367 days later

Donald Trump’s rise to power is not the story of the success of one man over and above all others, but rather the story of the rise of a system beneath a system, lurking in the depths of the United States. In order to find meaning in Trump’s election, we must explore those murky depths from which he was, very literally, spawned. (ed. I wrote this about a year ago, but never published it. I’m leaving it here now as-is for the sake of completeness.)

This morning, I was thinking about an article published in The Washington Post. In the article written by Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks, a study is described in which 1,388 American adults were asked two questions. First, to identify which picture of the Washington Mall filled with people goes with which inauguration. Second, to ask which of the same pictures had more people in it. Each question was asked of half the participants. For full details, check out the article here. The result of the survey was that 41% of the people who voted for Trump associated the wrong picture with his inauguration, and 15% of the people who voted for trump said that the picture with fewer people in it had more people. While the results are not psychologically surprising, as Schaffner and Luks point out, they do indicate that perhaps there is more going on here than party loyalty and Trump fandom, as much as Trump would have us believe otherwise.

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how every idea that has caught the public’s eye or entered the Zeitgeist of thought was at some point thought of as absurd, as impossible, or as pointless. The tipping point, Gladwell says, is that point in the development of a product where it starts to gain ground. Where the number of people who think of it as a good idea begin to increase and gain ground against the naysayers. Common examples, of course, are the automobile, telephone, electricity, personal computer, portable music players, etc. Every idea has a tipping point. It just takes the right environment to reach there. Gladwell is speaking primarily here of entrepreneurial ideas, of business and/or product improvement. But, another writer, Thomas S. Kuhn, has written about a similar phenomenon in the annals of science.

Kuhn’s book The Scientific Revolution discusses how revolutionary scientific ideas gain ground. He hypothesizes that a radical idea will first surface, say for example Copernicus’ idea that the earth revolves around the sun. The idea and the purveyor of it are initial discredited, ridiculed, and isolated from society. At some point, however, the idea gains ground through other similarly-minded individuals and a Galileo and a Tycho Brae bring it forward for further study and inclusion in the conversation. At some point, a certain percentage of the general population begins to accept the new idea. Once that happens, it becomes reality. This is very similar to Gladwell’s idea, and it has held up to some scrutiny.

Both Gladwell’s and Kuhn’s theories are based in systems thinking and attempt to quantify — inasmuch as possible — the nature of emergent activities, information, and beliefs. And to that extent, they are very powerful methods by which we can attempt to understand how the world around us works, and what might be causing the kinds of things we observe every day that don’t seem to make sense. In systems thinking, the observation of the immediate must be combined with analysis of the events preceding it.

Don’t worry, all of this will lead to Trump’s emergence, though I’m betting that a few of you are there already. I have one more reference point to bring in, though, a little-known book called Systemantics: They Systems Bible by John Gall. In this book, Gall lists and explains a number of mantras about systems that he and other systems thinkers and observers of complexity have discovered over the years to be consistently true. Most relevant to the discussion here is the mantra “TO THOSE WITHIN A SYSTEM, THE OUTSIDE REALITY TENDS TO PALE AND DISAPPEAR” (Gall, 2012). The results of The Washington Posts’s article from this morning is perfectly explained by this mantra.

The system becomes the manner in which things are accomplished, communicated, and understood. Once the system becomes large enough — and they always do if left unattended — it traps people within it so that the only understanding people have of the world is through the system itself. Think of the parable of Plato’s cave, but in this case the cave is traveling around the world, gobbling people up and expanding as it does so. It’s a metaphorical way of understanding both Gladwell and Kuhn, really. How is it that a tipping point is accomplished? How is it that a 10% – 12% acceptance of something will become close to 100% acceptance. Gall’s mantra lends some understanding to this.

