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May 30, 2017

Paranoid Mind + Social Media=Trumpism

Many people on the liberal side of American politics imagine Trump wrongly. They imply that this is simply the last ditch surge of the primitive consciousness; a rear guard fights of the traditional enemy – racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia. However they underestimate the newness of the phenomenon, which I for simplicity will call trumpism (there is a number of very similar things across Europe, including the latter years Putinism).

The paranoid mind existed for a long time. For a broad historical overview, see the influential Richard Hofstadter’s essay (1964). However, the radical democratization of information offered the old virus a new and extraordinary efficient vehicle, the social media. Conspiracy theories have always existed in obscure books and magazines. As Ivan Smirnov, a doc student from Moscow had noticed, the cost of producing a lie is much lower than the cost of rebuking it. To verify his claim, just search for seth rich death in your Facebook. You will see what kinds of sharing power to conspiratorial claims have. Search Google for clinton pedophile ring and you will get 1.5 millions of hits – on a completely fictional story. The economics of the paranoid mind are vastly different now.

In addition, the Russian intelligence have exploited this new economics of paranoia to weaponize the social media. After 2014, their choice was either to erect a Russian equivalent of the great Chinese firewall, or try something different. They succeeded in severely curtailing the anti-government discourse in the domestic social media through a combination of fake news and paid trolls. Everyone who lived in Russia in 2014-16 could see it happening. The Russians created multiple memes mocking liberalism, feminism, democratic institutions, multiculturalism, and picturing the general demise of the Western civilization. Many of those memes they appropriated from the Western right-wing political discourse. They won by flooding the social media with huge volumes of informational crap, with millions of supporters gobbling it up and spreading it further.

Almost at the same time, the Russian intelligence exported the new infowar techniques to the West. RT, the TV propaganda channel, received many millions of dollars in additional financing. If I recall correctly, in about 2014 their budget increased seven-fold. It became an anchor generating and spreading fake news, arguments, and memes. It is unclear whether the Macedonian shop had Russian connections, or it is independent. The Russian enterprise for undermining democratic institutions have found eager supporters among American and European Alt-Right types. It is debatable how much influence did the Russian intelligence really had on American elections; I cannot imagine it was much. However, the Russian intelligence community can certainly claim much credit for invention of the new vehicle for the old paranoid virus. I have to admit, begrudgingly, it was a brilliant move; it is much more sophisticated – and dangerous - than the Chinese wall technique.

Russians aside, the mainstream conservative establishment in the US has woken up to the opportunities of new weaponry. They are learning quickly, Seth Rich story being a recent example. The liberal side remains blissfully unaware, to the large extent. Liberals still try to fight the old mass media wars, with limited success. In general, they underestimate the newness of the challenge, believing, falsely, that this is still the old enemy.

The response cannot be symmetrical. Liberals cannot produce their own kind of conspiratorial garbage. First, because it does not work on liberals who tend to be more critical thinkers. And second, because it smells bad. A huge responsibility lies with the social media and search platforms themselves. Google started to do something, while Facebook and Twitter are just beginning to realize how they have been hijacked and used. They need to wake up and develop an immune system, so the virus does not just spread freely.

To be honest, we do not really have an answer to the new challenge yet. At least, I have not seen one. This is where our intellectual resources should go – we must figure out a response, otherwise trumpism wins. I only know that the old and proven things like more education, more rational discourse, more honest mass media, more critical thinking – they do not work. In social media, we tend to isolate ourselves into our neat liberal islands, and have no idea how to affect those other islands where the paranoid mind virus is raging.

May 22, 2017

California is the world’s future

That’s what I was thinking while shaking hundreds of Sac State’s graduates’ hands on Saturday. This is not my idea, and is somewhat of a cliché, but we discover the truth of each cliché individually. Let me say this again – if you want to know how the world is going to look like in the foreseeable future, come visit the Golden State. It is multicultural, multiracial, tolerant, energetic, and colorful. It is not a utopia; far from it. There is still inequality and poverty, conflict and homelessness. However, it is also comfortably liberal, environment-conscious society, with the broad acceptance of social safety net. It is a place, where people don’t blink when a man at a party introduces his husband, and a woman introduced her wife. Nobody tenses up when she hears my accent. “Where you are from” is a curious, but a small detail about you; it won’t define you, unless you want it to define you. That may be perhaps a fifth question in a first conversation, if it comes up at al.

We do not really have a good word for the non-White population. “Minority” does not really do it anymore; not just because of the numbers. It is no longer the game where White people include, or tolerate, or embrace, or celebrate the others; where they are the agents of doing something to or with the others. Nope, the White folks found themselves to be just one of the tribes, along with several others - just as strong and capable - and are not quite sure what to do with that. Just an FYI, after Hawaii, DC, and New Mexico, California has the lowest share of White population – 39% versus 62.6% nationally.

California is going through a massive social experiment. President Nelsen asked all those who are first generation in College to stand up, and it looked like half of graduates got up. The experiment is in moving large and diverse underclass into the middle class by the means of education, mostly. It may seem like too high, but still, community colleges in California are the least expensive in the country. 4-year colleges’ in-state tuition is in the middle of the list, but California is the third wealthiest state by median household income. The State had built a vast and effective educational social lift. As I was listening to the names of our graduates, I tried to place each name by its ethnic origin. It represents the entire planet. The list of names itself is a powerful futuristic document, almost like the Star Trek’s list of characters. For many families, teaching is the first step in the multi-generational ladder to success, and it feels good to be a part of the epic move.

