My mother, Karen Radkai, was a remarkable photographer and an edgy personality.
In late 2017, I received an email from the “Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí” in Figueres with a special request: They needed biographical information on my mother, Karen Radkai, for a pending photography exhibition called “The Women who photographed Dalí” based on their collection. They also needed some photographic material.
The request serendipitously
dovetailed with my slow, but painstaking work on a biography of my mother and
father, both photographers of some note, especially around the mid-20th
century. And so, I ultimately wrote the entry to the exhibition’s catalogue. It
is not a “private view.” My copious notes and memories are for
another time and a fuller publication.
“What doesn’t kill us, makes us harder…” The famous quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, appropriately taglined “How to philosophize with a hammer,” rings in my ears when I think of my mother, Karen Radkai. She was not the easiest person to be around or to grow up with. She was, however, someone who left a mark, and lots of photographic material.
Brash, brilliant, outspoken and highly
opinionated, she could make enemies out of friends within minutes, but could
also attract the loyalty of those who were willing to give her space, who
recognized the person behind the lens, who saw and appreciated the very fine –
and extremely myopic – eye she had. She was also ambitious, had endless energy
resources, and a kind of resilience that could drive any normal person to
distraction. A large part of the energy came from her passion for her work, as
such. She had the great good fortune of living at a time when photography had reached
a kind of creative apotheosis and was firmly in the hands and fingers of a small,
busy, gifted elite of perceptive editors, publishers, and photographers, of
She was born in 1919, in Munich. She once
told me that she had already started photographing as a child. It was a hobby
she enjoyed, and somewhere amongst her papers, I do hope someday to find some
of those old shots. Otherwise, among her earliest memories, was sleeping in a
bathtub, because the inflation in the early 1920s in Germany had wiped out the
family fortunes. Abandoned by her parents, who separated soon after her birth, she
was sent to a convent, where, by her own account, she acquired the discipline
that she maintained her entire life.
As a teenager, she left Nazi Germany for the USA, where her mother had moved to about eight years prior. She was working as a stylist in New York in the mid-1940s when she met a dashing Hungarian émigré, who was already a fairly well-established photographer, my father, Paul Radkai. He let her have his studio to work in and experiment – according to him. Her boundless energy and ambition bore fruit. Soon she became a protégé of the notorious Alexey Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar.
She was twenty-nine when the magazine sent her on assignment to post-civil-war Greece to photograph Queen Frederica (herself a German granddaughter of Emperor Wilhelm II). While the pictures of that job are unavailable, I do own a stunning vignette from that journey that tells the entire story of my mother’s photographs and perhaps reveals the artistry of photography itself: She found the subject somewhere in the war-ravaged country. A man stands. He is looking down at an elderly woman shining one of his shoes. She is almost prostrate. The man towers over her. My mother, I realize looking at the image, did not actually seize that image. She saw it coming and caught the millisecond of the man’s contemptuous look. It also summed up a deep-seated feeling she had about how men treated women.
Her career was a steep upward curb for many
years, despite personal setbacks and a marriage that went south for too many
complicated reasons to enumerate. She had in all four children, but her true
companion was her work, and that made her a favorite of many VIPs, particularly
from the world of film and music. The childhood of my sisters and me was
populated by some remarkable people and filled with special memories.
Because she rubbed elbows with so many big
names in the creative world – may I confess that I played chess with Man Ray
some time around 1969? – my mother was rarely in awe of prominent personalities.
Her approach to work was quite Germanic: You come, you do it, and when it’s finished,
you pack up and left. I would say, this kept her quite objective when
photographing, an important point, since she would not let her personal taste
get in the way.
At some time in the 1960s, she and Paul, my father, bought a house in Cadaqués, the one behind the church up on the hill. It was a funny idea, a bit spontaneous, as I recall (she was like that: after selling that house, she bought an apartment in a small Austrian village from the billboard announcing the house was being built). The village was full of jet-setters and wannabes, rich people living a life akin to that of the rois faineants, odd-balls, social drop-outs, artists real and fraudulent, and Dali, of course, who used to stride into the Bar Meliton twiddling his mustache – I remember him, because, as a boy, I would play chess there. He’d arrive a little like an archbishop expecting his rig to be kissed by the faithful. I’ll be honest: My mother though him a little pretentious, and being a classic liberal, disagreed seriously with his approval of Franco.
But when she was sent to photograph him, she packed her equipment, took her trusty assistant, Vaughn Murmurian, and did the job, and did it well. Her first encounter with Dalì, however, was in 1951 at the famous Bal de Bestegui in Venice, which she and my father, Paul Radkai, attended as photo-reporters. She told me once that Dalí made a few coarse remarks about some of the activities he performed in one of his rooms. On that end, nothing could shock my mother. Especially coming from a man. I asked what she replied…. it was a comment about his age.
My mother also did a lot of advertising,
but the photo-reportage was her favorite kind of work. And she was not only an
assignment person. She had an unerring eye for what was photogenic, what would
fit in a good magazine and so, over the years, she collaborated with many
outstanding magazines, notably World of
Interiors, a British Vogue publication, which at the time was brilliantly
edited by Min Hogg.
As a son, as a freelancer like her, but
with not nearly the talent, I find it difficult to separate the private and the
professional. For years now, I have been working on gathering information for a
kind of biography, not a list of jobs, not a curriculum vitae,
but a personal one. So I’d like to close
with a small anecdote.
My mother and I did one job together. It was for House & Garden. The subject was the 18th-century Schloss Fasanerie near the archbishopric of Fulda in Hessen, Germany. She landed in Munich and, in spite of a generous expense account, picked up a small car. We drove the 400 kilometers to Fulda and set up shop in a B&B. No fancy hotels. We spent one day essentially walking around the palace, which was owned by Prince Moritz von Hessen, whom she admired for his ability to work and run businesses rather than jetset away the family fortune.
The next day, she photographed systematically, while I took note of the furnishings in each room, worried details, picked up the history of the castle and the family (with a long pedigree and some tragic events, especially in the 20th century).
A third day’s work was needed. Everything went very smoothly. But there was one little incident that, again, was typical: Throughout the three days, the house- and groundskeeper had stuck with us like fly-paper, opening doors and moving objects around. I tried to keep him out of my mother’s way, because I sensed he was getting on her nerves (as an amateur photographer, he’d keep making comments about photography, which she hated because, as the Germans would say, Dienst ist Dienst, Schnapps ist Schnapps). At one point, my mother asked if we could put some flowers in a vase, because otherwise everything looked too museum-like. The man said casually that vases in the 18th century then were not for flowers, but rather for decoration. And maybe she could photograph it another way… I did my best to distract, to change the subject, to interfere, because I could see my mother’s lips tightening, a slight pallor form along her nose. I knew that behind those sunglasses she always wore, her eyes were sending out 88mm flak shells. She hated anyone interfering with her work. And the gentleman was then subjected to a tongue-lashing that I can only sum up with “You do your work, and I’ll do mine.”
The Mueller Report is in… but is the real crime collusion, or has the president been using it as a rhetorical decoy to hide other crimes? There is a case to be made that the Trump administration, with GOP collusion, has been preying on the wishful thinking of those who loudly despise the president.
From the jargondatabase: To a large extent, people declare that a project has either succeeded or failed based on whether it met their expectations. Few projects fail in an absolute sense — they simply fail to meet individual expectations.
A scenario: Johnny comes back from an exam and says: “I think I really failed that one….” For days, the kid goes on and on about the failure, … Mom and Dad console him”, his jealous little sister expects, with some glee, and F minus… The result arrives. It’s a D…. Parents scold the sister for being so negative. Johnny, who had revised for 10 minutes, escaped a real scolding for being such a lazy bone. Johnny is an expectations manager.
So: Has anyone wondered why Donald Trump keeps drawing attention to the collusion issue? He repeats the word over and over again, tweets it, rambles on about the “Russia thing” and the fake news business… Anyone with the most basic communication skills would try to change the subject, or just let the matter go… if it really was a thing. So, is he really that furious? Or is it merely grandstanding and throwing red meat for his base to mitigate an eventual bad report card from the Mueller team?
One of the rules of communication is not to call attention to flaws, deficiencies and other warts, and especially to do that vociferously. There are a thousand reasons to oppose this president. But there is not one reason to underestimate the effectiveness of his strange communication, which keeps his base riled up, the GOP terrified, and above all, the media enthralled by so much cheap and flashy raw material, which delivers great product margins.
