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Saturday Commentary and Review #115
The Biosecurity Complex, Social Media Annihilating Teen Girls' Mental Health, No "Absolute Victory" for Ukraine, "The Dissident Fringe", "Fargo" Meets Montreal Mafia
You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
-Rahm Emanuel, ex-Mayor of Chicago and Chief of Staff under Barack Obama
Although liberal democracy continues to be the default state of governance in today’s West, it is safe to say that there has been an increasing decline in its legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens, forcing ruling elites to defend the system on its own (perceived) merits, most often for their own benefit.
It wasn’t also so. The collapse of the USSR ushered in the the sense of triumphalism in the West that dominated the 1990s, best exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man”. Liberal democracy and free markets faced no visible challenges, and the rest of the world would embrace these concepts as well in time…so the theory went.
That is not what has happened. Globalism was supposed to open China up politically, pitting a nascent business class against party chiefs which was supposed to inevitably lead to democratic pluralism. Russia’s experiment with its own take on liberal democracy in the 1990s led to national, social, cultural, and military collapse. Like Beijing, Moscow rejected the “inevitable”, instead pursuing what is termed “managed democracy”.
As China’s economy continued to surge and as it rapidly modernized, the 2008 Financial Crisis put a serious dent into the legitimacy of the globalist model. No longer were free markets in combination with liberal democracy seen as the natural or desired default state of governance. Add to this the other shocks since then (Trump, COVID-19, etc.), and combine them with the stagnation on display now in the West, and questions have become increasingly pointed as to the ability of liberal democracy and free markets to resolve our present condition.
This model serves a small subset of people in the West really, really well, but is failing the vast majority. The examples are many, but the best one in my opinion is the absolute inability of the vast majority of young people to ever have a chance to enter the real estate market and own their own homes. Why conserve a system where you have nothing to conserve?
The war in Ukraine has created many narratives, one of them being that this is a conflict between “democracy” and “authoritarianism”. This has been crafted to give another lifeline to the system of governance in the West, one seeking legitimacy in absence of an overarching foreign competitor a la communism during the Cold War. To buttress any system, threats to it must be telegraphed to its citizenry highlighting how they would negatively impact their lives. Thomas Fazi argues that the manufactured threat of biological diseases has erected a “biosecurity complex", to do just that i.e. protect the mode of governance that serves the elites to the detriment of the rest.
For much of the past 20 years, the West has been mired in a state of quasi-permanent crisis: the post-9/11 terrorism crisis, the post-2008 financial-economic crisis (which in Europe evolved into a specific sub-crisis: the “euro crisis”), the pandemic crisis and, just as the latter seemed to be waning, the ongoing military crisis in Ukraine, which has morphed into a much wider great-power confrontation.
This is taking place against the backdrop of a wide range of other (partially related) crises: an energy, inflationary, and cost-of-living crisis, a new debt crisis in the making (in Europe), an ever-present social crisis, and a looming climate and ecological crisis—all of which, according to the World Economic Forum, should be understood as components of a singular, massive “polycrisis.” These are largely pan-Western affairs, but there are, of course, countless more localized ones, such as the recurring migrant crisis in certain countries.
Indeed, “crisis” has become such a pervasive and all-encompassing feature of our lives that one may legitimately wonder if this is just the result of a series of unfortunate events, or if there is more at play here. Even before the Covid pandemic, several critical scholars had posited that, under neoliberalism, crisis had become a “method of government.”
Fazi comes out of the Marxist world, so he tends to use terms like “Neo-Liberalism” a lot. Just go with it.
The French Marxists Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval went a step further, arguing in the 2019 book Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy that “neoliberalism largely consists in [a] logic of the self-feeding or, to be more exact, self-aggravation of crisis.” Neoliberal policies, rather than adapting to objective logics imposed from without, “instead strive to construct situations and intensify dynamics that indirectly compel governments to accept the consequences of their own previous policies. And this literally infernal logic leads to the pursuit of policies that further aggravate the situation.” In this sense, rather than disaster capitalism, it would perhaps be more apt to talk of “crisis or emergency capitalism”—a regime which is only able to function by resorting to a semi-permanent state of emergency through the exploitation and aggravation of an endless series of “crises,” often generated by the intrinsic contradictions of the system itself.
