Thursday, August 25, 2016

Apples and Surrogates: The Revolving Door

I don't have regular access to TV, but an Internet-connected Blu-ray player with a Youtube app has been easing me back to the medium.  Last night the CNN celebrity newsperson Anderson Cooper visited Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, and in the course of "hugging it out" together he acknowledged something that in a better universe would have been embarrassing. 

To be fair, it looks to me as if Cooper was embarrassed: he almost seemed surprised by what he had just admitted.  Maybe it really had never occurred to him before.  Colbert didn't press him very hard, but I think he knew what a gem he'd just unearthed.

Colbert asked about various Trump campaign people Cooper had interviewed lately.  Cooper volunteered the name of Trump's former campaign manager Cory Lewandowski.
COLBERT: Who now works at CNN.  [pause while Cooper confirms it with a nod and a gesture] He works for you guys. [pause] Does he still get any money from the Trump people at the same time?

COOPER: I believe -- I read he gets a continuing severance from Trump.

COLBERT: So you all are paying him and Trump is paying him but he's still on your show doing analysis on a man he still gets cash from.

COOPER: Pretty much. I guess that's one way to look at it.

COLBERT: And you still respect his opinion, too?

COOPER: We have people from all the campaigns.  We have campaign surrogates for Hillary Clinton on.

COLBERT: What is a surrogate, by the way?  I have heard that term a lot.

COOPER: It's somebody who represents the campaign.  They're often paid by the campaign.  They just -- I don't know, you know, Katrina Pearson, I think, is one of those people you see on cable news a lot.  She is a surrogate for the Trump campaign.  There are a lot of surrogates. The campaign can't be everywhere so they have people out there speaking for them.

At this point Colbert abruptly changed the subject to Trump's recent "pivot" attempting to present a kinder, gentler image to minorities.  Which, it turns out, Lewandowski has something to say about too, in his capacity as a cable news journalist / commentator.

Cooper was being disingenous here, to put it nicely.  I presume that the various campaign surrogates are not paid by the news programs on which they appear, any more than the candidates themselves are -- though who knows, I could well be wrong about that.  But Lewandowski's role on CNN is not, supposedly, as a campaign surrogate: it's as someone who, as a former insider, should know what hard questions to ask the surrogrates.  Since he's still being paid by the Trump campaign, there's at least the appearance of a conflict of interest in his case, and his defense of Trump's reluctance to campaign in communities of color reinforces the suspicion.

I wonder, too, if Colbert would have brought up the point if a former Clinton campaign manager had been snapped by CNN after being fired by his boss.  I doubt it, since Colbert has largely followed the Clinton line since before she officially won the nomination.  Also last night he did a segment on "tinfoil hat" conspiracy theories, referring derisively to a couple from the Republican side but neglecting any from the Democrats.  Oh well, maybe it was just time limitations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Campaign 2016: Race to the Bottom

One of the stories on Democracy Now! this morning was about Donald Trump's "alt-right" connections, exemplified by his hiring of Breitbart's Stephen Bannon to run his campaign on top of his Birtherism, his appeal to white racists, and so on.  DN anchor Amy Goodman asked the reporter Sarah Posner (at about 56:50 in the video):
GOODMAN: Some are saying that this whole presidential election that he is involved with is actually a strategy for developing Trump TV, that he is consolidating a media leadership here, with Bannon, with Roger Ailes, who is now forced out because of sexual harassment allegations by more than twenty women, from Fox, and now reportedly advising Donald Trump.  How significant is this possibility?

