Important note: The photographer is away in Utah, hiking through landscapes, reading worthy novels and eating chocolate. She did not choose the photographs here. Instead, I found them all in the crazy mixed-up files of Tracy J. Johnston. Reprinted without approval. Photos probably need tweaking to bring out maximum whatever. Thank you for your patience.
I heard Paul Ryan say something that (I say “heard”, although it very well could be “read”. I saw/heard/read it on television or radio or Twitter or Facebook or email, in links or soundbites or something. Media is fungible now, so that data might have come from a Facebook link to a news program taped for television that I saw on my phone, or an email link to a photograph found on Instagram posted in response to a tweet — I mean, really, who can remember? I try to curate my data by reliability, but I still get fooled. So, anyway, Paul Ryan — I think I need to start the sentence again).
I heard Paul Ryan say, “we will end the nightmare of Obamacare.” I thought: In what sense is Obamacare a nightmare? Ten million people got healthcare coverage who did not have it before. Ten million! And maybe 24 million will lose health insurance under Ryan + Trump care — Rumpcare. Twenty-four million! And Obamacare is a nightmare because costs are going up? Well, hell, everything is going up. Maybe cut-throat capitalism has not come to Niggardly Patriarch, Wisconsin, but everywhere else prices are rising. Maybe what you mean is that employers will save money because Rumpcare doesn’t require them to provide health care. Is that the real reason, bucko? You are SLIME. You want to thrust some hastily created liver sandwich of a health care plan into the mouths of consumers because it fits with your loony demonstrably untrue economic philosophy. Do you understand that you are creating DEAD PEOPLE? You are MURDERING VETERANS. You are telling the parents of special needs kids to FUCK OFF. Well, you FUCK OFF, you soulless TWIT. I’d like to set fire to a bag of shit right by YOUR FRONT DOOR AND —
Rage is a useless emotion. It may be an appropriate emotion, but it scrambles your brain. It is so intense that it makes you feel like you’re doing something. And you’re not. This whole Trump/Ryan/Bannon thing is a complicated problem with no apparent solution. So get it out of your system and move on. Be calm. Don’t rant. Destroying paradigms is the best revenge.
We have been stupid. Kellyanne Conway kneels on a White House couch, and the leftist Internet goes crazy. Because why? Dunno. Professional women take their shoes off frequently, and hooray. I blame the shoes, and the catastrophic harm done to women’s feet. And, like, does this have anything to do with the new criminalization of Muslims, or the forming of ICE into a paramilitary unit, or the sanctioned pollution of our rivers?
And what about Neil Gorsuch, the presumptive Supreme Court justice? He’s not crazy and probably competent. That’s the best we’re going to get from this administration. “Not crazy and probably competent” is a low bar, but it’s one we’re stuck with. Anyone Donald Trump nominates is going to be toxic; we have to decide between levels of toxicity. This guy is fine. The Trump administration has issued 100 loathsome orders; go attack one of those. Do you know what Ben Carson is doing? (So far, nothing, but he’s entirely disconnected from reality, so pay attention.)
Also, and I say this with sadness: Satire is a trap. I love satire; I’ve even been known to write satire. But it somehow makes you feel like you’ve won. You have said that the emperor has no clothes. Alas, the emperor stopped claiming he was wearing clothes months ago. Satire feeds on stupidity and hypocrisy, and the Trump administration is a superfund site of stupidity and hypocrisy.
We do irony so well. Alas, the country is not so enamored of irony. What its citizens want are solutions, and they haven’t gotten them for a very long time. They’re poor. Their lives suck. The people making fun of them are, by and large, richer than they are. Oops, we appear to be on the wrong side of class warfare! It’s hard to get up and say, “but I give money to Doctors Without Borders!” and expect that to make the deplorables perk up.
We can be clever — strike that, we are clever — but it always seems like the job is finished when you tweet (or say, or whatever — media is fungible) something devastating. There, killed that dragon! But sadly, no. Dragon still there. See, here’s something else I’m sure of: Satire is one of the shapes fear takes. It’s a soothing practice, like meditation except angrier. What we need are non-ironic smarts. What we need is intellectual courage.
I think there’s a prism that liberals have, a particular way of understanding the world. We tend to look at social issues in a fact-based way. Let’s collect the data; let’s massage the data. We believe in progress, solutions, outreach, partnership. But how about someone who is unlike us?
What if someone looks at social issues in a revenge-based way?
I think that’s what the Democratic Party is facing. It talked about inclusion, but it didn’t include anyone who wasn’t already included. The party (and the candidate) talked in worthy buzz-phrases like “a nation of immigrants” or “a woman’s right to choose” or “embrace diversity.” I believe in all those things, but I am not the target audience. Presumably, the campaign is designed to sway people who are not voting for you to vote for you. That’s the whole point. If campaign rallies are just going to be self-congratulatory hug-a-thons, there ain’t gonna be a lot of people under that alleged big tent.
