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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Trump's Trolls

A recent article in the Atlantic about Trump adviser Stephen Miller has forced me to re-examine his tactics as a politician. Because for certain, though 45 seems to beclown himself at every turn, Donald Trump (or at least the people who advise him) is an extraordinarily canny media manipulator. It's time to gird our egos against the fact that Donald Trump, and the people behind him, are not stupid. They may even be smarter than we are, and they are definitely winning. His rudeness is a ruse, and we are being played by assholes mistaken for morons.
When he was in high school, Stephen Miller was running for student government and asked his fellow students: "Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?" John Oliver ran a clip of this on his show, to jeers from his audience and a punchline comparing Miller to a minion. It may seem as though Oliver got one up on him, only if you discount that this is exactly the reaction Miller wanted. He admitted as much in his Atlantic interview. By responding with smug outrage, his fellow students--and John Oliver, and those of us who laughed with him--are following a script Stephen Miller himself has spent years writing.

Those of us with a moral centre have a hard time accepting this. We've been taught that nice guys win. That disrespect is intolerable. Faced with a person who does not want to be liked, we convince ourselves that they do really care what they think, and are just socially incompetent. In this way we can feel superior to the Stephen Millers and Donald Trumps of the world, consoling ourselves with the belief that they must be stupid.

Donald Trump won the election, despite a host of outrages that I'm sure I don't need to remind you of here, and his base continues to support him through scandal after scandal. Your liberal tears are not Republican Kryptonite. If they were, Trump and his cronies would not be harvesting them so diligently. And they are harvesting them. None of this is accidental.

Consider the G7 which ran June 8-9 this year (the precise dates are actually important). The summit was played in the media as a disaster for President Trump. And though it was certainly a disaster for America's standing in the free world, there is no reason to believe it played out any way other than how Trump and co. intended.

The G7 is not a surprise, impromptu gathering. These summits happen annually and their dates and locations are agreed upon far in advance. Meaning Trump's decision on June 1st to not exempt key allies from steel and aluminum tariffs barely a week before the summit was an engineered insult, and not merely a buffoon falling ass-backwards into international outrage. So agrees Bruce Heyman, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada. Appearing on The Agenda With Steve Paikin he said:
"Of course a lot of the allies were shocked over this, but said of course we're going to have to respond and retaliate. And the White House sat there and pretended to be shocked by that. I think it was...it had to be anticipated."

Heyman goes further, regarding Trump's incediary tweet after the Prime Minister politely reaffirmed that he would retaliate with tariffs, he adds --"[He] could have just come out and said 'Thank You' to everyone for coming, and I think that they would have sent that tweet out and been upset because I think it was staged."

Trump showed up to the summit late and made it his first priority to ask that Russia be readmitted to the "G8", knowing full well there was no way that request would be granted. The G8 became the G7 when Russia invaded Crimea. Putin has not returned the disputed territory, and in the mean time has been interfering in elections, shooting down passenger jets and poisoning people on British soil. We know this. It's time to recognize that Trump also knows this, and begin by asking ourselves what he has to gain from it.

Trump adviser David Navarro more or less admitted the G7 fiasco was a calculated show of strength to impress the leader of North Korea, though Donald Trump also never shies away from a chance to appear under attack by a biased media, who seemed to take the bait and accept that Trump really is dumb enough to expect the G7 to forsake their own trade interests and forgive Russia just because he asked.

The latest "scandal" just wrapped up on the border: 2,300 children separated from their parents and caged in facilities which include an abandoned WalMart, sleeping on the floor under thermal blankets, all for the crime of fleeing a home country torn apart by war and gang violence.
Cable news airwaves filled up with heartrending footage of children in cages. The U.N. Human Rights Council condemned it (the U.S. responded by withdrawing, claiming that in doing so they were defending Israel).  It was a public relations nightmare. A humanitarian disgrace.

And also the best thing that's happened to the Trump camp all year.

It's difficult to imagine how a democratically elected person could benefit from such callous, cruel behaviour out in the open. But lets give it a shot: Trump has made so many false statements, it gets hard to distinguish the truly dangerous from the merely annoying  or silly (especially when so many people are determined to have a laugh at his supposed stupidity). But this one is important: There is no evidence to support his claim that millions of people are voting illegally. And yet in the dark recesses of the internet, the belief sunk its claws into a substantial slice of the voting public, so much so that CNN was able to find so called "normal" Americans who believed it when they did a round table discussion with Trump voters.

