The Passive/Aggressive Despot

Mark Aldrich, The Gad About Town, posts regular updates on journalists imprisoned for simply doing their job, such as the Egyptian photojournalist Shawkan. His post today focuses on the United States, and the Donald Trump administration’s attacks on media credibility. I find a lot of wisdom in the following excerpt:

Autocrats in our current era will not march into newspaper offices and destroy printing presses, as they did once upon a time; they will simply shame and harass them into silence. They will cajole their credulous supporters into not believing credible evidence and into a resistance of critical independent thinking.

I’d like to expand on Mark’s analysis with the following two comments:

  • Comparisons of Trump to notorious dictators of the past are an ineffective distraction. Journalists in America aren’t going to be arrested (unless they choose to investigate a riot), but they will be subject to a sustained passive/aggressive attack from the President. No direct accusations, but rather a continuous series of suggestions; no call to action, but should some lunatic decide to take the law into his own hands… well, the President never told him to do it, and besides, the victims had it coming to them anyway. Mark doesn’t compare Trump to Hitler, Saddam, or Stalin (the comparison to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is made to demonstrate parallel tactics), which is wise, for Trump’s brand of maniacal despotism is unique, and needs to be called out and combated on its own terms.
  • Expressing outrage at Trump’s behavior is a waste of time and energy, and I’m glad to see Mark’s post is free of self-righteous indignation. Anger will never get Trump to admit he is wrong, as maniacs are by definition incapable of the self-reflection required to acknowledge error. And while outrage might persuade some of his supporters, a core group will continue to believe in “alternative facts,” no matter how vehemently we present the truth. I also believe Trump and his supporters welcome the outrage, seeing it as yet another distraction from his more nefarious policies, such as his increasing friendship with Vladimir Putin. We can, and must, fight every lie with the truth, every false assumption with logic, every attempt to circumvent the law with all our available resources; outrage does nothing to help in any of these fights.

The current regime is less than a month old, and it’s proving to be just as mendacious as we’d feared. We have not only to chose which battles to fight, but also must take care in how we chose to wage those battles.


Ignorance is strength

George Orwell

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: Devastation]

Over this past weekend, a dystopian novel first published in 1948 entered the bestseller list on Amazon. The “alternative facts” promoted by President Trump’s leading spokesperson has evoked comparisons to doublethink and newspeak, concepts introduced in George Orwell’s 1984.

I’m glad to see Orwell re-enter the public conversation. My doctoral dissertation in the 1990s relied heavily on the writings of Eric Blair, but as I studied and wrote I wondered if Orwell would remain intellectually and culturally viable in the 21st century. He had a lot going against him — deceased for almost half a century, the title of his most famous work evoking a year sinking further into the past, ridiculed by academics as a lightweight (“let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about” was a frequent punching bag for postmodern philosophers, who argued that meanings didn’t exist outside of language), castigated for his role as a government informer in his later years. Orwell seemed headed for the dustbin of history; I’d been fascinated by his work since high school and was still moved by his call for simple human decency in defiance of political oppression, and I regretted what I saw as his coming demise.

Well, perhaps that’s changing. Trump’s America is certainly no Oceania, but in less than a week we’ve seen this administration intimidate the press and attempt to control how information is communicated. The Conways and Bannons in the regime seem to realize that while any third-rate despot with enough guns can temporarily control a population by force, a tyrant who controls people’s thoughts can remain in power much longer — and what better way to control people’s thoughts, than to bring devastation to their language?

So welcome back, George Orwell. You felt out of time in your own age, and for all the wondrous technological advances since your passing, I’m sorry to say we’re no less fearful and brutal than what you remember. Maybe it’s that sense of alienation, your feeling of not belonging in an age like this, that gives you an insight that, for all your faults, make your voice still so valuable at this time.

The Good, Fight

Mark Aldrich (aka The Gad About Town) supplements his always entertaining Today In History series today with an extensive analysis of last month’s Presidential election in the United States. As Mark shows, Trump’s rise to power is not entirely unprecedented, as his rhetoric has been used by many American politicians in the last century and a quarter. History, as the saying goes, doesn’t actually repeat, but it most certainly rhymes.

