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The Conspiratorial Style in Pandemic Politics by Hugo Drochon – Project Syndicate



NOTTINGHAM – Over half of the world’s population is in self-confinement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And though the lockdown has slowed the spread of the coronavirus, it has accelerated the progress of another insidious phenomenon: conspiracy theories. Fearing for one’s life, livelihood, and loved ones, all while in a state of isolation, has turned out to be a veritable Petri dish of fabulist paranoia.

According to one of the most popular conspiracy theories, new Chinese-made 5G networks are to blame for the pandemic. According to the theory’s proponents, 5G equipment is emitting radiation that weakens the immune system, or is even transmitting the virus directly. In the United Kingdom, proponents of this view claim that the Huawei research center responsible for the company’s UK rollout is located in Wuhan, where the pandemic started.

As it happens, Wuhan is also host to many laboratories, and, according to recent opinion polls, 23% of Americans and 17% of the French believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was created “intentionally” in one of them. In France, the conspiratorial lens focused first on a Chinese P4 (the highest biosafety level) lab that was apparently set up with the help of the French government, before shifting to former French Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn and her husband, Yves Lévy, both of whom are doctors of Jewish descent. Indeed, when conspiracy theories are on the rise, anti-Semitism is never far away. Not surprisingly, the philanthropist George Soros has also been linked to the “Chinese lab” conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories often track existing political divides, and are particularly appealing to those on the far right. In France, National Rally followers in the aforementioned poll were twice as likely to believe that the virus was made in a lab. And in the UK, tying the virus to Huawei has been convenient for those within the governing Conservative Party who believe the company is a Trojan horse for the Chinese government.

Conspiracy theories are not inconsequential. In the UK, a number of phone lines (which are crucial for the emergency services) have been burned to the ground, and the engineers responsible for installing them have been harassed and accused of complicity in “murdering people.”

Most of these theories have spread through social-media platforms, which have been flooded with new users, including many elderly people who have been relying on digital platforms to stay in touch with family and friends. Having grown up in a media environment populated with far more professional gatekeepers, older people are more likely to share fake news and online rumors. And, compounding the problem, people generally are more likely to believe messages they receive from someone they trust.

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Celebrities also can cause problems. Among those who shared a version of the 5G conspiracy theory was the actor Woody Harrelson, who has two million Instagram followers. Before social media, such misinformation would have been caught by an editor, or questioned by an interviewer. But now celebrities and public figures can communicate their unfiltered – and often unexamined – thoughts directly to their fans and followers. While platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp have introduced some restrictions, they remain committed to a business model that encourages “shareable” content. Sensationalism wins.

An even bigger challenge concerns vaccines, the only intervention that can really bring an end to the pandemic. For decades, conspiracy theories promoted by the “anti-vax” movement (which also happens to include many celebrities) have been among the most dangerous. False claims about the supposed risks associated with standard childhood vaccines have led to measles outbreaks in the UK, Ireland, Nigeria, Romania, Samoa, and the United States (where there have also been recent tetanus scares).

Anti-vax fearmongering has also driven a sharp decline in yearly flu shots in some European countries, with a concomitant rise in deaths. In Italy and France, a 2015 poll found that 30% of the population opposed mandatory vaccination. Now, both countries have relatively higher COVID-19 death tolls than their neighbors.

Four years after the pro-Brexit Tory politician Michael Gove declared that people have “had enough of experts,” the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that distrusting or vilifying scientists can have deadly consequences. For widespread vaccination to be carried out, the public will have to trust the professionals.

Yet the populist leaders in power around the world thrive on undermining professionals, experts, and others associated with “the establishment.” US President Donald Trump, for example, has on several occasions publicly contradicted Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And the situation in Italy may be even worse. Back in 2018, the populist coalition in power at the time ignored Italy’s medical professionals and abolished mandatary vaccination for children.

Moreover, the celebrity factor will continue to infect the conversation. Just a couple weeks ago, the tennis star Novak Djokovic, an advocate of “natural healing,” proclaimed that he will “not be forced by someone” to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

Much like COVID-19 itself, the best protection against conspiracy theories is inoculation. People need to be trained to recognize one when they see it, and to question the sources and basic logic of information they encounter online. Public-health officials and responsible politicians have a big job on their hands. To beat the coronavirus, they need the public’s trust. To succeed, they will have to stop two deadly contagions at the same time.

