Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Trump also understands the nature of the traditional media – in a tailspin because of the transformative challenges of live streaming, interactivity, and the millions of individualized Internet sites providing every possible take and spin on current events; and unable to play catch-up. Their fortunes in decline, and the demand for anchored, reasonable, and boring news broadcasts headed for zero, they founder in hype, gotcha journalism, and celebrity.
Of course yellow journalism is nothing new. A hundred years ago newspapers published the most scurrilous, unfounded, and outrageous stories about everyone, especially politicians. Editors knew temperate, thoughtful, reasonable journalism did not sell newspapers.
When newspaper editors found that unusual, remarkable, and surprising stories of real life were not enough to satisfy readers’ demand for the truly grotesque and twisted, the era of the tabloid was born.
Of course The Grey Lady, the venerable New York Times, insisted on reporting the news in an objective, sensible, and matter-of-fact way; but most Americans liked their news hot, weird, and fantastical. Long-form journalism is dead. The issue-long, detailed, and interminably boring features on music by Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker are things of the past.
Twenty years ago Tina Brown revolutionized the magazine and gave it zip, allure, and curb appeal. Although traditional critics lamented the demise of one of serious journalism’s icons, Brown was having none of it. A journalistic corner had been turned.
Donald Trump has finally sent the New York Times packing. While the paper will not shutter the shop anytime soon – the AARP generation is still loyal and tied to print – fewer and fewer people read it front-to-back as they did in the old days. Online browsing is image-driven and quick. Site visitors have two or three windows open simultaneously and flip among them for the most personally relevant, topical, and emotive stories. No matter how kicky and hip the New Yorker may try to be, it can never match the twisted outtakes in cyberland.
The online Daily Mail – electric reincarnation of the The Daily Enquirer, both leading with deformity and the grotesque - had 77 million daily unique users in 2011 and has an estimated 200 million today. The New York times by comparison has only 70 million with lower projections over the next five years.
The Daily Mail is tame by comparison to the independent sites on the Internet. Every possible point of view, perversion, twisted preference, and political screed can be found within a few clicks.
Current events, such as a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton story, quickly go viral and are filtered, edited, and distorted in a million different ways. Who would read the Grey Lady or even the juiced-up New Yorker when this Internet array is available at a touch.
This, of course, is why the traditional media, political pundits, and academics are in a twit. They are being benched, taken out of the game just when it is becoming interesting, and sidelined. Fewer and fewer people are paying attention to them anymore. They are supernumeraries.
What is worse for ‘experts’ is the phenomenon of big data and crowdsourcing. A million bettors in an online market will always estimate the number of gum balls in a jar more precisely than any geometrician. Betting markets on Presidential elections 100 years ago always predicted electoral outcomes far more accurately than pundits. Nate Silver, today’s big data genius-in-residence has never been wrong; and Ladbrokes (popular off-track betting site in the UK) is almost always right.
Big data solutions are becoming more and more an option for the likes of Google who rather than relying on in-house geeks goes viral and asks for new algorithmic ideas for better search engines from whomever is interested. The results are always promising, innovative, and surprisingly feasible.
In other words Donald Trump is on to something. Mediated news and analysis are things of the past. The genie is out of the bottle, and crowd intelligence is marginalizing priests, pundits, and inside-the-Beltway know-it-alls. The Internet has not only obviated the need for ‘objective’ mediation; it reflects the way Americans think.
The American presidential campaign of 2016 was like no other. Thanks to Donald Trump who, with his outrageousness, Hollywood glitz and glamour, three-ring circus and side show, bare-knuckled, take-on-all-comers brawls, one-line zingers, Las Vegas glitz and Rat Pack showmanship, big ego, big image, and hot salesmanship, we are finally perfectly attuned to a presidential candidate.
Liberals, progressives, and socialists who for decades have been trying to re-form America into a European, international, Utopian model of cooperation, multi-cultural harmony, and rational discourse and reasoned conclusion have been blindsided by Donald Trump and bewildered by the passionate support of his followers. How could tens of millions people be so bamboozled by such a huckster and vaudevillian? How could they be so taken in by a man with no plan, no political coherence, and no experience with governance or leadership?
Trump’s followers, say the Left, must be more hopelessly ignorant than they had thought, more intransigently backward and unmoved by rational argument and the rightness of historical secularism. They are hopelessly inbred with few faculties of judgment. No matter how the Left may try, they refuse to budge and remain racist, homophobic regionalists.
