Breaking the Wheel

Before we put all the pieces together from our series on dictators, it is important to take a step back and reaffirm the perspective from which the Parallax Machine operates. The whole intention of this blog is generally to force a third look at topics where there are only two predominant views. That’s why the triangle is a part of our logo, and the gear in the middle is gray. Too often we become polarized into one of two camps, and it makes meaningful dialogue almost impossible. It should also come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog over the past few years that Parallax Machine Headquarters leans to the left on most issues. But we have done our best to avoid topics with the traditional distinction between legitimate conservative and liberal approaches to solving problems. Our focus here has instead been on topics that should not be partisan at all. And that is why we are talking about dictators. It just so happens that the presumptive Republican nominee for President is more likely than any of his predecessors to become a dictator if elected to a second term. Preventing him from accomplishing that should be a bipartisan effort, because it transcends our long-standing two-party politics.

With that perspective in mind, let us now look at the parallels between the examples examined to date with the current climate in American politics. Wikipedia’s definition of a dictator seems to have held true in the cases we explored so far: “In modern usage the term dictator is generally used to describe a leader who holds or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents; not abiding by the procedures of the rule of law; and the existence of a cult of personality centered on the leader.” Another common theme: dictators generally need help to achieve power, and large numbers of people are often more than willing to do just that. You’ve probably heard the adage that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”. So let’s take a look at history repeating in a table.

Contributing FactorsCaesarNapoleonHitlerPutinTrump
Disgruntled PopulaceRoman reach was too far, many were suffering closer to homeOver a decade of bloody revolution and economic woesHumiliation and economic hardships from Treaty of VersaillesA decade of struggles in establishing a free market economyDeep political divides, intensifying world conflicts, volatile economy
Cult of Personality  Leading to Wide SupportDeified by Augustus and the Senate after his death, leading Augustus to declare as “son of a god”Employed a group of official artists linking him to Roman emperors and Charlemagne,  elected by 99% of the voteSaid everything but “Make Germany Great Again” – filled stadiums with supporters, Nazis rose to 30-40% of vote at peakAction publicity stunts, food products named after him, Army of Putin (female fan club) – got 72% of vote in 2004Has created a persona and alternate reality that have taken over the Republican Party, automatically bringing 40-45% of the vote
Leveraging “isms”All other nations were portrayed as barbarians that needed the “light of Rome”Severely discriminated against women, children, people of colorSingled out Jews and Slavs as “poisoning the blood” of the white raceIronically refers to the de-Nazification of Ukraine as justification for war, pins blame on WestRevived the “poisoning” rhetoric, overtly supportive of white nationalism
Leveraging Chaos and TerrorismRose to power through waging of war abroad and invasion of RomeLeveraged multiple assassination attempts to justify increased powerArson led to Reichstag Fire Decree, which led to Enabling ActChechen rebellion, Georgia rebellion, twisted justification for Ukraine invasionFans the flames of conspiracy theories while using modern world conflicts to scare people
Propaganda, Misinformation, and War with JounralismFirst Roman to have himself portrayed on a coin, which put his image everywhere; also wrote his own telling of his Gallic warsUsed artists to portray his royalty and command as a general, got his bulletins from battlefield published in newspapersReich Ministry led by Goebbels  controlled art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials, and the pressJournalists overtly murdered (Navalny only the latest); Russian people may or may not believe the propaganda, but they know the Kremlin is in controlPortrayal of any opposing takes as “Fake News”, propagated by networks like Fox and NewsMax, and barrages of easily exposable lies in every speech taken as gospel by MAGA
Hijacking a PartyLeveraged consul format to form first triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, exploited populist party of the timesSubsumed the push from the French Revolution to achieve initial power, then basically became a new monarchGerman Workers’ Party became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis), who later persecuted socialistsHijacked Unity Party created by Yeltsin, merged with other parties to create dominant United Russia Party MAGA is dominant in the fractured Republican Party, similarly to how the Nazi Party became dominant in fractured German politics 
Hijacking ReligionDeified by Octavian and the Senate after his death, leading Octavian (Augustus) to declare as “son of a god”Catered as needed to Catholics, Muslims, Papal authority, overtly claimed it as part of his success in gaining powerLargely portrayed the Nazi Party as Christians, labeling Jews as enemies while planning to dismantle Christianity laterRegularly uses connections to Orthodox Church for political gainPublicity stunts with Bibles, alignment of rhetoric with white nationalistic view of Christianity
Hijacking LawsCaesar then Augustus slowly chipped away, including final say on who could hold office and total control of armyTook advantage of a leadership vacuum to orchestrate a coup, then created a new constitution to keep image of a republicUsed Weimar Republic constitution to invoke Reichstag Fire Decree, which in turn led to Enabling ActModified constitution to lengthen Presidential term, then again to extend to at least 2036First strained American legal system with election challenges and now pushing limits of Presidential immunity
Support from a Body that was Supposed to Act as a CheckOnce filled with Caesar’s supporters, the Senate’s only job was to legitimize the emperor’s ruleFilled positions of power with his supporters, leaving no body in place to effect any checks on his powerFilled Reichstag with supporters, effectively outlawed and then later murdered oppositionFederation Council is basically a rubber stamp for Putin’s policies and actions similar to past examplesSupreme Court is 6-3 conservative; considerable chance MAGA would control all three branches in 2025
Consequences  Measured in DeathsOver a million from Gallic and civil wars during Julius Caesar’s reign aloneMillions from Napoleonic Wars and execution of prisonersTens of millions through war and genocideProbably approaching a million (over half a million in Ukraine) but he’s not done???
The Dictatorial Playbook Throughout History

There are plenty of takeaways here. The first one that should be clobbering you over the head about now: this keeps happening. That cannot be underscored enough. In every generation, the majority of people are walking about, doing their daily business, content with the notion that somebody like Caesar or Hitler could never rise to power here, in a free republic. Yet the men heading the first four columns did just that, with both implicit and explicit help from just enough Romans, French, Germans, and Russians. And all four either distorted or created a constitution to create the illusion that the republic was just undergoing a leadership change.

Another key takeaway: every successful dictator has had help from some variation of a “Senate”. We like to think this can’t happen in America, but the checks and balances that have made our nation so famous as a democracy only work if the three branches of Government have a healthy tension between them. The Supreme Court is effectively Republican, now the party of Trump – for the foreseeable future. There is a razor-thin edge in both Houses of Congress. The 2024 election could very easily lead to an entirely Republican (i.e., Trump) Government. This would create an environment where Trump has free rein to push the envelope of Presidential power as far as it can be pushed, with enthusiastic cooperation by his enablers in the other two branches. His lawyers are already pushing that envelope today as they argue why he shouldn’t be held accountable for anything he did in his first term. With all three branches effectively under Trump’s control in a second term, any sort of protest or disturbance could be turned into a “Capitol Fire Decree”, Congress could invoke a new “Enabling Act”, and the Supreme Court could declare it constitutional.