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The politics behind how governments control coronavirus data – SaltWire Network



Anton Oleinik, Memorial University of Newfoundland

COVID-19 has affected almost every country around the globe. The World Health Organization has confirmed cases in 216 countries and territories, a total that represents more than 85 per cent of 251 entities recognized by the United Nations. Yet each government has responded differently to the coronavirus pandemic — including how data on the disease have been shared with each country’s citizens.

The selectiveness with which governments release information about the number of confirmed cases and the deaths caused by the coronavirus suggest techniques of “bio-power” may be at play.

French philosopher Michel Foucault invented the concept of bio-power in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1977-78. He defined bio-power as a “set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power.”

Foucault found an early example of bio-power in the smallpox vaccine developed by the end of the 18th century — one of the first attempts to manage populations in terms of the calculus of probabilities under the banner of public health. While a COVID-19 vaccine is still in the making, the concept of bio-power may help make better sense of how we see governments deal with the ongoing pandemic.

Our perception of the probability of contracting the virus and the chances to recover is shaped by the relevant statistical figures released by our respective governments. Those figures feed the entire spectrum of our own reactions to COVID-19 — including fear and negligence.

A balanced take on COVID-19 and a proper course of action to deal with the pandemic means the information provided by governments must be complete, valid and reliable. Unfortunately, that is not happening in many cases.

When examining how some countries have responded to the pandemic, bio-political factors should be taken into account. This includes how governments are collecting and sharing data about the coronavirus. Let’s look at three countries in particular.

The United States

In the U.S., COVID-19 information is disseminated by government agencies, universities, the media and even search engines. Various levels of governments remain the ultimate source of the reported figures, but how accurate are those figures?

The U.S. now has the most confirmed cases and deaths caused by COVID-19. While this can be explained by a late response to the pandemic and the lack of universal health care coverage, the political stakes in the COVID-19 crisis are also very high for the U.S.

The social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic will be a major factor in this year’s elections. In an effort to shift attention from his administration’s response, U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated China should be blamed for the crisis. The high number of infections and deaths contribute to a feeling of fear and insecurity — which from a bio-power perspective may actually help Trump sell his message.


In addition to being the only source of information about COVID-19, the Russian government also makes every effort to protect its monopoly on the production and dissemination of the relevant data. Anyone who attempts to collect and disseminate COVID-19 figures without having a “licence to inform” may face criminal charges for being an agent provocateur.

A group of medical doctors in Chechnya, the previously rebel region in the Caucasus now under the tight control of the central government, attempted to complain about the lack of preparedness to COVID-19. They were promptly accused of “provocations” and forced to deliver public apologies.

According to government data, Russia has one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world, less than one per cent. (The U.S. reports a six per cent mortality rare; Italy, France and the U.K. are in the range of 14-15 per cent). Either the Russians have an exceptionally strong immune system or something is wrong with the way the government counts the deaths.

As well, the regular monthly statistics of deaths released by some regions shows an anomalous hike in April — numbers that are out of line with the officially approved figures of COVID-19-related deaths.

The gap between the number of officially acknowledged COVID-19 cases and deaths may have political explanations.

Similar to the U.S., the pandemic interferes with the political agenda in Russia. The constitutional referendum engineered to extend Vladimir Putin’s term as Russia’s president was originally scheduled on April 22, but was eventually postponed until July 1.

Putin is trying to make the gambit of accepting high (but not necessarily accurate) figures of COVID-19 infections and simultaneously doing everything possible to under-report the true number of COVID-19-related deaths. If successful, he would be able to claim credit for handling the crisis better than other world leaders.


Canada’s figures do not look controversial at first sight. The country has neither an exceptionally high number of COVID-19 cases nor an exceptionally high mortality rate (7.5 per cent). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially some elements of bio-power at play.

Canada’s government chose to complicate the task of comparing the COVID-19 figures across its provinces and territories. The federal government’s website dedicated to COVID-19 reports the aggregate data only. No death statistics are included. Comparing the responses of each province requires an examination of 13 different provincial websites, which have various formats of reporting the relevant figures.

Access-to-information requests are not of great help here either, despite the fact that there are access-to-information acts both at the federal and provincial levels. It takes an average of one month to get a response to an access-to-information request under normal times. But now governments have full discretion in deciding what information on COVID-19 to release, as well as when and how to do it.

