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Our Friday News Analysis | What the World Reads Now!
What’s Going On … Is the world getting meaner? Why?
The Hague, 01 September 2023 | If you know of any story that is decisive, tell the world. We're still searching.
In a culture devoid of moral education, generations are growing up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world.
Illustrations by Ricardo Tomás
Over the past eight years or so, I’ve been obsessed with two questions. The first is: Why have Americans become so sad? The rising rates of depression have been well publicized, as have the rising deaths of despair from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. But other statistics are similarly troubling. The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990. The share of Americans ages 25 to 54 who weren’t married or living with a romantic partner went up to 38 percent in 2019, from 29 percent in 1990. A record-high 25 percent of 40-year-old Americans have never married. More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well. The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” shot up from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.
My second, related question is: Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years. Murder rates have been surging, at least until recently. Same with gun sales. Social trust is plummeting. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.
We’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis, and it undergirds our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy. What is going on?
Over the past few years, different social observers have offered different stories to explain the rise of hatred, anxiety, and despair.
The technology story: Social media is driving us all crazy.
The sociology story: We’ve stopped participating in community organizations and are more isolated.
The demography story: America, long a white-dominated nation, is becoming a much more diverse country, a change that has millions of white Americans in a panic.
The economy story: High levels of economic inequality and insecurity have left people afraid, alienated, and pessimistic.
I agree, to an extent, with all of these stories, but I don’t think any of them is the deepest one. Sure, social media has bad effects, but it is everywhere around the globe—and the mental-health crisis is not. Also, the rise of despair and hatred has engulfed a lot of people who are not on social media. Economic inequality is real, but it doesn’t fully explain this level of social and emotional breakdown. The sociologists are right that we’re more isolated, but why? What values lead us to choose lifestyles that make us lonely and miserable?
The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.
Moral formation, as I will use that stuffy-sounding term here, comprises three things. First, helping people learn to restrain their selfishness. How do we keep our evolutionarily conferred egotism under control? Second, teaching basic social and ethical skills. How do you welcome a neighbor into your community? How do you disagree with someone constructively? And third, helping people find a purpose in life. Morally formative institutions hold up a set of ideals. They provide practical pathways toward a meaningful existence: Here’s how you can dedicate your life to serving the poor, or protecting the nation, or loving your neighbor.
For a large part of its history, America was awash in morally formative institutions. Its Founding Fathers had a low view of human nature, and designed the Constitution to mitigate it (even while validating that low view of human nature by producing a document rife with racism and sexism). “Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more dispos’d to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, and much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d.”
If such flawed, self-centered creatures were going to govern themselves and be decent neighbors to one another, they were going to need some training. For roughly 150 years after the founding, Americans were obsessed with moral education. In 1788, Noah Webster wrote, “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities ; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.” The progressive philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1909 that schools teach morality “every moment of the day, five days a week.” Hollis Frissell, the president of the Hampton Institute, an early school for African Americans, declared, “Character is the main object of education.” As late as 1951, a commission organized by the National Education Association, one of the main teachers’ unions, stated that “an unremitting concern for moral and spiritual values continues to be a top priority for education.”
The moral-education programs that stippled the cultural landscape during this long stretch of history came from all points on the political and religious spectrums. School textbooks such as McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers not only taught students how to read and write; they taught etiquette, and featured stories designed to illustrate right and wrong behavior. In the 1920s, W. E. B. Du Bois’s magazine for Black children, The Brownies’ Book, had a regular column called “The Judge,” which provided guidance to young readers on morals and manners. There were thriving school organizations with morally earnest names that sound quaint today—the Courtesy Club, the Thrift Club, the Knighthood of Youth.
Beyond the classroom lay a host of other groups: the YMCA; the Sunday-school movement; the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; the settlement-house movement, which brought rich and poor together to serve the marginalized; Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, which extended our moral concerns to include proper care for the natural world; professional organizations, which enforced ethical codes; unions and workplace associations, which, in addition to enhancing worker protections and paychecks, held up certain standards of working-class respectability. And of course, by the late 19th century, many Americans were members of churches or other religious communities. Mere religious faith doesn’t always make people morally good, but living in a community, orienting your heart toward some transcendent love, basing your value system on concern for the underserved—those things tend to.