France has been in an official state of emergency since the Bataclan terrorist attacks, for example (the USA was in an unofficial one during the whole of the Trump Administration, but one directed at the Presidency).
This is a salient point:
Both these explanations, however, tend to generally accept the framing of these events as “crises.” It is the response to these—or at most, the logic that led to the “crisis” in the first place—that is criticized, almost never the definition itself. In doing so, such accounts obfuscate the extent to which the framing of whatever happens to be the event in question as a “crisis” is part and parcel of the “shock doctrine” itself.
What if most, if not all, of these “crises” are manufactured in some way and are not actual “crises”? What if they are tools of governance to keep citizens distracted or in line in order to protect the ruling system? This is what Fazi is asking, and why he points the finger at how “Neo-Liberal” states treated COVID-19 the way that they did.
As Fazi eloquently argues:
In such a regime, “crisis” is the norm, the default starting point for all politics. Far from being a rational response to an objective reality, this narrative of permanent crisis or emergency should be understood as a way of shaping reality, and more specifically as one of the main tools through which Western ruling elites have attempted to overcome neoliberalism’s intrinsic tendencies toward stagnation and polarization, and its inability to generate societal consensus or hegemony in either material or ideological terms.
As an aside, one of the inherent weaknesses of liberal democracy is in its increasingly low-level civil war condition, that pits party against party, and citizen against citizen, where societal consensus is an impossibility. Multiparty democracy contains this weak point that can be exploited by outside forces, as we will see in the new series on regime change and colour revolutions.
Among the fantasies being dreamt up by Western security planners, the issue of “biological threats”—either natural or man-made, often in combination with terrorism (bioterrorism)—soon assumed a central role. Hence the American government’s massive preventative investment, beginning in the late 1990s, into research on the potential military use of biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox, referred to as “dual-use” pathogens. In 1997, the Clinton administration initiated the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program, under which active US service personnel were to be immunized with an anthrax vaccine (which, it would later emerge, caused serious side effects).
In a telling example of the blurring of the line between fiction and reality in the conceptualization of worst-case scenarios, the following year, Bill Clinton requested that his deputy secretary of defense, John Hamre, read the novel The Cobra Event, which describes a terror attack in which a genetically modified virus with horrendous symptoms is unleashed upon New York. The author, Richard Preston, was subsequently invited, alongside experts in bioterrorism, to a conference held in 1997 by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
The early 2000s saw a proliferation of “exercises” aimed at simulating the effects of a bioterror attack. The first of these, Exercise Top Officials 2000, held that same year (many others would follow), was aimed at assessing the response to a series of geographically dispersed terrorist threats in the United States. It was followed in June 2001 by another bioterrorist attack simulation, Operation Dark Winter, organized by the Johns Hopkins Center. Dark Winter already warned against disinformation about medications and other matters endangering public safety; for the suspension of civil liberties, it recommended the proclamation of the state of emergency and that the president should also use his prerogatives under the Insurrection Act.
On that occasion, prominent hawks predicted with great certainty that a real bioterror attack was imminent; Vice President Cheney even took anthrax medication after being briefed by the Dark Winter team. Sure enough, just a few months later came 9/11, which was followed by the anthrax attacks, when letters containing anthrax were sent to several media offices and two Democratic senators, killing five people. How the participants in Dark Winter could have uncannily anticipated an anthrax attack, we don’t know. What we do know is that, even though the attacks were initially attributed to Saddam Hussein, the anthrax most likely originated in America’s own biowarfare lab at Fort Detrick. Nonetheless, the decision was made to vaccinate all US military personnel against anthrax before sending them to Afghanistan or Iraq.