In Kuhn’s terms, Trump is the heliocentric model of the universe that strikes most people as so far-fetched that it’s impossible. He is Gladwell’s iPod. Enough people believe in Trump that he has caught on, and is either in the apex of or passing his tipping point. Couple these with Gall’s mantra that reality outside the Trump system is disappearing, and we end up with a president whose staff releases alternative facts, whose supporters insist that the emptier photo has more people, and on and on and on. The system is winning, as it always does when left to its own devices.

So for those of us who want to fight against this, how do we do it? Trump has proven to be surprisingly resilient and resistant to revelations on his character, his business dealings, and his conflicts of interest. Accusations of nepotism, favoritism, and pandering go unnoticed. All previously-effective methods of political undermining have failed. The system that manifested him doesn’t care about racism, bigotry, or oppression as long as it gets what it wants, which seems to be a combination of ultra-nationalist capitalism and far-right racial, gender, and moral oppression.

What we can do locally

Taking action in our local communities is where resistance of Trump’s agenda begins. It is among the people to whom we are closest that we are likely to find our first allies if we begin to look.

Like the majority of the country, I’ve been reading and watching news about President-elect Donald Trump with a mix of trepidation and horror. The blatant ineptitude of him and his staff to do any of the duties that have befallen him is laid bare for all to see. Trump’s actions demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the press, for free speech, and of course for women and minorities. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read the Constitution. Numbered among his supporters are neo-Nazis, white-power groups, angry neocons, and of course the economically disenfranchised and economically over-franchised who voted for him.

However, I have also seen lists from both Bernie Sanders and Robert Reich of actions we can take. I’m emboldened and comforted by these. I’ve used those lists as inspiration and foundation for the list below, focusing on actions we can take in our local communities.

  1. Get your town, city, or county officials to state their points of view about Trump’s election. Do they support him and his policies? Why or why not? Find out where they stand. If you can, urge them to declare or resolve that your community will be a safe haven for free speech and minorities.
  2. Get the necessary permits or permission and establish a 7-days a week presence on a corner with signs, megaphones, pamphlets. Speak your mind and be heard, even about local issues. Let the community know there are people who are aware and concerned.
  3. Write letters to the Editor of your local paper(s).
  4. Talk to your local business community or chamber of commerce. Are they willing to denounce Trump’s business practices and be public about it? Are they willing to stop carrying Trump merchandise?
  5. Look at your community’s voting data (your secretary of state will have this information). How many voted Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or wrote in someone else? If there are even 20 people who didn’t vote Trump, write a letter to your local newspaper asking them to reach out to you — even anonymously.
  6. Get organized through voter lists (they are usually at the Town Clerk’s office: you won’t see how people vote, but you will likely see party affiliations).
  7. Get to know your community or your neighbors. What are people worried about? How can those worries be addressed by your city council or select board?  Now is not the time for isolationism.
  8. We know that Trump is likely to target minorities, education, and women’s health care. Get connected with these in your community and understand the relevant concerns. Ask what you can do to help.
  9. Join a board or run for office if you can.
  10. Keep track of Trump’s policy decisions and ideas for the future. Work with local and state politicians to understand how they will impact your community. Publicize that information often (see number 2).

It’s easy to get lost in the national quagmire and feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to fall into the rut of swinging the pendulum the other way. If we focus locally and look to our families, friends, neighborhoods, and communities instead, we can become hubs of protection and action. We can make small differences where we live. If each of us makes a small difference, big differences begin to take shape.

Salvage what we can

This is a longer one. Basically, I’m saying that I expected Trump to become president. I’m not happy about it, and I think I know how it happened. I have a few ideas on things we can focus on and maybe make the election process a little better the next time around.

What I originally wanted to do here was just write a big old “I told you so” in big old capital letters. Over and over and over again. I wanted to do that so badly, because it is unbelievably frustrating being someone who tried to speak up about the risk of running Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump. I was denigrated and harangued because of that, and I’m kind of not over it yet. But blowing a big raspberry at the general public is immature and unhelpful. It’s time to move on (see Michael Moore for his opinion on this matter). This will take longer to read than a big raspberry, but it’s time to look at the wreckage, salvage what we can, and move forward. That’s my perspective, and that’s my advice.