An educational approach with German roots that was adopted by Scandinavian societies in the mid-to-late 19th century had a wide influence on America. It was called Bildung, roughly meaning “spiritual formation.” As conceived by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Bildung approach gave professors complete freedom to put moral development at the center of a university’s mission. In schools across Scandinavia, students studied literature and folk cultures to identify their own emotions, wounds, and weaknesses, in order to become the complex human beings that modern society required. Schools in the Bildung tradition also aimed to clarify the individual’s responsibilities to the wider world—family, friends, nation, humanity. Start with the soul and move outward.
The Bildung movement helped inspire the Great Books programs that popped up at places like Columbia and the University of Chicago. They were based on the conviction that reading the major works of world literature and thinking about them deeply would provide the keys to living a richer life. Meanwhile, discipline in the small proprieties of daily existence—dressing formally, even just to go shopping or to a ball game—was considered evidence of uprightness: proof that you were a person who could be counted on when the large challenges came.
Much of American moral education drew on an ethos expressed by the headmaster of the Stowe School, in England, who wrote in 1930 that the purpose of his institution was to turn out young men who were “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.” America’s National Institute for Moral Instruction was founded in 1911 and published a “Children’s Morality Code,” with 10 rules for right living. At the turn of the 20th century, Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s institution, was an example of an intentionally thick moral community. When a young Frances Perkins was a student there, her Latin teacher detected a certain laziness in her. She forced Perkins to spend hours conjugating Latin verbs, to cultivate self-discipline. Perkins grew to appreciate this: “For the first time I became conscious of character.” The school also called upon women to follow morally ambitious paths. “Do what nobody else wants to do; go where nobody else wants to go,” the school’s founder implored. Holyoke launched women into lives of service in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Perkins, who would become the first woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet (Franklin D. Roosevelt’s), was galvanized there.
These various approaches to moral formation shared two premises. The first was that training the heart and body is more important than training the reasoning brain. Some moral skills can be taught the way academic subjects are imparted, through books and lectures. But we learn most virtues the way we learn crafts, through the repetition of many small habits and practices, all within a coherent moral culture—a community of common values, whose members aspire to earn one another’s respect.
The other guiding premise was that concepts like justice and right and wrong are not matters of personal taste: An objective moral order exists, and human beings are creatures who habitually sin against that order. This recognition was central, for example, to the way the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s thought about character formation. “Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice,” Martin Luther King Jr. believed. Elsewhere, he wrote, “The force of sinfulness is so stubborn a characteristic of human nature that it can only be restrained when the social unit is armed with both moral and physical might.”
Read more: HOW AMERICA GOT MEAN
The former US president and current Republican frontrunner masterfully orchestrated the hype around his arrest
FILE PHOTO: Former US President Donald Trump exits Trump Tower to attend court for his arraignment on April 04, 2023 in New York City. © Noam Galai/GC Images
Bradley Blankenship is an American journalist, columnist, political commentator, syndicated columnist at CGTN, and freelance reporter for international news agencies.
August 30, 2023
Many may say that former President Donald Trump, the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 US presidential election, had it rough last week. Quite the contrary, Trump has had a spectacular week, at least in boosting his brand and fending off his most significant threats. It shows that Trump is an absolute master in PR and may have some of the most remarkable political instincts of all time.
First, a disclaimer. Donald Trump is a terrible leader and was the most inept modern American president. This goes by virtually every standard since he did more than anyone to dismantle the American imperial project from the inside (which was an unintended net positive from his presidency) and also gutted environmental regulations, took a battering ram to workers' rights, botched the US federal Covid-19 response, and brought race relations to essentially a century low (which were all intended and very, very unfavorable).
Mr. Trump was able to unite labor organizations and finance capital against him by the end of the 2020 election cycle, which his followers suggest is a conspiracy against him. There is no conspiracy; it simply shows that he was uniquely evil at his job. Moreover, he's also a threat to the essential stability of the US, thanks to his insane egotism and lack of care for the facts. The US election was not stolen from Trump, and no evidence suggests it was, and many of us saw what he was trying to do before it began.
By the way, nothing suggests that he'd do better a second time. Take his recent policy idea of a flat tariff on imports to the United States of 10%, which he calls a "ring around the collar" system meant to promote his 'America First' agenda. This will just make the US abandon its General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations, seeing Washington cut off from regular international trade.
But all of that being said, you have to give it to the man for being a savvy media operator. Trump gets invited to the Republican Party's presidential debate but declines because he doesn't want to legitimize the other candidates, plus he can't control the questions or discussion there. Then he does an interview on X (previously Twitter) with former Fox host Tucker Carlson, and that post gets over 250 million views.