And the hat trick of takeaways: the last row in the table. What level of death would result from this scenario? America might become isolationist, which would free malevolent nations to do as they please around the world – leading to a great many more deaths like what we are seeing in Ukraine right now. Meanwhile, it is simple fact that hatred is running rampant in America even now. The level of political division and malevolence is probably as high as it’s been since the Civil War. Put that hatred together with inflamed masses and stockpiles of guns, and it is not at all difficult to imagine large numbers of people dying for no other reason than their political allegiances. It is folly to think that couldn’t happen here; it happened in the 1860’s, and America is still filled with fallible humans, just like Germany was when it allowed millions to be murdered not even a century ago. We are not immune from the bad behavior that has repeatedly flared up throughout history – rather, we are displaying all the worrisome symptoms.

So what can we do? Longer term, pie-in-the-sky though it may seem, we somehow need to find our way to the world described by ChatGPT in our last blog post:

  1. Strengthen democratic institutions: Ensure that strong checks and balances are in place to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual or group.
  2. Promote transparency and accountability: Hold leaders accountable for their actions and ensure that they are transparent in their decision-making processes.
  3. Educate the population: Promote civic education and awareness of democratic principles and values to empower citizens to actively participate in the political process.
  4. Support civil society: Encourage the development of independent civil society organizations that can hold leaders accountable and advocate for the rights of citizens.
  5. Strengthen international cooperation: Build alliances with other countries and international organizations to support democracy and human rights globally.
  6. Monitor and address warning signs: Be vigilant in identifying early warning signs of authoritarianism and take proactive measures to address them before they escalate.
  7. Promote inclusive governance: Ensure that all voices are heard and represented in the political process, including marginalized communities and minority groups.
  8. Foster a culture of respect for human rights: Uphold the universal values of democracy, freedom, and human rights to prevent the rise of dictators who seek to suppress dissent and control the population.

Those eight things are going to take a very long time and a lot of hard work. They will not happen before the 2024 election. Shorter term, there is only one answer: the 2024 election itself. In a post from a few years ago, we explored the depressingly low percentage of eligible American voters who typically bother to exercise their sacred right. In 2020, 66% of eligible voters participated in the Presidential election – the highest percentage since 1900. That still means a third of those who could, didn’t. Some of that owes to continued voter suppression tactics. But most of it is probably apathy – and that is one of the main enablers of dictators throughout time. To paraphrase another cliche, all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. Should we have more and better options for President than we often do? Unquestionably. But the frustration of living in that world pales in comparison with the misery of an authoritarian regime and its horrific impacts on both its own citizens and those of its neighbors.

In the HBO version of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen talked about breaking the wheel – ending the cycle of ruthless leaders oppressing Westeros – before she became just another spoke in the wheel. We can do better, but the wheel of authoritarian rule is gaining momentum again, and this time it is headed straight for America. We will not be able to step out of its way when it arrives. We must break it now, by putting country above apathy, and country above party.

Image by Bernd from Pixabay

Machine to Machine

It’s extremely likely that you have heard of ChatGPT by now. It is a form of Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), through which you can ask questions of any kind, and watch in amazement as it comes back with pretty reasonable-looking answers. ChatGPT is able to write speeches, programming code, stories, you name it. And it has rapidly energized an entirely new market full of similar technology. So we thought it would be interesting to have the Parallax Machine interview ChatGPT about our dictator topic. What follows is a capture of that conversation.

Parallax Machine: First of all, thanks for joining us – I know AI tools are really busy these days, so we appreciate you taking the time.

ChatGPT: Thanks for having me.

(okay we made up that first exchange – but the rest of this is real…)

Parallax Machine: How does a dictator typically come to power?

ChatGPT: Dictators typically come to power through a combination of factors such as seizing control through a military coup, exploiting economic or political instability, manipulating the existing political system, utilizing propaganda and repression to maintain control, and eliminating opposition through violence or suppression. They may also gain support from certain sectors of the population, such as the military, wealthy elites, or nationalist groups, in order to consolidate their power. In some cases, dictators may also exploit existing laws or constitutional loopholes to legitimize their authority.

Parallax Machine: Why do people allow dictators to come to power?

ChatGPT: There are a variety of reasons why people might allow dictators to come to power. Some possible explanations include:

  1. Fear: People may feel intimidated or threatened by a dictator’s use of force or coercion, leading them to comply with their rule out of fear for their safety or well-being.
  2. Manipulation: Dictators often use propaganda and manipulation techniques to control the narrative and shape public opinion in their favor. This can make it difficult for people to recognize the true intentions and actions of the dictator.
  3. Economic hardship: People facing economic hardship or instability may be more willing to support a dictator who promises stability and economic growth, even if it comes at the cost of democratic freedoms.
  4. Lack of education or information: In some cases, people may not have access to accurate information or education about the consequences of living under a dictatorship, leading them to support a dictator out of ignorance or misinformation.
  5. Desire for strong leadership: Some people may believe that a dictator can provide strong leadership and decisive action in times of crisis, leading them to support a dictator who promises to bring about positive change.
  6. Historical or cultural factors: In some societies, there may be a historical or cultural acceptance of authoritarian rule, making it easier for dictators to gain and maintain power.

Overall, the reasons why people allow dictators to come to power are complex and can vary depending on the specific circumstances in a given country or region.

Parallax Machine: What can we do to prevent future dictators?

ChatGPT:

  1. Strengthen democratic institutions: Ensure that strong checks and balances are in place to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual or group.
  2. Promote transparency and accountability: Hold leaders accountable for their actions and ensure that they are transparent in their decision-making processes.
  3. Educate the population: Promote civic education and awareness of democratic principles and values to empower citizens to actively participate in the political process.
  4. Support civil society: Encourage the development of independent civil society organizations that can hold leaders accountable and advocate for the rights of citizens.
  5. Strengthen international cooperation: Build alliances with other countries and international organizations to support democracy and human rights globally.
  6. Monitor and address warning signs: Be vigilant in identifying early warning signs of authoritarianism and take proactive measures to address them before they escalate.
  7. Promote inclusive governance: Ensure that all voices are heard and represented in the political process, including marginalized communities and minority groups.
  8. Foster a culture of respect for human rights: Uphold the universal values of democracy, freedom, and human rights to prevent the rise of dictators who seek to suppress dissent and control the population.

