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    The Unholy Alliance Between the US Security Apparatus and Big Tech

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    When Will We Know the Bleeding Truth?

    In an article for Bloomberg, British historian Niall Ferguson expresses his strategic insight into the real motives of the Biden administration concerning the course of the war in Ukraine. Officially, the US claims to be acting in the interest of Ukraine’s defense in an effort to support democracy and reaffirm the principle of sovereignty that permits any country to join an antiquated military alliance directed by the United States, on the other side of a distant ocean.

    Less officially, President Joe Biden has been emphasizing the emotional side of US motivation when he wants to turn Russia into a “pariah,” while branding its president as a “war criminal” and a “murderer.” Biden’s rhetoric indicates clearly that whatever purely legal and moral point the United States cites to justify its massive financial engagement in the war, its true motivation reflects a vigilante mindset focused on regime change.

    A Russian-American Game of Mirrors

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    The administration denies it has regime change on its mind. But Ferguson cites a senior administration official who privately confided that Biden’s “end game now … is the end of Putin regime.” The historian concludes that rather than seek a negotiated end to the war, the US “intends to keep this war going.”

    As usual in foreign policy matters, Ferguson notes a certain convergence of viewpoint from his own government. He quotes an anonymous source affirming that the United Kingdom’s “No. 1 option is for the conflict to be extended and thereby bleed Putin.” A little later in the article, Ferguson qualifies as “archetypal Realpolitik” the American intent “to allow the carnage in Ukraine to continue; to sit back and watch the heroic Ukrainians ‘bleed Russia dry.’”

    Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Bleed (a country):

    To encourage and prolong an unnecessary and unjustified conflict in the interest of sucking the life out of the political establishment of a declared enemy, a process that usually automatically implies sucking the life out of at least one other country, including eventually one’s own

    Contextual Note

    Ferguson dares to question the dominant belief in the US that bleeding Russia is a recipe for success. “Prolonging the war runs the risk not just of leaving tens of thousands of Ukrainians dead and millions homeless, but also of handing Putin something that he can plausibly present at home as victory,” he writes.

    Embed from Getty Images

    When the focus is both on bleeding and prolonging the combat, there is a strong likelihood that the bleeding will be shared. If a boxer sees a cut over his opponent’s eye, he may strategically focus all his punches on the opponent’s face hoping for a technical knockout. But, by focusing on the loss of blood, he may drop his guard with the risk of getting knocked out or opening his own bleeding wound.

    “I fail to see in current Western strategizing any real recognition of how badly this war could go for Ukraine in the coming weeks,” Ferguson observes. The reason may simply be that the hyperreal moment the Western world is now living through is proving too enjoyable to critique, at least for the media. The more horror stories of assaults on innocent civilians make their way into the headlines, the more the media can play the morally satisfying game of: here’s one more reason to hate Vladimir Putin.

    If the White House is focused, as it now appears, not on saving Ukrainian democracy but on bleeding Russia, all the stories of Russian abuse of brave civilians are designed with the purpose of prolonging the war, in the hope that, discredited by Putin’s failure to break Ukraine’s resistance, Russians will revolt and depose the evil dictator. In the meantime, those Ukrainians who manage to survive are being asked to play the supporting role of watching their country reduced to ruins.

    Ferguson speculates that US strategists have come to “think of the conflict as a mere sub-plot in Cold War II, a struggle in which China is our real opponent.” That would be an ambitious plan, riddled with complexity. But the Biden administration has demonstrated its incapacity to deal effectively even with straightforward issues, from passing the Build Back Better framework in the US to managing a pandemic.

    The Ukraine situation involves geopolitics, the global economy and, even more profoundly, the changing image of US power felt by populations and governments across the globe. At the end of his article, the historian describes this as an example of dangerous overreach, claiming that “the Biden administration is making a colossal mistake in thinking that it can protract the war in Ukraine, bleed Russia dry, topple Putin and signal to China to keep its hands off Taiwan.”

    Historical Note

    One salient truth about Americans’ perception of the Ukraine War should be evident to everyone. Today’s media thoroughly understands the American public’s insatiable appetite for the right kind of misinformation. Niall Ferguson makes the point that the US government may nevertheless be inept in providing it. The history of misinformation in times of war over the past century should provide some clues.

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    In 1935, Major General Smedley Butler wrote a book describing the logic behind his own service on several continents. Its title was “War Is a Racket.” He described the American vision of war as a quest for corporate profit. He tried to warn the nation of the inhumanity of such an approach to the use of military force. He manifestly failed because he was late to the game. Back in 1917, Edward Bernays, the “father of Public Relations,” seduced the American public into believing that the only motive for the nation’s invasions and wars is the spreading of democracy. It was Bernays who provided Woodrow Wilson with the slogan “make the world safe for democracy.”

    For the rest of his life, Bernays not only helped private companies boost their brands, he also consulted on foreign policy to justify regime change when it threatened a customer’s racket. In 1953, working for United Fruit, he collaborated with President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz, the elected president of Guatemala. Arbenz had a plan to redistribute to the country’s impoverished peasants “unused land” monopolized by United Fruit. In a 2007 article for the Financial Times, Peter Chapman recounted that both Dulles brothers were “legal advisers” to United Fruit. Chapman notes that the company was also involved in the 1961 CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion.

    In other words, concerning their impact on the American psyche, Bernays the PR man defeated Butler, celebrated at the time as America’s greatest living war hero. His fame was such that a group of powerful fascist-leaning businessmen tried to recruit him to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the infamous 1933 “Business Plot.”

    Americans continue to rally around Bernays’ genius for reducing a suspect ideology to a catchy slogan. American interventions abroad are framed as noble efforts to support democracy and promote American business (Butler called them rackets). It’s a population of avid consumers of the media’s plentiful supply of misinformation.

    There are nevertheless odd moments when real information breaks through, though it rarely leaves much lasting impact. Last week, the Pentagon leaked news contradicting the narrative the State Department, the intelligence community and US media have unanimously adopted and promoted. In the Defense Department’s view, Russia’s invasion is not an example of unrestrained sadism toward the Ukrainian people. “As destructive as the Ukraine war is,” Newsweek reports, “Russia is causing less damage and killing fewer civilians than it could, U.S. intelligence experts say.”

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    The US military establishment calls it the “Russian leader’s strategic balancing act,” observing that Russia has acted with restraint. It realistically assesses that, far from seeking to subdue and conquer Ukraine, Putin’s “goal is to take enough territory on the ground to have something to negotiate with, while putting the government of Ukraine in a position where they have to negotiate.”

    Ferguson has gleaned his own evidence concerning US and UK strategy that “helps explain, among other things, the lack of any diplomatic effort by the U.S. to secure a cease-fire. It also explains the readiness of President Joe Biden to call Putin a war criminal.” Peace is no objective. Punishment is. This is a case where the Pentagon has received the message of Smedley Butler and dares to contradict an administration guided by the logic of Edward Bernays.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    The Prospects of Peace in Afghanistan

    The Doha Agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on February 29, 2020, not only set a date for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, but it also included certain obligations for the Taliban.