POSNER: ... If this is something that Trump does, in fact, have in mind, the fact that he's asking Roger Ailes for advice, and was asking Roger Ailes -- he was in regular contact with Roger Ailes even before Ailes was forced out of Fox over the sexual harassment lawsuit, and the fact that he's hired Bannon, and combine that with how throughout his campaign Trump has been so disparaging of the mainstream media, the way he calls out individual reporters at his campaign events, calls on his rally attenders to turn around and scoff at and disparage the media that's covering the rally from a press pen, all of this points to -- and also how he talks about the unfairness of the way the media covers him, and almost setting the stage for blaming the media if he loses.  So if you put all of this together, regardless of what Trump actually does organizationally, in terms of creating a media outlet if he were to lose the presidency, after the campaign, it seems pretty evident there's a lot of sowing of discontent about the mainstream media, and of bolstering of these alternative media sites that have been supportive of Trump and supportive of the alt-right.
This is not insignificant, but Posner's answer made me laugh almost as much as Trump's running mate Mike Pence laughed when Fox News asked him about Trump's prospects with African-American voters.  Posner seemed genuinely indignant that anybody would disparage the mainstream media, would sow discontent about the mainstream media, would bolster alternative media sites to counter the mainstream media -- while she was appearing on an alternative media site that regularly disparages the mainstream media, to plug an article she had written for Mother Jones, an alternative media outlet.  The mainstream media provide many good reasons to disparage them, every day.  That being said, Trump and his supporters are no happier with the coverage he gets in the liberal and left alternative media.  It's not really about alternative vs. mainstream, but about fawningly pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump.

And it's not as if mainstream or left-liberal alternative media are more rational or responsible than alt-right media -- look, for just one example, at the ginned-up hysteria over Putin's alleged influence on the Trump campagin.  If, as Posner and Goodman mentioned, Breitbart publishes vitriolic attacks not only on liberals and Democrats but on right-wing figures who are insufficiently supportive of Trump, certain popular liberal and alternative media, such as Daily Kos, have become cesspools of center-right clickbait, posting material of minimal content whose sole purpose for production and publication (aside from getting site traffic) is to whip the faithful into a frenzy of ragegasms against Trump, the Republican Party, and the right in general, using many of the same tactics (slut-shaming, fat-shaming, racism [the evil of China is a point of agreement between center-right and far right, for example], religious bigotry).  The comments sections aren't as bad as right-wing comment sections -- yet -- but many of the commenters seem engaged in a race to the bottom with their fascist counterparts.  Many of my liberal friends and acquaintances on Facebook obsessively scratch the itch of Trump-loathing with meme after meme, clickbait post after clickbait post, embellished with remarks like "UGH", "SICK," and the like; the accusations of mental illness and/or mental retardation echo the same accusations from their fascist counterparts.  Factual accuracy and critical reason are optional, and indeed conspicuous for their absence. The 2012 campaign season, as bad as it was, looks almost like a paradise of sweet reason and love by comparison.  No doubt 2020 will continue the trend.

I still see a tendency among liberals to imagine that all this is something new.  It's not; it's a regular, ongoing feature of American political life.  I don't see any prospect of change.

Monday, August 22, 2016

It's All Fun Until Somebody Loses an Eye: From the "No One Could Have Foreseen This" Casebook

It looks like the US had another one of those "Oops!" moments in Syria recently.
The Pentagon warned the Syrian government Friday not to strike U.S. and coalition personnel in Syria, a day after the regime carried out airstrikes in an area near American special operations forces, prompting the U.S. to scramble jets to protect them.
Daniel Larison, who wrote about this incident, pointed out that the longer US troops remain in Syria, no matter how "non-combat" their role supposedly is, the more likely it is that the protection will fail and an incident will turn into an excuse to invade.
When the U.S. backs proxies in a foreign civil war and puts U.S. forces on the ground with them, it opens the door to new and unexpected conflict with other armed groups in the country. By extending protection to U.S. proxies in Syria, the U.S. could find itself drawn into yet another conflict in Syria. Anti-regime groups would have a strong incentive to put the U.S. in that position. The more U.S. forces that are sent into the country, the greater the chances of an incident that could lead to a wider war, and Clinton is on record in favor of sending more special forces into Syria. This episode underscores the absurdity of the administration’s many statements that U.S. forces aren’t in combat in Syria, and it reminds us how quickly a supposedly “limited” intervention could spiral into something much worse.
I wonder again: what are US forces doing in Syria -- a country which is neither our client nor our ally, with whose government we aren't even nominally friendly, but with which we are not, supposedly, at war either?  Suppose that some foreign government, Russia for example, were to station its troops in the United States in order to extend protection to its proxies here.  Suppose that some other country were to decide that white supremacists, say, were its proxies in the United States.  Suppose that Mexico decided to station some of its troops in the US to protect its citizens here -- in a purely advisory, non-combat role, of course.  Would most Americans, regardless of their party affiliation, consider such intervention and presence a sign of that other country's disinterested commitment to peace?