He went on: Through this humanitarian nightmare, American T.V.s are now covered in images of illegal immigrants. News anchors urgently emphasize the staggering number of children being held: after only six weeks of enforcing their "zero tolerance" policy, more than two thousand children have been separated from their parents. Democratic lawmakers make a show of trying to gain access to the facilities holding them only to be turned away. Recall that another of Donald Trump's favorite tropes is the idea that Democrats are soft on immigration because they want the illegals to vote for them (in the millions, or so he would have you believe).

One needn't seek out shady Facebook links anymore. The "proof" is broadcast twenty four hours a day by the most trusted name in news. 2,000 children, they say. Well there must be at least 10,000 adults, one might reason. And in only six weeks! Cable news and Liberal outrage have brought scores of illegal immigrants to the forefront of America's mind, lending credence to the premise of Trump's falsehoods: We are flooded with illegals. The Democrats and the media reveal that their true allegiance lies exactly where Trump voters always guessed it did.

Sure, they don't want to see children suffer. Trump said so himself when he made a show of signing an executive order meant to end this nightmare. He claims credit for cleaning up a mess he created, then blamed on Democrats. The real coup is that for the last two weeks the White House has watched their supposed enemies fill the airwaves with "proof" that illegals are, in fact, flooding the country. And that the Democrats do, in fact, feel more kinship to them than "real" Americans.

Are we to keep believing that Trump and his trolls are actually morons, who lucked into this, and every other victory they've had? That one can actually blunder into the White House?
No reasonable person can deny that the Trump administration engineers outrage as a prop. His top adviser admitted as much in his Atlantic profile. Its time to think seriously about what they're gaining from it. It may be hard to accept that you could be outmatched by someone so wholly repugnant, and yet every day it seems clearer that we are all reading from a script written in his hand.

What is there to do then? Should we not stand up to cruelty? Should we keep silent as he alienates allies and cozies up to dictators? Turn a blind eye to racism? Sexism? Corrption?

I don't know. A person this anti-social is hard to outplay because they are willing to do things that decent people wouldn't do. At the very least we would do well to distinguish between scandals generated by Trump himself (i.e. the G7), which can be shown time and time again to be stunts, and the scandals unearthed by other people (i.e. Stormy Daniels, The Trump Foundation, The Steele Dossier). It's hard to say "Don't feed the trolls" when they have 2,300 children in captivity, plus  the nuclear codes and control of your economy. An amendment, then: Don't feed the troll what its asking for.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Daily Show Was Awesome on Thursday!


Seriously! On Thursday! Like...better than Jon Stewart really really good.

I have serious anxiety regarding the state of news today, and the fact that we all live in a self-imposed facebook bubble of news articles and opinions, whose sole qualifying feature is that they align with our own slanted view of the world.

Trevor Noah and co. more or less solved this by simply bringing the most popular purveyor of toxic right wing rhetoric into to the open. Not that she was an official guest on the show, but Tomi (ryhmes with "Nomi" because God has a smug sense of humour too) was shown in clips, (and Trevor inserted to her vitriol via CGI). The simple act of showing this second rate "news" personality alongside actual production values and a poised, charismatic host was the equivalent of seeing the Emperor undressed.

Which brings me to the conclusion that these facebook people- liberal, conservative and crazy, just need to get together in the same room, with Trevor Noah politely moderating, so that they, and their audience can see how deeply unworthy they are of their audience and the medium that brought it to them.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

20 Years Young: Why South Park Never Gets Old (and Cartman is the greatest character in the history of satire)

The first time I saw South Park, I was seven years old and I didn't get it. The episode was "Tom's Rhinoplasty," where fourth grade teacher Mr. Garrison gets plastic surgery and leaves town to become a model, while the boys - Kenny, Cartman, Kyle and Stan - fall in love with their lesbian substitute teacher.

Like the boys in the show, I was too young to understand references to "eating box" or "licking carpet", and did not understand the humour of Cartman and Kyle doing - literally - those things, thinking it will turn them into lesbians and earn Ms. Ellen's affection. 

I did understand the quirky humour of Mr. Garrison's nose job consisting of simply pasting a photo of David Hasslehoff's face onto his cartoon body, though:

Watching cartoon children cuss and learn about anal probing aliens has to get old, but at the same time as the kids who delighted in watching Kenny die each week started to lose interest, I was maturing enough to recognize the genuine subversive wit in almost every episode.

The show was always subversive in a crass, simplistic way, primed for an adolescent audience, by privileging the perspective of snot nosed kids who embraced it for its irreverence for authority. But it was also a sophisticated satire with a focus on human nature and what's wrong with the world.

