Is It So Bad?

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S1: The following program may contain explicit language and.

S2: It’s Friday, September 11th, 2020, from Slate’s The Gist, I’m Mike Pesca. Yesterday, the Trump administration lost again. This was its attempt to futz with the census changing who’s included in the census numbers that determine each state’s share of seats in Congress. Some headlines. This one from August. Trump loses again. US Judge Tosses Lawsuit to block subpoena for tax records.

S3: This from July. Washington Post. Presidents don’t usually lose this badly at the Supreme Court, as Trump did. Every time he loses, you know what he does? He wastes our time for everyone but his staunchest critics who will never change their mind, that is just using resources to not improve their lives.

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S4: Sometimes I wonder about a world with no covid, no Mueller investigation, no impeachment, and not the constant, outrageous statements that you can’t look away from just evaluating Trump as a guy who’s trying and not doing his job very well against that guy.

S1: I think the Democrats could mount a good challenge. A news report about what the Democrats latest talking point or attack would go, something like this. Democratic critics of Donald Trump seizing on yet another failure in the court system repeated their attack on the president under the hashtag not much winning. The Democrats sought to expound on the drumbeat of criticism they’ve lobbed at the administration for undertaking failed initiatives that, quote, do not improve the lives of regular Americans. Today, former acting United States Attorney General Sally Yates has been the latest to add her voice to that complaint, reminding Americans of the failed and ultimately time consuming and poorly pulling Muslim ban.

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S5: I was fired for refusing to defend President Trump’s shameful and unlawful Muslim travel ban.

S1: That was the beginning, Yates added, of this countless fruitless attempt to enact unpopular policies that do not improve the lives of Americans.

S4: So that in my pretend world, Sally Yates, when she spoke at the DNC, said it wasn’t the beginning of countless fruitless attempts to enact unpopular policies. This what she did say.

S5: That was the start of his relentless attacks on our democratic institutions and countless dedicated public servants.

S3: I’m not faulting the Democrats for pointing out that Trump has done all these unconscionable things. The problem is electorally, it turns out to be kind of conscionable, or at least not so disturbing to a majority of Trump voters last time and maybe not even enough people who we need to vote against Trump this time. It is at least priced into the conscience of so many. I don’t think it’s a needle mover. I’d go with selfish man not helping you. Incompetent man, not helping you lying man. Not helping you. Do you want a wall he didn’t deliver? Do you want the Mexicans to pay for it? Same thing. Do you want better health care. He fights against that. What you want he doesn’t want. Or even if he does want it, he’s not competent enough to get it. You can say his administration is one of greed, corruption, cruelty, lies, embarrassment. It’s all true. Or you could just say what Cory Booker said. He has failed us and not in any abstract way that references norms, but on the metrics of progress and material improvement, tariffs, waste of time for you and your family. Korean summit went nowhere. You know, the North Koreans blew up the peace house with a missile through tax cuts. Kushnir got his. To what extent did you get yours? And even if you did get a couple of dollars, are we getting better government services as a result? Trump has failed you. I get that. There are so many other things to say. I get that his failures are so spectacular and so notable and so breaking of norms. They really are that you want to note them loudly and you want to tell like minded people the same thing, and you want to hear them tell you all these examples, like how he dealt with the Russians and how he doesn’t want his secretaries to actually be confirmed, or how he’s using the attorney general as a fixer. And you seek these things out on MSNBC. And when Rachel or Chris have information about them or on CNN, when Prete or Jeffrey Toobin complain about them, it’s interesting to you. It’s interesting to me. It’s shocking. I dwell on it. But the public that the Democrats have to convince isn’t in that camp. If they were shocked, if they were ready to dwell on that stuff, they would already be voting against Trump and watching NBC or subscribing to preach. It’s like this. You know, the best commercial on TV is not the one that will win the Clio Award. It’s this one five five five dollar foot long. It’s that one for sell-by, right. Five dollar footlong. It’s not artful. In fact, it’s it’s not clever. Might be actually a bad commercial, but it’s a great commercial because every time you walk past subway, you think, oh, five dollar foot long. Sometimes Democrats need to just make the five dollar foot long argument not the greatest threat democracy has ever known argument. I think he’s not helping you in a world without covid at all. I think that’s a winning message. In a world with covid, you might not even have to deploy it or maybe the Democrats should still deploy it, it is just hard to go back to a basic message of regular failure when there are such a spectacular failure presenting itself every day on the show. Today, I spiel about the Nobel economist who said we were living in a peaceable kingdom in the US after 9/11. But really I feel about the idea is not so bad. But first, we’re once again joined by former national security analyst and FBI agent Clint Watts. The conversation is about the Kuhnen conspiracy theorists, how they work and what or even if they think. Clint, what’s up next?