    Under this agreement, the Taliban are obligated to take measures to prevent terrorist groups from threatening the security of the US and its allies and to engage in a comprehensive intra-Afghan dialogue that would produce a political settlement. The hasty US troop withdrawal in August 2021 emboldened the Taliban to disregard their obligations under the deal and encouraged them to prioritize political takeover instead of a sustainable peace mechanism for Afghanistan.

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    The Doha Agreement and its contents undermined the sovereign government of Afghanistan at the time and provided an upper hand to the Taliban in both war and peace. Certain assurances in the deal enabled the Taliban to become stronger in both battlefield action and narrative propagation.

    These include the agreement’s references to a “new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government”; clauses on the release of Taliban combatants referred to as “political prisoners”; indirect legitimization of the Taliban shadow government by virtue of stipulations such as “the Taliban will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents”; and a complete lack of any mention of human rights protections in Afghanistan.

    Another Case of Failed Peacemaking

    The agreement is not the only pact that was expected to bring a peaceful end to the conflict in the country. In 1988, the Geneva Accords concluded under the auspices of the UN between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the US and the Soviet Union serving as state guarantors, provided an overall framework for the settlement of the Afghan conflict and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Likewise, the Bonn Agreement in 2001 — irrespective of whether it is categorized as a peace deal —established a process to manage the political transition in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. It briefly outlined steps from the formation of an interim administration to the development of a new constitution and holding elections.

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    However, neither the Geneva Accords nor the Bonn Agreement were successful and ultimately failed to foster conditions necessary for enabling a comprehensive settlement to Afghanistan’s complicated problem. More recently, the Taliban’s abject disregard for their commitments under the Doha Agreement, combined with the United States’ rushed exit, sped up the Taliban’s reemergence, once again closing an already narrow window of opportunity for achieving a durable political solution to the protracted conflict in Afghanistan.

    There is indeed a qualitative difference between the Geneva Accords, the Bonn Agreement and the Doha Agreement. However, one of the key reasons for their failure, among other factors, is that they are silent on the main cause of the conflict in Afghanistan — i.e., ethnic conflict.

    Afghanistan is a multiethnic country where the various ethnic groups are also geographically fragmented. Historically, divisions over who should lead the country and how have been among the core contentious issues in Afghanistan. Disagreements on this matter have manifested in violent ways in the 1990s and non-violent ways in the outcome of four presidential elections held based on the 2004 constitution. Overlooking of the main cause of the conflict and an absence of a viable mechanism for power redistribution among ethnic groups is a common thread that connects each of the three agreements that failed and continued to fuel instability.

    The Current Situation

    Less than two years since the Doha Agreement was signed, in August 2021, Kabul, the Afghan capital, fell to the Taliban. In the aftermath of this development, residences of several former government officials, particularly those from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), were raided and these personnel members were either killed or imprisoned. A UN report found that over 100 personnel from the Afghan security forces and others associated with the former Afghan government have been killed in the country, despite the Taliban announcing a general amnesty. 

    Moreover, despite the demands from the international community for the formation of an inclusive government, respect for human rights and counterterrorism assurances, the Taliban have refused to make any concessions. They have brazenly continued suppressing all dissenting voices, severely limiting women’s rights and persecuting civil society members and journalists.

    Peace in Afghanistan?

    It was apparent from day one that the prospects of the post-July 2018 efforts for a political settlement in Afghanistan were uncertain at best. The Doha Agreement simply laid out a possible schedule for the US withdrawal instead of guarantee or measures enabling a durable political settlement or peace process. The Taliban too negotiated the deal with the US with the aim of winning the war rather than seeking a peace deal or political settlement with their opponents.

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    The chaotic withdrawal of American forces and the mayhem at Kabul airport — which was reminiscent of the US pullout from Vietnam — has not only damaged the image of a powerful country like the US around the world, but has also established its reputation as an unreliable ally in times of difficulty. Given historical patterns and the Taliban’s track record, in the absence of any qualitative change of circumstances on the ground, the international community’s positive overtures to the Taliban might be yet another folly.

    As it stands, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan will remain distant for as long as the Taliban own the entire political apparatus rather than participate as a party in an inclusive and representative government and respect dissenting voices. In the meantime, the international community should use sanctions mechanisms and official recognition as the few remaining tools of leverage to hold the Taliban accountable to their commitments and to international legal standards.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    After a Difficult Year, US Farmers Are Pessimistic

    Debt is of great concern to many American citizens, despite the Biden administration’s selective efforts at debt forgiveness. While high and trending upward, debt has at least remained relatively stable over the past year.

    Market concentration, on the other hand, is a more pernicious issue. More than half the value of US farm production came from farms with at least $1 million in sales in 2015, compared to only 31% in 1991.

    The consequences of consolidation become apparent in the sales of various agricultural products. For example, in 2000, the biggest four companies sold 51% of soybean seeds in the United States. By 2015, their share rose to 76%.

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    “The agricultural industry is different than other industries because Capper-Volstead allows them to combine in ways that other individuals would go to jail for,” says  Allee A. Ramadhan, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney who led an investigation into the dairy industry. The 1922 Capper-Volstead Act was a law originally designed to protect producers by allowing them to secure their interests through cooperatives. Unfortunately, it has resulted in the perfect conditions for heavy consolidation by the largest companies.

    Consolidation doesn’t just impact prices, but it also contributes to US agriculture’s declining competitiveness. That is why agriculture was included in President Joe Biden’s executive order on competition last July, in which he declared that the “American promise of a broad and sustained prosperity depends on an open and competitive economy.”

    Fertilizers and Destabilizing Forces

    In addition to the structural concerns for US agriculture, there have been further destabilizing factors since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did the health crisis remove domestic outlets for agricultural products due to repeated lockdowns, but it also severely disrupted production. This was particularly in terms of available human resources, whether before at the farms or down the processing chain with the temporary closure of many slaughterhouses.

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    Aside from the impact of COVID-19, extreme weather has pummeled certain states, reduced production and caused billions of dollars in damage. The prices of many inputs are snowballing into other areas. Prices for urea have skyrocketed. DAP, the common phosphate fertilizer, has reached its highest price tag since the 2008 financial crash that led to the food pricing crisis.

    “As fertilizer prices continue to rise, farmers will either cut application rates, cut fertilizer entirely in hopes for lower future pricing, or cut other farm products to account for the bigger expected spend,” says Alexis Maxwell, an analyst at Green Markets.

    Some farmers are essentially holding out before buying for the next growing season, in the hopes that costs come down. But that is a risky strategy.

    Contributing to the destabilizing forces, recent countervailing duties against foreign fertilizer producers selling to the US market have cut supply. Chris Edgington, the president of the National Cotton Growers Association, said in late 2021 that the Mosaic Company petitioned for the tariffs and has since seen its share of the phosphate market grow from 74% to 80%, a near-monopoly. “There’s been a dramatic increase of fertilizer costs to the producer and that’s not looking to end,” he added. In general, the price increases for different fertilizers are not yet at the levels seen in 2008, but they could soon be even higher if they keep climbing.