In 2018, on the occasion of the centenary of the Spanish Flu, the WEF, along with a number of other relevant networks, organized a meeting dedicated to combating a pandemic that was “almost certain” to occur. A year later, in July 2019, a new transnational body, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, released its first annual report. This organization had been convened by the World Bank Group and WHO to prepare the world for “the specter of a general public-health emergency.” The board was mainly aimed at preparing the ground for an international state of emergency, with strict obligations for individual states. In September 2019, a “global vaccination summit” followed, organized by the European Commission together with WHO and featuring industry representatives such as Pfizer and Moderna.
Finally, one month later—just two months before the official start of the outbreak in Wuhan—the Gates Foundation, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the WEF, hosted an exercise called Event 201, which simulated “an outbreak of a novel zoonotic coronavirus transmitted from bats to pigs to people that eventually becomes efficiently transmissible from person to person, leading to a severe pandemic.” In the event of a pandemic, the organizers noted, national governments, international organizations and the private sector should provide ample resources for the manufacturing and distribution of large quantities of vaccines through “robust forms of public-private cooperation.” Moreover, great emphasis was placed on the need to combat mis- and disinformation by, for example, tightening censorship of social media.
And the conclusion:
It’s clear that this complex had been preparing for an event such as the Covid-19 pandemic for quite some time, at least a decade, and was ready to lead the response once it happened. It’s also clear that its members understood very well that such an event was likely to lead to a rollback of democracy and civil liberties, and a restructuring of societies along more authoritarian lines—and openly called for this kind of response. Finally, it is clear that there were converging economic and political interests that stood to benefit greatly from an external shock of this kind, as the events of the past few three years have borne out.
Ultimately, the issue of foreknowledge is overshadowed by an even more daunting truth: We have entered an era in which Western establishments need to constantly invent new nightmares to maintain their power; and when enough people with enough power start to dream the same nightmare, it’s only a matter of time before it comes true.
Fazi’s piece leaves one with the sense that western elites are in a state of desperation in order to preserve their rule. You might agree (or not).
Being late Gen X, I often think about how my early life is so different from younger generational cohorts in that I grew up Pre-Internet. Research for elementary or high school essays required going to the physical library, where the selection of material was incredibly limited in comparison to what is available now. Overseas news that wasn’t of major importance required waiting a day to find it in a newspaper, if it was covered at all. Youth subcultures were plentiful, and required a certain amount of work to participate in, since you had to actively seek out access to them in a physical manner.
Being a child of the 80s meant that you spent A LOT of time outside playing with your friends. Even though video game consoles like Intellivision, Coleco and Atari were being sold, they did not command the fanatical devotion that gaming does now. These gaming systems were an add-on to our lives of playing with friends outside, not a central feature of our time outside of school. It was in these physical environments that we learned the rules of life in social settings, for better or for worse. By a certain age (let’s say seven or eight), our parents let us go unsupervised to play with friends as our neighbourhoods were safe. Does anyone know if kids in large North American suburbs are let out unsupervised these days?
What we all do know is that childhood is very, very different these days then what it once was. “Helicopter Parenting” is considered to have arrived in the late 1990s, eroding or eliminating what 80s kids experienced. The rise of social media in the past decade has seen children move from the meatspace to online existence. Many parents I speak to say that their children are not as socialized as they were at that age. A friend of mine from Canada who I saw last summer here in Split, Croatia explained to me that COVID-19 lockdowns did a real number on her children, and that her 15 year old daughter has not matured socially from when she was 12.
Children these days seem to have a stunted social maturation. Worse yet is that social media is making them depressed and mentally ill. Jonathan Haidt says that teen girls are faring the worst:
There is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause, not just a tiny correlate, of depression and anxiety, and therefore of behaviors related to depression and anxiety, including self-harm and suicide.
First, I must offer two stage-setting comments:
Social media is not the only cause; my larger story is about the rewiring of childhood that began in the 1990s and accelerated in the early 2010s.
