Pictures Worth a Thousand Kavanaughs

Today, September 28, 2018, at 1:30PM, the Senate will vote whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

This has obviously been a very large and newsy type issue with many think-pieces flying on all sides; some having gone so far as to declare the Kavanaugh hearings and impending nomination a watershed moment in American politics. At the very least current news events of this magnitude tend to take on a form that is larger than life. They are, dare I say, symbolic.

I spent a good deal of time watching the hearings yesterday. More time than I probably should have.

First, Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, came forward with allegations that when they were teenagers Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed and attempted to rape her but was thwarted in his attempt by another boy, Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s, who jokingly jumped on the two of them and toppled the group of them onto the floor, giving Ford time to escape the room, which had been locked.

Ford’s testimony was emotional and heartfelt—obviously symbolic for many women in America who have undergone similar experiences.

Then it was Kavanaugh’s turn. Kavanaugh had previously and unequivocally denied Ford’s allegations, plus those of two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnik, each with their own stories of Kavanaugh’s behavior, but with less consensus in the media as to their credibility.

Since the hearing there seems to be more discussion of Kavanaugh’s testimony in the media, more disagreement as to its merits, as to what it symbolized, etc. Kavanaugh, a usually very mild-mannered person in his many years of public life, was, as you might expect, visibly shaken and angry—either because he was an innocent man wrongly accused of heinous acts or a guilty man rightly accused of heinous acts, on the grandest and most public stage imaginable.

Today the internet is a broiling cauldron of spicy hot-takes in re the Kavanaugh hearings. If you want to find an opinion out there on the internet that matches your own, surely you know where to find it. Or if you want to do some rage reading that calls out all the bleating zombie sheep on the other side, you know where to find that too.

I am not as interested in what the Kavanaugh hearings represent as I am in how the media talks about big events, and how the average viewer or reader’s access to these events is conditioned by the selective use of information or lack of information, and how the internet reinforces over and over the perpetuations of memes or story-lines which are marketed to us based on our taste for certain brands or flavors of media.

In 2014 Pew Research put out one of my favorite charts of all time. It’s a snapshot of the ideological makeup of some of the world’s largest and most influential media outlets:

pewpic
Pew Research

I decided to do a little experiment after the Kavanaugh hearings. Rather than pour through every article across the ideological spectrum and painstakingly piece together the logic of each position, usually with futile results, as is my usual wont, I decided to simply take the leading headlines and corresponding pictures of Kavanaugh, following the chart above, to see how each spot on the ideological spectrum was telling the story at a visual, gut level.

The results were… interesting.

  1. Breitbart
breitbart
Breitbart

2. The Blaze

theblaze
The Blaze

3. Drudge

drudge
The Drudge Report

4. Fox News

fox news
Fox News

5. The Wall Street Journal

wsj
The Wall Street Journal

6. NBC News

nbc news
NBC News

7. MSNBC

msnbc
MSNBC

8. New York Times

nyt
New York Times

9. Buzzfeed

buzzfeed
Buzzfeed

10. Slate

slate
Slate

11. The New Yorker

newyorker
The New Yorker

Is it just me or does Kavanaugh become more meek the further right you go and more menacing the further left you go?

I don’t know what the overall takeaway from this experiment is. Surely it adds little to the specifics in re the allegations against Kavanaugh, or his impending nomination.

But probably that’s up to you to decide.

Maybe it surprised you. Maybe it didn’t. In either case, it’s interesting to see how editorial decisions are made, how a public personae can be molded to fit a narrative through images so that, wherever we lie on the continuum, we can rest assured, thank goodness, that we have the one true gospel.

 

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Coffee Stains, ‘Nam, and Donald Trump

Gizmodo

WHEN FORMING ANY VALUE judgement my goal is—although I rarely live up to my own standards—to condition said judgement with the right amount, or the right kind, of perspective.

For instance—

Let’s say I’m at work, quickly typing up some report, when all of the sudden I spill a piping hot cup of coffee on my lap.