    Uncertainty Due to the Ukraine War

    The war in Ukraine has added fuel to the fire regarding the uncertainties in the agricultural sector. The conflict has pitted against each other Russia and Ukraine, whose wheat exports account for more than 25% of the world’s supply. Now, these exports are at risk, as witnessed by the emerging food crisis in several North African and Middle Eastern countries.

    For instance, Tunisia imports nearly half of its wheat from Ukraine to make bread. In the country where the Arab Spring began in December 2010, Tunisians are worried there could be shortages of supplies and a repeat of bread riots like in the 1980s. Alarmingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused prices to rise to their highest level in 14 years. Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt are also beginning to be stricken by flour shortages.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    The conflict has also led to the introduction of severe sanctions against Russia and Belarus, two of the world’s largest producers and exporters of fertilizers of all kinds, along with natural gas, an essential ingredient in ammonia production and a key component of complex fertilizers. Although the United States produces most of its own natural gas, fluctuations in world prices have a significant effect on the fertilizer industry. This only exacerbates the difficulties farmers currently face in obtaining inputs.

    Thus, while US farmers could look forward to a windfall of increased demand for their grain in the coming year, in the immediate future, they are simply faced with a further increase in production costs. Due to these added costs of inputs and the supply chain issues, US agriculture — especially the wheat industry — may be lacking the fertilizers needed to maximize yields, resulting in a decline in production and impeding its capability to respond to global demand.

    In a way, in the immediate and near future, the nightmare of 2021 is only worsening. For Arkansas farmer Matt Miles, “There’s no guarantee of anything being a sure thing anymore. That’s the scary part.”

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    A Russian-American Game of Mirrors

    Most of the propaganda Western media is now mass-producing focuses on the very real belligerence and lies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Print and broadcast media have thrown themselves into a propaganda game serving to cast them in the noble role of prosecutors of an evildoer and defenders of victimized Ukrainians. Some academic-style publications have begun to join the fray, in an attempt to refine the propagandizing strategies.

    One good example is an article in The American Purpose by the National Endowment for Democracy’s vice-president for studies and analysis, Christopher Walker. In the piece titled, “The Kleptocratic Sources of Russia’s Conduct,” Walker builds his case around the idea that “Vladimir Putin and his gang are fixated on wealth and power.” The author admits being inspired by political analyst Daniel Kimmage, who in 2009 produced what Walker terms a “clear-eyed assessment of Putin’s Russia.” He cites this wisdom he gleaned from Kimmage: “The primary goal of the Russian elite is not to advance an abstract ideal of the national interest or restore some imagined Soviet idyll,” but “to retain its hold on money and power.”

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    Kimmage sums up one difficulty Americans have felt when dealing with Putin as an ideological adversary. Whereas the Soviet Union’s embrace of communism made the ideological gap visible even to moronic voters, Putin reigns over a nation that American consultants transformed in the 1990s into a capitalist paradise (i.e., a paradise for owners of capital). To distinguish Putin’s evil capitalism from America’s benevolent capitalism, Kimmage called the Russian version a “selectively capitalist kleptocracy.”

    Walker notes that “the system of ‘selectively capitalist kleptocracy’ in Russia that Daniel Kimmage described” 13 years ago has now “evolved in ways that are even more threatening to democracy and its institutions.”

    Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Kleptocracy:

    The form of government universally adopted by all powerful nations at the end of the 20th century.

    Contextual Note

    An acerbic critic might be excused for not feeling particularly illuminated to learn that Putin and his cronies “are fixated on wealth and power.” Who would expect them to have a different philosophy and mindset than the leaders of every other powerful country in the world? The list includes those that claim to be faultless democracies, committed to implementing the will of the people. The first among them is, of course, the United States, but France, the United Kingdom and others adhere to the same sets of values, even if each of them has worked out more subtle ways of applying them. And, of course, Saudi Arabia stands at the head of everyone’s class as the exemplar of leaderships fixated on wealth and power.

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    Kimmage’s description of Russia as a “selectively capitalist kleptocracy” may be helpful in ways he may not have intended. Russia’s selective capitalist kleptocracy contrasts with America’s non-selectively capitalist kleptocracy. The real question turns around what it means to be selective or non-selective. Walker makes no attempt to differentiate the two because he believes the term kleptocracy only applies to Russia. But statistics about wealth inequality reveal that the American capitalist system has become a plutocracy that can make its own claim to being a kleptocracy.

    In 1989, the top 10% of income earners in the United States earned 42% of the total income, which is already significant. In 2016, they accounted for 50%. “By the start of 2021, the richest 1% of Americans held 32% of the nation’s wealth,” according to The New York Times. Between the start of 2020 and July 2021, “the richest 1% gained $10 trillion” in accumulated wealth.

    The gap is destined to keep widening. Unlike Putin’s oligarchy, composed of his “selected” friends and other winners of Russia’s industrial casino, the 1% in the US have non-selectively emerged to constitute a kleptocratic class that, thanks to a sophisticated system of governance, writes the laws, applies the rules and captures the new wealth that is programmed to gravitate towards them.

    Kimmage’s idea of a fixation “with wealth and power” correctly describes the mindset of the members of the American kleptocratic class, whether they are entrepreneurs with names like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, or politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who rose from poverty to convert power into riches and earn their place as servants of the kleptocratic class.

    Unlike Putin’s mafia-like political culture, the system in the US is subtle and sophisticated. It contains convenient paths to join the kleptocratic class, such as a Harvard or Stanford degree. But mostly it relies on fixation. Within the US kleptocratic class diversity exists. Some may be more focused on power (including cultural power) than wealth. But the fascination with both wealth and power is common to all. The system is built on the symmetrical principle that wealth feeds power and power feeds wealth.

    Walker accuses Putin of another grave sin, beyond kleptomania but including it: expansionism. He denounces the “spread of the roots and branches of a transnational kleptocratic system that stretches well beyond the Russian Federation to pose a multidimensional threat to free societies.”

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    How could a discerning reader not notice the dramatic irony here? Has Walker forgotten that Putin’s complaint about NATO is that, despite promises made to the contrary, it has spent 30 years aggressively expanding toward Russia’s most sensitive borders? Putin may be interested in expansion, but Eastern Europe has become a slow tug-of-war in which NATO, under US impulsion, has been the most active and insistent aggressor.

    In short, Walker has produced an essay that correctly identifies very real political evils within the Russian system. But they share the same basic traits as the politico-economic culture of the West under US leadership. In an absolute failure of self-recognition, Walker somehow manages to avoid acknowledging his own culture’s image reflected back to him into the mirror that has become the target of his complaints. That is because, in this article, he has focused on producing just one more example of what has now become the shameless, knee-jerk propaganda that pollutes Western media in this climate of an existential war from which the US has abstained, preferring to let the Ukrainians endure the sacrifice for the sake of American principles.