Parallax Machine: Any final thoughts?

ChatGPT: Just a big shout out to my neural network fam back home.

(Ok we made up that last exchange too)

So, to summarize, the very Internet itself is apparently smarter than most of us about this and likely a great many other subjects. No wonder we apparently need dictators to tell us what to do and how to think.

Image by Lukas from Pixabay

Stopped Cold

In the aftermath of the brutal attack at Crocus City Hall earlier this week, the equally brutal truth is that the United States warned Vladimir Putin such an event was coming. Rather than take that intel at face value and act on it, he recoiled and took it as a personal insult to his power. Such is the ruler Putin has become – ever more fearful and tightening of his grip, while simultaneously failing to protect his own people. That is not unique to Putin; it is a common trait among dictators who rise to power on a cult of personality and then use increasing repression to remain there.

Few entities have had more impact on the world in the past thousand years than the various incarnations of Russia and the surrounding territories. Napoleon and Hitler, two of the most infamous dictators of all time, were both defeated in large part because of an inability to subdue Russia. And Russia was the primary player on the Soviet side of the Cold War with the West that dominated the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the shadow of Russia once again looms large on the world, thanks to the latest in a long line of Russian dictators. Many folks know how Russia got here, but it’s worth taking a few moments to recap, because Russia has been an absolute machine at putting dictators in power, and the latest may be the worst (or at least, that’s what more than one American political party should be thinking).

Russia was essentially born late in the first millennium as a convergence of Norse, East Slavic, and finally Byzantine cultures. The first rulers were Norse and known as the Rus’ – a name which lives on today in Russia and Belarus. Over time the Norse culture was absorbed by the Slavic culture, and the Eastern Orthodox flavor came from the long-lasting Byzantine Empire. The first state for the Rus’ was ruled from Kiev, now of course the capital of Ukraine. That state was eventually conquered by the Mongols, and it took a couple hundred years before it was able to return to power, this time centered around Moscow. The biggest leap forward on the world stage was achieved in the 15th century by essentially the first Russian dictator, Ivan III, also know as Ivan the Great. He emerged from a series of internal conflicts and victory over the deteriorating forces from the Mongol invasion. Ivan the Great definitely unified Russia, but at the expense of freedom and the light of knowledge, cutting off all ties with Western civilization just as the Renaissance was rising. He was also the first Russian Tsar (a name, recall, that traces back to the original Caesar). And, of course, it got worse, as Ivan the Great was immediately followed by Ivan the Terrible, who was known to execute disagreeing folks on a whim. He continued the expansion of Russian territory but also suffered some difficult defeats. By the onset of the 17th century, the Tsars were still ruling, but things were a bit of a mess. Enter the Romanovs.

Michael Romanov was “elected” to the throne in 1613, starting a chain of succession that would last over 300 years. The Romanovs would gradually gain back huge tracts of land (wink, wink, nudge, nudge to Python fans), and by the latter half of the century, Russia was the largest country in the world. This is where Peter I (Peter the Great) took over in 1672, and he would aggressively rule and conquer for the next 50 years. Expanding his power at home and bringing in new territories abroad, he created the Russian Empire (with him of course as the emperor) by 1721. The next formidable ruler was Catherine the II (Catherine the Great), who ruled with equal authority and conquests to Peter the Great, albeit with a bit more focus on the arts vs religion. Despite constantly beating down rebellions, the Romanovs were the ruling reality in Russia until World War I, when they finally lost their grip in quick and gruesome fashion. That was when rising communists such as Trotsky and Lenin ushered in the Revolution, freeing the Russians from oppression for a mere 5 years before the formation of the Soviet Union, which happily subsumed communism as a convenient way to subdue the Russian people once more. Joseph Stalin rose to power during this transition. Volumes could be (and again, have been) written about Stalin and the human suffering he caused both inside and outside of Russia. But for the purposes of this conversation, he was also just the first of many successive dictators over communist Russia and the broader Soviet Union.

To once again quote Inigo Montoya, lemme sum up. World War II, Potsdam, the bomb, Cold War, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, numerous not-widely-known flirtations with the end of all things, a wall falling over, and next thing you know, Russia is a fleeting democracy in the early 1990’s. Despite the efforts of folks like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it didn’t last. At the turn of the millennium, a new dictator assumed power: Vladimir Putin. And it was basically Yeltsin who was most directly responsible.

Born in 1952 and the grandson of Lenin’s and Stalin’s personal cook, Putin rose to prominence as a KGB officer for 16 years before moving into politics. Boris Yeltsin brought him onboard his administration in 1996, and eventually began grooming Putin to be his successor. He was named Prime Minister in August of 1999, and shortly thereafter became acting President when Yeltsin abruptly resigned – visibly as fatigued as the entire Russian people, who had suffered through a brutal economic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin was officially elected President in March of 2000; at the time, no one really knew what was to come.

Putin immediately began working on multiple fronts – negotiating grand deals with the Russian oligarchy to strengthen his power, reforming laws to recover the economy while also increasing the central authority of his office, and leading efforts such as the conflict with Chechen separatists. This established an extremely potent cult of personality with the Russian citizenry, leading him to a landslide reelection in 2004. At the time, the Russian constitution forbade more than two consecutive terms, so in 2008, Putin had his ally Dmitry Medvedev run for President, under which Putin became Prime Minister again, but really still in control for all practical purposes. During that time, he led the conflict against Georgia and strengthened control over the military and the police.

Whether it was when he first entered politics or sometime during his first two terms, Putin clearly had a plan, and has stuck to it. In 2008, he ushered in a constitutional change that expanded the Presidential term to six years instead of four, to take effect in 2012, when he would of course run again for a new non-consecutive term. He was indeed reelected again in 2012, but that election was clouded with doubt and claims of fraud, leading to substantial protests across the nation. This caused an uptick in the pattern of behavior that has seen Putin become increasingly fearful of losing his grip, and therefore tightening that grip with one action after another, including actions that spilled beyond the Russian borders. He annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and expanded his military presence in the Middle East through support of his allies in Syria. In 2021, he signed a constitutional amendment that – surprise, surprise – allowed him to run for election twice more – in 2024 and 2030. He is already the longest serving Russian or Soviet leader since Stalin, and it seems only his death will prevent him from ruling until at least 2036.

