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Matt Taibbi: The Burning of Witches Will Continue

Guest post by Matt Taibbi from TK News on Substack:

Americans who once venerated self-reliance are building a church of conformity, whose chief means of worship is destroying heretics. Elon Musk should tell the priesthood to shove it.

 

The parochial snobbery of these people was partly responsible for their failure to convert the Indians… Very few Indians were converted, and the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand. To the best of their knowledge the American forest was the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God.

— Arthur Miller, The Crucible

 

We burn witches in America. When heathens won’t convert, when the crop is bad, we still burn the village freethinker.

The Federal Trade Commission last week told The Hill it was “tracking recent developments at Twitter with deep concern,” adding, “no CEO… is above the law,” clearly referring to the company’s despised new owner, billionaire Elon Musk.

Musk is the new bête noire of the American consensus. He is the Negative Current Thing, a role mostly played by Donald Trump since summer 2015, with occasional fill-ins (in no particular order, Vladimir Putin, Tucker Carlson, Novak Djokovic, J.K. Rowling, Jeremy Corbyn, Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle, whatever they call Kanye West these days, and others have manned the slot). The coverage playbook for these heel-of-the-hour stories is rigid. Certain elements are always present.

Criminal investigations are instigated. Advocacy organizations issue denunciations (some combination of the Anti-Defamation League and the ACLU’s Chase Strangio is found in nearly all cases). News organizations demand the person’s muffling. Unions, guilds, and associations threaten walkouts. Even if the villain leans left, he or she begins to be described as “right wing,” a term with little political meaning left, that’s just code for heresy now.

It’s different from cancel culture. Cancelations start with a transgression, or at least an accusation of one. The other story type starts with a broader offense called thinking for yourself, which triggers denouncers to work backward in search of wrongdoing. Musk is the paradigmatic example. He’s achieved round-the-clock denunciation despite total confusion as to his core offense.

It was weird enough last week when Joe Biden said it was “worth looking into” whether Musk is a “national security threat” due to his “cooperations” and “relationships” with other countries, as if it were obvious how either translates to wrongdoing. For those who believe Biden just fumbled a surprise question, the issue had long before been leaked to Bloomberg, which in late October reported anonymous officials in the “intelligence community” were “weighing what tools, if any,” were available to stop Musk. The leakers not only seemed uncertain of what bureaucratic weaponry they could use on Musk, but what excuse they could put forward. The groping was so clumsy they claimed to be concerned about the presence of “foreign investors,” despite the fact that the previous Twitter regime had been taking money from the same foreigners.

After Biden spoke, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan — fast becoming the Madame DeFarge of the Biden administration — all but rolled his eyes when asked if he could “offer anything about why” Musk might be investigated. “You heard the president,” he chirped, not pausing his mental knitting. Public indifference to the madness of this was astonishing. We’ve had a secret grand jury system for centuries precisely to prevent this situation, i.e. the injustice of a person not charged with a crime having to live under public suspicion. Of course erstwhile progressives being indifferent to important civil liberties concerns has become routine in the Trump era.

Musk is accused of something bad, but what? The New York Times penned a basic indictment on October 26th, “How Elon Musk Became a Geopolitical Chaos Agent,” but the piece read like a parent’s deranged fantasy about the impact of a child’s friend who has a nose ring. The paper mourned Musk’s “influence and ability to cause trouble,” reporting he’s often “waded into situations even after he was advised not to” (again, was this a preschool report card?). They blasted him for “seeming to align himself with the Kremlin” via a peace plan in Ukraine, but were more quiet about Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley proposing something similar. People have complained about everything from Musk mistaking a Chris Farley sketch for a movie to firing a lot of people (including former Homeland Security advisory committee member Vijaya Gadde) to a plan to desecrate the sacred blue check mark inspired moral horror. From The Hill:

He slashed around half the workforce and rolled out a new Twitter Blue program that includes a verification check mark for $8 a month, which has led to widespread concerns over the impersonation of official accounts.

