How Twitter Pornified Politics

Bret Stephens JUNE 23, 2017

This is the column in which I formally forswear Twitter for good. I’ll keep my Twitter handle, and hopefully my followers, but an editorial assistant will manage the account from now on. I’ll intercede only to say nice things about the writing I admire, the people I like and the music I love.

Why now? Because, while reading a cover story in New York magazine, it occurred to me that Twitter is the political pornography of our time: revealing but distorting, exciting but dulling, debasing to its users, and, well, ejaculatory. It’s bad for the soul and, as Donald Trump proves daily, bad for the country.

The story, by Maureen O’Connor, makes use of a decade’s worth of big-data analytics from the website Pornhub, which attracts 75 million visitors a day. The result is what she calls “the Kinsey Report of Our Time” — an unvarnished and unfiltered portrait of the unchecked libido.

Since this is a family newspaper, readers will have to learn the more salacious details of O’Connor’s article by consulting it for themselves. But one important point stands out. “Pornography trains us to redirect sexual desire as mimetic desire,” she writes. “That is, the sociological theory — and the marketers’ dream — that humans learn to want what they see.”

Steve Jobs expressed a similar thought in 1998: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Technology doesn’t merely service needs. It also teaches wants. You never thought you’d need an iPhone, but you do. You didn’t know you were into kinky massage videos, but you are. We discover our innermost — and bottom-most — selves only when someone else opens the basement door.

That is what Twitter has been for our politics. Short-form writing can be informative, aphoristic and funny. Twitter is terrific when tailored as a personalized wire service and can be a useful way to communicate with readers. And where would our literary culture be without @WtfRenaissance or @LosFelizDaycare?

But Twitter’s degrading uses tend to overwhelm its elevating one. If pornography is about the naked, grunting body, Twitter is about the naked, grunting brain. It’s whatever pops out. And what pops out is altogether too revealing.

Another insight from O’Connor’s article: “Porn has always been a place for indulging irrational, secret and socially unacceptable desires — which makes it a place where people feel free to let their racial prejudices and fantasies run wild, too.”

Twitter is no different. Bigotry flourishes on Twitter, since it offers the bigot the benefits of anonymity along with instantaneous, uncensored self-publication. It’s the place where their political minds can be as foul as they want to be — without the expense or reputational risk of showing their face at a Richard Spencer rally.

Twitter doesn’t merely amplify ugliness. It erases nuance, coarsens thought, turns into a game of “Telephone” in which original meaning becomes hopelessly garbled with every successive re-tweet. It also facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying and mob-like behavior that can wreck people’s lives.

Ask Justine Sacco, a P.R. executive who in 2013 sent an ironic tweet to her 170 followers just as she was about to step on a flight to Cape Town. “Going to Africa,” she wrote. “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

She emerged from the plane to discover that what she had intended as a mordant observation about white privilege hadn’t been read that way, and that in 11 short hours she had become the poster racist in a worldwide shaming campaign. She lost her job. Twitter, as the author Jon Ronson has noted, is the 21st century’s answer to the pillory.

That, too, is part of the pornography of Twitter: pleasurably bearing witness to the mockery or humiliation of others. Things we would never say in person, acts we would never perform, become safe to indulge thanks to the prophylactic of a digital interface. After I took this job, one wag on Twitter wrote that he hoped I’d be “Danny Pearl-ed.” He must have found it funny. My 11-year-old son didn’t.

No discussion of the evils of Twitter would be complete without trying to understand the 45th president’s fondness for it. It should be no surprise that he’s a keen user, since it’s the reptilian medium for the reptilian brain.

But it’s also ideally suited for his style of crowd politics: unmediated, blunt and burst-like. It’s how he escapes the softening influence of his advisers and speechwriters. It’s how he maintains the aura of charismatic authenticity that is the prerequisite of populist politics. It’s how he pretends to mingle with his followers while increasing his distance from them. Juan Perón would have loved Twitter.

Politics, like eros, can open the way to the elevation of our souls. Or it can do the opposite. Time for people who care about politics and souls to get off Twitter.

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Our Fake Democracy

Timothy Egan JUNE 23, 2017

Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion said. We do this as a nation, as individuals, as families — even when that construct is demonstrably false. For the United States, the biggest institutional lie of the moment is that we have a government of the people, responding to majority will.

On almost every single concern, Congress — whether it’s the misnamed People’s House, or the Senate, laughably mischaracterized as the world’s greatest deliberative body — is going against what most of the country wants. And Congress is doing this because there will be no consequences.

We have a fake democracy, growing less responsive and less representative by the day.

The biggest example of this is the monstrosity of a health care bill, which a cartel of Republicans finally allowed us to peek at on Thursday. The lobbyists have seen it; of course. But for the rest us, our first look at a radical overhaul of one-sixth of the economy, something that touches every American, comes too late to make our voices heard.

