Sunday, February 26, 2017

Truth and Consequences

“Now, people are comparing Donald Trump to Hitler. And the countdown has officially begun, to… well… I don’t know… but something really bad. I get that someone who is combative with the press and who wants to vet refugees and shut down open immigration fits the bill some are always looking for when it comes to finally getting their ‘Hitler’ villain. But if you study enough about it, you realize the guy vetting and banning refugees is probably not Hitler… the guy CREATING refugees probably is.”
—Songwriter/author Regie Hamm, writing on his blog on February 1
For those of us who love language, Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival is a treat. Not only is the hero a linguist but the point of the movie is all about the way in which language shapes our perception of reality. We could certainly use the expertise of Amy Adams’s Dr. Louise Banks in unwrapping the linguistic mysteries that frustrated communication between the political left and right in America and elsewhere.

The point that Arrival makes in its entertaining way is that our language shapes our perception of reality. Just as eskimos supposedly see snow differently than English speakers because they have more words to describe it, so people arguing about politics tend to gravitate to their own particular vocabularies that reinforce their respective world views. By the way, that thing about eskimos having a large number of words for snow may or may not be accurate. A web search on the topic produces all kinds of articles not only arguing about just how many words eskimos have for snow (some say only a few, some say scores) but also about whether there really is such a thing as an eskimo language. The fact that so many authoritative publications out there have weighed in on the question with such varying results only emphasizes how tenuous everyone’s hold on reality actually is.

If you are that rarest of species, a completely detached person politically, and trying to get a handle on what is actually happening with the United States’ new government, you will get completely different pictures depending on what your source of information is. And those different pictures are not simply binary. There is not just one for people on the left and one for people on the right. There are all kinds of gradations of reality as you work your way from Mother Jones and The Nation on one end all the way across to National Review and Breitbart News on the right. Indeed, simply among news sources considered to be right-wing, there is a huge range of opinion. To haul out another old chestnut, reading the press these days is like trying to understand what an elephant is by surveying accounts from various blind men who have each touched the pachyderm in one particular spot.

I do not know many things for certain, but one thing I learned early on is that it is never a good idea to rely on only one source of information. In fact, the more sources the better—even if more confusing. In fact, if you are not confused, then you are probably not reading enough. Interestingly, the corporate media are currently on a kick to lock in their readers and to discourage them to confuse themselves by reading other sources. I am constantly getting emails from The New York Times telling me that it is the (the word “only” is strongly implied if not explicitly employed) place to go for The Truth. (One gets the feeling that the Sulzbergers may have actually looked into trademarking the term “The Truth.”) Operations like The Times clearly see an opportunity to reverse their sagging bottom lines, and good for them. Reportedly their subscriptions are up since President Trump was elected. Perhaps they feel under threat by the new administration and its harshly aggressive stance toward the establishment press, but I suspect they are sensing the Trump years could be a goldmine for them, not unlike the way years of Democratic administrations filled the coffers of Rush Limbaugh and his brethren.

Something else I am pretty sure of is that President Trump is a master of misdirection. While I listen to the same panels of pundits and analysts (who assured me he would not be nominated and then that he would not be elected) telling me what a disaster his administration already is and how he is in over his head, the man and his administration have their hands on all the levers of power and staffing up and issuing executive orders and consulting with congressional Republicans preparing legislation. For every refugee ban that falls apart on arrival and which gets saturation coverage, there is also a Supreme Court nomination that consequently gets less coverage. Maybe the president does not have a clue what he is doing, as many in The Truth business keeping trying to tell me, but personally I think he does.

One of the most insightful political cartoons I have seen lately (sorry, I cannot remember where now) showed an airport terminal with two lounges behind a wall of glass. One was filled with people with cigarettes and labeled “Smoking Lounge.” The other was filled with detained refugees and labeled “Smoke and Mirrors Lounge.”

If it is hard to get the straight story from the media, getting it from the president himself is no easier—his infamous Twitter feed notwithstanding. Taking his words literally is no use—though many in the establishment media still insist on doing so, even though they should know better by now—since he does not use language in the same way as any other traditional politician. He nearly speaks in pure metaphors, not unlike Captain Dathon, the Tamarian encountered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode I wrote about nearly five months ago.

Depending on what news outlets they are getting their Truth from, Americans may either believe they are at the dawn of a new Golden Age or in Germany in the 1930s. Common sense suggests that the reality is actually somewhere between those two extremes, but closer to which one? Lots of commentators have been working overtime at finding parallels between Trump and Hitler but, as suggested by Regie Hamm’s quote above, one of the clearest signs in the 1930s that something was rotten in Germany was the stream of people fleeing the country.