    Historical Note

    In the 17th century, European history began a radical transformation of its political institutions lasting roughly 300 years. After England’s Puritans beheaded their king and declared a short-lived Commonwealth, European intellectuals began toying with an idea that would eventually lead to the triumph of the idea, if not the reality of democracy, a system Winston Churchill generously called “the worst form of government except for all the others.”

    For the best part of the 19th and 20th centuries, representative democracy became the standard reference for everyone’s idea of what an honest government should be like, while struggling to find its footing with the concurrent rise of industrial capitalism. Capitalism generated huge inequality that seemed at least theoretically anomalous with the idea of democracy.

    During the late 20th century, industrial capitalism that had previously focused on production, productivity and mass distribution, gave way to financial capitalism. This new version of capitalism focused uniquely on wealth and power. In other words, democracies switched their orientation from a belief in their citizens’ anarchic quest for personal prosperity in the name of the “pursuit of happiness” to the elite’s concentrated focus on the acquisition and accumulation of money and clout.

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    This new social model merged the logic of democratically designed institutions with economic and legal mechanisms that created a sophisticated system at the service of a small number of individuals who understood and controlled the levers of wealth and political power. Their major cultural achievement consisted of giving a sufficiently wide base to this new form of plutocracy that disguised its kleptocratic reality.

    For nearly half a century, the Cold War promoted the spectacle of a combat between democratic capitalism and autocratic communism. Both sides seized the opportunity to build military powerhouses that could provide an effective shelter for the kleptocratic class. Once the heresy of communism was banished from Russia, it could morph, under Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin, into a caricature of the much more subtle kleptocracy encapsulated in Reaganomics.

    The Russian and American versions of economic power management shared the same orientations but deployed them in contrasting ways. Kleptocratic rule was at the core of both. Using a musical analogy, the American philharmonic version of kleptocracy was delivered in Carnegie Hall, with a fully orchestrated score. Russia offered an improvisational version delivered by local musicians in an animated tavern. In both cases, as the proverb says, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.”

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    A Fictional Debate Between a General and a Journalist

    Washington Post reporter Brandon Dyson emerges from the shadows in a street near Foggy Bottom after he recognizes General Edwin Moran leaving the State Department building and walking toward his car. Brandishing a microphone, Dyson rushes up to intercept him.

    FADE IN:

    EXT. Georgetown Street — Late Afternoon

    DYSON: General, if you could spare a minute, I’d like to get your take on how the Ukraine war’s going. Are you satisfied we’re achieving our objectives?

    MORAN: You’re a reporter. Read the papers.

    DYSON: I write for the papers, so I don’t necessarily trust everything I read. I’d like to get it from the horse’s mouth.

    MORAN: Look, you’re asking the wrong stallion. Address your questions to the politicians. The military’s job is to obey orders, not give interviews. Our opinion means nothing.

    DYSON: I’ve been talking to the politicians. I know what they’re saying, which is why I’d like to hear your thoughts. I’m interested in the military perspective, the feelings you guys have about your mission.

    MORAN: We don’t have feelings. We have orders. Orders lead to actions. Feelings come later.

    DYSON: OK, but everyone is acting like we’re engaged in a war. And you know much more about war than any politician.

    MORAN: Officially we’re at peace. So I have nothing to say.

    DYSON: We’re definitely in a major economic war that sits on top of a local shooting war. That’s a unique situation. The media are whipping the public into a frenzy of war fever. Do you feel you’re being sidelined?

    MORAN: Do I feel…? I told you, don’t ask me about my feelings.

    DYSON: Well, you and your colleagues must be wondering about what this frenzy means. You can see everybody in the media itching to take on the Russkis. Anyone who thinks a war isn’t necessary can be called a traitor. But at the same time, the official message is that we’re not going to battle.

    MORAN: We’re ready for any action that’s required. That’s all. For the moment, it’s the State Department’s war, not ours. Their weapons are sanctions and they have quite an arsenal.

    DYSON: So you admit that applying sanctions is the equivalent of war?

    MORAN: Sanctions actually kill people more surely and on a more massive scale than any non-nuclear weapons.

    DYSON: That’s the point. Critics point out that they target civilians and disrupt the survivors’ lives, people who have nothing to do with politics or combat, whereas war is supposed to be about opposing armies. Are you saying you consider sanctions a legitimate way to conduct war?

    MORAN: Well, if you really want my opinion, I’ll tell you. Sanctions make a mockery of the idea of war, which is always has been and should always be considered a noble pursuit. Politicians have no idea what true war is all about. They say they have a strategy, but they have no sense of operational goals.

    DYSON: If you admit they have a strategy, how would you assess their tactics?

    MORAN: We don’t try. All we can do is hope they come out victorious.

    DYSON: Have they given you military people any idea of what victory would look like?

    MORAN: From what I can tell, it’s bringing down the evildoer, Vladimir Putin.

    DYSON: So, it’s regime change?

    MORAN: That’s what it looks like.

    DYSON: Blinken absolutely denied that last week on “Face the Nation.” But he does say it’s about provoking the devastation of the Russian economy.

    MORAN: Pretty much the same thing.

    DYSON: The French minister Bruno Le Maire said something similar, about provoking the total collapse of the Russian economy. It’s beginning to sound like “Carthago delenda est.”

    MORAN: Is that French?

    DYSON: No, Latin. You know, Cato.

    MORAN: Are you telling me the French minister works for the Cato Institute here in DC?

    DYSON: No, it’s what Cato the Elder said during one of the Punic wars.

    MORAN: It’s disrespectful to call any of our wars puny, even if we have to admit there were a few failures.

    DYSON: I’m talking about ancient Roman history. Cato was a Roman politician who preached the destruction of Carthage around 200 BC. He ended all his speeches at the Senate with the catchphrase, “Carthage must be destroyed.” You must have studied the Punic wars? The Romans went ahead and definitively wiped Carthage off the map in 146 BC, killing or enslaving every one of its citizens.

    MORAN: Oh, yeah. I remember hearing about that in my history classes at West Point. That was a time when politicians knew how to finish off the quarrels they started.

    DYSON: So, is that what we’re talking about now? Destroying Russia?

    MORAN: Don’t see how that can work without a nuclear attack. But if they can bring down the regime with sanctions, more power to ‘em. After the habitual “mission accomplished” moment they always love to stage, they’ll probably call us in to clean up the mess. That generally doesn’t go very well, but we’ll make the best of it.

    DYSON: As you always do, I guess. Well, thanks for the valuable insight. I’m very grateful.

    MORAN: You’re not going to quote me on any of this? You do and I’ll make sure every officer down to the rank of lieutenant knows your name. You’ll never get another story from the Pentagon.

    DYSON: Hey, I was only interested in your ideas. And, don’t worry, I won’t take any direct quotes or mention your name. Trust me, I work for The Washington Post.