In later seasons, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have tipped their hand and foregrounded the Serious Issues that have seemingly always fascinated them - even when the boys were licking carpet. To appreciate this, consider their most famous character: Eric Cartman, who has gone from school bully, to psychopath to, seriously mentally ill person, all in the run of one simple two dimensional cartoon.

South Park's very long run has allowed Parker and Stone to flesh out Cartman's cruelty into a bona-fide mental illness brought on by years of self loathing.

In season 1 when the Antichrist comes to South Park and finds the other kids don't like him, Pip explains "I think they make fun of the fat boy a lot too...but now I think they like him because he picks on me."

 In the classic, "Cartman's Mom is  a Dirty Slut" from season 1, we are privvy to this exchange:

Kyle: Mr. Mackey, something's really wrong with Cartman.
Mr. Mackey: (sarcastic) Oh, well there's a news flash!
Stan: No, no. We saw him a having a tea party with his stuffed animals.
Kyle: Yeah, he was doing their voices and pouring tea for them.
Mr. Mackey: Oooh okay, Eric is obviously suffering from some kind of emotional distress, mkay?
This is never not funny, especially when Mackey asks Kyle to film Eric's tea party without his knowledge and responds to Kyle's question of whether that's legal with an over-enthusiastic, "Oh hell yes!"

Cartman's tea party proceeds as follows:

Cartman: My goodness, that's a lovely dress you are wearing, Polly Prissy Pants.
Polly: Oh, thank you, Eric. You are a perfect gentleman, and you are smart and true.
Peter: Yes, Eric, you are strong and smart and true. Everybody likes you very much.
Cartman: That's niiice, Peter Panda...More tea, Rumpertumskin?
Rumpertumskin: Yes, please, Eric. You are tough and handsome.
Cartman: Thank you, Rumpertumskin. And what do you think about me, Clyde Frog?
Clyde: I think you're a big fat piece of crap.
Fourteen whole years later, Clyde, Polly, and Rumpertumskin return. After his poor fitness scores force the whole school to take extra phys ed classes, Eric is convinced another student is killing his stuffed animals as retribution, only to find that he, in a state of psychosis, is the one destroying is beloved imaginary friends.

"They were holding us back!" he says, in Polly Prissypants' voice, when he confronts her, "All the kids making fun of you at school, saying you're not keewl! Your stuffed animals all have to be gotten rid of, don't you see?!"

The point is that South Park has used its longevity to turn a simplistic dirty cartoon into something sophisticated and gut wrenching. Al the while, the wasteland of Eric Cartman's soul is as ripe for comedy and scorn as the substitute teacher who doesn't wear a bra (aka "Ms. Chokesondick").

In doing so, South Park has also been able to sidestep one potential pitfall of satire: that is, that a certain slice of the audience  will think  the venal, anti-semetic, racist, sexist, all-purposes-awful Eric Cartman, is actually the hero, a harmless sort of scoundrel who we're supposed to identify with (They're called "South Park Republicans").

Sociologists who've studied satire have found that this is often the case with the most iconic, "progressive" American satires. Archie Bunker - who Parker once said was an inspiration for Cartman - was supposed to satirize racist Americans in the 70s, but many of those same Americans felt they were sharing a laugh and being accepted by the broader culture.

South Park is particularly ripe for accusations of racism - what with the sole black child being named "Token" and every other ethnicity (though particularly Asians) depicted as the most broad, offensive stereotypes imaginable. But in Eric Cartman, it also has the single greatest character for critiquing white male privilege (among many, many other things).

Many Republicans saw the old Stephen Colbert on comedy central - a man who played in character as a right wing blowhard to highlight the flaws in their ideology - as a man who represents them, even as the man himself is a liberal who thought he was taking them down (no doubt this is how he ended up eviscerating George W. Bush to his face at the White House Correspondents dinner in 2006). Cartman is special, though, because of all the ways Parker and Stone go out of their way to show that he is broken and pathetic in ways that Bunker and Colbert never were.

To really appreciate just how far they've come though, I look back at "Tom's Rhinoplasty" where Mr. Garrison gets the face of David Hasslehoff and learns that being beautiful brings with it as many (fake) problems as being plain did, and Cartman eats a cardboard box in the misguided belief that it will make him a lesbian. Crude, yes. Absurd, definitely. But the message of the episode seemed to be that we shouldn't obsess over changing ourselves to be a attractive to others. Thinking a nose job will make you happy is about as ridiculous as pasting David Hasslehoff's head onto a cartoon body, and no one can make themselves into the object of someone else's desire, particularly if they don't really understand what that person desires in the first place (i.e. the boys trying to become lesbians).