Musk voted for Barack Obama in 2012, Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Joe Biden in 2020, but he’s not being denounced as a dangerous right-wing reactionary and traitor because of his politics. The real problem is he’s a rich industrialist who has mild disagreements with Current Thing speech theology, and enough money to refuse to back down when threatened. This can’t be tolerated. A bigger worry, as Walter Kirn and I discussed, is that Musk could probably explode the Washington blob just by airing all the dirty correspondence from governments, ours included, that sent censorship and surveillance dictates to Twitter over the years.

If he is indeed holding that grenade, he should pull the pin now. He would go down in history as an American hero, remembered as the man who used his billions to buy the unmasking of a corrupt political establishment.

If the U.S. government is seriously going to dig up the corpse of McCarthy to go after Musk on national security grounds because he just voted Republican and once made Jake Sullivan sad at an Aspen Institute conference (this was part of the Times story), Musk should welcome that confrontation. No matter how much faux blue-check outrage gets drummed up, the average person will see this for what it is, an illegitimate effort to seize a private business from one extremely powerful person for the crime of disagreeing with an even more powerful people in government. The math isn’t hard: if the DHS or the NSC can do this to the world’s richest man, they can do it to anyone, making this story into a test case to see what the new censorship regime can get away with.

Twitter long ago became an endless scroll of performative virtue where everyone from Gilbert Gottfried (for joking about the Japanese Tsunami) to academic David Shor (for retweeting a study suggesting nonviolent resistance is effective, during the George Floyd protests) to Chad Shanks could be fired for writing the wrong thing. Who the hell is Chad Shanks? The until-then-unknown manager of the Houston Rockets Twitter account, who in 2015 celebrated his team’s imminent playoff victory over the Dallas Mavericks by posting horse and gun emojis over the message, “Shhh. Just close your eyes. It will all be over very soon.”

Tasteless? Absolutely. Worthy of firing? Are you kidding? This is a country whose top-rated sports entertainment is watching obvious steroid users give each other incurable brain trauma in front of half-naked cheerleaders. Its second-rated sport features high-flying gland freaks whose idea of social justice is a silent collective ban on Twitter criticism of Chinese TV partners, to protect the principle of $180 million contracts for Tobias Harris. Most Twitter outrage is just this kind of hypocritical con, in which gangs of high society scolds pile on to reed-thin slights by this or that nobody to give cover to society’s larger moral obscenities.

Twitter in other words is the social media version of the 19th-century Russian aristocrats who by day deflowered servant girls and by night hissed at Anna and Vronsky for trying to see an opera while living in sin.

Musk may be from South Africa, but his reaction was perfectly in the national spirit. Most Americans are born with a profound dislike of snobs and toffs and dream of having enough money to drop a solid gold dump through the hull of the boss’s yacht. Maybe Musk bought Twitter for selfish reasons, maybe he did it because a bot annoyed him once, or maybe the story is true that he did it on impulse after the platform in another amazing display of humorlessness suspended the Babylon Bee. Whatever happened, doing the opposite of what you’re told is this country’s foundational story. That instinct is in our DNA, and it should be.

The Hitler-of-the-month treatment is being rolled out mainly to protect panicked shibboleths about unsupervised discourse. The upper class fantasy now is absent strictest policing, all platforms will become, as the ADL put it, “hotbeds of radicalism and hate.” This is what drove teary ex-New York Times writer Taylor Lorenz to squat in a Clubhouse room with entrepreneur Marc Andreesson last year, so she could catch him saying the word “retarded” (“just openly using the r-slur” was her gasp-like construction). Today it’s the “r-slur,” tomorrow the eighth Reich: this is how elite America thinks.

It’s also exactly what Arthur Miller warned about in The Crucible, when he talked about the Puritans’ terror of what lay beyond the trees. The natives’ refusal to convert could mean only that the “virgin forest” was the “Devil’s last preserve,” an endless wickedness. All the lowest moments in our history are marked by Salem-like panics in which torch-bearing moralists rooted out heretics, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to the immigrant hunts after the 1886 Haymarket bombing (the Chicago Times calling for whipping “these Slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue”) to the Palmer raids to Japanese internment to the Red Scare, and so on.

