Flat White

The rise and rise of intolerance

1 May 2018

8:01 AM

1 May 2018

8:01 AM

How can anyone watch the debate on anti-Semitism in the House of Commons and not wonder at the madness that has infected the British Labor Party following its takeover by the Trotskyite Momentum movement.

And then watch an NPR television documentary on the rise and first-year administration of Donald Trump and the liberating effect his election has had on White Supremacists and other extremist groups.

The common root of both these extremes of politics is a need to blame an ‘other’ for whatever ails society, and which consequently needs removal.

In the case of Momentum, the blame is placed squarely on capitalism and its manipulators; moderate Labor and the Jews. Hence the move by Momentum and Corbyn to deselect moderate, Jewish and non-Jewish pro-Israel Labor Party members of Parliament under the rubric of “disloyalty”.

(It needs to be said that using the language of Der Sturmer in attacking “Zionists” does not mask the true anti-Semitic intent of these fanatics.)

In the case of America, the liberal democratic state has failed to deliver prosperity, and blame is rightly placed on the governing elites who have allowed the system to create an inequality that is inexcusable, and which keeps wages very low, and access to health and education increasingly out of reach. The shining beacon of liberty has become the dull light of gloom.

White Supremacy has taken this despair, added its ugly racial overtones and morphed the problems into open antisemitism with “Jews will not replace us” being bellowed up and down the line of Charlottesville marchers in August 2017. Like the screamers of hate in Momentum, ‘the Jew’, as well as “the Black”, has become the symbol of hate and the central character of conspiracy.

On the one hand, it seems reasonable to be angry in America, and after the Global Financial Crisis, reasonable to be angry in the UK after years of ever-more conservative belt-tightening. Yet political discourse has veered into a level of intolerance and angst unmatched for decades and evinced by this rising violent antisemitism.

What has gone wrong?

The causes include rising economic inequality, a change in language, a diffracted mainstream media, the dominance of social media (and exploitation by those who seek harm), information overload, and the rise of rights over responsibilities.

While each cause is uniquely understandable, the combination of causes is creating a multiplier effect which is not easily changed. It may be a fact that intolerance is an embedded form of discourse for a long time to come.

Rising economic inequality has been accelerating since the 1980’s, especially in the United States, based largely on educational inequalities, an explosion in wage growth for top executives, and a tax system that favours the top-earners. While we have all been alerted to the data behind the issue by Thomas Piketty, three graphs from the World Inequality Report 2018 explain exactly what has happened: the few control the much – more than at any time in recent historical experience. This first chart shows the share of national income the top 10 per cent of earners capture. In the US, the top 10 per cent earn about half of the total national income of 325 million people. Western Asia (the Middle East) is a disaster, where the top 10 per cent captured 61 per cent of total national income! And people want to know why this part of the world has been and continues to be aflame.

Rising inequality is everywhere, and some regions/nations are rising quicker than others.

In the United States, in particular, wealth inequality is stark, and consequently social mobility – the great promise of the liberal democratic welfare social contract – is declining rapidly.

When citizens of the richest country in the world are earning less than $10 an hour and cannot afford health care, anger at the failure of the system is understandable. No wonder people in small town USA have such little faith in their political system when it fails to prosecute one person for the disaster of the GFC, and then tries to take away cheaper health insurance. Simultaneously Congress passes tax cuts for the wealthy. The lie of “trickle down economics” is now clear for all to see. Ronald Reagan, the father of this salvation, hoodwinked America: wealth never ‘trickles down’ the social ladder, it is hoarded by those who create it. Hence the inequality charted earlier.

Education, proven to be the single most important lever of economic redemption and social mobility, has been hijacked by increasing unaffordability. Rising education costs and flat wage growth means the system has failed to deliver opportunity to rise, and that fractures the core tenant of why democracy is a better political system than any other. Breaking faith on this fundamental principle means you are telling the citizenry that their elected representatives simply cannot be trusted.

Anger at the elite’s mismanagement and removal of opportunity will vent somewhere, and it clearly does in a media frenzy, electoral discourse and voting patterns, understood more than others by Donald Trump.

Trump’s exposure of the deep fault-line of despair, disgust and anger, allowed him, and therefore the many, to say what they really think. The angst that lay just beneath the surface has exploded into view. And it isn’t pleasant.

As the extreme white supremacist right of America called Trump one of their own, they gave public expression to their own hatreds, and this normalisation of hate gave impetus to Momentum in England to normalise its own hateful language.