The B-plot of that episode is that Wendy Testerberger, being jealous of Ms. Ellen for stealing the affection of her "boyfriend" Stan, plots to destroy the other woman. It's an amusing and sort of cruel referendum on female jealousy. Compare that to "The Hobbit" in season 17, where Wendy (generally a sympathetic character outside of the time she had Ms. Ellen loaded onto a rocket and fired into the sun) - goes on a crusade against Photoshop, leading all the other girls (and Kanye West) to label her as a jealous hater.

In that episode, all the girls at South Park elementary can be called beautiful, as long as they have a photoshopped picture of themselves that they can show people, to distract from the reality. In this world, true beauty and character become irrelevant when it can be faked on the computer. Wendy begins a crusade against this phoniness, then finally gives in with a tear in her eye.

Its the single greatest argument for South Park as not only a genius delivery system for highly relevant satire, but one that's actually gotten better with age.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Why the Facebook News feed is what's wrong with America

Jon Stewart was a master at criticizing a now obsolete delivery system for news. When he took to the Daily Show in the nineties, cable news was the fountainhead from which most peoples' perception of current events sprung. He did a masterful job in highlighting how the 24 hour news cycle thrived on making us dumber, which in turn explained why Americans were so susceptible to manipulation by politicians, corporations, religion, et. al.

His departure from The Daily Show was duly mourned, and I doubt we'll see another like him. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Because cable news' time has passed. It's still where we turn to hear about big events - mass shootings, political conventions, and other tire fires - but not where the meat of our understanding-or lackthereof- comes from. That would be the internet - a jungle of facts, figures and opinions from which we can choose which narrative we wish to believe, then disseminate it among an imagined network of "friends" through social media.

If Cable News was a tabloid magazine - a glamorized, exaggerated vision of real life, overselling drama at the expense of context (or credibility). The internet is a "choose your own adventure" novel. That cable news, and the various other instruments of media manipulation have dumbed down our expectations for current events does not improve things.

"Truthiness" is the word Stephen Colbert coined to describe the intellectual dry rot that had settled into American media by the mid 2000s - that is, how we give something that feels true equal consideration to something that is true. You don't need technical psycho-mumbo-jumbo to understand this concept, just click on any polarizing "trending" topic on Facebook and read the headlines of articles people are linking to.

Generally it looks like this: Person A, writes a few words about how they feel, then link to an article which supports that feeling. Something like these:

Both of those articles are bullshit. This is something that has to be recognized, whether you agree with the feeling that caused them or not.

Republicans who threatened to boycott Bradley Cooper's movies after he appeared at the DNC did not do so because they "can't tell the difference between movies and real life". Such a person would be certifiably mentally incompetent. They did it because 1) they learned Bradley Cooper has a different political orientation than they do, and 2) This is particularly egregious because he achieved the greatest financial and critical success of his career by playing staunch republican Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Whether you agree with these people or not, is up for debate, but first we have to be debating actual people, not a cartoon caricature drawn up by a Huffington Post that tries to maximize clicks by being witty. The news is not witty. An editorial can be witty. And an editorial absolutely cannot be confused with news if you want to be a functioning, intelligent contributor to society.

On the other side, a contributor to The Hill claims Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen soldier who gave a moving anti-Trump speech at the DNC, was "tricked" into his appearance. The suggestion that this educated man somehow he didn't realize his grief would be politicized at a political convention is absurd, condescending and ridiculous. It's an argument that can only be made by someone who is just about to realize they are out of logical arguments, and must invent things to justify their gut feeling.  Since Khan was sympathetic, eloquent, and morally unimpeachable, they cannot posit that anything he said was wrong, so they attack Hillary Clinton for using him for the wrong reasons.

In either case it's clear that the authors of such pieces were less interested in informing the public about current events than reassuring people of their gut feelings. The problem with this is that everyone who doesn't already agree them feels misunderstood, mocked and angry.

Imagine going into a store, where the salesperson says to you: "That dress makes you look fat. Buy this - it's more slimming." That person does not make the sale. No matter how accurate their summation of your appearance, most people will refuse to listen to a person who insults them. And thus does the country become more divided.

The reality is that we aren't helping. Ideology, and politics are salesmanship. You are trying to get someone to "buy" your opinion - be it that progress necessitates racial equality, or that racial equality is a threat to national security. Insulting the customer rarely helps.

Though I could sincerely point out that Khizr Khan was not "used" or "tricked" by the Democratic party - no Muslim has to be tricked into disliking Donald Trump, particularly not a grieving parent who feels his son's memory is insulted by the candidate - any more than anyone else who stumps at a political convention, I would rather criticize my people for taking their eyes off the ball. I can't fully grasp the ugliness that has led to Donald Trump's candidacy, but would like to. Depicting his supporters as a rash of idiots feeds their distrust of the "main stream media", such that people feel that news items which don't support their beliefs are hiding something from them. And the internet is always there to offer a comforting assurance that they were right.