The first reaction I will have to this will be instinctive, with an accompanied dose of curse words and negative emotion. More than likely this will be one of the most eventful happenings of the day. I will text my wife with frustrated emojis, OMG, of course these things always happen to ME. But after cleaning up, I might tell the story to a friend over a coffee break, recounting it with enthusiastic hand motions and displaying the brown spot on my pant leg with some good humor. And then, after work, my wife and I will have a good laugh about it at dinner.

There are probably very many complicated reasons why this is a normal way to process an inconvenience. We respond to events in real time with what our brain naturally intuits as the right or justified amount of any given emotion or thought—which sounds simple, but when you stop to think about life as a continuum and our experiences, every single one, assuming either large or small significance along that continuum, it then becomes very foggy just how our brains distinguish between something that is either very important or just medium-important, or not important at all, or just barely important, etc. Not to mention the subtle gradations that run along those axes, those pesky value judgements. Good, bad, etc.

Going back to perspective. What helps me during times of crises, at least on the emotional front, is thinking about what perspective I can assume to make the emotion better. So, the coffee example. If I am tempted to let the spilled coffee ruin my day, a zooming out of perspective will almost certainly help. This mess is only one moment out of the day, after all, and maybe a few minutes of cleaning up. I will most likely have some good moments during this day which will at least partly make up for my own stupidity. Also this is just one day I’ve lived out of many—thousands of days! I’ve spilled coffee on myself before. I got over it then. I’ll most likely get over it now.

This is a neat little trick you can do with almost anything.

A FEW MONTHS AGO my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, a new PBS documentary covering the entirety of the Vietnam War, complete with archived news reels, videos of combat, and extensive interviews with both American and Viet Cong, veterans and non-combatants alike.

The documentary is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of this embattled time in American society. A different film-maker who happened to be a highly motivated political idealouge, even a well-meaning one, would’ve been tempted to tamper with the effect it has on the audience because the sores and boils the Vietnam War dredged up have never really gone away. We are still playing essentially the same game of chess. The political lines that were drawn during that period of our history remain, not exactly the same, but true to their point of origination; I can’t think of a more relevant period in our history to survey in order to gain more perspective about the present moment.

A good piece of history-telling has the effect we were speaking about earlier, of zooming out our horizons to consider conditions beyond the bounds of our own lives. History can be therefore powerfully emotional in its impact because it allows us the chance to see our own lives for what they are—pretty small scale, bound up in tragic situations far beyond our own control, and ultimately mysterious.

One scene that touched me deeply was a series of late-stage student protests organized at airports to intercept veterans coming home, to taunt, humiliate, and even assault them so that the first thing these soldiers experienced on their return from fighting was an attitude not only of unwelcome, but open hostility.

This moment encapsulates Vietnam as a socio-political American tragedy (the Vietnamese have their own version of this).

The parts of the tragedy are as such:

1) Working class men are drafted into a war they don’t understand, which is spiraling out of control, quickly garnering mass public disapproval.

2) The war is handed off from Johnson to Nixon, who had promised to end the war, but it only grows worse. The draft threatens to balloon to include college-educated men, i.e. the middle class. Protests then reach fever pitch.

3) What motivates the protests? The instinct of self-preservation? Righteous indignation? Both?

4) In any case, middle-class hippies, basically correct in their critique of the war, direct their anger at those less fortunate than themselves, i.e. largely working class draftees.

5) Therefore those who have already suffered the most (from the American standpoint) suffer even more—as so often happens in tragedy—some having lost friends in combat, some maimed themselves, most unaware of the larger social and political implications of the Vietnam War and the dark shadow it would continue to cast over American life.

