Numbers Game

The trick to enhance positives and mitigate negatives

Just a few weeks ago, after days and days of strenuous deflection, gesticulation, self-victimization, media-aided campaigning and incoherent bilge about the pending coronavirus assault, Donald J. Trump suddenly talked of the number of deaths. It was a stunning reversal. Suddenly, after promising that we would soon dodge the virus (because of warmer weather… great gut science), he was delivering hard numbers:  100,000 – 200,000 deaths from Covid-19.

That’s about it, but not without intention.

Trump frowned theatrically for the camera, played a vigorous  air accordion and did a few air karate chops.  It was going to be tough. Well… we who keep an eye on the news outside Jerkwater, USA, knew that, but… The news media went into a tizzy, Twitter “lit up” as they love saying. But the big question is this: Where in earth did those numbers come from? Maths? Real stats? Fauci? His covfefe? And moreover: What do they mean.

Trump numbers could be this big, or that big, whatever feels right.

They are perhaps the only real indicator that the Trump re-election team is engaging in some form of crisis management, at least on the public relations front, since everything else, to date, has been a pretty well-formed catastrophe, nothing unexpected, by the way, from an administration and a political party determined to destroy everything left by the previous administration (the GOP never forgot FDR…).  

It’s about expectations management, which I have already written about before. Let us say, you know something good is about to happen, and you would like to enhance the pleasure/joy experienced when the thing comes to pass: You lower the expectation by casting a little doubt. We do it to ourselves. “Well, I’m not sure I did well at that test…” When the expectation is more than met, the joy is greater. If not, you still have an escape hatch. (See 4/ at the end for a really brief example).

The same happens with negatives, as in a crisis: The expected result must be announced as worse, so that when the expected figures turn out to be lower or the just less disastrous, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and the crisis managers come out looking better, even if they were a major factor in the crisis unfolding in the first place.

Chances are, Trump’s 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus will not happen, thank goodness. The figure could be reached, of course, as the virus spreads in a second wave throughout the country. It might be reached in June. If we are all back at work in some form, we may not even know about it. The hospital crisis will have been mastered, the public focus will be elsewhere – Trump’s team certainly known how to shift attention from the man’s incoherent administration.  The statistics will be unclear.  But at some point, we’ll have stopped counting, maybe at 35,612, or 42,590, and by then it will be merely statistics, as Stalin would have said, and they can be massaged this way, or that, usually by the fallacious comparison to 1918. And we’ll breathe a sigh of relief.

There you have it. The point is not the figures, it’s how we got to this point.

Thanks for reading. This is not cast in stone. But if you are interested and have the time, below find a few examples I’ve collected of very public expectations management.

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1/ The Muller Report: Ever wonder why the Trump administration kept talking about it loudly for months. Saying it was a hoax and a lie. And attracting attention to it? That is not what normal PR looks like, you don’t attract attention to what could be a disaster. As long as Muller was mulling, the Trump admin raised the expectations of some absolutely incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing, pee tape and all…. The report was released, bowdlerized for public consumption, Trump was not exonerated, but the evidence was simply not massive enough and incontrovertible. Muller himself said so. Shady activity does not have the power of a real crime (and white collar stuff is not really considered a crime by many).

2/ Deepwater Horizon Spill: The oil rig exploded killing eleven workers and then pumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months. After many attempts at stopping the spill, an effective solution was announced (in early July 2007) for two months hence, so when an announcement was made that the flow had been slowed two weeks later, it sounded like a huge success. The  actual capping happened in September, but by that time no one was really talking about the worst marine oil spill in US history (nor of the families of the dead oil men).

3/ The two Iraq Wars (1991 and 2003). The armies of Saddam Hussein were described by much of the news media as almost unbeatable. Absolute apocalypse awaited. A friend of mine was in such a panic, he filled his car with food and slept with a radio next to his ear (in ’91), convinced that a nuclear war was about to break out. But in 1991, Iraq had come off an eight-year war of attrition with Iran, and dictators are rarely the best leaders (Trump, take note), since fear is not the best motivating tool. I told my friend to relax, it would be over soon… He got mad at me for being so unconcerned. I was concerned, but not about the military stuff.