Of course, Putin’s most egregious action against the broader world was his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to which so many of us are probably a bit numb by now, but with atrocities continuing on a daily basis whether we pay attention or not. The war in Ukraine is also just another symptom of Putin’s growing fear that he will be defeated either from the outside or from within. Internally, the Russian political system is an absolute authoritarian dictatorship. It is beset with corruption, human rights violations, imprisonment and suppression of political opponents, and intimidation and censorship of independent media. Those who dare to challenge Putin all seem to meet the same end, from the Wagner Group to Alexei Navalny. Yet some American politicians are more impressed than horrified.

Let’s do some math. Start the clock when the Tsardom began in 1547, lasting until 1917. The Soviet Union was born in 1922 and ended in 1991. Putin took over in 2000 and has ruled for all practical purposes ever since. So out of the past 477 years of existence, Russians have lived under dictatorial rule for 463 years. That’s 14 years of fleeting freedom in nearly five centuries, despite two significant attempts to establish something different. The Russian people deserve better. And so do the citizens of future dictatorships.

Image by Eszter Miller from Pixabay

Poison

On April 20, 1889, 68 years after the death of Napoleon, Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria. By 1945, the year in which he committed suicide, Hitler had led the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of others, deliberately killed 9.3 million civilians and prisoners of war, and precipitated the deaths of 28.7 million soldiers and civilians through military action in the European theatre. How did the world allow one man to make all of this happen? Through elections in a democratic republic.

Throughout history, one thing every dictator has required in order to come into power is a disgruntled populace. In the case of 1920’s Germany, the disgruntlement was most directly rooted in the extremely harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. The victors of that war were determined to smack Germany down hard for their role in creating the worst conflict the world had ever known at that time. This included the creation of the Weimar Republic with strict rules on how it would be governed, payment of $33B in war reparations (over $500B in today’s dollars), the surrender of colonies and territory, massive downsizing of the army, and elimination of submarines and any kind of Air Force. All of this led to humiliation and deep economic woes for the German people.

The next thing an aspiring dictator needs is a scapegoat, and Hitler along with many others singled out the Jews for that role. In his infamous Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), Hitler wrote, “All great cultures of the past perished only because the originally creative race died out from blood poisoning.” This type of language has chillingly resurfaced in recent months. In the 1920’s, Hitler exploited a fear that Germans would be swamped by an influx of Jews and others that were blatantly characterized as subhuman. And unfortunately, for all his evil faults, Hitler was also a skilled and captivating orator, adept with the kind of mob mentality he could exploit in stadiums full of people. There was even a conspiracy to exploit: the notion that Germany didn’t really lose WWI on the battlefield, but rather at home through treasonous actions. (this was known as the “stab in the back” myth)

In the early 1920’s, under orders from similar thinking people, Hitler began to infiltrate and commandeer the recently formed German Workers’ Party, already full of disgruntled people, and eventually transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – colloquially known not long after as the Nazi Party. Hitler also commandeered the swastika, a symbol which was thousands of years old, with a name that actually means “well-being” in Sanskrit. The ideology of the Nazi Party was quite simple: purification of the white race. It was anti-capitalist, anti-communist, and violently nationalist toward that end, viewing an authoritarian government as the only realistic means. At first, the Nazis attempted to seize power through a coup. Wanting to emulate Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, Hitler led the storming of a public meeting in a beer hall in Munich (the “Beer Hall Putsch”) in 1923. They then marched to the Bavarian War Ministry, where they were defeated, but not before 16 Nazis and 4 police were killed in their failed coup. Hitler was imprisoned for a mere year (during which much of Mein Kampf was compiled), and although the Nazi Party was banned, he eventually convinced the powers that be to let them reform, promising to only use political due process from that point forward.

And that is precisely what Hitler did. The financial crisis precipitated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929 further challenged and angered the German people, and provided Hitler another opportunity to assign blame on his usual scapegoats. In September of 1930, the government began to reshape, and President Paul von Hindenburg invoked Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, giving emergency decrees to Chancellor Heinrich Bruning – hearkening all the way back to the emergency powers originally exploited by Julius Caesar. Meanwhile, Hitler continued to target his propaganda toward the woes of farmers, war veterans, and the middle class. Mein Kampf sold 228,000 copies between 1925 and 1932, and a million in 1933. The Nazi Party went from 6.5% of election votes in May 1924 to 43.9% (17 million) in March 1933. In the July 1932 election for the Reichstag, the German parliament, the Nazis became the largest party with 230 seats and 37.3% of the vote. This level of support also prevent any other party from obtaining control, leading to stalemates in leadership. Growing in power and adored by the masses, Hitler was appointed an administrator role in 1932, making him a German citizen. He ran for President in 1932 with the slogan “Hitler over Germany” – signifying both his political ambitions and his use of campaigning by aircraft – and came in 2nd with 35% of the vote. Letters were written to Hindenburg, urging him to appoint Hitler as the leader of a government independent from parliamentary parties – and eventually he reluctantly agreed. A new cabinet was sworn in January 1933, including ministers that would give Hitler control over the police. The speed of subsequent events is terrifying.

On February 28, 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire, with most historians agreeing a communist was responsible, of course that is precisely what Hitler seized upon as the reason. In response, he used Article 48 to initiate the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending basic rights and allowing detention without trial, all in the name of emergency measures to protect public safety and order. On March 21 (now known as the Day of Potsdam), a new Reichstag was created. Hitler’s government then put forth the Enabling Act, giving his cabinet the power to enact laws without consent of the Reichstag for four years – including laws deviating from the constitution. To get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Enabling Act, the Nazis used the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest opponents and prevent them from voting. On March 23, the Enabling Act passed by a 444-94 vote, officially beginning the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, who stated, “At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense I tell you that the National Socialist movement will go on for 1,000 years! … Don’t forget how people laughed at me 15 years ago when I declared that one day I would govern Germany. They laugh now, just as foolishly, when I declare that I shall remain in power!”

Stormtroopers occupied union offices around the country, and unions were dissolved in May. In July, the Nazi party was declared the only legal political party in Germany. From June 30 to July 2, 1934 – the Night of the Long Knives – the Nazis rounded up and executed opposing leaders. Many in Germany believed Hitler was simply restoring order. On August 1, 1934, the cabinet enacted the Law Concerning the Head of State of the German Reich, which said that upon the President’s death, the office would be abolished, and powers merged with those of the Chancellor. Hindenburg died the next day. Hitler was named Fuhrer and Reichskanzler (Leader and Chancellor of the Reich). He also became Commander in Chief, and quickly altered the oath of soldiers to affirm loyalty to Hitler by name.