So what can we salvage? Well, if anyone was confused about or unwilling to believe how divided and angry our country is, that should be all cleared up now. Donald Trump won. If that’s not evidence of anger and division, I don’t know what is. Also, a bunch of people voted third party and exercised their option to write-in a candidate of their choosing. Don’t be angry at them, because they voted their conscience. We can work with them. Third, according to a variety of sources, voter turnout was lower this year than in both 2008 and 2012, though it seems to have hovered around the usual percentage of recent history at about 43% of the eligible voting age population. We knew early on that we need a high turnout for the success of progressive and Democrat ideas, and it didn’t happen. Lastly, the mainstream media — well, media in general — is not giving us the whole story and in fact may not know it. They were caught just as unaware by Trump’s election as the Democrats were. With an attempt and non-denigration and blame, I want to spend a little time talking about these and looking at what we can do in the future.

Anger & fear

Like we’ve been trying to do with institutional racism, it’s time to acknowledge the economic and gender disparities in the United States. A certain population of white males are feeling threatened (see the rise of Alt-Right groups meeting in the open, for example) by the idea that black’s and women’s lives matter. Women still get less pay than men. People living in poverty and out of work feel left behind by the “good news” conversations about our economy, and the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement have not ever been fully addressed. Multiple deaths at the hands of police, rise in paranoia among NRA supporters, and a fervent adherence to guns. All of these things have contributed in their own way to a pervasive and infections sense of anger that drives fear that feeds more anger. Trump tapped into this and used it as a lever to get elected. We can no longer deny these feelings in our country, nor should we.

Instead, we need to spend time as a nation understanding the sources of this fear and anger. Give honor to people’s feelings by recognizing them as real. We may not agree with the reasons for the feelings, but we cannot deny that they are being felt. Problems have never been solved by hiding them, nor have feelings ever been overcome by burying them. If we want to avoid more emotionally-triggered elections like this one, we need to understand where the triggers are and how to address them. For example, I may not agree with the Alt-Right, or be able to fully empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I can work to understand the sources of their fear and anger (respectively) and see what I can do about addressing them. We may not find the right solution, but we can’t just ignore the problems.

Vote your voice & Voter turnout

This issue combines the rights of voters to vote their way without interference with the likelihood of voters to do that. I’ve been studying voter turnout trends for a few years, and since about 1964, we’ve elected a president and members of congress with around 40% of registered voters, or about 30% of the eligible voting population (some people don’t ever register to vote). What this means in shorthand, is that about 16% of the eligible voting population chose Trump. It looks like a large number when we look at the popular vote number, but the United States is a country with just over 330 million people. Trump and the Republicans will call this a mandate, but the reality is that it’s not more of a mandate than any other election. What his success truly represents is a very vocal minority brought him to power.

In truth, it is always a very vocal minority who participates in elections. Mostly because of lack of interest or lack of choices. This year was no different. About six to seven percent of the voters exercised their rights to vote for a candidate other than Clinton or Trump (full disclosure: I wrote in Bernie Sanders). You may not like it, but it’s completely understandable. Both candidates were more disliked than any other candidate in the history of the United States. The most liked candidate (Sanders) was left behind by the Democrats (or so it feels). People are frustrated (see “Anger & Fear” above) with the status quo, with what they feel is a rigged system, and the success of Trump along with the “inevitability” of Clinton led these voters to express themselves by choosing others as their candidates. We can’t avoid this happening if we truly want to live in a democratic society and the people who chose to do this are right to make that choice.

Neither of these issues can be solved through anger towards voters. The system we have in place that includes private organizations creating rules for who can be a candidate (political parties), the amount of money required to run for office, the reduction of polling places in certain areas, gerrymandering, the unraveling of the Voting Rights Act, the distribution of population, the size of our country, and the general feelings of the electorate all fed into turnout numbers and people’s decisions at the polls. We don’t correct those by blaming people. We correct those by looking at the triggers of human behavior and seeing if we can fix them. We can make it easier to vote. We can create public funds for campaigns. We can increase the number of political parties and change the rules for being included in debates. In short, if we want to experience an election where there are higher turnouts of people who are excited to vote, we need to make sure they are voting for things that make sense to them and can do it as easily as possible.

