Llewellyn King: Information technology has been far from the civic boon hoped for

A 20-year-old fax machine

A 20-year-old fax machine

When the current age of communication started (pick your time, but I think it was when we started sending print by telephone in the form of a fax), it was thought that dictators would fall, and democracy would be reinvigorated.

The first big disappointment was Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis began to get uncensored news and information, it was believed that the grip of the royal family and its extreme religious allies would be loosened. It did not happen. Instead, Saudi Arabia was spurred to use its oil wealth to push conservative Islam around the globe, especially in places where it was present but could be radicalized, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. They poured their money into madrassas -- religious schools -- that preached the Wahhabism, a strict and puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam.

When Iran, a majority Shia country, was under the dictatorial thumb of the Shah, it was thought that the Iranians, a sophisticated people with an ancient and proud history, would be liberalized by the flow of Western, secular ideas. These ideas came into the country through the presence of visitors and contractors, and a liking for movies and television.

Fax transmission was important in the spread of ideas in Iran. But the faxes that had the biggest effect were not those preaching democracy but those coming from an old Shia cleric living in exile in a village outside Paris, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He used the fax to push the Islamic Revolution, which turned out to be a much worse tyranny than the Shah’s

People ask me why, when the mainstream media daily points up President Trump’s failures and transgressions, his supporters are unmoved, disdaining what is being revealed in favor of what they want to believe. They believe in Trump and they believe in his courtiers at Fox News Channel and on talk radio.

People do not react to raw information but, rather, to information that sits well with them for other reasons: what they are predisposed to believe.

Rupert Murdoch, the boss of Fox News, has had a genius, a real genius, for corralling those who felt ignored by society. He did it in Britain with his hugely successful tabloid newspaper, The Sun, and he has done it here with Fox News. In Britain and in the United States, he found and exploited a nativism that both countries had forgotten they had.

Fox News did not invent Trump; instead, the shoe fit. In Britain, The Sun did not invent Brexit. But when it came along, The Sun was ready to lead the charge -- and it did.

How we react to the news depends on our involvement with it in tertiary ways. If you were already convinced of British exceptionalism, you would move toward the hostility to Europe expressed in The Sun. If you think immigrants take jobs, speak strange languages and are usurping our Americanism, you will be gung-ho for Trump’s southern border wall.

In the 1990s you could find, and I did, from Nicaragua to Zimbabwe, old-line Communists lamenting the fall of the Soviet Union. They argued that it had not been given a chance. These people really believed that all that was wanted was more of what did not work.

If you are a Trump supporter, you are genuinely amazed that the mainstream media cannot see that what he is doing is great. Democrats and renegade Republicans, such as columnist George Will, can find nothing, absolutely nothing, good in the Trump presidency.

People, including AOL founder Steve Case, talked idealistically about the Internet in the days when it was getting going as the great, new democratic tool; a boon to global democracy. Wrong. If anything, it stirred up a destructive nationalism.

Information, I have noticed as a journalist who has worked on three continents, does not necessarily shape political opinion.

Political opinion tends to find the media that agree with it, not the other way. But after the two have mated, media can inflame its public partner. Good for two-party rivalry, but not for elucidation.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is He’s based in Rhode Island and Washington. D.C.

Becoming unexceptional America

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' in

President Trump and his advisers might bear in mind that corrupt dictatorships such as the Saudi monarchy and other tyrannies in the Mideast are a major cause of Islamic terrorism. They spawn hopelessness and anger that then lead to the likes of al-Qaida and ISIS. Now we’re in bed with these regimes more than ever because Trump prefers dictators  over democratically elected leaders (easier to make deals with and associating with thugs makes this very insecure man feel more powerful) and he doesn’t see any value in America’s promoting human rights and democracy.

The unhappy masses below these tyrants will remember who propped up these regimes if and when they're overthrown. And anti-American succession regimes will have all that U.S. military gear we’re selling them. It recalls Lenin’s line: “The bourgeoisie will sell us the rope with which we’ll hang them.’’

The president might also learn that Iran, which he repeatedly bashes and which has about 80 million people, compared to about 32 millionin Saudi Arabia, is less dictatorial than the latter and has a substantial middle class, much of which is pro-American. Indeed, the Iranians, most of whom are Shiites, just had a semi-free election – something you won’t see anytime soon in the Sunni dictatorships that Trump sucks up to.

In the short run, America can’t do much about the many nations run by vicious dictators, but if we are unwilling to at least try to defend liberty and human rights just how “exceptional’’ are we anymore?

Meanwhile, Trump clumsily gets us involved in a regional dispute involving Qatar and some other Persian Gulf kleptocracies.