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S4: Kuhnen has been infecting minds and winning Republican primaries at an alarming pace yesterday on the show, we talked to Clint Watts, national security expert and author of Messing with the Enemy Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News. We discussed how cute worms its way onto computer screens and into thought patterns and even how it merchandises. But I want to be cognizant of the fact that by discussing Kuis, we’re giving them oxygen. And polling shows that a large percentage of people have never even heard of Kuhnen. In fact, the White House played that fact to its advantage when Trump was asked about them and said he doesn’t know much about them, but he like their support, the White House asked critics, why are you even bringing them up if the public is unaware of Kuhnen?

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S3: Yesterday, Clint mentioned that Kuhnen was an iceberg with a base of supporters. So I asked Clint by talking about them here and now and in other forums, are we expanding the reach of that iceberg?

S6: Yes and no. I mean, it is a tight, tight rope to walk because, look, you’ve got to let people know about what’s happening and it’s happening. It’s a big deal. You have people running for Congress under that banner. You have people asking the president, does he supporters part of it? Does he know that’s the news? I mean, you have to cover it to a degree. At the same point, if you provide them lots of fuel, it’s great advertising for them. You can go back to the al-Qaida Islamic State era. They just wanted to get into the media to grow their reputation so they could attract more followers. And so 9/11 was a vehicle to do that. And they had done other attacks before, which grew the brand. But it was essential for them. And really in this entire new era of terrorism, dating back to really the time of television, late 1960s or early 70s, it was can you perpetrate an act or can you get yourself into a space with. Q And it’s it’s not a terrorist group. It’s not an extremist group. But if they want to grow the brand, they have to get access to as many eyes and ears as possible. And the more they talked about in mainstream media, the more those characters that support it will be elevated. And then I think that really comes down to the most adherents on the far fringes start to get frustrated and want to mobilize to achieve what the objectives are of that movement at the time.

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S1: So I’ve been on this Reddit site. Q And on casualties, and we should note there is just heartbreaking human dimension to this, because in the iceberg, even if you’re not part of the noxious tip of the funnel, so many people who’s either lost their minds or believe in fiction, dangerous fictions and family members are essentially grieving. And that’s why they’re called casualties. They think of their family members as just lost and they try to reach them. And I was thinking of you because you penetrated ISIS message boards and got into conversation with ISIS adherents, maybe not necessarily to talk them out of it, but just to see what they were thinking. What insight did you gain from that about how a person could engage with someone they know who is either beginning to or has fallen into the thrall of Kuhnen to either talk them out of it or just talk to them?