Crafted in total darkness, the bill may pass by a slim majority of people who have not read it. Inevitably, with something that deprives upward of 23 million Americans of health care, people will die because of this bill. States will be making life and death decisions as they drop the mandated benefits of Obamacare and cut vital care for the poor, the elderly, the sick and the drug-addicted through Medicaid. The sunset of Obamacare is the dawn of death panels.

It would be understandable if Republicans were doing this because it’s what most Americans want them to do. But it’s not. Only about 25 percent of Americans approved of a similar version of this bill, the one passed by the House. By a nearly 2 to 1 margin, people would prefer that the Affordable Care Act be kept in place and fixed, rather than junked for this cruel alternative.

The Senate bill is “by far, the most harmful piece of legislation I have seen in my lifetime,” said Senator Bernie Sanders. At age 75, he’s seen a lot.

Remember when Republicans used to pretend to care about crafting the people’s business in sunlight? “It’s simply wrong for legislation that will affect 100 percent of the American people to be negotiated behind closed doors.” That was Mike Pence in 2010.

Why are they doing it? Why would the people’s representatives choose to hurt their own people? The answer is further evidence of our failed democracy. About 75 million Americans depend on Medicaid. This bill will make their lives more miserable and perilous in order to give the top 2 percent of wealthiest Americans a tax cut.

So, little surprise that Republicans are also working to make it even harder for the poor to vote. They can seek to disenfranchise one class of Americans, and get away with it from the safety of gerrymandered seats.

The symptoms of democratic collapse — from the opioid crises of people who long ago checked out of active citizenship to the stagnation of class mobility — cry for immediate action.

It takes the median worker twice as many hours a month to pay rent in a big city today than it did in the early years of the baby boomer era, as Edward Luce notes in his new book, “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” Add towering increases in health care and college costs to that and you’ve got an unclimbable wall between low-income limbo and a chance at the middle class. The United States, once known for our American Dream, now has the lowest class mobility of any Western democracy, according to Luce.

What is Congress doing? Nothing on wages. Nothing on college tuition. And the health care bill will most surely force many people to choose between buying groceries and being able to visit a doctor.

Our fake democracy reveals itself daily. Less than a third of Americans support President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. In a truly representative government, you would see the other two-thirds, the common-sense majority, howling from the halls of Congress.

Most Americans are also against building a wall along the Mexican border. They would prefer putting taxpayers’ billions into roads, bridges, schools and airports. But the wall remains a key part of President Trump’s agenda.

Trump is president, of course, despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million people. Almost 60 percent of the public is against him now. In a parliamentary system, he’d be thrown out in a no-confidence vote. In our system, he’s primed to change life for every citizen, against the wishes of a majority of Americans. Try calling that a democracy while keeping a straight face.

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What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Fairness

 

Monkeys were taught in an experiment to hand over pebbles in exchange for cucumber slices. They were happy with this deal.

Then the researcher randomly offered one monkey — in sight of a second — an even better deal: a grape for a pebble. Monkeys love grapes, so this fellow was thrilled.

The researcher then returned to the second monkey, but presented just a cucumber for the pebble. Now, this offer was insulting. In some cases the monkey would throw the cucumber back at the primatologist in disgust.

In other words, the monkeys cared deeply about fairness. What mattered to them was not

Monkeys aren’t the only primates instinctively offended by inequality. For example, two scholars examined data from millions of flights to identify what factors resulted in “air rage” incidents. One huge factor: a first-class cabin.

An incident in a coach section was four times as likely if the plane also had a first-class cabin; a first-class section increased the risk of a disturbance as much as a nine-hour delay did.

When there is a first-class section, it is at the front of the plane and economy passengers typically walk through it to reach their seats, but in some flights the boarding is in the middle of the plane. The researchers found that an air-rage incident in coach was three times as likely when economy passengers had to walk through first class compared with when they bypassed it.

Keith Payne, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells of this research in a brilliant new book, “The Broken Ladder,” about how inequality destabilizes societies. It’s an important, fascinating read arguing that inequality creates a public health crisis in America.

The data on inequality is, of course, staggering. The top 1 percent in America owns more than the bottom 90 percent. The annual Wall Street bonus pool alone is more than the annual year-round earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. And what’s becoming clearer is the fraying of the social fabric that results.

Payne challenges a common perception that the real problem isn’t inequality but poverty, and he’s persuasive that societies are shaped not just by disadvantage at the bottom but also by inequality across the spectrum. Addressing inequality must be a priority, for we humans are social creatures, so that society becomes dysfunctional when we see some receiving grapes and others cucumbers.

The dysfunction affects not only those at the bottom, but also the lucky ones at the top. Consider baseball: Some teams pay players much more disparately than others do, and one might think that pay inequality creates incentives for better performance and more wins.