Yes, yes, Hillary won the popular vote by 3 million — although she didn’t win the election, which was her job. But that’s not the scandal. The scandal is that over 62 million people voted for Donald Trump. I suspect a lot of people who voted for him knew he’d be a terrible president, but boy would he piss off the people who made fun of them.
This election should have been a slam dunk. Obama in 2008 won Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and North Carolina, running against a war hero. Hillary ran against a brainless crazy person, and she failed to win any of those states. She spent a whole lot of time saying bad things about Donald Trump, apparently unaware that stirred up an enormous amount of resentment. Trump was improbably running as the plucky underdog. She made fun of Trump. A lot. (Don’t think so? Check this out.) Probably not a good idea, however much he deserved it.
So do not tell me the Democratic Party is fine because Hillary won the popular vote. It’s not fine. The people who identify themselves as Democrats are not fine. We’re LOSING. We can applaud ourselves for fighting whatever good fight we fought this week, but we’re still
I would very much like to stop doing that. The Democrats seem to be impotent. There was a big Women’s March; the party should have had a presence. Hell, it should have organized it. Ditto the Day Without Immigrants. But no, the major work of the #Resistance is being done by motivated citizens outside the party framework. And those folks will need a candidate, because we need humans to stand for office and figure out how to start
The old ideas are good. Justice, compassion, generosity, peace, science — I can get behind those. Love instead of fear? Rah rah rah. But our messaging sucks. You know that liberal media y’all have been hearing about? They don’t seem to know much about actual communication with actual humans. People who have not bought into this consensus (indeed, people who feel that they have not even been invited to play) need a new vocabulary, a new way of framing these familiar ideals in a way that doesn’t stink of bureaucratic euphemisms. The demagogic blandishments of the other side are so strong that some of Trump’s strongest supporters are the people who will be screwed by Rumpcare. How can this be? Doesn’t the Constitution assume that self interest will be a reliable motive? But no. Racism is of course part of the problem, but racism is only cured by a change of geography and a few generations of time.
So our job is to get the non-racists to discern where their self interest lies. If Grandma died of liver cancer because of the pathogens in her drinking water — maybe that could be the clinching argument. Worth a shot, anyway.
We need brainpower. We need to get inside of personal Ideatrons and brainstorm our way to a better tomorrow. Should we be all stealthy and work on state legislature races? Should we find a candidate for president who is not tied to the old Democratic Party? How will we talk about our ideas in a way that doesn’t make people feel stupid for even having questions? Showing up and marching is excellent, and I urge you to do it. But thinking new smart things is also good.
You know what the box looks like. Think outside it.
I actually do know that “media” is the plural of “medium,” and that the verbs attached to “media” should treat it as a plural noun. On the other hand, those rules come from Latin, and I am writing in English. My ear thinks that “media” in English is sometimes plural and sometimes singular, an idea that drives copy editors crazy. But English frequently outpaces its rules, and I love to watch it gambol.
“To some extent, the clash with the press was inevitable. Mr. Trump may be noisier and more confrontational than many of his predecessors, but he is being force-fed lessons all presidents eventually learn — that the iron triangle of the Washington press corps, West Wing staff and federal bureaucracy is simply too powerful to bully.”
I’d hate to see this allegedly unbreakable alliance, this alleged iron triangle, undergo a prolonged stress test. It might occur to the federal workers, both inside and outside the White House, that their paychecks are more important than their contacts with the press. I know that the Trump administration seems scattered and incompetent but, as we have seen on our borders, scattered and incompetent can do real damage to real people.
The press shouldn’t be quite so sure of itself. It’s been smug before; it’s been arrogant before; suddenly it’s in the fight of its life, and it turns out not to have as many supporters as it thought it did.
Certainly that has partly to do with the White House’s persistent disinformation campaign, characterizing the fact-laden Trump-skeptical media as “fake news”. (One believes strongly that this vociferous campaign was initiated because Trump does have something to hide, probably about Russia). But the press was pissing people off long before Donald Trump got involved.
Here’s the thing. The media were given a gift. Call it The Information. That’s why “freedom of the press” was written into the Constitution; what they meant, of course, was Freedom of the Information, but the press was the sole custodian of the Information. That’s why it was sacred; that’s why it wasn’t just another business in what would become the greatest capitalist society on earth.
(I like to think of The Information as one of those glowing oblong presents from a distant civilization, floating a mile above earth and casting a large shadow. A disembodied voice — with an English accent — says, “it can be used for good or ill, people of earth. Choose carefully.” Then The Information scatters into a billion sparkly bits and falls like new snow on all the creatures of the earth. And only man screws it up.)
In the nineteenth century, the media thrived because it was the only one that had The Information. It could decide what was clean data and what was not. Also, it could bring the country together by showing a community of values, as well as a community of facts.