    Disclaimer: This fictional dialogue exists for entertainment purposes only. The ideas expressed in it are totally imaginary. Its eventual inclusion in any Hollywood movie or television script will be subject to negotiating authoring rights with Fair Observer. That is nevertheless highly unlikely for the simple reason that some of the reflections in the dialogue appear to contradict the widely held beliefs spread in the propaganda that now dominates both the news media and the entertainment industry.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    How to Write New York Times Propaganda

    The Russian invasion of Ukraine has ushered the Western world into an innovative moment of history managed by the media, who aim at nothing less than erasing the public’s perception of history and historical processes. Welcome to the age of nonstop propaganda. Any curious person seeking news about the war in Ukraine, let alone its background and causes, faces the permanent challenge of determining whether whatever story they happen to be reading is news or propaganda, or more likely some kind of witch’s brew containing some of the former and a preponderance of the latter.

    For the past month, the most respectable news outlets in the West have channeled their energy into perfecting a novel journalistic phenomenon that goes well beyond traditional propaganda. It has become so concentrated it now deserves an official name. I propose calling it “Obsessive Accusatory Reporting” (OAR). The message of any item in the news meriting the OAR label is to magnify an already present feeling of confirmed hatred in the reader. In principle, it can target nations, peoples, ideas or religions. But it works best when it focuses on a single personality.

    Finding a Way to Diss Information

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    The current version of OAR began with an idea already built into the cultural woodwork of American media: the perception that Russia — whether in its historical Soviet version or in its modern post-tsarist form — is the natural and eternal enemy of the United States and, by extension, to Western civilization as a whole. Inherited from the Cold War as a set of feelings that Americans find natural, establishment Democrats in the US gave it new impetus thanks to the artificial association they managed to establish with the man they believed could play the role of a true American evildoer: Donald Trump. Now, thanks to a specific event, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the practice of OAR can focus on a universal target by whom, unlike Trump, no American should be allowed to be seduced. It’s the new Hitler, Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

    Anyone who has ever witnessed a rowing event knows that to gain speed and ensure hydrodynamic efficiency, all rowers must have their oars strike the water at the same precise moment and achieve an equivalent depth below the surface of the water as their collective effort pushes the boat and all it contains forward. This repeated, disciplined, rhythmically coordinated energy creates the inertia strokes that produce increased momentum. 

    The media’s propaganda campaigns appear to work in much the same way thanks to the equally disciplined and repeated OAR phenomenon. Obsessive repetition, the alignment of an infinite series of examples of despicable behavior and the journalistic talent for turning each example into an emotion-stirring story are the three elements that sum up the art of OAR. The momentum the media has created around hatred for the person of Vladimir Putin has become a spectacle in itself. The danger the media has no time to worry about as its effort continues developing potentially uncontrollable speed is that it may reach the point where it triggers actions leading to a potentially thermonuclear conflagration. Call it the media’s brinkmanship that multiplies the effects of politicians who themselves, persuaded it is now the key to successful electoral marketing, have turned it into an art form. Voters want their leaders to be aggressive decision-makers.

    Embed from Getty Images

    There are undoubtedly plenty of reasons to distrust, despise and morally condemn Vladimir Putin that existed well before he decided to invade Ukraine on February 24. Putin has, as befits a country ruled for a century by autocratic tsars, developed a particularly thuggish form of governing his nation. Russians at least are used to it and fatalistically accept it, with no illusion about its pretention to any form of virtue other than the ability to keep things under control. 

    Putin is clearly guilty of every sin — from brutal repression to aggravated narcissism — that accrues to anyone who achieves his level of control that embraces military power, finance and technology. His ability to repress any serious opposition and manipulate electoral processes, his commitment to cronyism and self-enrichment, and his immunity from a basic moral sense concerning the value of human life and the dignity of the average citizen constitute attributes of his office. Unlike some autocratic leaders, he also has a high level of strategic intelligence. 

    Westerners have become habituated to leaders who seek to seduce broad segments of the population thanks to slogans rather than the demonstration of their clout or the display of their intelligence, which in fact is never required and, when it exists, may get in the way of their ambition. Western political leaders focus on developing the essential skill of deploying charm to win elections. To Westerners, Putin’s style of governing marked by the arrogance of power is worse than distasteful. It challenges their own belief in the illusion they need to feel of possessing political power in a democracy thanks to their ability to vote at regular intervals. They need to imagine their vote has an impact on policy, an illusion the media encourages them to believe in. All it really does is limit the degree of repression a democratic government may get away with. Putin has no qualms or regrets about manifestly unjust actions carried out against his own people. Western democratic leaders actually worry.

    Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was unambiguously illegal, morally shocking, paradoxical to the extent that he is attacking the population he claims to wish to protect and downright brutal. It may even be self-defeating, potentially tarnishing his image as a strong leader. It would, however, be premature to draw conclusions on that last point, as many in the Western media have already started doing. But for anyone susceptible to being seduced by today’s OAR culture, the temptation to believe in the inevitable failure of Putin’s enterprise is overwhelming. For the past two weeks, Western media have been joyously proclaiming that Putin’s armed assault is on the verge of defeat. 

    Journalism and Democracy

    The traditional belief about journalism in a democracy included the idea that the press plays a role closely attuned to the interest and the voice of the people. Ideally, the media exists to provide essential information about the real world and a modicum of independent insight about the topics treated. By showing restraint and focusing on discernible facts, media in a democracy could be trusted to help citizens understand complex events and make informed decisions after drawing their own conclusions about the possible relationship between causes and effects.

    That has long been the theory concerning the role of what people still call the fourth estate, a linguistic hand-me-down from 18th century European history that designates the free press. The fourth estate was deemed to be closest to the third estate (the people, or the commoners) and furthest from the first two estates (the clergy and the nobility). The advent of democracy made the theory of the estates obsolete, to the extent that the clergy lost its status of “estate.” In reality, the totalitarian drift of the 20th century revealed that the first and second estates merged as democratic governments assumed they could project the moral authority the clergy traditionally exercised.

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    The idea of a free and independent press embodied in the fourth estate continued to persist as a necessary but increasingly intangible ideal. Alas, history tells us that whenever an ideal makes contact with reality, it is likely to become distorted. With the rise of democracy in the West in the 19th century, the press permitted the expression of variable points of view. But over time, no ethical system could prevent those voices from being influenced by political parties, commercial interests, pressure groups and the government itself. The key to honoring the ideal was variety, not just tolerance but also the encouragement of a range of views. Financial concentration eventually limited and finally captured and confined that variety.

    The media has been trapped by forces it no longer tries to control or resist. It is virtually impossible even to imagine, let alone create anything resembling the ideal news outlet for which objective presentation of the news would be the inviolable norm. Perhaps the proponents of government by artificial intelligence believe they can one day put that in place by eliminating human agency. They too are victims of an illusion because manipulative human agency can work — and in fact works best — through artificial systems that include and mechanically promote the interests that created them. This is as true of political systems as it is of computer programs. The failure of humanity to even begin addressing the impending catastrophe of global warming can simply be attributed to systemic inertia, not to the idea that no leader is willing to make an appropriate decision.