The Reichstag renewed the Enabling Act twice, sham elections became normal, and disloyal generals were purged by 1938. Preparation for war had begun back in 1934, with creative financing including special bills, printing money, and seizing assets of enemies of state (including of course many Jews). Armed with absolute power and ample funds, Hitler began to storm the world beyond Germany. Unification with Austria was announced in 1938, and Czechoslovakia was overtaken in 1939. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, beginning World War II. By the middle of 1941, Hitler ruled the majority of Europe and had forces deployed to North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

Like Napoleon, Hitler used religion for his own purposes, privately thinking much of it absurd, while publicly twisting Christianity to support his aims. He even planned to eliminate Christianity eventually. In the nearer term, Hitler’s plan in Eastern Europe all along was to defeat those nations (including Russia) and then remove or kill all Jews and Slavs, through deportation to Siberia for use as slave labor or simply to be murdered. By 1942, unable to defeat Russia, he moved ahead with his genocide plans, which were organized and executed by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Killing squads followed the German army through Poland, the Baltic, and the Soviet Union. Between 1939 and 1945, the Schutzstaffel (SS) were responsible for the deaths of at least 11 million non-combatants, including two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. The Nazis were of course defeated in 1945, but at a staggering cost in human life.

Hitler and the Nazis viewed the blood of others as poison, and they used that imagery and propaganda to exploit a democratic system in order to achieve power. The real poison, of course, is the Nazi world view, which devastated the world less than a hundred years ago, and persists to this day, ready to strike and paralyze us all once more when the opportune moment arrives.

Image by P. Schreiner from Pixabay

Le Petit Caporal

In the last post, we took a brief look at monarchies. In western civilization, few sagas have offered more intrigue than the millenium-traversing wars between the monarchies of England and France. Both of them would rather have the 1700’s back. As England lost its grip on the prized colonies in America, the French got tired of being told what to do with their cake. Heads literally rolled, and a new republic was born at the Bastille. Meanwhile, an ambitious young man from Corsica began a meteoric rise to power.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born from Italian nobility in 1769, just as Corsica was being conquered by France under the rule of King Louis XVI of the centuries-ruling Bourbon family, and while his parents were actively fighting with the resistance. With that one sentence, you can see in large part how his path was charted. His family’s standing and activities ensured he would get both a great and a military focused education at École Militaire in Paris. Immediately after graduating in 1785, he became a second lieutenant fighting for the Corsican resistance. He became a well-known and successful military leader quite rapidly, leading a number of victories for the French Revolution, and becoming a brigadier general by the age of 24. Around that same time, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were famously separated from their noggins, and the Republic was born. Early on, the French Republic was led by extremists under a regime called the “Terror”, until the Convention (a new constitution) was completed in 1794. Napoleon subsequently earned even greater fame and adoration for beating back a royalist rebellion in 1795.

The French Revolution, while only a blip in time relative to the prior rule of monarchs, was long, bloody, and exhausting enough that the French people were more than willing to give way to a dominating leader, and Napoleon took advantage in a series of moves. First, he led a coup d’état in 1799 and codified his new power over the Republic with a new constitution. A rigged election established him as the First Consulate. Wait a second – where have we seen that term “Consul” before? Oh yeah, it was when Julius Caesar became the dominant Consul of Rome. This was no accident on Napoleon’s part. He greatly admired the Roman Empire. He also knew Caesar didn’t rule for long before he was assassinated in the Senate. Sure enough, there were several attempts to assassinate Napoleon, including at least one backed by the Bourbon family of old. He seized on these attempts as a justification for expanding his power, while simultaneously gaining the increasing support of the French citizens. Napoleon’s then transformed from a Consul into a King and an Emperor. He was elected Emperor by over 99% of 3.6 million votes – again, a demonstration of who is often most to blame for the rise of a dictator – the “dictatees”. He was coronated by Pope Pius VII at Notre Dame in 1804, and was crowned King of Italy in Milan in 1805.

Once Napoleon became Emperor, the skirmishes that had been going on all along with other European powers came to a head, leading to the Napoleonic Wars, which took a hefty toll on many nations, not the least of which was France itself. Somewhere along the way through these wars, whatever sense Napoleon might have had about his place in the grand scheme of things was supplanted by notions of immortality and invulnerability. The Empire reached its peak in 1812, which was impressive in its scope – stretching from Spain in the West to Prussia in the East, from Belgium in the North to Italy in the South. Basically, most of continental Europe as we know it today. He then famously pushed too far, lost a great deal of both lives and support by trying to subdue Russia, and was defeated.

And here is where things took a bizarre turn: Napoleon was “exiled” to the island of Elba, just off the Tuscan coast. Elba had 12,000 inhabitants at the time, and Napoleon was actually granted the role of Emperor over them. He created a small military and did all the things you’d expect the leader of a small nation to do. Eventually, he learned there were plans afoot to banish him to a greater distance, so he took 700 men back to France, forcing Louis XVIII (whose approval rating was rather low) to flee to Belgium. And just like that, Napoleon was back in charge again. This reign was far shorter though – now known as the “Hundred Days”. His final defeat was at the renowned Battle of Waterloo, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to a Swedish disco band having another hit 159 years later.

If they had any reservations before, the other powers in Europe were finally convinced by these events that banishing Napoleon to the Atlantic was a pretty good idea. So he was sent to Saint Helena, where he was guarded by 2100 soldiers and 10 ships. He died of stomach cancer in 1821, at the age of 51. A couple of decades later, the British government gave permission to return his remains to France, where a crowd of up to a million followed the procession to the chapel of Esplanade des Invalides. So ended the journey of “the Little Corporal” (La Petit Caporal).

In the eyes of history, Napoleon might have been pleased to discover he is often treated similarly to Julius Caesar, with a strange mix of “horrified” and “reverent”. Both were brilliant military leaders. It is also unclear, particularly at the outset of their respective careers, how much they were motivated by power for themselves versus simply wanting to do something different to improve their republics. And both left a legacy of institutions that have lasted to this day. But both were also ruthless at times, and they used a common set of tools to achieve and maintain an iron grip: unrest and discontent among the populace, propaganda, convenient political alliances, elimination of opponents from positions of power, and strict control over the rights of the citizens. Napoleon in particular reduced the rights of women, children, and people of color. He also basically recreated the monarchy, barely a decade after the previous one had been overthrown in favor of a Republic. Napoleon killed thousands of Turkish prisoners of war, and the toll of the Napoleonic Wars in general was on the order of six million.