In fact, economists have crunched the data and found the opposite is true. Teams with greater equality did much better, perhaps because they were more cohesive.

What’s more, it turned out that even the stars did better when they were on teams with flatter pay. “Higher inequality seemed to undercut the superstar players it was meant to incentivize, which is what you would expect if you believed that the chief effect of pay inequality was to reduce cooperation and team cohesion,” Payne notes.

Something similar emerges in national statistics. Countries with the widest gaps in income, including the United States, generally have worse health, more homicides and a greater array of social problems.

People seem to understand this truth intuitively, for they want much less inequality than we have. In a study of people in 40 countries, liberals said C.E.O.s should be paid four times as much as the average worker, while conservatives said five times. In fact, the average C.E.O. at the largest American public companies earns about 350 times as much as the average worker.

Presented with unlabeled pie charts depicting income distributions of two countries, 92 percent of Americans said they would prefer to live with the modest inequality that exists in Sweden. Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor alike — all chose Sweden by similar margins.

“When the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange,” Payne notes. “Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again.”

“It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is,” he says. “Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.”

Think of those words in the context of politics today: Doesn’t that diagnosis of stress, division and unhappiness strike a familiar chord?

So much of the national conversation now is focused on President Trump, for understandable reasons. But I suspect that he is a symptom as well as a cause, and that to uncover the root of our national dysfunctions we must go deeper than politics, deeper than poverty, deeper than demagoguery, and confront the inequality that is America today.

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Rebecca Solnit: The Loneliness of Donald Trump- On the Corrosive Privilege of the Most Mocked Man in the World

May 30, 2017  By Rebecca Solnit

Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more, and got it, and more after that, and always more. He was a pair of ragged orange claws upon the ocean floor, forever scuttling, pinching, reaching for more, a carrion crab, a lobster and a boiling lobster pot in one, a termite, a tyrant over his own little empires. He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book. So for seven decades, he fed his appetites and exercised his license to lie, cheat, steal, and stiff working people of their wages, made messes, left them behind, grabbed more baubles, and left them in ruin.

He was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker. He acquired buildings and women and enterprises and treated them all alike, promoting and deserting them, running into bankruptcies and divorces, treading on lawsuits the way a lumberjack of old walked across the logs floating on their way to the mill, but as long as he moved in his underworld of dealmakers the rules were wobbly and the enforcement was wobblier and he could stay afloat. But his appetite was endless, and he wanted more, and he gambled to become the most powerful man in the world, and won, careless of what he wished for.

Thinking of him, I think of Pushkin’s telling of the old fairytale of The Fisherman and the Golden Fish. After being caught in the old fisherman’s net, the golden fish speaks up and offers wishes in return for being thrown back in the sea. The fisherman asks him for nothing, though later he tells his wife of his chance encounter with the magical creature. The fisherman’s wife sends him back to ask for a new washtub for her, and then a  second time to ask for a cottage to replace their hovel, and the wishes are granted, and then as she grows prouder and greedier, she sends him to ask that she become a wealthy person in a mansion with servants she abuses, and then she sends her husband back. The old man comes and grovels before the fish, caught between the shame of the requests and the appetite of his wife, and she becomes tsarina and has her boyards and nobles drive the husband from her palace. You could call the husband consciousness—the awareness of others and of oneself in relation to others—and the wife craving.

Finally she wishes to be supreme over the seas and over the fish itself, endlessly uttering wishes, and the old man goes back to the sea to tell the fish—to complain to the fish—of this latest round of wishes. The fish this time doesn’t even speak, just flashes its tail, and the old man turns around to see on the shore his wife with her broken washtub at their old hovel. Overreach is perilous, says this Russian tale; enough is enough. And too much is nothing.

The child who became the most powerful man in the world, or at least occupied the real estate occupied by a series of those men, had run a family business and then starred in an unreality show based on the fiction that he was a stately emperor of enterprise, rather than a buffoon barging along anyhow, and each was a hall of mirrors made to flatter his sense of self, the self that was his one edifice he kept raising higher and higher and never abandoned.

I have often run across men (and rarely, but not never, women) who have become so powerful in their lives that there is no one to tell them when they are cruel, wrong, foolish, absurd, repugnant. In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence. That’s how it’s lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures.

“They were careless people,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the rich couple at the heart of The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Some of us are surrounded by destructive people who tell us we’re worthless when we’re endlessly valuable, that we’re stupid when we’re smart, that we’re failing even when we succeed. But the opposite of people who drag you down isn’t people who build you up and butter you up.  It’s equals who are generous but keep you accountable, true mirrors who reflect back who you are and what you are doing.

“He is, as of this writing, the most mocked man in the world.”