I’m a social psychologist who is always wary of one-factor explanations for complex social phenomena. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and I showed that there were six interwoven threads that produced the explosion of unwisdom that hit American universities in 2015, one of which was the rise of anxiety and depression in Gen Z (those born in and after 1996); a second was the vast overprotection of children that began in the 1990s.
In the book I’m now writing (Kids In Space) I show that these two threads are both essential for understanding why teen mental health collapsed in the 2010s. In brief, it’s the transition from a play-based childhood involving a lot of risky unsupervised play, which is essential for overcoming fear and fragility, to a phone-based childhood which blocks normal human development by taking time away from sleep, play, and in-person socializing, as well as causing addiction and drowning kids in social comparisons they can’t win.
Social media has a negative cohort effect on mental health:
But social media is very different because it transforms social life for everyone, even for those who don’t use social media, whereas sugar consumption just harms the consumer. To see why this difference matters, imagine that in 2011, just before the epidemic began, a 12-year-old girl was given an iPhone 4 (the first with a front-facing camera) and began to spend 5 hours a day taking and editing selfies, posting them on Instagram (which had launched the year before), and scrolling through hundreds of posts from others. This was at a time when none of her friends in 7th grade had a smartphone or any social media accounts. Suppose that Instagram does cause anxiety disorders in a dose-response way, but the size of the correlation with anxiety is smaller than the correlation of social isolation with anxiety. The girl spending 5 hours a day on Instagram finds her mental health declining, but her friends’ mental health is unchanged. We find a clear dose-response effect. If she were to quit Instagram, would her mental health improve? Yes.
But now fast forward to 2015, when most girls are on Instagram and all teens are spending far less time with their friends in person (as I showed in my Feb 16 post). Most social activity is now asynchronous—channeled through posts, comments, and emojis on Instagram, Snapchat, and a few other platforms. Childhood has been rewired—it has become phone-based—and rates of anxiety and depression are soaring (as I showed in my Feb 8 post). Suppose that in 2015, a 12-year-old girl decided to quit all social media platforms. Would her mental health improve? Not necessarily.
If all of her friends continued to spend 5 hours a day on the various platforms then she’d find it difficult to stay in touch with them. She’d be out of the loop and socially isolated. If the isolation effect is larger than the dose-response effect, then her mental health might even get worse. When we look across thousands of girls, we might find no strong or clear correlation between time on social media and level of mental disorder. We might even find that the non-users are more depressed and anxious than the moderate users (which some studies do find, known as the Goldilocks effect).
What we see in this second case is that social media creates a cohort effect: something that happened to a whole cohort of young people, including those who don’t use social media. It also creates a trap—a collective action problem—for girls and for parents. Each girl might be worse off quitting Instagram even though all girls would be better off if everyone quit.
Haidt goes on to challenge several studies that view social media at best having a good effect on mental health for teens, and at worst being a simple co-relation and not a cause. You can read these parts for yourself. In the meantime, I’ll excerpt other bits like this one about just how large of a negative impact it has on teen girls from a quantitative analytical approach:
Despite several years of heated debate, a consensus has emerged about just how large the correlation is between social media use and mood disorders. Amy Orben herself conducted a “narrative review” of many other reviews of the academic literature (Orben, 2020; study 5.7 in our review doc). Her conclusion is that “The associations between social media use and well-being therefore range from about r = − 0.15 to r = − 0.10.”2
Similarly, Jeff Hancock and his team posted a meta-analysis in 2022, with data that went up through 2018 (Hancock, Liu, Luo & Mieczkowski, 2022, Study 5.27). They report very low associations (near zero) of social media use with some mental health outcomes, but when you zoom in on depression and anxiety as the outcome variables, they too report associations between r = .10 and r = .15.
Both studies (Orben’s and Hancock’s) merged boys and girls together, and there is a consensus that the relationships are tighter for girls; see Kelly, Zilanawala, Booker, & Sacker (2019), Nesi & Prinstein (2015), and Twenge (2020). So we’re reaching a consensus that for girls the true value is north of r = .15, which is consistent with the values around .20 that Twenge, Lozano, Cummins and I found in our SCA paper. This range of values, from r = .15 to r = .20, is quite large when we’re talking about health effects found in large datasets, as I explain in this geeky footnote.3
It is much larger than the correlation between childhood exposure to lead and adult IQ (which was found to be around r = .11). And it is certainly much larger than the correlation between mood disorders and eating potatoes or wearing glasses.