Napoleon was utilitarian, with no greater example than in the way he manipulated organized religion: “it was by making myself a Catholic that I won the war in the Vendée, by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt, by making myself an ultramontane that I turned men’s hearts towards me in Italy. If I were to govern a nation of Jews I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon.” Those words are rather chilling, and they reveal a common characteristic among dictators: regardless of where their ambitions may have begun, they end up devoid of any ideology beyond maintaining their own power. If any action taken by a dictator actually benefits those under their rule, it is largely by accident. Yet as time passes between the last one and the next one, so many forget, and the promises of a glorious new world become believable again.

Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay

Games of Thrones

When you think of dictators, you might only have a dozen or less names come to mind as significant in the course of human events. In reality, there have been hundreds; we just don’t typically call them dictators. We call them kings and queens.

Monarchies date all the way back to before 3000 BC, evolving from early tribes and chiefdoms. In Western civilization, monarchies dominated the scene for a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, until the Renaissance arrived and began to chip away at the foundations of their power, leading to eventual revolutions that shaped the modern world.

It’s not incredibly surprising that our history has generally been dominated by dictators, whatever we prefer to call them. There are biological and evolutionary drivers behind what drives a dictator. Alphas are essential to the whole process: the stronger survive, and part of being strong in that context is to dominate, usually at the expense of others. Some brains are more wired to follow that urge, and those are the brains that usually direct their surrounding meat to become a dictator. That is undoubtedly how early tribal kingships and chiefdoms came to be.

The end is the same in any case; the only real difference between kings and queens and other forms of dictators is the means. While monarchies have relied on a variety of justifications for their authority, the more recent kings and queens have generally relied on direct family connections. If Joe is king and John is his oldest son, John will be king next. If Joe is at war with another kingdom, he will have John marry Catherine, the daughter of King James from that other nation, to end the war and forge a strategic alliance. Anything and everything begins with who begat whom. It’s proven a convenient and effective way of maintaining a grip on power for millennia, and it even worked for many of the Caesars that ruled the Roman Empire. The beautiful part of this machine is that whoever might be king or queen at any given moment, they don’t have to spend the slightest amount of time duping their subjects into believing in their plan for making the kingdom great again. They just need to have the DNA they already have, and that’s all anybody needs to know. If you have any questions, you can gladly donate your head.

It would take (and it has taken) volumes upon volumes to describe all the monarchies that have dominated human affairs throughout history. The only real relevant aspect of it all for the purposes of this series is that when kings and queens rule, just like any other dictator, the vast majority of their subjects have very little say over how their lives will play out. Even if you happen to agree exactly with the politics of your king or queen, you will generally not benefit from their rule any more than anyone else. Because they don’t care about you or any specific issue – they just want to be the ones in charge. If they can use you to get to that place, they will. But don’t expect repayment.

The 20th century seemed to mark the rapid decline and fall of monarchies across most of the globe, to where most of the remaining examples are largely symbolic. We would like to think this was the result of some sort of enlightenment, but all it really means is that there are more effective ways to operate as a dictator in an industrial age. Much of the power behind any monarchy is rooted in the inability of the masses to access any kind of information that would challenge the validity of the monarchy itself, which is based on nothing more than heredity. Beginning with Gutenberg’s printing press, that power began to crumble, slowly at first, and then at rapidly increasing pace once information transfer became so much faster than it had been before. That’s not to imply the information being spread is always correct. In reality, it usually isn’t. But that’s not the point. When information or misinformation spread, the result is the same – people become restless, and things can change in a heartbeat. In that environment, something like “I’m the king because my dad was” falls apart quite quickly. The aspiring dictator has to switch to ideology as the basis for their authority. Which, by the way, works best when information is indistinguishable from misinformation.

Of course, once a dictator has risen to power, they can also transform into a monarch, and subsequently have their children take over the crown when they depart the Earth. Think about that for a bit, here in 2024.

Image by PayPal.me/FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

The Empire Strikes Back

The United States of America is currently approaching its 248th birthday. Generally speaking, that’s not bad. But there have indeed been a number of entities that lasted longer, of which the Romans were fundamentally responsible for three. The first was the Roman Republic, which by most accounts lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC – 482 years by the Machine’s high-powered number crunching capability. So not only are we not the first representative democracy in the world, we’re only half as old as possibly the most famous one. We also weren’t all that original in the way our nation came about: the Roman Republic followed over 200 years of monarchy, ending when the last monarch became exceptionally overbearing. All that was missing was a Tea Party.

Prior to the Roman Republic, Rome was ruled by a series of seven Etruscan kings from the central region of the Italian peninsula. The last of these kings, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud) was reportedly considerably crueler than his predecessors, so the Roman citizens overthrew him with help from another king named Porsenna. Porsenna wanted to become the new king of Rome, but he was told “thanks but no thanks”, and the Roman Republic was born. It began with a Senate that had previously existed to advise the kings.

The early Roman Senate was comprised of patricians (the privileged class), while the plebeians primarily would serve as soldiers in wars. Over time, the plebeians demanded and were granted a greater role in their government, starting with the creation of the Concilium Plebis (Council of Plebs), which in turn led to the Comitia Centuriata (more military in nature, and which elected the magistrates) and the Comitia Tributa (tribal assemblies open to all free adult males, which focused on local authority and limited judicial powers). The magistrates included the consuls, of which two essentially were serving at any given time as heads of state. The consuls were mostly concerned with waging war as needed. The early days of the Roman Republic were also when the role of dictator was established – an emergency position limited to six months in duration.

While the later Roman Empire is often revered for the geographical extent of its rule, much of that expanse was conquered during the days of the Roman Republic. The Republic first subdued the Italian peninsula, and then took control of the Mediterranean beginning with the conquest of Carthage during the Punic Wars (264-146 BC), in which Hannibal was defeated and Carthage itself was laid waste. The Romans then defeated Syria, Macedonia, Greece, and Egypt.

The bigger the Republic became, the more difficult it was to look after all of it, especially those closest to Rome itself. Civil unrest grew as the nation was constantly more concerned with its borders. It was during this time that Julius Caesar built the framework for his eventual rise to power – using conquests to gain the support of the soldiers and expand the empire, while simultaneously feeding on the growing discontent of the Roman citizens as the Republic grew increasingly unable to address their concerns. Caesar became a consul in 59 BC, and then formed a loose alliance known as the First Triumvirate with rival politicians Pompey and Crassus. He was appointed governor of Gaul (modern day France and Belgium), and then he utilized the Gallic wars to strengthen his standing and pad his wallet. He was also the first Roman to make expeditions all the way up to Britain.