See Trump never kicked a baby out of his rally! The lefties who read the articles on Huffpo or Rolling Stone or wherever else that incorrectly cited that he did probably know this. "He didn't kick the mother out, he was just a jerk to her.". "He was definitely joking when he said 'get the baby out of here', but his mocking the mother for believing he liked it was sincere'.". It doesn't show he hates babies, it shows he's an asshole.

This is eerily similar to the way Trump supporters explain some of his more incendiary proclamations as "sarcasm".  News, like a presidential candidate, is supposed to tell you what actually happened, but we no longer expect it to. On social media, at least, it is a tool for asserting our rightness, for affirming our beliefs by highlighting the multitudes who share them. Not for learning. Not for questioning.

Thus, many now claim as "news" any article supporting their already held beliefs, and are living in a completely different world from their neighbors. The problem is that you can't determine whether your beliefs are right or wrong without thoughtful debate, but who can debate when the facts themselves cannot even be agreed upon.

I'm a liberal, but if the left is more determined to be smug than useful, they are part of the problem. And both sides exist in their own bubble, obstinately refusing to recognize the other side as made up of thinking human beings . On the left I blame vanity, on the right I blame fear and insecurity. But either way, nobody's helping.

Monday, 25 July 2016

How Donald Trump became the voice of my generation:

That the internet has radically transformed society is generally accepted with a sense of bemused attachment: it used to take hours or days to send someone a message which today can be accomplished in the blink of an eye.  You had to get your news from the Godheads on TV, or the editors of a daily newspaper. Now everyone is an editor, everyone is a receiver and transmitter of the latest trends.

Where people are quick to realise that the internet has changed the way we live, fewer people acknowledge that it has actually changed us. In this day and age, there is no more news. Only editorials, delivered by average Joes who feel compelled to own current events by commenting on them, folding them into a meme which they can share, a borrowed online identity.

What really matters is I'm witty and I like dogs.

How often do you see a tweet with a simple statement of fact: "There is so much lead in Flint's water the mayor has declared a state of emergency", versus a statement of opinion: "So tragic what's happening in Flint right now."

The right or wrong opinion isn't the issue. The issue is that facts have been superseded by opinions. which have become the currency of modern life. Because you can't own a fact in the way that you can own a quip.

Remember this next time you try to diffuse a Trump supporter by explaining that forcing South Korea to pay for America's military presence there will cause the U.S.A. to lose its strategic influence in Asia. This is a language that's going extinct. Where once upon a time, people watched the news to keep informed, and discussed it around the water cooler, my generation looks to the news as an accessory to our online profiles.

The November attacks in Paris weren't an example of 20th century foreign policy disasters in the Middle East coming home to roost. Nor were they an exemplar of why terrorism is the weapon of choice for militants who don't have the resources to fight an open battle (scaring your enemies into expending their own resources to prevent small scale attacks is far more cost effective). It was a chance for us to add a red, white and blue filter to our Profile picture - as a statement of solidarity with the French people, but also a reminder that we are Very. Passionate. About. World. Events. People., #BlackLivesMatter.

Today, news only has value insofar as it can be co-opted into our online identity. We are ever on the lookout for something to enrage us, to inspire us, to promote us. The thing that media has now more than ever has before is that very thing: "us". Social Media isn't about facts. It's about identities.

Psychologists among you know what happens when "facts" and "identities" intermingle. It's called cognitive dissonance and it's a motherfucker.

The old top-down method of information had its share of problems - mainly that the person who owns the network/newspaper effectively owned the flow of information, and had it in them to misrepresent people or events in an arena where they couldn't be challenged. But the benefit was that the people doing the reporting were expected to know what they were talking about, and voters made decisions based on generally agreed upon events.
People on either side of the debate decry the "slant" in the media's depiction of their demagogues, but fail to acknowledge that their outcry itself is an act of slant. Donald Trump surely would not have gotten the media coverage he had in the primaries if the networks weren't keenly aware of how eager viewers were to get angry. More qualified candidates like Chris Christie wouldn't have had to elbow in for airtime.

Donald Trump's signature characteristic is his narcissism, which makes him the perfect candidate for our age. To clarify: to be narcissistic is not to be conceited, though people often use those expressions as if they are interchangeable. A person who's conceited thinks they're better than you, assumes you also think this, and acts accordingly. These people are assholes.