I’ve had a theory since the beginning of the Mueller probe, and it is this: Trump and his handlers, like Conway, have been engaged in expectations management. In its simplest form, it is like a person going to play a game of chess and mentioning repeatedly that he hasn’t played in 20 years. It may or may not be true, but it either justifies and mitigates the eventuality of a loss, or exalts a win, especially against a strong opponent.The slogan is: promise less, deliver more. This can hide the warts and weaknesses, or downright deficiencies, once the results are in. Anyone who followed the USA-Iraq wars carefully will have noticed how during the run-up to the wars, Saddam’s army was always described in apocalyptic terms, even though in the first war(1991) it had just come off an eight-year battle with Iran and was quite degraded. In 2003, it had hardly been able to rebuild, but the media scoured Roget’s to find the most terrifying words to describe this Incredible Military Force. When the “coalition of the willing went in,” it cut through the the Iraqi army like a hot wire through butter. That victory was followed by a barely suppressed gloat fest … which then hit the real wall of guerilla resistance and the totally predictable, bloody quasi-civil war that then broke out. But it, the victory, was enough to satisfy a critical mass of Americans and the media, for a while at least, while the Bush clowns rejigged their rhetoric and fumbled around in the country they had just invaded until things sort of arranged themselves.
So Trump’s yelling about the Mueller report could be a deflection in that vein, negative expectations. The Resistance expects treason, even the base does (they know their Leader is a criminal, they like him for it). But the report may more or less exonerate Trump of the “collusion thing,” which he’s been drawing so much attention to. This will effectively dash the expectations of all those who have been wishfully and blissfully thinking that Trump is deeply involved in some evil traitorous plot — that his base wouldn’t even care about anyway, because Trump is their weapon against their feeling of inferiority so carefully crafted by Fox News and others. Whit collar stuff is almost trite next to treason, isn’t it?
The GOP, for their part, with the support of said base, will commence howling about Trump having been right all along… about the collusion thing, so obviously he must be totally innocent… Even if he is not entirely exonerated…. That’s the general scenario: On the one side, Congressional committees trying to parse all the white collar stuff dug up by Mueller & Co. that are part and parcel of the Trump repertoire anyway and will be added to the porn payoffs, but that don’t really count for his base, like his moral bankruptcy. On the other side, the base drunk on a kind of false schadenfreude trying to out-holler the Resistance, which will still be pointing out myriad Trump crimes in 280-character bursts. And Trump heating them up, as usual, keeping the country deeply divided.
It’s a little complicated, perhaps, but being simplistic is not a solution, even with this immature and transparent president. A well-conducted campaign of expectations management would explain why Trump has been hollering about collusion, when it would/should have been the last thing to do if he were really guilty.
You see how it works? I may be wrong, but I’ll risk it. Just remember one thing with Trump and his punditocracy: Criminal behavior is unimportant; being in the spotlight at all times is.
This article was updated with material I had gathered two weeks ago.
US news on this 4th of September, 2018, has all to do about justice. And how the current president of the USA apparently refuses to accept the plain fact that the judiciary must be independent.
“He was consistent about this throughout the campaign,” says political commentator Carrie Cordero (Georgetown U.), “and here we are two years later and he is still saying the same thing. If he could he would use the DOJ and prosecutorial powers and engage in political retribution and pervert the system of justice.”
Re. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) was clearer: “We are not a banana republic.” A lonely voice coming from the former law-and-order party known as the GOP. Paul Ryan had his usual “what-me-worry?” blinders on.
While most of Trump’s gesticulations are the circus component of the panem et circenses to hide some emolument agenda, I suspect, this business with the justice department does appear more sinister in its consistency. It is literally anti-American and a serious threat to democracy as we know it. Why? Because he seems to think that a president should have unrestricted power to go after the opposition, and we now know that Trump can suffer no contradiction without going ballistic.
I’ve written about it before. It closely resembles how the Moscow Communists took over Hungary between 1945 and 1949, a process known by historians as the salami tactics. I am sure his former advisers Steve Bannon (a self-proclaimed Leninist, though that may just be to shock the sycophants) and Sebastian Gorka would know about this.
Here again the Wikipaedia definition:
“Salami tactics, also known as the salami-slice strategy or salami attacks , is a divide and conquer process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition. With it, an aggressor can influence and eventually dominate a landscape, typically political, piece by piece. In this fashion, the opposition is eliminated “slice by slice” until one realizes (too late) that it is gone in its entirety.”
Yes, it’s not quite the same, because the USA has institutions, etc…. but the Trump administration has been stuffing courts with partisan judges, and that is simply not healthy.
The real problem is deeper, of course. Democracy is a difficult system. All must participate, all must be well informed, all must be ready to compromise. It is not a winner-takes-all system. It is winner is gracious and shares the spoils, remembering that a large part of the electorate is not of the winner’s opinion. More at some other time.
Note number 2 on this 4th of September 2018: The beginning of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court, which will most probably put a partisan judge onto the highest bench in the land, where he can support decisions for some of the more extremist views of US conservatives.
Laura Ingraham invoked Stalin to attack David Hogg for launching a boycott of her show. It was truly a Goliath versus David moment, i.e. Laura with the power of Fox News and the entire right-wing noise machine, including the president and his surrogates, versus a very real, Internet-savvy, articulate high schooler named … David. Hollywood’s making plans for this one.
Ingraham’s hyperbole was boosted by some repulsive comments from the likes of the NRA’s own Ted Nugent and Sinclair’s Jamie “Red-Hot Poker” Allman (resigned). And a few days later, in reference to the FBI, which had quite legally and courteously raided Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s premises, Newt Gingrich unmothballed the GESTAPO and Stalin in one breath, a claim that did generate some pushback even in conservative quarters (and in Israel, BTW, see here).
So. Here we go again…. I’ve covered this issue before, but it’s redux time, because the irony of the pundits’ projections is just too much.
Point 1) Hitler and Stalin are old-time favorite to describe very bad people, especially people who do things you don’t like or you may feel have somehow restricted you in your freedom to do and say what you please. In American politics – and to a certain extent in other democratic countries, one could argue – the time it takes to pull the Hitler car is referred to as “Godwin’s Law.” Definition here. No, it doesn’t mention Stalin, but by rights, it should.
Point 2) H&S are favorites for a simple reason: People generally don’t know any others. Why not say: Mao, who was equally monstrous? Or Pol Pot? Or Idi Amin? Or even Suharto? Marcos, Pinochet… Because people would look them up, perhaps, and realize how staggeringly ridiculous it is to refer to that kid as Stalin? Or because Hitler and Stalin have become common adjectives? This demeans the suffering of untold millions at the hands of these two egregious figures.
Imagine Ingraham tweeting “The boycott of my ads was positively Cattaneist…” Her devout viewers would have to search high and low and then read all about the Five Days of Milan, 1848, when Carlo Cattaneo led a tobacco and casino boycott against the Austrian overlords in the city and set off the Risorgimento… (Please look up the details elsewhere).
Point 3) Ingraham and her ilk are not interested in knowledge, of course, maintaining ignorance is the source of their mediatic power. So the irony of the Stalin reference is lost on the nodding Fox audience:
Because there could well be a sinister side to it. In my Trump, wurst, salami post, I noted how the Trump and his administration actually seem to be implementing what are known as Salami Tactics, a term coined by the Hungarian Communist Màtyàs Ràkosi to subvert the embryonic democracy in Hungary after World War Two. Here’s how that went:
Having won only 17% in the 1945 elections, the Communists requested and got leadership of the Ministry of the Interior, while Ràkosi himself became the Vice Premier. Over the next four years, the Communists created a secret police, subverted the justice system, engaged in sustained attacks against any opposition, accusing them of having collaborated with the Nazis, creating fake evidence if necessary, and generally kept the nation divided and frantic. That might sound familiar. The difference was in the state of the economy and the country in general after a devastating war. Massive inflation helped the destabilization process. At any rate, in 1949, the Communists won an overwhelming majority. This was followed some mopping up operations, including a show trial of fellow traveler Laszlo Rajk and a few others to, essentially terrorize any dissenters inside and outside the Party. Note “show trial.”
Stuffing the courts with far right-wing judges is one parallel. Constant attacks on the intelligence community another. But it took a greater organization to maintain the accusations of disloyalty and treason against anyone dissenting, and creating that toxic “Us versus Them” atmo, which is the hallmark of the Trump system in cahoots with the GOP. Imagine: The RNC went out of its way to demonize and calumniate James Comey by means of a dedicated website.
Trump has never stopped campaigning for that reason, and he has a right-wing media apparatus behind him feeding into him and feeding off of him, making money in the process and expanding its base. That is dangerous. Many knowledgeable people are sounding the alarms about the damage being done to democratic institutions and democracy itself. Madeleine Albright being the most recent.
Full Stalinist Now the real punchline. Ingraham conjuring Stalinism, and a few days later Fox actually engaged in what one could only describe as a public show trial in the best Stalinist tradition…. Do they actually understand what they are doing?
I rest my case.
Oh, afterthought: Anyone who thinks David Hogg is Hitlerian or Stalinist needs to go back to the history books, or, if those seem too dry, some novels, like The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers, or The partially autobiographical Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Try Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, too, while you are at it… Windrip… sounds almost like a metaphor for the current occupant of the White House.