We keep each other honest, we keep each other good with our feedback, our intolerance of meanness and falsehood, our demands that the people we are with listen, respect, respond—if we are allowed to, if we are free and valued ourselves. There is a democracy of social discourse, in which we are reminded that as we are beset with desires and fears and feelings, so are others; there was an old woman in Occupy Wall Street I always go back to who said, “We’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important.” That’s what a democracy of mind and heart, as well as economy and polity, would look like.

This year Hannah Arendt is alarmingly relevant, and her books are selling well, particularly On the Origins of Totalitarianism. She’s been the subject an extraordinary essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books and a conversation between scholar Lyndsey Stonebridge and Krista Tippet on the radio show “On Being.” Stonebridge notes that Arendt advocated for the importance of an inner dialogue with oneself, for a critical splitting in which you interrogate yourself—for a real conversation between the fisherman and his wife you could say: “People who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what she called ‘the banality of evil’ was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”

Some use their power to silence that and live in the void of their own increasingly deteriorating, off-course sense of self and meaning. It’s like going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service. It’s like having a compliant compass that agrees north is whatever you want it to be. The tyrant of a family, the tyrant of a little business or a huge enterprise, the tyrant of a nation. Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it. Or reduces it: narcissists, sociopaths, and egomaniacs are people for whom others don’t exist.

We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us; and those who do not have to cope with that are brittle, weak, unable to endure contradiction, convinced of the necessity of always having one’s own way. The rich kids I met in college were flailing as though they wanted to find walls around them, leapt as though they wanted there to be gravity and to hit ground, even bottom, but parents and privilege kept throwing out safety nets and buffers, kept padding the walls and picking up the pieces, so that all their acts were meaningless, literally inconsequential. They floated like astronauts in outer space.

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

A man who wished to become the most powerful man in the world, and by happenstance and intervention and a series of disasters was granted his wish. Surely he must have imagined that more power meant more flattery, a grander image, a greater hall of mirrors reflecting back his magnificence. But he misunderstood power and prominence. This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not, but the people he bullied pretended that it did. Or perhaps it was that he was a salesman, throwing out one pitch after another, abandoning each one as soon as it left his mouth. A hungry ghost always wants the next thing, not the last thing.

This one imagined that the power would repose within him and make him great, a Midas touch that would turn all to gold. But the power of the presidency was what it had always been: a system of cooperative relationships, a power that rested on people’s willingness to carry out the orders the president gave, and a willingness that came from that president’s respect for rule of law, truth, and the people. A man who gives an order that is not followed has his powerlessness hung out like dirty laundry. One day earlier this year, one of this president’s minions announced that the president’s power would not be questioned. There are tyrants who might utter such a statement and strike fear into those beneath him, because they have installed enough fear.

A true tyrant does not depend on cooperative power but has a true power of command, enforced by thugs, goons, Stasi, the SS, or death squads. A true tyrant has subordinated the system of government and made it loyal to himself rather than to the system of laws or the ideals of the country. This would-be tyrant didn’t understand that he was in a system where many in government, perhaps most beyond the members of his party in the legislative branch, were loyal to law and principle and not to him. His minion announced the president would not be questioned, and we laughed. He called in, like courtiers, the heads of the FBI, of the NSA, and the director of national intelligence to tell them to suppress evidence, to stop investigations and found that their loyalty was not to him. He found out to his chagrin that we were still something of a democracy, and that the free press could not be so easily stopped, and the public itself refused to be cowed and mocks him earnestly at every turn.

A true tyrant sits beyond the sea in Pushkin’s country. He corrupts elections in his country, eliminates his enemies with bullets, poisons, with mysterious deaths made to look like accidents—he spread fear and bullied the truth successfully, strategically. Though he too had overreached with his intrusions into the American election, and what he had hoped would be invisible caused the whole world to scrutinize him and his actions and history and impact with concern and even fury. Russia may have ruined whatever standing and trust it has, may have exposed itself, with this intervention in the US and then European elections.

The American buffoon’s commands were disobeyed, his secrets leaked at such a rate his office resembled the fountains at Versailles or maybe just a sieve (this spring there was an extraordinary piece in the Washington Post with thirty anonymous sources), his agenda was undermined even by a minority party that was not supposed to have much in the way of power, the judiciary kept suspending his executive orders, and scandals erupted like boils  and sores. Instead of the dictator of the little demimondes of beauty pageants, casinos, luxury condominiums, fake universities offering fake educations with real debt, fake reality tv in which he was master of the fake fate of others, an arbiter of all worth and meaning, he became fortune’s fool.

He is, as of this writing, the most mocked man in the world. After the women’s march on January 21st, people joked that he had been rejected by more women in one day than any man in history; he was mocked in newspapers, on television, in cartoons, was the butt of a million jokes, and his every tweet was instantly met with an onslaught of attacks and insults by ordinary citizens gleeful to be able to speak sharp truth to bloated power.

