump Threatens Destructive Phase II if Sanctions Do Not Work

Trump Sabotages Tillerson’s Diplomatic Efforts

U.S. Quietly Deploys Soldiers and Pilots to South Korea for War

U.S. Missile Interceptor Fails Off Coast of Hawaii

The Missile Defense System is Speculative at Best

North Korea Possesses Significant Biological and Chemical Weapons Threat

Hawaii Residents Told To Shelter In Place

University of Hawaii System Sends Out Email That There Are No Bomb Shelters

U.S. Congress Estimates 390,000 Veterans with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury From Iraq and Afghan Wars.

Signs of an Impending Korean War

Russia Will Interpret a Nuclear Attack on its Allies as A Nuclear Attack on Russia

Japan Intercepts Russian Bombers

Bolton Makes A Public Case for Striking First
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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Gitte du Plessis — Cultivating Catastrophe: Why Does North Korea Still Pursue Biological Weapons?


Gitte du Plessis

Gitte du Plessis earned her PhD in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and is now a post-doctoral researcher at the RELATE Centre of Excellence in the department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland. She is currently completing a monograph titled Microbial Geopolitics: Living with Danger and the Limits of Security, and has begun a new project that focuses on non-human forces in Arctic geopolitics.

In the deadly game of sabre rattling, biological weapons are out of vogue. As I have explored elsewhere, the idea of pathogens as weapons of mass destruction had its heyday in the last century, when countries such as Britain, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, Israel, South Africa, and Iraq all had offensive bioweapons programs. Overwhelmingly, the pursuit of biological weapons has been futile and a waste of resources. The problem with weaponizing pathogens is that pathogens resist weaponization. Microbes are living beings, which sets them distinctively apart from chemical or nuclear weapons. Nobody, thus far, has been able to control microbes enough to actually train them. Microbes don’t respond to discipline, threat or punishment, they don’t understand human commands, and their modes of conduct are so radically different from human modes of conduct that mastering contagion in the interest of war has proved close to impossible. Hence, the history of the use of biological weapons is sketchy and everything but glorious – a series of failed attempts at microbial control. Infectious pathogens are lethal, and they pose a threat to human lives, but overwhelmingly, the lives that have been lost to biological weapons are of lab workers, test animals, test humans and civilians killed by pathogens from programmes that were supposed to protect them. The laboratory is deadly in itself, and the weapon rarely makes it to the battlefield in a decisive way.

For these reasons, most global powers have turned their attention to other kinds of weapons. The United States now only conducts research on biological weapons for defense purposes. Contemporary innovations in high-tech weaponry are focused on drones, robots, and artificial intelligence, while low-tech innovation is turning to everyday items such as cars or improvised explosive devices made out of surplus electronic and military components. In comparison to the effectiveness of these sorts of weapons, pursuing biological weapons is a strategic blunder.

So why is the North Korean regime still investing in the capabilities of biological weapons? A recent report from the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs titled North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program: The Known and Unknown, details how North Korea is in possession of 13 different biological agents that can be weaponized, and that they likely have the capability to weaponize at least anthrax and smallpox within a matter of days. The easy explanation is that North Korea is still living in the last century. I think something else is going on. 

Compared to other international powers, characteristics of North Korea make the regime more likely to attempt collaboration with pathogens. Only great powers are heavily invested in global order. The disordering properties of biological weapons are alluring to North Korea, because the regime thrives and depends on global disorder. The way in which pathogens are unknowable and uncontrollable suits the North Korean regime, whose tactic is to be exactly this kind of presence in international relations, in the hopes that others are discouraged from messing with them. Other nations gave up on biological weapons as they realized that the destruction caused by pathogens cannot be mastered to the point where a nation can direct pathogenic destruction only at the enemy, without significant risk to itself. Pathogens are finicky, and easily turn back on the disperser. According to an expert interview cited in the report from the Belfer Center, North Korea considers human vectors as one way of dispersing their biological weapons. This kind of sacrifice is currently unthinkable to other nations given the relative security of most great powers and their allies, but not to North Korea, who values the survival of the regime via deterrence over North Korean lives. This means that the self-destructive elements of pursuing biological weapons are tolerable to North Korea. 

North Korea’s pursuit of biological weapons receives little attention. The international community focuses primarily on the security threat of North Korea’s nuclear program. Unlike the threat of biological weapons, the nuclear threat can be managed and to some extent controlled with conventional and nuclear deterrence strategies. This is not to suggest that nuclear weapons are safe, however the international order has normalized the rules of nuclear competition, and despite concern of nuclear proliferation, nuclear technologies mostly comply with these rules. While the pursuit of biological weapons is a strategic blunder from the perspective of a user of those weapons, being the enemy of a power that nonetheless pursues them is a strategic headache. Biological weapons are a last resort, and it makes sense to use them for a crumbling power with nothing to loose, as a last dash against a global order that refuses to accept its existence. This means that biological weapons cannot be controlled with war, because destruction of North Korea is an incentive to turn to these kinds of weapons. We could for example imagine North Korea infecting its own fleeing refugees as a kind of second strike in an already lost war. 

Because North Korea is an outlier resonating with global disorder, their pursuit of biological weapons makes sense. While the United States and North Korea are equal enemies in the power play of nuclear deterrence, the uncertainty of the North Korean biological weapons program gives North Korea an edge. Biological weapons destabilize the world of international relations in different ways than the seemingly rational world of nuclear weapons. 

In the West, we are accustomed to the strategy of destroying everything that is dangerous. We spray to kill mosquitoes carrying Zika, we kill wolves if they dare to attack humans, ISIS must be eradicated, and so on. This logic does not work with North Korea. North Korea has managed to corral itself in a way that requires us to cohabitate with the uncertainty and danger that constitutes the regime. This position is the best North Korea can hope for, and the pursuit of biological weapons aids them in defending it vigorously. 

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