AT SOME POINT, the Parkland shooting may be seen as the turning point in the struggle to end what can only be termed NRA blackmail of much of the country and its purchase of unquestioning political support from Congressmen and -women. A group of high-schoolers, with the energy and boldness of youth, and the organizational tools of the 21st century, have become the funnel for the frustrations and disgust of millions of Americans at mass shootings. On another level, however, this struggle is again highlighting some of the uglier sides of what passes for discourse in the nation’s politics.
Though the man is really unpleasant in many ways, vulgar and shady — like his spiritus rector and good friend, the late Roy Cohn — I must give Roger Stone his due for a very insightful quote: “It is better to be infamous than never to be famous at all.” It’s his working motto and, of course, the motto of many others who earned spurs and money from the rich and powerful by simply being malevolent. And it is a direct descendant of the famous “There is no negative feedback” idea, which states that any publicity is basically good publicity.
What the impact of Stone and his large ilk is or would be on society at large was and is unimportant to them. They care nothing of values such as compassion, decency, tolerance and generosity. Beauty is to be ignored, gratefulness is a weakness, loyalty lasts only as long as there is something to gain. They are tough in that way, a predatory gang. All that counts is gaining notoriety, and with that, these days, comes power and money.
This is one of the main reasons why American society is so divided. By donning the cloak of infamy, men and women with a total disregard for decency, for civil discourse, have created a society where fake outrage, generally driven by furious invective, lies or bullshit, rules and poisons any discussion. The technique is pernicious and mostly self-interested.
Take Laura Ingraham’s recent tweet about young David Hogg: It was ad hominem, cheap, and geared towards making waves and keeping the Fox tribe angry, focused on a meta-battlefield, and hence happy. No one is disputing Ingraham’s right to say what she wants. Nor can one dispute that she knows what she is doing, because she’s done it before: her “anchor fetuses,” comment, or her “shut up and dribble,” comment come to mind. She blows the dogwhistle in various registers and keys, and it is aimed not only at the “right.” The other goal is infuriating the so-called left, or simply at people who believe strongly that free speech is a right, but comes with obligations if you are in the public eye.
Ingraham herself might argue that the demonstrators were saying some pretty harsh things about the NRA and about those who blindly support gun ownership as a “God-given right” (a ridiculous statement, if I ever heard one, but in tune with the Puritan idea of manifest destiny). On the other hand, the NRA and its henchmen and -women have polluted the debate and made it extremely acrimonious over the past years.*
The NRA’s reaction following mass shootings has inevitably been aggressive towards the victims, the grieving families and friends, and towards those who are getting exasperated at the long financial arm of an organization that apparently makes its money selling weapons. The NRA and its tribe never sought a real dialogue to find a solution to a major social problem, which would have been the proper path. Now they are faced with a reaction powered by decades of anger and frustration at being bullied into silence.
But the weapons controversy is only one of many battlegrounds in yet another fake war which is powered by people with financial interests. Let me repeat that: These wars are driven by people with no real ideology, but rather with financial skin in the game.
The divisive and violent rhetoric is not delivered to further arguments, but rather to deflect attention from the issue and attract attention to the speaker or his or her organization, and hence to make money. A perfect example on this Easter weekend, following the Ingraham Tweet, came a few more nuggets of nonsense, one from Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank (I didn’t know he had a son), and from chicken-hawk extraordinaire Ted Nugent, who as a representative of the NRA, produced this bucketful of verbal trash:
“The dumbing-down of America is manifested in the culture deprivation of our academia that have taught these kids the lies, media that have prodded and encouraged and provided these kids lies. (…) To attack the good law-abiding families of America when well known predictable murderers commit these horrors is deep in the category of soulless. These poor children, I’m afraid to say this and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable, they have no soul.”
The comment is so incoherent, it’d be a waste of time to try to take it apart. But it, like the Ingraham quote, like the strange hallucinations of so many on Fox News and elsewhere, is an example of what has become a rhetorical business model that is having serious repercussions on democratic processes. It is right up there with the scandalous sale of private data by Facebook, by the way. The rules of this model are simple:
Step one: Drop all your scruples about attacking people from some public megaphone, like Fox News, or Twitter, or wherever…
Step two: Mothball your self-respect, because you are about to turn yourself into a rude, trashy, noisy attention-grabber, and will have to say all sorts of things a decent adult person would avoid. I say adult, because as a part-time teacher of young teenagers, I do have to occasionally confront kids whose aim is to draw attention to themselves by being silly.
Step three: Say it: Say something simply outrageous, something without any basis in reality, but that some that goes against what was considered plain human decency not so long ago. Go against everything that would be within the norm, it’s called “being disruptive” these days and is a marketing ploy.
Step four: Reap the harvest, the accolades from the entire spectrum of your own tribe. AND the furious blowback from those who rightfully think you are being a jackass. Reap in the heat and glow of the spotlight, the “everybody’s talking about you” without worrying whether it’s good or bad. You have gotten your moment in the sun, and you can make it to the next step. A disciple of many financially successful bloviators Tomi Lahren, who began by ranting some very provocative but unsupported stuff on Facebook before being picked up by Fox News, where she continues to embarrass herself by acting like a snarky 13-year-old, lots of opinion and little substance.
Step five: Once the outrage machine has been fired up, you have a few options: First option: the easiest is to let it ride out, never back down. It’s common, because you have the power of the bully pulpit and therefore answering any counterarguments by the author would be a sign of weakness. Besides, your online “surrogates” will be spreading your infamy by their own accord. Fame means never having to say you’re sorry in certain quarters of our political layer.
Second option: Apologize soon after, catching the outraged opposition off guard, but apologize in such a way as to not apologize. This is what Laura Ingraham did after advertisers started pulling their ads from her show.
The third option is the Nugent option: Start complaining about being attacked by those who feel your attack on some fellow expressing an opinion was unjustifiably harsh and vulgar. It encourages your fans, who feel that everyone else is the “snowflake,” and makes sure YOU don’t have to look in the mirror.
By now, it has become almost impossible to break this system, because it is ingrained and financially successful, as long as you have no scruples and no self-respect. David Hogg found the weakness: The advertisers. Boycotts can be very powerful tools, and may be the only ones possible short of imposing constraints on the First Amendment. It even works within the tribe: Erick Erickson, who at first rejected Trump during his candidacy, soon found the fans of his own “conservative” ravings walking away, and then returned to the fold. Here a taste of Erickson’s prose, by the way:
“I assume that Obama’s marxist harpy wife would go Lorena Bobbit on him should he even think about it, but I ask the question to make one simple point: Barack Obama, like Elliott Spitzer, is a creation of the liberal media and, as a result, could be a serial killing transvestite and the media would turn a blind eye.”
Interesting projection: The liberal media were not that friendly towards Obama, but conservative media, including Erickson, quickly lock-stepped behind the predatory, pussy-grabbing, adulterous, haywire Trump. This should give these folks pause for thought.
In the will to power and money, anything goes. Lies become the truth, smears become arguments, and projection onto others becomes the only form of self-reflection allowed. It’s a technique we see literally daily, and the masters of it are squarely in the right-wing camp of the USA, where old-fashioned conservatism has been pushed into the corner. In its place are a generation of people who’ve signed a Faustian contract: Their ethics and self-respect for fame, power and money.
Ingraham’s silly tweet was eminently deconstructible, but in the fast-moving communication of the Internet, and in the pre-masticated opinions of her backslapping audience, arguments pro and con do not matter anymore. What remains is the message and the agitation it generated, the noise, the anger, the spectacle. And Twitter picked it up and magnified the outrage tenfold.
* In 1996, the organization got its fingers into the amendment to a spending bill that stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” As the Washington Post reported: “The National Rifle Association had pushed for the amendment, after public-health researchers produced a spate of studies suggesting that, for example, having a gun in the house increased risk of homicide and suicide. It deemed the research politically motivated.”
For those who do not like to read much, here’s a short version of a longer lucubration on the topic of online invective as it currently stands… :
What drives an adult mother like Laura Ingraham to write ad hominem tweets against a 17-year-old expressing (articulately) his opinion? What drives an adult representative like Ted Nugent of the NRA to hurl very crude and incoherent invective at the same kid? Their argument might be “They did so first…” which is not an argument.
So let’s continue: Why does Lou Dobbs, of Fox News smile glibly when a guest of his literally paints a target on the Parkland students’ back, saying the students are acting “as if they are bulletproof”? By the same token, what drove an adult father of several kids (four, I think), to call retired SC justice David Souter a “goat fucking child molester”? The latter is Erick Erickson, and he was also the author of the following gem:
“Barack Obama, like Elliott Spitzer, is a creation of the liberal media and, as a result, could be a serial killing transvestite and the media would turn a blind eye.”
