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.

The revolution is permanent noise

Noisy, noisier, noisiest:…. Trumpism is not new and not about content.

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.

Summing up

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.

Messenger without a conscience: Sanders is a key loudspeaker broadcasting for the outrage symphony.

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.

Trump right or wrong: For the base, he’s The Man who expresses their deepest, darkest thoughts. For the oppo, he’s a vicious, dumb, ignorant con man, a train wreck in the making you can’t get your eyes off of.
Making spectacle: Trump keeps up a drumfire of sheer bilge with a je ne sais quoi of paranoia..

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.

The Tin Drum, one of many possible literary references for this administration….

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.

Forget 1984, the resemblance to Animal Farm, however,  is quite remarkable….

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.

PART II

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.

Guy Debord — the man who opened the curtain on the spectacle.

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.”

Tragic or funny, it’s still spectacle…

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.

Noise is noise is noise…. There is no longer a left or a right, the Spectacle is all-engulfing.

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.

Even the fake Trump is in some ways real (hyper-real, even) and contributes to the noise.

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.

Separation and contemplation is lonely …. But it may be the only way out of the spectacle. Just don’t tell anyone.

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.”

Thank you for reading this far.

 

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De bello fatuo: synthetic wars

Hearts fostered a US empire through fake news.

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.

At the Scopes Trial, science was in the defendant’s chair.

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 Post reported 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.

Reality check
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

To each his own: Trump: Happy Holiday. Obama: Merry Christmas

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.”

O’Reilly, big on Christianity, small on respect for women.

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.

Fox’s Bolling fostering the birther idiocy: agitprop for the choir.

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..

Late-night hosts fought back against the fake news from “Bullshit Mountain.”

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.

What’s Christmas?

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.

Public decree against Christmas from mit 17th-century Massachusetts… Were they liberals back then?

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.

Merry Christmas, by the way.

Some further reading:

https://www.snopes.com/2017/11/29/the-war-on-christmas/

http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/Xmas_ch2.htm

 

 

 

 

 

The other side of the dream

Over the years I have avoided wading into politics too deeply. History, my favorite topic, is long and painstaking, but it is a patient art in many ways. Looking back on events gives some perspectives on the present, it tends to relativize things, and it also, ironically, takes time. Daily events may seem new and exciting when pundits are rudely and crudely hollering at each other on-screen, but given a different f-stop, they often lose their edge or even relevance. Hence, one of my favorite quotes has always been “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” uttered by French diplomat and temporary Napoleon adviser Talleyrand.

The hyper-reality show.

Seeing events as part of a continuum is also curiously satisfying. For years now, I have been writing down my thoughts about politics in a kind of running private political diary. Occasionally, I uploaded (what a word!) a piece or two to a blog platform that no longer exists, so I will have to put them back up on Journos-Blotter… At any rate, whenever a clip or quote or article seemed particularly relevant, I took note. For instance, as the Trump campaign gathered steam last year, I jotted down thoughts that appeared pertinent, like his continuous attacks on the press, on the judiciary, on rivals, and his strange rhetorical assemblies, which are reminiscent of preachers in terms of content and syntax, with unfinished, suggestive sentences, extreme imagery (shooting someone on 5th Avenue), rawness and, most notably, trading of substance for a lot of conspiratorial nonsense. These notes, by the way, are a continuation of notes from earlier election campaigns…

What made the Trump run and makes his subsequent presidency special is the dizzying level and frequency of windy swagger, fake news stories, and pure baloney. In fact, the bullshit (please forgive the rude term: I am using the Harry Frankfurt definition, in short: indifference to truth) came and comes at such a rate that there was and is simply no real time to debunk the stuff, before the next wave starts cresting, leaving the nation as a whole exhausted but deeply unsatisfied, much in the way binge-watching series can leave one titillated, but with the sense of having learned strictly nothing of any importance for your life or the future of the planet.

Something to talk about other than serious news….