The media

It’s a standard truth of civics that a democracy (i.e., a society where government is chosen through a voting populace) requires an informed electorate. It is to this task that journalism — a portion of “the media” — is supposed to be bent. Journalism at its root should be informing the public about the activities of government, the goings-on of police, the happenings in their community. It should supply educated and opinion and perspective on those events, as well. Because of the importance of it, Thomas Jefferson once called newspaper “the fourth estate” of society, meaning that it should serve as a watchdog of the government, the merchants, and the people themselves. It is because of this importance that the First Amendment exists. Journalists must be allowed to speak freely in order to provide the fullest possible picture to their public. We all know, however, that this has not been true for some years.

News is big business and is handled by a handful of corporations who in some cases also own the means of distribution (Comcast, AT&T, ClearChannel). This narrowed ownership of distribution by big business creates a system that is about profit more more than it ever has been. While profit has always been required to ensure the existence of news, it’s a relatively recent endeavor to use the news to drive profit up (maybe in the last 75 years or so). The upshot of this is that the news covers only those things that a) ensure viewership/readership, b) do not anger corporate partners, and c) do not run afoul of advertising interests/investment partners.

Given these constraints, it is inevitable that journalism will begin to soften its reporting of controversial issues and increase coverage of things that “sell” their content. It’s generally known that people don’t like to be forced into thinking as much as they like seeing explosions, bad guys getting arrested, gossipy opinions, and the like. This kind of action moves the news industry away from the watchdog role envisioned by Jefferson, to a kind of entertainment that actually serves to dull the capacity of the electorate to understand what their government is doing and why.

So what can we do? Well, we could stop watching/reading/listening to the corporate owned news, for one. There are alternative options that did a pretty good job of reporting on controversy over the last two years or so. We can also avoid getting news from forums like DailyKOS, Reddit, or Facebook unless we understand the difference between fact and opinion (i.e. those sites provide user-generated content about events, so are always spun from a personal point of view). Also, we can report on news on our own through YouTube, Vimeo, TwitchTV, Periscope, WordPress, and other streaming and viewing sources. There are lots of resources online on how to do journalism (here’s a start), and there are groups available that provide the kind of legal protection afforded journalists. I’m a member of Investigative Reports and Editors (IRE) and their resources are pretty good. Just remember that journalism is not gossip, libel, or innuendo. It requires multiple points of view and research.

Wrap-up

In short, then, Trump’s election should not be a surprise to anyone. We are a country of anger and fear manipulated by stories told to us by a profit-driven media so that we either vote the way we’re “supposed to” or don’t vote at all. In this system, there is no room to blame the people or ourselves. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own actions, of course, but it is the system that generates the problems, and the problems will only go away if we change the system. Once we do that, once we can see the system for what it is, we can start to be more informed about the decisions we make.

Some final advice taken from, like, a ton of stuff I’ve written over the years:

  1. Focus locally. Hold your local politicians accountable for everything they do and say. If they falter, tell them. If they falter too much, vote them out.
  2. Think critically about what you read and what you are told. If it doesn’t make sense, or if you just want a second opinion, look somewhere else for the same story. Ask family or friends what they think.
  3. Never vote how you’re told. Vote the way you feel is best.
  4. Most importantly, never let anger or fear drive your decisions. Feeling anger and being afraid are normal emotions, but they also make it difficult for us to think and change our perspective on the world. Do fear or anger drive your decisions? If so, try to ask yourself why and take a pause

That’s it for now. Let’s see what we can salvage and where we can go from here. Don’t lose heart.