Same with the Iraq invasion of 2003. The country was sick and tired of Saddam Hussein, and had been subjected to some very damaging sanctions. Where the media came up with  so much apocalyptic stuff was beyond comprehension. In fact, even the usually staid German media joined in. At which point the TV I had used for 2 months went back into the cellar (I used it for video films) and I cancelled my payments to the German television  stations stating explicitly that they had adapted to the low sensationalist standards of private TV companies, and I didn’t think it was worth paying for. I also ceased using CNN as a general reference. Their cheer-leading was embarrassing to watch (I was traveling a lot in those days and would catch their reports in hotel rooms).

4/ Ever play chess with someone spontaneously ? What do you say? “I haven’t played in twenty years.” If you win, it’s really great, if you lose, you have an excuse…. Expectations management in a nutshell…

The world outside my window (Part 2)

Settling in, finding the rhythm, absorbing the shock, observing. This is even shorter than the last installment.

Sometimes the weather fits the mood, sometimes vice versa

The week started with weather as appropriate as “pandemic genre” film music. The sun remained hidden behind racing clouds driven by a violent wind that jostled the high rises moored to this part of the city. The bise noire is a Geneva specialty, an icy northeasterner that rips across the lake between the Alps and the Jura ranges. Normally, it brings sunny, but Calvinistically cold, weather. The “noire” version is different, it blankets the sky with menacing clouds that never seem to rain themselves out. It’s a little unnerving, because it raises images of an apocalypse, which is the general mood right now, even though the sun has returned.

The silence that engulfed the city a few weeks ago has started restoring our acoustic keenness. We hear other sounds with more acuity. A car accelerating, the voice of children in the garden, the Vespas that recall chainsaws in the forest. And in the background, ghosting along the larger avenues, is the spooky wail of ambulance sirens. They were always there, but now their fourth interval sings dan-ger, dan-ger…

Monday morning blues, add sirens.

We are waiting. Doing stuff, working, sometimes playing, and hopefully learning all sorts of soft, hard and medium rare skills in this brave new world. The web is full of clever activities, because given time, people are fantastically creative. The memes and fun clips are entertaining. There’s an Italian fellow playing football with a cat. Boredom, I always told my daughter, is the first step towards creativity. No wonder the powers-that-be would like to get us back to work, pronto. It’d be difficult to maintain the old economic system with a society filled with artists. A selection:

But you don’t have to go viral to defeat the virus. Staying home, doing nothing and reading is clever as well. Or practicing an instrument, or painting, or cooking, or just thinking. Maybe we will even shift the paradigm a little more, not towards technocracy (I’ll have a word about that in the next installment), but towards humanocracy. That guaranteed income idea could be gathering steam…

The virus is a great equalizer in many ways. It seems to be stimulating the kind of compassion to wipe away all the artificial barriers that have allowed us to see the “other.” The virus is an equal opportunity killer. It has taken to the shades: the pastor who was convinced it was a hoax, the “resister” who saw it coming, the doctor who spotted it early on, the bus driver, and children, adolescents, young women and men, in addition to the older people, whose lungs are not made for that kind of assault.

It reminds me of something: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Matthew 22:29). It has real meaning now, even in the midst of our silo-ized society, as Hermann Hesse once pointed out in his Lektüren für Minuten (Vol. 2), because you/we are now reflected in the other, and the other in you and us, and that irrespective of ethnicity, skin color, religious beliefs, if any.

The others are now your mirror.

Then there are those outside

So we, that is me and my global neighbors, wait at home, hope for the best, and like the human beings we are, we get creative, or neurotic, or, in worst cases, a little psychotic. We wait and create and work and hang out, keeping our spittle to ourselves. Outside the window, a medical army struggles to get a grip on the infections and the other accidents and illnesses that still plague us all, the garbage pick-up continues, postal workers, police, bus, tram, trolley, train and truck drivers keep doing their bit amidst a spreading pandemic. Families or relationships that experience abuse are very vulnerable. So be careful. Listen attentively.