It's tempting to suppose that US troops are in Syria as bait, with the conscious intention that some of them will be hurt or killed by the bad guys so that the US can invade and kill lots of civilians, including children.  (The recent vital photo of a little boy outraged so many Americans -- nobody gets to hurt or kill Syrian kids but us!  When that picture turned up on my Facebook feed last week with much lamenting about the sadness of this world and the badness of people, but what can you do, I pointed out the US' support for Saudi Arabian killing of civilians in Yemen, which Americans could do something about by pressuring our government to stop its participation in the atrocities.  The reaction was predictable.  It's so much more satisfying, as Noam Chomsky has been pointing out for decades, to weep about the crimes of our official enemies than to notice the crimes of our friends.)  If Hillary Clinton wins this election, it's a good bet that US intervention will escalate; but very possibly Trump would do the same if he's elected.

Still, going by the US' record, our leaders aren't thinking that far ahead; they are, on the evidence, too stupid to do that.  It never occurs to them that if they put American troops in hostile territory, someone will shoot at them.  I recently saw an item about US troops in Ukraine a couple of years ago, where some of the locals threw stones at them.  Again: what were US troops doing in Ukraine?  One can't expect grunts to have a realistic idea of what they're getting into, I know, but the Wise Leaders who sent them there should have known better.  It wasn't the Existential Danger Donald Trump who made these blunders, it was a Democratic administration -- but Republican politicians and pundits have been agitating for a US invasion of Syria for years too.  But no one could possibly have foreseen that anything would go wrong.  We are America, after all, and nothing ever goes wrong on our watch.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Their Glory Is Their Shame

I imagine you've heard about the statues of Donald Trump in the nude, with miniscule genitalia, that appeared in several US cities this week.  Rawstory ran a story headed "NYC Parks & Rec pulls down naked Donald Trump statue - then brilliantly mocks him in a statement."  The statement in question was "“NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small."

I don't see any mockery of Trump in that NYC P&R statement. Y'all are getting desperate, I think, and it's not like you really need to be.  The schoolyard aspect of the Trump hate is not attractive: We keep making fun of him, and he still won't go away!  What is wrong with the guy?  It mainly serves to show that certain segments of the anti-Trump population are not very different from the pro-Trump population, in this respect at least.

That being said, I'm not displeased by this action; Trump is eminently and deservedly mockable, and it's far better to do it this way than to try to slut-shame his wife. Any halfway feminist person should recognize that attacking a woman to get at her husband is a no-no, but I've been surprised at how many feminists are ready to jettison their principles in the cause of Democratic supremacy. And while, again, mocking Trump is a good thing, I see again how many people after a century and more of feminism and anti-sexist activism still haven't figured out that having testicles (or not, or having small ones or big ones) is not a moral trait. To say nothing of fat-shaming anybody.  Yeah, I'm sure Trump thinks so, but he's not the authority around here -- let alone a role model.

Oh, and PS: "The Emperor Has No Balls." Trump isn't the Emperor. Barack Obama is. Shall we talk about his balls?  If you want to play on that level, let's discuss the kind of huevos it takes to joke on TV about killing some pop singers with predator drones if they look upon his daughters to lust upon them.

