Monday, November 21, 2016

Making Sense of Nonsense: Navigating a Post-Logical World

For many of us, something was shattered when we woke up on 11/9, and it wasn't a glass ceiling. When seeking to put a broken world back together, it can help to start picking up the pieces, without worrying yet how they might all fit together.

Sports and Politics: Compare and Contrast
Both are tribal, in that fans maintain loyalty regardless of their team's performance. Both have a system that winnows the field down to two contenders for the prize. Both have pre-game hype, and a final contest that produces a winner. In sports, the outcome is merit-based. The two contenders meet and prove themselves on the same court. Though a political campaign usually includes debates, where the two candidates actually meet, the outcome is determined not so much by head to head performance, but by hype and spin. Past service and accomplishments fade into the background. If sports operated like democracy, it would not matter how many shots Lebron James made. He could be beaten by collecting videos of all his worst moments, and replaying them until people conclude that he is an awful player and deserves to lose.

When all the worst behaviors have been validated
There's a trope out there that some take Trump seriously but not literally, while others take him literally but not seriously. For those who take him literally, the election's stark message is that if you lie a lot, abuse women, encourage hateful behavior at rallies, dish out criticism but can't take it, and don't bother to study up, you too can become president.

Closer to home, New Jersians know what it's like to have school initiatives against bullying while the governor himself exhibits bullying behavior. The difference is that in schools, kids are held accountable for their behavior. In politics, the news media, for fear of appearing to take sides, says "both sides are to blame". If blame falls on all for the acts of some, there's no incentive for good behavior.

The contrasting responses to politicians like Trump and Christie suggest America is split into two moral universes. There may be insecurity and fear underlying that bullying behavior, but others interpret it as a sign of strength and comforting certainty in their leaders. Meanwhile, the victims of lies, abuse and hate--at least for those outside of one's tribe--by this logic should "man up" and "get over it".

Controlling Women's Bodies
Donald Trump's groping hand is transitioning into the hand of government, as a woman's right to choose faces increasing threat.

Rebellion Against Complexity
The election of Donald was a massive rebellion against a complex world. Build the wall. Lock her up. Drain the swamp. Words of three, let him be ... president. Minimal knowledge? No government experience? Take our country, please. In an information age, ignorance becomes the contrarian's rallying cry. With infinite knowledge at our fingertips, people are drawn to seductive fictions.

Government's Functionality is Unreported and Invisible
Much of what will be lost in this transition--from an administration that sought to make government work to one that wishes to dismantle it--will never be widely known. What is working in the world, whether it be a peaceful and prosperous country or a governmental agency that is well run, tends to disappear from view. The news media covers incompetence and dispute. It seeks out what is going wrong. It's like those trees along the road, green and lush, that we don't take note of until one dies, or is blown down across our path.

When Obama took over from G.W. Bush, massive repair of government was required. Agencies had become moribund, run by people at odds with the agency's mission. Now, with an anti-government president coming in, we'll see the opposite process, testimony to the waste that comes when primary voters filter out moderates, and one political party in need of an enemy targets our own government. Agencies cost money whether they are functioning or not. Anti-government control of government can mean the public is quietly billed but not served.

Show Us The Numbers!
Walter Mondale called out Ronald Reagan for phony budget numbers in the 1984 campaign. His slogan, "Where's the beef?", was meant to call attention to Reagan's drift from budgetary reality. It's hard to get much purchase from a campaign slogan that's posed as a question. Better it be a demand, like "Drain the swamp!" And so that drift, for which Reagan paid no political price, turned into a rising tide of deficit spending, which rose during Republican administrations and fell during the presidencies of Clinton and Obama. Voters had no beef with the beefless Reagan, and 32 years later voters seem content with a "Believe me!". Still, for the reality-bound, it nice to fantasize that a snappy little chant like "Show us the numbers!" could stir a demand from voters for accountability that no candidate could ignore. For good measure, literally, there should be a designated accountant stationed behind the candidates, to give a dramatic thumbs up or down as they offer their proposals.