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S6: Yeah. So I think the most effective thing I saw was if they’re falling into these alternative realities, it’s usually a symptom of something else that’s going on in their life and the appeal of that ideology, whatever it is, a belief system, peaceful or violent, doesn’t matter which you tend to see with these people if they move from one to the other. So they’re open to what they call moral change or new ideologies. And so when you watch them, they’ll kind of move from one thing to another and they’re super intense into whatever it is they’re doing. So there’s two approaches, right? There’s Offramp or Kountry. So countering is usually not very effective because the more you battle with someone who in a belief system is trying to stay adherent to it and commit to it, the more you’re you’re only going to reinforce their beliefs, especially in the social media. If you attack somebody for their beliefs, they become more polarised and they try and find more evidence to tell you why their belief and whatever it is, is stronger than yours. But I think the question is, can you devise ways to offramp them or to put them in a way for them to find their belief system to be false? A great example of this is a lot of the prophecies in Kuhnen. Right. And it doesn’t work. Exactly. They’re pretty brilliant. The propagandists are pretty brilliant at reframing the narrative when whatever they say is going to happen doesn’t happen. They’re pretty right.

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S1: They get one tota, they get one totally wrong. And then they introduce this theory that you see we have to have a couple of false flags just to test your belief system or to test the media.

S6: Yes, it’s unbelievably unfalsifiable, I think, with your family member who’s fallen down this path. Right. Like it’s two things. One, pin them down on some. They say it is going to happen and this will happen and they’ll they’ll say, oh, you know, we’re going to find out that Cuba is the deep state. He knows about the deep state and he’s going to stop Mueller investigation or something. Right. And be like, OK, when will that happen? And they say soon you go, well, is that like soon like we saw in the Bible, or is that like soon as in like next week? Can you pin them down a little bit then once you do, just revisit them and kind of be like, so did that ever happen, like put them in a position where they have to explain it? And then the next question, because they’re going to say, oh, you know something, the moon phase or whatever, change. Right. And there’s another hurdle. They say, OK, how many false flags do you need until it really happens? And then you try and commit them to a scorecard. That is kind of a way to do it, because you do have to break that. And then I think the other part is that is totally unexplored in the research is the demand for disinformation and propaganda that suits one’s beliefs. And that’s why social media so powerful is ask the person. And this is one of the things that we talked about with the book. Under what circumstances would you admit that that’s not true? And if they can’t articulate that, then you go. So there’s nothing. Right that would change your mind about this. And if they say no, then they’re probably lost and they say, well, sure, like if this happened in this happened, John, those things down like, OK, I’m going to hold you to that, because if they maybe if these things don’t happen, I’ll go and believe what you believe. Maybe I should look into it. As they say, with every conspiracy, there’s a grain of truth in this kernel of the truth in there somewhere. So it’s to be open mind and show them that you’re not completely shutting them down or rejecting them or ostracizing them. But try and work them back to middle point by putting firm barriers in place, I think is the most effective way to do it.

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S1: So on my show years ago, I would I was interested and had a few people on who talked about counter messaging to it was ISIS at the time. And I believe that there was a law through some people, disaffected European and American youths, who really did fault US policy. And these experts would talk about, you know, here are the things we should say. Here are the here are the messages we should put out. Here is how we go into these channels and argue with them, not by saying, no, the United States is great, but by and then they would lay out their theories for counter arguing. And I don’t know if that did work or could work. The way I see it is, you know, ISIS was defeated on the battlefield and they became less of a draw to someone who hated the United States. Is there actually a playbook for effective counter messaging to anything like this?