There’s a scene in The Crucible in which John Proctor, the protagonist farmer who sees through the farce of the trials, confronts Reverend Parris, the busybody who leads the purge, and John Putnam, another of the accusers. Parris invokes the fear of hell for about the fiftieth time and Proctor loses it, saying, “Can we speak for one minute without we land in hell again?” This sends Parris over the edge, reminding Proctor they’re not Quakers, i.e. they’re not decadent heathens who allow non-hierarchical worship:

Parris, in a fury: What, are we Quakers? We are not Quakers here yet, Mr. Proctor. And you may tell that to your followers!

Proctor: My followers!

Parris—now he’s out with it: There is a party in this church. I am not blind; there is a faction and a party.

Proctor: Against you?

Putnam: Against him and all authority!

Proctor: Why, then I must find it and join it.

This is the same pattern of the last six or seven years of American politics. When you invent deranged fantasies about treasonous factions, you mostly end up creating them. Does anyone seriously think Tulsi Gabbard was a “Russian asset”? No, but she’s sure as hell not a loyal Democrat anymore. There’s a finite number of times you can throw people out of the village gates. Eventually you get a neighboring town packed with seething exiles.

Watch Miller’s own explanation below. When there was “internal decay” inside the Salem community, even though this was due to a lot of different causes, “they began seizing on the idea that this was all being stirred up by secret forces.” The problems couldn’t be the town’s fault, because its leaders were so obviously faultless and “devoted to God and righteousness.” Thus the hunt for the external threat begins, and that process only ends one way. Sound familiar?

 

America in calmer moments revered free-thinkers. Thoreau and Frost didn’t fear the woods and found self-reliance there. Emerson wrote about the danger of failing to question the ideas of others. “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide,” he said, adding, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Fealty to that “iron string” is what historically made Americans a strong people with incredible instincts for invention and creativity, but in the panic of the Trump era we’re being told to collapse our sense of self, because “freethinking” is just a synonym for bigotry. The next Twain or Prince isn’t hiding in our individual personalities, just masses of neurons dying to say “retarded” out loud.

As Jeet Heer put it years ago in the once-readable New Republic, people who claim to be freethinkers are mostly “just ignorant right-wing trolls.” He cited Kanye West, whose then-wife Kim Kardashian pulled the Oh I’m sorry, I thought this was America routine in response to some dumb thing he said and tweeted, “He’s a free thinker, is that not allowed?” Heer, who would surely call me a right-winger for saying conformity is bad or free speech is good, was arguing with a straight face that because someone like Kanye West claims to be a free thinker, people who claim to be free thinkers are basically all Kanye West. It’s an un-ironic take on Woody Allen’s slapstick syllogism: “Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore, all men are Socrates.”

This new breed of intellectual imagines there can be such a thing as creativity or genius without the freedom to make mistakes. Such thinking is what the writer Isaac Babel was bravely lampooning when he spoke at a Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934, saying Stalin had taken away but one right, “the right to write badly.” (With time to think, Stalin eventually had Babel shot for his insolence). As one stand-up comic I know puts it, “If you can’t fuck up, can’t cross lines, you can’t be funny.”

The censors know this, but they figure art, music, literature, and comedy are acceptable casualties in the war against “fascists,” by which they increasingly mean anyone who disagrees. This is why they’re suddenly willing to embrace ideas that would have been unthinkable in The New Republic even ten years ago, like welcoming government-directed speech standards on Twitter. “Censorship cartels crave a monopoly,” is how First Amendment Attorney Sarah Rogers puts it. “Like other monopolists, they’ll capture and collude with the state, if they can, to maintain their grip.”

If you think the occasional offensive tweet is scarier than the government being able to seize any business on arbitrary national security grounds, you’ve been online too long. Donald Trump makes it difficult-to-impossible to speak out when politicians and journalists break rules to oppose him. But Elon Musk, national security threat? That really is a witch hunt. It’s as absurd as calling someone like Russell Brand right-wing because he’s insufficiently exorcised at the existence of people who think differently. The Musk version of a radical idea is allowing “all legal speech.” If that turns out to be enough to trigger a successful national security review, what chance does someone without $200 billion have?

Guest post by Matt Taibbi from TK News on Substack.


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