"Stochastic Terrorism"--A powerful, highly accurate new meme

by: Paul Rosenberg

Tue Jan 11, 2011 at 12:00

In a recent discussion thread, Sadie Baker called attention to a very important DKos diary with a powerful new meme, "Stochastic Terrorism".  The diarist has been using the term for some time now, and many others have described this process as well.  But the time has never been ripe before for this particular picture-perfect formulation to gel.  Now, however, the time is ripe--it cuts through so much BS all at once (particularly the way that individualist assumptions and framing cloud people's understanding), and puts the facts together most succinctly:

Stochastic Terrorism: Triggering the shooters.
by G2geek
Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 05:37:39 PM PST

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.

This is what occurs when Bin Laden releases a video that stirs random extremists halfway around the globe to commit a bombing or shooting.

This is also the term for what Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, and others do. And this is what led directly and predictably to a number of cases of ideologically-motivated murder similar to the Tucson shootings.

Update: the mechanism spelled out.

(This update is to resolve some ambiguity.)

The person who actually plants the bomb or assassinates the public official is not the stochastic terrorist, they are the "missile" set in motion by the stochastic terrorist. The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media as their means of setting those "missiles" in motion.

Here's the mechanism spelled out concisely:

The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media to broadcast memes that incite unstable people to commit violent acts.

One or more unstable people responds to the incitement by becoming a lone wolf and committing a violent act. While their action may have been statistically predictable (e.g. "given the provocation, someone will probably do such-and-such"), the specific person and the specific act are not predictable (yet).

The stochastic terrorist then has plausible deniability: "Oh, it was just a lone nut, nobody could have predicted he would do that, and I'm not responsible for what people in my audience do."

The lone wolf who was the "missile" gets captured and sentenced to life in prison, while the stochastic terrorist keeps his prime time slot and goes on to incite more lone wolves.

Further, the stochastic terrorist may be acting either negligently or deliberately, or may be in complete denial of their impact, just like a drunk driver who runs over a pedestrian without even realizing it.

Finally, there is no conspiracy here: merely the twisted acts of individuals who are promoting extremism, who get access to national media in which to do it, and the rest follows naturally just as an increase in violent storms follows from an increase in average global temperature.

I would actually disagree with this last paragraph.  There's not a conspiracy in any sort of clock-and-dagger sense.  But there's definitely a long-term strategic plan.  There's a hegemonic struggle.  And it's not just "individuals".  There are entire media organizations based around pushing these sorts of provocations on a regular basis.  The provocations to violence are only one part of a wider range of provocations, all of them couched within a framework of conservative victimology.

But that's an issue which is considerably more complicated to deal with and explain. What can be said is that the stochastic terrorism model doesn't require any sort of conspiracy--no activist cells, no on-the-ground organizations for the FBI to track down and infiltrate, etc.  So we can just set that whole issue aside for the purposes of discussing stochastic terrorism in and of itself.

Further elaborations on the flip.

Paul Rosenberg :: "Stochastic Terrorism"--A powerful, highly accurate new meme
There are three specific further elaborations from the diary that I'd like to excerpt & brief comment on:

The lone wolves.

The term "lone wolf" is used in law enforcement and intel to refer to an individual who is emotionally unstable, who lacks obvious ties to known criminal gangs or terrorist groups, and who pops up seemingly out of nowhere to commit a violent or terrorist act.

The three-letter agencies can keep an eye on organized groups, and do a damn good job at stopping violent actors associated with those groups. At least three intended car bombings were stopped last year by the FBI intercepting the bombers and substituting fake explosives in time to save hundreds of lives and arrest the would-be bombers.

Lone wolves don't have obvious connections through which they can be discovered....They are law enforcement's and intel's worst nightmare, and on Saturday one of them became America's nightmare.

Once upon a time, these guys were a true anomaly. But when you get so many that you're profiling them, things have obviously changed.

And one thing that changes things is the deliberate cultivation of the lone wolf populistion:

Stirring the pot.

At any given time there are hundreds of thousands of Americans with combinations of personality characteristics (such as emotional instability, a paranoid ideology, and a propensity for violence) that put them at risk of going off the deep end and becoming lone wolves. All it takes is the right push, the right nudge at the right time, to dislodge a few of them and send them on their way to fifteen minutes of fame surrounded by dead bodies.

