People Can Win
We've been trained to think that endless rule by tiny minorities of really horrible people is the natural order of things, but that turns out to be just another lie
Earlier today Susan Schmidt and I published an article about a series of changes at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a creepy sub-division of the Department of Homeland Security. It turns out that CISA, which just a week or so ago was busted for scrubbing embarrassing text from its website by the Foundation for Freedom Online, quietly eliminated its so-called “MDM” or “Misinformation, Disinformation, and Malinformation” subcommittee.
Just a year ago, the Department of Homeland Security was going all-in on the fight against “MDM.” The notion that America is fatally infected with “Misinformation, Disinformation, and Malinformation” was in fact the animating idea behind the asinine plan the Biden administration announced last April to institute a “Disinformation Governance Board,” which was to be headed by Nina Jankowicz, a self-styled Mary Poppins of digital rectitude:
America took one look at Jankowicz and at most a few fleeting moments considering the “Disinformation Governance Board” plan before concluding, correctly, that it was a beyond-loathsome expression of aristocratic arrogance that needed shutting down before the first Jankowicz presser. Characteristically, the press lied about the public reaction, claiming that the only displeasure was heard from the “GOP.” In fact, all sane people across the spectrum were instantly nauseated, their distress loud enough that the DHS hit “pause” on Jankowicz and the batty MinTruth plan after just three weeks.
Even that might not have been fast enough, as was discovered by my co-author Sue Schmidt, who’s formerly of the Washington Post but joined Racket this month for a special report a team of us are preparing on what fellow #TwitterFiles reporter Michael Shellenberger calls the “Censorship-Industrial Complex.” (More on that later). Looking through the minutes of CISA’s subcommittee meetings last year, Sue found that the DHS’s little team of self-appointed information guardians was deeply worried about the “rollout” of their war against MDM, worrying repeatedly about how to “socialize” or “pre-socialize” various parties to the idea of a federal truth squad, realizing that just presenting the actual plan to a sentient person without lots of sweeteners wouldn’t go well.
One subcommittee member, whose name in the spirit of our times is of course redacted, seemed to realize the concept was too hot to discuss in public. She “suggested removing mention of MDM” — this, from a member of the “MDM subcommittee”! — and “framing” the subcommittee’s efforts more in terms of “directing people to clear information about elections procedures.” Another member recommended CISA “point more to state officials and state laws to make the authoritative source of information less controversial. In other words: “Let’s make it sound like someone other than the hated us is running this thing!”
Even two years ago, nobody was paying attention to this world and the public, if it cared at all, was probably inclined to welcome more “election procedures” (as CISA would later call them), not fewer. So the DHS, sensibly one must conclude, dissolved its incorrectly named “Countering Foreign Influence Task Force” — the group spent most of 2020 zapping domestic election posts — renamed it the MDM subcommittee, and began meeting and posting about the need to build “national resistance” to “domestic threat actors.” As Sue just reported, these folks saw “MDM” everywhere here at home, insisting “CISA should consider MD across the information ecosystem,” which included talk radio, cable news, mainstream media, and “hyper-partisan media.”
The architects of this plan not only genuinely believed themselves above such temptations, but saw nothing wrong with asking for massive sums of money — Joe Biden’s first economic proposal sought $690 million for CISA — to captain an open-ended war on American badthink, as defined by [names redacted]. Here again, take note of Jankowicz’s lyrics:
It’s like when Rudy Giuliani shared bad intel from Ukraine
Or when TikTok influencers said COVID can’t cause pain
They’re laundering disinfo and we really should take note
And not support their lies, with our wallet, voice or vote!
This was a group of self-described experts in an utterly fictitious “anti-disinformation” discipline who were so sure it was okay for them to tell you whom not to vote for, one of them sang about it. This, despite the fact that of the ones whose names we know, like Jankowicz, many were open swallowers of the dumbest Russiagate hokum, like the Alfa-Server story.
I spent a long time covering the 2008 Wall Street crash, which meant devoting large amounts of energy to some of the world’s most unredeeming people. These were swindlers who sold snake-oil mortgage products that put millions out of their homes and wiped out retirement funds of people who spent decades working as toll operators, firefighters, teachers. Such predators were awful, amoral people, but all the same, I occasionally found myself writing with something like admiration. These crooks were creators of truly ingenious schemes who did what they did out of lust, greed, jealousy, and other (at least identifiably human) forms of depravity.
These [name redacted] would-be censors are different. They have no sense of humor, no imagination, and exactly one distinguishing characteristic: they know what’s best for you. Anti-disinfo work suits them because they all have a Poppins streak that quietly gets off on binning your digital dirty bits (after the voyeuristic thrill of logging on to watch them in secret, with special credentials, which they rub with pleasure in evenings). They’re the vilest kind of snobs, and when they finally were forced to show their real selves to the public — and here I feel safe in thanking Elon Musk for making that possible, via the #TwitterFiles — the public rightfully recoiled from these arrogant power-worshipping mediocrities.
The Governance Board was already dead, and now the whole MDM mission is being wound down, which feels like a win. Perhaps they’re just publicly retreating from the concept for now, but at this point, I’ll take that. Moreover there are signs everywhere that people are losing their fear of departing from the orthodoxy such types would like to impose, and pushing for a return to normalcy, which for the first time in ages feels within reach.