Yes, I know, I did not mention the Silicon Valley – I think the scope of the social changes is much larger and much more important than the scope of technological changes. These two are connected, because in the future economy, the uneducated lower class has very slim chances of success. However, on Saturday, I was impressed not by cellphones, but by the kids that hold them.

May 15, 2017

Faculty, Not for rent

Every semester, the equivalent of at least three full-time tenured faculty members are released to work on various grants and projects. Only a small number of these is officially “ours.” We receive no indirect revenues, and very little recognition for such projects. Many others work on overload or in summers: on other colleges and organizations’ grants, as individual consultants, etc. In theory, this is a positive thing for us. Our name gets recognition, we cultivate relationships, help the community in many ways. Yet the situation is far from ideal. It looks like we’re renting our faculty out for cheap, and do not capitalize on their work. Faculty is by far the most valuable resource we have, and we need to find a way of leveraging it. In very simple terms, we need to build a brand in the world of consulting services, and build a revenue stream that can be used to further invest in faculty.

Here is what should happen. When someone asks you to help (consult, train, evaluate, speak), you would say – talk to my business manager. We will negotiate a higher rate for you, take care of financials (so you don’t worry about your taxes), link your project with others, and let you use existing resources and materials, use the project to promote the College’s brand, to build a wider client base, and sell other services to it. We will also figure out a way to convert your one-time gig into a product that can be offered to a wider market.

Of course, we will always have projects not for fame or money, but because we want to help. This is totally fine. However I have discovered that sometimes another organization actually does receive significant funds, does get the recognition, does enhance its image, and we’re just helping them (and the public) altruistically. We can be altruistic to underprivileged children, but not to a consulting firm, or to a publishing house, or to another state agency. What I have learned over the years is that if someone can get you to work for cheap, they will thank you, but won’t respect you.

To get there, we, of course, need to build such a capacity, to develop the incentive for faculty to go through the College, rather than go it alone. However, we will also need a change in faculty attitude. Because, let’s be honest, you are invited to consult in part because you work at Sac State, not just because you are so brilliant. And I have a hunch that most of you have little business acumen, and don't really know what your services are worth, or how they can be sold differently. We may have to forgo some really cheap gigs in favor of more advanced, more complex, and more expensive services. However, to get to that kind of reputation, we need to band together, be strategic, and play hardball.

Every grant we’re involved in must be more than just a pass-through. From every one of them, we need to retain something tangible and valuable: a curriculum project, a consulting product, a publication, a new measurable expertise, an opportunity to promote our College, something.

May 8, 2017

The House of Cards Syndrome

Over the years, I have found a couple of simple tests to find people who I can ask for advice and who make good leaders. The most important is this: can you support an idea what comes from someone you dislike? The other side of the same test is similar: can you oppose some ideas that come from your friends, or from your boss?

Here is how it goes: I speak with a perfectly reasonable, and intelligent person; we are having what appears to be a rational conversation. Then I suddenly realize that all the reasoning, all the suggestions and objections are this person’s attempts to support her friends and punish her enemies. I just want to say, would you please relax a little, this is not the House of Cards; we are simply trying to figure out the best solution for a small problem. No intrigue, and no political strategy is needed, OK? Bad people may have good ideas, and good people may be wrong, and the way you divide people into good and bad is flawed. Can we just concentrate on the task at hand? I never say any of this, because the person is afflicted by the House of Cards syndrome and is not going to see it. She or he is just fine otherwise, and could be a delightful colleague in every respect. I would just never ask her or him for advice, or ask to be polite only. Nor will I ever support this person to be in a leadership position. The HC syndrome disqualifies from leadership, unfortunately. I am not passing any moral judgement here; but we all have limitations, and I have a plenty of my own. However, if you are color-blind, you cannot be a pilot. If you’re too tall or too heavy, you cannot be a jockey. If you lack in empathy, you should not be a teacher. This is the same kind of a limitation – perhaps not fair to you, but fair to others. So, we still like you, it is just you cannot be in the lead.

All our judgements are always colored by relationships with others. We tend to support people we like and oppose the people we dislike. However, most of us routinely get over the bias, and discuss ideas and actions on their own merit. It takes an effort, but we do it all the time. If you have the HC syndrome, you are simply unable to do that. Every step is a move in a great chess play for you, the struggle for power and influence. And you may not be yourself power-thirsty, no, you just see other people in that light. The weird symptom of the HC syndrome is that you suspect everyone has it. You see the world through this particular lens. People are divided into friends and enemies, and nothing good can come out of the enemies, while a friend can do no wrong.

If you a leader with the HC, your management is poor – you almost never make good decisions, because you consider the political implications only. You will sacrifice promising projects because their success may make the “wrong” people stronger. You will support weak initiatives, because they allow you and your supporters look better, even for a short time. If you got the HC syndrome, you will spend all your time spinning intrigue, so some of the basic functions will inevitably suffer from neglect. You just won’t have the time for work, because all your time is spent compiling materials evidencing that so and so is an incompetent person. You will also slow down any development and growth, because you cannot tell a good idea from a bad one.

You may thrive in a truly political environment, but we are not a political body. We are a university. Hundreds of thousands of kids and their parents want a good teacher, a counselor, a psychologist, and we make sure of it. We cannot lose that perspective.

I cannot say for sure where the syndrome comes from, why some people are affected while others are not. Nor can I give any examples where people got rid of it – perhaps I simply do not know of any.