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S7: So people won’t like this answer? I just worry. But at one point with the ISIS sort of counter, messaging was ineffective. Right. And we didn’t really have a strong hand and we had no real way to broadcast it. And it’s also a part of the world is very austere. So North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia. So there is an interesting thing that happened in the terrorism space in Algeria, where they had a problem with a group called the the GIA, which was a forerunner of Islamic extremists that ended up in al-Qaida. But what they did was they said, OK, you know what, we’re not going to fight you on this. We’re just going to let you have your little mini emirate of this caliphate in this town and you guys govern yourselves. But we’re going to wall off the entire town. And so you can live by the, you know, the messages of your prophet and the rules of your belief system and just leave us out of it. And it immediately started to die of its own way. And so it was a reverse psychology kind of strategy. Right. Let the people live the way they want. Let them have it like free will. And so, sure enough, the first people that came back to the government were the business people. They started doing cut salaries would be like, hey, could you help us out here? We’re dying under the system. It’s bonkers. Then it was the younger people who would get frustrated with the older people. And so I think that is always informed part of my thought process around counter messaging, particularly not even in the face of violence. Right. Like with Kuhnen. OK, what do you believe in? They can’t articulate it. This is a key thing that distinguishes them from like the Occupy movement. Right. Which was leaderless but had a belief system they were trying to advance. Right. They had specific goals and ninety nine percent was the one percent they were trying to achieve something askew and non people, OK, in lieu of the deep state that’s oppressing you, what are you going to do and elect a bunch of officials now? What will you do? What will you do about the debt and coronavirus and military and, you know, violence in the streets? Would you like to live that way? And then you you literally as sad as it sounds, you. We’ll have to let it run its course, meaning that let you in on people be in charge if they believe in Kuhnen, let them try and run the government. And then I think what you’ll see is a large degree of corruption that far outpaces the alleged corruption that they claim is in the deep state of the US government and that it will collapse on its own. I mean, you can see this with some of the congressmen, congresspeople that are running right now that are kind of under this banner.

S6: I’m just trying to imagine them at a budget meeting in the House of Representatives in one year. And literally, they don’t even know all the branches of the government like this is going to fall. It will collapse in on itself. It’s just the question is how much does it drag down the country in the process?

S1: Right. We just get we just wall off and give them Georgia’s 14th Congressional District. This will be Queston. Yeah, I’ve had it, guys.

S7: Well, to a degree, I mean, like I think after all the counterterrorism years, because the more we intervene, the more countering you do oftentimes more violence, which leads to more radicalization. So what’s the lightest touch? How do you let your you know, it’s always like how do you strike a blow against your adversary because your adversary to attack itself, which is what the Russians did to us in twenty sixteen around the election, you know, always thinking about that, like, how can you take the lightest touch, harm the fewest people and still stay in democracy and let people have their free speech and their belief systems and everything they want without extolling violence? That’s where I’m most concerned and I think is why we’re talking about some of these people are violent on the fringes of this. And they they are hurting people right there. They’re showing up places with guns. And that’s where if they pursued their belief system in their own space, that’s one thing. Once you start showing up with a gun and firing rounds in the ceiling, the ceiling of a pizza joint or shutting down the Hoover Dam, we’ve got big problems.

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S1: Anything else about this? Because this is the sort of thing where I know I haven’t even been able to think of all the right questions to ask.

S7: Like, there are a couple of things I just think are fascinating, right? Like you get elected, what are you going to do? And then if you do it, will your voters stay with you? Right. Like if you’re a congressman, you always have to end up voting for things that you don’t necessarily fit what your constituents want. Right. And so what will the voters hold them accountable over time when they start appropriating spending on deep state stuff, their turf? This is going to be fascinating to me. The other one is like what the congressional hearings will be like next year. Could you imagine being whoever is in charge of whatever agency in the government showing up, being asked about lizard people or something like that? Right. Like it’s going to be awesome. I think the bigger issue is how can we help our communities? What I worry about the most is the real fringe players that are talking about mobilizing, talking about shooting. That’s what I’m worried about. And CUNA is not alone. They’re just sort of the biggest group with the largest fringe. But, you know, if they don’t get their way on Election Day, are they going to show up somewhere with the violent response that concerns me?

S1: Yeah, yeah. Clint Watts is a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a contributor to NBC and MSNBC. His book that came out a little while ago is Messing with the Enemy Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News. Clent, great to talk to you again. Yeah, great talking to you. Thanks, Mike. And now the spiel on this, the anniversary of 9/11, which is to say 9/11.