The latest Republican debate had a reported 24 million viewers and is being seen as historic, with high ratings. If we're generous to Trump and assume that almost all those who saw the post watched the interview, it means that over ten times as many people cared about his interview as the debate. Suppose we're generous to the rest of the field and assume that the actual views of the interview were a fraction of that. In that case, it's still at least apparent that Trump was able to dampen the hype around the other candidates – especially Vivek Ramaswamy, who many saw as the winner.
Even if they wilfully ignored the success of the Trump interview, however, the other candidates didn't even get to spread clips of themselves at the debate, and Ramaswamy couldn't do a victory lap because all anyone was talking about the next day was Trump's arrest and his mugshot was out. Genius move. He used it in campaign emails but returned to X for the first time in two years, posting his mugshot and breaking the internet. And remember that he went to Georgia to get booked on these new charges voluntarily. So he knew what he was doing!
Many of his supporters applaud the "energy shift" that took place, with three indictments and a fourth hyped, including a mugshot that was reversed into successful PR. But don't be fooled; Trump planned this from the start. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it well – reportedly raising a whopping $7.1 million since his mugshot dropped, a new record for his campaign.
What perhaps says most about why he is the unquestioned Republican frontrunner and such a masterful political candidate is that he can make everything bend to him at the most mind-bending, hypocritical levels.
For instance, the Republican Party is the political party of the police and their bootlickers in society. This is the political party whose supporters "support the blue" in every comment section depicting a cop brazenly murdering someone in cold blood. Yet somehow, Trump gets arrested, turns around, foul mouths the local sheriff's department, and district attorney, and takes an anti-government stance – and it still works.
With these latest moves, it feels increasingly like it's Trump's world, and we're just living in it. Many say his arrest has shown that rich white men are finally being held accountable; America's two-tier legal system will eventually end. That take is premature at best and utterly naive because, even if proven guilty, it's still possible that Trump would just take a plea bargain and never see the inside of a prison cell. That's probably how things will end.
But look at the narrative he can command now: many Americans and others around the world genuinely see things as Trump is spinning them. He is not going down quietly – not if his surreal PR know-how can help it.
Wishful thinking is still the rule among Biden's foreign policy team as the slaughter in Ukraine continues
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Oval Office at the White House on 22 June. / Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.
By Seymour Hersh
17 August 2023
It's been weeks since we looked into the adventures of the Biden administration's foreign policy cluster, led by Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Victoria Nuland. How has the trio of war hawks spent the summer?
Sullivan, the national security adviser, recently brought an American delegation to the second international peace summit earlier this month at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The summit was led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who announced a merger between his state-backed golf tour and the PGA in June. Four years earlier, MBS was accused of ordering the assassination and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for perceived disloyalty to the state.
As unlikely as it sounds, there was such a peace summit, and its stars did include MBS, Sullivan, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. What was missing was a representative of Russia, which was not invited to the summit. It included just a handful of heads of state from the fewer than fifty nations that sent delegates. The conference lasted two days and attracted what could only be described as little international attention.
Reuters reported that Zelensky aimed to get international support for "the principles" he would consider as a basis for the war settlement, including "the withdrawal of all Russian troops and the return of all Ukrainian territory." Russia's formal response to the non-event came not from President Vladimir Putin but from Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov. He called the summit "a reflection of the West's attempt to continue futile, doomed efforts" to mobilize the Global South behind Zelensky.
India and China sent delegations to the session, perhaps drawn to Saudi Arabia for its immense oil reserves. One Indian academic observer dismissed the event as achieving little more than "good advertising for MBS's convening power within the Global South; the kingdom's positioning in the same; and perhaps more narrowly, aiding American efforts to build consensus by making sure China attends the meeting with . . . Jake Sullivan in the same room."
Meanwhile, far away on the battlefield in Ukraine, Russia continued to thwart Zelensky's ongoing counteroffensive. I asked an American intelligence official why Sullivan emerged from the Biden administration's foreign policy circle to preside over the inconsequential conference in Saudi Arabia.