He is the old fisherman’s wife who wished for everything and sooner or later he will end up with nothing. The wife sitting in front of her hovel was poorer after her series of wishes, because she now owned not only her poverty but her mistakes and her destructive pride, because she might have been otherwise, but brought power and glory crashing down upon her, because she had made her bed badly and was lying in it.

The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence. He must know somewhere below the surface he skates on that he has destroyed his image, and like Dorian Gray before him, will be devoured by his own corrosion in due time too. One way or another this will kill him, though he may drag down millions with him. One way or another, he knows he has stepped off a cliff, pronounced himself king of the air, and is in freefall. Another dungheap awaits his landing; the dung is all his; when he plunges into it he will be, at last, a self-made man.

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Donald Trump Poisons the World

David Brooks JUNE 2, 2017

President Trump at the White House on Thursday. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.

The essay explains why the Trump people are suspicious of any cooperative global arrangement, like NATO and the various trade agreements. It helps explain why Trump pulled out of the Paris global-warming accord. This essay explains why Trump gravitates toward leaders like Vladimir Putin, the Saudi princes and various global strongmen: They share his core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance.

It explains why people in the Trump White House are so savage to one another. Far from being a band of brothers, their world is a vicious arena where staffers compete for advantage.

 In the essay, McMaster and Cohn make explicit the great act of moral decoupling woven through this presidency. In this worldview, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest.

We’ve seen this philosophy before, of course. Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty-minded realism to justify their own selfishness. The problem is that this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases.

The error is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.

People are wired to cooperate. Far from being a flimsy thing, the desire for cooperation is the primary human evolutionary advantage we have over the other animals.

People have a moral sense. They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples. From their first moments, children are wired to feel each other’s pain. You don’t have to teach a child about what fairness is; they already know. There’s no society on earth where people are admired for running away in battle or for lying to their friends.

People have moral emotions. They feel rage at injustice, disgust toward greed, reverence for excellence, awe before the sacred and elevation in the face of goodness.

People yearn for righteousness. They want to feel meaning and purpose in their lives, that their lives are oriented toward the good.

People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness. N.Y.U. social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has studied the surges of elevation we feel when we see somebody performing a selfless action. Haidt describes the time a guy spontaneously leapt out of a car to help an old lady shovel snow from her driveway.

One of his friends, who witnessed this small act, later wrote: “I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running, or skipping and laughing. Just being active. I felt like saying nice things about people. Writing a beautiful poem or love song. Playing in the snow like a child. Telling everybody about his deed.”

Good leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt and Reagan understand the selfish elements that drive human behavior, but they have another foot in the realm of the moral motivations. They seek to inspire faithfulness by showing good character. They try to motivate action by pointing toward great ideals.

Realist leaders like Trump, McMaster and Cohn seek to dismiss this whole moral realm. By behaving with naked selfishness toward others, they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them.

By treating the world simply as an arena for competitive advantage, Trump, McMaster and Cohn sever relationships, destroy reciprocity, erode trust and eviscerate the sense of sympathy, friendship and loyalty that all nations need when times get tough.

By looking at nothing but immediate material interest, Trump, McMaster and Cohn turn America into a nation that affronts everybody else’s moral emotions. They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world.

George Marshall was no idealistic patsy. He understood that America extends its power when it offers a cooperative hand and volunteers for common service toward a great ideal. Realists reverse that formula. They assume strife and so arouse a volley of strife against themselves.

I wish H. R. McMaster was a better student of Thucydides. He’d know that the Athenians adopted the same amoral tone he embraces: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Athenians ended up making endless enemies and destroying their own empire.

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The Artist as Prophet

Posted on May 28, 2017

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Donald Trump: The Gateway Degenerate

Charles M. Blow MAY 29, 2017

Last week, when voters in Montana elected Greg Gianforte to fill the state’s lone seat in the House of Representatives, even after he was recorded in a physical altercation with a reporter, many Americans — like me — were left to look on in astonished bewilderment.

There was an audio recording of the altercation. The reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, says Gianforte body-slammed him while he was simply doing his job, asking questions on the eve of the election. Gianforte’s camp issued a bogus statement basically blaming Jacobs for the incident, but that statement was not at all backed up by the audio.

There were witnesses. A Fox News crew was there, and as Fox’s Alicia Acuna wrote of the altercation:

“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’ ”

She added: “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”

In a statement, the local sheriff’s department “determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault.” Gianforte has to appear in court June 7 to answer the charge.

I’d agree that this behavior- and especially the GOP acceptance and endorsement of the assaukt – verbal as well as physical – as part of… Such toxicity is contagious. I observe its augmentation in local and state politics, as well as for national and international behavior.

