Godzilla, US Capitol
Americans are distracted by the Trump Show. Photo credit: gigi4791 / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and Bandai Namco Entertainment America / Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Barrett Brown and filmmaker Alex Winter remind us that all of our broken institutions needed reform before Trump — and will need even more reform after he is gone.

In this wide-ranging podcast, Barrett Brown and actor and documentary filmmaker Alex Winter talk about the complacency that ails so much of American society.

They also discuss how, instead of fixing the systemic problems that plague the US, people across the political spectrum are focusing on the sideshow that President Donald Trump provides. In the meantime, however, all the institutions that are in dire need of reform are neglected — making the job of fixing them in the future even more difficult.

Yet because we are now relying on some of those same institutions — like the FBI and the national security apparatus — to protect us, we might easily forget some of the institutional excesses and missteps that got us here. What we have, according to Brown and Winter, is a massive lack of appreciation for nuance, which may come to haunt us later.

Brown also takes a look at the role of the internet. It was supposed to be the great liberator of individual actions, yet it has become, at least for now, the most centralized institution in the world.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Barrett: This is Barrett Brown. Thanks for listening to our WhoWhatWhy podcast. Our guest today is Alex Winter. Like myself, Alex Winter is something of a hybrid entertainer and serious analyst of our times, best known previously for his acting roles in early ’90s films like Lost Boys and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Since then, has careened into a new career as a documentary filmmaker, also a figure, kind of a node, in the transparency and information movements. He knows pretty much everyone that’s worth knowing in that scene. Every time Alex Winter and I interact or have interacted in our short time knowing each other, something terrible has happened to me, usually … We first came into contact when I was still in prison, and he tried to get in to interview me. Never quite made that happen. The Bureau of Prisons ignored his request to do so. One time we were on the phone doing a recorded interview and the cops came and grabbed me and threw me in the SHU.
Thereafter, when I was released late November of 2016, he picked me up along with my parents, to film for a short documentary he was doing for Laura Poitras’s film company under The Intercept First Look umbrella. On that occasion we didn’t have a long time to talk because we were in a race to get to Dallas from South Texas in the brief amount of time I’d been given by the authorities to reach the half-way house. If I hadn’t made that journey in sufficient time I would have been re-arrested.
Alex and I have not had a chance much really to discuss the larger, less ephemeral issues, that are confronting us all right now. My first question for you is, in the last five or six years, among the people that you, not in the activist community that you associate with but more, around Hollywood, sort of mainstream cultural media opinion makers, do you think there’s been a significant reduction in the extent to which people give the US government the benefit of the doubt? As in, is there more willingness now to look into other avenues rather than the institutions that we’ve inherited?
Alex: It’s an interesting question. The timeline you’re asking about, five or six years is interesting. You know I’ve seen in my life time just given the period that I’ve been aware of the news, started in the seventies. In my earliest memories of being aware of what was going on was Nixon and Watergate, and going to Spiro Agnew demonstrations. Things like that when I was quite young. I feel like, for many of us, who grew up in this generation it was a time post-Vietnam, post Watergate that’s definitely created or fostered more skepticism about our government. I think that’s true globally, though. I don’t think it’s just the United States. I think in general, there became a lot more mass-skepticism. You asked outside the realm of activism, obviously a lot of this began far earlier than that. It really bubbled up into the mainstream in America, in my experience, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate.
So, I think you have a more skeptical populace in general. I’m not, I know you’re not either, but I’m not talking about the libertarian stance, not talking about just let the free markets rule. I’m talking more about a feeling that certain institutions were either corrupt or were not to be looked upon as being quite as pure-hearted as we were led to believe.
Again, this all started quite a while ago, certainly post the civil rights movement, the FBI under Hoover that really gave … and the rise of the CIA. Anyone who was paying attention to the news was beginning to have these feelings. I would say, sure, they’ve grown exponentially as the Information Age has hit. In the Digital Age information is so much easier to get. I’m sure we can talk about fake news. It’s getting kinda tiresome. The reality of it is …
Barrett: You mentioned the Nixon administration and the cynicism that existed back then. Obviously… I’ve read a couple of fine books recently about that era, and about that culture of the era. How much more cynical and almost nihilistic it was compared to anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. Obviously, there was that period of, with the Nixon, Watergate, there was a period afterwards of triumph in so much as there’s some cynicism, but look, we’ve overcome this horrible cancer on our side, the system worked in the end. And that belief, I think, may have been deleterious itself. Because it allowed a lot of institutional rot to proceed away from prying eyes. Everyone having determined, “we’ve defeated this horrible menace.”