The list could fill pages, and you’d be astonished, it is mostly fed by family-values, PTL-ing, “patriotic” so-called conservatives. Their invective is shocking, extreme, and very divisive. And it is meant to be. But it is no longer ideological. Empowered by ratings driven by a critical mass of angry Americans, who can’t stand the inevitable changes* in our society, or who simply hate being told what to do even if it is necessary, these immature, unsavory salvos have become the artillery in the cold civil war dividing the country.
And those uttering them, or the organization and companies backing them, are making lots of money out of it. Just as they are making money out of silly conspiracy theories. It’s turning into blood money of sorts, as the victim may well be democracy itself. Fighting back against it is tough, because the Internet offers them a bully pulpit with an unbelievably wild reach for their investment, and it protects them from having to listen to counterarguments. The only thing that counts is cash. Amazingly, a 17-year-old kid understood that. His slightly snarky suggestion about puling ads was hard. Advertisers do not want to be associated with such shabby people. It’s bad for brands.
*Believe me, I don’t like them at all, but they are there, and we have to learn to live with them. The good ole days are just that, good ole days. Weep and move on.
Pulling the Hitler card has become so standard in what passes for debates or discourse, it is even the subject of a kind of law: Godwin’s Law. It dates back to 1990, apparently, but while somewhat reductionist, it does itself, somewhat facetiously, highlight a reductionist habit: Using Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a synonym for “you’re a really, really, really awful human being,” or “you’re ideas and argumentation are really, really, awful and I don’t agree with them.” However: The political spectrum of dictatorship and evil doings is wide and quite well-stocked in bad guys and processes aimed at violating individual liberty. And as usual, there are degrees to watch. Is it time to look elsewhere and enrich the conversation?
Godwin’s Law is equal opportunity, it affects everyone across the political spectrum, and it seems mostly to spring from, as mentioned, a tendency towards extreme reductionism, or, simply, ignorance: either not knowing, or the inability to go look for, some better historical analogies. Smearing with Hitler and the Nazis was popular among George W. Bush opponents, who felt that the war on Iraq and the agitprop promoting it were Hitlerian, like, maybe the 1939 attack on Poland, or the earlier invasion of Czechoslovakia. Later, almost as revenge for the so-called anti-Bush crowd’s brandishing of Bush-Hitler posters, the newfangled Tea Party decided to let out its trademark anger against Barack (Hussein, always) Obama by giving the new black president a little square moustache for bailing out the banks and trying to prevent the US and the world from falling into economic depression.
With the Trump administration, the Hitler card is almost brandishing itself, however. Trump revels in autocratic/dictatorial imagery. He loves to sign executive orders (decrees, government by fiat). And I barely need to mention the rallies, the self-adulation (more à la Mussolini), now replete with longings for military parades. Then there is the equivocal reaction to the Tiki-torch march, the constant ad hominem attacks on people of any color or non-evangelical religion, in addition to women, Democrats and generally anyone who doesn’t agree with him or who corrects his lies, errors, obfuscations, notably the free press.
But is it the real thing? No, say quite a few commentators: Tim Molloy of The Wrap – to name one of many – has written cogently about this reductionist problem in other contexts, namely Glenn Beck brandishing Hitler to smear anyone and everyone he didn’t agree with. He also noted Trump’s own antics, like having people pledge to vote for him by raising their right hand, which looks suspiciously like a crowd sieg-heiling. Molloy, in turn, is extensively referred to by Michael Lind, of Politico, who exhorted people to stop comparing Trump and Hitler. In his March 2016 piece, Lind pointed out that the likes of Goldwater were painted with the brown brush, whereby he was in fact a libertarian and would never abide by the state controls applied by the Nazis. He puts some of the blame on the “émigré Marxist intellectuals of the so-called Frankfurt School” and on lazy journalists, or, later, on social scientists, for intentionally or accidentally confusing populism with fascism. There is a lot of truth to it – and to be fair he mentions the absurd right-wing use of the Nazi smear against the left.
Lind puts Trump in line with many populists in US history, from Andrew Jackson, to Huey Long, and passing by William Jennings Bryan (I’ll be exploring this in a new piece in the coming months). Indeed, for Trump, who is essentially a showman, and a con man in some ways, waving his arms about is the key to success. He does this for his followers as much as for those who oppose him (cf. my post The revolution is permanent noise). Trump is an improviser, he has no real plan, he extemporizes, albeit with certain repetitive riffs. In a New York Magazine article published before the election, former New York Times op-ed writer Frank Rich pointed out correctly that Hitler had a particular personality that Trump does not have: “He has neither the attention span, organizational discipline, nor ideological zeal it takes to be a genocidal dictator. He doesn’t even have the skill set to avoid serial bankruptcies.”
Fundamentally, one should avoid confusing a historical model with present realities. Humans do not repeat history one-on-one even if some actions may look the same. Yet, while the content may be different, the processes that led up to the model may be similar enough and can serve as a warning sign that something nefarious is afoot. The best example is the Big Lie repeated over and over again, which has worked for Trump, as it worked for Josef Goebbels and, throughout history, for a variegated horde of demagogues, blowsy four-flushers , and even advertising agencies, have employed the Big Lie to get their product sold.
And this, just to be clear: The Nazis did not invent scapegoating either, a facile technique to hide one’s game. The insane witch hunts of the Middle Ages (and earlier), which cost the lives of tens of thousands of mostly women, are a case in point. Women, mostly poor, and some men, were blamed for all sorts of things, from sick children to hail storms. Personal grudges could be handled by a denunciation. Or, there are the artificially generated “Terreurs” of the French Revolution. History is full of scapegoats, as it is full of self-victimizers who use their synthetic victim status to justify their victimization of others. Here, too, Trump is definitely guilty as charged, as Rich pointed out in his article: “Trump has made himself the supreme leader of an enraged swath of Americans, perhaps some 40 percent of the electorate, as eager to blow up our republic as the Nazis were Weimar. A subset of that Trumpentariat adheres to neo-Nazi values (and in some cases neo-Nazi organizations) defined by a hatred of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and most other racial and ethnic minorities.”
Democracy: Use it or lose it.
Neither Lind, nor Molloy, nor Rich mention that the reason Hitler is drawn so quickly is the plain fact that many either ignore history’s many villains and iniquitous systems, or they are addressing an audience whose awareness of those villains and systems is extremely limited, at best, or non-existent. The fact that Trump is evidently not a Hitler does not mean that people and lawmakers should just sit back and relax, especially with a fellow who fits into the populist mold.
Because Democracy does not “die in darkness,” but rather in ignorance and complacency, as two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have shown. Their main thesis in How Democracies Dieis that the threat of an old-fashioned quick-and-dirty attack on democratic institutions à la Hitler, or Pinochet, has receded. This quote comes from a Guardian excerpt:
“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. (…)The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. (…) There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance. Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”
Indeed, during the Trump campaign, while many liberals were yelling Hitler, my alarm bell went off with those hysterical “Lock-her-ups” chants, and calls to attack the press. Katy Tur has written about the surreal feeling of being exposed, personally, by name, while in a cage in the midst of rabidly angry Trump fans. This rhetoric was neither justified, nor becoming to a democratic process. And then Trump pushed further, by suggesting that he would get the FBI to arrest Hillary Clinton pronto after reaching the Oval Office I started thinking “Salami!”
Salami tactics were a specialty of the Communists in postwar Europe, notably in Hungary. The term was actually coined by the Hungarian Communist leader Màtyàs Ràkosi, who perfected its application. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:
“Salami tactics, also known as the salami-slice strategy or salami attacks , is a divide and conquer process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition. With it, an aggressor can influence and eventually dominate a landscape, typically political, piece by piece. In this fashion, the opposition is eliminated “slice by slice” until one realizes (too late) that it is gone in its entirety.”
Hitler used brute force, essentially. The Communists in postwar Europe had to be a little more subtle. Few people probably realize that the Soviet Union didn’t just take over Eastern Europe and impose its system after ridding the area of the Wehrmacht in World War Two. There was a process aimed at terminating democratic rule, and in Hungary (and to an extent Poland) the method used was the salami slicing mentioned above.
In brief: The November 1945 elections in the country gave an overwhelming majority (56%) to a center-right party, the Smallholders, some 18% to the Socialists, and 17% to the Communists. When it came to sharing the government, Ràkosi became deputy prime minister and asked for the Ministry of the Interior (like the DOJ), where he created a kind of FBI or KGB, if you will, the AVO, later known as the AHV. This police force coupled with the power of the Ministry was used to attack any opposition to the communists, mostly by linking them to the defunct fascists, or Nazis, or Horthy government. It was all about innuendo, trumped up charges, arbitrary arrests, the construction of non-existent conspiracy theories. It was in many ways quite unlike Hitler’s take-over of Germany.
