Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

Binary Pablum For The Masses

 

The smoke and mirrors tactics of the 2016 presidential campaign continue with the relentless repetition of empty mantras such as “Make America Great Again”, “Lock Them Up”, and “Fake News”. Venom is being spewed across the country, part and parcel of the same strategy of puerile name-calling, disruption, and confusion as we witnessed in the last election 

This is the fundamental strategy of the non-stop Trump campaign that continues to create and manipulate ressentiment and foment a collapse of civility and faith in government. It is all shuck and jive with some of the mainstream press unwittingly complicit in Trump’s strategy simply by repeating his vile utterances. The press cannot ignore even a bloviating President, of course. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The Joker in Chief deliberately deploys a maelstrom of contradiction with which the entire civilized world must struggle, and that of course, is the intent. Keep all the rhetorical balls in the air. Keep everyone guessing. When did America stop being great? What isn’t great about America? There aren’t any answers forthcoming because there is no truth to appeal to and none is demanded by his True Believers. It’s true because their Dear Leader says it’s true.

How this came to pass and why it has been so effective are the $64 questions of our time. One answer to consider is a longing by so many people for a world where everything is rendered as simplistic binaries. No subtleties, everything is black and white. A very large proportion of the mainstream public does not want shades of grey, they want certainty. It’s a longing, if not a desperation, for an “Us against Them”, “Right and Wrong” world. Good guys vs. bad guys. They want it to be like Tom Mix riding to the rescue, blasting the bad guys, and riding away on his white horse with the fair maiden holding on behind him. Destroy the Taliban. Destroy al Qaeda. No big deal! And, while you are at it, why not take down the United Nations? Take all those freeloaders off Social Security, welfare, Medicare, and food stamps. No DREAMERS, no foreigners. Up or down, left or right. With us or against us. Never mind consequences or complexities and nuance. Don’t stop to think that you will be hurting yourself. It’s only a matter of “bada bing”, drop a few small nukes here and there and everything will be back to the way we imagine it. We’ll be “Great Again!”

Trump gives his base a comforting, simplistic conception of the world, a peculiar form of indecipherable clarity. No questions need be asked, he has their backs. He says whatever comes to mind and it’s swallowed whole. “Lock her up!” None of it is realizable, of course, it’s just out there like a gigantic public Binkey. A warm bowl of Mom’s chicken soup, binary pablum for the masses.

    

The use of simplistic binary rhetoric has been the modus operandi of Populist leaders throughout history. Hitler and Mussolini were masters of the tactic to rally and control their true believers by pointing at designated illegitimate members of their society. Today’s undocumented Dreamers and refugees are yesterday’s Jews of the Third Reich. We have a President, a Silvio Berlusconi with bad hair, who will say whatever it takes to maintain the delusions. It’s the confusion and the illusions he creates that hold his polity. What kind of destructive mentality emboldens a person holding the highest office and the highest level of responsibility in our society to publicly denounce people like James Comey as an “untruthful slimeball”? What kind of gall does it take for a five-time draft dodger to insult and threaten Robert Mueller, a retired military officer who has served this country honorably?

What will emerge out of the chaos being spewed out across this country and across the world stage remains to be seen.  And I don’t doubt Putin is having a good laugh at our expense. 

A Piece of History – Roosevelt

When I was six years old I was taken by my mother to the Springfield, Massachusetts railway station. The station had a high overpass across which the passenger trains passed. On the street below was an enormous crowd packed elbow to elbow and stretching back for several blocks practically vibrating with anticipation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had confronted the “Great Depression” and created the “New Deal”, was loved by working people like my parents, who had suffered through the 1929 – 1939, “Great Depression”. At the rampart of the overpass the great man, by then afflicted with polio, appeared, he waved and was greeted by the crowd with the most tumultuous expression of respect I have ever experienced. There was no ressentiment, no anger only respect and gratitude for a better future. This was the America that defined my basic understanding of our social contract, my social reality. This was the America I grew up in. This was the country I joined the military to serve. It was a very different country from what we have become today, a country with a President, Masha Greene writing in the New Yorker, describes as a “foul mouthed vulgarian”. During Roosevelt’s terms of office programs such as Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the National Labor Relations Act were created and implemented. Today all of these are under attack. To what end are ordinary working class people being manipulated to demand curtailing social programs that they and their families have benefitted from for generations? What kind of world do these Trump supporters imagine they are being led to? Are they ready to accept levels of poverty not seen since the dust bowl era, the soup lines of the depression? And, as jobs are shipped to low wage countries health care becomes out of reach for our own working class poor. All of this is happening while the accumulated wealth of a minuscule number of individuals grows even more enormous, becoming, “Rich beyond the dreams of avarice.”. What kind of society denies sustenance and health care to the disadvantaged and displaced by a political and economic system that denies them meaningful work? What ends are being served shipping entire factories abroad leaving thousands of Americans unemployed? To what ends are the foundation stones of an American belief system being attacked and destroyed? What of the common welfare of its’ citizens and taxpayers? Can a commons of any sort rise out of the rubble of playing every group of Americans against others? In the past, this kind of antisocial destruction has been an invitation to violence some of which we are already experiencing. The answer to all of these questions cannot be evermore attempts at social control, government propaganda, lies, or the kinds of police violence we have seen before and after this past election. We have not seen the end of groups like “Antifa” arising out of the ruins. People have understood the costs of social divisiveness as far into the past as one cares to look, as far back as the 6th B.C. when Aesop coined the phrase, “United we stand, divided we fall.” We are now divided. We must ask and demand answers to the question, Where is all of this going? “Where are you taking us?” The government cannot keep on locking up and silencing protesters. Plainly, todays’ Republican populist politics of destruction is evolving towards levels of social and economic inequity not felt since the Great Depression. Perhaps that’s the “Great America” Trump, the Republican Party, and the billionaires who sponsor them envision. Could be.