Our ears are our first line of defense and theirs as well. A little vigilance can save lives.


(The next installment will look at work an the things that keep us sane).

The world outside my window….

Part one of my little contribution to the Corona Days.

For years, the world seemed to have been turning faster and faster.  Like some Death Metal ballad on steroids.  Technology offering insane communication immediacy and destroying entire swathes of the economy, creating others all based on its own speed-mania,  eating up our time, scrolling away the past,  and hacking away at human relationships, which always need time for nurturing and maturing.

The quiet city

Now, finally, we have a common enemy that is ripping us out of the acceleration bubble. It is tiny, deadly, surreptitious and effective: coronavirus. A little bit of protein that lives and fights, sometimes to the death, an unpredictable killer, whose very unpredictability is its most frightening weapon.

And suddenly, human contact, already rattled by our dopamining gadgets and their applications, has to be literally physically broken by a neologism, the much-touted and imperative “social distancing.” We’re doing it, and it will have an impact. What impact?  No one knows.

This town

For the past week, my city, Geneva, Switzerland, has been in a kind of lockdown. Not full lockdown, yet. You can’t really tell the Swiss to stop altogether, and especially Genevans, who are masters of reactance. Yes, it’s a small city, filled to the brim with big and boisterous cars, usually, and it moves to the sound of motor scooters. People bustle about, trams grind through the streets, airplanes land right between suburban residential Meyrin and the city itself, liberally spreading kerosene fumes and noise over entire quarters. All of that has stopped. Monday is like Sunday in July during the “vacances horlogère,” or Christmas morning. Even the birds seem to stop tweeting after their wee-hour wake up calls.

For the past 10 days, a blissful silence has fallen upon us here, as it has upon many other people living in formerly noisy and polluted cities around the world. It’s quarantine time, sort of, named after the forty days ships suspected of having the plague on board would have to wait before docking in Venice in the 14th century. And it’s bang in the middle of the forty days of Lent (didn’t see that coming). There’s more than just serendipity here. There’s an irony, too.

Our society is generally hyperventilating in its frenetic attempt to work and consume itself and its habitat to death, all that, to  pay egregious rents, mortgages, college fees, insurance, vacations in foreign places thanks to cheap jet fares,  in addition to  food, clothes, and, of course, the latest tech product – otherwise, who are we? It’s a great question to ask oneself in the isolation of a lockdown.

So now a bug has shown up that attacks the lungs, our private hyperventilating technology, as it were. So it’s time to stop. The dying is tragic. On the other hand the planet is breathing again…

Taking it easy, Geneva’s mouette transportation

Time it is

The virus takes our breath away when it strikes, it lames, then kills, and that is a tragedy. Yet collectively, it has given us time to breathe again, as long as we know not to stare too hard and with bated breath at its lethal progress, or listen to the breath-stopping, jaw-dropping idiocies uttered by certain heads of state, whose self-absorption and willful ignorance have seriously prevented a timely and concerted response to coronavirus.

I browse through Twitter and Facebook and the web in general, and I find people filling time often with great creativity, writing memes and blog pieces, filming tik-tok clips, trying out online choirs, etc. For some it may seem difficult to stay home. The routine of work outside the home, school, the factory, the office, is what gives the music of our lives its distinctive beat. Several people I have spoken with these past weeks forget what day it is. They’re like prisoners of some of the darkest regimes who have to maintain some semblance of sanity by simply scratching the passing days on the walls. Or at least, that’s what I seem to remember from the literature.

We’ve heard about the dark side, too. Abuse. People on top of each other. Women and children stuck with an abusive partner or parent and without any escape. Neuroses and psychoses rising to the surface in closed spaces. I cannot help but think of those tiny apartments rented out for huge sums of money, the stress on people, the worries about one’s financial future.


Silent spring

For well-trained freelancers, staying at home is normal. Our advice can be heeded. I’ll get to it in the next installment. Right now, I’ve passed the 500-word limit I’ve set for myself, because, after all, we no longer have the stomach for much more, and that is something we all have to live with.