The technique worked well. Within four years, the Communists had sliced up the opposition and become the single party ruling Hungary. Ràkosi then proceeded to purge the Communist ranks of potential rivals, notably the very popular Rajk, and consolidate his power with faithful, obedient Moscow Communists. From 1950 to 1953, anyone complaining or suspected of not liking the government, intellectuals, etc., could be arrested. Hungary even had its own little Gulag, a place called Recsk in the up in the Màtra Mountains.
At any rate, throughout the campaign, I could not help but think of the parallels between Trump and the communist dictators, often noisy populists like Trump, who created their own set of enemies of the people among the peasant classes, the financiers, the industrialists, the intelligentsia. Bannon, former adviser to the president, was quite open about his admiration for Lenin. And Sebastian Gorka, another former White House adviser, is actually Hungarian and would no doubt be familiar with salami tactics.
So every time Trump attacks the judiciary, or muses out loud that he controls the DOJ, or the White House sends down new judges for approval, whose only qualifications seem to be their ultra-conservative convictions, I think salami. The fact is, in a democracy, the judiciary must remain as impartial as possible. There are very few absolutes in law. Time has published several articles on this dangerous court stuffing, for example this one . Indeed, ideology in a judge – which is not the same as political bent, please, no false equivalencies here, the degrees are important – is dangerous, since these people are appointed for life.
Furthermore, Trump and now the entire GOP led by bloviators like Lord HawHaw Hannity of Fox and his new sidekick, Ms Lahren, are promulgating all sorts of bizarre conspiracy theories about the FBI, aimed at discrediting or subverting the agency. They seem to be greasing the rails for the expulsion of the current crop of “Republican” brass. It can be replaced by yes-saying apparatchik, people who will attack democratic institutions with impunity, since the GOP is apparently quite happy with their president… In Communist countries, this was called a purge.
SCOTUS denizen stay for a long time after their appointer has gone. Meanwhile, the press (not the right-wing “press”) is being demonized as “fake” mainly for reporting things that are unpleasant to the president and, often, the GOP itself. And I think again: salami.
No panic, but…
This Communist reference, for lack of a better word, was noticed, not surprisingly, by a Republican first: Jeff Flake of Arizona, member of Trump’s GOP. He pointed out that the attacks on the free press were reminiscent of Stalin. There was some nodding, but not much else. The GOP remains steadfastly behind Trump.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are on to Trump, but are, as usual, fairly tame about it. One who has started punching back hard, by treating Trump like an unruly teenager, is Californian Congressman Adam Schiff. In a recent interview with Bill Maher (a comedy show… amazing) , he referred, probably unknowingly, to salami tactics:
“We do need to be mindful of the much bigger challenge facing the country right now. There is a systematic undermining of our checks and balances. Brick by brick, the walls are being taken down, the wall between the White House and the Justice department, the way we are demeaning the press, and as you say, the way there seems to be no such thing as objective fact anymore, the way the administration says that a judge that rules against us is illegitimate.”
This observation cannot be refuted easily, yet no media has really taken it up. And it should be worrisome, even to the GOP, which likes to see itself as Ur-American, patriotic, flag-waving…. But for what?
Whether this means that our democracy is in danger is another issue. But one thing is certain: Democracy demands a lot of vigilance, and a well-educated electorate. Even Plato knew this nearly 2500 years ago. And in the era of fake news, the 24-hour noise-news cycle, Breitbart and Fox, and bots, being well informed is becoming tough if you don’t have some background in reading serious stuff, in figuring out what is near enough to the truth, and what is simply rubbish.
Of course, when one of the two parties in the USA starts vying for unimpeded power by using the smoke screen of a noisemaking pseudo-autocratic president, it should worry us. Trump may be “refreshingly honest ” for some, but that does not mean that he is genuinely honest or any good at what he does. Speaking your mind does not make you a good leader.
Back to Levitsky and Ziblatt. They offer a recipe to preserve democratic institutions:
“An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them and, when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.
Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.
Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them?”
The final question by the two authors still remains unanswered, for the moment. Indeed, the courts are still functioning, apparently, and Trump has not yet succeeded in beating democratic institutions into submission, though he does seem to be trying hard. The fourth pillar, the press, is alas, reacting to every nonsensical tweet and thereby failing to pay attention to the important processes taking place that will change the face of the USA and perhaps undermine democracy as we knew it.
To conclude: The Hitler card is pulled all too often as a way to punctuate a debate that is off the rails. And besides diminishing and concealing the crimes of the Nazis, it also tends to be inaccurate. While not denying that the Trump administration is a serious risk to US democracy, the methods employed are closer to infiltration methods of the Hungarian Communists post World War Two. In a country trying to model itself on parliamentary democracy, they were able bit by bit to subvert the existing institutions
I have written to a number of editors about this phenomenon, especially when their publications drew the Hitler card (notably the HuffPo), but none seems ready to shift their focus away from the far more attractive fireworks Trump lights up every Friday afternoon for weekend entertainment. Besides, they’d have to explain who Ràkosi was and, to be honest, his low-octane evil is a lot less attractive than the absolute evil of a Hitler.
Of course, the USA is not war-ravaged Hungary. But the population has been primed, alas, by some very poor news media, including those Trump likes to refer to as “fake news.” For decades, CBS, ABC, NBC and the rest have engaged in some ridiculous whataboutism, which confers the same importance to truth and patent bilge. This has greased the rails for trainloads of nonsense that become the object of long and vituperous “debates” amongst pundits.
This is one of the most worrisome aspects of the Trump presidency, and it has been addressed by Rich and many others. The fact that conspiracy theories once relegated to the mossiest, mustiest areas of the country, are now bandied about by elected officials is shocking. One can only hope that reason once again sweeps the nation, as it did in the 18th century, and that this is the last hurrah for those who exploit the nation’s darkest feelings for their profit and are willing to jeopardize democracy to get their money. And one can definitely hope that Americans get off their haunches, register to vote, and demand that things like gerrymandering be made illegal in the country. One person, one vote, and the electoral college be damned, too.
To call Donald Trump a racist, or a bigot, a misogynist, is not an insult. It’s a ticket to the maelstrom of drama he likes to create. My notes on this aspect of Trumpism go back to spring ’16. The noise since has been constant and deafening. When I started the actual writing of this chapter, the US president was still reveling in the ruckus generated by his alleged use of a barnyard expression to describe countries in Africa, or was it just Haiti? Or was it the Russian scandal? The planet joined in the chorus of outrage, legitimately criticizing this crude and undiplomatic generalization, and so the USA took another step into the isolation chamber, which has been ready and waiting since November 2016.
Did he say it? Did he not say it? Did he say something similar? Was there some nefarious goings-on with Russia? Who cares: Writing about Trump is an inevitability. Alas, because he is actually the elephant (well, pun intended) in the room, the bull in the china shop, he is that 12-year-old troublemaker in the classroom who refuses to obey any rules, but whose parents think that he is just great and needs no disciplining whatsoever, because, well, he’s their kid. Nevertheless, he is the president of the USA and the leader of what is supposed to be the most powerful nation on Earth. That image has been seriously tarnished, though for Trump, there is no bad image, apparently.
Snapshot: After “shithole” came more honking horns, porn-star pay-offs, with sordid details to excite the plebs and keep the so-called “left” or the #Resistance outraged and very occupied on the Tweet-channel. And then the really exciting theater of the Government Shutdown, with clanging bells and shrieking whistles… All this putting paid to the previous high: Wolfe’s Fast and Furious, the kind-of kiss-and-tell report from behind the scenes that could have used some audio tape to prove itself accurate. I’m a little skeptical. But, as attention waned and fresh salvos of outrage covered up new salvos of bull, Wolfe came back with some saucier stuff yet, rumors of whoopee in the White House, which these days exudes a sort of pressure-cooker, lugubrious aura, a little like Sara Huckabee Sanders’s delivery.
Less there than meets the eye The huge community of observers and spectators would rather not discuss such sordid stuff, but it’s ubiquitous and inevitable. It gets thrown at us and sticks, at least with a critical mass of audience. The tough job of content verification eludes us all, because of the sheer mass of material, its information flimsiness, and because as soon as one scandal or absurdity or outrageous comment/tweet breaks and becomes amplified through social and news media, the next one is already in the making. Parsing and dissecting the content of the first no longer makes any sense. In-boxes are full, there are hundreds of post-its stuck on your wall with refuting arguments and esoteric notes, you are exhausted by the need to earn a living in addition to dealing with the tsunami of nonsense. Thankfully, the Internet also provides some relief in clips of cats giving massages, silly accidents people suffer, fake moments of great humanity. It’s real and unreal, it just seems to be real, and that’s enough.