People will always have their say one way or another, and in a democracy they will have their vote. Donald Trump got enough votes in enough places to get elected president, and that has to be respected. People also vote with their feet, however, and to date people all over the world still want to go to the United States—even if Donald Trump is president. While building a border wall is never a desirable thing to do and probably not that effective anyway, I will worry much more about it when the wall is being used to keep people from leaving the United States rather than trying to keep people out.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Let It Go

“Republican America is now so vast that a traveler could drive 3,600 miles across the continent, from Key West, Fla., to the Canadian border crossing at Porthill, Idaho, without ever leaving a state under total GOP control.”
—Lead paragraph of a front-page Wall Street Journal article by Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook, November 19
I had an epiphany this morning. Bill Clinton cost his wife the election.

For the record, I do not actually believe that, but it does seem as plausible an explanation for Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss as any excuse being bandied about non-stop in the media these days. Personally, I was ready to move on from the election weeks ago—months ago, if truth be told—but the chattering classes do not want to let me.

Further for the record, I owe my epiphany to Mara Liasson. She is a journalist I have been listening to for ages, and she amazes me because she manages to divide her time between National Public Radio and Fox News Channel. Juan Williams tried doing the same thing for a while, but at the first opportunity the angry purists in the NPR audience demanded and got his resignation, so now only Fox has him. Meanwhile, Liasson manages to balance both audiences where, I am guessing, there is precious little overlap. Anyway, she was on a panel yesterday discussing the Justice Department’s inspector general’s decision to look into FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email practices as Secretary of State. Liasson made the obvious observation that few others in the media think is worth mentioning. Comey would not have been making statements, writing letters or giving testimony about any of that if not for Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Normally all of that would have been Lynch’s job, but she stepped back and left it all to Comey after the (understandable) fuss when, days before the FBI report was due, Lynch had a friendly chat with the former president aboard her jet.

I have nothing but sympathy for Comey. He had a sterling reputation going into the election period, but he wound up in a situation where he was guaranteed to have political activists on all sides livid at him. He clearly did not want to be discussing the investigation at all, but his boss Attorney General Lynch left him no alternative. When new emails on Anthony Wiener’s laptop surfaced, he had the impossible dilemma of choosing to say nothing publicly and risk accusations of a cover-up later or opting to do what he did and bring down Democrats’ ire on himself. Either way, there was nothing wrong with what he did in terms of the voters’ interest. All he did, after all, was give the public more information than they already had. (That is also true, by the way, of Wikileaks and the Russians, who merely confirmed what was already obvious: the Democratic establishment made sure Bernie Sanders would not have a prayer of getting nominated.) The damage was actually done by that meeting on the airport tarmac and, since Bill Clinton initiated it, he deserves more blame than Lynch. Of course, that meeting would not have been a problem at all if not for—and this is where all “explanations” of the electoral loss ultimately lead—Hillary Clinton. If she had not been so reckless with her State Department emails, there would have been no investigation. If her campaign had had even a single clue about cybersecurity, the Russians would not have had a field day with the campaign emails.

It is normal for political parties, like individuals, to go through an angry period of woulda/coulda/shoulda after a devastating setback, but its benefit is more emotional than practical. It does absolutely nothing—in fact it hinders—moving forward and solving the problems that caused the setback in the first place. The more Democrats harp on the unfairness of the election, the more it makes them look like hypocrites. After years of rubbishing Republican talk of electoral fraud and antagonism toward Russia, are swing voters really supposed to accept that Dems are now speaking out of principle rather than political expediency?

When Democrats finally calm down, they would do well to work on recruiting younger candidates and in more parts of the country. If they are calculating instead that it is only a matter of time before shifting demographics put them in charge, they may find themselves disappointed—especially if the economy becomes more robust and inclusive during the Trump presidency.

The last thing they should want to do the next time around is to repeat Hillary Clinton’s performance. In hindsight, her decisions are absolutely baffling. The way she kept going back to states she could not lose and avoiding states that could be potentially close made no sense. It was as though she did not understand how the American electoral system worked, pumping up her popular vote while taking reckless chances with the Electoral College.

And that brings us to another prominent excuse being bruited that is of absolutely no use to future Democratic prospects—attempted de-legitimization, directly or by implication, of the Electoral College. Is it strange that an election’s loser could have nearly 3 million more votes than the winner? Yes. Is it a scandal?