And PPS: I fully expect to be accused of "political correctness" for pointing out these issues.  Well, go for it, bitchez!  We all know that Political Correctness is destroying this country ...

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Useful Geniuses; or, Resistance Is Futile

To my half-surprise this meme turned out to be authentic.  It's from Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, when his 1931 novel Brave New World had become a classic and a watchword.  (The passage originally began: "Under the relentless thrust of accelerating over-population and over-organization ...", which I think changes its import a bit, and not for the better; and "a new kind of totalitarianism" read "a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism" [italics added].)  It's the kind of supposed prophecy that appeals to a certain set of mind.

Yet despite all this mind-manipulation, Donald Trump is the Republican candidate for President, and Bernie Sanders came very close to beating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Brexit passed in the UK. Most citizens disagree with most of the corporatist agenda in the US. Governments around the world are losing legitimacy, the consent of the governed that makes it possible for them to rule at all. Our would-be rulers are not pleased. The Sheeple aren't as manipulable as they like to think -- or, oddly, as wise truthtellers such as Huxley like to think.

None of this means that I think the People are necessarily wise, or always right.  Trump's success, like the Brexit vote, has various causes, some of which are edifying and others not.  The point is that "the ruling oligarchy" and its technicians are not as omnipotent or competent as they and this meme would have you believe.

I recently read H. Bruce Franklin's M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (Lawrence Hill, 1992), in which he described how the Nixon administration, hoping to raise domestic support for its war in Vietnam, concocted the fantasy of thousands of American troops being held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.  Enlisting the participation of families of soldiers who were missing in action, Nixon's people were fairly successful in selling the fantasy -- but when they found it an impediment to negotations and ending the war, they were trapped by their own invention.  The families and their supporters, understandably, felt betrayed; unwilling to accept that they'd been sold a bill of goods and used so cynically, they clung to the myth and turned on Nixon.  When even Ronald Reagan, several years later, accepted that there were no American POWs alive in Southeast Asia, they denounced him too.  As Franklin said, the long-term result was the rise of a politically reactionary group of Americans, officially patriotic but bitterly hostile to their government, constructing a paranoid mythology of bold Rambos trying to free large numbers of captive Americans but undermined and stymied by government bureacrats.  M.I.A. was originally published almost a quarter century before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, but his supporters clearly live in the alternate universe built by the Nixon gang.  The "ruling oligarchy" has only very limited control over the tigers it unleashes.

It's a mistake to think that that oligarchy or its technicians really know what they're doing.  Today I was looking at the chapter on political lying in Hannah Arendt's Crises of the Republic.  Writing of the processes that led to a major American war, Arendt refers to
the strange fact that the mistaken decisions and lying statements consistently violated the astoundingly accurate factual reports of the intelligence community ... The crucial point here is not merely that the policy of lying was hardly ever aimed at the enemy ..., but was destined chiefly, if not exclusively, for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home, and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress [14].
Arendt was writing about the Pentagon Papers, the internal history that revealed how U.S. interference in Vietnam had been "planned" -- though that word is probably far too generous -- but she could just as easily have been describing the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The same is true of what follows: 
Of even greater interest is that nearly all decisions in this disastrous enterprise were made in full cognizance of the fact that they probably could not be carried out: hence goals had constantly to be shifted.  There are, first, the publicly proclaimed objectives -- "seeing that the people of South Vietnam Vietnam are permitted to determine their future" [in reality, this was the last thing the US was interested in] or "assisting the country to win their contest against the ... Communist conspiracy" ... The same flexibility marks tactical considerations: North Vietnam is being bombed in order to prevent "a collapse of national morale" in the South and, particularly, the breakdown of the Saigon government.  But when the first raids were scheduled to start, the government had broken down, "pandemonium reigned in Saigon," the raids had to be postponed and a new goal found.  Now the objective was to compel "Hanoi to stop the Vietcong and the Pathet Lao," an aim that even the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not hope to attain.  As they said, "it would be idle to conclude that these eforts will have a decisive effect" [15].
And so on.  Those who, like me, are old enough to remember the promulgation of the War on Terror and the invasion of Afghanistan (to say nothing of the First Gulf War, which also fit this pattern), will remember how the goalposts were moved repeatedly for propaganda purposes.  The manipulation of public and Congressional opinion was scattershot: rationales generated almost randomly and thrown at audiences in hopes that one or more would stick.  Far from controlling events or the public, our rulers and their publicists were careening along in panic, and the results were far from what they had hoped.  (Not that either group has ever taken responsibility or accepted accountability for their blunders and crimes, of course.)