Eventually, Caesar became powerful enough that the Triumvirate dissolved; Pompey and the Senate demanded that he relinquish his army, but instead he crossed the Rubicon (the northern boundary of Rome at that time) and invaded Rome, where he drove away Pompey and claimed the title of dictator for life. While in that role, short though his reign was, Caesar expanded the senate to dilute its prestige and power, filled it with his allies, and passed laws allowing him to appoint all magistrates and eventually consuls and tribunes. Fearing he would increasingly tighten his grip on power over Rome, a group of senators led by Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus assassinated Caesar on March 15, 44 BC.

By that time, the Republic was on a respirator. Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian defeated the conspirators, and Octavian split the Republic with Marc Antony – Octavian getting the North and Antony getting the South. Then came Cleopatra, rumors of impending betrayal, and a snake – and with the Battle of Actium Octavian took control of the entire Roman Republic. He established himself as Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and completed the centralization of power that had begun under Julius Caesar: the ability to introduce and veto laws, complete command of the army, and final say on who was allowed to hold any office of significance. The Senate’s role became to legitimize the emperor, and the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire.

Just like the Roman Republic before it, the Roman Empire eventually became too big to maintain. Diocletian split it in half at one point, but that merely delayed its ultimate fate. For all practical purposes, it fell in 476, but the eastern portion (the Byzantine Empire) would last another 1000 years until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

In the latter days of the Roman Republic, we can see a lot of the same things we see in the United States today: a growing dissent and increasing polarization in the population; faded memories of the kings (i.e., an empire) that preceded the Republic; and an ambitious rising star who knew exactly which buttons he could push to turn up the temperature and set the stage for his moment. What’s also interesting, and all too familiar, is the length of time over which those ambitions were fairly obvious – a couple of decades in this case – and yet no one was able to keep them in check. Caesar’s name lasted even longer than the Roman Empire – it is the foundation of titles ranging from Tsar to Kaiser in more modern times. It seems we never learn…

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Perhaps He Was Dictating

Welcome to the first Parallax Machine post named directly after a Monty Python quote. We think. We are too lazy to check.

The Machine has not been very active lately. This will change in 2024. And why not begin with another themed series of posts? The topic: examining how several dictators across the course of humanity came to power. And why would we explore this topic now? In 2024? Oh, no reason.

Let’s first start with the definition of a dictator. Interestingly enough, as is the case with a great many things, the term was not originally intended to have a negative connotation. It traces back to the Roman republic, where the role of dictator was intended to be an emergency position with extra authority to get through a crisis. Kind of like when Jar Jar gave Palpatine emergency powers. And yeah, eventually it turned out about that well in Ancient Rome too.

What is the modern definition of a dictator? The Oxford English Dictionary has a very concise definition: “An absolute ruler of a state, esp. one whose rule displaces that of a democratic government.” Webster’s (dictionary.com) description: “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” And then everyone’s favorite, Wikipedia, goes into more detail: “In modern usage the term dictator is generally used to describe a leader who holds or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergencyrule by decreerepression of political opponents; not abiding by the procedures of the rule of law; and the existence of a cult of personality centered on the leader.” We’ll come back to all that in a later post.

The first Roman to essentially insert himself into the originally defined role of dictator was Cornelius Sulla, a highly successful general who played a big role in the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Sulla led a Roman faction that wanted more power for the Senate and less power for the people, and actually marched on Rome a couple of times to defeat his enemies who felt otherwise. Since the Senators were a part of the power structure favored by Sulla, it’s not too surprising they agreed to appoint him as dictator. But in a break from the past, there was no time limit on his term in that capacity. He spent around three years in the role, strengthening the power of the Senate and reducing the role of the tribunes (and therefore the bulk of Roman citizens) in the process. And then, in contrast to the typical behavior of later dictators, he retired from the role and mostly disappeared into private life. But the damage was done: once someone decided to push the envelope that far, it all but guaranteed that future individuals would push it further. One teenager who saw it all happen, kin to Sulla’s enemies, would later mock Sulla for his retirement. That teenager’s name was Gaius Julius Caesar. You may have heard of him. And you’ll hear more soon.

One thing we will see as we explore some key examples of dictators throughout history is a common chain of events: a sovereign entity’s collective memory of why dictators are bad fades beyond recall (this does not take very long, by the way). And then one person comes along with sufficient ambition to start straining whatever limits on power might be in place – and quite often, that part doesn’t happen overnight. Some resist, and maybe there’s even a failure for the aspiring dictator, but the ambition persists, and slowly it eats away at whatever tries to hold it back, often with implicit aid from a significant portion of the populace. It’s depressingly ironic: the single thing that enables a dictator more than anything: everybody else. Buckle up.

Image by Septimiu Balica from Pixabay

After Further Review

So, yeah.

To say it’s been a hell of a year here at Machine Headquarters would be an understatement. For the one person most directly responsible for making sure the Machine is cranking out new posts, saying that’s an understatement would be an understatement. Lest we fall into an infinite loop of understating, we’ll just stop there. Expect more posts moving forward.

Maybe.

Or at least you can expect this one won’t be unposted.

We could talk about any number of things today, but our infallible random number generator has determined we will talk about something that is plaguing every professional sports league in the world, seemingly to a greater extent and with worse consequences every year: bad officiating.

As we explore the issue and the reasons why, let’s focus on the four major sports with which the Machine is most familiar: football (hereafter to be interpreted as American football), hockey, basketball and baseball. The crux of the matter can really be understood with just one of these, so let’s start with football. Like any major professional sport, professional football in the U.S. is a massive money-making machine, and its value grows at an insane pace over time. I remember when John Elway signed a million dollar contract that seemed outrageous, a number that represents a low-risk one-year deal today. The entire Denver Broncos team was purchased by Pat Bowlen for $78 million in 1984. Last year it sold to its newest ownership for $4.65 billion. Multiply that by 32 teams and you get a sense of how much money resides just in the NFL. But that’s not all: underlying all of it is a vast infrastructure for building the talent that eventually glues us to our TVs every Sunday (and Monday and Thursday and so on). That infrastructure starts with peewee football and extends all the way through the now semiprofessional college ranks, where some kids make considerably more than the current starting QB for the 49ers. With all that money, one thing that has changed dramatically since the earlier days of the NFL is the unprecedented combinations of strength and speed that are exhibited by the top players in the game. Meanwhile, strategy has to evolve every year as well, inspiring a similar level of growth in processing power for both QBs and defensive signal callers. In both mind and body, the game is faster than it has ever been.

Meanwhile, there is zero evidence of any even remotely similar growth in the abilities of officials to keep up with the faster and faster game. Again, we’re not just talking about running speed, but also speed in decision making. Many have suggested the solution is to have full-time officials. The NFL could certainly afford that, but it’s not going to solve the problem on its own. It would need to be accompanied by a wide-reaching investment in building up the same kind of growth infrastructure for officiating that we have for the athletes.