"Jeddah was Sullivan's baby," the official said. "He planned it to be Biden's equivalent of [President Woodrow] Wilson's Versailles. The grand alliance of the free world met in a victory celebration after the humiliating defeat of the hated foe to determine the shape of nations for the next generation. Fame and Glory. Promotion and re-election. The jewel in the crown was Zelensky's achievement of Putin's unconditional surrender after the lightning spring offensive. They were even planning a Nuremberg-type trial at the World Court, with Jake as our representative. Just one more fuck-up, but who is counting? Forty nations showed up, all but six looking for free food after the Odesa shutdown"—a reference to Putin's curtailing of Ukrainian wheat shipments in response to Zelensky's renewed attacks on the bridge linking Crimea to the Russian mainland.
Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, pictured on a visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka, in February, a few months before her recent promotion. / NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Enough about Sullivan. Let us now turn to Victoria Nuland, an architect of the 2014 overthrow of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, one of the American moves that led us to where we are, though it was Putin who initiated the horrid current war. The ultra-hawkish Nuland was promoted early this summer by Biden, over the heated objections of many in the State Department, to be the acting deputy secretary of state. She has not been formally nominated as the deputy for fear that her nomination would lead to a hellish fight in the Senate.
Nuland was sent last week to see what could be salvaged after a coup led to the overthrow of a pro-Western government in Niger, a group of former French colonies in West Africa that have remained in the French sphere of influence. President Mohamed Bazoum, who was democratically elected, was tossed out of office by a junta led by the head of his presidential guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani. The general suspended the constitution and jailed potential political opponents. Five other military officers were named to his cabinet. This generated enormous public support on the streets in Niamey, Niger's capital—enough support to discourage outside Western intervention.
There were grim reports in the Western press that initially viewed the upheaval in East-West terms: some of the supporters of the coup were carrying Russian flags as they marched in the streets. The New York Times saw the coup as a blow to the main US ally in the region, Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who controls vast oil and gas reserves. Tinubu threatened the new government in Niger with military action unless they returned power to Bazoum. He set a deadline that passed without any outside intervention. The revolution in Niger was not seen by those living in the region in east-west terms but as a long-needed rejection of long-standing French economic and political control. It is a scenario that may be repeated again and again throughout the French-dominated Sahel nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some distinctions do not bode well for the new government in Niger. The nation is blessed or perhaps cursed, by having a significant amount of the remaining natural uranium deposits in the world. As the planet warms up, a return to nuclear-generated power is seen as inevitable, with apparent implications for the value of the stuff underground in Niger. When separated, filtered, and processed, the raw uranium ore is known worldwide as yellowcake.
The corruption so often "talked about in Niger is not about petty bribes by government officials, but about an entire structure—developed during French colonial rule—that prevents Niger from establishing sovereignty over its raw materials and its development," according to a recent analysis published by Baltimore's Real News Network. Three out of four laptops in France are powered by nuclear energy, much of which is derived from uranium mines in Niger effectively controlled by its former colonial overlord.
Niger is also the home of three American drone bases targeting Islamic radicals throughout the region. There are also undeclared Special Forces outposts in the area, whose soldiers receive double pay while on risky combat assignments. The American official told me that "the 1,500 US troops now in Niger are exactly the number of American troops in South Vietnam at the time John F. Kennedy took over the presidency in 1961."
Most essential and little noted in Western reporting in recent weeks, Niger is directly in the path of the new Trans-Saharan pipeline being constructed to deliver the Nigerian gas to Western Europe. The pipeline's importance to Europe's economy was heightened last September by the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea.
Victoria Nuland, who must have drawn the short straw inside the Biden Administration, came into this scene. She was sent to negotiate with the new regime and arrange a meeting with the ousted President Bazoum, whose life remains constantly threatened by the governing junta. The New York Times reported that she got nowhere after talks she described as "extremely frank and at times quite difficult." The intelligence official put her remarks to the Times in American military jargon: "Victoria set out to save the Niger uranium owners from the barbaric Russians and got a huge single-finger salute."
Quieter in recent weeks than Sullivan and Nuland have been Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Where was he? I asked that question of the official, who said that Blinken "has figured out that the United States"—that is, our ally Ukraine—"will not win the war" against Russia. "The word was getting to him through the Agency [CIA] that the Ukrainian offense would not work. It was a show by Zelensky, and some in the administration believed his bullshit.
"Blinken wanted to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine as Kissinger did in Paris to end the Vietnam war." Instead, the official said, "It was going to be a big loss, and Blinken found himself way over his skis. But he does not want to go down as the court jester."