The corporate media gladly gave Donald Trump plenty of free publicity by their diligent coverage of his every blurt and mindfart; now that he's the Republican candidate, they're horrified: this is not what they meant at all.  Non-corporate media, not to mention liberal Democrats, are equally fascinated by him, and can't seem to tear their fascinated gaze from the trainwreck his campaign seems to have become.  But Trump and his supporters dismiss and denounce the "lamestream media" as readily as his opponents do.  On Brexit, liberal commentators here and in the UK tended to line up with the Establishment Right; they usually missed the irony.  So did right-wingers, usually contemptuous of the Mob, who suddenly but briefly became populists -- on Brexit, though not on Trump, whom they tried to repudiate.

And yet many people who believe themselves to be smarter than the canaille want more control -- laws (for example) that would require the press, or politicians, to tell the truth, on pain of State punishment. (Who do they think would decide what is true and what is false?) Again I find myself wondering why so many people who suppose themselves to be the sapient elite, mysteriously free from the control of the Bad Guys, sound so weirdly complacent and smug when they inform the rest of us that Resistance Is Futile. Whose side are they are on, really?


I've been trying to decide whether to buy Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, an anthology in tribute to the late Octavia Butler edited by Walida Amarisha and adrienne maree brown, published by AK Press in 2015.  I like Butler's work, and I've seen positive remarks about this collection lately.  So I took a look at the preview on Amazon.

In the foreword, Sheree Renee Thomas writes,
Octavia E. Butler wrote in her novel Parable of the Sower that our "destiny is to take root among the stars." The activist [Martin Luther King Jr.] and the artist ... embraced a shared dream for the future.  Their work is linked by faith and a fusion of spiritual teachings and social consciousness, a futuristic social gospel.  In its essence, social justice work, which King embodied and Butler expressed so skillfully in her novels and stories, is about love -- a love that has the best hopes and wishes for humanity at heart.
I feel like a Scrooge picking on a passage so full of warm fuzzy sentiments, but Thomas seems not to have read Butler's work, the brief quotation notwithstanding.  I know that can't be true, since Thomas is the editor of an important anthology of science fiction "from the African diaspora," Dark Matter; but that means she's deliberately misreading and misrepresenting Butler.  What she says may well be true of Butler the person, but Butler's work, while not devoid of hope or love, is anti-utopian and harshly pessimistic.  (The Patternmaster series is often as violent as Mortal Kombat.) That's particularly true of her late works Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. which are set in a near future that resembles the worst of the world we know.  Even when Butler writes about love, it's ambivalent, as in her short story "Bloodchild," which she insisted was a love story.  It's about the relationship between human refugees on another planet, who must maintain a symbiotic relationship with the people there, which involves implanting the latter's eggs/larvae to gestate in the earthlings' bodies.  It's also "my pregnant man story," Butler added, "a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love."  Butler's love stories are extremely anti-romantic, exploring the prices we pay for binding ourselves to others and them to us -- which is a good thing, but far from Thomas's huggyface-kissybear tone.