Nuclear War Made Personal

This happened and it points out quite candidly how small the world is and how nuclear weapons would destroy so much of a world we cherish and places we don’t even know about. I believe this also clearly illustrates how we affect those world, the worlds we don’t know about. At bottom, this short story is about our shared humanity and how the past catches up with us in unexpected ways.

I have mentioned before that I worked in Poland for five years beginning almost immediately after the fall of Communism. I worked as a management consultant to Westernize and computerize a large Polish enterprise that had been bought by a group of American investors. (Which is itself another story for another time.)

< n.b. > I graduated in mathematics from Alliance College in 1960 from which I entered the United States Air Force. Alliance College was a school underwritten by the Polish National Alliance. I took the Polish as my language requirement and I grew up in a community where Polish was spoken by my Mother and in many places and circumstances. In the Air Force, I was assigned to the Strategic Air Command and served as a Launch Control Officer operating an Atlas F – ICBM silo near Salina, Kansas.

On my first trip, I arrived in Warsaw very late and was met at the airport by a driver from the company who spoke no English. My Polish language skills had languished quite a bit but I was able to have a simple conversation as we drove from Warsaw to Torun the site of the factory. I was taken to a hotel and after checking in went to my room, opened the window, and fell into bed having been mostly awake since leaving New Mexico. As I was falling asleep I heard the unmistakable sound of heavy artillery. Looking out the window and to the West, I could see that each “boom” was accompanied by a flash. I eventually fell asleep.

Room service woke me in time for breakfast (sniadanie) in the hotel’s dining room where I was met by a great gentleman, a professor at The University of Torun and a former fellow at the Brookings Institute. After breakfast, we were taken by a company driver along the historic Vistula River to the factory. As we were driving, I asked the Professor why the cannon fire during the night. He explained this is a now Polish military base having formerly been a Soviet medium-range missile facility.

I didn’t say another word because there was only one Soviet medium-range missile facility in Poland, it was in the North West, and this was then, at one time, one of my targets. This beautiful medieval city would not be here had we launched against that Soviet base. It was a chilling experience. I never mentioned this to my hosts, of course, but the thought was always with me – nuclear war made concrete and personal.

The “transmission belts” Of Misinformation

I feel blessed that I am no longer responsible for launching an ICBM as I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy was president and I do not envy those charged with that responsibility now. I trusted JFK to comprehend the enormity of launching even one nuclear weapon and basing any decision on clear reasoning and facts. I cannot even imagine trusting Donald Trump — he of the “alternative facts.” 

The world has heard alternative facts before, fed to receptive audiences by dictators on the rise. Hannah Arendt’s,  “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, is a primer for those wanting to understand how the democratic process unwinds from seemingly harmless origins and feeds on discontent. 

As techniques of government, the totalitarian devices appear simple and ingenious and effective. They assure not only an absolute power monopoly, but unparalleled certainty that all commands will always be carried out; the multiplicity of the transmission belts, the confusion of the hierarchy, secure the dictator’s complete independence from all his inferiors and make possible the swift and surprising changes in policy for which totalitarianism has become famous.

Trump’s alternative facts are the “transmission belts” of conflicting information that cause confusion and uncertainty.  We are directed to fear people we don’t know, have never met, and about whose culture and beliefs we know very little.  Throughout history there have always been necessary “others” to be pointed at, to be vilified and held responsible for popular discontent. We are told we are the victims of “others” and we marshal our resources against the onslaught of otherness, whoever those others may be.  The taxonomy of “otherness” is vast — color, ethnicity, language, social class, a foreign accent, whether a person is rural or urban, religion of course, national origin, occupation, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation.  The list is long and ever growing. You might even find yourself on the list — one never knows.