The Unreachables
Though understandable, given all the abuse leveled at her over decades, Hillary's characterization of half of Trump's supporters as deplorables and irredeemable, when taken out of context surely made them all the more determined to vote against her. A more useful category might be a basket of unreachables. My daughter spent a day in Philadelphia knocking on doors of people known to have only sporadically shown up to vote in the past. Out of 60 households, only four people actually came to the door. Even when the front door was ajar, people tended not to respond to the doorbell. Similar experiences were had by canvassers elsewhere in the country. Some people are conditioned now to distrust a knock on the door. But the bigger question is how to reach voters who have withdrawn into their own personal bunkers of hardened views, sustained by a media and internet bubble of their own making.

When Philanthropy is Chastised by the Selfish
One election post-mortem said Hillary's big speaking fees turned off the working class voters she needed to win the election. Much, perhaps most, of that money went to charity. America seems to have lost the capacity to distinguish between generosity and selfishness. In fact, philanthropy is sometimes resented--by those of wealth who think that they as job producers owe the world nothing more. Perhaps philanthropy, like the "A" student in school, makes the rest of the 1% look bad. Philanthropy is a way the wealthy can connect with those less fortunate and give back to a country that made their wealth possible. That connection would seem all the more important as the income gap increases. Genuine philanthropy poses a threat to those who offer a faux version, who attract working class votes with populist rhetoric in order to implement policies that will benefit the wealthy.

What Did Posterity Ever Do For Me? (Groucho Marx)
The 2016 campaign was in some ways a contest between catharsis and nurturance, and catharis proved a much more potent motivation to vote. For some of us, Hillary's lifelong devotion to children's issues sounded impressive, but children can't vote, and if voters were concerned about children, they would have demanded that action be taken to slow climate change decades ago. Groucho Marx's joke about posterity has more truth in it than anyone wants to admit. When you're trying to save your own posterior, posterity is someone else's problem.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

9/11 - 11/9: The Mourning After

A builder of tall buildings has proven ascendant, and yet so much appears in free fall. First impressions the morning after:

When the Unthinkable Suddenly Felt Inevitable
Sometimes, when the unthinkable happens, you look back and realize there was a moment when you knew that the unthinkable was inevitable. I had such a moment back in the primary season, on May 3, when Trump won Indiana, and Hillary lost that same day to Bernie Sanders. The news came over the radio, while I was sitting up in bed. Hillary's loss came as a surprise to me, suggesting an unexpected weakness. And then Trump came on with his victory speech, with that smooth voice, so comfortable and confident--a voice I knew then and there people would be tempted to believe and follow. My jaw dropped at the contrast. I felt a chill, recognizing the danger at a visceral level. Then, over the ensuing months, as Trump's flaws became more obvious, and Hillary took the upper hand in the polls and the debates, I forgot that telling moment.

Comedy's Failure As a Force For Change and Enlightenment
One couldn't listen to Jon Stewart and his brilliant offspring--Colbert, Oliver, Samantha Bee--and not believe that humor would save us from cable news' drift into tabloid journalism and propaganda. Humor was the sugar coating that would successfully deliver the medicine of substance and reality to a distracted, escapist nation. Turned out the less urban parts of the country were not amused. When you point out the flaws in people's thinking, they don't change their minds. Being chastened is far less satisfying than getting the last laugh. A column written back in September by Ross Douthat, "Clinton's Samantha Bee Problem", sticks in the mind. Even he underestimated the power of the reactionism he rightly identified.

The Failure of a Nation's Immune System
One important role of the news media is to serve as the nation's immune system. In our bodies, the immune system can fail by not recognizing a real threat, or by attacking a non-threat. Cancer grows because the immune system does not identify it as a threat. Hay fever--that highly distracting annoyance--is the result of one's immune system attacking harmless pollen. During this election, the news media avoided substantive policy issues and the looming catastrophe of climate change, and chose instead to spend its zeal on the highly distracting annoyance of harmless emails.

Women Were Right
At least in my circle of friends and family, though men were disturbed by the Trump candidacy, women tended to show a far deeper distress, sitting for hours glued to cable news, seeking in every new poll some small evidence that disaster would be averted. I was worried, too, but it seemed a bit much, like my wife's double locking of doors at night in a low-crime town. This is Princeton, I'd think. What are the chances of someone breaking in? And, this is the United States. What are the chances that a man so demonstrably unfit to be president could be elected?