In the Parable books, it seems to me, Butler allowed herself some romanticism.  She wanted to write several more books in the series, but was unable to work out how to do it.  The projected third novel, Parable of the Trickster, was to be set on an another planet that people from the earth had colonized:
an alien world where [the protagonist] and most of her fellow Earthseed colonists are saddened to discover they wish they’d never left Earth in the first place. The world — called “Bow” — is gray and dank, and utterly miserable; it takes its name from the only splash of color the planet has to offer, its rare, naturally occurring rainbows. They have no way to return to Earth, or to even to contact it; all they have is what little they’ve brought with them, which for most (but not all) of them is a strong belief in the wisdom of the teachings of Earthseed. Some are terrified; many are bored; nearly all are deeply unhappy. Her personal notes frame this in biological terms. From her notes to herself: “Think of our homesickness as a phantom-limb pain — a somehow neurologically incomplete amputation. Think of problems with the new world as graft-versus-host disease — a mutual attempt at rejection.”
One of the many things I disliked about the published Parables was the protagonist Lauren Olamina's affirmational verses: "the poetry that drives the Earthseed religion actually mirrors the style of the daily affirmations, self-help sloganeering, and even self-hypnosis techniques Butler used to keep herself focused and on-task."  I'm not a fan of affirmations, and the one Sheree Thomas quoted is particularly noxious.  It's at odds with Butler's general pessimism about humanity, for one thing: she believed that what she thought of as our innate tendency toward "hierarchy" would probably be the trait that dooms us.  But as a lifelong sf fan, she apparently bought into the delusional fantasy of interstellar colonization as human "destiny."  If science teaches us not to see ourselves as the center of the universe, not the crown of creation, then we ought to recognize that we are already rooted among the stars.  The earth is among the stars, a miniscule planet circling a nondescript star in one galaxy among billions in the universe, and we human beings are rooted here.  Where else would we be?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Universalize Me, Daddy, Infinity to the Bar

While wasting time this evening I came upon an Amazon listing for a book of essays that had garnered one brief review: "This solipsistic writer thinks he is extremely liberal, but tho he claims all religions are valid, he secretly hates Christians."

Reviews like that usually make their targets more interesting to me.  I noticed that it had four comments, so I clicked through and found that the author of the book had riposted:
It has always been my observation that when a book is trashed by fundamentalists it must really be worth reading... especially, I would say, this one, which respects all the great religions and wisdom traditions. Perhaps that's the real problem. Much of the book repeatedly expresses respect for what is universal in Christianity.
Oh, dear.  That made the book less interesting to me.  I decided to see if the reviewer was just a troll; his other reviews indicate that he's capable of intelligent comment, and for what it's worth, I don't believe he's a Christian fundamentalist -- but that makes the review I noticed all the more discrediting to him.  Even if his target hated Christianity, it wouldn't follow that he hates Christians.

The author's reply, however, is not really a defense of his beliefs or attitudes.  "What is universal to Christianity," whatever he imagines that to be, is of little interest.  If I go by what others have meant when they said something like that, what is "universal" in Christianity is a little collection of platitudes -- be nice to people, love love love, and so on -- that don't really mean anything without some idea how to carry them out, and why.  Being nice to people always comes encrusted with exceptions.  (Was Jesus being nice when he threatened the vast majority of human beings with eternal torment?  Was the Buddha being nice when he told a soldier that if he died in battle he would probably be reborn "in a hell or as an animal"?  And so on.)  So does love.  Justice is at least as murky.  And so on.  I don't know if the poet being trashed is Baha'i, but I looked into that sect during the 80s when I was researching religion, and found nothing much there; the poet does seem to be echoing Baha'i doctrine in his remarks, though.  What the various religions have in common probably has more to do with the fact that human beings invented them, and with cross-cultural and cross-tradition borrowing than with any cosmic universals.

The universal is all very well, but I've learned to be suspicious of those who invoke it, whether in art, religion, sexuality, human nature, or most other realms.  Often they seem to be anxious about, if not hostile to, human difference.  From a safe, nose-holding difference, we are all pretty much alike.  But up close, viewed with interest (which is greater and stronger than love), the differences become apparent, and valuable.  If you can't love the differences, then I question the reality or worth of your love, let alone your spiritual wisdom.