This means that in Canada, bio-politics manifests itself through the fuzziness of information and, in the absence of clear information, the public is expected to uncritically accept the actions of their governments.

The Conversation

Anton Oleinik, Professor of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Essential Politics: The generals' revolt – Los Angeles Times



Over the three-and-a-half years he’s been in office, President Trump has clashed repeatedly with government institutions that he sought to bend to his will.


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The first fight came with the nation’s intelligence agencies, then the FBI, the diplomatic corps and, more recently, the quasi-independent inspectors general at federal agencies.

This week, though, brought a battle with the military — a clash with far more serious implications.


For Trump, the decision to push the Pentagon into politics was a fateful choice, and it quickly brought an extraordinary rebuke.

“Mockery of the Constitution”

As has often been the case with Trump, the impetus seems to have been his desire to appear tough.

Since the start last week of nationwide protests over police brutality, Trump’s aides had debated how he should respond. Some talked of an Oval Office address to the nation, others advocated public “listening sessions” designed to showcase the president talking with black Americans about their concerns.

It’s unclear whether Trump ever seriously considered either of those approaches. His past attempts at each have gone badly.


By Monday, however, officials say Trump’s focus had shifted: He was angry about news reports which accurately said that the Secret Service had hustled him down to the White House’s underground bunker on Friday when protests in downtown Washington turned violent. He wanted to counteract that image with something that would showcase him looking powerful.

That set the stage for one of the indelible moments of the Trump presidency: Monday evening, military police, national guard troops, Park Police and other federal law enforcement agents confronted a peaceful crowd of demonstrators in Lafayette Square, just across the street from the White House, and suddenly, as television cameras recorded the scene, assaulted them with tear gas and rubber bullets.

(White House officials the next day tried to insist that “tear gas” hadn’t been used, a claim based on a narrow definition of tear gas, which, in any case, appears to be false based on shell canisters reporters have found in the park.)

As the mayhem unfolded, Trump began speaking in the White House Rose Garden, threatening to send troops to American cities if state and local officials failed to halt protests that he described as “rioting.” He then walked out of the north gate of the White House, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top officials in tow, passed through the park, now devoid of protesters, and posed for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal church, which had been damaged by fire during protests over the weekend.


By the next day, both Trump’s campaign and Joe Biden‘s were using video and still images of that walk across the park in their advertising. Trump’s side believed the scene portrayed strength, power and toughness. Biden’s side saw bullying, recklessness and contempt for free speech.

With both campaigns focused for now on motivating their core supporters, not reaching out to the voters in between, it’s possible both could be correct in seeing the images as helpful to their cause. But the aftermath did not end there.

Trump’s decision to pull the military into a political fight, and his threat to go further and invoke the Insurrection Act, a law dating to the early 19th century, to send troops to other cities, provoked a swift and negative reaction in the top ranks. (If you wonder how the Insurrection Act works, we have you covered.)

The military is one of the few institutions that still enjoys widespread approval in a deeply divided country, largely because the public sees it as nonpolitical. Top commanders have made a high priority of preserving that. Trump does not.


That’s the context for the outpouring that dominated this week.

The pattern was a familiar one — statements from anonymous Pentagon officials to reporters distancing the brass from the White House, followed by stronger language from retired top commanders, who are free to criticize the commander-in-chief in ways that their active-duty former colleagues cannot.

What was not familiar was the intensity, starting with former Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, who, as David Cloud reported, accused Trump of ordering the military to “violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.”

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote in The Atlantic. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership,” he said, adding that Americans “must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”


A phalanx of other retired commanders followed: Retired four-star Gen. John R. Allen warned that Trump
“could wreck the high regard Americans have for their military, and much more.”

The former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, wrote that Trump had “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country.”

Another former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, said in an interview with National Public Radio that “the idea that the military would be called in to dominate and to suppress what, for the most part, were peaceful protests — admittedly, where some had opportunistically turned them violent — and that the military would somehow come in and calm that situation was very dangerous.”

Former White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, also a former Marine Corps four-star, spoke out to praise Mattis. Esper, confronted by a problem far beyond what he expected, called a news conference at which he said he opposed use of the Insurrection Act, potentially putting his job at risk.