I haven’t written about politics in this blog since the day after the election. The time required for NaNoWriMo certainly had something to with that, but so too did my shock and yes, disappointment and anger at the outcome. My opinion of The Fraud has not changed — he’s a maniac who admires dictators, and an existential threat to our country. We’ve faced greater threats and the checks and balances built into the Constitution will allow us to survive, but I also believe he has to power to cause a great deal of damage that could take decades, perhaps generations, to undo.

To minimize the damage, the incoming President and his administration will need to be resisted by people of good conscience. The punctuation of today’s post is entirely intentional — there not only needs to be a good fight, we need the good, to fight. I’m not sure what exactly that means yet (although I’ve all but given up on the Democratic Party, at least at the national level — yes it’s important to vote, but it’s also foolish to believe that Presidential and Congressional elections are the solution to our nation’s problems). Maybe the answer will come to me at the end of the month, during an overdue vacation in a land of abundant warmth and pleasant sand, or perhaps I’ll come to the conclusion that I need to create my own answer. All I know now is that staying in my comfortable home while the world around me falls on its face isn’t going to work for me.

It’s time to fight. Don’t know where the battle will take place, who or what foes I’ll be facing, or what weapons I’ll wield. But the fight is coming, as sure as the dawn, and I’m not running from this battle.

When You’re Wrong

Guess I should stick to fiction rather than political commentary on this blog.

My analysis of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States was completely wrong, and the fact that many people far more intelligent than I were also wrong does not make me feel any better. Come January, the most powerful office in this country, and arguably the entire planet, will belong to a man completely unfit for the responsibility.

People have asked this morning how I feel about last night’s results, and I don’t know how to reply. I’m still numb. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be — what? Angy? Depressed? How should I be?

All I can do now is admit the obvious. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It starts there, and where it leads will be an answer for another day.

What Comes Next

As I write this, all fifty of the United States are currently voting in the 2016 Presidential election. Polls will begin closing in about five hours, and if the final projections that came out this morning hold true, Hillary Clinton should have the votes necessary to clinch the election shortly before midnight Eastern time. I’ve written extensively about the race on this blog, and feel some sense of obligation to provide some final thoughts.

I declared my disgust for The Fraud long before he became the Republican nominee, and over the past several months he’s proven to be even more boorish, unstable, and potentially dangerous than I had imagined. When his inadvertent confession to sexual assault was released to the public, I was sadly unsurprised; I had already dismissed him as a serious candidate without considering his behavior towards women, but it’s been good to see that behavior come back to punish him with what I hope will be a convincing defeat. In The Fraud’s juvenile view, there are only two types of people in the world: winners and losers. If there is any justice, history will place The Fraud in the latter category starting tonight.

But I remain unenthusiastic about his opponent, and likely winner. Electing its first female President is certainly a big deal, and my country will feel satisfaction from having reached that milestone until sometime around next February, as attention returns to the dirty business of leading the country. The economy will get better, then worse, then better again; several changes to improve access to health care will be proposed, but none will be approved; somebody with a gun or a bomb will kill a lot of people, so we’ll start yelling at each other until we’re exhausted and then not do a damn thing to prevent the same thing from happening again. And two years from today, we’ll elect a whole bunch of congressmen from the other party, then complain about gridlock.

There will be speculation about the demise of the Republican Party, having just lost the popular vote for the sixth time in the last seven Presidential elections. However, I have complete faith in the Democratic Party’s ability to screw up its advantage. The Democrats have become a party of conservative elitists, and its younger and more liberal members, the ones who came out so strongly for Bernie Sanders earlier this year, are not going to like being ignored. A rift will emerge in the Democratic Party, a divide as wide as the one we’re seeing now within the GOP; within eight or perhaps even four years, membership in the two major American political parties will once again be almost equal, as the number of independent voters increases.

