American Diaries, pt.1
By Beppe Colli
Oct. 12, 2020

Having married an American guy who was in the service at the nearby NATO base, in the mid-80s my friend XY went to live in the USA. I remember a few stops - Boston, Maui, Washington, I'm sure there were others. Then, trouble in the marriage, a divorce, and a career that I'd call "quite satisfying", though definitely on the "fluid" side, with various courses taken at the University in order to become, say, an "hydraulic pumps engineer", and many six-months "projects".

As an Italian citizen, my friend had to come back regularly after a certain time, plus she had to vote in the Italian general elections and such, which made it possible for her to pay long visits to her relatives and friends. It was with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to regularly see her again, at the same time getting the news about life in the United States. Starting with Reagan's economic expansion, I had an exceptional witness about various cultural innovations in the life of such a large, complex society, with quite a few interesting previews of our future ("Do you have Netflix here?").

Sure, with the passing of time, signs of her "Americanization" were more and more visible, but though sometimes she really managed to surprise me ("And what about Bbròdy?"), our dialogue was still possible.

Then, one day, a guy looking like an "oily rat" (i.e., a police informant straight from an old movie) - a guy who could impersonate Trotsky's assassin with no difficulty whatsoever - appeared. And then she said:

"Do you know that Obama is an African?"

As a joke, it was not funny. I sat still, waiting for the punch line.

Which never came. She was perfectly serious. Then a long, convoluted discussion followed, about the fact that Obama had refused to show his birth certificate, "which clearly shows he was born in Kenya, that's why he doesn't want to show it". I tried to switch the subject to Obama's political accomplishments, hoping that the arrival of "linguini marinara" would come to my rescue.

"So you don't know that Obama is a Republican?". I thought he was the President coming from the Democratic Party. "That's the trick. They had a Republican infiltrate the Democrats - he's in disguise, you get? - in order to implement a right-wing policy, so people are duped, while he inundates the Big Banks and Wall Street with money." I feebly tried to argue that electing a Republican would have proved to be a lot less tortuous than that, but her explanation for this fact was formidable: "There's no way a Republican could become President this time, not a snowball's chance in hell. So they had a Republican in disguise win the election."

At last, the linguine arrived, bye-bye, see you in two years.

Things became more and more impossible to believe. Came the year 2016, this time it was all about Hillary Clinton: How she was involved in the killing of a lawyer "who knew too much", how she was just a puppet in the hands of Bankers, Wall Street and "the carbon guys". But by now I knew a lot more than before, and I was perfectly aware that those were big propaganda issues on the part of right-wing media, such as "talk radio personality" Rush Limbaugh. (Let's not forget that I too have a NATO base nearby my home, whose radio station is perfectly accessible to me.) But I could not believe that my old friend had turned into a Republican.

So I asked: "Who are you backing in the Democratic Primaries?" "Bernie Sanders."

With the passing of time, I've developed a much better understanding about the way modern propaganda works. Who's the culprit I may not know, but who gets to profit and who gets harmed, this I can make an "educated guess" about.

I seem to remember that the first studies of substance about "rumors" were produced by the then-still-new US sociology, at the time of the First World War, about a hundred years ago.

But the birth of the Web, of "Social Networks", and the spreading of so-called "echo chamber effect" (the condition where individuals increasingly mainly talk with those whose beliefs they already share, and by whom they get confirmation to their beliefs), jointly with the possibility to accurately analyze huge mass of aggregate data made possible by modern, affordable, computer analysis, have completely changed the rules of the game when compared to those old "party propaganda" as it was knowns in Western Democracies.

The action of interference makes great use of pre-existing prejudices (towards ethnic groups, say, or towards people from a different socio-economic status); of people's ignorance of the existing rules (for instance, inviting people to vote by phone, a modality that does not exist); and of people's weak propension to check news via independent sources. Individuals get bombarded with pseudo-information that should sound absurd and that are obviously false, but which are perceived as being true thanks to the way one trusts a given source (something which, as seen from the outside, appears as a puzzling paradox: being wary of everybody, except those who are out to dupe you).

Those complex investigations trying to determine which - and whose - interferences took place during the 2016 campaign to elect the new President of the United States paint a panorama quite similar to those depicted in some books by Philip K. Dick, something so "disturbing" that could potentially make one lose all faith in the Democratic process, inducing one to stay at home, and skip the vote, this time. (See how it works? It's easy.)