In that same UK dataset, mood disorders were more closely associated with social media usage than with marijuana use and binge drinking, though less closely associated with sleep deprivation. I’m not saying that a day of social media use is worse for girls than a day of binge drinking. I’m just saying that if we’re going to play the game of looking through lists of correlations, the proper comparison is not potatoes and eyeglasses, it is marijuana use and binge drinking.
Some of the studies exposed girls and young women to time on Instagram, or to experiences designed to mimic Instagram, and then looked at the psychological aftereffects. For example, Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat, & Anschütz (2018) randomly assigned teen girls to be exposed either to original selfies taken from Instagram or to selfies that were manipulated to be extra attractive. “Results showed that exposure to manipulated Instagram photos directly led to lower body image.” Engeln, Loach, Imundo, & Zola (2020) randomly assigned female college students to use Facebook, use Instagram, or perform an emotionally neutral task (the control condition) on an iPad. The finding: “Those who used Instagram, but not Facebook, showed decreased body satisfaction, decreased positive affect, and increased negative affect.”
Turning to the six experiments that failed to find significant effects, it is noteworthy that four of these six experiments involved asking participants to reduce or eliminate social media for one week or less. As we saw in the examination of longitudinal studies, going “cold turkey” brings immediate discomfort to addicts; the benefits only kick in after a few weeks when the brain has adapted to the loss of chronic stimulation. So if we remove all of the studies that used a week or less (including two studies in section 3.1 that found an effect), the final tally becomes ten that found evidence that social media is harmful (80%) and two that did not.
In sum, there are now many true experiments using a variety of methods to test questions such as whether reducing or eliminating exposure to social media confers benefits (it does, when continued for at least a month), or if exposing girls and women to Instagram or Instagram-like experiences damages their mood or body image (it does). These experiments provide direct evidence that social media—particularly Instagram—is a cause, not just a correlate, of bad mental health, especially in teen girls and young women.
It’s rather interesting just how many people born in Britain work or have worked in top positions in US administrations. A few days ago we took a look at London-born Samantha Power and her role in destroying Libya. In this segment we are going to take a look at the words of Fiona Hill, a British-American born in Bishop Auckland, who has served under George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump in the foreign policy realm. UnHerd has performed a good service by interviewing her at length, from which we will try and tease out exactly what she is saying, unintentionally or not.
On the Dubya Administration’s push for NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia in 2008:
It was a pretty bad idea to give Georgia and Ukraine an open door to Nato, but not for the reasons that everybody thinks: which is that the whole expansion of Nato was generally bad. At the time, Nato members were suddenly trying to address a very late request from Georgia and Ukraine, which wasn’t for membership immediately, but for them to be considered over time.
Now, that’s a drawn-out process: when countries apply, it is not automatic — some of them can stay under consideration for a long period. And not only were the majority of Nato members opposed to their accession, but it was also not particularly popular inside Ukraine itself. This was very much an elite project driven by Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president, as well as the Georgians, who were more supportive about Nato membership because of security concerns with Russia. I and others said it was not a good idea at all. We thought it shouldn’t have even been under consideration.
And many other people — including Bill Burns, who’s now the Director of the CIA and had served as the Russian ambassador — were against it. Part of the reason was that it wasn’t going to succeed.
There was a question about how to guarantee their security. And there was a decision to say that these countries weren’t going to get into Nato now, but will at some point in the future — which was a bit of a break with precedent. And that outcome was the worst of all worlds. It was Angela Merkel, who helped to broker that arrangement. And it was basically like a red flag to a bull for Vladimir Putin, who had been opposed to Georgia and Ukraine seeking Nato entry.