But the fate of political parties, while entertaining to observe, is really inconsequential. What mostly concerns me now is the immediate impact of what has been a nasty election campaign. The Fraud’s repeated threat to challenge the result should he lose is chilling enough; what is even more disturbing is the possibility of someone even worse trying to outdo him four years from now. America, the land of the melting pot, has always recovered from its sporadic bouts of xenophobia — yet this year, appeals to nativism has brought a maniac to within a few percentage points of the White House. I fear that whoever comes next might be more politically clever than The Fraud, but no less dangerous.

America is about to elect its first female President, and send The Fraud back to h0sting his crappy TV show; we should feel good about both accomplishments. But while the contest ends today, the struggle does not, and I hope we continue to make wise decisions in our future battles.

Surviving The Last Debate

Feel obligated to comment on the last presidential debate, having done so for the first two, but will ditch the running commentary this time.

Trump did what he always does — start off strong, then get rattled and belligerent. He got in a few good digs, especially regarding the Clinton Foundation, but the signature moment of the night is his threat, more like a guarantee, to challenge the election should he lose. He also refused to provide details on his economic plans (not surprising, because they’re pretty much nonsense), and makes a key debating mistake of allowing his opponent to define his ideas for him.

Clinton stayed on message throughout, steady but unspectacular, and had some good responses to several of Trump’s attacks. She didn’t do anything to expand her appeal, but given her current lead, she probably didn’t need to be aggressive.

Chris Wallace did the best job of moderating of any of the debates, and he actually provided my favorite line of the night. When one of his questions to Clinton is abruptly interrupted by Trump, Wallace responds with a curt “thank you, sir.” Couldn’t help but hear a different word, a letter shorter and much less polite, at the start of his response.


Surviving The Debate, Part 2

Like I did for the first presidential debate, I’ll be writing a running commentary on tonight’s debate, which has the potential to be unlike any other in the history of the presidential campaigning in the United States. All times are US Eastern Standard.

8:47 — Last time I tried this, I somehow missed Trump’s snide comment on possibly not having paid federal taxes — “that makes me smart” — which became the signature sound bite of the debate. Also didn’t catch Trump’s constant sniffling. I’d probably be more observant if I wasn’t drinking, but I’m not gonna get through these next 90 minutes without some help.

8:53 — Been an interesting last few days, since the publication of that video where Trump bragged about sexual assault. Earlier tonight, Trump conducted a press conference along with four women who’ve accused Clinton’s husband of sexual assault. Never ceases to amaze me how, so far anyway, all attempts to smear Hillary for her role in enabling Bill’s misconduct have backfired; will be interesting to see if that trend continues.

9:04 — Before this gets started, I have to marvel at the format of this debate. Two candidates, one of whom will be elected to the most powerful position on the planet, taking direct questions from voters.

9:05 — The candidates arrive, and they don’t shake hands. That sound you hear is some pundit’s head exploding.

9:08 — Clinton speaks of optimism, Trump says the country’s in the ditch.

9:10 — Anderson Cooper follows up the first question by bringing up that video from Friday (Trump supporters will go nuts); Trump somehow brings Medieval Times into his response, and launches his first sniff. He’s doing his best to brush off his words as locker-room talk (“they’re things that people say”); he’s not doing a good job.

9:17 — Trump brings up Bill Clinton’s crimes, and he’s sniffing like a coke fiend

9:19 — oh you take the low road, and I’ll take the high road, and we’ll get through this damn debate by midnight.

9:22 — the Sniffer is not backing down; full attack mode. Clinton’s not backing down.

9:25 — moderators are not letting Clinton get away from the email server controversy; good for them

9:28 — Trump is rude and petulant (“it’s one on three”); there’s no other assessment

9:31 — Clinton responds to a complaint about Obamacare by talking about its benefits, which seems like a knee-jerk, tone-deaf response. Trump’s response may not be good policy, but may be more effective politically. In response to a follow-up question, Clinton again deflects and avoids.