At this moment of doubt, the official said, Bill Burns, the CIA director, "made his move to join the sinking ship." He referred to Burns's speech at the annual Ditchley conference near London earlier this summer. He appeared to put aside his earlier doubts about expanding NATO to the east and affirmed his support at least five times for Biden's program.
"Burns does not lack self-confidence and ambition," the intelligence official said, especially when Blinken, the ardent war hawk, was suddenly having doubts. Burns served in a prior administration as deputy secretary of state, and running the CIA was hardly a just reward.
Burns would not replace a disillusioned Blinken but only get a token promotion: an appointment to Biden's cabinet. The cabinet meets no more than once a month, and, as recorded by C-SPAN, the meetings tend to be tightly scripted affairs and begin with the President reading from a prepared text.
Tony Blinken, who publicly vowed just a few months ago that there would be no immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, is still in office and, if asked, would undoubtedly dispute any notion of discontent with Zelensky or the administration's murderous and failing war policy in Ukraine.
So, the White House's wishful approach to the war will continue apace when it comes to realistic talk to the American people. But the end is nearing, even if the assessments supplied by Biden to the public are out of a comic strip.
What is the Side of the Story that is Not Yet Decisive? Edited by Abraham A. van Kempen.
OPINION | WOULD YOU WANT A DEMOCRACY WITHOUT THE USUAL TUGS-OF-WAR?
Photo Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
Bij Abraham A. van Kempen, Sr. Editor
The last time I checked, the United States was still the United States, not less bewildered than when it flew out of its ashes in 1776. With all that’s been happening – Cowboys versus Indians, slavery, socioeconomic inequality, racial tensions, insurrections of all kinds including but not limited to dispossessions and displacements of native lands, civil war, police brutalities, and riots in the streets – not even Donald Trump could change America. God knows he tried. Words, the freedom of speech, didn’t make a dent other than creating an uproar. Hallelujah! That’s democracy at work. Did Georgia go red, Republican? No! Georgia voted blue. A slight majority in Georgia slid President Biden into the White House. Did the former President retain the Presidency? No, he conceded in thundering silence.
How did the top-secret documents that Mr. Trump’s domestic staff stacked in his bathroom affect US national security? None! They weren’t even good enough to be used as toilet paper.
What about January 6? Did Mr. Trump commandeer the White House Commandos or a ship of fools? Did they change the outcome of the election? No!
Can the prosecutors prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Trump and his gang engaged in criminal intent? No!
So, what happened? A bunch of lawyers got themselves and their bosses in a heap of trouble.
What is happening now? Lawyers and their bosses are now trying to get out of trouble by justifying their Constitutional prerogative to speak freely. After all, they will claim that God entitles everyone to their own opinion. Did their views accomplish anything of significance? No!
It’s become a circus aimed to strengthen the Democrats and to weaken the Republicans. Shockingly, the Republican base has become more passionate and fanatical. What about the Independents? We’ll see. Nonetheless, Mr. Elon Musk's words might be prophetic: “Trump will win in a landslide.”
What’s the fuss about? Politics! Bloody politics!
Mr. Trump complains that all lawsuits are a set-up to keep him off the campaign trail. With all the primaries already in place, his agenda for next year is filling up. Judge for yourself! Look at the lineup eight months before the elections in November!
- On Monday, March 4, 2024, it was decided that Smith may kick off his federal election case.
- Three weeks later, on March 25, the New York case for the concealed hush money to Stormy Daniels would then begin.
- And then on May 25, Smith's federal case regarding Trump's handling of state secrets.
- Willis now also has March 4 as a potential start date for her election case.
Oh yes! Add this to the intrigue! Georgia will become one of the most crucial swing states next year. Whether they like it or not, the Peach State voters will vote in the next election year. What will that mean for the result in a state where the difference with Biden was less than 12,000 votes three years ago? And Willis has broadened her indictment, unlike Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, who also filed a federal criminal suit into the alleged election lies this summer. With the ex-president, 18 other co-defendants are being prosecuted under a law that usually breaks up mafia networks. While Smith wields a scalpel, Willis has opted for the sledgehammer.
And most Americans ignore that the fear and warmongers in Washington, DC, are playing a game of Russian Roulette with our lives that might trigger nuclear craters all over the land, from sea to shining sea. In my book, that’s potential INSURRECTION AGAINST THE STATE, THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE.
If I am entitled to vote, I would prefer a US President with less war experience than one with more.
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