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.