There's nothing mysterious about this process. It is not much different to other instances where a person is almost ready to make a decision, and the right combination of inputs makes them act.... Anyone who is familiar with marketing and advertising knows how this works, and advertisers often target their messages to people who are "ready to buy" and just need a little persuading....

So let's take Beck, Hannity, and O'Reilly. There is no question that their emotional rhetoric appeals to people who are emotionally unstable. And, since their audiences are tracked and analyzed in detail, there is no question that they know it.

When they go on TV and shout and sputter, rant and rave, and weep and wail, they are not expecting to persuade liberals or even undecideds to change their votes. They are "playing to their base," that they know includes people who are emotionally unstable. In short they are "stirring the pot."

This is not to say that stirring the pot to produce specific acts of violence is their main concern.  But getting people generally incensed pretty much is. And the very logic of their arguments is not self-limiting.  Rather, that logic tends toward armed aggression.  Virtually the only ready counter-argument at their disposal is, "Don't go off half-cocked and do something the liberals can use against us." Aside from that, they've got virtually no argument in their quiver that's ready-made to lead in any direction but toward precipitating violence.  Which brings us to...

Pop go the lone wolves.

Some lone wolves have no provable connection to the hate-talkers and pot-stirrers, other than memes in common. One example of this type is James Wenneker von Brunn who shot and killed security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Another is Andrew Joseph Stack III, who flew a Piper Dakota into the Austin Texas field office of the Internal Revenue Service, killing IRS manager Vernon Hunter and himself, and injuring thirteen others. At this point it appears as if Jared Loughner is one of these: all-over-the-map crazy, with an incoherent ideology that is mostly rightwing but difficult to trace to specific sources.

(UPDATE: to be very clear about this: at this point I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that Loughner falls under the definition of stochastic terrorism, because there is nothing yet to link him to being a fan of one of the mass media hate-talkers. However there are enough other cases out there to make this issue topical and relevant right now.)

This is a very significant point.  Limbaugh, Savage, Beck, O'Reilly, they all have histories with specific acts of violence connected with them.  This has been going on long enough that the specific mechanism of stochastic terrorism can clearly be seen in these and other specific cases.  But just as a boiling pot of water starts with specific points where boiling starts, there comes a point in time where the specific spreads out to the general: boiling breaks out everywhere.

That is what appears to have happened with Loughner.  It's not a sign that he's not part of this pattern.   Not at all.  He's a sign of the next stage of this pattern passing from specific stochastic terrorist incitors to generalized stochastic terrorist incitement, where the entire caucophony of rightwing media incitement toward violence comes to function as a synergistic whole significantly above and/or beyond the level of impact of any individual stochastic terrorist.

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Excellent analysis (4.00 / 6)
not only because it provides a means to talk about these issues without specific reference to Loughner and thereby, allows assessment of the cultural environment induced by all aspects of our nation at this time, but also because it leads directly to the consideration that positive societal mechanims might be induced by similar mechanims.

Stochastic Happiness, anyone?  

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

Its no joke (4.00 / 1)
Happiness may be contagious

Sadness spreads too, but much less efficiently, says study co-author James H. Fowler, PhD, of the University of California-San Diego.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
The engines of contention (4.00 / 10)
When Pat Buchanan declared cultural war on me and mine back in 1994, or whenever it was, I had a pretty good idea of what was coming. That's because I was raised in the South, where black people were kept in line by violence -- as much as it took, with no regard for the rules of war, let alone the rules of civility -- and white people who were traitors to their race were kept in line by the threat of violence, or violence itself, should the threat alone prove insufficient.

The people behind the threats and the violence considered the defense of Southern culture, and peculiar Southern institutions -- yes, I'm talking about racial subjugation here -- to be of paramount importance. Everything else could be considered once that defense was assured, but nothing else mattered until it was. That's why white Southerners could have a reputation for hospitality -- to visiting white folks -- yet also be responsible for the kind of subterranean savagery which today is associated largely with sectarian conflicts in third-world countries (pace Northern Ireland.)

Those of us who grew up engaged in the modern world -- which we took to be a liberal, social democratic tidying up of the principles of the Enlightenment, taking into account the new insights into human irrationality forced upon us by the isms of the last century -- simply have to confront the fact that the Civil War isn't over in this country, and that, as a consequence, our work isn't done.