Some are happy. The MSM always has stuff to report, especially since the White House seems to be very leaky, perhaps by design. Furthermore, these days full-grown adults associated with the administration either as members or surrogates are earning huge salaries to go on television and brazenly lie, obfuscate and invent stuff, and to defend the president’s own lies… It gets very confusing up top. At the other end of the social ladder, during the campaign, you had Trump supporters who were either on the extreme right of the political spectrum (including many Holocaust deniers), dyed-in-the-wool racists, religious extremists, or card-carrying members of the lunatic fringe. I cannot say how many were bots, as I was not that savvy at the time. But one thing is sure: Those people who were “really suffering,” as some condescending journalists like to say, are not feeling any upwind these days, whether they voted for Trump, or not.

Society has a deep neophile streak, of course, and so the general consensus from the talking heads was, and still is, that Trump is something new. And that is what his supporters like. New stuff, disruptive stuff, different stuff. Amazing for people who can go to one Hollywood movie after another and still believe each one is new. Trump is new at the presidential level, true. But as a political and societal phenomenon, he is a standard-issue American wind machine, a blusterous snake-oil salesman, freely mixing Babbitt with Elmer Gantry, some Coughlin with McCarthy. The GOP could have, should have, probably stopped him, but preferred expedience and party first. A wing of the party already tried the lunatic playbook in 2008 with Sarah Palin, who can only be described as a light, female version of Trump. At least she was a genuine provincial, and not such an obvious city-slicker conman. He’s a New Yorker, for crying out loud. In letting Trump through, the GOP played a risky game. The election could have been lost, which would have lt the party dodge a very dangerous bullet. With Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016, the GOP backed itself into a corner they seemed to be trying to escape.

And then came Roy Moore.

What is forcing me in some ways to come out of my opinion closet is the Alabama election. The victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore has been touted as a major upset for Trump and the GOP and especially for Steve Bannon, a swamp creature in his own right. Much of the GOP started moping because of their loss of a Senate seat, but I’d guess a good number of them are breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Having saddled the country with Donald J. Trump (I’ll get to him in a few weeks), they would have had to contend with another loose cannon and publicity hound extraordinaire, this time in the Senate.

Nothing about Roy Moore qualified him for being a senator, really, for almost the same reasons Trump has little business being in the White House. It’s not even his creepy sexual obsessions. “Senator” etymologically suggests age and wisdom combined. Moore is more Disney than Tacitus, a typical fraud who, after years of building up and polishing an image as a kind of latter day Billy Sunday, now actually seems to believe his mind’s eye. He mixes 19th-century Wild West iconography – the horse, the pistol, that corny cowboy hat– and ideas that are fundamentally anti-Enlightenment irrationalism of pre-Revolutionary times.  Those are the physical and intellectual (can one use that word here?) props. And they definitely resonate with people for reasons that would require a lot of copy to explain.

Top: Real fraud.                                                                                                              Bottom: Real cowboy.

 

Suffice to say, his catechumens have been convinced by radio and TV barkers that they are victims, poor, stigmatized members of a class reviled and mocked by a nasty elite. And there is some truth to that. Comedians from Jon Stewart to Bill Maher have enthusiastically strip-mined what Mencken once called the “Sahara of the Bozart” for material. Ridicule is fun, when you’re not the butt of the joke, but it’s not the best way to engage in a dialog, since the victims will prefer to double down on their core beliefs rather than question and revise them when someone outside their bubble points out the absurdity of their world view (we all know that feeling, I suspect).

Assisting them in that doubling down effort  has been the bizarre idea that the Moore-Trump-Bannon-Pence crowd are their liberators from what amounts to a self-imposed plight. The GOP and media outlets like Fox, Breitbart and Co. have been playing to this crowd, feeding it an enormous amount of fake rage and outrage, like the fictitious “War on Christmas.” We’ve all watched that nonsense become mainstream, and suddenly the talking heads (this, by the way is really on both sides of the divide) are saying: “People think,” or “People say…” Naturally, then, when Trump starts ranting about “voter fraud,” or his mouthpiece Conway launches a collective hallucination about microwaves spying on you, a huge group of people is willing to simply disconnect their grey cells and start nodding. The most recent excuse for Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama is that Doug Jones was aided by “Muslims and Marxists.” Moore, at the time of writing, is still fundraising. I.e.: the marks still have some juice in them….

