Wars of Misinformation

The presidents of Turkey and America are using the oldest trick in the book to offset their personal insecurity. And it is probably working.

pinocchio-970x545.jpg

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu

We all recall the infamous Irqai information minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who blatantly and hilariously continued to deny that Saddam Hussein’s regime was coming to an end.

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” he said. And on another occasion: “The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies and more lies!”

Fake news

Something you would expect from an enemy – but what about the sitting president in a democratic country?

Donald Trump’s attacks on the press are more than just shouting. They are a very effective example of deflating your opponents’ arguments. Fake news is a real problem, and the phenomenon might have been a contributing factor to his election. But by labelling real news as fake news, the incentive to attack fake news is diminished, because he is muddling the picture.

Who’s the terrorist now?

In Turkey, President Erdogan has just won a huge victory in securing power to himself, and limiting democratic restraints. But this has only increased his tendency to rebuke any criticism. His Nazi comparisons and name-callings have not ended. Rather he stooped as low as branding Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP monitoring the election, a ‘terrorist’.

Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to call out the accusation, adding to the international pressure rightfully placed on Turkey these days.

This is not child’s play

Name-calling your enemies is a classic strategy, and something informed and well-educated citizens ought to see through. Heck, it even features in children’s literature. I’ll give you two examples:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final instalment in the Chronicles of Narnia, a monkey conspires to present a fake Aslan (the creator-Deity lion) who issues orders that destroy the nation. Our heroes discover that the fake Aslan is in fact a donkey in disguise, but before they have the chance to call the bluff, the monkey himself announces that an impostor has been found, and the real Aslan will show himself no more. Thus they have nothing to gain by showing the impostor. “She understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is faced with the news that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. In denial and/or out of fear, however, he instead launches a smear campaign against the sources, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, branding them as nutters and liars.

We should not fall for this. More importantly, leaders in free societies should not stoop to this level. It is a sign of weakness and fear not worthy of a leaders.

One might add: “If you want to know what a terrorist looks like, Mr. Erdogan, you should look in a mirror.”

How Swede it is…

In a little while, I will compare the King of Sweden to Donald Trump. And not in a flattering way.

trump_gustav

Hang on, wasn’t there a line in a song about him?

She had a dream about the King of Sweden // He gave her things that she was needin’

Who would have thought that Cab Calloway was being prophetic when he wrote Minnie the Moocher back in 1931?

Scandinavian socialism

Scandinavia has attracted the attention of left-leaning politicians in the U.S. for a while. The ‘social democratic’ generous welfare states inspired both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and some of their supporters.

While the attention is flattering, it is also not entirely true. In the book Debunking Utopia, Nima Sanandaji – who migrated from Iran to Sweden as a child – argues successfully that the success of Scandinavia is due more to culture and homogeneity than to generous welfare; in fact, the success of these countries was in place before the mushrooming of welfare, and was severely hampered when public spending was at its highest, in the 70s and 80s.

The threat of immigration

Furthermore, he argues that the welfare system, especially in Sweden, is under threat by heavy immigration. It is no wonder that large swaths of refugees (like Minnie the Moocher) would flock to the place where the King gives you the things you need. But immigrants actually fare and integrate better in America, where the incentive to work is higher.

In Denmark, immigration and integration of foreigners has been on the political agenda for decades. But in neighboring Sweden, the discussion was ignored, explains Sanandaji: “Being against open borders became synonymous with being a racist. […] favoring open borders was the only legitimate political view in the country.”

The only political party who attempted to raise the issue, was ignored by the political elite. As were the issues, such as crime and financial strains. Gang violence and shootouts have been significantly higher in Swedish cities than in Denmark and Norway, for instance. And more and more people have become wary of the situation.

Of course there is a case to be made for the humanitarian cause of helping people in need. But ignoring the costs – monetary, and societal – in the name of political correctness is ridiculous.

Trump and the King

So when Donald Trump mentioned problems in Sweden last week, some were quick to dismiss him as making up things again. It also didn’t help that Fox News featured as expert a ‘Swedish defence and national security advisor’ that nobody in Sweden had heard of.

But Trump-bashing aside, international media did start looking into Sweden and found that their rosy image did not hold true any longer.

And that’s when King Carl XVI Gustaf entered the debate. “Without media that works seriously and carries out good criticism of its sources, that doesn’t work,” he said. Fair enough.

But he went further than that: “It is important to present the good examples. There are so many positive developments.”

With all due respect, Your Highness, that is not within your mandate. Dictating what the media should and should not report on is exactly what Trump has been doing the last month. And while his attacks are more brash, the danger is the same. People in power should never interfere with the press, no matter their agenda.

William McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL, recently called out Trump’s attacks on the press, calling them “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime”.

I agree. More than ever before we need a free press, with investigative reporting that highlights real issues and challenges prevailing sentiments and political correctness. In Sweden, as well as in America.

The Internet has not made us more democratic

Social media made Obama president, but also Trump. So much for digital revolution.