Attacking the phony intellectual justifications, the lies, and the irrational exuberance of demagogues who want our blood is only part of our job. The other part is to realize that we can expect no quarter. If they are serious about nothing else, these folks are serious -- as serious as the Taliban -- in rejecting all that we stand for. If we want to remain who we are, and defend ourselves and our principles, we have to think seriously about the strategy which will allow us to bring an understanding word to a gunfight, and yet prevail.

No way, people tell me. Maybe so, but if so, anyone with a keen sense of history can tell you what will happen next.

If "we" can't, then what's the point? (4.00 / 2)
If we want to remain who we are, and defend ourselves and our principles, we have to think seriously about the strategy which will allow us to bring an understanding word to a gunfight, and yet prevail.

Its like when Obama promised to bring a gun to the knifefight - strange to hear the language of escalation from the lips of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

A REAL change would be to talk about walking into the knife-fight, unarmed, but with a throng of righteous folk backing up truth and justice.

But, maybe humans ain't ready to face the nasty world of nature without a sidearm, a drone, ICBMs, or an entire army at their disposal.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
There are in every society a few who lack empathy and who use violence on others (4.00 / 2)
Those people must always be dealt with. But letting untrained, unsocialized, and unsupervised others use violence to stop them socializes the others to using violence themselves. Many of them become what they were attempting to stop.

So the system that has worked best is to give government a monopoly on the use of force and violence against the sociopaths and simultaneously to carefully regulate the limited police organizations we license to use violence. In a democracy we label a government which fails to control and limit its use of force as less legitimate. Over time we remove and replace unlegitimate governments.

In Arizona the right-wingers (through the NRA) have successfully delegitimized the idea that good government has a monopoly on the right to use force. Government in Arizona is delegitimized as having a monopoly on the use of force. Everyone there has the right to use force so everyone can carry the symbol of that force - a gun. Any fool can do it.

It sure worked last Saturday, didn't it? By the time the legal civilian gun carriers (there was at least one who came from inside the Safeway who was interviewed) realized something was happening it was over and the unarmed victims had already taken care of the shooter.

Words are not always the answer and never will be. Some sociopath will always test the system. It will always require trained and controlled police or the threat of such a professional government force to minimize the actions of the sociopaths.  

[ Parent ]
How? (4.00 / 2)
Over time we remove and replace unlegitimate governments.

News organizations, around the world, are still surprised when this happens without violence. To be clear: regular elections do not replace "unlegitimate" governments. In fact, one might conclude that elections tend to legitimize the "unlegitimate" actions of the previous administrations. Have you noticed that since Obama took over the WH, the illegality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the expansion to Pakistan, Yemen, and Sudan) is not so much of an issue as it was when Bush/Cheney were still in office? Obama has managed to legitimize the war crimes of the Neo-Con administration that preceded his.

Is this the best humans can do? Maybe.

But following the violence-based mechanisms of social control does not seem very sustainable in the long term. Especially considering how clever we humans are with our tools and engineering. Humans are either gonna figure it out, or humans will cease to exist. I only hope we don't take every other living creature in Earth with us when we face our selves on the last battlefield.

Actually, I still have some hope that humans will not go extinct and even that humans will find a way to positively interact with our environment and other species. But explaining why would take a whole bunch more words. Bottom-line, I have faith in humanity.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
How? (0.00 / 0)
Ask the Argentinians who replaced the generals. Or the politicians who replaced Pinochet. Or the Pakistanis who replaced Musharraf. Indonesia and the Philippines also provide examples.

I'm just as interested in the nations which have kept bad rulers. What causes that? I suspect Castro would have been replaced long ago if it were not for the unrelenting external attack on Castro and Cuba by the governments of the U.S. Bad rulers often create external threats to their government in order to remain in power. The end of the Cold War forced the American right-wing to go searching for enemies, and the best they found were Iraq and Osama bin Laden. (They quickly dropped their long-term threat, China, from their list immediately after 9/11. China was no longer needed and the cost of keeping them on the enemies list got too high for businesses doing business there.) Both Iran's Ahmadinejad and the current right-wing Israeli government each depend on each other to remain in power. What would happen if the long-term cost of keeping both of those governments in power got too high for their respective populations?  