Trump supporters, however, are the avant-garde, the first wave of the new facts–last, image-first, post-human generation weaned on the visceral, the personal, and the immediate. They have understood that in this post-postmodern world not only do facts have relevance only within changing social context, but they no meaning at all within the broader world of virtuality. Facts are subject to faulty memory, imperfect subjective perceptions, historical revisionism and political hyperbole. Facts are tools for the promotion of ideas, theories, and hypotheses, bent and twisted to fit them. Facts are overrated. Truth is fictional, derivative, and meaningless.
There is little doubt that the highly-respected, experienced, successful older men and women in the Trump Cabinet, will rein in the most outrageous tendencies of their President and will craft reasonable conservative solutions to current problems in foreign affairs, education, energy, finance, and the economy. There is little doubt either than the Trump Administration will form important alliances with the Republican-run Congress and key legislation will make its way into law.
As importantly, however, Donald will still be Donald, playing the traditional media like a violin while reaching out to his millions of supporters on social media. They elected him and they need to be sure that he is following their mandate. Since they do not have the experience, education, or political savvy to parse complicated issues papers and policy statements, they only need to hear Jobs! The Wall! Putin! Obamacare! and will be satisfied and Trumps constituency will remain intact and passionate.
Cynical? Far from it. Donald Trump simply understands the dramatic reconfiguration of American society and the way its members think and communicate. Trump’s populism is very much real; and not only for the political solidarity it expresses. Populism means unmediated democracy. Draining the Swamp, dethroning the princes of the media, lighting up the White House with glitz, glamour, and Hollywood-Las Vegas-NYC glitter and celebrity, and if not returning power to the people at least giving them their say.
We are in for a wild ride with many unknowns and ‘unknown unknowns’ as Donald Rumsfeld was fond of saying. There is reason to be anxious – not because the Trump Administration will do something stupid like get us into war; but because his style of governance and communication, and his idea of propriety are completely foreign to Washington.
Let’s wait and see.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Armageddon Is Upon Us–Inauguration Day Is The First Day Of Post-Apocalyptic Year Zero (Of Course Not)
Armageddon is a very serious concept. Not only the end of the world but the moment of final divine judgment – who is saved and who is not. It is one thing to be incinerated in a holocaust of fire; another thing altogether to be consigned to a tormented eternity in Hell.
Of course, many of us will be saved – ‘elected’ as fundamentalist Christians believe, chosen for heaven not because of our good works, principles, or moral rectitude but thanks to God’s grace – but most will be consigned to perpetual darkness, our punishment for vanity, disbelief, and arrogance, never to see God’s face.
Armageddon, as amply described in Revelations, is the final, cataclysmic end to human existence. God will have had enough.
The Old Testament is a chronicle of his dissatisfaction with Israel, his thankless child.
If she must teem,God drowned humanity in The Flood, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinful depravity, and threatened the Israelites time and time again for their faithlessness and disobedience – especially after he had given them so much.
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur'd torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child! (King Lear)
It is unlikely that the arrival of the parvenu Trump, characterized as the incarnation of Beelzebub and a Biblical evil so great that God himself will take notice; the precipitator of the fiery end to civilization as we know it, the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Seventh Seal will precipitate Armageddon.
He is a bit player in the divine comedy. Milton in writing Paradise Lost would never have even considered such a minor, insignificant, irrelevant character in his epic. Satan and his warriors and acolytes were heroic in their defiance of God and valorous in their fight to regain their rightful place in heaven. The battle between Satan and his armies and those of God and his envoy, Jesus Christ, was indeed apocalyptic. The likes of Donald Trump are blips on divine radar, hardly noticeable, and if tracked, dismissed as irrelevant. Life, death, redemption, resurrection, and eternal salvation are far more important.
Yet, Inauguration Day is seen in the eyes of many as the anti-Biblical, anti-Milton apocalypse. Satan has finally won and the forces of good, defeated, wounded, and in disarray, will be incinerated.
Progressivism, the secular inheritor of Christian good, will not go down to defeat so fast. Although the incarnation of Evil will ascend to a secular throne, the ranks of the defeated and marginalized will not willingly go to the divine gas chambers.