Two protesters who participated in this drama are then interviewed, one woman and one man, now in their mid to late sixties. Recalling her harassment of soldiers, the woman begins to cry and apologizes into the camera, to any veterans she may have hurt. She regrets her part in it and now considers the youthful vigor in those particular protests misdirected, although she doesn’t regret being against the war itself. The man, on the contrary, says that extreme measures had to be taken to send a message to Washington that under no circumstances would the public tolerate further aggression in Vietnam, the only option being a swift and direct pulling out of the war. And since tepid communications had not worked, the only option was something that would get people’s attention.

AS WE PROGRESS DOWN the tunnel of history in our own time, and events take on significance, both large and small, political and not, we are fooling ourselves if we think examining our own histories will not help us hang on to some semblance of sanity—even helping us to deal with the emotional side of politics and current events. Otherwise our perspectives will be conditioned only by the present moment, tricking us into thinking that very unimportant things are important, and vice versa. Again, a wide perspective, more information rather than less, can teach us just how similar we are to other time periods, just how beholden we are to the same human passions that have directed the winds of time since the beginning.

You may be forgiven for thinking that the elephant in the room behind all this pontification is Donald Trump or the so-called times of political polarization we live in. But it isn’t. Watching the Vietnam War documentary and reading more about the period helped me to realize that we are no more polarized now than we were then. We are being sold an old line dressed up for a new age, and people on all sides are guzzling it down like their life depends on it.

To me, I’m not sure Trump is a new coffee stain on our pants. I think Trump just reminds us of the stain we’ve had on our pants for a while now. This causes me to view him and his administration in a certain light, not a light amenable to any one side of the debate re: Russian Hacking, Border Policy, General Bombastic Attitude, etc. because both sides of the debate are conditioned by an apocalyptic absurdity with every action and re-action. And all of this is made worse by the usual suspects. Click-bait, social media.

To every journalist out there: before you write an article, read a history book, will you?

Our future depends on it.

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This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

On Saturday April 28, 2018 comedian Michelle Wolf delievered the annual stand-up comedy routine for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

For those of you lucky enough to be unaware of the tradition, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an annual event designed to raise funds for scholarships in journalism, put on by the WHCA (White House Correspondent’s Association).

The central event of the night is the comedy roast.

It’s what you would expect it to be. A dinner with journalists, celebrities, and politicians—an unholy trinity of sorts—where apparently important things are supposed to be expressed, “truth spoken to power,” and all that, from people with a little less power, or just a different kind of power, than those they are supposedly “roasting.”

And just as every other non-event in 2018, Michelle Wolf’s recent comedy roast has drawn much attention and comment from just about everyone. Even the WHCA, who issued this statement:

4-30-2018 3-07-46 PM

Here you go. Watch and make up your own mind.

Now this is an important moment to stop and take stock, because what is about to unfold is a very proto-typical moment in current day pseudo-controversy.

Here are the typical steps:

  1. Somebody famous says something (celebrity, journalist, politician) usually with a note of exaggeration or of an inflammatory character, to promote something they are selling or a piece of entertainment that has recently been released, or a piece of journalism, or a piece of legislation. Controversy is key. Without it, nobody will watch.
  2. The media react to the inflammatory thing—usually on some supposed moral grounds, although they never clearly state exactly what moral grounds these are beyond very vague political positions. The key here is two camps are defined. Either for or against.
  3. A bunch of articles come out with some words in them and randomly pasted tweets from celebrities and journalists.

4-30-2018 3-09-17 PM

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4. Now that you know what the famous & rich people think, I, the supposed journalist doing some very deep digging into a very important issue, will give you my two cents about who is right and who is tanking Western civilization as we speak. I have to choose either for or against

a. If I am a super smart snooty journalist I will create one or two issues of sub-points in which I still take a side but with subtlety and many confusing statistics with the help of Nate Silver, and a brief history of the Roman Empire.