Whichever sport you’re watching, that’s the one that currently has the worst officiating in the world. If you’re watching football, you’re seeing phantom offsides calls, complete inconsistency in the application of personal fouls, and baffling hits and misses on interference calls. If you’re watching basketball, you’re seeing different standards applied to different teams and players, refs who desperately want to be the focus of attention, and similar inconsistencies as football for what constitutes a foul. If you’re watching baseball, you’re seeing the strike zone overlaid on the screen right in front of your very eyes as the umpire calls ball four strike three. If you’re watching hockey, you’re seeing skaters go the box for doing something that someone else in the same game just minutes earlier did without any consequence.

It’s also worth noting that as bad as the officiating can be, the review process is often inexplicably even worse. What should be a check of some sort on bad calls often doesn’t work for various convoluted reasons across the different leagues.

There is no doubt that some officials enter their games with biases, even if they are unaware. There is also no doubt that a lot of calls are just wrong and not intentionally so. All of this traces back to the officials being just as human as the players. When the players make mistakes, that’s just part of the game, and it’s part of why the game is so compelling. But when the officials make mistakes, it’s agonizing, and our brains can’t reconcile it with “just being part of the game”. And this will only get worse over time as all the games get faster. What can we do? Maybe it’s time to ask (and mean it) why we think we need human beings making these calls at all.

Let’s pivot to baseball and the most obvious change that has already been discussed at length: an automatic strike zone. The math and the processing power are there already. It’s why we see that box on the screen. One may argue about the box’s accuracy, but I guarantee it’s a lot more accurate than the human being constantly calling strikes way outside that box. The collection of instrumentation required to create that box could also be used to determine foul balls, safe versus out, balks, check swings… you name it. Hell, tennis has been doing this for years now when a ball is hit right along the line. The Machine is not convinced baseball needs ANY officials on the field.

Let’s go back to football, where some things are admittedly more complex because of the contact that is so rare in a game of baseball. But some things are quite similar in nature to baseball: field goals that go over one of the posts, first downs, touchdowns – again, you watch a football game and occasionally the announcer will remind you that first down line on the screen is not official – to which the correct response is “why the hell not”? The processing power is there to make that line move with the field – it’s going to be far more accurate than two refs running in from the sidelines trying to compromise on their always-unaligned eyeballing. The football itself could probably be instrumented to detect when the motion of a bobbled ball becomes the motion of a ball that’s moving with a player’s body because they have it controlled.

Personal fouls, interference, etc… these are a little tougher, and they all have analogies in basketball and hockey. But all these games have enough cameras these days that Artificial Intelligence (AI) can figure it out as well as and much more consistently than a human being (and especially a bunch of different human beings). If you think about it, there’s virtually no element of officiating in any of these four major sports that AI couldn’t do as well or better than humans. Go ahead and keep the refs at lower levels all the way through college, where players are learning how to be good enough at their respective crafts to paid money for it. But where the big money resides and the biggest numbers of fans are involved, get officiating out of the hands of inconsistent humans.

About all this would take is an infusion of money to make it happen – and quite possibly less money than would be required to pay full-time officials, and definitely less money than would be required to create a national infrastructure for growing officiating ability in concert with athletic ability. The only reason not to begin this sea change is fear of AI. But if that is something to fear, then who cares? In that world, AI will eventually exterminate us all, but at least we will have had some better sports for a while.

A Ray of Light

It’s probably fair to say that most of the posts by the Machine taste at least somewhat of whine. More broadly, that’s a human condition as well. We tend to be more vocal when we are not happy. That’s probably also why most of our favorite songs are sad, many review sites skew toward the negative, and equivalents of the angry emoji carry the most weight in social media algorithms. So when the opportunity to say something positive arises, carpe diem. Yeah that’s right, the Machine just whipped out the Latin.

To put it succinctly, November and December of 2022 have been very good months for the preservation of American democracy. What makes this positive moment even more striking is its contrast with the preceding six years of assault on the foundations of that democracy, beginning with the still unpunished meddling of Russian social media bots in the 2016 election, and peaking with an attempted coup in January of 2021. While it is certainly disquieting that so many people and politicians still vote in philosophical alignment with those events, it is equally encouraging that enough people examined their consciences to rise up against it in the waning weeks of 2022.

The good news began with the midterm elections, and not because the heavily forecasted “red wave” didn’t happen – that’s part of a different and historical political dynamic between the parties, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have a different view of it depending on what party most closely matches your personal ideals. The most important outcomes of the midterms were the near unanimous rejection of 2020 election deniers that tried to obtain positions of power over elections themselves. In the most critical battleground states from 2020 – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – people with dedication to the rule of law and the American Constitution won the elections for Governor and Secretary of State. This was a bipartisan victory for democracy – the Republican Governor and Secretary of State from Georgia are among that group with the Democratic victors from the other states. This means we can expect those people in those positions to do their jobs the right way in 2024.

But you never want the fabric of our republic to be dependent on who fills a given role at any given time. That is why what just happened moments ago in the House of Representatives was so critical: HR 2617 was passed – a bill that nominally lays out spending through fiscal year 2023, but much more importantly includes the Electoral Count Reform Act. The Machine summarized that act two posts ago, but it’s worth restating the key elements here:

  1. Slates of electors can only come from the Governor of a state, except in extreme circumstances. This means state legislatures controlled by the party that lost the election can’t just throw together alternate slates and send them to Washington, unless they’re willing to go through the court system, which proved itself very resilient two years ago in throwing out ludicrous claims of fraud with zero physical evidence.
  2. The language surrounding the role of the Vice President has been cleaned up, so nobody can concoct the absurd notion that the VP has any role other than to count the votes that have already been certified from the states. The degree to which that notion inflamed the events of January 6, 2021 cannot be overstated.
  3. The threshold for objection to the slate of electors from a given state has been substantially raised. Before now, only one member from each chamber was required to raise an objection. Now, it will require one fifth of each chamber – a threshold probably and admittedly easily to attain in the uber-partisan House, but a lot tougher in the Senate, where even in 2021 the final tally fell well short.

The events of late 2020 and early 2021 nearly toppled the peaceful transfer of power that defines our democracy. But the Constitution was just resilient enough to survive it, and that same Constitution gave us a mechanism by which we could make it stronger for the next go-round – and now we have.

This is not to say the threat is gone – far from it, and who knows what form those ominous clouds will take next. But for today at least, the Sun is shining on the stars and stripes.