Donald Trump, then, is not the true incarnation of Satan – the all-powerful beast of darkness and the unthinkable. Armageddon may be imminent, but not a sure thing. The forces of reason, rationality, righteousness and good still have life and can be arrayed against him.
Intellectually you can’t have it both ways. Either Donald Trump is the Devil incarnate – powerful, second only to an omnipotent God, and never lacking in will, resentment, and determination – or he is simply a passing fancy of the temporarily disaffected. Progressives characterize Trump as the Devil, but cannot wholly believe in his divine evil, otherwise opposition would be futile and doomed.
So progressive lamentations are nothing more than political sour grapes. If one can fight Trumpism , then there are no evil, Satanic forces in play. He simply gamed the system in his favor, topped the faded and pretentious arriere garde liberalism of Hillary Clinton, and bested the arrogant, entitled, Establishment Elite.
Yet conceding secular defeat would be an unacceptable admission of political failure. Unless Donald Trump is eternally cast as Satan, self-worth goes down the drain.
There is a spectrum to any phenomenon whether light, sound, or politics. There are those who view Donald Trump as the second coming of Jesus Christ, the savior of the Western World if not mankind; and those who see him as a penitential prophet. He is either Satan’s minister of Evil, or God’s instrument of destruction.
Of course most people fall within the limits of the spectrum and consider Donald Trump either as a very bad candidate for the Presidency, or a necessary Herculean cleanser of the Augean stables. In either case there is a lot of give and wait-and-see. For those of us who are old enough to have witnessed many electoral campaigns and many presidencies, we know better than to cast any president as savior or demon. They are no more or no less than popular excrescences – men who come out of the popular culture and who are simply smarter, more savvy, ambitious and ruthless than the rest of us.
Hannah Arendt has written extensively on the nature of evil; but she is only the latest in a long lineage of philosophers from Augustine, Aristotle ,and Plato to Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Sartre who have reflected on the subject. There is little consensus, and the Catholic Church is still debating the nature of Satan and his influence in the world.
Whatever one may think of these philosophers and theologians, and however one concludes about the nature of evil, Donald Trump does not figure in the calculus.
He may be a huckster, a son of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and Wall Street; a showman, circus performer, canny politician, and self-defined ‘man of the people’ and hero of the populist revolution; but he is not evil. There will be no Armageddon, no Last Judgment; not even any sacking of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Why is it then that there are such lamentations? So much pain and visceral agony? So much concern for the fate of America, the world, and humanity?
Trump is a divine nobody, a brilliant trickster who has increased market share and viewership. He is a financial, television, and real estate whiz who understands American culture, ambitions, and desires. He is no Satan, nor does he even represent the Forces of Darkness.
He is simply a political arriviste and a man who understands American zeitgeist better than anyone else. Yes he will transform government in ways that even Ronald Reagan could never envision. Yes, he will dismantle media exclusivity and return dialogue to the people via social media. Yes, he will dismiss demands to ‘look like America’ cast in narrow terms of race, gender, and ethnicity and refocus the dialogue on true intellectual diversity; and yes he will shrink government and restore American democracy to its fundamental principles.
He is not Satanic, demonic, or even a smidgen evil; and casting him in those terms suggests secular immaturity at best.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
A lot of people are still hurting after the election of Donald Trump – an arrogant racist, homophobic, misogynist who represents the worst of America. His accession to power is no less than a betrayal of the nation’s compassionate, considerate, inclusive, and progressive values. The man is not only dangerous, but morally corrupt and spiritually empty.
Few of Hillary Clinton’s supporters have, unlike those who promoted losing candidates in the past, gotten over the shock of the election and have vowed to never, ever, give up their opposition to Donald Trump. It is no longer a matter of politics, but of integrity, self-worth, and self-esteem. Capitulating now would be tantamount to cowardice and moral weakness.
The Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for the day after the Inauguration, represents over 200 progressive organizations which are concerned about abortion rights; Black Lives Matter; climate change; environmental protection of the air, water, forests, and wildlife; child abuse; pornography, income inequality, and a host of other issues.
Unlike the demonstrations of the Sixties which were very focused on two major issues – civil rights and ending the War in Vietnam – and were instrumental in effecting policy change for both; the Women’s March is more a show of progressive solidarity and belonging – a call to arms at best, and an emotional expression of the still painful angst of losing.