[ Parent ]
This Is All Very True (4.00 / 2)
Not to mention important.  (And it was 1992, to be exact.) But I think it's on the order of other things I've intentionally set aside in this diary--or left to the very end.  This is more on the order of clarifying a specific form of cultural/political aggression, which is to say, the "how" of things.

You're talking more about understanding the "why" and the "what."  Always a more challenging task. But hopefully a somewhat easier one as we get a better handle on the "how."

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Yes, I understand (4.00 / 7)
No, you can't take on everything at once, and if we want to talk about fashioning political remedies, the how is definitely important. As always when we're trying to figure something out, it's a matter of focus.

I guess that what's been eating at me lately is that still, portentious moment which always seems to accompany the transition from good to evil. It can be almost palpable if you're attuned to it. I remember wondering, as a kid, why it was -- and how it was -- that the white Southerners around me couldn't see that the very rigidity of their value system had led -- must inevitably lead -- to terrible conflicts. I experienced what they understood as the defense of peace, tranquility and their settled way of life as an environment that almost literally crackled with transgression and violence. To me it always felt like oppression, even nihilism. I simply couldn't get used to always looking over my shoulder, and watching what I said -- 24/7/365.

When I was really young I had little idea of the history behind this atmosphere, or in particular, of what it had already cost black people, or of their incredible resilience in the face of it. That came much later, and to be honest, to this day it's the one thing that gives me hope that we may ultimately find a way out of this.

This is a personal thing, in no way central to what needs to be done, I guess, and yet there it is. It's why I believe what I believe, and why I believe in keeping on. YMMV.

[ Parent ]
To me at least, what you're saying really matters. (2.67 / 3)
So thanks.

Perspectives such as yours can help people like me stay grounded during tumultuous periods like the one we're in now. The Hows matter a lot, but the Whys behind the Hows illuminate what's more important or less important to focus on.

Sadly, the institutionalized hatred and violence you saw as a youngster has now metastasized onto the broader society, finding safe havens in corporate boardrooms, "mainstream" media outlets and official Washington, all finding willing audiences with the broader public in helping people avoid assigning blame to the responsible parties.

It's perhaps ironic that the same people spouting "personal responsibility" always manage to leave that out of this discussion. Responsibility For Thee, But Not For Me. But at least they're consistent.

We know how all this works. But what to do about it and still manage to prevail is another matter.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

[ Parent ]
There is another component... (4.00 / 1)
...to some of this.

At any given time there are hundreds of thousands of Americans with combinations of personality characteristics (such as emotional instability, a paranoid ideology, and a propensity for violence) that put them at risk of going off the deep end and becoming lone wolves. All it takes is the right push, the right nudge at the right time, to dislodge a few of them and send them on their way to fifteen minutes of fame surrounded by dead bodies.

Or a deteriorating mental state.

It's not just the fact that the downpour of hate speech continues non-stop that's at work here.

Loughner may have stopped listening to talk radio or Glenn Beck, or stopped visiting web sites that fed his world view months or years ago.

But the seeds were planted, and there is an alternate (or additional) possibility that his mental state continued to spiral downward to the point where he did what he did.

That doesn't make the original sources for his political delusions any less culpable.

Because the connections are indistinct does not mean that they do not exist. Which is the entire point behind the concept of stochastic terrorism.

It's ALWAYS Very Hard To Say On An Individual Level (4.00 / 2)
Even if you can identify specific sorts of cognitive processes at work.  Today on Democracy Now! for example, Amy interviewed a poetry classmate who had gone out of his way to befriend Loughner, because of his own experience of social isolation growing up.  Listening to him, it really seemed possible that Loughner might have been saved, but it would have taken a lot more intensive support than he got.

But, then, step back to look at the big picture, and even if you did manage to save that one person....

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I think it's important to remember... (4.00 / 3)
...that, as horrific as these events are, they are extremely rare.

Thus if Loughner could have been saved there might not have been anyone else to step forward and commit a similar act.

That said, one part of a discussion of causes (and there are many highly specific to Arizona itself) is the sorry state of mental health care available in Arizona.

I was rather startled by this article at Harper's: "Tea party in the Sonora: For the future of G.O.P. governance, look to Arizona" which describes the vicious state of decline there.