Everyone likes to think they are unique. That their struggles and ideas are somehow different from everyone else’s. And every generation likes to imagine that they are not just incrementally different from their parents, but the first in a new era of enlightenment.

Most of them, however, are not. The Age of Aquarius was a fad. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not give us lasting world peace. Postmodernism is an interesting label, but no more than a label (in the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern”). Millenials, post-millenials, digital natives, what have you.

The internet promised to change things radically. In some ways, of course, it has. We do things differently than before, with instant access, self-service, and always-on connectivity. But the inner fabric of what makes us human, alas, has not really changed. And the results fall short of the naïve dreams of 15-20 years ago.

Social media doesn’t make people better

Everyone his own editor, was the promise. Blogging was the tool that gave common people a voice (I was one of them). Finally, the though monopoly of established media was challenged. And for oppressed people, here was the way out; the means to breaking the power of their authorities.

There were many flaws in this dream. First of all, there is a reason that so few people were previously represented in the media: The rest were simply not worth listening to. As it turns out, bigots and complainers are still bigots and complainers, and now they are annoying more than just their families and friends.

Secondly, not all people have good intentions. Instead of spurring utopia, the ‘digital revolution’ has brought out both good and bad in people. Just like every technological development before it. Protesters in the Arab Spring used social media. So does Al Qaeda and ISIS. New ways of congregating also means new ways of monitoring. The Great Firewall of China has been quite successful in making sure the rise of digital media did not jeopardize the power of the ruling elite.

As any early joiner of Facebook will remember, what used to be a place to meet your friends has now become a giant marketplace where more or less dubious brands compete for your attention. Savvy (young) users flee to the refuge of alternatives such as Snapchat, but it is only a matter of time before companies will all come there as well, repeating the process.

Finally, anywhere people gather, so will would-be criminals. The greater the potential, the more hackers, spammers, phishers, fake news publishers, and worse. Raise security, and their means will grow more sophisticated to match the challenge. Just like superheroes spawn super-villains (illustrated perfectly by Batman).

Have you thanked your editor today?

What the world needs now, more than ever before, is good editors. There are ideas which are not worth promoting, and individuals whose rants should not so easily be given an audience.

Social media have ‘democratized’ mainly in the sense that we can avoid views we disagree with, encouraged by algorithms that favor more of the same. Fake news have exploited this trend. And by playing to the lowest denominator of clicks and likes means that the media have outplayed their role of challenging people in power and become just as partisan as the politicians themselves.

Governments taking control of the media used to be a big cause of worry, but the dilemma may have become a moot point. If Donald Trump preaches to the choir on Twitter and discredits any critical questions from mainstream media, he circumvents the dilemma. He doesn’t need to shut down the independent media, like Putin and Erdogan have done. He can bypass them altogether and undermine their role and trust without any formal actions against them.

The only way to stop this destruction would be to close down Twitter entirely. Which is probably not going to happen. One thing that history has taught us is that we cannot turn back time.

The End of Politics

America finally had its anti-establishment political breakthrough.

U.S. CapitolAfter Donald Trump’s surprise win last night, the world is rightfully shocked and scared. How could a person like that rise to power in the world’s most powerful country? But while Trump is uniquely American, his election follows a trend which has marked other parts of the world for years, even decades.

Yes, the man is jerk, a bully, and an idiot; the type of guy you would hate in school, knowing that he might have his way back then, but he would never succeed in life. Except sometimes they do.

But despite all that, Trump represents something else: he is not a politician. His anti-establishment platform has hit a nerve with millions of voters who are fed up with bureaucracy, career politicians, and inside deals. For that, they have apparently been willing to accept an incredibly high number of personal flaws.

We have seen the anti-establishment trend play out in Europe for a while. Right-wing parties such as UKIP in the UK, Front National in France, or the Danish People’s Party in Denmark are all testament to this. And just look at Duterte in the Philippines.

At the last Danish election, in 2015, voters in droves (myself included) supported new-ish, anti-establishment parties on all sides of the political spectrum. More than anything else, I interpret that election as a quiet uproar of people fed up with the ruling classes. The enlightened elite had all become the same, congratulating themselves on their one version of the truth, reading the same newspapers, hardly venturing out of the capital. But by focusing inwards, this elite became blinded by their own know-it-all attitude, ignoring real problems facing large portions of the population.

So if you thought the worst that could come of voter fatigue was falling electoral participation, think again. The vacuum left by the blinded elite is paving the way for protest parties and politicians across the globe. Trump is the latest in that chain. And of course the Americans had to take it to the extreme.

Women treated badly

On Donald Trump, women’s ordination, and basic human dignity.

Last week was not a good week for women.

Even as Poland’s government listened to the massive public outcry and backed down on their demeaning anti-abortion law, the good news did not continue.

It began with the surfacing of Donald Trump’s degrading remarks which amount to nothing short of sexual abuse. Understandably, the old radio clip caused outrage among Republicans and Democrats alike, while the nominee himself not only didn’t back down, but fanned the flame with further outbursts.