Christmas

Merry Christmas from Geneva
(where it was forbidden for two centuries…)

First and foremost: A Merry Christmas. To my friends and acquaintances and kind clients: The year has been so dense with work, especially these past four months, I was unable to write cards and letters using my growing collection of fountain pens. Perhaps to the joy of those on the receiving end, who have to deal with my handwriting…

Just a few notes. Christmas is officially on the 25th, but in ancient times,  days ended at sunset, not at midnight, so Christmas Eve  was actually the beginning of the 25th. Celebrating this way has been trending of late, apparently, though on a personal note, I never knew any different, thanks to my Bavarian Catholic mother, who always celebrated on the 24th after 5 p.m.

As for good wishes and cards and such…. There are twelve days of Christmas, so there’s still time… These days were important to Europeans (before there was a Europe) in the days of yore, before Christmas was chosen to preempt Pagan rituals… In German-speaking countries and regions, you will often hear talk of the “Raunächte,” rough nights (or Rauchnächte, the smoky nights, because evil spirits needed to be smoked out), which allegedly go back to Druidic times. There is some debate on exactly which days they fall on and how many there are, but here’s the deal: Essentially, the first is on the 21st, then 24/25th, and so forth. Sometimes the turn of the year is cut out, but that would assume a fixed calendar. Logical, too, would be a thirteenth, so as to comply with the lunar calendars of yore. The Rauhnächte are also known for making predictions for the coming year. “Listen” to your dreams, they say.

The “Rauhnächte” were seen as a time to do battle with demons… perhaps our inner demons?

If you don’t like political commentary, please accept best wishes and stop reading…

Just a word on saying Merry Christmas, which has been unbelievably politicized in the USA.

No one ever officially forbade saying Merry Christmas. The idea that it could be offensive may have been raised, and in a secular state, in which all religions must be free to practice, being a bit aware of the other’s beliefs and traditions is merely polite and rather than punishment. It also ensures peace among believers, since the battle of faiths have been among the bloodiest in the history of the human race. Besides, looking beyond one’s narrow bailiwick is always interesting, right?

So the bottom line is this: There is no war on Christmas. Other than the frenzied consumerism that accompanies this very high Christian holiday, and that leads people to elbow and honk their way through the first three weeks of December each year, irrespective of their fellow humans trying to get through life as well,  to then collapse from overeating and overconsuming. A generalization, I am sure.

The Culture Wars are merely confusing lines of non-thought.

The war on Christmas is also  the noisy and synthetic culture war triggered by gasbags who earn millions be dividing the USA into social and political silos, thereby creating captive audiences for themselves and their advertisers, of course. They spread ignorance and promote lazy thinking. It’s all about dollars and cents, of course, so it fits in perfectly with the predatory economic system, which praises the person who’s become rich, no matter the means. I’ve written about this in greater detain here.

Also worthy of note is this: Those who holler and scream about the “war on Christmas,” from Donald Trump to tend to be the spiritual descendants of none other than Jean Calvin, Geneva’s most famous immigrant, who rejected Christmas entirely as a man-made feast. And so did many of his followers and devotees in his lineage, like the Puritans, who did not like the rowdiness around Christmas, as well as the Presbyterians (like Trump). Worse yet, Christmas is considered a Catholic, hence Popish holiday, and is therefore dangerously international. If you want to read some great conspiracy nonsense,  read up on the 1928 elections in the USA.

 Finally, the Jesus armed with an AR-15, killing infidels, hating health care, and loving Capitalists, bigots, misogynists, racists and predatory billionaires is a far sight from the Prince of Peace generally touted in Christmas songs piped into supermarkets and other consumer venues. That is a good thing to keep in mind. Under 700 words. Merry Christmas, and don’t forget my tip jar.

The Collapse

The power of people

The sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 followed shortly thereafter by the entire Iron Curtain came as no real surprise to me, and I was not alone. This is not some idle boast with 20/20 hindsight. For a couple of years prior already, the pressure had been mounting on this monolithic razor blade cutting the world in two. It was overly ripe for the fall.

