No Concessions

Monday, April 23rd, 2018 Politics

I keep making the same point (here and elsewhere) and not getting any traction, which surprises me: this is the main reason I’m a gun abolitionist. It’s not that I don’t countenance any rebuttals about hunting or self-defense. (I don’t, actually, but that’s beside the point.) It’s that I don’t understand why we’re not allowed to take an extreme position, when the other side does nothing but.

Every time I say “Get rid of the guns” I’m strongly cautioned about how, No, we can’t be so extreme; we have to compromise because lots of good people have firearms and are part of gun “culture” and we mustn’t insult them or risk upsetting them etc….and I say, Why the hell not? Nobody on the NRA side’s worried about upsetting us (or, you know, shooting us) and none of them have the slightest compunctions about using the most insane apocalyptic rhetoric, calling us enemies of America and worse, and absolutely insisting on the most extreme possible position (saying that any encroachment on anyone’s rights to guns in any situation is nothing less than a fundamental Constitutional crime against the flag) no matter who gets insulted or, you know, shot dead.

This is the usual liberal “bring a knife to a gunfight” position. It’s how Obama lost all that ground. “Let’s capitulate!” is always our first response. I hate this. Why can’t we be the extremists? No guns, anywhere, ever. Start from there—it’s a vastly more reasonable position than anything they’re saying (given 2nd Amendment debates etc.)—and then let’s negotiate.

This is what happened with cigarettes, too: the other side had a “give zero ground” tactic. They never settled or lost any civil or criminal suits, ever. They refused to acknowledge that nicotine was addictive (even after finally submitting to those Surgeon General’s warning). Nothing changed until the Brown & Williamson suits in the late ’nineties when they folded…slightly…and pulled ads from magazines and got rid of the billboards and made some other slight concessions. (And the activists who made the tobacco lobby blink, did it by using sweeping rhetoric, saying that the cigarette companies were “guilty of perpetrating the biggest fraud on the public in American history”—they didn’t start by reassuring everyone that “nobody’s against cigarettes” or attempt to prove their “bona fides” by saying they themselves smoked or whatever.)

This is the same thing: we’re dealing with fanatical extremists with lots of money who play for keeps and don’t give up any ground at all. So of course, we start making concessions, appeasing them more and more while they continue to spit on us. It’s the liberal way.

Bring On Pence

Sunday, May 21st, 2017 Politics / Writing


Should Mike Pence become president, the Left will surely lead us in a national chorus of “Whew! Back to normal.” Correct? After all, our friends in the Democratic party have been saying for many months that President Trump is not normal, that he is uniquely unfit for office, that his brand of mendaciousness, volatility, poor character, and immaturity have no precedent in the Oval Office, that he is a Nazi sympathizer and even a fascist, that he is an extremist who exists outside the bounds of ordinary political disagreement.

Kyle Smith in National Review Online
(with gratitude to Yastreblyansky, who discusses the article here)

To believe in America is to believe in democracy, and to believe in democracy is to believe in democratic systems, meaning, constitutional systems (including all the correctional mechanisms—the creation and enaction of laws vs. the voters’ referenda and all of that). It’s a sliding scale because any system can be gamed, its weaknesses found and exploited over time—whether it’s courtroom rules (where, say, computers allow impossibly fast retrieval of case law for objections, or where software-based or audio-recorded testimony can challenge the accuracy of stenographic court reporting) or basketball rules (where, over decades, the arrival of taller and taller players changes the timing of play so completely that the “shot clocks” and other new constraints have to evolve), the idea is that if you’re going to do the thing at all, you have to stick with the template you started with. (The taller basketball players aren’t the only biological change that’s relevant to how systems work—increasing human longevity makes “lifetime appointments” mean something very different now than it did 241 years ago, so those rules may eventually have to change, too.)

Along that sliding scale, messing with voting machines or voter rolls, or taking advantage of bad ballots (as in Florida in 2000) is not OK; breaking into your opponents’ campaign headquarters is not OK (as in Washington DC in 1972). Gerrymandering districts or refusing to hold confirmation hearings on a Supreme Court nominee are on the edge—technically, that’s working within the system, but it’s still dirty pool. And, in general, technology changes it all, as with my previous examples of how Fascism or just bad democracy results from media shifts—Leni Reifenstahl or Joseph Goebbels or Roger Ailes getting monstrous results from film, radio and television, or (just to argue the other way) local Democratic candidates getting “unfair” boosts in funding across state lines thanks to DailyKos.

So, Pence is not “as ‘abnormal’ [or, illegitimate] as Trump” (as has been argued). There are just too many things that are fundamentally wrong with Trump’s election—some of which, as I’m saying above, barely skate by as “legitimate” (not just the Electoral College but the Comey letter and the tweetstorms) but so much of which involves hacked email servers and corrupt self-dealing in international business contexts and unprecedented foreign interference and other elements that are totally beyond the pale; that have nothing to do with how the Founding Fathers set the thing up or how it carefully nurtured its own painstakingly slow evolution over the centuries. (I’m not making an “Originalist” argument—at least, I’m pretty sure I’m not; the parsing of 18th Century language through a modern lens altered by shifting social values is different from the obliteration of 18th century physical mechanisms by computers and cable televisions and international money-laundering schemes.)