A narcissist, on the other hand, is mentally ill. Though they can appear conceited, the main divider between narcissists and the rest of us is that they don't perceive a boundary between themselves and their surroundings.

"We are the world" is the quintessential summation of what makes narcissists different from healthy human beings, and it's also the reason they can be so charming. Narcissists may appear at first to be deeply caring, open people, willing to do anything to help their fellow man - because their fellow man is, in their mind, just an extension of themselves.

This becomes a problem when your fellow man's interests diverge with your own. And it becomes disastrous when a person with such a twisted view of reality is empowered to control situations that have confounded better minds for decades in their complexity. For the narcissist, everything is about them.  If Mexicans are coming into America, it's because they want to steal your job and rape your sister, not because they're running away from violence or deep-seated economic issues in their own country.

South Korea is benefitting from American Military presence in their country, therefore they should pay for it. Forget that American presence there protects our interests in a continent which otherwise would be ceded completely to Chinese and Russian influence. Any solution that doesn't centre around the narcissist's vision of themselves as the centre of the universe will not be considered.

That Donald Trump is utterly unfit for office is understood by a great many pundits and protestors, who continue to shake their heads in wonderment at how he got this far. But actually, he is the perfect candidate for our times. Social Media has primed the pump for a Trump presidency better than the Donald himself ever could. Ten years ago, the ascension of this man, based on his current method of campaigning, would be as unthinkable as photographing food and expecting your friends to look at it.

But here we are.

I've heard a lot of talk about how my generation is the feeling generation, since we are so interconnected and care so deeply about social causes. But what does caring really look like for a narcissist?

It looks a bit like our response to Kony 2012. You may recall a video highlighting a human rights travesty in Uganda got a hundred million views on YouTube, was shared by celebrities like Rihanna and Justin Beiber, then disseminated through a deeply concerned, justifiably outraged populace. We all hugged ourselves: see how social media is making the world a better place?

And then nothing. We all moved on. It became clear to anyone still watching that the outpouring of support was actually a pose. That "awareness" was abundant, but action nearly nonexistent. The followup video has less than three million views. The human tragedy was not a call to arms, but an accessory to be mounted on our twitter feed like a charm on a pandora bracelet: Look at me, I'm a person who cares.

This is a fundamentally narcissistic way of seeing the world. A conceited person believes others want to see every detail play out in their daily life via social media. Only a narcissist views major world events primarily as a vessel for them to express their identity.

Were the 2015 Paris attacks the result of a medieval, backward religion trying to encroach on modern values? Or was it a century of poor foreign policy decisions come home to roost? Neither. It was a red, white and blue filter to put on your profile photo, just so everyone knew how "with it" you were.
In this context, the rise of Donald Trump should not be surprising. The bragging, the over sharing, the constant quest for validation, the belief that freedom to express an opinion is more important than the facts underlying that position, is so quintessentially millennial, its no surprise that these things haven't disqualified him from the race.

Combine that with twenty years of poor decision making by those in power - from deregulating Wall Street to destabilizing the Middle East with the Iraq war, leading to mass anger and confusion, and Donald Trump makes perfect sense as a candidate in keeping with our slanted, angry, narcissistic new world order.

I do not mean this to sound reassuring.

From the pundits attempting to weigh in on how this could happen, to the liberals staring in disbelief, people, are still acting on the assumption that we live in the same world they grew up in, but that's a lie. The old rule book cannot be used to dictate a new way of life, thus its been allowed to mutate into something far beyond their control.

Most liberals acknowledge this problem's existence on the right: the rallying cry to "Make America Great Again" presupposes that it was ever great for anyone other than white males, and (more stupidly) that we can turn back the clock on globalization.

But those who fail to acknowledge how social media has affected their perception of events, their impetus to put their own personal stamp on issues that are often beyond their understanding are equally to blame. For this is the climate that Donald Trump needed to thrive, and after ten years of facebook and its ilk we've been conditioned to treat him as legitimate.

For context:
Automatic weapons gave birth to the twentieth century, surely as the internet gave birth to the 21st. Though alarmists like to draw comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, the better analogue to Donald Trump and the many other ways the world seems to be coming apart at the seams is World War I. Though the ascendance of Donald Trump hopefully won't kill millions of people or precipitate a sequel that's even more destructive, it was predicated by major technological and social change, combined with an inability to adapt to globalization.