Alex: Yeah, I think that. That’s true, institutional and societal, right? I think that complacency was societal as well. You have, just to throw it back on the short we made, you had a, when I interviewed you in prison, I was interviewing you either once a week or somewhere around that for quite a while, the better part of a year before you got out. That was one of the interviews that I remember striking me, so I stuck that quote at the very beginning of the short. Which was, I was curious to know what it felt like inside with the rise of Trump. And what you said at that time was pretty much what I feel as well. Which I think was a good quote of just the… when you have somebody who’s this extreme, and in this case he’s an extreme buffoon, it shines a light on things that were there to begin with that people weren’t paying so much attention to, and they were more complacent thinking that the government that they currently had was fine.
So there are a lot of things that are coming to light now that have been going on for more than five or six years, for decades, that need to be exposed, or at least people need to be aware that they’re going on. They’re only being paid attention to because we have this gigantic moron in office who shines that light on every aspect of government malfeasance and incompetence.
Barrett: Now given that the non-nuanced take on the present day is basically from the standpoint of the average, reasonable, moderately informed person, including commentators on CNN and what have you. It’s essentially that we have a system that was pretty good, and suddenly now we have this horrible aberration and that once that aberration, if we dislodge this aberration as with Watergate, then everything will be fine again.
When you have Democrats praising Comey during these hearings we were able to see two years ago. Sign me up, the FBI is a wonderful institution. Defending the FBI, understandably, against the more inane and this heinous attack by the Republicans who have attacked almost exclusively for the wrong things, is there a danger that in this process of dislodging this latest menace, that these institutions that needed reform now escape scrutiny? Simply because we’ve had to stand behind them, firm them up, in the face of attacks in the wrong direction?
Alex: Absolutely. I mean, people are being pummeled by the daily, or minute by minute Trump news cycle which is largely just hot air, and not worthy of news. I would say that there are two things going on from the standpoint that yes, there is the danger as you pose it that those institutions that are badly in need of reform are just going to be more corrupt and more strengthened and emboldened. There’s also the reality that Trump is not anything, not even the symptom of a cause, he’s such an anomalous presence, he’s not the problem. He’s a problem, but he’s not the problem. The problem will still be here when he is gone.
And the problem is being maximized by everyone around him on both sides of the political aisle in significant ways every day. But largely what we get is a news cycle that’s focused on Trump’s daily infantile antics. Too much news on Russian social media bots. Not that there aren’t bad things going on, from over there. But I would say in general, we’re suffering from a massive lack of nuance across the board and everything is in this very cock-eyed, black and white place where the Russia stories either [inaudible 00:10:06]nonsense or are suffering a take-over that nobody’s willing to admit that we’ve already been overrun by the Russian, the red menace. Obviously the truth is completely in between those things with an enormous amount of nuance on both sides, it’s just being ignored. The same with government, and yes, we are elevating, suddenly, George W. Bush as a hero, to the left and the right. We’re all jumping up and down with rose-colored glasses. That era was an absolute train wreck for those of us who lived through it as adults.
And, you know, you have people on social media that have been elevated by people that normally would have been quite aghast, like David Frum, and some other people, whether you like them or not, would just not have been trafficking in the circles that they’re currently trafficking in because there’s this panic, a flat out desperation to cling to something that feels like the normalcy that we had before Trump. When the normalcy that we had before Trump was a mess, and badly in need of reform and repair.
Raising and lowering the FBI every other week is an important point, in the see-saw we are living on, and the lack of any kind of anchor is very much emblematic of the moment that we’re in.
Barrett: What has surprised you most of all about everything in the last several years?
Alex: I think the…
Barrett: In terms of events but in terms of reactions to events and terms of how events have been taken and how they’ve settled in and how events have changed things.
Alex: Yeah, That’s how I would respond to that. I think that what is the most disturbing, when you look at history, even recent 20th century history and you look at the rise of fascist states, or other movements that have captured a populace.