Then Nigerian President Buhari said, during a visit to Germany, that his wife belongs in the kitchen. She had had the nerve to criticise him in public.

And finally, back in Washington, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am (still) a member of, held its ‘annual council’, a synod of sorts. On the agenda was perceived dissent among several local constituencies, the issue being women in church leadership. The world church officially rejects the ordination of women; however churches in Northern Europe and elsewhere have tried to circumvent the decision to allow for equal rights. The end-game has yet to conclude, but there is a real fear that last week’s decision is essentially a power-grab by the elected few, which brings this movement many steps closer to the papacy they claim to reject.

It defies logic that something as random as your gender should have such a big impact on your destiny. For millennia – with varying excuses – men have felt justified in treating women as inferior, one way or another. In some countries we have come some way in rectifying the issue, but the global challenge remains in applying basic dignity to half of our fellow humans.

Last Tuesday marked the International Day of the Girl. And as the father of two, the fight is now also personal. We all want to create a society for our children that is better than the one we inherited ourselves. Let us do just that – and once and for all break away with the glaring inequalities that remain.

When Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” he was referring to anyone wrongly deprived of their place in society. Obviously, this should also apply to gender.

It seems fitting to quote newly honored Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “As the present now will later be past; The order is rapidly fadin’; And the first one now will later be last: For the times they are a-changin’.”

Let’s hope so. At least Michelle Obama got it right in her speech:  “It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any – not for another minute, and let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”

Where’s the beef?

pigThis has got to stop.

The city of Randers, Denmark’s 7th largest city made headlines this week with their ridiculous decision to force kindergartens to include pork on their menus.

Not all publicity is good publicity, and this is just the latest in a stream of anti-immigrant news coming out of Denmark, potentially destroying the strong brand value of our country.

Who on earth wants their politicians to mandate what you should eat? Even less so, what your kids should eat? I don’t eat pork, and I sure as hell don’t want politicians telling me what I should eat.

Some things are best left untouched; it is incomprehensible that Venstre, branding themselves as Denmark’s Liberal Party, would vote for such micromanagement. There is nothing liberal in this; it is pettiness and apparatchikism of the worst kind.

In the age of single issue politics, social media, and shitstorms, politicians on all levels seem more concerned with scoring points in the endless public debate than fixing real problems.

It is thus even more sad is that the city of Randers apparently has quite a poor reputation of neglect in its childcare services, notwithstanding its reputation as one of Denmark’s most violent cities.

Perhaps this is a portent for the end of local democracy. The scenario is all too common: Give people power, and suddenly they believe it is their mandate to meddle in anything that comes to their attention.

City councils are not elected as dictators; we might be better off with a real dictator if he had the right skills. Or in this case, either limit their powers by law, or abolish self-governance altogether, replacing it with bureaucratic or professional rule.

Picking the right dictator friend

The current debacle between Saudi Arabia and Iran raises more questions than it answers, not only for the Middle East but also for the West.

It all began with the Saudis executing a Shiite cleric, spurring the ire of Iran, where protesters attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy, drawing further international condemnation.

This is a complex matter, and this NY Times story does a decent job of explaining some of it. In a region that we as outsiders may see as one whole, these two countries hate each other’s guts in their competition for regional power.

While Saudi Arabia is a friend of the United States, and effectively the Western world, Iran has been on the black list for years. Why is that? Is it because we favour Sunnis over Shiites? Not likely; most westerners couldn’t tell the difference. Because of the impressive Saudi record on democracy and human rights? Wrong again. Because of the massive reserves of oil? Getting closer – but Iran also has lots of oil.

More randomly, it seems to be not a conscious choice of the West, but the result of differing strategies in the Middle East. The Saudis actively pamper the Americans, wanting to be their friends, wanting to sell them their oil. So they make a show of helping in the war on terror, while at the same time fuelling extreme ideologies through their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

The Iranians, on the other hand, brand the U.S. as the big Satan, kick out their embassy, and wave the big stick of nuclear proliferation. As a result they’re shunned by the world, although their society and values should arguably be closer to ours.

The fact that Iran is very close to closing a deal with the West may be one reason the Saudis are picking a fight – their position as the trusted Middle Eastern ally is threatened. (And with oil prices plummeting, so is their source of income.)

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia are what we would call free countries. They both randomly persecute their populations, and respect of the law is not a given. This only serves to debunk the belief that democracies ally with democracies. George W. Bush wanted to spread democracy in the Middle East. Recently, however, leading Republicans are advocating support for dictators in the name of ‘stability’.

In 1979, when the U.S. changed their allegiance from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic (mainland China), it was not because of democracy or human rights records. Neither country was a democracy at the time. Rather, it was probably the result of a dedicated effort in public relations by the Chinese, more so than the Americans.

The same could happen in the Middle East. We might just as well be friends with Iran, despite their human rights offences (just look at China), if that’s what they really want. Whether this is good for the spread of democracy is a different matter altogether.