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LETTER FROM AN AMERICAN
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON
20 JULY 2024

WSJ REPORTER SENTENCED TO 16 YEARS IN RUSSIA FOR "ESPIONAGE"

Today a Russian court sentenced 32-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich to 16 years in a high-security penal colony after convicting him of espionage in a secret three-day trial. The U.S. government considers Gershkovich "wrongly detained," a rare designation signifying that he is being held as a political bargaining chip.

Today, President Joe Biden said that Gershkovich was "targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American. We are pushing hard for Evan's release and will continue to do so." He added: "Journalism is not a crime. We will continue to stand strong for press freedom in Russia and worldwide, and stand against all those who seek to attack the press or target journalists."

Last night, a faulty update of software from cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike crashed computer systems all over the world. Banks and hospitals were locked out of their own programs, and government services shut down. In the U.S., more than 2,600 flights were canceled and 9,000 were delayed. Bloomberg's David Rovella quoted Australian security consultant Troy Hunt: "I don't think it's too early to call it," Hunt said. "This will be the largest IT outage in history."

Also making history last night was the final night of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the night on which former president Donald J. Trump accepted the party's presidential nomination. Coming as it did just days after a would-be assassin took a shot at Trump at a rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, killing one attendee and badly wounding two others, the convention was billed by Republican operatives as a way for Trump to rebrand himself as a candidate of "unity."

This was certainly the way many major newspapers billed Trump's acceptance speech this morning, in stories that, as media journalist Parker Molloy noted, were probably based on prepared remarks delivered to news agencies in advance of the speech. But it was not how the evening played out.

Since Saturday's shooting, it has been notable that there has not been a medical review of Trump's injuries, although he has said he was injured by a bullet that ripped through his ear. This matters not only because of the extent of his injuries, but also because Trump has made the story part of his identity without any fact check, and the media appears simply to be letting it go on Trump's say-so, something that adds to the sense that media outlets are treating Trump and Biden differently.

Last night, Trump perhaps tried to address this lack by recounting last Saturday's shooting. Interestingly, he did not say he was hit by a bullet, but that when he felt the injury he thought, "it can only be a bullet." Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo today noted a report from local Pennsylvania television station WPXI that four motorcycle officers standing within feet of Trump suffered minor injuries from flying debris. Trump has likely cut off further discussion of the topic by saying it is too painful to tell the story again.

With that story behind him, Trump hit the theme of unity, saying he would bring the country together. "The discord and division in our society must be healed, we must heal it quickly. We are bound together by a single fate, a single destiny," he said. "We rise together. Or we fall apart.... I am running to be president for all of America, not half of America, because there is no victory in winning for half of America. So tonight, with faith and devotion, I proudly accept your nomination for president of the United States."

But that was just in the first ten minutes. Then Trump ignored the teleprompter and things veered far off course, reflecting the candidate that has stayed in the safe spaces of Mar-a-Lago and rallies of his loyalists for years. Trump rambled for more than 90 minutes, making it the longest acceptance speech in U.S. history and outlasting the interest of the audience, some of whom fell asleep.

He went on to recite his usual litany of lies: that Democrats cheated in the 2020 presidential election (they did not), that crime is going up (it's plummeting), that inflation is the worst we've ever had (it's around 3 percent; the worst was around 23 percent), that Democrats want to quadruple people's taxes (CNN fact checker Daniel Dale calls this "imaginary"), and so on. Dale called it "a remarkably dishonest acceptance speech."

Journalist James Fallows posted: "Of the maybe 10,000 political speeches I've heard over the years, this was overall the worst." Statistician Nate Silver's judgment was harsher, in a way: he began with "It's a weird but a pretty good speech," then posted "Semi-retract this tweet, this speech is boring AF, but there are worse things politically speaking than being boring." Shortly after, came: "Fully RETRACT and RESCIND, sometimes it seems like both parties are trying to throw this election."

MSNBC's Chris Hayes watched the unhinged speech and concluded: "This is not a colossus, this is not the big bad wolf, this is not a vigorous and incredibly deft political communicator. This is an old man in decline who's been doing the same schtick for a very long time and it's really wearing thin."