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S4: This is the downside of naming a historic event after a date. Paul Krugman, who has a Nobel Prize and something other than reading the room, I think it’s economics, tweeted, quote, Overall, Americans took 9/11 pretty calmly. Notably, there wasn’t a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence which could all too easily have happened. And while GW Bush was a terrible president, to his credit, he tried to calm prejudice, not fear. What do you mean there wasn’t a massive outbreak was the massive outbreak of response on Twitter? Here are the stats as a percentage. That is according to the FBI hate crime index. As a percentage, crimes incidents against Muslims went up 17 hundred percent. In numerical terms, it went from twenty eight anti-Muslim bias incidents in 2000 to four hundred eighty one in 2001. The next two years, 155, the year after that, hundred forty nine. Some people interpret that as a spike. It’s plausible interpretation. Some people interpreted Krugman statements not as a sign that his definition of what was or wasn’t a mass outbreak might be different from theirs. But they interpreted his tweet as basically proving that Paul Krugman has failed as a person. April Rain, Twitter, bio diversity and inclusion advocate, culture commentator. She, by the way, is the one who coined the Oscars. So white hashtag writes, Paul Krugman clearly has no Muslim, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Sikh, brown skinned Arab turban or hijab wearing or black friends, implying that this would be the one time that insensitivity could be defended with the statement.

S3: Some of my best friends are Muslim. But you know what? There either was a speaker, there wasn’t a mass outbreak or no mass outbreak. It doesn’t really matter what Krugman is Friendship Circle looks like. And of course, I’ll caveat everything I’ve said about the crimes and the crime reports by saying the FBI is in great accounting. All crimes, not all incidents are in fact crimes. It could be, you know, a sneer, a look and insult. Muslims definitely had it worse after 9/11. They were subject to more cruelty and also more government wiretapping and spying. Some of it ruled illegal, but mass outbreak, I think there is in this not terribly accurate tweet, an interesting worldview to ponder. And it’s not really about the subject that Krugman was tweeting about. It’s this it’s about it’s not so bad. The it’s meaning either it isn’t so bad or it wasn’t so bad. Just the idea of thinking that things aren’t isn’t or weren’t quite so bad. There’s a cadre of people who will always say it wasn’t so bad. I’m often in that group in the it wasn’t so bad crowd. And for years the it wasn’t so bad contingent boasted many prominent, respected voices. Oh, maybe so many of them were white and male and straight, thus getting a leg up. Though there are plenty of people who thought and think it’s not so bad, wasn’t so bad, who aren’t white and male and straight. Maybe people think this because of their generation, i.e. boomers who by objective measures got most of the economic benefits of post-World War Two growth. So for them, maybe it wasn’t so bad, the wasn’t so bad. And now age forty to seventy, which mean they came of age between 1975 and 2005. And you know what? In those years I was there, things weren’t so bad. Or in the case of global warming, they were so bad. We just didn’t realize it. Steven Pinker writes big books on it wasn’t so bad and people hate him for it. I say it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes I say it’s not so bad. Gets a lot of criticism on the show. That’s easy for you to say, come the counterclaims for whom it might just be so bad or and I think this is a big thing. The social rewards for thinking things are bad or are terrible might be changing. You see, I think the incentives used to work in the direction of rewards for pointing out that things aren’t so bad. There would always be an outlet willing to publish, maybe even eager to publish or air the countervailing opinion based on facts and stats that things are doing better than you might think. Air disasters are at an all time low. Child abductions are extremely rare crime. It’s really coming down. The average person now is at their fingertips. More information than the richest, smartest and most plugged in people in the world had for 95 percent of humanity’s existence. But now the incentives are working the other way. We should stop pointing out how good things are. Things aren’t good. Trump’s not good. The climate’s not good. Racism isn’t good. Wealth distribution isn’t good. But what about air disasters? They really aren’t happening. Here’s a better angle. The carbon cost of air travel is a disaster itself. All right. What about crime being down now? It’s up or the real crime is over. Prosecution of crime or we’ve criminalized the wrong things. Some of those points are good ones or at least good ones to strongly consider. But the problem with antipathy for thinking that things aren’t or weren’t so bad is that sometimes just in point of fact, as a reflection of reality, things really aren’t so bad or they’re just as bad as they’ve always been, which is to say, not really that bad. I mean, lifespans, leisure time, they’re increasing, as is your chance of surviving childbirth and not dying of dysentery. And, of course, being able to listen to entire podcasts which are free and break down every episode of Top Chef. Sometimes it’s only in retrospect that we could go back to. They say, you know, I guess things weren’t so bad, like the national debt, it is really big, but is it really so bad? And the hole in the ozone layer dominated my childhood really not that bad. The trade deficit is not so bad. I mean, it’s unbelievably large, but it’s not so bad for you and me. It really is more complicated than just acknowledging. Here are the things that really are bad. Here are the things they aren’t. What I’m really trying to do is put my finger on what the default setting is.