I think that the dualistic aspect of having more facts and information at our fingertips than we’ve ever had in human history and the other pervasive ignorance often willful, that duality is very disturbing. The notion of fake news, the complete denial of climate change in the face of the facts. The rise of the flat earthers, which can be laughed off, but is pretty disturbing if you speak to a flat earther that isn’t a complete idiot, and there are many of them. And I’ve spoken to many of them. It’s disturbing because what I think that what is happening as a result of a number of factors obviously, I don’t think you can blame any one thing, but that Trump is a kind of a galvanizing factor. But I maintain that there was a lot of the issues that are really pervasive have nothing to do with Trump and will outlast him quite happily.
The times that we’re in are beginning to impact people in a way that is potentially very, very dangerous. If you talk to a flat earther, who is educated for any length of time you really will get to what we were talking about a moment ago which is a deeply rooted disillusionment with institutions, government, corporate, et cetera, et cetera, family, even just feeling that society is corrupt and not to be trusted. So, it’s almost a form of mental protest.
Why would I trust that what NASA is telling me is a photograph from space, is a photograph from space? Because the government lies about everything, and corporations lie about everything, so I’m going to stand firm in the position that it’s all meaningless. So it’s isn’t really fake news at the end of the day. Because most of these people, the people that we care about, the people that weren’t just buying the National Enquirer and accepting it as fact thirty years ago. That’s the disturbing movement. Those are the people that are willfully detaching themselves from fact.
Willfully detaching themselves from being members of society that can actually impact society for good and help drive us into a place of reform, that would be beneficial. That, to me, is the scary … it’s not even cynicism, it’s really a form of societal and political nihilism that is, I think, they would look at as idealism. I don’t think they would think of themselves as nihilist, I think they would think that as an ideal. That is a shocking new state of affairs for it to be so pervasive. It’s really been only, I would say, in the last, since the internet became very pervasive, and obviously some of the issues that are going on with the world, and the way that we interrelate, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism and a bunch of things that have not been so great for the planet. I think it’s driven people into this space.
Barrett: You think the internet has … altogether at this point, I’m not asking what it has the potential to do, or what might happen in the future, but at this point, do you think the internet is proving to be on the whole, more of a tool for the reasonable, well-intended decent people who respect the rights of others? Or do you think it’s had a more deleterious effect and that had it not existed, we would be in a better position to confront these institutions right now? Do you think it’s just …
Alex: Yeah, I …
Barrett: … cons have outweighed the pros?
Alex: … I have this conversation almost daily, I really do. Just given the work that I’ve done. I’m making a documentary about block-chain technology and the future of … another attempt at a massive decentralization movement; which is what the internet was when it started. It was quickly co-opted and turned into a highly, if not the most centralized system that exists in the world. I mean, this is really a fundamental question of the moment that we’re in. I am a little Pollyannaish about this, I’ve always believed, and I grew up in the completely analog world… So, I’ve really watched these technologies evolve from the get-go. I absolutely believe that the pros out-weigh the cons at least as of right now. I mean, up until Boston Dynamics created that robot that can open doors, but… We’re all going to die. But other than that, I do actually believe that the pros outweigh the cons. I think that what we’re seeing — and this does begin to reflect on the trump of it all — is mostly, at the moment is highly reactionary. It is not fundamental in the sense that there’s a reactionary movement that is anti-fact because now the facts are at our disposal.
There is a reactionary movement against the fact that certain aspects of our world are getting cleaner, safer, more diverse. That we are becoming largely as a society more progressive in our views, gay marriage et cetera. There, you know, a lot of change that has been on the rise for well over 100 years is really beginning to take root. I think that sometimes the technology or the internet can be a scapegoat just as Trump can be, for times that are changing because a lot of those changes are rising to the surface for the first time right now, that have been bubbling toward the surface for quite some time.
I think that in general, for the future, if the current generation doesn’t destroy the planet, I think that actually the internet and the amount of information that is at our disposal, and the ability for those who actually want to seek facts to find them, it’s very hard to look at that as not beneficial. The ability to bring certain things, tools to the world including energy, information, other ways to benefit developing nations that are coming from the internet. Ways of helping refugees: I think those are irrefutable positives. I think that we’re in a really bad moment. I think we’re in an extremely reactionary moment. And, yes, historically speaking, those have had the ability to be devastating on the planet. I’m not that Pollyannaish that I don’t think that there’s going to be huge wreckage and a lot of bloodshed, and a lot of pain that’s going to take us, and damage that’s going to take time to remedy. But I don’t think that it’s permanent. I think it’s largely a reactionary wave.