5. But first there must be a very juicy and headline-worthy title. I cannot simply release this very content-rich article without click bait, so:

a. Michelle Wolf, Female Comedian, Eviscerates Elites at WHCD & Donates All Revenues Attributed to Increased Viewership of Upcoming Netflix Special to Starved Orphans in North Korea.

b. Supposedly Feminist Comedian Mocks WHPS’s Eye shadow!

c. A Very Woke & Lovely Comedian Single-Handedly Tears Down White Male Patriarchy & Conservative Media Hegemony, at the Same Time!

d. This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

e. Media Elites’ Heads are so Far up Own Asses, Trump sure to Win Second Term

f. If You Didn’t Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck.

g. If You Did Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck

6. Also before article posts, ads must be placed in and around the article so that a certain percentage of people click the ad and buy the product advertised (baby wipes, beer, Pop Tarts, etc). The money from these people goes to the company that makes baby wipes, beer, etc. whose shareholders decide what % of that money should go back to these same media companies in the form of advertising dollars so the media companies can pay writers like me to write even more articles for you to look at with very important information that is very pertinent to your life alongside very subtle ads for these same products, and so on and so on. (This includes mentions within the article itself to entertainers with development deals with Disney or any other big media company that also owns one or multiple news stations).

7. Article posts. Hopefully millions upon millions click it. Doesn’t matter what their opinion is, only that a certain % click on that ad or subscribe to the publication (ha!)

8. Now begins the counter-article phase whereby articles about the original articles, normally called think pieces, or spicy hot takes, react to the reaction, in hopes of getting some bottom feeder secondary clicks. (Also known as leeches). Many sources are cited in these style articles and usually there is a narrative or a very artsy form mean to inculcate a certain intellectualism and cultured flair.

9. Rinse and repeat. Depending on how controversial a given event is, steps 1-8 could happen up to 7 times.

10. Eventually interest is lost and focuses on another burning issue.

It’s important to highlight this 10 step backdrop it’s the subtext for every instance of reportage in the modern world. Without understanding this dynamic you might make the unfortunate mistake that a) any of these people actually care about you and/or your opinion or b) that these events are reported in an earnest search for truth.

Here’s the real kicker: people are promoted within these organizations if you, reader, viewer, etc. look at what they produce. All you have to do is change the channel or click their article, and bear witness to advertisements. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel. It’s not a new model, but one that has become so totalizing and omnipresent that it would be a mistake to pretend that Michelle Wolf, or anybody else, is just some regular funny person walking in off the street. Their checks come from Viacom, Bertelsmann, Comcast, 21st Century Fox, etc. The people who give us the news (the supposed “watchdog” of American politics) are the same people that entertain us, and this co-mingling of frivolity and fact should be unsettling since the terminus of this obscene logic has led to Donald Trump. No wonder the media react in a more or less unanimous fashion to the Trump phenomenon. Trump did not come from some wheat field in the Midwest. He came from Manhattan where all these people milk their own udders.

Michelle Wolf herself says it better than I ever could, at the very end of her set:

I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks, or Vodka, or water, or college, or ties, or Eric [pause for laughs]… But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him…

If you want to see the most lightweight cream puffy White House Correspondent’s Dinner comedy routines, watch all eight under President Obama. Jeez. Then there were even more celebrities in attendance. Clooney, Spielberg, and even Trump himself. You’ve probably already forgotten about them—as they are articles of a bygone era, part of the wasteland we leave behind of opinions once dearly held, and then lost as new opinions are manufactured and shoved down our throats like Twinkies, for which it seems we have a hearty appetite.

Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

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The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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Whispering into the Megaphone

In 2007 the writer George Saunders published a collection of essays entitled The Braindead Megaphone. The subject of the title essay is the description of a metaphor for how media consumption has evolved overtime to the present moment:

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, owned businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase, “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

I love a good metaphor.

This was written in 2007. Can you imagine? Twitter was just a year old. The first generation iPhone was released three months prior. George W. Bush was the president! Saunders was concerned primarily with cable news on TV. How quaint is that in 2017? The party has turned into something else. But Saunders was on to something that we certainly haven’t reckoned with ten years later, and continues to grow worse.