Chris Powell: Too late to stop the bad Iran deal

Connecticut isn't convulsed as Washington is over President Obama's nuclear inspections agreement with Iran. All members of the state's congressional delegation, all Democrats, have endorsed the agreement except Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who hasn't decided yet, and they wouldn't be supporting it if their constituents were furious about it. Nevertheless, last week U.S. Rep. John B. Larson (D-1st District), held a forum in his district with a State Department official who helped negotiate the agreement, Chris Backemeyer, the department's deputy coordinator for sanctions policy. Backemeyer answered critical questions from a well-informed crowd of about 80 people who, if not entirely convinced, hurled no tomatoes and appreciated that their concerns were taken seriously. Ready to keep taking punches, Backemeyer and Larson met afterward with several journalists.

While Iran may delay by a few weeks the access of international inspectors to any new suspected nuclear development sites, Backemeyer and Larson said radiation leaves enough traces that any cheating at such sites will be caught quickly.

They added that the release of $150 billion in frozen Iranian assets won't be as big a bonanza to Iran's international terrorism and subversion as many fear, since Iran will need to reserve much of the money to manage its international trade.

But Iran already is said to be within a few months of capability to build nuclear bombs, and if the country is determined to get them, the agreement and inspections won't delay it much. If Iran is found to be cheating, presumably the nations that were enforcing economic sanctions against Iran will reimpose them, but Iran will have regained its frozen assets and put them to use for terror and subversion, particularly against the United States and its ally Israel.

This seems to be what most distresses Americans about the agreement with Iran -- that it is not a peace treaty but actually will help Iran continue its de-facto wars against fellow members of the United Nations. Thus it is silly to believe that Iran really wants to comply with the agreement or that it will comply with it for long.

The world should have continued blockading Iran economically without exchanging sanctions for an agreement about nuclear weapons, as the blockade was causing great political discontent among Iranians and weakening their government, a fascist theocracy led by a fuhrer who claims to be implementing the will of God. Continuing the economic blockade would have been more likely to change Iran's behavior and perhaps even its regime than the agreement is likely to prevent Iran from making nuclear weapons.

But it's too late now and nothing would be gained by Congress's rejection of the agreement. President Obama induced this country's allies to put great effort into negotiating the agreement and they will not humiliate themselves in front of their own people and the world by reversing their position now because the president did not first build a consensus in Congress for his policy.

Without proof of Iran's violating the agreement, any attempt by the United States to reimpose sanctions on Iran would not have enough international support to be effective. Instead of isolating Iran, the United States would be isolating itself and breaking up the alliance against Iran, such as it is. There would be neither an economic blockade nor nuclear inspections.

The agreement with Iran is largely appeasement. But appeasement is increasingly the attitude in Europe, and while polls say Americans oppose the agreement, they are not likely to support another military adventure in the Middle East, the adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq having turned out so badly.

There's not much left for the United States to do here but regroup its allies to contain Iran, starting by giving Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia what they need to defend themselves.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.


Robert Whitcomb: Drawbacks of deregulation and DIY

  For years, deregulation and the Internet have been pulling us into a more decentralized and freelance economy, in which there’s wider consumer choice, albeit with stagnant pay and a decline in person-to-person service that forces us to do more tasks ourselves that were previously done by those dinosaurs called “employees’’.

Consider Uber. As I discovered when one of my daughters pulled out her iPhone a couple of years ago on a busy Manhattan street to summon an Uber driver, it’s sometimes faster to find one of these mobile freelancers than it is to find a regulated Yellow Cab in a big city.

But the cabs, being regulated, function as a public utility. They have to meet certain basic minimums of availability, cleanliness and safety that can’t be imposed on the likes of Uber, whose drivers are, of course, not obligated to provide services in the same way as cabbies. I don’t think that we want unregulated drivers to totally replace generally reliable and regulated cabbies.

Long before Uber, of course, there was the partial deregulation of the airlines. While this led initially to lower prices for many travelers, it has also made travel more chaotic and unpredictable. And deregulation, the “Hub-and-Spoke’’ system and relentless airline mergers mean that mid-size cities get shorted on flights.

While better electronics systems make planes less likely to crash these days than three decades ago, air travel itself is increasingly miserable.

In the old, tightly regulated days, figuring out airline schedules and fares was comparatively easy. Now it’s an ordeal, and conditions within airplanes are increasingly crowded and unhealthy. And as the airlines, like other businesses, seek to outsource service to computers so that they can lay off more people, addressing problems by communicating with customer-service humans gets tougher.

Then there’s the new do-it-yourself, deregulated and decentralized energy world. Consider that many affluent folks are saving money and reducing their carbon footprints by having solar panels installed on their roofs. Good in itself! But this takes business away from the utility companies, which could jeopardize the viability of the huge electric grids that utilities maintain. We’ll continue to need that grid to support modern society, with its ever-increasing supply of electronic devices.

Might not it be better if we put more focus on producing green electricity with huge solar-panel arrays and wind-turbine farms maintained by utilities that serve everyone – rich and poor?


The Obama administration has worked very hard to craft a deal with Iran to try to get it to at least postpone continued work on nuclear weapons.

But the administration’s effort will probably turn out to have been in vain. For one thing, the corrupt theocratic dictatorship that runs Iran will cheat and cheat as it evades inspections. It may receive technical help in this cheating from the likes of fellow police states Russia and China, two of the signatories to the nuclear deal, which will happily sell them militarily useful stuff.