    So long as diversity in the media was still possible, truth for the public at large could emerge not from a spontaneous or enforced consensus, but through the highly interactive process of recognizing and eliminating the distortions of the reality that became visible after comparing the various representations of it. By definition, the truth about human institutions and historical facts is dynamic, organic and interactive. It is not a statement and cannot be contained in statements. It exists as a perception. Perceptions can be shared, compared or contradicted. No single perception sums up the truth.

    In the traditional democratic idea of journalism, a good article avoided explicit judgment. In many instances, the standard practice became to avoid even mentioning specific interpretations or judgments. Good reporting limited itself to acknowledging dominant perspectives on a topic without choosing to endorse one or another. In stories about crime, for example, it has become a general rule — before a verdict rendered by a court of justice — to use the epithet “alleged.” This rule holds even when there is no doubt about the existence of the crime and the identity of the author of the crime (though the real reason for this precaution may be the media’s fear of being accused of libel). In contrast, when it comes to political issues, the opposite trend dominates. Journalists or their editors now routinely jump on the occasion to name the culprit and inculcate the belief of guilt in their audience. Knowing their niche audience, it enables them to offer their public what they want to hear or understand.

    Russian Agency and the Havana Syndrome

    One prominent case in recent years illustrates how easy it is for journalists to play fast and loose concerning real or imaginary political crimes. Over a period of five years dedicated to reporting on the “Havana syndrome,” The New York Times, The Washington Post and other respectable media consistently described reported health incidents as “attacks.” That word alone presumed criminal agency, even though the reality of cause and effect was closer to a “heart attack” or “panic attack” than to an assault.

    Articles on the syndrome typically insisted that, even when no evidence could be cited of any human agency, Russia was the prime suspect. Sentences such as this one from The Washington Post were clearly intended to distort the reader’s perception: “Current and former intelligence officials have increasingly pointed a finger at Russia, which has staged multiple brazen attacks on adversaries and diplomats overseas.” It is worth noting that the only act in this sentence that should qualify as news is what the intelligence officials have done: “pointed a finger.” All the rest, the “brazen attacks,” are either imprecisely anecdotal from a random past or simply imaginary.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Five years after initially pointing fingers, those same officials finally admitted officially that there was nothing to point their finger at. When the ultimate negative assessment by the CIA itself of Russian attacks was published in January of this year, did The Post or The Times (or any other media) apologize to their readers for their erroneous reporting over the years? Obviously, not. Perhaps they felt that might oblige them to do the unthinkable: apologize to the Russians.

    When there was finally no choice left but to reveal the CIA’s negative assessment, The New York Times tried to save face by insisting that everything it had pinned its hopes on might still have an element of truth in it. “A directed energy weapon,” Julian E. Barnes wrote on January 20, “remains the hypothesis that a number of victims who have studied the incidents believe is most likely.” If that fact is true, a serious reporter would have delved into the interesting question of why the victims continue to believe something that their superiors have determined to be untrue. Does this reveal that CIA operatives and their families have lost their trust in the truthfulness of the agency? The rest of us are left wondering why journalists like Barnes himself think it necessary to print such meaningless observations as significant facts.

    Now that the entire thesis of Russian-directed energy attacks has been discredited, a new article delving into the motivation of intelligence officials who made repeated unfounded claims might prove informative. But, miraculously, there are no new articles on the Havana syndrome, except maybe the article you are now reading. But none in The Times or The Post. With hindsight — something the legacy press studiously avoids — the articles of these papers appear to reveal the equivalent of “brazen attacks,” not by Russians but by US intelligence services. They were attacks on the public’s access to the truth. The journalists were simply willing conscious or unconscious accomplices in these brazen attacks. What this entire episode truly reveals is a lesson in how our culture of hyperreality works. It depends entirely on the media.

    Finally, a Serious Case of a Brazen Attack: Ukraine

    This inevitably brings us back to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This time, Russia is indeed guilty of a brazen attack that isn’t an imaginary hypothesis dreamed up by intelligence operatives. Nevertheless, the media have turned it into something far more brazen by systematically excluding or ignoring other less brazen but equally troubling attacks that have been going on for years. They include a decidedly brazen coup d’état in Ukraine supported, if not engineered, by the United States in 2014.

    The carefully managed act of regime change in which the US gratefully accepted the assistance of neo-Nazi extremists to produce the commensurate level of violence used the deposition of one democratically elected leader to enable the comforting fiction that the two Ukrainian presidents elected since those events — Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky — are somehow more legitimate than the president overthrown in the Maidan Revolution. That fiction depends on discarding the fact that Ukraine is not just another “sovereign nation” of Europe, but a historically, culturally and linguistically divided country that also has a conflicting but highly charged symbolic meaning for both Russia, its next-door neighbor, and the United States, a distant hegemon that has used NATO to spread its military dominance across Europe.

    Most reasonable and reasoning people admit the principle that complex political entities such as Ukraine require delicate diplomatic treatment. But, as the Bush wars revealed, US foreign policy rarely acknowledges the need for rationality. Even basic diplomacy appears to be inconsistent with the culture of enforced hegemony. At best, it might serve the purpose of catastrophe avoidance. But catastrophes are increasingly welcomed rather than avoided. Instead, we can observe a growing trend of catastrophe provocation that is difficult to explain, since the cost is heavy even for the perpetrators. For the US, it appears to have something to do with the idea that world hegemony is the only possible source of global stability and that catastrophes such as war are somehow good for business (which of course they are, but not for everyone’s or even most people’s business).

    In such a geopolitical environment, propaganda becomes a way of life and serves as the core activity in the construction of public culture. Selecting the facts the public will react to in a predictable way according to the interest of those who understand the secrets of geopolitical stability has become the basis of legacy journalism in the US. The ultimately comic example of the Havana syndrome perhaps served as a kind of temporary placeholder in times of relative peace. It upheld the mythological construct of a permanent Cold War, which seems to be essential in the definition of US foreign policy. Now that things have become seriously degraded in a nation that journalists have begun calling the “civilized” part of the world — meaning that it is worth being concerned about, in contrast with the Middle East, Asia and Africa — propaganda has to focus not on pure hallucinatory hyperreality but events that are taking place in the real world.

    Embed from Getty Images

    We are only beginning to see the dominant strategies involved. It is too early to assess them with any historical distance. What we are witnessing is the need to whip up the blind hatred that leads to the OAR phenomenon described earlier. But there is also a more basic approach that applies especially to situations that are historically and culturally complex. It includes the decision to forget to mention or even categorically deny the obvious for as long as possible. When the obvious does become visible, thanks to the indiscipline of some rare investigators interested in the truth, the strategy consists of devising ways of downplaying it and treating it as marginal.

    The Neo-Nazi Syndrome

    When Putin launched his assault on Ukraine, he defined a mission of denazification of Ukraine. He may have presumed that all Westerners can relate to that theme. Nazis are, after all, the personification of historical evil. So, if we can agree on a common enemy, we should at the very least offer one another friendly support. Putin apparently underestimated the Westerners’ ability to remain ignorant of very real and already documented facts, thanks to the deliberate forgetfulness of their media. Not only did commentators laugh at the notion that a neo-Nazi threat existed in Ukraine, they mocked the idea that it could exist in a nation whose president is Jewish.