No comment needed

I had been to East Germany several times, birthplace of my now ex-wife, and home to her huge tribe of relatives (her grandmother had married a widower with three children and had then had three of her own with him, who all, amazingly, survived World War Two, if I remember correctly). I had had long conversations with people there, read the local papers, which pretended that everything was fine and all bad things came from the West. Every encounter with an East German involved a liturgy of complaints about the absence of goods … not money. Things. One of my wife’s cousins couldn’t find a replacement car door, for example, because the Five-Year plan that had been agreed to around then didn’t include passenger doors for the Trabants that year. Another cried after seeing all the East-German wares like those blue polka-dotted Bürgl earthenware cups and the famous “smoke” figures from the Vogtland region  being sold at a Christmas market in Frankfurt on the Main in the west. Those goods were not available drüben, over there, at home, in East Germany

Checkpoint Charlie: a neural point in the world

Fulfilling shopping was not the only problem. A friend had been in the NVA (the National People’s Army) and reported driving around drunken officers all day in decrepit equipment. And you could see the degraded barracks, the quiet rejection of Russia and things Russian ­— most people dislike occupiers, regardless, so don’t think this was just “Communism.” People who grew up learning Russian in school hardly speak a word anymore or refuse to. At any rate, all of what I saw contradicted the apocalyptic vision of ultra-powerful Eastern Hordes often referenced in western media with glee and with proof by grainy black and white photos.

Most revealing, perhaps, was a simple conversation, during which I and my interlocutor compared east and west, a very frequent and prolific topic. I casually referred to where I lived as “back in Germany” (bei uns in Deutschland). She interrupted me: “This is also Germany.” In that instant, I realized that Bismarck’s claim that Germany would need a civil war once a century to stay united was no longer applicable. This was a unified country with an impenetrable and cruelly ridiculous border running through it. Impenetrable, but not permanent.

One just had to hope that a war would not be necessary to break down that wall…

A bubble was growing in East Germany, that was for sure, a quiet, unspectacular one. A bigger one was beginning to bulge elsewhere, however, namely Hungary, and thanks to my first book contract with APA Guides, I was able to drive there often as a Mr. Nice Guy writing about travel and culture, essentially harmless stuff for the over-political Communists…

The Hungarians had been chomping at the bit for a while already. Crippling foreign debt and palpable weariness at the leaden straitjacket imposed by a stuffy, unimaginative squad of corrupt apparatchiks was creating a kind of mental rebellion. Judging from the many essentially freedom-fighting idols who appeared  as statues, or on the bills, it would appear to anyone with a bit of a sense of observation, that Hungarians like their freedom, and they don’t like to be told what to do, and if that is the case, they tend to become ornery and uncooperative. Let me mention Kossuth, Deàk, Ràkoczi, the many poets  (Petöfi, Ady, Jozsef…), who are naturally inclined to free thinking, and of course Dozsa György, who led a massive peasant revolt against a corrupt aristocracy and died horribly, in 1514, along with many of his followers. A friend of mine, a simple seamstress out east, could recite the national poet Sàndor Petöfi’s famous “Talpra, Magyar” (On your feet, Magyars) that roused the Hungarians against the Austrians on March 15, 1848. From her mouth, it always sounded suspiciously contemporaneous, and very passionate.

Another snapshot: In August ’88, in a crowded csàrda near Tiszafüred on the Great Puszta, I had jokingly called the waitress “elvtàrs,” which means comrade. She yelled back at me for all to hear:  “The only thing red with me is my dress,” which was indeed red.

The Tisza between Hungary and Ukraine

My contacts in the country were all turning west. I crossed the border five times in ’88 without ever being searched. Unlike my crossings into East Germany, which never took less than three hours. I even wrote to editors in the USA (the big magazines, hoping to get The Scoop) that Hungary was almost out of the East Bloc and the Iron Curtain was now a flimsy, rusting reminder of past failures. I explained why I thought it would happen…. “Dear Mr. Radkai, that is all too speculative” was the standard response. The US media simply loved its cloak-and-daggery East Bloc, with its run-down buildings, barbed wire as a metaphor, the sinister cement posts, so dramatic when displayed in grainy black and white on the broadsheets.