We’ve become used to Megaphone Guy and are even starting to like him, and getting cozy with his methods because, well, everybody’s doing it, man. Now, as party favors, there are little megaphones for everyone. Sure, some are larger than others. All the more reason to let your voice be heard!

But the real effect is this: what looks like everyone’s voice being heard is really the original Megaphone Guy’s voice being amplified not once but twice. Once through the original message, and then again through the echoing blasts of his supporters or detractors downstream who claim to proffer something new and different, but—whatever they may claim—they are still having to respond to an agenda set by the biggest megaphone in the room. And while it’s true that technology has made the distribution of megaphones more widespread and democratic, the quality of information has remained the same. Or gotten worse. The laws governing attention are no more based on who is “the smartest, most experienced, or most articulate” person at the party:

Imagine that the Megaphone has two dials: One controls the Intelligence of its rhetoric and the other its Volume. Ideally, the Intelligence would be set on High, and the Volume on Low—making it possible for multiple, contradictory voices to be broadcast and heard. But to the extent that the Intelligence is set on Stupid, and the Volume on Drown Out All Others, this is verging on propaganda, and we have a problem, one that works directly against the health of our democracy.

If that’s not prophecy–

I would love to be able to claim to be part of the solution to this, but I can’t. Perhaps like some of you, when I’m supposed to be doing work, I have a secret hunger for the noise and refresh my news webpages more than I need to, and I find myself doing it regardless of whether I really want to or not, like an impulse, and sometimes, like right now, when I am writing, I have to turn off the WiFi altogether or I will continually go back to the same pages to look for new developments in a day that I allow to be defined by the Megaphone guy.

But maybe we can get out of these habits if we try.

My dream for this blog would be to carve out a little section of the party for people who want to turn the Megaphone Intelligence up and the Volume down. Maybe we can even find a side room or something, throw the Megaphones out the window, and talk again. And who knows, maybe other people will come and join. Maybe the loudest only seem to win and in the end they really don’t. Maybe if we ignore Megaphone guy he will get tired and go home. There is only one way to find out. We have to start trying something different:

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

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A Friendly Reminder from George Orwell: Nothing is New under the Sun

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends… What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency… But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are all powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

– George Orwell, Diaries, March 27, 1942

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The True Believer: A Common Sense Book for Politically Weird Times

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Moscow, January 20, 1991 – Source: The Atlantic

1.

Reductio ad Hitlerum is a pseudo-Latin term coined by Leo Strauss in 1951, which was a funny way of pointing to a growing trend in political argumentation within the U.S. and Europe after WWII. Rather than thinking carefully through the complexity of political theory, it was becoming increasingly common to dismiss a political opinion, or any opinion, by associating it with Adolf Hitler. This was a popular version of the classical argumentum ad hominem which is an attempt to undermine an argument by linking it with a boogeyman, no matter how irrelevant the connection, instead of offering a substantive counterpoint. A classic example:

Hitler was a vegetarian, X is a vegetarian, therefore X is a Nazi.

In that same year, 1951, an unknown longshoreman, who worked in the San Francisco docks and had lived in the slums of Skid Row, published a short book that was an attempt to think clearly about totalitarianism and the precipitation of WWII. Rather than pick out irrelevant details to use as a club against his political opponents, Eric Hoffer tried to define what makes all mass movements tick. Hoffer saw what few others see:

“All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

This was a new way of thinking about politics—party lines during and shortly after periods of crises become increasingly sharp as uncertainty mounts, not because everyone all of the sudden becomes philosophical, on the contrary: crises breed fear, irrationality, and tribalism. We think less and feel more during times of crises. The actual moral doctrines within political positions, which are complicated and take a lot of effort to learn, become secondary to the establishment of a group identity, which is easy and natural when adrenaline kicks in.

Hoffer points out a historical example:

“In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss-up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.”

And Hitler himself acknowledged, mid-war, while trying to broaden the appeal of his agenda:

“The bourgeois Social-Democrat and the trade union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.”