It is all about the Supreme Court. The GOP will hold out as long as possible hoping one more justice will retire and they can place another…

And yet, as The New York Times reported, “Voters here shrugged off the episode and handed Republicans a convincing victory.”

Three of the largest daily papers in Montana were aghast and withdrew their endorsements of Gianforte. But Republicans in Congress didn’t possess that courage of conviction. Their collective response essentially amounted to, “Eh.”

Other notably notorious Republicans went further. Babbling Brent Bozell of the Media

“Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I’m not surprised he got smacked.”

Interestingly enough, Bozell commented on Fox about Donald Trump’s hostile relationship to the media, saying: “What Donald Trump is saying is, ‘If you hit me unfairly, I’m going to knock your teeth out.’ And that’s what he’s been doing.”

This rhetoric is overheated, violent and dangerous.

The detestable radio host Laura Ingraham wrote in a couple of Twitter posts:

“Politicians always need to keep their cool. But what would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?”

And: “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”

Outrageous. Assault is not a game. It’s not a joke. It’s criminal. Any moral person would know better than to treat it so cavalierly. A moral person wouldn’t make a joke; that person would take a stand.

But Republicans in the age of Trump have sadly moved away from morality as a viable concept.

Yes, Gianforte’s assault is a glaring display of toxic masculinity in an environment made particularly toxic by the man in the White House and his media bullying. But more telling and more ominous is the degree to which Republicans no longer seem to care, and their increasing ability to compartmentalize and justify.

This is all an outgrowth of Trump’s degradation of common decency. Trump was the gateway candidate. When Republicans allowed themselves to accept and support him in spite of his glaring flaws and his life lived in opposition to the values they once professed and insisted upon, they moved themselves into another moral realm in which literally nothing was beyond the pale.

Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, the Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.

It is a sort of by-any-means-necessary, no-sin-is-too-grave, all-facts-are-fungible space in the moral universe where the rules of basic human decency warp.

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A Nation of the Walking Dead

A Nation of the Walking Dead

Posted on Apr 2, 2017

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The Feuding Kleptocrats

Posted on Mar 26, 2017
By Chris Hedges

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

The Trump kleptocrats are political arsonists. They are carting cans of gasoline into government agencies and Congress to burn down any structure or program that promotes the common good and impedes corporate profit.

They ineptly have set themselves on fire over Obamacare, but this misstep will do little to halt the drive to, as Stephen Bannon promises, carry out the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Donald Trump’s appointees are busy diminishing or dismantling the agencies they were named to lead and the programs they are supposed to administer. That is why they were selected. Rex Tillerson at the State Department, Steven Mnuchin at the Treasury Department, Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, Rick Perry at the Department of Energy, Tom Price at Health and Human Services, Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education are eating away the foundations of democratic institutions like gigantic termites. And there is no force inside government that can stop them.

The sparing of Obamacare last week was a Pyrrhic victory. There are numerous subterfuges that can be employed to cripple or kill that very flawed health care program. These include defunding cost-sharing subsidies for low-income families, allowing premium rates for individual insurance to continue to soar (they have gone up 25 percent this year), cutting compensation to insurers in order to drive more insurance companies out of the program, and refusing to enforce the individual mandate that requires many Americans to purchase health insurance or be fined. The Trump administration’s Shermanesque march to the sea has just begun.

William S. Burroughs in his novel “Naked Lunch” creates predatory creatures he calls “Mugwumps.” “Mugwumps,” he writes, “have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets. Thin, purple-blue lips cover a razor-sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients. These creatures secrete an addictive fluid though their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” Those addicted to this fluid are called “Reptiles.”

The addiction to the grotesque, to our own version of Mugwumps, has become our national pathology. We are entranced, even as the secretion of Trump’s Mugwump fluid repulses us. He brings us down to his level. We are glued to cable news, which usually sees a huge falling off of viewership after a presidential election. Ratings for the Trump-as-president reality show, however, are up 50 percent. CNN, which last year had its most profitable year ever, looks set in 2017 to break even that record and is projecting a billion dollars in profit. The New York Times added some 500,000 subscribers, net, over the past six months. The Washington Post has seen a 75 percent increase in new subscribers over the past year. Subscriptions to magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic have increased.

This growth is provoked not by a sudden desire to be informed, but by Americans’ wanting to be continually updated on the soap opera that epitomizes the U.S. government. What country will the president insult today? Mexico? Australia? Sweden? Germany? What celebrity or politician will he belittle? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Barack Obama? John McCain? Chuck Schumer? What idiocy will come out of his mouth or from his appointees? Can Kellyanne Conway top her claim that microwave ovens that turned into cameras were used to spy on Donald Trump? Will DeVos say something as stupid as her assertion that guns are needed in schools to protect children from grizzly bears? Will Trump make another assertion such as his insistence that Obama ordered his phone in Trump Tower to be tapped?