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S4: What is the general disposition that is most likely to earn you respect as a serious thinker or just someone who gets it? And it’s true that not so bad as long been the refugee of the comfortable, because for the comfortable it wasn’t so bad. What’s going on outside the protective gate or the moat might not seem like that big a deal. And now that the guardians of media aren’t all the usual older white people trying to scare other older white people, news events are being covered in ways they haven’t been before, or sometimes they’re being defined as not news. I’ll give you an example. You probably heard the story of an editor of a newspaper. He was the only black employee and he resigned after his paper ran a headline about a speaker at an anti police violence rally who urged violence against the police. And that story was headlined Watch Now. Kenosha Speaker. If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours. But at that rally, the majority of speakers were of the opposite opinion and they said so and they were more prominent. Nobody even knows who that speaker is. And so the critique was the newspaper should not have run the story with that headline. It should have emphasized that most speakers were urging calm and nonviolence. And this is the exception. Now, I have to say, this whole affair has been treated in the media as pretty much a vindication of the black editor who quit. The sentiment is that it is wrong to cover that one statement calling for violence instead of the many calling for nonviolence. And that is a change. That is an absolute change in Gothamist, the local website there here in New York. There was a headline over the weekend that said this, Jovana, which is the West Indian Day parade, 20, 20 empty streets, lots of cops and muted parties. It was pure cricket, said Moses Edward, a 30 year old East Flatbush resident. Nothing about police now. Lots of other outlets didn’t concentrate on the non news that Gothamist emphasized. What they concentrated on was the fact that in one of the rare marches of this West Indian Day parade, five people got shot, including a six year old. And Gothamist did mention it deep in the story. But the main point was that Jovana was mostly a tame and muted affair. At first I was baffled by it and I just said, well, that’s pure news, judgment, how Gothamist played the story. But as I started to think about it, I realised it’s part of a trend to deemphasize as a big inflammatory story, something that paints minority communities in a bad light, if that is indeed the exception of the overall event. I mean, personally, I think shooting a six year old is newsworthy and contradicts the idea of a calm affair. But my way of looking at the world is waning. So these are what’s going on. Here are new voices in the media getting to assert their own version of it’s not so bad, things are changing. I don’t know if Paul Krugman was right. I don’t know if there was or wasn’t what we could call a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim violence. But unlike most of his critics, I also don’t know if you could call him flat out wrong. It seems that mostly what we can do and what we continue to do it loud volumes is to define him as inside or outside our own world view and sometimes not even a world view as much as a temperament. So have I just taken I don’t know what ten minutes to essentially say? It depends on how you look at it. Yes, I have, but I don’t think that’s a copout. I think it’s an increasingly rare outlook that we should remind ourselves is a valid one.

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S8: And that’s it for the show today, Margaret Kelly does indeed produce the gist, she will prove as much on Monday. Daniel Shrader produced the gist each and every day, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. Sleeves rolled up. Laurie Galata help this week in a extoll power of the mind kind of way. Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. She thinks about fatty foods that aren’t so bad. The gist, if you’re upset, what Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, said about 9/11, you are going to hate the Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat said about commemorations of the raid on Entebbe in Peru, Peru. And thanks for listening.