Half the population – those that voted for Hillary – is in painful denial; and if the Women’s March is any indication, these disaffected voters intend to keep their wounds open and raw as reminders of their moral responsibilities.
If the social media are any indication, millions of Americans who have no particular emotional stake in the Donald Trump issue are worried about other things. Fluoridation, for example – a conspiracy theory that simply will not go away – has risen once again to the fore. Although more reasoned that the original theories which implicated the Nazis and the Russians in schemes to neuter the political will of the United States via fluoride, the issue has no more credibility than it did 75 years ago.
The relationship between vaccinations and autism is another discredited theory that seems to be gaining adherents despite decades of professional, scholarly, and scientific research which have debunked it.
Every one of the progressive causes represented at the Women’s March are flogged on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Despite their remarkable rise in law, medicine, the military, and business, women are still an oppressed group, threatened by sexual abuse, institutionalized patriarchy, and ignorant sexism.
Gays, despite their remarkable success in near full integration into the sexual and cultural mainstream of America, still need help and protection. While the urban areas of the coasts may have afforded them the generous inclusion of other groups, rural America remains bitterly homophobic.
And on it goes. Everyone, it seems, has to have something to worry about; some cause to espouse; some wrong to set right. One would think that with a job, a family, and a mortgage, few people would be interested in taking on more collective ills – especially when even a casual look at history shows that one problem solved is always followed by another, often worse; that wars persist, each bloodier and more brutal than those before; that greed, inequality, and indifference are more characteristic of society than compassion and respect.
Yet, we persist in a belief in progress if not perfection. Not only are we engaged in the struggle for economic and social equality and for the righting of the balance between Man and Nature, we must live healthier and longer. Little or no alcohol, no tobacco, and avoid fat, sugar, and salt. Exercise regularly, practice yoga for better mind-body equilibrium; take organic supplements to restore the health of individual bodily functions. Have as much sex as you can, but exercise caution. Sex these days is a battlefield littered with the victims of sexual abuse, disease, and abortion.
American society seems to be ruled by the ghosts of Cotton Mather, Salem, Temperance, schoolmarms, and nuns. We have become insufferably abstemious, self-righteous, and purposeful in what we see is an inevitable path to a better life and a better world.
There are many of us, however, who want no part of all this. The only thing we take seriously is Hobbes’ observation that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short; and do our best to fill our days with unconcerned, guiltless, and self-gratifying pleasure.
This is not to say that today’s Epicureans are immoral. Far from it. We are also children of Epictetus who preached Stoic calm and acceptance. The combination of the two philosophies are strong foundations for living life responsibly but with maximum pleasure and satisfaction.
Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, was like his author-creator a seeker. Why, he asked, would God create human beings with wit, humor, intelligence, insight, and creativity, but give them only a few short decades of life and then consign them to an eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes?
Levin thought that doing good was the answer. Tolstoy himself simply gave in to faith, tired out from decades of searching for the truth. Nietzsche claimed that the only validation of life in a meaningless universe was the expression of absolute Will.
Most of the rest of us simply realize how short life is and how, given history’s endless and repetitive cycle of human activity, any investment in other than self-awareness, self-gratification, and pleasure will end up nowhere.
The accession to the Presidency by Donald Trump is cause for celebration. Not because we feel that he will necessarily be a good leader however measured; but because he represents exuberance. His yachts, Mar-el-Lago estate, private planes, kitschy, gilt interiors of Trump Towers, Miss Universe beauties, and the carefree spending of the confidently happy are what we have been waiting for. We are sick and tired of Hillary’s hectoring, the persistent warnings of campus nags, the medicalization of behavior, the anger of the streets, and the never-ending preaching about God, goodness, and doing the right thing.
We eat and drink immoderately, smoke, and have lovers. We configure our lives to work moderately while earning well, to spend time in the sun, and to get eight hours.
Of course there are risks in this pattern of behavior – but they are socially imposed risks and have nothing to do with the balance sheet of one’s own life. No one gasping his last breath thinks of foie gras declined, sparkling water aperitifs preferred, and hours at the gym. We will all think instead of sexual opportunities missed and adventures passed up.
So the Trump Inauguration is a time to celebrate a cultural renewal – a reaffirmation of exuberance, risk, and reward. We have had enough measured rationality, purposeful ambition, and the political sanctimony that goes along with them. It is time for a change.