It was not all lucubration. There was some action as well. For example, in late June ’88, a massive demonstration was held in Budapest against the systematization (modernization) project initiated by Ceaușescu in neighboring Romania, which would have seriously affected the majority Hungarians in Transylvania (the USA still considered Ceaușescu  one of the better guys in Eastern Europe).  After much sending out, the Berkshire Eagle picked up my report on it, bless their soul. A year later, June 16, 1989, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum as a kind of opposition pool, the country re-buried the “hero” of the 1956 rebellion, Imre Nagy, along with Pal Maléter, Miklos Gimes, Geza Losonczy and Jozsef Szilagyi. An empty coffin was added to represent the thousands of Hungarians who had also perished fighting off the Soviet army. It was a huge demo.


But lots more was happening. In May, guards were removed from the border, an open invitation to use Hungary as an escape route. Also, on June 27, Gyula Horn was at the western border to ceremoniously cut open the Iron Curtain (I have a piece of it). In August and September, East German refugees started entering the country, allegedly to go on vacation: Hungary had always been known as “the country for encounters”…. my ex-wife’s family would come to the Balaton in summers to meet their East German relatives. These vacationers now spawned a refugee crisis that ultimately forced the Hungarian government to do the right thing and let them emigrate westward. The trickle became a flood.

A friend of mine, Ingrid Heller, kept a diary of her escape with her two teenagers:

Budapest, August 23

We went straight to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. We hoped to get some assistance there. But the embassy was closed. All I could see was the locked gates, the bell, and the guard house and Hungarian sentinel. Four youths came up from behind and stormed the bell. As if it were a life saver, I thought. A member of the embassy staff came out and handed us some flyers through the gate. They pointed the way to the Church of the Holy Family in Zugliget district.

We headed to the church. The embassy had set up a kind of emergency space in a garage in back of the church. They were taking the applications for passports. We had hidden passport in the pages of books to avoid being noticed by the East German customs officers.

Then the East German “tourists” started collecting like the birds on Hitchcock’s jungle Jim at the West German embassy in Prag. And soon the Czechs had to relent and let them go.  The East Germans at home, meanwhile, were not totally passive. I remember hearing that people wanting to move from Dresden in ’86 were giving the reason as “lack of access to western television,” though I suspect that was apocryphal. But it referred to the fact that western TV signals did not reach the great city on the Elbe, which became known as the “Valley of the Know-Nothings” (Tal der Ahnungslosen).  In September ’89, they began to demonstrate, culminating in a huge march in Leipzig. The SED government had no cogent response, and repression was not an option, most probably because the USSR under Gorbachev was no longer prepared to back violence. So, whether leaving the country or marching in the streets, people were “voting with their feet,” was a popular saying.

The Wall falls

But in October ’89, I still had to order a visa to enter East Germany. I was planning an one of those cultural-lifestyle articles for a magazine, this time on Frederic the Great, who had palaces in what was now West Berlin and Potsdam in the East. My visa for multiple crossings was for November 12. So I reserved a train ticket from Munich to Berlin for Nov. 10, giving myself a few days to do research and visit friends in West Berlin – yes, my young readers, there were days when you could work at a human pace, read books, dig deeply into your subjects, and have a real social life with flesh and blood people… I then went back to my daily routines, writing scripts for the Deutsche Welle, reporting, preparing more guide books, and, of course, listening intently to short-wave radio, as was my wont.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, I was packing and listening to the news in the evening. There came a really strange report from Dresden. Under pressure, Günther Schabowski, a party secretary, had just suggested that private citizens in East Germany could travel freely to West Germany. It was a somewhat confusing message, which directed people to get emigration visas as usual, and then stating, but permitting private travel abroad with short-term permissions (Die Genehmigungen warden kurzfristig erteilt). History has shown us how precarious the situation really was, even the NVA (the army) was mobilized later on, which could have produced an unbelievable bloodbath, but the East Germans heard it as permission to cross the border. And after some hesitation, they rushed it, notably in Berlin, while millions of West Germans sat riveted to their TV sets, glued to their radios and newspapers (the good ole days).