Mike Pence is evil, as Yastreblyansky argues, but he’s a doctrinaire politician; an elected official legitimately vetted by the systems of our democracy; and (perhaps more important) a man who (like Gerald Ford) could never have gotten onto the national stage or into the Oval Office by himself. (I would never say of Pence that he is “not my President”—as the Right did of Obama, for their own reasons involving crackpot racist theories of his imaginary foreign birth or “allegiance” to the Muslim world, which Trump first came to the national stage by exploiting and promoting.)

We’re on the edge of serious darkness and chaos with Trump. Too many of our basic principles of democratic rule are rattling and straining under dangerous pressure, because of Reality Television and microtargeting and hacked computers. And, since I’m being called out by The National Review (as a self-appointed representative of “the Left”), I have to hold my head up high and say, Yes, if Mike Pence becomes President I will lead “a national chorus of ‘Whew! Back to normal’” —I will continue to believe what I’ve always believed and stand by what I’ve always stood by as a patriotic American. I will repeat the Gerald Ford lines about how “our system works—this is a government of laws and not of men” and I will watch lame-duck Pence and his party be decimated in the midterms as the basic, cherished wheels of American democracy grind away the last remnants of this horrible freak mistake.

Tramp the Dirt Down

Thursday, May 18th, 2017 Politics / Writing

Roger Ailes made his public debut in the early pages of Joe McGinniss’ landmark book The Selling of the President 1968, a brilliant first-hand study of how filmmaking and advertising techniques permanently altered the political landscape during Nixon’s landslide election that year. McGinniss argues that the postwar, television-era thinking of Marshall McLuhan and other pioneers of media study (whose work is so quaint by modern, post-MTV, post-Twitter standards that mentioning McLuhan even in a historical context has gone permanently out of fashion) did such damage to the fabric of American political discourse that recovery is (to McGinniss’ Watergate-era thinking) probably impossible. And Ailes is right in the middle of it, a television producer coming off of talk television:

Roger Ailes, the executive producer of the Mike Douglas Show, was hired to produce the one-hour programs [the famous Nixon question-and-answer series of neo-Town Halls, now made available on YouTube by the Nixon Foundation]. Ailes was 28 years old. He had started as a prop boy on the Douglas show in 1965 and was running it within three years. […] Richard Nixon had been a guest on the show in the fall of 1967. While waiting to go on, he fell into conversation with Roger Ailes.
“It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” Nixon said.
“Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes said.

McGinniss’ eyewitness account elaborates in detail on how Nixon’s victory was achieved through the strategic replacement of dry statistics and policy positions with painstakingly crafted short film pieces and interview segments, all designed to convey Nixon’s “qualities” through the blatant application of cutting-edge advertising techniques. (Remember that Don Draper’s fictional firm worked on the unsuccessful 1960 Nixon campaign during the early seasons of Mad Men.) At the end of McGinniss’ narrative (as Nixon triumphs), old-school journalists Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton are “having a sad drink together,” having completed their obituaries for Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey: “We are two nations of equal size,” Kempton wrote; “Richard Nixon’s is white, Protestant, breathes clean air and advances towards middle age. Hubert Humphrey’s nation is everything else, whatever is black, most of which breathes polluted air, pretty much what is young […] There seems no place larger than Peoria from which [Nixon] has not been beaten back; he is the President of every place in this country that does not have a bookstore…”

Almost fifty years later, as bookstores, too, are fading into the past, the continued legacy of that first television-based campaign Ailes masterminded is, needless to say, not just still with us but dominant and triumphant. As Leni Riefenstahl did with movie cameras and Joseph Goebbels did with radio, so Ailes did with television—a lost-wax technique whereby delicate political meanings are melted away and the remaining hollow mold of “TV news” filled with the immutable bronze of emotions and impressions. The chain of causality that leads from Nixon to Reagan (and the force of Peggy Noonan’s rhetoric) to George W. Bush to Donald Trump is assembled from links like Cokie Roberts’ assertion that Hillary Clinton’s transgressions, though imaginary, were “out there” (meaning, being discussed by the public) and therefore warranted further journalistic scrutiny; by Karl Rove’s infamous declaration that “an empire” like the United States “makes its own reality;” by Frank Bruni and others insisting that Bush won the debates with Gore by “appearing Presidential” (rather than sighing “arrogantly” as did Gore); and finally back to Ailes himself, in his curtain call as Trump’s most vital supporter throughout 2016 (and, of course, as fellow serial abuser of women).

A subtext of Citizen Kane was the replacement of the Hearst empire (newspapers)—represented by Kane—with the Luce empire (newsreels; the “picture magazine” etc.)—represented by Thompson, the reporter whom we follow through the movie. Neither of them are particularly good at getting to the truth, but both are influential in a sub-rational way (“You supply the prose poems; I’ll supply the war,” as Kane tells his reporter covering the nonexistent Cuban war, repeating Hearst’s alleged words) and the newsreel that we see provides a near-operatic context for the events of the day that supplants the prose-poetry of the “yellow” newspapers. In the post-Nixon era, we have seen something similar: the elemental force of opinion-based TV totally supplanting the politics of newspapers and conventional “evening news” programs. Trump is the ultimate result of this trend, not just because he, himself, is so obviously immune to any kind of printed matter but because the movement he created has been trained to disregard journalism—and, by extension, truth itself—entirely.

It’s fitting that Ailes exits the stage at a moment so similar to when he entered, a crossroads of activism, turmoil, corruption and unrest that will almost certainly alter the political and social landscape of the decades to come. Let’s hope that Trump is Ailes’ requiem; that the cynical and corrosive manipulation of image and feeling to the detriment of reason and meaning is buried along with him.