9:36 — as she listens to Trump, Clinton smiles in a way that seems smug and condescending

9:39 — didn’t expect that Muhammad Ali reference tonight. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

9:45 — what the heck was that pointy thing Trump just did? Complaining about the amount of time Clinton has to respond? Moderators give in to his whining, and he goes on a lengthy rant.

9:47 — moderator brings up the Wikileaks revelation of Clinton’s speech; Clinton responds by talking about a great Spielberg movie, then suggests Wikileaks is working with the Russians to get Trump elected.

9:51 — Trump just said he doesn’t know Putin or anything about Russia; investigative reporters across the country are going to have a lot of fun with that. And I need another drink.

9:56 — when Trump talks, Clinton sits; when Clinton talks, Trump paces, and at times looks like he just wants to walk away

10:00 — Anderson Cooper just slapped a STFU on Trump

10:06 — Trump promises to escalate the nuclear arms race with Russia; when can this guy go away?

10:08 — Trump just said he disagreed with his running mate’s statement on Syria; I don’t see how Pence can continue supporting this guy

10:13 — Trump’s been complaining about the moderators all night; nobody said running for President would be fair. I would, however, like to see stats on the amount of time each candidate ran over their allotted limits.

10:17 — Clinton made a good decision by not taking the bait Trump offered on her “deplorables” remark. Cooper brings up that remark in his follow-up question, and she wisely offers and quick apology and directs her response to Trump’s rhetoric.

10:21 — Cooper asks Trump about the 3 AM tweet about Miss Universe’s sex tape; he says he didn’t say anything about a sex tape in his tweet. Fact checkers must love this guy.

10:24 — a question about Supreme Court justices. Clinton wants someone with real-life experience, whatever that means. She also wants justices who will uphold abortion rights and marriage equality; Trump declares he wants people who will support gun rights, then questions why she hasn’t contributed to her own campaign (whaaaaa?)

10:34 — great question to end the debate; what’s one thing you respect about the other? Clinton says she respects his kids (for being able to survive their father, I guess); Trump says he thinks she’s a fighter, which is one of traits I also admire about her.

10:37 — and they end by shaking hands.

For Surak

Today marks the finale to my week-long series of comments on the US Presidential election this November. I’ve explained why I’m voting for Clinton (despite my reservations about her record, and a Biblical disgust with her “deplorables” speech), had some fun in presenting the case both for and against Trump, gave the third-party candidates more attention than they probably deserve, and provided a running analysis of the first debate.

One last promise remains to be kept — that Star Trek reference. Have to pay homage to the man in that bowl-cut hairdo, pointy ears, and serious eyebrows.

If you’re a fan of the original television series from the 1960s, you may recognize that the image at the top of this post is not Spock, but rather a different Vulcan, Surak. (Many Vulcan names begin with S, end with k, and have five letters. You’re welcome.) He appeared in one of the final shows of that initial run, titled “The Savage Curtain” but often referred to by Star Trek fans as “The Abe Lincoln Episode.” That’s because the show begins with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock scanning a planet for life forms, when all of a sudden the Great Emancipator appears on the Enterprise’s viewscreen, complete with Amish beard and stovepipe hat, sitting on a marble seat like he’s posing for his memorial. And believe it or not, the episode only gets weirder after that.


He’s actually called Yarnek, and he’s an Excaliban, but it’s a lot more fun to just call them Rock People

At Honest Abe’s invitation, Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet, where they all meet the Rock People. (I will eventually get to US politics; just hang in there with me a little bit longer.) They apparently can read minds and create humans (out of rocks, I guess), and like to stage “plays” to learn about people who aren’t made out of rocks. For their next play, they’ve created Genghis Khan and a team of Bad People, and order Kirk and his team to fight them to the death. See, the Rock People want to understand the difference between good and evil, which they obviously need to study since they apparently have no problem with kidnapping people and forcing them into mortal combat.