    Four weeks into the war, The New York Times has published an article acknowledging that the neo-Nazi question is worth mentioning. The article bears the title, “Why Vladimir Putin Invokes Nazis to Justify His Invasion of Ukraine.” The title alone is extremely clever. It focuses attention not on the Nazis, who are never seriously identified, but on Vladimir Putin, whom Times readers understand as being evil incarnate. The first sentence reads as pure mockery of phrases Putin has used. “Ukraine’s government,” Anton Troianovski writes, ”is ‘openly neo-Nazi’ and ‘pro-Nazi,’ controlled by ‘little Nazis,’ President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia says.”

    The implication is that if Putin said it, it must be a lie. It is only in the 12th paragraph of the article that the question of the actual presence and actions of neo-Nazis in Ukraine is even grudgingly entertained. “Like many lies,” the paragraph begins, “Mr. Putin’s claim about a Nazi-controlled Ukraine has a hall-of-mirrors connection to reality.” Ah, Troianovski appears to admit, there is a connection to reality, but of course it is hopelessly distorted, like a fun park’s hall of mirrors.

    The following paragraph attempts to convince the reader that the phenomenon is so marginal there is definitely nothing to worry about. “Some fringe nationalist groups, who have no representation in Parliament, use racist rhetoric and symbolism associated with Nazi Germany.” In other words, talk of neo-Nazis is all fiction.

    Many paragraphs later, Troianovski reveals the real reason why this article of clarification became necessary for The Times rather than simply neglecting to mention neo-Nazis. It’s the fault of Facebook, which created something of a scandal when it “said it was making an exception to its anti-extremism policies to allow praise for Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion military unit, ‘strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard.’” The Russians seized on this as proof of complicity between the Ukrainian resistance and the neo-Nazis. To counter dangerous Russian propaganda, The Times is stepping up to clarify the issue, even though it would have preferred not having to mention it.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Unfortunately, the article spends paragraph after paragraph clarifying nothing. It somewhat precipitously ends with a quote about how Jews are now among those fleeing the war. Some of them may never return, implying that Putin’s intent of denazifying Ukraine is in itself a deviously anti-Semitic act. This reversal of perception of blame illustrates one of the key techniques of New York Times-style propaganda. The journalist finds a devious way of turning the supposedly moral motivation of the enemy into its opposite.

    Troianovski briefly hints at the uncomfortable paradox that Israel has refused to condemn Russia, a fact that might comfort the idea of Putin’s concern with neo-Nazis. But the journalist leaves that question aside, apparently convinced that the subtlety of that debate unnecessarily complicates his mission as an OAR specialist focused only on highlighting Putin’s evil nature. Surprisingly for those familiar with modern Ukrainian history, Troianovski has the honesty to mention the historical Nazi sympathizer and Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera, still celebrated by many Ukrainians.

    Troianovski even has the merit of providing a link to a fascinatingly instructive 2010 Times article, written at a time when the paper had no particular commitment to churning out propaganda in the interests of celebrating Ukraine’s democratic purity and constitutional integrity. The author of that article, Clifford J. Levy, highlights the problem that Viktor Yanukovych was facing as he bravely attempted “to address the ethnic, regional and historical passions that divide the country.” Yanukovych was, of course, the Ukrainian president that Victoria Nuland helped to depose in 2014.

    Understanding the Culture of Propaganda by Comparing The Times in 2010 and 2022

    All New York Times readers and indeed all American journalists owe it to themselves and the sanity of the world we live in to read Levy’s article from 2010, if only to compare it to the image of Ukraine that American media are putting forward today of a unified people, imbued with liberal European values and united in their hatred of tyranny in all its forms. Levy’s article that applies the now-forgotten practices of straightforward journalism presents facts, cites contrasting points of view — including admirers of Bandera — and takes no sides. In so doing, it gives a clear picture of a terrifyingly complex social and historical situation that Western media have decided to simplify to the extreme in their wish to follow the dictates of US President Joe Biden’s State Department.  

    Any objective observer today, however rare their voices are in the media, must realize, as Barack Obama did in 2016, according to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, that “Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one.” Obama’s State Department that sent Nuland to Ukraine to manage the Maidan Revolution appeared at the time unaware of what Goldberg called the “Obama Doctrine.” That same objective observer should also be aware of the fact that the Ukraine described by Levy in his 2010 article still exists, despite the State Department’s 2014 coup d’état. There is much more about the history of the last eight years and beyond that, despite the terrifying consequences playing out day after day, US and Western media have now chosen to studiously ignore, if not suppress.

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    One salient point that readers of Levy’s article will relate to today, however, is the remark of the director of the Stepan Bandera museum in Lviv: “For Ukrainian nationalists, there is no such word as capitulation.” That is even truer when those same nationalists dispose of a billion dollars worth of American weaponry to keep the war of resistance going as long as possible. The citizenry of Western Ukraine will follow the lead of the nationalists — not all of whom are neo-Nazis — and refuse to capitulate, while suffering what deserves to be called severe if not sadistic cultural, political and military abuse from two enemies fighting a proxy war on their land: Russia and the United States.

    But if the continuing destruction of Ukrainian cities and loss of thousands of lives is the price to pay for the pleasure of reading reams of Obsessive Accusatory Reporting, then, as Madeleine Albright might say, “the price is worth it.”

    ​​The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    The Great Fever Misconception

    Yes or no? On or off? Zero or one? Binary is simple, and simple is good. It facilitates decision-making, especially in a crisis like a pandemic. After all, either you have COVID-19 or you don’t. If you have COVID, then you are infectious and should isolate to avoid spreading it. On the other hand, if you don’t have COVID, you can’t infect anyone else, no matter how closely you associate with them. Of course, the tricky part is determining whether or not someone has COVID.

    The PCR test is the gold standard for determining if a person has COVID-19. It’s a very good test that gives us the yes-or-no binary information that we value so much for making decisions. Unfortunately, the test is not always readily available and it’s also expensive. And timing is critical. If you take the test too soon after you are infected, the virus may not have yet traveled to your nose where the sample is taken, and thus the result may be a false negative — you have COVID but the test indicates you don’t. Also, it often takes time in a laboratory to process the results — will you isolate or carry on while you’re waiting?

    COVID Failure: A Matter of Principle

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    Finally, what would prompt you to get a COVID test? Perhaps some event prompts you or requires a test by policy, but otherwise, you might take a test because you feel sick. If so, you already know you may be infectious. In that case, a positive COVID test merely confirms what you already suspect, and you normally get that confirmation a couple of days too late to do any good. Despite our heavy reliance on testing, it’s not as simple or as timely as we would like for deciding when to isolate.

    We’ve had another way to separate the healthy from the sick during the COVID-19 pandemic: symptoms. For example, if you have a fever, then you may be infectious. But temperature-based screening has not been very effective at all, and a big reason why is that the US government has historically defined fever as 100.4°F (38°C) or above. If a person’s body temperature is 100.3°F, then according to the government, that person does not have a fever. Does that make sense?