Hence conspiracies abound, and crass language begets crasser conspiracies, none more conspiratorial and stereotypic than a cabal of “Jewish Bankers”. For those who seek to understand reasons for the failure of the Great American Dream, the stereotypic “Jewish cabal” explains the disparity of power, elite mismanagement and growing wealth divide in one overarching conspiracy. How come the Jewish community has been so successful while mainstream white folk have gone backwards – it is easier to look for a conspiracy to explain your jealousy and anger than search and reason out the truth.

Unfettered access to traditional and new media allows each person to seek that information which confirms to their worldview. And that, in turn, magnifies the emotional currents that swirl around resentment and conspiracy.

All of this is magnified in the echo chamber that has become social media.

Within the world of social media, people share their inner thoughts and ideas and connect up with likeminded souls. We saw the power of this new media at brilliant display with the so-called “colour revolutions” of Europe and “Arab Spring” revolutions. Social media easily connects people to common causes and can undermine control of the State.

But it can also give voice to the darkest ideas and threads, which allows extremists to easily coalesce. And this, in turn, can and is exploited by those who gain from discord.

The Russian Government fully exploits these divisions to serve their own agenda of destabilising the Western Alliance by promoting division over harmony. More division necessarily means an increasing fragmentation of power and strikes at the very ability of the West to respond to Russian conduct, such as invading Georgia and Ukraine, and carpet bombing then gassing Syrians. An international system governed by the principle of Might Is Right suits the Russians, and the Chinese for that matter, better than the rule of law because an unstable and therefore insular America removes a powerful barrier to outrageous and obscene international conduct.

The highly regarded Centre for Strategic and International Studies calls the Russian phenomenon of social media exploitation an “information-laundering ecosystem”, brilliantly conceived and executed through the spreading of false rumours and secrets.

The most vivid strike occurred during the last US Presidential election with Russian bots and trolls targeting Bernie Sanders supporters with an endless stream of ‘crooked Hilary’ rumours and lies, including spreading false aspersions about the Clinton Foundation. While not helped by FBI James’ Comey intervention in the last days of the election (which itself was based on what is believed to be false emails), many Sanders supporters were convinced not to vote for Hilary, and therefore not vote at all. With only 32,000 votes in the balance at the end of it all, you could say the Russians won.

Information laundering is compounded by the incredibly short attention span contemporary humans now give to any topic or issue. In a seminal study conducted in 2007 and quoted by the International Information Overload Research Group (of which I am a member), we are generally interrupted or interrupt ourselves on any given task, email or similar activity, on average, every two minutes 11 seconds of the working day. And that is 2007 data – it must be less than two minutes in 2018.

But it gets worse: 41 per cent of the time we do not resume the task we were interrupted in two minutes ago! Work, and life, is now a series of endless two-minute bites, with everything moving and churning at a rapid pace and eventually leaving us disorientated.

The frenzied nature of our workday means we are constantly in scanning mode, absorbing headlines and highlights but not detail; checking for lights on our devices that tell us we are needed or wanted by someone else for their momentary interruption. We skim through work, and life, with scant attention to anything that requires time, such as searching for facts or reasoning through an issue that challenges our very determined worldview.

The cumulative effect of this scanning and skimming plunges us into a Goebbels-like easily-manipulated version of ersatz reality. Screaming headlines must be right. Photos of celebrities doctored to create sensation (that sell more magazines) are all the rage and be damned if they are complete lies.

The Russians understood this faster than many and have just constantly fed the information laundromat with their own agenda.

Where this leads is anyone’s guess, but a great reversal is unlikely if not impossible, if only for one fundamental: we live in a world of rights, not responsibilities. Selfies, not communities. Selfish views not compromise. Instant gratification and satisfaction, not impulse control.

And therein lies our central problem. The lack of impulse control and its corollary search for the more thrilling and outrageous stretches are thresholds of tolerance and centrism toward extremism.

Trump is a symptom of this pull to the margins, along with the mainstreaming of white supremacists, Trotskyite fellow travellers and ever more conspiratorial bed-fellows. And the structures of economic inequality, social dislocation, media incoherency, information overload, and the right to rights over and above cohesion and courage, means Trump is probably just the beginning of what awaits.

Welcome to the future of intolerance and the intolerable. We just may be entering a dystopian science fiction story called “No Time for Reason.”

Adam Slonim is co-convenor of the Australia Israel Labor Dialogue, an Adjunct Fellow at the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University and a member of the Advisory Board of the John Curtin Research Centre.

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