The Big Media, for their part, forced to fill twenty-four hours year-round with content, go the path of least resistance, of course, outrage makes it to the forefront, be it a some blatant lie about voter fraud, or a Kansan candidate insulting working women by calling them “banshees,” or some outrageous statement about alternative facts, the un-word of the year 2017 in my books. Trump, by hook or by crook, manages to elbow his way into the top rank of the news cycle, they feel compelled to fill the airwaves with infantile tweets and the fawning and braying of his surrogates.
What appears on TV (I’ve watched many clips, meanwhile) and on social media are not debates. They are futile and uninspiring hollering matches. On one side are the talking heads, who are preaching to one choir. On the other side there are the individuals who are quite willing to boost the president’s anti-everything agenda, to defend what appear to be random, spontaneous, incoherent thoughts.
There are rumors out there. Some say he is mad. Some say he is a narcissist. A psychopath. Egocentric and dishonest, yes, there can be no doubt about it, but his cult-like followers don’t care. He is also a liar, but not – crucial distinction – pathological. Because providing content is not the point of Donald Trump’s utterances, be they tweets or strange statements, from the Birther nonsense, to the hallucination about five million fraudulent voters (that created a Lieutenant Kije-like situation of people chasing after them, knowing they did not exist…). He is indifferent to the truth, because it’s not the point of his utterances.
A look back At some point in the first half of 2016, while Trump was racing from outrageous statement to outrageous statement and tearing through his rivals for the GOP nomination, I noted that if the eye of the camera or the ear of a microphone would veer away from him, as it should have, Donald Trump would pull down his trousers and defecate on the stage, just to regain the upper ground in the attention-grabbing game. It was only a partially flippant comment, logged anonymously on some forum or other, I believe, but Trump did prove it correct by stating he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, probably a subliminal thought of his, and not lose any support. And he was right.
Trump has picked up on something fundamental about communication in the USA, and the world of today, something that is not entirely new, but has been boosted by the information rockets. First, there is no negative feedback in media matters. To misquote Marshal McLuhan, the media themselves are the massage. No typos there. Or, as the Germans would say about a great event: Dabei sein ist alles. The main thing is to be there. This is key to understanding how mass communication works. This pattern was set by the likes of Coughlin in the 30s, already, Billy Sunday before that, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin (a pre-Trump Trump in female), and the unspeakable publicity chihuahua Milo, whose defense of pedophilia checked his rising alt-right star, but paved the way to many Alabaman Evangelicals accepting Roy Moore, I would argue.
Secondly, people almost expect big and loud stuff, in fact, a diet of Hollywood films and overacted series have literally trained them for it. Loud candidates are a necessity to avoid boredom setting in. There are many things that lost the 2016 election for the Democrats, but one of them was the lack of real, gut-wrenching fanfares from the Hillary campaign. There was some push-back, but it remained fairly mild, and for good reason. But that is another story (with a stack of notes to work through).
The irresistible vortex The Trump camp understood and understands its base well. It’s made up in great part of people with little inclination to engage in long and convoluted discussions about policy. “Build the wall,” “Maga,” “Lock her up.” Fantasies about the old American can-do spirit and the Wild West, hang’em high, and constitutional rights be damned. Except for 2A. It’s understandably refreshing for many, and probably would be for a majority if Trump had made a genuine effort to bring the country together after such a sordid, acrimonious campaign of conspiracy theories and divisiveness, and having clearly lost the popular vote. The nation was screaming for healing. But instead, Trump continued campaigning, cutting the nation in two, re-heating the civil war, essentially. He dragged the most abominable anti-administration together, placing total ignoramuses or deep-swamp creatures at the head of government agencies (DeVos? Perry? Pruitt? Mnuchin? Is he kidding?) and filled the White House with weird ideologues like Miller and Bannon, or bloviating frauds like Dr. Sebastian Gorka.
Trump may be a racist, but that is not really important. He doesn’t care enough about others to be a raving KKK member. He does use what I’d call crypto-racism, however, as a tool to needle and divide, and therefore keep everyone on tenterhooks. The immediate impact of this tactic has been devastating and physical. People are screaming and hollering at each other across the information highways more than ever. There is very little space for compromise or reasoned discourse. The exchanges are exhausting, and yet, people are driven over and over again to fora, to Twitter, to Facebook, Instagram for more of the same. There seems to be some deep-seated pleasure in going to those places, where one can freely talk, shout, snark, retaliate…. The name of the game (and the Trump Team is not the only player): brain-hacking. Anger, pleasure, raw emotion, sentimentality have become an addiction in a cold and lonely digital world, in which 99.999% of people are not heard or really seen. If we do not find our inner self when we’re off line, it’s like being in solitary confinement in the middle of a bustling market.
The prophets “People don’t find what they desire, they desire what they find.” This brief quote by French social critic, philosopher and filmmaker, founder of the Situationist movement, Guy Debord, pithily describes the technological alienation combined with the dopamine-driven addiction to the social noise-media.
To call Debord (1931-1994) a prophet is not entirely fair to the densely populated line of thinkers upon whose shoulders he stands, or who were contemporaries in their criticism of society. Let us note Theodor W. Adorno, whose Minima Moralia is structured almost in the same manner as Debord’s seminal work; La société du spectacle (The Society Of Spectacle) is a collection of 221 statements/theses. The title alone, though, begs for our attention, for everything is spectacle… But it gets worse: The definition of spectacle is not just the visible excitement of the media. According to one commentator, Yann Kerninon, it combines information (propaganda) to maintain the illusion of capitalism as the best and only form of society (some admit, is the best we know); advertising that not only makes us consume, but aims to convince people that buying a product or service will make them better than the next (hence, for example, the proliferation of ridiculously aggressive cars in all vehicle classes), and finally entertainment, so that we can forget that this spectacular society is boring. (Cf. either Debord’s original book, or any number of documents or documentaries like this one in French on the You Tube).
In an Op-Ed in the New York Times in February 2017, Robert Zaretsky, professor of French History at the University of Huston tried to narrow down Debord’s idea of spectacle as being “… everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.” Imagine being in a theater as a spectator and actor at the same time. “The spectacle is the uninterrupted discourse that the current order is delivering on itself, its own monologue of praise,” wrote Debord in his 24th little thesis. “It is the self-portrait of power-that-is at the moment of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.”
The real issue, already in Debord’s time, is that the omnipresence of spectacle means that the willing players no longer find refuge in the private sphere. “The spectacle is the nightmare of a fettered modern society, which ultimately is only expressing its longing for sleep,” wrote Debord, nailing one of the core problems of our society, which has gotten far worse: the frenetic pace, the ubiquity of work, with technology that is sold as a way for individuals to be free of the office, for example, by recreating the office on a tropical beach thanks to mobile devices. The technology has literally become a drug. People used to walk and smoke a cigarette, chat with friends, meditate a bit. Today, they walk, cycle, drive while staring at a small rectangular screen, and communication with some distant entity, human or digital, has become the shot, the cocktail, the line of virtual coke keeping us excited whether in anger or joy, in the unsatisfying delight of revenge and schadenfreude. So “debating” has become a cheap, unreal bullfight of sorts, with everyone participating has an “Olé!” to say, even, ironically, when they say nothing, which can be felt as a digital version of passive aggression.
Donald Trump barged into that field with skillful cloddishness. He plays the part of the boor, because he is one in essence, an uncouth, lazy, lowbrow predator, a TV windbag, who has adopted some rhetorical techniques from televangelists. The more he pretends to be a victim of the MSM that fights back, echoing the plight of hundreds of film heroes winning against absurd odds, the more his base identifies with him, even if they know they are being tricked. But the #Resistance has also been caught up in the game: love or hate, you’re still connected. (It’s a topic related to religious yearnings in the USA and needs to be treated at another time, as it would go well beyond the framework of this article).
The Trump Train chugging down the track of history, spreading an unbelievable amount of strange fumes, has become an inevitable element in everyone’s lives. It is like a TV series with very short, absurd episodes (sex issues, racist explosions, conspiracies, even typos!) that fascinate and obfuscate.
Getting back to Debord, though, let me quote a paragraph by Zaretsky in the op-ed mentioned above: In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.
This spectacle is made all the more exciting and exhausting by the Internet. Thanks to the reactivity of its denizen and the web’s gift of easy and cheap access to a large audience, the spectacle has gone into overdrive. Trump keeps his foot on the pedal, safe in the knowledge that he’ll be tracked by devotees and detractors alike, and that this noise will cover up whatever America’s current powers-that-be have in mind for the country. For the moment, it looks like turning the clock back to pre-FDR days, an old GOP dream.