By the end of World War I, survivors were scratching their heads, at a loss to explain what the hell had just happened. WWII gets more attention - mostly because it was fought by such colourful characters, and its cause is easier to understand. WWI was, technically, precipitated by the murder of an archduke in Serbia - a man whose importance in life was far out of proportion to the titanic fallout of his death. Take a step back and there were other things - arms races, nationalism,  treaty networks dictating that if one nation goes to fight, three more go with her, and the deeply first world problem that Europe really hadn't had a good war in ages. These things could converge to cause a war, but not the Great War. A World War became the Great War thanks to new technology used in the service of old ideas.

That is: wars are fought in battles where two sides agree to meet, one side does most of the dying and the other is the victor. Usually done at the whim of a monarch with little to no connection to the suffering of his people. You've seen it in a hundred movies where opposing forces meet across a battlefield like so many Sharks and Jets.

And now they had machine guns! Imagine the possibilities.  No more firing one shot, then taking five minutes to load another. Twenty rounds a second! They were certain the war would be over in a month. The reality is that when technology causes major social change, you adapt to it, not the other round.

In this case, both sides had machine guns, so the best you could do was dig holes across from one another and hide inside. At some point, a few men would go over the top. Most of them would die. And if we're lucky we gained ten metres. This is what happens when new technology is incorporated into old institutions without appreciating how fully it has altered the rules.

And as America blunders itself toward a Trump presidency, it's hard not to see the connection between this time and that. The world at large is still reeling - financially and culturally- from the effects of globalization, and the economic collapse, and while some Americans mourn their losses with a cry to Make America Great Again, we have overlooked the fact that technology, specifically, social media, has changed not only the world we live in, but us ourselves.

Monday, 20 June 2016

And now....gun control?

When 27 people were murdered - most of them children - at Sandy Hook elementary, the United States seemed ready to take a good look at itself and declare, for once and all, that military grade automatic weapons should not be in the hands of the mentally ill, and that the best way to guarantee that was by restricting the sale of automatic weapons, increasing background checks, etc...

94% of Americans polled supported gun reform in 2013, but the bill failed to pass. We can save the question of whether or not this still counts as a democracy when a bill supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans fails to make it through congress for another time.

The prevailing wisdom is that this is just another rotation of the wheel. There will be the standard outpouring of grief, then outrage, followed by a long silence and no change.

Probably. But maybe not. Maybe this time is different. Because it plays on attitude even more American than complacency: bigotry.

It would be very nice if we could, once again, explain the statistics to these people - the fact that the person most likely to be killed by a gun is its owner, or that hardly any of them have the tactical awareness to use a weapon effectively in a high stress situation. But by now we should have learned that the high road is helpless. If not, may I remind you who the presumptive Republican nominee for president is?

Its not enough to expect unreasonable people to listen to reason. The thrust of change has to be to be co-opted by their baked-in prejudice.

In which case, we might have hit the jackpot - not that a mass murder like this is ever anything but a tragedy - but we're in luck that this time it was comitted by a member of a feared minority group (that is, feared by the sort of person who thinks citizens will need AK-47s to defend themselves against a tyrannical government in the near future).

Make no mistake. If the tragedy at Orlando hadn't happened, another would still be coming around the bend. It would (will) be awful. Liberals will throw up their hands in frustration, the NRA will stress the need to arm citizens, and nothing will change.

That's if the shooter is white, of course. The NRA, and Joe the Plumber aren't afraid enough of white people for any of our previous mass shootings to provoke major change, even if they should be*. But they are afraid of ISIS, and - more broadly - Muslims in general.

Now that the anti-gun movement can be framed as anti-minority, it might gain more traction. If you find that hard to believe, imagine a large group of urban blacks shows up to an NRA rally, pointing out that the vast majority of Americans prosecuted for gun possession are black, and that the few remaining restrictions are merely institutionalised racism. Those same, mostly white folks would backpedal so hard - stressing that restrictions are good and keep us safe, because we need to know who is buying this arsenal - and how dare you for mentioning racism, ever.

Now that the anti-gun movement can dovetail with anti-Muslim sentiment. We are fools if we pretend that that bigotry doesn't exist, or that it can be reasoned with - once again, recall the presumptive Republican nominee - it might be the only way to get through to the sort of person who thinks average citizens have a right to automatic weapons. Instead of keeping military grade arsenal away from Americans, we'll be keeping them from terrorists! The fact that every mass shooter - regardless of his skin color - has proven to be above these peoples' grasp.

Finally - for all the wrong reasons - gun control in America just got a boost.

*Have you ever noticed that we are always informed that a white shooter is "mentally ill", whereas with minorities that information is presumed to be redundant?