Barrett: Let me conclude by asking you an actual, specific question this time. This something I know that you know the background to, so I’m curious as to your thoughts. The Intercept just came out today with a report on a democratic congressional candidate from New York, Patrick Ryan, who, it turns out, used to work for Berico. In fact, he worked for Berico very actively on the few things for which Berico is known. Berico of course was one of several firms that met team Themis, along with HBGary Federal and Palantir. He specifically himself, it looks like, worked on some of the programs to track Black Lives Matter and otherwise to surveil left wing activist groups. Now, he’s the democratic congressional candidate. So, just knowing those things at this early point, and knowing what you know about how these kind of related issues have worked out in the past several years…
Do you think it’s more likely that the Democratic Party will, at some point, say, “Oh, wait! This guy kind of has a sketchy background, this is not the kind of future the Democratic Party needs to endorse?” And then he is replaced, or do you think it’s likely that this will kind of be ignored, and that this person will, somehow, manage to bring support from progressives and from the same kind of left wing activists that he was in the habit of spying upon?
Alex: I think that this is a moment that requires everybody to be hyper, hyper vigilant. And, I think it’s at both sides of the political aisle. In fact, it’s not only the political landscape in general — forget the partisan nature — is adept at subterfuge, and they all have an agenda of creating subterfuge for whatever reason.
Trump’s is obvious. But also, whatever … and I’m a Democrat … whatever you want to say about … or I’m registered as a Democrat … whatever you want to say about Hillary Clinton, the loss was devastating and there’s an enormous amount of ass-covering going on that is preventing the Democratic Party from becoming reformed to the degree that it should be and accepting the loss for what it is, and not something that was hatched in a Russian social media den. Which is just ludicrous, and embarrassing, frankly, on a certain level. The level to which her loss has been blamed on Russian intervention, knowing that there was Russian intervention.
So, again, I’m… the risk of being labeled in one bucket or the other, it’s a nuanced issue. Because it’s nuanced, it requires vigilance. Which means, we have to look really closely at the behaviors of various actors. And, in this particular instance, this is a really good litmus test for what the Democratic Party is doing.
And if it gets brushed under the rug, and then covered over with people bloviating about Russian bots, then that’s a cause for concern.
Barrett: Well, we’ve seen the Democratic Party in modern history reform itself sometimes very quickly, sometimes very dramatically as it did in the mid-seventies, for instance. It became a very different party, a much better party. And we’ve seen that happen from time to time since then. It’s obviously not something outside of the realm of possibilities. I suppose in this particular case of the congressman will absolutely, as you say, serve as a litmus test. Something to watch and see. Is the Democratic Party ready to take on the moral role that it needs to take on at this point in history. I guess we’ll have to see.
Alex: We’re not in it, it seems difficult to imagine that we’re in a time where reform is going to come quickly or easily. I think that the boat itself has been so rocked, and all sides of the political spectrum are in such a state of chaos and disarray. And then, there are very bad actors again on all sides of the political spectrum that are taking advantage of this moment of disarray. It’s like a Three Card Monte game, and you know there’s a mark that’s around the audience that’s picking everyone’s pockets while we’re staring at the cards shuffling around. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s not anything that well organized, you know, you and I have talked about this. It’s largely dysfunctional and disorganized, but it is human nature. So, I think that this requires hyper vigilance and it requires having more of a stomach for nuance than many people seem to have at the moment, which, I think, is the thing that’s most alarming.
Barrett: I’m afraid that it’s one of those things we’re going to have to wait and see about. It’s vastly complex.
Alex: Yup.
Barrett: I think we could look at it even with the difficulties of looking in hindsight, we can say this is a vastly more complex time than we have encountered in American history on the whole. And, that’s one of the problems right there.
Alex: Yeah. I agree.
Barrett: Thanks again, Alex, for joining us. We appreciate having you on and good luck with your secret projects and so forth.
Alex: Thanks, Barrett, anytime.
Jeff S.: And thank you, for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Barrett Brown (courtesy of Barrett Brown) and Alex Winter (TechCrunch / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).


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