The criticism from military leaders effectively ended — at least for now — talk of sending troops to U.S. cities. Troops that the administration had summoned to Washington quietly started to return to Ft. Bragg in North Carolina on Thursday.

But the political impact on Trump seems likely to be more lasting. Only a handful of Republican elected officials — most notably Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — publicly praised Mattis. But few spoke out clearly in support of Trump, either.

Trump’s effort to militarize the response to the protests has left him isolated, and the new fences that his administration has erected around a large swath of downtown Washington, reinforced the image of a president alienated from much of the country.

Even in a fight with the military, most of Trump’s voters will almost surely stick with him.


But the support Trump receives from his base is increasingly beside the point. Rather than a source of strength, catering to his base has become a trap for a president who is behind in the polls and badly in need of a way to broaden his backing. Picking a fight with the country’s most-admired institution almost surely won’t help.

Unemployment bottoming out

What could help Trump is a revival of the economy, and the president was quick to crow over Friday’s jobs report, which provided a significantly better unemployment picture for May than most economists had projected, as Don Lee wrote.

Trump hailed the report on Twitter as “a stupendous number,” and the stock market rose briskly. He quickly scheduled a White House news conference.

But while a 13.3% unemployment rate is a lot better than the 20% many economists had guessed, it’s still one of the highest jobless numbers since the Great Depression, surpassed only by the rate in April. The numbers suggest that the job market has bottomed out as a large number of workers on furlough have returned to work. But the bottom is very deep — about 20 million jobs lost.


The key question for the future of the economy — and for Trump’s political standing — is how many of those 20 million get recalled to work and how quickly. Some share of the jobs lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic were temporary, and as businesses begin to reopen, those people will get back to work. Others will come back only slowly, if ever.

Trump is currently betting on a quick, sharp rebound of the economy that can be accomplished without additional large amounts of federal spending. He has a lot riding on that bet paying off.

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Police reform on the agenda

The House likely will take up and pass a bill later this month calling for nationwide police reforms, including a ban on at least certain forms of chokeholds. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked the Congressional Black Caucus to take the lead in writing the legislation, which could come to the floor as early as next week.


Democrats will put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the bill up in his chamber. They don’t truly expect him to do so, but they do hope to create a politically difficult situation for some Republican senators who are up for reelection this year.

Trump has largely ignored calls for police reforms, as Chris Megerian and Noah Bierman wrote. It’s not a topic in which he has ever showed interest.

So national legislation isn’t likely before the November election. If Democrats were to win, however — especially if they take a Senate majority — a national move on police reform likely would be a major agenda item.

Another venue for the debate is the Supreme Court, which over the past several decades has shielded police officers from excessive-force claims in a way that has drawn criticism from both conservatives and liberals, as David Savage wrote. The court has several cases before it that could become opportunities to change course if the justices want to.


Finally, as former President Obama noted in a speech this week, the federal government isn’t the only actor in this arena. He called on mayors to take action against systemic racism, as Janet Hook reported.

For an example of how the issue plays out in real life, see Erin Logan’s story about a Minneapolis woman’s run-in with the officer charged in the killing of George Floyd.

“I lived to complain,” she said.

Harris’ VP prospects

The focus on police brutality against African Americans has increased pressure on Biden to choose a black running mate, and Sen. Kamala Harris’ prospects have improved as a result, Evan Halper and Melanie Mason reported.


There’s some irony there: Harris’ career as a prosecutor proved to be a major stumbling block for her in the primaries, with activists objecting that she hadn’t been aggressive enough in pursuing police reform and holding officers to account. But Harris has worked hard since the primaries ended to improve relations with some of those activist groups, and the context of a general election has shifted the debate.

Still, she faces considerable competition, including Rep. Val Demmings of Florida, who also has a law enforcement background.

Some old issues never go away

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing this week to look at claims by conservatives that anti-Trump bias tainted the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Former Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein was the witness. As Chris Megerian reported, he conceded some mistakes in the investigation but largely defended it — and himself — against the central accusations.

“I do not believe the investigation was a hoax,” he testified.


1968 redux?

With racism, civil unrest and police brutality dominating the news, is America living 1968 all over again, Mark Barabak asked. “Yes, and no,” he reports.