There was a ridiculous scene at Stanford law school recently, in which a conservative judge was muffled by a gaggle of future lawyers who’d been led by an assistant Dean in a characteristically moronic shouting-down exercise. The current strain of Junior Anti-Sex League-type protesters who fill campuses from coast to coast now sure do love their “heckler’s veto…”
The Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez was brilliant in response. Instead of doing what the heads of organizations have been doing for years in such situations, instead of doing, frankly, what I did during my own cancelation episode — frantically over-apologizing to people who have no use for or interest in apologies — Martinez sternly called the students out as clowns, reminding them in a long, serious, punishing letter that if they ever become officers of the court, they will be held to a higher standard than “lay people,” swearing to conduct themselves “at all times with dignity, courtesy and integrity.”
Martinez went further, saying that on her watch, the school would not be doing the usual and committing itself to starter slates of political positions out of fear of reproach. “Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not going to take the form of having the school administration announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues,” she wrote. The age of just giving in to mobs instead of insisting on our right to have different opinions and beliefs seems to be receding. It is beginning to dawn on sane, tolerant people everywhere that there are more of us than there are of them, and this still matters in a democracy.
There’s a reason why these people are so focused on technocratic solutions, from magic AI schemes to control information to deploying packs of Boston Dynamics robot-dogs, who’ll patrol suburban neighborhoods and peer in windows for visual confirmation of Alexa-overheard transgressions. General Mark Milley just said on a podcast that armies may be fully robotic in 15 years, arousing general neoliberal giddiness (Milley quoted Dylan). These people need tech, because you know what they don’t have? Friends. Organic support. Or, ways to win them, like art, music, literature, or comedy.
I have a theory about what happened to America in this regard. After 9/11, people were scared, and they fell for a succession of propaganda campaigns convincing them that the hole in Fortress America, the chink in our national armor, was our system of democratic rights.
The “MDM subcommittee” members think the same way: there’s a section in one of last year’s meetings in which a former Secretary of Washington State notes that the bad countries, “such as Russia, use the First Amendment effectively.” Moreover, in general, “our adversaries… use our Constitution effectively.” They’ve been telling us this stuff ever since the Towers came down. We were told our enemies will use even our open system of justice against us, so forget the admirable streak of America never having had an in-camera criminal trial. Let’s clear the court even for deportation hearings of suspected terrorists, they said. Let’s not even tell the public the names of the deported!
“The era that dawned on September 11th, and the war against terrorism that has pervaded the sinews of our national life since that day, are reflected in thousands of ways” the Third Circuit Court wrote in 2002, adding: “Since the primary national policy must be self-preservation, it seems elementary that, to the extent open deportation hearings might impair national security, that security is implicated.”
It was the same with torture, rendition, watch lists, drones, whatever. To respond to terrorism, we were told, we needed to be more “nimble” than old-school democracy allowed. We couldn’t wait for congress to declare wars, or build probable cause, or afford the right to face one’s accusers. The stakes were too high for such luxuries. Even giving “enemy combatants” Geneva convention rights would confer legitimacy to the opposition it didn’t deserve, and we couldn’t afford to give that legitimacy. Our grip on safety was that tenuous.
No: the new era of a West infected with a borderless evil returned from the 8th century needed a bureaucracy of super-empowered minders, who’d do torturing if it needed doing, and quietly make lists of who gets to fly or open a bank account. Most of all, these minders would make those terrible decisions about who gets to live and die in a drone-patrolled world. The Imitation Game from 2014, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and telling the awful tale of Alan Turing’s quest to crack the Enigma code, was a great movie, but perhaps also the ultimate portrait of the Obama-era political class, whose members all saw themselves as misunderstood geniuses quietly saving civilization through endless mathematical murder, committed from afar, by remote control, without fanfare or appreciation.
America balked some at George W. Bush as “The Decider,” but was more than happy to let the Community Organizer head up those secret decisions. With the genial and patient-sounding Obama in office, the deciders assumed a new brand of business-casual cruelty. I vividly remember going to a ballgame with a longtime Justice source in those years, someone I liked, who casually told me in between bites of a hot dog that of course we should just drone Julian Assange, because he was a “terrorist,” and the “reality is, you just have to kill them.”
Each year, more and more of government became classified, and we had less and less access to information about where tax dollars were being spent, or what was going on at places like the Federal Reserve. We let it happen, abandoning the democratic responsibility to govern ourselves, in the process willing the world’s smuggest aristocracy into existence. It wasn’t the worst time — a lot of good TV was made in those years — but while we were napping, these people were turning America into a secret administrative state committed to endless war, mass surveillance, social credit scoring, censorship, and other horrors, a system that’s only just now beginning to show itself.
The managerial state was held in place for over a decade by a kind of magic spell, which works thanks to the public’s faith in the competence of our minders. That spell held by default for an extra four years while Trump was in office, but it’s been broken now, in part thanks to refuseniks like Musk (who caused all kinds of havoc by opting out of an airtight information-control cartel), but mainly because we’ve now had enough opportunities to examine up close the loathsome nanny-staters to whom we surrendered all those years ago. Whatever hold these people had on us, and it was real — I spent years worrying about regaining the favor of people who were denouncing me as a Russian asset even as they demanded my vote — it’s gone now, and we can start thinking about moving on to something better.
This is what I choose to think, this weekend evening. We don’t have to concede to a future of always being at war somewhere abroad, and with each other at home. We don’t have to put up with a government that doesn’t tell us anything. Most of all, we can go back to enjoying life, on our own terms, without stressing over an endless succession of panics invented by politically insecure losers. We can do so much better, and we will, because this place is ours to run, a fact the singing censors should never have let us remember.