And since the majority of people believe that it's only other people who are ignorant of the way things are, here are a couple of "uncomfortable" for instances.

After getting the 2016 nomination of the Democratic Party to the US Presidency, Hillary Clinton felt suddenly sick, a fainting or something similar. What about the cause? Maybe pneumonia, a process of dehydration, or an ischemic-vascular-cerebral... thingee. Who knows?

One day I opened (Italian leading newspaper) la Repubblica, and I saw an interview with (I don't remember her name), a secretary of an organization that supported Bernie Sanders, who declared that "Hillary Clinton is obviously very sick, maybe a tumor, we don't know, but one thing is certain: she's a very sick person, and her poor health makes her unfit to be the Democratic Candidate to the Presidency". So the interviewer asked (not "how come you are so certain of the type and gravity of her illness, what's your source?", but) whether there were legal precedents for this type of decision, and how to proceed, should Hillary Clinton stand back. "Well, I don't know, and I don't really care. What's certain is that she cannot be the Democratic candidate".

At the time I wondered, and I wonder now, what kind of factual information this piece had given readers, and if interviewing such a nut case was really such an imperative. I understand that journalistic work is often conducted in chaotic conditions, and that it can happen that something gets printed by a process that's semi-random. But what about the potential consequences? Somebody should care about this stuff.

For those who were not greatly impressed by my first for instance, here's another.

One of the main qualifying points of the political platform of one of the main candidates in the Primaries of the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, was his proposal to introduce a Universal Health Care scheme in the United States. As it was to be expected, his proposal also had its share of opponents. When he lost his chance at being the Party's official candidate to the Presidency, it was said that his health care scheme was one of the least liked in his political program, even by a slice of those who voted for the Democratic Party. (Here I'm simplifying a lot a quite complex matter, but I'm certain that my argument is not a distortion of the truth.)

I happened to read a comment that, more or less, said thus: "If a Great Country like the United States refuses a Universal Health Scheme program like the one that's absolutely normal for us Europeans, and a different candidate to the Presidency is chosen fearing that the one in favour of said program could alienate those voters in the centre, then maybe it's better to choose the "loser", while not renouncing those fundamental values that qualify the progressive side of our politics, and go to the battle with a straight spine, and - is so necessary - lose the battle with honour."

I have to say that while I remember perfectly what newspaper I read that on - it's la Repubblica, and I'm absolutely certain because it's the only national Italian newspaper I buy at the newsstand - I can't seem to remember the identity of the writer. (I'd bet on Michele Serra in his column l'Amaca, but my prodigious memory refuses to help me.)

The important point here, however, being not the identity of the writer, but the fact that it appears he had no knowledge whatsoever of such a complex an issue like the various health Care Programs in the United States.

Those who followed the long, complex journey of the so-called "Obamacare" - i.e., the Affordable Care Act - and the ferocious battle fought by Republicans in order to defeat it in Congress and to sabotage it in the States, remember perfectly well the crux of the argument: a participation to the scheme that was voluntary, not compulsory; and the possibility to delay or postpone one's joining the program. This, in order to show those who already had coverage that the new program could prove to be more favourable, while at the same time giving those yet undecided the chance to postpone, the idea being that the scheme would get many more signatures the more it showed it worked just fine.

On the contrary, while more than 100 million Americans are covered by Medicare or Medicaid, Sanders' Medicare for All required that about 180 million American give up their current private insurance, of which they are not dissatisfied, per se. Then, in order to get coverage, the program would require higher taxes to be introduced, and those proposed by Sanders were regarded as being "not enough" in order to cover the increase in expenditure. (There was also a problem concerning the "implementation" side of the program, with an "epoch-making" change the could well submerge the public bureaucracy, and that is witness to the "messianic" side of such programs, as proposed by certain political sides.)

What if our adversary's goal is to make us choose "the loser" as our candidate? How could somebody (who is not a moron) be happy to lose a battle with a straight spine instead of winning it with a semi-curved spine, now that the winner is filling all the ranks of the judiciary with people who will occupy their posts for decades, destroying any protection for the environment, and lacerating the democratic cloth?

Time to wake up, guys!

© Beppe Colli 2020 | Oct. 12, 2020