History has shown us this process before, the slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. This transformation has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of the public wanting to be saved from whatever. Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed, discredited, and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The so-called “elites”, whoever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people, while the true elites remain out of sight.

The world has been down this path many times before — we should know it by heart. Alternative facts are disseminated, cronies rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated are the most susceptible to pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who, without ethical or moral commitment to the truth, prey with a simplistic vocabulary. The target of those whirlwinds of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of a foundational social contract.

Our country has become a theater where politicians mouth carefully scripted, democracy-drenched syntax and promises all the while doing their best to deny voting rights and marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions. In Congress efforts are being initiated to undo banking rules, Social Security, health care, and other social programs. Meanwhile, the president cries “fake news” at anything that contradicts the alternative version of reality he is spinning for his followers. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The messengers of the press are vilified and perforce people don’t know what or who to believe. The inevitable confusion ensuing from all of the above lays the groundwork for social discord — fertile ground for a dictator to offer delusionary comfort via social control.

 

Would you obey an ICBM launch order from such a commander in chief akin to the commando raid in Yemen? You say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Don’t be so sure.

The Notion of Democracy

Democracy in the United States has become notional, perhaps it has always been this way and we simply haven’t noticed. Our beliefs are always either evolving or devolving, always changing with the times, and eventually delivering less than what has been promised. A version of death by a thousand cuts  or what is aptly described as “creeping normality”. All the trappings of the real thing are there but behind the red-white and blue bunting lies another story. That story is the devolution from the principles of democracy to populism and its evil cousin, neoliberalism. Our long history of mistreatment of minorities especially minorities of color, for example, exposes many of the contradictions. But since our founding, it is the firm grip of wealth on political processes that invariably influences political and social outcomes. The notion of democracy stands for the reality of capitalism, the greatest social zero-sum game ever invented.

It isn’t that wealth has had more seats at the table than the working class proletariat.Today the influence and control of wealth concentrated in the bank accounts of fewer and fewer individuals has overwhelmed the rest of us. The predicates of democracy are diametrically opposed to those of capitalism. The rewards and power of capitalism far exceed the perceived rewards of democracy. It’s a deadly conundrum. Our world has become a kind of theater where politicians mouth democracy drenched words all the while doing their best to deny voting rights to marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions.

Consider how many Americans do not vote; fewer than half of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016.  Many people surveyed expressed doubt that their votes matter and that being what it is – a self-fulfilling proposition. There cannot be true representative government without participation and that is why certain politicians are doing their best to devise and pass ever more restrictive voting regulations.

The rise of neoliberalism is itself the greatest threat to democracy to ever have faced the United States. Neoliberalism will be the final blow. Neoliberalism combined with populism will serve double-speak, compromised founding principles, and no firm or verifiable truth will be accepted.  All we will have will be “alternative facts”. Truth made fungible and pliant to suit the moment and the desired ends. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The president has gone so far as to launch a federal investigation to validate his claims. 

In a country founded on the principle of religious freedom we have a vice-president, who is a self-identified Christian zealot proclaiming Christianity as the founding belief of the United States. The new Vice-President has proclaimed his Christianity on the floor of the House of Representatives stating the creationism should be taught in public schools and continues his personal “agenda in office. According to the PEW research organization, eight in ten voters who identified as “Christian” voted for the new administration. For people like this religion and politics are one and the same. Populist politics is become a crusade.   

  History has shown us this process, this slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. And it has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of public approval. “Save us from this!” “Save us from that!” Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The “elites”, whomever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people. We have been here before. Alternative truth is disseminated, cronies are rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated, are at large the most susceptible to the pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who are without ethical or moral commitment to the truth preying with the simplistic vocabulary of a child. The net result of this whirlwind of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of the social contract.

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming. “Trust me … I’m a smart person.” Famous last words.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here” but it did.

pres sealI wrote this essay last November following the election. I was disheartening to say the least and I am republishing here as a reflection on current developments and how prescient Lewis was. It seems that the new administration has unleashed, if not encouraged, a lot of anger and resentment that I worry will get out of control. There is an ancient curse that states: “May you live in interesting times.” Here they come.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again yesterday because, in fact, it did happen here. I believe there are are important points made in that novel related to recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States. In that review I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, my opening sentence was also prescient and I felt it wasting to happen more than I thought it. There were many reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem, with their hand over their hearts, but won’t go out of their way to vote? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? Did those who heap heated criticism on an athlete who doesn’t stand for the national anthem vote? What happened that caused a record low voter turn-out? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism and posturing for patriotism? 

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something” – a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses crucial to their success.

And, it is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this? Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

As much as some people are revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, and a standing military; for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches?

11/19/16


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