As for Trump’s own expressed outrage, it is about as real as the rants and raves of an Alex Jones or a Rush Limbaugh, in other words, fake. It must be fake, because either these carnival barkers are imbeciles or they are propagandists who knowingly invent, lie, or reconnect dots in a silly manner that defies logic. It’s always good to remember, though, that they are essentially in a business that sells outrage-causing babble to the public in return for fame and hence advertising dollars. This spectacle earns and earns, and will continue earning as long as people do not switch off and advertisers, who according to Debord and others are liars, who replace a lie with a lie, thus proving the first lie, keep the funds coming. The problem is that it only takes a fairly low critical mass of people to legitimize even the most abstruse stuff…
The wrap So “shithole” is just an episode, and like the entire immigration spectacle, the shutdown, even now as I write, Davos, and maybe even the Mueller probe (a case that could be an extreme form of expectations management), are part of the soundtrack that has accompanied Trump during and after his election. For him, the technique to keep the hollering on full volume is simple: Always deny what was said or “pivot,” to use a new word. Throw ’em a bone of contention. Whether the issue will be solved is irrelevant. The alleged statement – whether it be shithole, shithouse, or simply a heap of unsavory, vulgar prattle, whether he wanted to fire Mueller or not, whether there were five million fraudulent voters, whether Obama tapped Trump Tower, or not, is irrelevant – drew myriad pens, cameras and keyboards in its wake, including mine, Trump and his administration simply continue implementing an agenda that seems geared towards the economic wishes of the very few to the long-term detriment of the many, even if that includes isolating the country, ripping into the environment, poisoning rivers with mine slag. Whatever. It’s carpetbaggin’ time.
Zaretsky is an optimist, he sees a solution in the marches, in the “return to local politics and community organizing” as a successful redux of 1968, a time of turmoil that the Situationists were in fact involved in in France.I tend to agree on good days. In the 60s and 70s, there was a return to simpler lives, communal living out in the country, where one could find cheaper and maybe healthier living conditions. The sharing society could go in this direction (without the exodus) and make for a stable society without any upheavals. (There is a very strong cooperative movement in many European towns spawned by excessive rents and greedy, ineffective housing administrators who usually try to extract maximum profits by minimum investments, This coop movement is branching out into many areas of society and could become a powerful “Third Way”).
Another possibility is simply withdrawal and political apathy due to exhaustion. But there is one path with its own dark logic open to this frenetic society that is increasingly in need of dopamine-driven recognition, and it is the kind of spiritual apotheosis one finds in the ultimate spectacle, the spectacular destruction of war, in some ways, the only path to resetting the clocks, to rediscovering the ancient feeling of social cohesion for survival, the way back to the lizard brain, if you will. It is also the reason why we, as audience, tend to be stuck in the exhausting one-way relationship with the Trump’s of today: If the tweets don’t draw the ire or love, war becomes the ultimate attention-getter. Thanks to the Internet and the addiction to the spectacle, we are in a perniciously fusional relationship with power.
For the moment, extricating oneself from the spectacle is simply hard. The news media are part of the problem, but by force: Their business and job is to report stuff, so they can hardly avoid talking about the most immediate stuff, even it be a glittering turd. They can’t really pretend Donald Trump is not tweeting nonsense, so they cover and comment, and then get attacked for doing so, which generates more spectacle. Curiously, a few anchors (Jake Tapper, notably, with that bizarre White House creature Stephen Miller) recently had the courage to tell fawning Trump surrogates to stop wasting the viewers’ time with their zero-information rambling and fawning. While it caused a stir, due to more Tweeting episodes, one could almost feel the relief of Tapper (and Don Lemon) for having shut the noise out for a bit. To achieve some form of inner peace and contentment, though, we may have to shut everything down and improve our closest proximity. For after all, that is the only area in which we, as individuals, can have an impact. And that may come with a return to ancient wisdoms. Voltaire’s Candide saying … Blaise Pascal’s “pensée”: “All of humans’ unhappiness comes from a single thing, namely not being able to stay at rest in a room.”
According to an article on Salon.com, Roy Moore still hasn’t conceded the race and is angrily pumping his base for contributions. He has now raised another bogus issue: voter fraud, and is insisting on a recount. If this truly infantile behavior is worth noting, it’s because what’s happening in Alabama is similar to what is happening in the USA: Lies, distortions and conspiracy rhetoric are wasting people’s time and energy, and the tax payer’s money, casting a shadow on serious and real issues, and generally degrading democracy and its processes.
There is nothing surprising here. Moore was sure he could win, even with the strong allegations (from nine different women) of impropriety towards young girls: Deep red Alabama was willing to overlook this “minor” stuff – no pun intended – and go with their evangelical blusterer. And business being business, Moore is now trying to make the best of it. The number of absentee ballots can never make up for the missing votes, so the least he can do is see that the dollars and cents stack up in his favor. What caught my eye in this story is the following paragraph:
“The Confederate-sympathizing Republican claimed that he was “in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization and our religion.”
“Today, we no longer recognize the universal truth that God is the author of our life and liberty,” Moore said. “Abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
There’s a great deal to deconstruct in these Moorish quotes, trite as they may sound, notably all those lofty words like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
First and foremost, as a run-of-the-mill conspiracist, Moore reframes what is a simple case of losing an election in ever greater contexts. It used to be about Moore and his bizarre and graphic concerns about gay sex (why he thinks about it so much is a mystery, but it would square with his leaning towards the young and inexperienced). Then it was Alabama. Now it’s about civilization itself. Soon, I guess, the galaxy will be somehow threatened.
That people still fall for this stuff is remarkable. I’m all for the simple life, but that does not mean one has to give up thinking altogether. Doesn’t the USA have a very good system of public libraries? Even the Internet, if searched properly, can reveal a few good nuggets of information buried in the alluvium of tripe and nonsense.
Second: There appears to be a glaring contradiction between Moore’s blustery talk of “liberty” and his storming against materialism and sodomy. Abortion is essentially a health issue, any moral aspects are simply too complex to debate here, but they, too, are personal, like the other two targets of Moore-ish ire. All of these issues are essentially personal and require benevolent protection.
Finally, there is this: The one Moore bugaboo that really stands out is materialism. We have to assume that for him, materialism simply means the adoration of material things, like money and consumer goods, instead of some unilateral focus on divine revelations and the collected wisdoms of Roy Moore. But is the acquisition of worldly goods not an integral part of the American experience? Do US citizens strive to live under a bridge, sleep on cardboard, and heal their raspberries with rancid bacon fat from the McDonald’s dumpster? What is Merry Christmas without a rush to spend, or Thanksgiving without a Black Friday and Cyber-Monday? Buying stuff is part and parcel of the American experience, it is the ultimate proof of some manifest destiny. I buy, therefore God smiled upon me. The entire tax bill, which Roy Moore supports, no doubt, is based on the idea of putting money in people’s pockets, allegedly.
Going a little farther down this road, let us remember that materialism is in reality a philosophy with ancient roots. Basically, it states that life and all existence we perceive is material, which, to simplify, could mean three dimensional. This simplistic reduction becomes far more complex if we account for quantum mechanics, perhaps. But for the purpose of Mr. Moore and his base, it probably suffices. And according to him, focus on the material is sinful. Because it is not “spiritual,” one can only guess.
Here’s the problem. Moore is a fundamentalist, in that he demands that his flock take every word of the Bible to be true as written, no interpretation allowed, no doubt either. You believe it, because it’s there. The word of God needs no salt and pepper, just a lot of rhetorical tabasco, needs no unpacking and preparation. This means two things. First, he and his flock have to seriously cherry-pick the holy book in order to explain his visceral (or profit-oriented) antagonism to anyone and anything that fails to pass the bar of his many prejudices. Secondly, in rejecting any interpretation of the Bible, he and his apostles are in fact performing a highly materialistic act. They are treating words and concepts as reality. And they do this, I suspect, because any form of interpretation or questioning of the Good Book would, in fact, bring their latent doubt about their faith to boiling point and collapse their belief system. So they tend to double down and stay in a small, musty bubble.
When New York Journal illustrator Frederick Remington contacted his boss, William Randolph Hearst, from Cuba in 1897, it was to inform him, that the insurrection against the Spanish colonial overlords was simply nothing to write home about. “You furnish the pictures,” Hearst telegrammed back, famously, I should add, “I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst, who made his fortune with what used to be called “yellow journalism,” went on to hype up a non-conflict, inflaming public opinion with reports on an American citizen imprisoned by the Spanish authorities and of a female rebel being strip-searched. He went on to lay blame for the sinking of the Maine at the doorstep of the Spaniards, and thereby got what he really wanted: yuuuuge circulation numbers plus the bloody Spanish-American war that further pumped his newspaper’s revenues. Wars are money makers.
Hearst hadn’t spread entirely fake news, but it wasn’t real, either.
Things haven’t changed much since then, it seems. The medium can massage the public into believing some patently absurd stuff. Case in point: A “war” that has been raging for some time now, one made up almost entirely of whole cloth. The conflict in question is just one large and noisy front in a mostly bogus “culture war” that became especially heated as soon as Barack Obama became president in 2008. If you are wondering why, really: It was a skin-deep issue.