A lot of Irish commentators I listen to seem to think so. Well, let me explain it to them in terms they can understand. How many direct votes did Ireland’s current head of government, Enda Kenny, get in last February’s election? He got 13,318 out of 2,132,895 votes cast in the country. How could his total possibly be so small? Because only people actually residing in his district, or constituency, were able to vote for him directly. You see, Ireland also has an “electoral college.” It is called Dáil Éireann. (In most countries it is called Parliament.) So how many indirect votes (i.e. votes for his political party, Fine Gael) did Kenny get? That would be 544,230, or 25.52 percent of the total. Again, how is the total so small? Because the other 74.48 percent was divided among 19 other political parties and alliances as well as some 136 independent candidates.

Yes, Kenny’s party—unlike Donald Trump—did at least get a plurality. That does not, however, change the fact that three-quarters of the Irish electorate voted for something other than a government led by Enda Kenny. And, at least as far as I have heard anyway, no one has questioned the legitimacy of the current Irish government or of the Irish constitution.

Definitely time to move on from the U.S. election, is it not?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Mockingjay Madness

“It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us. We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.”
—Historian/critic Neal Gabler, in a piece titled “Farewell, America” on BillMoyers.com, November 10
Let us take a moment to savor the complete lack of self-awareness in the above quote. Even as he is tarring millions of his fellow citizens with epithets like racism, misogyny, xenophobia and nativism, Neal Gabler styles himself as the last vestige of civility and politesse. He cannot logically have it both ways. Either he can elect to be the spokesman of all the throbbing anger in blue state America directing itself venomously at its red state cousins or he can choose to be polite and civil. Neither he nor anyone else (myself included) can be both things at the same time.

People generally fall into this paradox because they see themselves as being above partisan disputes—even while they are in the throes of them. This is because they know The Truth and are thus entitled to condemn others righteously. It is not particularly attractive or useful when religious fundamentalists do it and even less so when modern liberals do it.

We are seeing a lot of this sort of hyperbole in the wake of the November election. People who, only weeks ago, were arguing for respect of other countries, no matter what their political values, are now ready to declare war on Russia. It is like some sort of mass hysteria.

One of the most jaw-dropping examples I have seen of absent self-awareness was in the December 19 issue of The New Yorker. In the “Shouts & Murmurs” humor section, there was a piece by Cora Frazier entitled “Katniss Everdeen, White House Intern Application.” First, let me go on record as having long been a fan of The New Yorker’s cartoons and arts coverage. Its humor in prose, though, usually goes right past me. I found this particular item, however, very funny but not for any reason the writer must have intended. Her clear intent in invoking the protagonist of The Hunger Games was to portray President-elect Trump as the books’ evil President Snow. What people at The New Yorker do not seem to understand is that, for many people outside New York and other urban areas, New Yorker writers are the very epitome of the over-privileged, fatuous Capitol dwellers living it up while folks in the rural hinterland scrape by to survive, as portrayed in Suzanne Collins’s books.

Would Katniss Everdeen be a Trump supporter? Well, as portrayed in the movies (full disclosure: I know only the movies and not the novels) she certainly is a disrupter. I doubt, however, that it was author Collins’s intention to write a coded book series about the Tea Party or the Alt Right. Yet that is nearly how it plays. The urban/rural divide laid bare by the U.S. election results looks like nothing so much as the economic/cultural tensions in the fictional country of Panem. Yet Cora Frazier, whose stock and trade as a New Yorker humor writer should be nothing if not irony, apparently saw none in aligning Ms. Everdeen with the Wall Street fatcats and capital dwellers who uniformly supported Hillary Clinton. Or maybe we were meant to see her version of Katniss as a die-hard Sanders supporter?

Therein lies the challenge for Democrats. They have to stop believing their own propaganda that they are the party of the working class and actually again become the party of the working class. That is, if they want to. If they do not—after all, I hear the American working class is full of racists and xenophobes—then they should decide what they really do want to stand for. Once they have done that, then they must say so clearly and act accordingly.

Perhaps they could become the party of the new Cold War. After all, these days they really seem to be itching for a fight with the Russians.

Here is some more unsolicited advice for Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter). Do not demonize people because they do not see things the same way you do—especially if you are hoping to get some of them to vote for you. Not every policy dispute is an apocalyptic struggle of good and evil. Most importantly, though, try to keep a sense of humor. Otherwise it is going to be a long four or eight years for New Yorker readers.