It's almost as if Arizona represents the perfect (if that's the right word) place for political assassination to take place.

Right wing extremism, lax gun control, very poor mental health services...


[ Parent ]
It's not rare at all. (4.00 / 6)

It's been happening like clockwork, roughly every three months, since July 2008.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Someone right now (4.00 / 2)
And someone right now is noticing that the whole world is watching Loughner's YouTube videos and thinks that is the coolest thing, ever...

[ Parent ]
I meant "rare" only in the sense... (0.00 / 0)
...that if some sort of mental health services had been available for Loughner, there would not have still been a shooting that weekend, or next, simply because of the large number of people waiting to do such a thing.

Not referring to the frequency of events that have happened; only to the thought that nothing might have happened (or happen in the future) there in Arizona if Loughner could have been helped.

[ Parent ]
grrr... (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
Arizona was the relief valve for (4.00 / 2)
chip-on-the-shoulder white guy refugees from California's imploding economy.  (I'm related to some of them.)

[ Parent ]
My condolences (4.00 / 3)

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Not at all. (0.00 / 0)
I've had the opportunity to see what drives them.

[ Parent ]
Sadie's Right (4.00 / 2)
The pace of violence is nothing compared to Iraq, perhaps.  But compared to America 30 years ago?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
more care with definition needed (4.00 / 1)
he stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media to broadcast memes that incite unstable people to commit violent acts.

i think the notion of intent to induce fear or negligence or other such things have to be introduced because 'terrorist' is such a loaded word these days.  not to protect anyone who engages in the actions you suggested as much as to carefully distinguish between those that do who are malicious (the rightwing) and those that stir up violence who may not be malicious but do trigger violent people (e.g. j.d. salinger)

I think it goes to intent. (4.00 / 4)
There's no way to say Salinger ever intended anyone to go off on people as a result of reading his words, just as there's no way anyone can connect the Beatles' White Album to Charlie Manson.

But eliminationists do now and always have intended to foment violence, largely for political purposes. Their rhetoric is literally designed to illicit the responses they get. While the word "terrorism" is relatively new in common parlance, eliminationism is not. We can go all the way back to the Christian bible and the Blood Libel, which in turn generated the anti-semitism present in the Germanic Passion Plays that resulted in mass murders around Easter in the Middle Ages... and so on, right through to today. None of that was a mere happenstance that resulted in violence. That was the intent all along.

The rise of European fascism and Stalinism to the east raised the effectiveness of their propaganda to a science. Now their American descendants are doing the same thing with the help of modern social science and real marketing savvy.

I would suggest this is terrorism we're talking about. The intent is to terrorize anyone they don't like, like say "liberals," into accepting the New Order. They don't need an army of thugs, since the media will catapult the message to every TV set in the country. Their rhetoric is designed to inspire mentally ill people to action. In so doing, they also give themselves plausible deniability that apparently an awful lot of Americans are willing to accept. Ergo, it works rather well for them.

There will always be crazies out there doing awful things. But the mere fact that so many of them have been recently inspired by Glenn Beck alone speaks volumes as to the pattern we're seeing. So not only is Glenn Beck (amongst many others) a terrorist at heart, he's also a socially acceptable one within the national "discourse."

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

[ Parent ]
i completely agree with you as applied to the far right and their media patrons (4.00 / 2)
i think they are genuinely definitionally 'terrorist.'  they seek to inspire fear and at least some factions of them are clearly not averse to flirting with or even knowingly encouraging the use of violence.  

the reason i draw a distinction is because there is a broad range between salinger and glenn beck.  i would be wary of adopting a definition this broad given that it uses a highly sensitive word and will almost invariably be applied to others.  was malcolm x a stochastic terrorist?  how about anyone who uses nationalism?  how about Ice-T?  how about karl marx? just four examples that you can answer yes or no to, but show that this is more complicated than the two extremes i laid out.  

anyway, again, not taking issue with the underlying concept or its application to the far right, which clearly (to me) fits the bill.  don't want to get bogged down in semantics either, but i get nervous when i see epithets being created whose eventual use is beyond all of our control...

[ Parent ]
I agree with you. It's important to be really clear about these distinctions. (4.00 / 1)
It's best not to throw around such words with reckless abandon or even appear to be doing so.