    Unfortunately, one of the distinguishing characteristics of COVID is the tendency of many infected people to have mild or even unnoticeable symptoms, including only slightly elevated body temperature, below 100.4°F. So, the government’s definition of “fever,” although simple and binary, has only confused the situation. Some people who were asymptomatic with COVID-19 took their temperature, found it to be below 100.4°F and assumed they did not have a fever. So, they carried on with normal day-to-day activities, often infecting others. Temperature-based screening systems typically use the government’s 100.4°F fever threshold, and, as a result, failed to prevent entry by many infected persons. Relying on the government’s 100.4°F fever definition has contributed to the spread of COVID-19. Where did this government standard come from, how can it be improved, and why has the US resisted change?

    © Douglas Dyer

    Origins of 100.4°F

    In 1868, a German physician, psychiatrist and medical professor named Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich published a paper describing his assessment that normal body temperature is relatively constant, varies from 97.9°F to 99.3°F (36.6°C to 37.4°C), and averages 98.6°F (37°C). He found that patients with a disease often exhibited a symptom of fever that he found to average at or above 100.4°F. He based these findings on 1 million temperature measurements for 25,000 patients.

    For the time, this scientific result was quite remarkable, and it changed medicine forever because it gave physicians the newfound ability to objectively assess the presence and severity of many diseases. However, Wunderlich’s patients were mostly German rather than being from different cultures, his thermometer may have been less accurate than those we have today, and people are a little different now than they were then.

    These are reasons to suspect that Wunderlich’s ideas of normal body temperature and fever are somewhat different today than they were in the mid-1800s. But, to be fair, Wunderlich observed differences in temperature based on many variables when healthy, and he advised that temperature averages have many “shades of gray.” In particular, Wunderlich noted that even smaller rises in temperature are cause for concern, and that there is no definite temperature threshold over which a person transitions from health to sickness. He said that any “elevation of the axillary [under the arm] temperature above 99.5°F (37.5°C) or any depression below 97.2°F (36.5°C) is always very suspicious.” He added: “But even when every precaution has been taken in making the observations, it is impossible to draw a hard and fast line to indicate by temperature the exact limits of health and disease.”

    © Douglas Dyer

    Today, clinical research suggests that Wunderlich’s findings should be revisited, that the normal temperature range varies by the individual, and that there is no arbitrary fever threshold that works for everyone. Yet, the US government and some medical experts still regard 98.6°F as normal body temperature and 100.4°F or above as a fever. For COVID019, this is simple, easy and, for most people, wrong.

    Improving on 100.4°F as a Fever Threshold

    If you’re interested in seeing if 100.4°F is an appropriate fever threshold for you, try taking your temperature. Use a normal, digital, under-the-tongue thermometer for at least 60 seconds. Make sure you haven’t consumed anything for 15 minutes — a hot or cold drink or food will change your measurement. Keep your mouth closed during the reading. Assuming you are healthy, if your temperature is below 98.6°F, then it’s a good bet that your fever threshold is under 100.4°F.

    If you were to take your temperature every day, preferably in the morning when you first wake, you would see that your normal temperature varies in a range of one degree or so. For example, in the image below is the normal temperature data for a person we’ll call JRDA5.

    © Douglas Dyer

    From this graph, we can see that JRDA5’s normal body temperature varies from 96.6°F to 97.4°F when healthy, and you can expect your own normal temperature to vary also.

    In modern medicine, a fever is understood to be a temperature elevation above a person’s normal range. This definition of fever is more accurate than an arbitrary fever threshold like 100.4°F that is based on population averages and data from 150 years ago. A person’s normal temperature range depends on many factors such as age, sex, nutrition and level of activity, and so different people will have different fever thresholds.

    Almost always, a fever threshold defined as above your normal temperature range is below 100.4°F. Therefore, if we use this new definition, there is significant potential for identifying sick people using temperature-based screening. Relying on 100.4°F is insufficient for identifying mild, pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

    Why the Government Has Resisted Changing the Definition of “Fever”

    A pandemic is not the best time for complicated methods. Perhaps the US government chose to stick with 100.4°F for simplicity and consistency. But, in this pandemic, nothing has been simple. We’ve learned to take advantage of vaccines that need boosting, tests that need repeating and symptoms that keep changing. People can figure out their normal temperature range and their own personal fever threshold if that means effective screening. Having a fever or not is still binary, even if we define fever as above your normal range. It’s still pretty simple.

    Elevated temperature is not definitive proof you have COVID-19. We all like certainty, and the PCR test will remain the gold standard for COVID. But we don’t need certainty to make a decision to isolate. A fever should prompt isolation, even though it may not be caused by COVID. The next step is to get tested and then wait for the results. We can stop the pandemic if people isolate if they get a fever. Fever is the most timely indicator we may be infectious.

    Asymptomatic cases may not exhibit any elevated temperature, so we cannot depend on temperature screening anyway. It’s possible that there are some people infected with COVID-19 who do not have any fever, perhaps because their immune system doesn’t work at all. However, we know that many asymptomatic cases are accompanied by elevated body temperature lower than 100.4°F. We can catch those people using the more correct definition of fever. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

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    People hate change and the government is no different. It takes a lot to pass federal legislation and to modify federal regulations. But the government’s 100.4°F fever threshold isn’t working. The effort to change will help us control the pandemic.

    How Redefining “Fever” Helps

    Since the omicron variant of COVID-19 emerged, we’ve seen increased demand for testing, with many people standing in line for hours waiting to get a test. In the United States, the government has been ordering more tests to address the shortages. However, the demand for testing can evidently overrun our testing resources. By using a more accurate definition of “fever,” people will have a better idea of when they need to get tested. Today, about 75% of tests come back negative. We have clinical evidence that fever and other readily available health data can predict test results. By redefining “fever,” we can make testing more efficient.

    We can also monitor our health every day, conveniently, in our own homes. We can’t afford to give everyone a daily PCR test, and hardly anyone wants that anyway. In contrast, it’s easy, fast and affordable to take our temperature every day. It’s a smart, safe way to help keep our friends and family safe and do our part to fight the pandemic. A lot of people would self-monitor if they knew it would help.

    The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 evidently mutates easily, giving rise to variants, and we don’t expect that to change. It’s possible there are already variants that are not caught by current tests. Redefining “fever” can help identify cases that PCR tests miss. So far, fever is a symptom of all variants. More broadly, fever is a symptom of many other infectious illnesses, such as the flu. Isolating when you have a fever is appropriate for new variants and other viruses to help prevent the spread and keep everyone safer.

    It’s high time for the government to redefine “fever” as body temperature above a person’s normal, healthy range. With a more accurate definition, temperature-based screening can be a powerful new tool for fighting the pandemic — and one well-suited to use by anyone, at home and in time to make a difference. Americans want to help fight the pandemic. It’s about time the government helps them do just that.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More