The point, though, as Trump meandered through attacks on immigrants and a diatribe about the fictional character cannibal Hannibal Lecter -- who he might think was real -- as it always has been, was to present a picture of the U.S. under siege by enemies who are persecuting him because he represents true Americans and that he must be returned to office because only he can vanquish those enemies. Greg Sargent of The New Republic noted that Trump cannot offer a "unity" message because "Trump himself knows the MAGA masses will not be satiated without expansive displays of rage, cruelty and sadism directed at hated out groups and designated enemies of MAGA."

For years, observers have noted that Trump's approach to politics is patterned on the "kayfabe" at the heart of professional wrestling. Kayfabe is the performance aspect of professional wrestling, in which the actors play out relationships and scenes in which there are good and evil, love and hate, loyalty and betrayal. According to journalist Abraham Josephine Reisman, in old-school kayfabe the actors never let their masks slip, and while the audience knew what they were seeing must be fake, they played along with the illusion.

But in the 1990s, the barrier between reality and illusion blurred as wrestlers and promoters tried to increase the viability of the fading industry by tossing reality into the performances: real-life insults -- the more outrageous the better -- and real-life events. Decoding what was real and what was not drove engagement until in 1999, an estimated 18 percent of Americans, about 50 million people, called themselves fans. This # "neokayfabe," Reisman wrote in the New York Times in 2023, "rests on a slippery, ever-wobbling jumble of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods, all delivered with the utmost passion and commitment."

Neokayfabe, Reisman wrote, "turns the world into a hall of mirrors from which it is nearly impossible to escape. It rots the mind and eats the soul."

Trump participated in a storyline in this neokayfabe with World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon in 2007, in part billed as a battle over hair. Eventually he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and many observers have made the link between neokayfabe and his approach to politics. Indeed, he even blended the two explicitly when he chose McMahon's wife, Linda, to head the U.S. Small Business Administration during his presidency.

Neokayfabe and politics came together again last night at the Republican National Convention, as Linda McMahon, wrestler Hulk Hogan, and musician Kid Rock, whose music has been featured at wrestling events and who is also a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, all participated.

"So all you criminals, all you lowlifes, all you scumbags.... Whatcha gonna do when Donald Trump and all the Trumpamaniacs run wild on you, brother?!" Hogan yelled to wild applause after ripping off his shirt to show a Trump-Vance shirt. Like the other performers at the convention, he painted a portrait of Trump's presidency, and of the United States since Trump left office, that was a fantasy of good and evil. Hogan reinforced that there was no way Trump was going to reach toward unity in Milwaukee. His approach to the world cannot be moderated. It depends on the idea that there are two teams in the performance and one must vanquish the other.

Part of that storyline requires rewriting not just the recent past, but our history. At the convention last night, Donald Trump Jr.'s fiancee, Kimberly Guilfoyle, said: "It is no wonder that the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy and faced down communism sadly say they don't recognize our country anymore." But the Allied soldiers in World War II were not fighting communism. They were fighting fascism. The three great Allied powers were Great Britain, the United States, and the communist Soviet Union.

It might be that Guilfoyle misspoke, or that she doesn't know even the most basic facts of our history. Or it might be that by rewriting that history to put America on the side of the fascists, people like Guilfoyle hope to make that alliance more palatable to MAGA followers today.


LETTER FROM WASHINGTON,D.C.
FRANK BERNHEISAL
15 JUNE 2024

THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY ON KIDS

I have spent the weekend struggling mightily with a new manuscript and have had little time to study the news.

The most notable event from the day is that in a stunning upset, French voters have rejected members of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally party in legislative elections. After the first round of votes, National Rally candidates appeared to be comfortably ahead, but left-wing and centrist candidates combined forces to prevent splitting the vote, and voters then flooded the polls to elect the candidates that coalition fielded.

Le Pen has said her policies are the same ones advanced by Russian president Vladimir Putin and former president Trump.

On Thursday, elections in the United Kingdom saw a landslide victory for the center-left Labour Party for the first time in 14 years. Lauren Frayer and Fatima Al-Kassab of NPR noted that it was the worst defeat for the Conservatives in their almost 200-year history.

There are always many factors that go into any election, but these results at least raise the question of whether western politicians are finding effective ways to counter the techniques of Russian disinformation. France has been flooded with Russian disinformation trying to create divisions in society as Putin seeks to break European support for Ukraine. Russia openly supports Le Pen.

The U.K. also has been similarly flooded with Russian disinformation for years now. Russian trolls lie on social media websites and populate the comments sections of popular websites both to end support for Ukraine and to exploit wedge issues to split people apart.