But when the shoe fits.... and it certainly does this time. Still, it probably has to be explained in excruciating detail to certain people. Just to be clear!

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

[ Parent ]
Power of Suggestion (4.00 / 4)
Some may think that casually, occasionally mentioning guns, removing political opponents and so on, doesn't really effect people all that much.  But the power of suggestion can be extreme even for emotionally stable people.  Check out the video below if you don't believe me.

Now, you aren't going to get a stable person to shoot anyone this way, but you don't need to, either.  There is always someone out there unstable enough to do it.  In reality, I'm shocked this isn't more common.

Pretty Fricken Amazing! (4.00 / 2)
I'm glad there's only one of you, Mark.  You dig up so many of these, and they all take several minutes to watch.  If there were more of you, I'd never get anything done.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Associations (4.00 / 6)
I spent some time yelling at the TV last night.  It didn't matter if the talking head claimed our "heated political rhetoric" was responsible for the shooting or if he or she said such claims were stupid.

The problem isn't the heated rhetoric.  I kept yelling "it's the eliminist rhetoric, stupid!  That's the line they crossed!"  Today I realized I was still off a tad and remembered this video from several months ago.

The problem is one of associations.  This is what the right wing media continually does:

1) They depict political opponents as enemies, not just wrong but evil and dangerous.

2) They fantasize about political opponents not existing or disappearing.  This is the eliminst rhetoric I was talking about yesterday.

3) They use guns, hunting and war analogies when discussing politics.  Sometimes they talk of these more literally, of course, as they openly support gun ownership, hunting and war.

Now, it is fairly rare for all three things to line up nicely in a row.  No one ever says "we should go out and shoot liberals."  (Except in jest, of course!)  But all three elements are tied together.  The associations are clear.

All three ideas are constantly stimulated in the brain while simultaniously associated with each other.  This can be quite powerful, as the video shows, even when extremely subtle.  And they ain't all that subtle.  They are subtle enough, apparently, for Stewart, O'Donell and many others to miss it, unfortunately.  Subtle enough for many good people to reject this line of thinking.  But it is there and it is real.

[ Parent ]
I Just Want To Point Out (4.00 / 2)
That this still isn't the whole story.  In fact, we may never get the whole story.  But it is a demonstration of how we get to the whole story.  We keep grappling with it, just as we do with any problem--be it a puzzle, a scientific quest, a relationship problem or whatever.

If we come to a point where we've got a neat little solution, and say, "That's it!  I've got it!" and then turn away all the other evidence that doesn't fit, well, we'll make a damn fine pundit, and a piss-poor human being.

FWIW, I think you've nailed down a solid corner of what's going on.  But I think there are other aspects as well.  It's like, "Okay, you got the quantum chromodynamics nailed down.  But what about the gravity?"

Meanwhile, you're watching a debate about phlogiston theory on tv.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
No, it isn't the whole story (4.00 / 1)
I don't think it is completely correct for what it does describe.  Even an hour after writing this I find flaws.  Intuitively, I can feel and taste it, but I can't quite hold it.  But it's close.  I'm looking for that solid line that should not be crossed.  Of course, it isn't really a one-dimensional line, it is some multi-dimensional thing.  Figuring out how many dimensions is part of the puzzle.

[ Parent ]
Subtle and real (4.00 / 4)
I've often thought that much of what influences human behavior is too subtle and too fleeting to be consciously known to either the person acting or observers. That video is a stunning illustration of how that might be the case.

There's a lot here that runs counter to "common sense" notions of direct, conscious cause-and-effect:

  • the influencers do not have to know exactly how or whom they're influencing-they can be acting deliberately or negligently, as the quote says, or unconsciously;
  • the influenced may or may not be aware of the influence;
  • the influencing thing itself may be exceedingly subtle or fleeting, not the sort of thing that would seem to have an effect;
  • the outcome is probabilistic-the effect is statistically predictable but the individual act is not.

That amounts to a whole lot of deniability for the people who might be influencers: "We didn't intend that our acts would lead to..." "That person wasn't influenced by...even he doesn't say so" "No one could have predicted this specific event...," along with concomitant demands for proof and remonstrations that the evidence is lacking. But the problem is that the underlying assumptions are wrong: the people acting don't have to be fully aware of how they're influencing or being influenced; whatever's doing the influencing (the stimulus or stimuli) might be too subtle or fleeting to detect; and the outcome can still be predictable even if the specific result is not. The cause and effect relationship is no less real; it's just more difficult to prove.