By the 10 p.m. news, it was clear that something apocalyptic was under way. East Germans were coming across the border without restrictions. And I stood in my living room listening, packing, mouth open, and  suddenly realized there were tears streaming down my face.

On November 10, I took the night train to Berlin. It slinked and slithered through East Germany, slowing down as it was supposed to, when passing stations on the way, but never stopping, giving us an almost eerie sight of dusky platforms crowded with East Germans wanting to just go, go, go. Because the second night was the real one. Until then, there was fear that the border would slam shut behind those taking tentative steps west. Or worse, the regime would suddenly crack down on the people who had exposed themselves in an explosion of euphoria.

Berlin in the morning. It was ice cold. But the sidewalks were bustling, the traffic dense notably with those strange East German cars, the Trabants and the Wartburgs, and the occasional Lada or Dacia (franchises of Fiat and Renault). I deposited by bags at the friends’ place where I was staying and soon joined the thousands of West Berliners and tourists gathered at the Wall. I found a spot not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Climbing onto it was forbidden. It was dangerous, because the other side was essentially a minefield. Many were trying to chip away at it, the so-called Mauerspechte, wall woodpeckers. That, too, was prohibited. In front of me, a Japanese fellow had showed up with a stonemason’s hammer, a huge chisel, gloves, and began whacking away. Bits of painted concrete flew in all directions, the wall shook. I picked up a few pieces. A mounty showed up, confiscated the man’s tool…

East Germans wandered through the city. You could hear them from their dialect. Many wanted bananas, even the KaDeWe had run out, that grandiose department store that was built just to thumb a consumerist nose at the goods-challenged East. I heard that an employee of the KaDeWe had gone into a cheap discounter’s to purchase more bananas … Lines in front of a sex shop… That, too, of course. The East was quite puritanical…

But was this real? It did not feel real at all. It felt more like some magical moment, and soon the Big Brothers would come and say: “OK, folks, party’s over.”…. That did not happen. The next day, a Sunday, I  headed to the Interior Ministry in East Berlin to get my visa. Two hours at Checkpoint Charlie. The Iron Curtain was open one-way only. I changed the statutory 25 deutschmarks for 25 ostmarks.

The ministry was in chaos. Journos running about, officials pale and wide-eyed, travelers wondering where to go, what to do …. I found the office I needed, got my visa and asked casually: Should I cross the city again, or can I circle the city and go to Potsdam directly…. I had reserved at the Cecilienhof, the famous hotel where Churchill, Truman and Stalin had met in July ’45… “Uh, no you have to go to Gleiwitz.” I didn’t look at my visa. Trudged back to the Checkpoint, bought some chocolate cake on the way for my friends in the west. Waited another two hours. By the time I got through, the cake was mostly eaten.

The rest of the story is available here on my blog (www.journos-blotter.com), and is quite strange, since I actually ended up in the eastern zone without a visa. In a nutshell: As it turned out, Gleiwitz was the autobahn crossing, and I had requested a train crossing because I was on foot. Secondly, my visa was not a multiple visa, as applied for, but a single crossing.

Let me just add this: When I reached Potsdam thanks to a kindly pensioner who picked me up on the breakdown lane of the autobahn —after changing another 25 deutschmarks into ostmarks — I asked a young woman for directions to the Cecilienhof. She told me, and then asked where I was from. “The USA,” I replied. She spontaneously hugged me and gave me a friendly kiss. It was quite a surprise. So I trudged, exhausted, towards my hotel. On the way I tried to get rid of all those eastern bills. I found an open book shop, and bought several classic novels, books of poetry, some philosophy. When that historically famous palace hotel appeared before me, a thought crossed my mind: The war is finally over, let the peace begin.