It is all entertainment all the time. It is the result of a media that long ago gave up journalism to keep us amused. Trump was its creation. And now we get a daily “Gong Show” out of the White House. It is good for Trump. It is good for the profits of the cable news networks. But it is bad for us. It keeps us distracted as the kleptocrats transform the country into a banana republic. Our world is lifted from the pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” in which the “eternal” dictator was feared and mocked in equal measure.

The kleptocrats—and, now, those they con—have no interest in the flowery words of inclusivity, multiculturalism and democracy that a bankrupt liberal class used with great effectiveness for three decades to swindle the public on behalf of corporations. That rhetoric is a spent force. Barack Obama tried it when he crisscrossed the country during the presidential campaign telling a betrayed public that Hillary Clinton would finish the job started by his administration.

Political language has been replaced by the obscenities of reality television, professional wrestling and the daytime shows in which couples find out if they cheated on each other. This is the language used by Trump, who views reality and himself through the degraded lens of television and the sickness of celebrity culture. He, like much of the public, lives in the fantasy world of electronic hallucinations.

The battle over health care was all about the most effective way to hand money to corporations. Do we stick with Obamacare, already a gift to the for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical industries, or do we turn to a sham bill of pretend care that gives even more tax cuts to the rich? This is what passes for nuanced political debate now. The courtiers in the media give the various sides in this argument ample airtime and space in print, but they lock out critics of corporate power, especially those who promote the rational system of Medicare for all. Health care costs in the United States, where 40 cents of every health care dollar goes to corporations, are double what they are in industrial countries that have a national health service. This censorship on behalf of corporations is the press’ steadfast lie of omission. And it is this lie that leaves the media at once distrusted by the public and complicit in Trump’s fleecing of America. When we are not being amused by these debates among corporate lackeys we listen to retired generals, all making six-figure incomes from the weapons industry, selling the public on the imperative of endless war and endless arms purchases.

Trump understands the effectiveness of illusions, false promises and lies, an understanding that eludes those in the Freedom Caucus, many of whom want to do away with health care systems that involve government. If the ruling kleptocrats strip everything away at once, it could provoke an angry backlash among the population. Better to use the more subtle mechanisms of theft that worked in Trump’s casinos and his fake university. Better to steal with finesse. Better to strip the government on behalf of corporations while promising to make America great again.

The kleptocrats, whatever their differences, are united by one overriding fear. They fear large numbers of people will become wise to their kleptocracy and revolt. They fear the mob. They fear revolution, the only mechanism left that can rid us of these parasites.

They are perverting the legal system and building mechanisms and paramilitary groups that will protect the kleptocrats and oligarchs when the last bits of the country and the citizens are being “harvested” for corporate profit. They don’t want anything to impede the pillage, even when climate change forces people to confront the reality that they and their children may soon become extinct. They will steal despite the fact that the ecosystem is collapsing, heat waves and droughts are destroying crop yields, the air and water are becoming toxic and the oceans are being transformed into dead zones. There will be hundreds of millions of desperate climate refugees. Civil society will break down. They won’t stop until their own generators have run out of fuel in their gated compounds and their private security forces have deserted them. When the end comes they will greet it with their characteristic blank expression of idiocy and greed. But most of us won’t be around to see their epiphany.

The kleptocrats have placed all citizens under surveillance. This is by design. They sweep up our email correspondence, tweets, web searches, phone records, file transfers, live chats, financial data, medical data, criminal and civil court records and information on movements. They do this in the name of the war on terror. They have diverted billions of taxpayer dollars to store this information in sophisticated computer systems. They have set up surveillance cameras, biosensors, scanners and face recognition technologies in public and private places to obliterate our anonymity and our privacy. They are watching us constantly. And when a government watches you constantly you cannot use the word “liberty.” The people’s relationship to government is that of slave to master.

The kleptocrats have used the courts to strip us of due process and habeas corpus. They have constructed the largest prison system in the world. They have militarized police and authorized them to kill unarmed citizens, especially poor people of color, with impunity. They have overturned the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which once prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force, by passing Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1021 gives the kleptocrats the power to carry out extraordinary rendition on the streets of American cities and hold citizens indefinitely in military detention centers without due process—in essence disappearing them as in any totalitarian state. The kleptocrats have handed the executive branch of government the power to assassinate U.S. citizens. And they have stacked the courts with corporate loyalists who treat corporations as people and people as noisome impediments to corporate profit.

This omnipresent surveillance state and militarization of the forces of internal security are designed to thwart popular revolt. These tools are the moats the kleptocrats have built to protect themselves from the threatening hoards. Full surveillance, as political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, is not a means to discover or prevent crimes, but a device to have “on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population.” The most innocuous information will be twisted and used by the kleptocrats to condemn anyone considered a threat.