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Mysteries: Local Politics and Global Espionage – Wall Street Journal




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Investigative journalist Jack Sharpe, protagonist in David Pepper’s intrigue-filled third novel, “The Voter File” (Putnam, 423 pages, $27), has some major achievements on his resume: “I’d taken down a presidential front-runner . . . and inspired a year of bipartisan reform on Capitol Hill.” But Sharpe is on a slide after being fired from his high-profile job as a TV talking head. He’s desperate for a career-reviving scoop when he answers a message from Victoria (Tori) Justice, a rugby-playing Wisconsin college student and part-time political campaign worker who claims that she has a sensational story: She’s certain that the recent special election for a vacancy on her state’s Supreme Court was rigged (in favor of her candidate) through interference with carefully guarded voter files.

The story might seem of limited interest, but after some digging, Jack begins to perceive a much bigger picture. This local race, it seems, was a test run for a larger conspiracy aimed at affecting off-year elections around the country—a scheme with international origins.

The reader is privy to the action of the conspirators, specifically the Eastern European mastermind of the elaborate operation and his chief U.S. operative: a young woman with fashion-model looks and the heart of a killer. When Jack and Tori’s snooping comes to the attention of these manipulators, the villains don’t hesitate to contract for their elimination by “one of the world’s most high-priced assassins”: a man nicknamed “the Butcher.”

Jack enlists a cable-news reporter whom he had mentored and some police officers whose trust he has earned to help balance the scales in his uneven contest with a group looking to bring about “a sea change to the entire U.S. economy.” Mr. Pepper, who has quickly established himself as one of the best political-thriller writers on the scene, keeps surprising us to the final page.

A cellphone picked from the pocket of a junior attorney during morning rush-hour at New York’s Grand Central Terminal is the event that kick-starts Patrick Hoffman’s exhilarating “Clean Hands” (Atlantic Monthly, 280 pages, $26). The phone contains “hot documents”—“toxic emails, memos, chats, text messages”—pertaining to a high-stakes federal civil suit involving the lawyer’s firm. To put out this fire, Elizabeth Carlyle, the head of the firm, calls in confidential operative Valencia Walker, a chic ex-CIA case officer who “carried herself like the most powerful person in the building, no matter what building she happened to be in.”

The charismatic Valencia brings with her a wealth of expertise, a career’s worth of contacts, and a pair of associates to do the grunt work. The team’s quest takes them on ticking-clock forays into street-level crime zones in various boroughs in pursuit of stolen-phone merchants, low-level hoods and higher-placed gangsters. After a ransom demand, Valencia calls in high-tech assistance, including drones.

Mr. Hoffman, apparently a still-working private investigator based in Brooklyn, writes with a good ear, a fine eye and a sure hand; he has a wondrous ability to render the thoughts of his socially and morally diverse cast. (As Valencia observes of one shadowy figure: “She tried to imagine the woman who would marry this man, and the only thing that came to mind was a mail-order bride.”) The book’s unpredictable sentences are full of such surprises, and its scenes build to unexpected revelations. With its crisp pace and superb timing, “Clean Hands” is a special treat to read.

John Guzlowski’s powerful “Little Altar Boy” (Kasva Press, 323 pages, $14.95) centers on the fatal stabbing of a Chicago nun. Set in 1967, Mr. Guzlowski’s latest takes place a decade after events in his equally memorable “Suitcase Charlie,” which also featured Windy City detective Hank Purcell and his partner Marvin Bondarowicz.

The victim was beloved—saintly, some say. She had made a recent secret visit to Purcell’s home to alert him to the pedophiliac conduct of a parish priest. Did that confidential revelation prompt her murder? The priest in question seems to have a solid alibi, as does everyone else in the nun’s circumscribed world.

As he sorts out the nun’s killing, Hank is beyond distracted by the recent disappearance of his 19-year-old daughter, who had fallen into bad company. All this takes place right after Christmas, as snowfall covers Chicago with a sort of spiritual malaise. “He needed a miracle—maybe a few of them at once,” Hank thinks. What he gets instead is another dead body.

As Hank and his partner Marvin drive from one neighborhood to another, seeking information in rectories and blues clubs and drug dealers’ pads, Hank admits to himself: “He felt like a failure and a fool, like a man drowning in his own weakness and inadequacy.” But it’s also Hank’s habit to see a mission through to its end, however dire the consequences, cold the comfort, and irrevocable the harm to his family life and psychic health.

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