Epilog:

The Kohl government rushed to consolidate the openings and bridge the country’s division. The effort was boosted no doubt by the enormous good-will of people in Germany and abroad, the sheer sense of “Yes!” of optimism, of welcome for this new age of international understanding. The People had ultimately won. The bizarre Communist governments fell one after another, some in blood, like Romania, others just crumbled. In 1990, I covered the first elections in Hungary. The Communist Party was running. I spoke to their reps, and they smiled and said: “If we pass the 5% mark, we’ll be happy.” That would have meant at least representation in the parliament. They reached about 3% if I recall…

Yet, as the curtain fell, new walls went up in people’s minds. In Germany, the westerners got suspicious and snarky about the East Germans, especially the Saxons, whose dialect grated on their countrymen’s ears. The easterners created the “Besserwessi,” the western know-it-all ( a play on the word Besserwisser), a kind of carpetbagger, who came and seduced the womenfolk with charm and money (this strange hallucination is not confined to Germany, by the way, it’s something visceral that one finds in xenophobes and racists of all stamp). Then the westerners started speaking of the nebulae, the NEuen BUndesndern, the new Länder of unified Germany and their bizarre customs. There were also the “Wendehälse,” the European wrynecks, able to turn its head 180 degrees, like the now suddenly former Communist. A cousin of my wife’s, for instance, had been an army officer and had always expressed his anger at “that American” whom he was not allowed to meet, because he was a “holder of secrets.” Suddenly, he wanted to have a beer with me. Then came Ostalgia, nostalgia for the East (Ost). Today, some of those old problems still plague the eastern Länder,

Bit by bit, though, the country did grow back together again. It meant huge investments. There still are differences, and they are always dangerous, because they are visceral. Maybe the jokes were needed to create a bit of excitement and take away some of the raw emotion. But every now and then I will pick up the bit of Wall, or look at my six inches of barbed wire that cut the world in two. And inevitably a tear or two will form as I think of all those people who suffered and continue suffering from the hubris of small-minded men who still use the age-old divide-and-conquer method to maintain their power.

Snapshot: my mother at work

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.

Karen Radkai photographed by Paul Radkai
Karen Radkai, 1949, with her trusty Rolleiflex (she also used Hasselblads), photographed by her husband, Paul Radkai.

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 course.

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.

Reared in a convent during the Weimar and early Nazi years made my mother a passionate liberal. She remembered teasing the guards at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich when on breaks in her native Munich.

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.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in a shot for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, by Karen Radkai in our apartment in Paris.

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. 

Meliton, a Dali haunt in Cadaquès


Salvador Dalì at the Bal de Bestegui, Venice 1951, photographed by Karen Radkai

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 Imperial Staircase at the Fasanerie (Fulda, Germany)

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.”



Mueller and managing expectations

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.

Trump and salami tactics again

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[1] , 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.

Nutty like Fox ( or Trump wurst, salami revisited)

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.

Carlo Cattaneo.

Get the bugaboos right: Boycotting tobacco and casinos in Milano is more like boycotting advertisers who sell heir products on a show whose main point is to be nasty.

 

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.

 

 

Success-iness is next to ugliness (long version)

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.

From Cohn to Stone: fame and money through infamy and ugliness, the new norm?

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.

Meet Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, two teenagers and, according to the Right: America’s most horrifying, insidious enemies…. because they speak out.

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.*

This simple request has become a lightning rod for the full weight of America’s right-wing and lunatic fringe.

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.

From Sean Hannity to Alex Jones, the right-wing pundits in particular have turned disinformation and vulgar, violent talk with extreme imagery into a business model. The impact on the US electorate is of no concern to them. Money AND bullshit talks.

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:

Roseanne Barr in an obscene reference to Jews…. Gets a new gig on TV… But it’s Griffin who gets thrown out on her ear.

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.

Ingrained tactics

Erickson, vulgarian, father, and profiteer in the war on civility and decency.

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.”

Where’s Erickson’s image? The ranters on self-responsibility prefer accusing others of not taking responsibility… Projection eases one’s doubts.

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.

The cold civility war is raging….

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.

This meme suggests the full hypocrisy of the outrage business model.

* 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.”