To help out Team Kirk, the Rock People also create Surak, who’s like the Buddha or Moses of Vulcan; Spock is very impressed, even though Surak’s probably made out of rocks like Lincoln. The Bad People then show up and start throwing plastic rocks, and after Team Kirk repels the attack and regroups, Surak tells his teammates he will no longer fight, but will rather go to the other team and propose a peace treaty. Kirk tries to dissuade him, but Surak dismisses his arguments; many peace emissaries, Surak explains, were killed on Vulcan before the logic of peace was finally accepted. Surak then goes off and gets himself killed; Lincoln tries to save him and gets a spear in the back; the Bad People attack again, Team Kirk wins, and the Rock People let them beam back to the Enterprise so they can fly around space for two more episodes before getting cancelled and then becoming legends on UHF.

Oh right, this is about politics. In a recent poll, seven percent of respondents reported they have lost a friendship over this year’s election. More so than in past election cycles, the conversation between the major political parties has turned into a shouting match, neither side willing to give any consideration to the other; thoughtful debate has been replaced with a mindless battle of insults, the “winner” being the one who comes up with the most clever putdown.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I don’t often write about politics. I had engaged in political debate during my graduate school years, and let’s just say I didn’t do well at it — I’d get frustrated, angry, and end most discussions suffering some form of embarrassment. I realized I wasn’t very good at political discourse, and for no other reason than the sake of my mental health, decided to stay silent.

The nastiness of this election, however, has inspired me to try again, this time with the goal of somehow elevating the level of political discourse. To agree, but challenge; to disagree, but continue the conversation. I want to channel my inner Surak, taking the high road and approaching my adversaries with words of logic, challenging their ideas without insulting their integrity, refusing to see political arguments as a fight to the death but a struggle in which both combatants can win. It’s not going to be easy, will be more work than fun at times, and I expect to be hit with plastic rocks and get a few spears in the back along the way. But that’s how I’ve got to do this; besides, the father of Vulan philosophy wouldn’t have it any other way.

All right, Star Trek reference is completed, as is my political commentary, at least for now. Time to move on to a different subject tomorrow.


Reuters/Isop poll on racial attitudes

Let me start by declaring that I will not renege on two promises I made when starting this series of political posts last week:

  1. I’m going to stop soon
  2. There will be a Star Trek reference

(Although given the subject matter, breaking a promise would be entirely appropriate.)

There’s one more topic I need to address before I boldy go into the final frontier, something that’s been bothering me ever since I read the following statement from Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.

Those words have become a rallying cry for supporters of both Trump and Clinton, and will likely become the signature moment of this election. I simply can’t end my commentary without reflecting on their significance.

I believe that statement was a mistake, and a foolish one at that, for the following reasons:

  • It was politically useless. In both substance and style, every word in a presidential campaign will be broadcast, spun, analyzed, dissected, misinterpreted, abused, hailed, disparaged; candidates must use words strategically, with the knowledge that what inspires their supporters will also be used against them by the opposition. Clinton’s “deplorables” speech, delivered to a friendly crowd already committed to supporting her, was a sermon delivered to the choir, and did nothing to broaden her appeal (her poll numbers have gone down steadily after the speech). To borrow a phrase from tennis, the speech was an unforced error that could only hurt her chances of winning in November.
  • Casual attempts to prove its veracity are unreliable. Some Clinton supporters have defended her statement by claiming it was, well, accurate. Support for this argument typically comes from survey data on racial attitudes (such as the one I included at the top of this post) which, if you look at the numbers, do indeed show that nearly half of Trump supporters believe blacks are less intelligent, lazier, ruder, and more violent than whites. Here’s the problem with that data — any person with even a Homerian (Simpson, that is) level of intuition would be able to see the intent of the survey questions, and many would respond less than honestly. You can’t accurately measure racial attitudes by asking people what they believe — you have to observe what they actually do. Do pedestrians cross the street when approaching a group of black teens? Are customers more likely to count change provided by black cashiers? Are black employees more likely to be disciplined by managers for being late to a meeting? That kind of data is far more reliable than survey responses, which provide information that likely underestimates the scope of the problem. Which leads conveniently to my next point.
  • It effing reeks of hypocrisy. An implicit argument of the “deplorables” speech, and all of its supporters, is a self-righteous identification of the problem — “it’s them people, causing the trouble.” But let’s take another look at that survey data, shall we? Between a quarter and a third of all responders said yes to most questions, and as stated above, Trump supporters were notably above the average on all responses. But take a look at the responses from Clinton supporters — they are all within single percentage points of the average, making them little if no better custodians of racial morality than the general population. Any honest evaluation of the survey data suggests that racism is a virus that can infect anyone, regardless of political affiliation. In other words, if you believe the survey reveals a sizeable mote in the eye of Trump supporters, you also gotta think you could build a frigging bridge outta all them beams Clinton supporters are lugging around. All the sanctimonious defenses of the “deplorables” speech are rooted in crass hypocrisy, a transparent and pathetic attempt at scapegoating, and need to be thrown back onto the steaming dunghill in Hell from where it was stolen.