I’m talking, of course, of the “War on Christmas.” It is one of those ridiculous non-issues that a cohort of flimflammers on Fox News and points right on the media map ramble on about to the derision of late-night hosts and to the amazement of the millions who say merry Christmas and decorate Christmas trees without being hauled off to some atheistic torture chamber to be beaten to a pulp with tomes by Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, with a few volumes of Nietzsche thrown in for good measure.
President Trump of late has been making a great deal of hay out of this fake war, tweeting, notoriously this on Christmas Eve:
Great. So he won a non-existent war. And he is proud of it. And his base jumps up and down and hollers “We won,” and starts throwing insults at non-existent enemies of their Merry Christmas wishes. Booster Mike Huckabee, a leading officer in the cult of fatuous ignorance, went so far as to compare Trump to Churchill, I guess for his verbal gesticulations during this non-conflict. Winston Churchill, why not Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Patton, or even Erwin Rommel…. It’s all for The Base (Al Qaeda in Arabic), and it tends to swallow this kind of agitprop hook, line, and sinker: Obama is taking their guns, was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, millions of illegal voters, microwave ovens spying, child porn rings run out of the basement of a cellar-less pizza parlor, and so on. Let us not dwell too long on this utter bilge coming from this ersatz president.
More seriously, we are truly in an Orwellian mind warp, since the alleged war is in fact non-existent, but focuses the attention of so many people, apparently. On December 25, 2017, the Washington Postreported on Linden, TN, where saying Merry Christmas and writing it on any free surface has been elevated to a deeply religious and revolutionary act. Is this for real? Poor Tennessee. 93 years after the embarrassment of the Scopes trial, it is still wallowing in some self-aggrandizing self-stigmatization, a deeply satisfying feeling of finally being recognized for having always accepted the dirty end of the stick, a notion that is spread mostly by their own chosen and much-hailed leaders.
Trump hopped aboard the War on Xmas boat for political gain, of course. Most people realize that the man’s interest in spiritual issues or religion itself is near zero, though I would be loath to judge from a distance. His entire career smells oddly of materialism, of gain by stealth, of master bamboozler, though he might at heart be very pious. That, at any rate, is what some evangelicals are willing to believe, in order to be able to support him. But New Yorkers know him well, so he turned his
attention to nice people in rural USA (and I mean “nice” without ANY irony, believe me). If Trump has any religious/spiritual impulse, it is probably more Borgia than Cotton Mather. As the Washington Post put it: “During the general election, about 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, even though he rarely attends church and is a cursing, thrice-married former reality television star from Manhattan who has been publicly accused by 13 women of kissing or groping them without their consent.”
Let it be said loud and clear and once and for all: There is no war on Christmas in the USA. In countries that are not under Christian sway, there are restrictions, or prohibitions (Brunei and Somalia come to mind). But in our thriving consumer-democracies, the answer is a clear NO. If people have been saying happy holidays, or season’s greetings, or something other than Merry Christmas, it has been mostly to be more inclusive of those who do not have Christmas in their cultural baggage, and that might even include themselves. Moreover, Happy Holidays is, after all, just a euphemism of sorts, a little like calling the toilet a bathroom, or powder room. Whichever way one looks, Christmas is always there in word and deed, in the form of Christmas trees, or houses decorated with angels and reindeers and (mostly white) Santa Clauses, bumper stickers, shop windows… all patriotically burning up electrical power.
But the fake warriors in this fake war have managed to blow this fake issue out of proportion by repeatedly screaming it into the ether, and as manure will do when thrown at a wall, some will stick. They are doing this for one reason only: To keep up the outrage ratings, which translate into advertising dollars. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, it’s time to get real.
The down side is that they are trying to reframe the separation of church and state as some kind of punishment for religious groups. In the process, these hollering heads have also made religion a highly political issue, when in fact it should be very private, especially in these multicultural days. This, in turn, has leavened the outrage already fermenting in the minds of their captive audience, people who feel permanently threatened by the shifting mores of a world that has exploded many old-fashioned notions of what makes up a society. In the above-mentioned Post article, one man is quoted as saying the following bit of styrofoam wisdom: “The government, I think, is trying to oppress Christianity with some of the policies that they come up with. They’re trying to oppress it, force people out of what they believe in.”
This is simply astounding stuff. And the most astounding is that these same people, who, I am sure are really nice, family folk, with jobs and good intentions, are also willing to believe Trump, who is virtually the caricature of a typical city slicker and con-man, a man who’d have been run out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, by the grandparents of today’s vociferous evangelicals..
The War on Christmas commandos, from that painfully obnoxious and oafish Hannity, to the latest bobbing dashboard Barbie, la Lahren, have, to an extent, been ululating against the political correctness extremists, whose tendency towards ornery linguistic fastidiousness can quickly become irritating to anyone trying to speak plainly – as a former radio announcer, yes, I managed to offend some to my left … I think that language has power and we should watch what we say occasionally, it can genuinely offend people. But two wrongs do not make a right, on the contrary, they reinforce each other in a very negative manner. This however is another discussion altogether.
Let me just make note of a few things here. First of all: the real attack on Christmas, in particular as we celebrate it, with massive consumerism, rowdiness and very vocal blessings of everyone, even those who are not interested, is not new. In my recent blogpost about the cardoon here in Geneva, I mentioned in passing the fact that the theocratic government of the city under Calvin – one of the founders of evangelical faith, one could say, and a granddaddy of the Puritans who came to those there United States – prohibited Christmas in the city. It was considered idolatry and far to Roman (Catholic), as it indeed was. Calvin and his successors were not the funnest folk anyway, their view of God was that He (definitely male, definitely white) was a rigid, unforgiving sourpuss, who smites and smote anyone of His creations that were not in His good books.
At any rate, the American Puritans in Massachusetts maintained that tradition during the 17th century. They found Christmas celebrations were too rowdy and fun (there we go again), which interfered with their need for gravity and serious reflection on infant damnation. Furthermore they found no real biblical basis for it. And if anyone knew the Bible, it was those Puritans.
As for the South, with all its intense and very extroverted evangelicalism, it continued to be opposed to the celebration of Christmas for ages. Writing about the Presbyterians (Trump’s alleged spiritual home) after the Civil War in the South, historian Ernest Trice Thompson noted that there was “no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church.”
This opposition continues to this day, as theologian and author Kevin Reed points out in his long and fascinating slog through the history of Christmas and the opposition to it. Part of the reason is the fact that the feast is based on “pagan celebrations held in conjunction with the winter solstice,” Reed writes. “Unable to eradicate the heathen celebration of Saturnalia, the Church of Rome, sometime before 336 A.D., designated a Feast of the Nativity to be observed.” So let us join the Vikings in celebrating Yul!
So allow me to quote his conclusion:
“The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation [my emphasis]. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy. A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids “any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself.”
Fe que no duda es fe muerta
All of this should give food for thought. What is religion? What is spirituality? What does Christmas really mean? Why did the Puritans, Evangelicals, revivalists, in short most Protestant denominations, actually speak out against celebrating Christmas, but today they pretend to love it and want to celebrate it. What’s this with the vapid political boasting à la Trump? Do people think that yelling Merry Christmas will deliver brownie points for a trip to heaven? Does it make a real difference? Is this what faith is all about? Or is it just a bit of publicity hounding?
Those who came to the New World over the centuries came for religious freedom among other things. In Europe, many were genuinely persecuted for their beliefs. French Protestants suffered heavily at the hands of the Catholic League, the Thirty Years War left a trail of devastation in Central Europe akin to that left by World War Two. So the founding fathers instituted the separation of Church and State as a means to protect that freedom. Governments do not get in the way of religion, and religions can keep out of sinful political business. There is no “erosion of religious freedoms,” that’s a total myth. In fact, in the USA, anyone, apparently, can get behind a pulpit and, abandoning self-respect and given a few improv lessons, can seduce people into sending them money for spiritual perks, including a right to rapture. That’s just the business, and the old saying caveat emptor applies. And it applies to any spiritual direction. Just look at men like Pat Robertson, Young Falwell, Osteen, Hagee, Paula White… the list goes on and on, people who earn some really tall paper praising the Lord and passing around the collection bucket.
Alas, freedom of speech does permit anyone else to get behind a microphone or keyboard, or in front of a camera, and point out the contradictions in your thinking about religion, or politics, or even your choice of jeans and Christmas decoration. It’s a fact of life in a democracy. And I agree: It should be done politely, and the snarkiness of our debates these days has become extremely irritating. But as the Unamuno quote I used as a subhead suggests, doubt is sometimes a good way to keep faith alive. If your faith is threatened by someone saying Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings, then I’d revise the faith, not start hurling insults at “Democrats” or “Liberals” or “Communists” or “Muslims.” With a little questioning, the USA might have avoided falling into the hands of an extremely transparent con man.