These efforts were part of what Russian political theorists called "political technology": the construction of a virtual political reality through modern media. Political theorists developed several techniques in this approach to politics: blackmailing opponents, abusing state power to help favored candidates, sponsoring "double" candidates with names similar to those of opponents in order to confuse voters on the other side and thus open the way for their own candidates, creating false parties to split the opposition, and, finally, creating a false narrative around an election or other event in order to control public debate.

These techniques perverted democracy, turning it from the concept of voters choosing their leaders into the concept of voters rubber-stamping the leaders they had been manipulated into backing.

This system made sense in former Soviet republics, where it enabled leaders to avoid the censorship that voters would recoil from by instead creating a firehose of news until people became overwhelmed by the task of trying to figure out what was real and simply tuned out. But those techniques dovetailed with the rhetoric of homegrown far-right figures as well.

It has always been a question what people who have embraced a virtual world will do when they figure out that the narrative on which they have based their government is fake. It seems possible that they create centrist coalitions and turn out to vote in huge numbers to reassert control over their politics and their country.

The United States has had a similarly contentious relationship with political technology, Russian disinformation, and far-right leaders echoing that disinformation as they seek to take power by dividing the American people.

And long before anyone had begun to call disinformation political technology, the United States had a small group of elite enslavers seeking to take control of the nation by hammering on their narrative that the only true basis for society was racial slavery and using racism to divide their opponents.

When they managed to get Congress and the Supreme Court to give them the right to move slavery into the American West, where new slave states could work with southern slave states to make slavery national, voters woke up. Disagreeing about immigration, internal improvements, public education, tariffs, and finance -- all hot-button issues in the 1850s -- they nonetheless built a centrist coalition to stop elite enslavers from replacing democracy with an oligarchy.

Indeed, their coalition was so effective that Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had sponsored the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that permitted enslavement to move west, objected that it was unseemly for abolitionists who opposed human enslavement in principle to work with those like Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, who focused on the Constitution and argued that it protected enslavement in the slave states.

In 1854, Lincoln answered Douglas: "Our Senator...objects that those who oppose him in this measure do not entirely agree with one another.... [H]e...says it is not quite fair to oppose him in this variety of ways. He should remember that he took us by surprise -- astounded us -- by this measure. We were thunderstruck and stunned; and we reeled and fell in utter confusion. But we rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach -- a scythe a pitchfork -- a chopping axe, or a butcher's cleaver. We struck in the direction of the sound; and we are rapidly closing in upon him. He must not think to divert us from our purpose, by showing us that our drill, our dress, and our weapons, are not entirely perfect and uniform. When the storm shall be past, he shall find us still Americans; no less devoted to the continued Union and prosperity of the country than heretofore."

Six years later, that coalition of voters elected Lincoln to the White House.

The French elections left no party in an absolute majority, so governance will be messy. Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez nonetheless cheered tonight's results: "This week, two of the largest countries in Europe have chosen the same path that Spain chose a year ago: rejection of the extreme right and a decisive commitment to a social left that addresses people's problems with serious and brave policies," Sánchez posted on social media.

"The United Kingdom and France have said YES to progress and social advancement and NO to the regression in rights and freedoms. There is no agreement or government with the extreme right."


The Brooking Institution held a discussion of screens and children's well-being, which covered the latest evidence of technology's impact on mental health and education. As we know, children are increasingly accessing technology both in and out of classrooms.

The impact this has on children's development and education is important for everyone, from caregivers to educators to policymakers, to understand. Recent evidence shows that for children with unrestricted access to technology the impacts can be detrimental.

In 2023, the OECD found that 45 percent of students surveyed across 85 countries felt nervous or anxious when their "phones were not near them" and students who spent over five hours on digital devices per day scored 49 points less in math. Over 65 percent of students with access to technology during class reported being distracted by it during lesson time.

The link is to two back-to-back panel discussions on the subject. One of the panelists is Michael Rich whose recent book, The Mediatrician's Guide: A Joyful Approach to Raising Healthy, Smart, Kind Kids in a Screen-Saturated World, has gotten great reviews. Also, a panelist is Phil McRae, an education manager in Alberta, Canada where they are banning cell phones in classrooms.

The discussions take an hour and a half, worth the listen.

Frank

https://www.brookings.edu/events/screens-and-childrens-wellbeing-the- latest-evidence-of-technologys-impact-on-mental-health-and-education/

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