[ Parent ]
To me, the way is clear. (4.00 / 8)
We have to go after them in a way that both reinforces the differences between us and undermines their ability to do harm. And that is to take the position of, "I'm not after your blood but your power."

They want us to be the same as them, they are already fantasizing that one of us will shoot Sarah Palin. But we aren't them, and I think I speak for everyone here when I say I don't want to see Palin dead I want to see her marginalized and irrelevant. I want to see Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh unemployed.

Montani semper liberi

The goal is positive change (4.00 / 3)
Something seems wrong to most people engaged in struggle when they see more people hurt on their own side than on the other side. They are used to reading this as an indication of defeat, and a complete mental readjustment is required of them. Within the new terms of struggle, victory has nothing to do with their being able to give more punishment than they take (quite the reverse); victory has nothing to do with their being able to punish the other at all; it has to do simply with being able, finally, to make the other move... Vengeance is not the point; change is.

- Barbara Deming, "On Revolution and Equilibrium" in We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader

I don't care about pushing anyone down. I care about preventing destructive people and forces from hurting people and in enabling and encouraging beneficial people and forces to help people. And this is generally true of progressives and it is certainly our philosophy (though I/we may go astray sometimes).

In contrast, strong-father conservatives are all about punishing evil-doers: of harshly judging people and then punishing them for their sins. If this actually solved problems, it might be a useful philosophy, but it seldom solves real problems and it usually creates a lot more problems.

[ Parent ]
Pierre Mendès-France (1907-1982) (4.00 / 5)
when asked if his experiences in occupied France made him bitter about certain French people:

[No] It showed me that there are certain tendencies and habits, which, when they are fired, fed or stimulated, crop up like weeds, and so we must always be on the defense. We have to protect our youth from this type of propaganda. We have to talk to them about it more than we talked about it a generation or two ago.

I get the feeling that a lot of the followers of this blog are old enough to have seen The Sorrow and the Pity when it was released, but it's worth another viewing.

How do we protect from this kind of propaganda (0.00 / 0)
when the propagandists hide behind freedom of speech and at the same time seem to have the funds needed to repeat their stuff ad nauseam?

People looking for news tend to look for the new information. But the propagandists keep repeating the same stuff over and over until it becomes familiar and even accepted, even when it is a lie.  

[ Parent ]
The usual way - by looking to the future and fighting on all fronts. (0.00 / 0)
In the classroom - better history and civics classes. Forewarned is forearmed. In the legislature - by overhauling the 1996 Telecommunications Act to ensure more (and more varied) public interest broadcasting and by changing the way elections are financed. Media liberals are already doing some of the heavy lifting on TV and the internet. On the personal front, by engaging your own kids. Institutional changes are slow and people become complacent and backslide, but I don't see a quick-fix alternative.

[ Parent ]
Amazingly good analysis and useful writing! (0.00 / 0)
One of the best articles in a long time, well done.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

Yelling Fire in a Crowded Theater (0.00 / 0)
I thought, legally, some speech is considered wrong or unacceptable when it demonstrably endangers the lives other people. Clearly this is a case, over years, the right has yelled "Fire" in a crowded theater. It should be no surprise some number of people "go off" and commit these crimes. Whether you call it stochastic terrorism or something else, it's building a bomb then lighting the fuse. It's putting people in a room with no escape then driving some number to act violently.

To Matson's comment above that he was yelling at a TV the other day, I simply turn the tube off. It's astounding how predictable TV news coverage is in these situations, even print journalism. We could script all the stories in the news cycle ahead of time. I suspect it has become rote to much of the media. They play act, as if this was some play on Broadway, until the next story comes along. It's extremely rare to see real journalism. Even the "sympathetic classmate" story you highlight is a meme and a canned storyline in these situations.

Aside from the victims in these heinous crimes, I always feel for the people who commit the crimes and their families. Truly, the only people who win are in the media. They get a sustained audience to convert into ad dollars to pay their salaries. In the meantime, all of us as citizens, we're left to talk and discuss and debate what happened. Let's hope this time will make a difference. That something will change.


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