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Glamourous Right

This was originally written in February, then sat one for three months, hence the discussion of Trump's infomercial and Chrissy Teigan's Daily Show appearance as recent news. I still stand by 100% of it, though recent ephiphanies mean I'll be adding some thoughts about America's race to the bottom later this week:

When did the glamorous option replace the right one? This isn't a rhetorical question, for there is no denying that it has happened, and that there has always been a sense that it could happen. True democracy is at odds with the impulse to elevate beautiful people into rarefied positions, and humanity has yet to kick the habit of celebrity watching. We love shiny objects and the ones that own them, so why shouldn't a presidential candidate stage an infomercial as a victory speech?

Let's start analyzing this problem with the small, innocuous world of celebrity Twitter feeds: Chrissy Teigan appeared on The Daily Show last week, where Trevor Noah* complimented her on her political tweeting. Together they had a smug, incredulous laugh about the haters, and her adorable compulsion to speak her mind to millions of people on the internet, regardless of potential backlash.

I'm betting my political views overlap substantially more with Chrissy Teigan than with Donald Trump, but if you're wondering why Tuesday's victory speech from the Republican frontrunner looked like an infomercial, ask yourself why anyone - to be specific, 1.3 million twitter followers, cares what a supermodel thinks about politics.

I can give Chriss Teigan the benefit of a doubt and assume she's a lovely person whose political views dovetail with my own, and still say without question that she is no more qualified to dictate a political conversation than any single person I might meet on the subway. To be beautiful and well married does not make one a sociologist. But it does make you an aspirational figure. And this is the key component that analyses of Trump's popularity don't generally grasp. With the exponential rise of celebrity culture, mediated by the internet and social media, glamour has trumped reason in the eyes of a voting public who should know better.

Anyone following Chrissy Teigan, or The Daily Show on Twitter will probably agree that you're more likely to find the "right" opinion (and yes, there is such a thing) from someone like Mark Leibovitch, writer for the New York Times, whose book "This Town"  elucidates the sickly situation in Washington better than anything this author has read (In sum: Democracy isn't dead in America, but the infection is starting to smell), than from her. But those same people won't be following him on Twitter. The need to make an educated decision has been hijacked by the need to feel a connection to the people who live the lives of our dreams.

Did you ever wonder why Beyonce did ads for L'Oreal hair color? How many people ever believed Beyonce did her own roots in the kitchen sink like a mere mortal? Probably about as many people believe Chrissy Teigan is a viable political commentator. But humanity is an easy mark: we know we're not going to be movie stars, pop singers or supermodels, but if we can see ourselves as alike in small ways - be it by wearing Beats headphones, drinking Pepsi or sharing their politics, it connects us to the divine.

The chief draw of a man like Donald Trump is that he is someone who people want to be. Undereducated people, maybe, predominately white people, true. People who believes they have an easy solution to all the country's problems, incredulous that the suits in Washington haven't figured out what they've known for years: A wall will keep out Mexicans; Banning Muslims will stop terror; Anyone who doesn't agree with you is a loser; When they try to stop you, sue, sue, sue. Each tenet of his ideology is as reductive as it is easy to pitch.

Listing the ways Mr. Trump is wrong, misguided or flat out lying is missing the point. What's important to his followers is that he is saying what they think, what they believe, and in so doing connecting them with a  life they've only dreamed of. We all wish we could be like him, and if you share his beliefs, then maybe you are like him, a little. His power lies not in being able to change peoples' minds, but in validating the beliefs they already have. It's not politics, its celebrity.

This is why Beyonce got paid fifty million dollars to hawk Pepsi, though scientists have yet to link sugary cola to beauty, fitness or a lovely singing voice. It's why a supermodel's thoughts on the world are more valued than a journalist for the New York Times.

There is in fact a strong correlation between celebrity culture and poor social mobility. That is - in a country where being born poor means you'll probably die poor, with the slashing of welfare programs, a political system which favours the wealthy, and college tuitions so high you'll graduate with crushing debt if you graduate at all - people will sooner attach their aspirations to fantasies rather than practical solutions, thus creating a feedback loop where people are less engaged in politics, and politics is less engaged with the people. 

It's no longer about choosing the right or wrong president. It's about finding someone who can repeat your own thoughts back to you in a sexier voice, and the ego trip that comes from knowing you have something in common with the power class. The left is no more immune to this than the right: the Clinton's dynastic politics are also a sign voters would sooner settle for a name brand than do some digging of their own.

Ultimately, the supermodel who shares your beliefs might be as toxic as the billionaire who doesn't.

You might also like: This is Your Brain on Beyonce (Though Lemonade has made it completely obsolete)

*Sidenote, Trevor Noah's interviews with beautiful women are all strangely endearing. Remember when he told Brea Larson he knew "lots of hungry people?" Adorable.