The model was one-to-many. One large bullhorn; many passive listeners. The Information was something that happened to you. It required trust. But that was OK; if the media said that the transcontinental railroad had been completed, or that Grover Cleveland had been elected president, or that black savages had attacked a blameless white woman, they were believed.
You see what I’m getting at here?
It’s hard to blame the 19th Century media for being so, well, 19th Century. But, clearly, the media was the media of the white elites. Then there was a shift in the country, and the media lagged behind by decades. At the start of the war in Vietnam, the media were all for it.
The media didn’t realize that the information was already floating free. It had been floating free for decades, gradually expanding from the immigrant communities, painting a different picture of America. Black people found their voice; sexual and ethnic minorities found a home in some elite institutions. That information finally reached the people in power, and the media shivered in the long grass and raised its head.
Stewart Brand once wrote: “Information wants to be free.” At the time, I think, it was mostly a flash of insight rather than any kind of predictive or cautionary pronouncement. He said that at the dawn of the internet, and the internet is what finally took the constraints off information. That’s a banality now; for the media then, it was just a distant bell tolling into mostly deaf ears.
“No, no,” they said. “The Information is still ours. God gave it to us to promulgate and define and analyze and protect. Our Information is the true information.” But it wasn’t, and it hadn’t been for a while. The media confused information with facts, but the information was never facts. It was always rumors, feelings and lies too. That’s what careened madly in cyberspace. That was information, wanting to be free.
The media had to share its gift, the gift that it had disrespected since the dawn of our nation. The media had always trafficked in received wisdom and common hallucinations. It never did the work to free itself from its assumptions. It’s hard work; I know that. But a great gift always demands great effort. Our nation had a great gift, a true functioning democracy. But it was ruined by racism and imperialism, and now we are not special, despite the ongoing yelps of American exceptionalism.
Live by the gift; die by the gift.
Let’s talk about the election that will live longer in infamy than Bush v. Gore. You remember the one, where the media got everything wrong, from polling methodology to a sense of the electorate. They had information, but it was bogus. They knew what sensible people knew, what educated people knew, what people who still thought that New York was the information capital of the country knew. But the Information had been redistributed.
The media knew Donald Trump was a clown, but he delivered the ratings. He brought readership up. Every speech in Grassy Shades, Iowa, was covered live by four, five, SIX channels. Clown show! Funny! Give him free publicity, lots of free publicity. He’s an outrage-spouting machine! Chatter chatter chatter. Hey, it was good for everyone. CNN, the network Trump now despises, made good coin off his race-baiting. And so the media became the indicted co-conspirators in the election of Donald Trump. Clueless conspirators, too, because they still all thought Hillary would win.
They gave Trump the Information. They gave Trump the gift.
Trump gathered up the strands of the information. He liked facts if they made him look good. He liked the lies if they made him look better. He encouraged magical thinking. He encouraged bigoted thinking. He encouraged anything that redounded to the glory of Trump.
For our purposes, it does not matter that the Trump voters were wrong about the major issues. (They’d been lied to by religious demagogues who kept getting elected by keeping their voters stupid). Climate change is real; immigrants do not kill people more than non-immigrants; there is no voter ID scandal; Hillary Clinton’s emails were not evidence of corruption, or Satanism, or pedophilia.
But their wrongness was not the point; reporters report what’s going on, and what was real was what animated the base. You have to report on what the people are feeling, not just those emotions you approve of. “Truthiness” is a lovely word for a lovely concept, but it is not an excuse for lousy reporting. How did Trump voters view the world? What were they saying among themselves? That’s a story. That’s some information. Maybe it’s distasteful to your delicate sensibilities, but it’s what’s going on.
It’s hard to talk about racism. It seems impolite to accuse someone of racism. Racial slurs: So tacky. But if racism is what’s going on, then you better talk about it, bucko. If hating Obamacare is all about hating a black president (and, really, it must be), then say that. Liberals think that by wiping prejudice out of the language, they wipe it out of the culture. Nope. Forget for a moment about speaking truth to power; how about speaking truth to us?
If someone had done that, maybe someone would not have been surprised. If someone had known about that earlier, maybe someone would have had a firmer grip on reality. For people so prideful about their proximity to the truth, the media were surprisingly deep in a fantasy world.
(I hope it is clear that I am including myself in all this. I had a platform, but I didn’t think it was my job to move out of my comfortable belief system. Maybe it should have been, after all. Maybe I was cavalier with the gift. In fact, let’s say I was. I was. My bad.)
The media no longer have control of the Information. But they still have some of the gift left. They don’t have a clue — we none us have a clue yet. If we’re all going to be partners in this adventure in democracy, fine. But if you’re still going to spend a lot of time demonstrating how very cool you are, then prattle on somewhere else.
And stop telling me about iron triangles. Do you really think there’s an iron anything around D.C. just now? We have a government that doesn’t know how to govern, and all bets are off. But hey, go find the information. It’s gotta be there. Please find it. We do need you, and we sort of trust you some of the time, but you gotta do a better job.