Read that again: Moore is still campaigning. For funds.

The reason why people let themselves be bamboozled like this is complicated. One thread can be found in Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland, an excerpt of which was published in The Atlantic. The ability to think outside the box, to dream stuff up and then live it, is a quality that many associate with the USA. It’s why one occasionally finds people mocking gloom-and-doom Europeans, whose dialectical thinking tends to put a damper on American hyper-enthusiasm … But when imagination becomes fantasy, it can turn into a weakness. The idea that you can be whatever you want is what drives a lot of genuine innovation, but there is a delicate and permeable border between imagination and illusion or delusion.

What you can do for your country.
Breaking news: Jesus hates everyone except white Evangelicals.

 

John F. Kennedy fostered a positive imagination, it was forward-looking, exciting for the huge baby-boomer youth, and let young and old dream of great things. In spite of all his foibles, his uncontrolled gonads, his bellicosity, he made people want to go out, get an education and do great things. His dialectical opposite is Donald J. Trump and men like Roy Moore, who are, alas, increasingly becoming mainstream. They revile education, science, rationalism. They generate that exhausting energy of hatred in people. They divide and try to conquer at least enough rhetorical territory to make some difference, and bring nothing to the communities they rule over, except some feeling of belonging. They lead to ruin.

The Moore candidacy revealed again a society torn apart between the future and the past, between urban progressivism and rural regressivism – what else can one call it? – between multiculturalism and aggressive and proud know-nothingism. America is, let’s face it, fighting the civil war again by other means, with other issues, and the media have their role to play as contributors to the dysfunctional dialogue and perpetrators of the hysteria. Whataboutism and its equally evil twin, false equivalencies, have led to some strange fallacies: Apparently, you have to equivocate the conviction that the earth is flat with the hard work of explorers, astronomers and other scientists since the days of Ptolemy and before. Of course, with the Trump presidency, there are some serious threats to democracy in the USA. Let us not kid ourselves, the man and his tribe, including Moore and the like, are not interested in having a viable and corrective opposition around.

Birmingham Alabama, a modern city these days, but it ain’t Alabama.

The Democratic victory in Alabama did boost the morale of what is called “the left” in the USA. The hope from the broad swath of Americans who’ve joined the #Resistance is that it might signal a return to a more mainstream and less risky track by providing another necessary opposition voice in the Senate to counter some of the egregious economic goals of the GOP under Trump – let’s leave it at that for the moment. There is also some hope that the Trumpian rhetoric can be toned down, that US foreign policy can be once again.

There is a big caveat, however. First: Jones won by a very narrow margin and thanks to the investigative work of the Washington Post. Moore, in any “normal” or healthy society, should have lost by a massive landslide even without the uncovering of his liking for very young girls*. Norms these days are not what they used to be. This leads to the second point: expectations management. By positioning themselves as more reasonable versions of Trump and downplaying the real impact of the president, GOP candidates still have a good chance going into 2018, which is why they don’t appear terribly worried. The Democrats should note as well, that the GOP has no scruples when it comes to political fights, they will risk the security of the nation if it has to to win. The Democrats must avoid complacency.

Third, the tax bill is being demonized as a gift to the superrich. And it is. But the real scandal there is how it was passed, the process, the fact that the Democrats were shut out. This could become a lose-lose either party, but the Republicans, together with Fox and radio agitprop, have shown they  are willing to take serious risks. They’re good at the game and bank heavily on the electorate’s notorious fickleness and inability to remember stuff that happened just a few weeks ago. They are already playing the song “They didn’t want it,” leaving the Democrats very vulnerable to any positive effects from the bill. Moral of the story: Never underestimate an opponent without scruples.

*I’d like to add at this point, that I teach kids in the age range that Moore seems to like them. I try to imagine some thirty-plus religious flake trying to seduce them, and it makes me simply furious. They are CHILDREN, no matter what nature has given them in terms of physical maturity. The idea that one go after them sexually is absolutely shocking and the sign that the man is deeply disturbed and extremely immature. This is corroborated by the fantasies about himself he exhibits publicly.