The kleptocrats, in the end, have only one real enemy: us. Their goal is to make sure we are mesmerized by their carnival act or, if we wake up, shackled while they do their dirty work. Our goal must be to get rid of them.

 

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Trump’s Triumph of Incompetence

Nicholas Kristof MARCH 24, 2017

President Trump has made some baffling personnel decisions. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times

One of President Trump’s rare strengths has been his ability to project competence. The Dow Jones stock index is up an astonishing 2,200 points since his election in part because investors believed Trump could deliver tax reform and infrastructure spending.

Think again!

The Trump administration is increasingly showing itself to be breathtakingly incompetent, and that’s the real lesson of the collapse of the G.O.P. health care bill. The administration proved unable to organize its way out of a paper bag: After seven years of Republicans’ publicly loathing Obamacare, their repeal-replace bill failed after 18 days.

Politics sometimes rewards braggarts, and Trump is a world-class boaster. He promised a health care plan that would be “unbelievable,” “beautiful,” “terrific,” “less expensive and much better,” “insurance for everybody.” But he’s abysmal at delivering — because the basic truth is that he’s an effective politician who’s utterly incompetent at governing.

It’s sometimes said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Trump campaigns in braggadocio and governs in bombast.

Whatever one thinks of Trump’s merits, this competence gap raises profound questions about our national direction. If the administration can’t repeal Obamacare — or manage friendly relations with allies like Mexico or Australia — how will it possibly accomplish something complicated like tax reform?

Failure and weakness also build on themselves, and the health care debacle will make it more difficult for Trump to get his way with Congress on other issues. As people recognize that the emperor is wearing no clothes, that perception of weakness will spiral.

Photo

Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism adviser to the president. Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of the underlying problems is Trump’s penchant for personnel choices that are bafflingly bad or ethically challenged or both. Mike Flynn was perhaps the best-known example.

But consider Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism adviser to the president. Gorka, who is of Hungarian origin, founded an extremist right-wing party in Hungary in 2007, and The Forward has published articles claiming that Gorka had ties to the anti-Semitic Hungarian right and is a sworn member of a Nazi-allied group in Hungary called Vitezi Rend.

Members of the organization use a lowercase v as a middle initial, and The Forward noted that Gorka has presented his name as Sebastian L.v. Gorka.

Gorka’s background might have become a problem when he immigrated to the U.S., for the State Department manual says that Vitezi Rend members “are presumed to be inadmissible.” Karl Pfeifer, an Austrian journalist who has long specialized in Hungarian affairs, told me that Gorka unquestionably had worked with racists and anti-Semites in Hungary.

Gorka and the White House did not respond to my inquiries. But Gorka told The Tablet website that he had never been a member of Vitezi Rend and used the v initial only to honor his father. He has robust defenders, who say he has never shown a hint of racism or anti-Semitism.

As Ana Navarro, a G.O.P. strategist, tweeted: “Donald Trump attracts some of the shadiest, darkest, weirdest people around him.”

In fairness, Trump has also appointed plenty of solid people: Jim Mattis, Elaine Chao, H. R. McMaster, Dina Powell, Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin and more. And Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is a first-rate lawyer.

Yet Trump’s record of appointments over all suggests a lack of interest in expertise. I’m not sure that this is “the worst cabinet in American history,” as a Washington Post opinion writer put it, but it might be a contender. The last two energy secretaries were renowned scientists, one with a Nobel prize, while Trump appointed Rick Perry — who once couldn’t remember the department’s name.

Trump appointed his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, to be ambassador to Israel. He chose Jason Greenblatt, another of his lawyers, to negotiate Mideast peace. He picked Omarosa Manigault, who starred with him on “The Apprentice” and has a record of inflating her résumé, to be assistant to the president.

The director of Oval Office operations is Keith Schiller, a former Trump bodyguard best known for whacking a protester. And the Trump team installed as a minder in the Labor Department a former campaign worker who graduated from high school in 2015, according to ProPublica.

So see the failure of the Republican health care bill through a larger prism: The measure collapsed not just because it was a dreadful bill (a tax cut for the wealthy financed by dropping health coverage for the needy). It also failed as a prime example of the Trump administration’s competence gap.

Democrats may feel reassured, because ineptitude may impede some of Trump’s worst initiatives. But even if Trump is unable to build, he may be able to destroy: I fear that his health care “plan” now is to suffocate Obamacare by failing to enforce the insurance mandate, and then claim that its spasms are inevitable.

Of all the national politicians I’ve met over the decades, Trump may be the one least interested in government or policy; he’s absorbed simply with himself. And what we’re seeing more clearly now is that he has crafted an administration in his own image: vain, narcissistic and dangerous.

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