It’s not going to happen, but I wish another line from Clinton, delivered last night in the first debate, would supplant the “deplorables” speech as the one memory of this election preserved by history. It was a response to a question on whether she believed the police were inherently biased against blacks, a belief she had suggested in a different campaign speech:

Implicit bias is a problem for all of us, not just the police.

Survey responses, and the more telling interactions in our society, will not improve until we reach that level of understanding.


Surviving the Debate

Doing something different today — making notes on tonight’s Presidential debate. This isn’t a live stream, but I’ll keep my editing after the fact to a minimum.

9:07 – Clinton begins with her laundry list of economic proposals; comprehensive and uninspiring. Trump accuses China and Mexico of stealing American jobs

9:16 – Clinton claims Trump took advantage of the housing crisis; Trump interrupts, says “that’s just business.” There’s your sound clip.

9:21 – Trump calls out Clinton’s change of mind on the Trans Pacific trade act; her attempts to explain it away aren’t going to work

9:25 – feeling really sorry for Lester Holt

9:29 – Clinton’s sticking to her guns on tax increases

9:31 – Holt asks Trump on releasing his tax returns; Trump attempts to make a deal for Clinton’s 33 thousand emails. Clinton speculates about what he’s hiding.

9:39 – Clinton talks about the people Trump has refused to pay; he responds by suggesting he’ll file a negative review of their work on Angie’s List.

9:44 – the debate shifts to race. Clinton talks about criminal justice reform and gun control; Trump talks about restoring law and order, and implementing stop-and-frisk in Chicago. Holt reminds Trump that stop and frisk was found unconstitutional; Trump says the judge was wrong.

9:53 – Clinton: “Implicit bias is a problem for all of us, not just the police.” That might be the closest we get to a profound statement this evening.

9:55 – Trump reminds Clinton that her husband’s administration coined the term “superpredator;” so now he’s the guy holding the Clintons accountable?

9:58 – Clinton gets applause for saying she’s been preparing to be President; Trump does the eye roll

9:59 – here we go! Holt asks about Trump’s birther views, and he tries to blame it on Clinton. She doesn’t respond to his charges, then hits him for the lawsuits he was hit with for discriminatory housing. His response — “its just one of those things.”

10:06 – cybersecurity. Clinton claims Russia broke into the Democratic National Committee’s network, and hints at Trump’s close relationship with Putin. Trump blames a 400-pound hacker.

10:13 – how to prevent home-grown terrorist attacks; Trump blames it on not taking Iraq’s oil. Clinton says we need to cooperate with Muslims here and abroad

10:19 – Holt says Trump supported invaded Iraq in 2002; Trump says he didn’t. Holt says the record shows differently.

10:22 – Trump says his temperament is better than Clinton’s. And when Clinton suggests he would start a war if our troops were taunted, he agreed.

10:32 – Trump restates a Holt question with a sexist attack on Clinton’s stamina

10:38 – Clinton says she’ll support the outcome of the election; Trump eventually agrees, only after suggesting illegal immigrants will cast illegal votes for Clinton.

10:40 – thankfully, it’s over. Both candidates basically repeated their talking points, but Trump made more mistakes (“that’s business”) than did Clinton.