Putin as “in it for the long haul”:
He is definitely in it for the long haul. If we had made a decision early on to push Ukraine to give up Crimea, as well as the Donbas, Putin would have taken that, pocketed it and then tried to figure out how much further he could press on. Because that’s exactly how he operates. He would have pocketed that win, and then tried to figure out how he could extend it further. Because, again, this started a long time ago — not just in 2014 but in 2006, when Russia cut off gas to Ukraine. Ukraine has been under constant pressure, all the way through the 2000s.
What she leaves out is the role of her adopted country’s policies towards Moscow during that time period.
Absolute victory over Russia as not possible nor desirable:
That’s not the way to look at this. The way to look at this is to try to create the circumstances for a real negotiation, not a capitulation. I don’t think we’re going to have an absolute victory over Russia. But look, it only ends when Russians no longer want to extend territory in an imperial fashion. Leadership matters a lot here. Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t have this same way of thinking. Gorbachev himself made the decision to end the Cold War; Yeltsin did not want to reincorporate Ukraine or Belarus or any of the other countries. So you’ve got to find a formula where Russia no longer wants to expand.
The “need” for an international solution:
We basically have to think differently about this. It’s not going to be settled on the battlefield. This isn’t going to be like the First or Second World War, with some satisfying armistice peace treaty. We’re talking a few weeks after the anniversary of the Yalta Conference of 1945, in which Europe was divided up into two spheres. That’s what Putin wants. And that’s not what the rest of Europe wants, so we have to think about a larger framework, about the fact that Russia currently has a UN Security Council vet. We need to rethink these multinational approaches. People have said this is a great power competition. But the United States isn’t trying to expand its borders, or annex anywhere. It might have done in the past. But it isn’t doing this now.
Please note the bolded part ;) She clearly is not done with advising Presidents of the USA.
Note the confusion here:
That’s exactly our problem: we’re justifying what Russia is doing to Ukraine because of our irritation with the United States. Yes, the United States shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Yes, the United States shouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan. The United States does all kinds of things that the rest of the world doesn’t like — but does that justify Russia devastating Ukraine? No, it doesn’t. Unless, that is, the UK wants to live in a world that is only decided by clashes among China, the United States and Russia. That’s not the world I think the rest of the world wants to live in. That’s certainly not the world the Finns, the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch, the Norwegians and others who are really supporting Ukraine want to live in. There has to be some kind of revitalisation of multilateral entities — whether that means the UN or part of it.
Is she alluding to the “rules-based order” that serves the interests of the USA and not of China, Russia, and others? She can’t have it both ways.
Her diplomatic and self-serving answer on who blew up Nordstream:
Initially, I did think it was the Russians. There was just so much about the whole eruption that reminded me of the kind of sabotage the Soviets undertook during the Second World War, and that Putin’s father was actually engaged in during the siege of Leningrad. He talks a lot about how his father was part of a destruction battalion, going behind enemy lines and getting rid of any infrastructure the enemy could use. And there was just something about the way Putin talked about it that made me think the Russians did this — that they think this will teach the West a lesson.
Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t believe it was the United States. If the United States had done that, by now, somebody would have laid claim to this. The United States can be a leaky sieve in terms of information. Some of my colleagues who have been looking at this think Ukraine could have done it. And this isn’t implausible, because they already managed to launch a pretty significant strike on the Kerch (Crimean) Bridge, but I haven’t seen any evidence.
That’s why I initially didn’t think that it could be Ukraine, because I wasn’t sure they could have had the capacity. But it’s possible that Ukraine could have found a way of doing this: we’ve seen them be extremely inventive. But I just want to make it very clear that I absolutely do not know who carried this out. And I think that we actually should continue to look at this. And I’m certainly ready to concede that my initial suspicion that it was the Russians is wrong.
If Ukraine did it (they didn’t), that means that they have attacked the energy infrastructure of a NATO member, a military defense alliance that they are not a part of.