 

Political Speech and the Nature of Truth

Language is important. It is the medium through which humans engage with the universe, world, society, and each other. Without language, it has been argued, there would be no thought and therefore humanity as we know it would not be possible. The ability to use language is arguably the most important advantage humans have over other animals, and has contributed more directly than any other technology to our evolution and success/rampant rise as a species. Language is so necessary to our survival, in fact, that any person, entity, or agency responsible for using it in order to document events, or share news and information as they happen should be held to a much higher standard than it seems they currently are. This becomes especially important during key moments in the unfolding of history. Like right now.

The 2016 presidential elections are supremely important for many reasons, and because of that importance, the information necessary for voters to make informed decisions must be communicated clearly and without impediment. Unfortunately this year is no different than every other documented year on record since the beginning of human history as far as the manipulation of language goes.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article by Glenn Kessler claiming that Bernie Sanders was wrong in saying that Hillary Clinton called him unqualified to be president. NBC News under the authorship of Chuck Todd went so far as to paint Sanders as a liar. It all started with an interview between Clinton and Joe Scarborough. He asked if Clinton thought Sanders was unqualified, and she responded in a way that clearly implied her answer was yes, but without actually saying yes (emphasis mine).

SCARBOROUGH: But do you think he is qualified? And do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?
CLINTON: Well, let me put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job, both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.

So, what did Clinton say here? Well, knowing that the job of president is to understand and execute laws, and she said that Sanders doesn’t have that understanding, it seems that she said he’s not qualified. For example, if one was told after a job interview to be a chef, that “I think that what you’ve been saying about food isn’t rooted in an understanding on how to get meals made,” it would be clear that the interviewer felt you were unqualified. Being a chef requires an understanding of food in the same way being president requires an understanding of law and the execution of it. Clinton did what party line politicians have always done which is rather than use language to clearly address a question, she used it to protect herself and obfuscate her meaning. Since she never said the word “unqualified” she can claim innocence, when of course it’s clear what she means if it’s given a little thought.

Another note here is that all journalists are trained to understand the difference between saying and meaning. One of the core functions of a journalist is to extract meaning from statements in which it has been obfuscated. Kessler, Scarborough, Todd, and all of the other journalists who jumped on this bandwagon are culpable in the obfuscation of meaning by not calling it out and revealing the meaning behind what Clinton said. Sanders in fact was telling the truth when he claimed in Philedelphia that Clinton said he was unqualified. She did say it, because “saying” is the act of “utter[ing] words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling or intention”.

Of course, this kind of obfuscation is not new. This year is the 70th anniversary of one of George Orwell’s most enduring and relevant essays: Politics and the English Language. Within it, he analyzes and deconstructs political writing as a bastardization of language. Unfortunately, what he says is still wildly relevant (which he predicted).

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It is the job, then, of politicians and their cohorts to allude to truth without revealing it, to imply meaning without implicating themselves, and to obfuscate reality to benefit themselves and their goals. This was true for Orwell in 1946, and it’s true for us in 2016. And just as Orwell felt compelled to comment on the use of languge in his time, we need journalists and analysts now with the courage to comment on its use in ours. The use of language in this way masks truth and suppresses the search for real meaning. However, this pattern of language use can also be used to reveal those who are speaking the truth. Orwell again (emphasis mine):

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.

In other words, when that person appears among the political class who speaks clearly, who does not adhere to party lines, who is considered unorthodox and perhaps dangerous to the status quo, who is vivid with words and speech, it is a moment in which we should listen. It is a moment to recognize the differences and judge for ourselves whether what this outsider is saying is worthy of merit. This is the core of the process for seeking truth and meaning, and in the failure of the Fourth Estate to assist with this cause, we must do it on our own.

Seventy years following the publication of Orwell’s essay, we are being presented with an example of each of the kinds of political speakers he mentions. The one that adheres to party lines, orthodoxy, and an imitative style; who hides behind words in order to mask meaning. And the other who seems a rebel, but says what people feel is true; a vivid speaker and public figure who uses words to reveal meaning and values truth over political expediency and the language that goes with it.