Iran will almost certainly use the billions of dollars freed up by the ending of economic sanctions to increase its troublemaking. Iran’s regime seeks to dominate the Mideast – partly to protect and promote its fellow Shiites and partly because domination is fun and profitable for its leaders. And Tehran hasn’t really toned down its “Death to America and Israel’’ rhetoric.

Now we have made the mullahs more macho. No wonder Iran’s neighborhood is scared.

Some complain that America, as the first nuclear power, is hypocritical in trying to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of other nations. That seeks to make an equivalence between a democratic nation like America and a dictatorship like Iran. And remember why we started our nuclear-weapons program in the first place – to defend ourselves from Germany’s mass-murdering Nazi regime, which was working hard to create an atomic bomb.

Some say that expanding trade with Iran will somehow make it kindlier. They said that about Germany before World War I and China now. Nations have other reasons besides economics to be nasty – for instance, paranoia, power for the sake of power and religion.

Robert Whitcomb ( oversees New England Diary. He's also a Fellow at the Pell Center, in Newport, and a partner at Cambridge Management Group (, a healthcare-sector consultancy. He used to be the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal, the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and an editor at The Wall Street Journal, among other jobs.





Robert Whitcomb: Where we can win; childlessness; water wars

  The metastasizing Mideast chaos and violence have shown yet again the limitations of American power there. We’re backing and opposing groups in a fluctuating toxic religious, ethnic, tribal and national stew and frequently contradicting ourselves as we do.

Some neo-cons want us to go in with massive military intervention. We tried that. Now consider that the Sunni fanatics called ISIS use American weaponry captured from the Iraqi “army’’ to attack “Iraq’’ -- whatever that is -- an ally of longtime U.S. enemy Iran, which has joined in the melee against ISIS, even as Sunni Saudi Arabia fights its long-time foe and fellow dictatorship Shiite Iran in Yemen. And in Libya and Syria, the civil wars go on and on in permutations and combinations.

The U.S. must occasionally act quickly in the Mideast to rescue its compatriots and to protect the region’s only real democracy – Israel. But after all this time, we should know that the Mideast has so much confusion, fanaticism and corruption that a heavier U.S. role won’t make things better. The best we can do is to marginalize the region as much as possible, such as by reducing the importance of Mideast fossil fuel by turning more to renewable energy in America and Europe, while, yes, fracking for more gas and oil.

We must focus more on Europe, where a scary situation is much clearer. Our Mideast projects have dangerously diverted resources from countering the far greater threat to our interests posed by Vladimir Putin’s mobster Russian regime.

Now that it has seized Crimea from Ukraine and occupied a big slice of the eastern part of that large democracy, Putin’s fascist police state is firing off yet more threats to “protect’’ ethnic Russians in what he calls “The Russian World’’ (i.e., the old Soviet Empire) from bogus “persecution’’ by the majority population in the Baltic States and Poland -- NATO members and democracies. Latvia is coming under particularly hard Russian pressure now. Hitler used the same strategy against Czechoslovakia with the Sudeten Germans. It’s past time to re-energize NATO to thwart Russian aggressio


Regarding an April 4 New York Times story headlined “No Kids for Me, Thanks’’:

My mysterious father used to say ruefully that “your friends you can pick, your family you’re stuck with.’’ He had five children.

From observing my childless friends, I’d say that contrary to an old social cliché, they are generally happier than those who have children – so far. A simple reason: They have more money, time and freedom to do what they want.

Arthur Stone, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University who’s co-authored a study comparing childless adults’ happiness and those with kids told CNN: “They {parents} have higher highs. They have more joy in their lives, but also they have more stress and negative emotions as well.’’

CNN said he found “little difference" between “the life satisfaction of parents and people without kids, once other factors -- such as income, education, religion and health -- were factored out.’’ Yes, but how do you ‘’factor out’’ income? Paying for children causes a lot of anxiety.

People tend to be more self-absorbed these days, and so less enthusiastic about sacrificing so much for, say, children. But this presents a problem that some childless Baby Boomers are already experiencing: Who will take care of them when they get really old? If they think that younger friends will feel as compelled to squire them through old age as their children, they’re in Fantasyland.


The California dream of always-green lawns in McMansion developments in the desert is being revised as drought deepens. (Probably global warming.) The land of Silicon Valley, Cal Tech and Hollywood has more than enough intellectual firepower to address the conservation challenge. (“Dehydrated water – just add water’’?) However, don’t expect many new L.A. Basin golf courses. Californians will see more cactus and less lawn. Meanwhile, places with lots of fresh water -- e.g., New England and the Pacific Northwest – may now be in a better competitive position.

Regarding Golden State water-wars, see the movie “Chinatown’’.


Robert Whitcomb  ( oversees New England Diary. He's a partner at Cambridge Management Group (, a healthcare-sector consultancy, a  Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, a former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, a former editorial-page editor and a vice president at The Providence Journal and a former editor at The Wall Street Journal.