The collapse of the shitty and garbage alt.right a few years back has left US media flailing about searching for a new scarecrow with which to frighten its consumers and secure support for the Democrats. The problem is that the boogeymen available for this task are too few and too weak to justify any real media campaign. In short, the options are menu are wholly ridiculous.
Content remains King, and few things draw as many eyeballs on the political reporting scene as new movements that can “threaten the establishment”, so essays will be written on the most tenuous of these until the New Scarecrow is identified and raised.
James Pogue of Vanity Fair is the latest to do this, surveying the “dissident fringe” where the “new right” meets the “far left”.
A couple hours outside Jackson, I met Catharine O’Neill, whose family once owned these mountains. Her great-great-grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, and she worked in Trump’s State Department. Now, she was living in a modest little house outside of Casper, Wyoming, and was about to have her first child with a home appraiser she’d met after moving there. She isn’t hiding out exactly, but, like many Americans these days, she has a sense that things are cracking up.
“Election night we were talking, kind of joking,” she said. At the time she was living in DC. “I was afraid of being thrown into a concentration camp. I know that sounds crazy.”
“I was with my friends and I was like, ‘Well, we’re kind of fucked,’ ” she said. “And they’re like, ‘Well, let’s choose a red state to go take over.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I have a place in Wyoming we can go.’ ”
She is a proud conservative who views the corporate elite as enemies of America, and believes that we’re on the cusp of a populist uprising against the brand of transnational capitalism championed by Republicans for most of the last half-century. Her politics have marked her, at least to the minds of people who share her worldview, as a bit of a class traitor in their emergent epochal struggle against the entire system.
“Maybe I’m biased—obviously,” she said. “But if these organizations were run by people like my grandfather—he was a devout Christian and actually cared about this country and wanted to build this country up—that would be one thing.”
“He literally led the way for this country to be a superpower,” she said. “And we have seen a one-eighty now. That’s what’s interesting with a lot of these executives. They’re now trying to, it seems to me, break the country down.”
O’Neill was “the key to understanding all this,” according to the former Trump staffer who put us in touch, not because she necessarily possessed any secret knowledge, but because she captured so many of the quiet currents swirling around younger conservative circles these days. Wealthy and well-connected preppers and back-to-the-landers have been moving west, many of them at least tangentially involved in the edgy online realm of thought known as the dissident right. Tech executives and crypto investors are creating secretive groups to help people “exit”—a term that has taken on almost mystical significance in some circles recently—from our liberal society, tech-dominated lives, and fraying system. And there are grander plans, for whole secessionist movements using crypto and decentralized autonomous organizations to build whole mini societies, many on the model of what Balaji Srinivasan, the former partner at Andreessen Horowitz, calls a “Network State.” (Wyoming recently became the first state in the country to allow DAOs to incorporate as private companies.)
This piece is one where disparate elements are very tenuously weaved together to create a portrait of an emerging “dissent fringe”.
This scene was very much on display in Austin, where in July I went to see the premiere of Alex’s War, a documentary about Alex Jones. The night before the screening, Futo, a software company started by a founding investor of WhatsApp and dedicated to fighting “tech oligopoly,” hosted a swank cocktail party on the roof of the downtown Marriott. Curtis Yarvin, the intellectual godfather of the dissident right and popularizer of the idea that America is not and should not be a functioning democracy, flew in for the screening the next day. In front of him was the former Trump staffer and documentarian Amanda Milius, who was wearing an elaborate white dress and showing off her serpentine Bulgari bangles, with emeralds for eyes.
In front of her was Ali Alexander, the Stop the Steal organizer who had, along with Jones himself, helped put on the rally that devolved into the Capitol invasion. Ariel Pink, the chillwave musician who was an indie kingpin before it got out that he’d been at the January 6 rally (he left before anyone breached the Capitol), was there too. So were Mike Cernovich and Anna Khachiyan, the cohost of the formerly left-wing podcast Red Scare. Glenn Greenwald hosted the question-and-answer session with Jones and Alex Lee Moyer, the film’s director. Greenwald looked out at the room, beaming, and described the gathering as a “merry band of misfits,” charter members of a disaffected counterculture. “We’re a bunch of weirdos and rebels here,” he said. “And I just love that.”