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Eric Hoffer: Time Life Pictures/Getty

2.

Hoffer pulls off a rare feat of cool-headedness (in the age of McCarthyism and Stalinism) by ignoring what political, national, and religious movements say and instead studying what they do. The structure of The True Believer models a chronology of a mass movement, starting from the conditions that give rise to movements, and ending on when and how they typically die out.

The first key ingredient for any mass movement, Hoffer says, “religious, social, or nationalist,” is discontent and a desire for change. This may seem simple but it has to be the right type of discontent to lead to an effective mass movement; there has to be the perfect balance between an unideal circumstance and the expectation of something better. This also has to be true for a large enough sub-segment of the population. “Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery. Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved than an ideal state seems almost within reach… Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some.”

The right type of discontent is critical to the begetting of hope; it’s in the fomenting of hope that dogma and ideology are put forth as answers by those who are jockeying for position and, for followers, the price of admission is absolute allegiance.

3.

Hoffer puts potential converts into six categories: 1) the poor, 2) misfits 3) selfish, 4) ambitious, 5) minorities, 6) bored, and 7) sinners. These aren’t static, scientific categories. A nation’s particular situation will dictate the readiness with which each group will have access or motivation to be a part of a revolution. But, in general, Hoffer insists:

“The inert mass of a nation, for instance, is in its middle section. The decent, average people who do the nation’s work in cities and on the land are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both ends—the best and the worst… The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both… They also crave to dissolve [their ‘selves’] in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking—hence their proclivity for united action. Thus they are among the early recruits of revolutions,  mass migrations, and of religious, racial, and chauvinist movements, and they imprint their mark upon these upheavals and movements which shape a nation’s character and history.”

(It’s important to realize that Hoffer is making a generalization here. By ‘inferior elements,’ he does not mean to make a value judgment of his own, but to assume that all societies possess and dispatch social hierarchies with implicit judgments; most of the time in predictable and generalizable ways.)

4.

What a mass movement actually does once it starts bears largely upon its leaders prescription for discontent. But the two consistencies Hoffer points out in all mass movements’ ‘active phase’ are 1) united action and 2) self-sacrifice.

United action and self-sacrifice are interrelated. Both “arise spontaneously from discontented populations” who see their ‘selves’ as ruined and ineffectual, who would gladly give it up. Individuality is the enemy of mass movements because inherent in individuality is potential deviation from the whole. Doctrines are the glue that keep a movement’s actions consistent throughout, “…all active mass movements strive [to] interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ.”

So powerful is this type of hold on a person, that in the 1940s and 50s, when bleak intel was coming out about the Soviet Union, fanatical Communists in Europe and America “refused to believe any unfavorable report or evidence about Russia,” even when photos detailing the atrocities were brought to bear, “nor [were] they disillusioned by seeing with their own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet promised land.”

This type of behavior is expected when the spoils of a mass movement are only available to the loyal but, to the true believer, the real meaning of the spoils is not material gain or even prosperity. The real spoils are the renunciation of the self within the collective. This may not sound like much but it’s the true allure of any mass movement—the tumult and ambiguity of an individual existence is given up for the certitude and credulity offered by a supreme order.

And once they get going mass movements perpetuate via one organizing principle: their own practical interests. Anything outside of this is seen as a deviation and is squashed.

5.

I won’t give the rest of the book away. Suffice it to say, that in our current political climate, as lines are being redrawn continually, The True Believer is subversive and a real mental tonic because it refuses to interpret history by playing for a team; Hoffer was an old-fashioned individualist without a team to score points for. In many ways, Hoffer’s idea of truth was the polar opposite of the mass movement. Truth is not furthered by adherence to practical interests, no matter how pressing they may seem, but by removing any block that may be in the way of seeing the world as it is. Sometimes the biggest roadblocks to truth are the ones that give us the most personal comfort because, if we are honest, that’s why we put them there in the first place.

 

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