Jones himself had been visibly upset throughout the screening, getting up half a dozen times from his front-row seat to escape backstage. “I couldn’t watch myself through some of that,” he said during the Q&A. “I looked like Jabba the Hutt on PCP.” He kept apologizing for his conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook killings without seeming to want to actually say that he was apologizing. “A lot of that stuff I say,” he went on, “it’s like I drank a bottle of vodka, I’m smoking cigarettes, and you’re just talking. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to say.” At the after-party, at another swank Austin hotel, he grinned next to a cart of Champagne bottles and posed for photos with well-dressed young fans.
Some of these people named have been interviewed on this Substack. This piece is very long and meandering, and you can read the rest here.
We end this weekend’s Substack with a very fun and hilarious read about a surreal mafia killing in Montreal, Quebec. As the author notes, the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” is not too far off from this story.
The Montreal Mafia is very, very powerful, with many writers of organized crime going as far as to call it the “Sixth Family”, putting it on a equal level with New York’s traditional Five Families. However, a war has broken out this past decade since former Family Godfather Vito Rizzuto’s death, seeing challengers to throne take on its remnants.
On the morning they were arrested for allegedly burning bodies as part of a series of Mafia murders, Marie-Josée Viau and Guy Dion had already finished breakfast and packed their daughter off to elementary school. A hand-drawn Mother’s Day card hung on the fridge next to family photographs. Viau, 44, didn’t have to go to her shift at the roadside poutine restaurant until later that day, so she tried baking something new: blueberry phyllo puffs. The pastries were still on the stove top when police arrived at 9:56 a.m. on October 16, 2019.
“We’re normal people,” Viau swore to the arresting officers, through her tears, after she and her husband were each charged with two counts of first-degree murder. “We didn’t kill anyone.”
Undercover recordings made by investigators told a different tale. The interception division of the Sûreté du Québec had secretly taped Viau and Dion speaking about how they’d disposed of bodies for members of the Calabrian Mafia. By their own admission, they’d incinerated corpses in their yard in a bonfire. “We did what we could with what we had,” she explained, when police questioned her about the cremations.
“But setting the bodies on fire?” a sergeant detective asked. “Was that [idea] from Guy, as he’s a fireman?”
Guy Dion was the tall, burly, 48-year-old fire chief of their small Quebec township. To make ends meet, he moonlighted for a paving company and refereed minor-league hockey games. His wife, Viau, worked as a cook and cashier at a fast-food chain called La Belle Province. Yearning for a way out of that dead-end job, she’d been taking online courses in business administration and freelancing as a building inspector. She had a hard face with sharp eyes and hair as long, dark, and wild as Dion’s was short, thin, and graying. The two lived in the countryside beyond Montreal, in the farming community of Saint-Jude (population 1,326), a village named after the patron saint of desperate cases. That’s precisely the higher power the couple needed when a dozen law enforcement vehicles converged on the property.
Before being taken away in an unmarked cruiser, a visibly shaking Viau requested a moment to switch outfits. She also wanted to know what would happen to their daughter when she got home from school. Officers informed her that childcare procedures were already under way. Outside the front window, the fall foliage had started changing color. The couple’s lawn, shrouded in dead leaves, was cordoned off with police tape. One maple tree stood out from the others, so red and orange that it seemed covered in flames.
The mayor of Saint-Jude told reporters that he fell off his chair when he learned that two seemingly upstanding locals had been accused of such nightmarish undertakings: “It shows you never really know people you think you know.”
Like real-life characters from Fargo, Viau and Dion had gotten all mixed up with killers for hire. What prosecutors wanted to know was: Were the husband and wife merely rubes who’d been duped into participating in the gruesome homicides—or had they cooperated knowingly and willingly? Seeking teeth, bone fragments, and other traces of the victims, investigators started combing through their yard, their garage, and the quiet stream across the street.
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