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Casualties of the Trump Presidency

The Death of Political Satire

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Many years ago mathematics professor and musical political satirist Tom

Tom Lehrer

Lehrer demurred when asked to return to satirical songwriting and performing. His reason for refusing? Henry Kissinger having been awarded the Nobel Peace prize was the last word in political satire and that absurdity had made any further attempts unnecessary. Lehrer is now eighty nine years old and has long since retired from both stage and lecture hall; one wonders if he still feels that politics can’t get any more ridiculous.

Late night talk show hosts and stand-up comedians have been buried in raw material for their monologues and club acts for over a year now; the Trump ascendancy has been a bottomless source of raw material and they have benefited mightily from the insanity in Washington since Trump first descended on his gilded escalator to warn threaten announce his candidacy for the presidency. Every day, it seems, the American president says or does or tweets or neglects to do something that is so outrageous that one can’t help but suspect for a moment that the report is satire and not an actual piece of news. The debacle that is US politics could not have been foreseen by the most cynical and pessimistic satirist. Tom Lehrer used to say that he always followed a friend’s advice:  “Always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.”

Samantha Bee

Nevertheless what is actually happening in Washington staggers even a prophet’s imagination.

Donald Trump and the GOP spent years and tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money investigating and desperately seeking evidence of criminal behaviour in Hillary Clinton’s handling of her official emails. Despite coming up dry, the Republicans tried to enact legislation that would refuse the former Secretary of State access to classified material as, in their view, she was too careless to be trusted with the nation’s secrets. And yet, as I write this, there is no indication that any Republican in Congress or any White House staffer sees the irony in the recent disclosures of Donald Trump’s farcical fuckups over highly classified intelligence.

As we know, it started with reports of Trump banning any journalists from attending an unprecedented meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Any journalists except Russian state media, that is. And at least one of those officials is known to be an intelligence officer. The White House said they were “tricked” into allowing Russians and their photographers free rein in the Oval Office. But the story didn’t stop there. It turns out, as more and more information leaks out of the rather porous White House, that Trump actually disclosed to the Russians some top secret material that came from the highest levels of Israeli intelligence, and that it compromised at least one undercover agent who had infiltrated ISIS, almost certainly condemning him to a very unpleasant death. How do Republicans respond to this outrage? They remind us of the fact that the President has the authority to declassify anything at any time; hence he wasn’t sharing classified material. Shades of Nixon’s view that if the president does it, it’s not illegal!

No satire, no humorous dystopian fiction, no pessimistic prophet could top what’s happening as a result of a large number of fearful white voters casting their ballots for an ignorant, racist, mentally ill billionaire. This could never have been written. Not for laughs and not as a dire warning. Nobody actually thought this could happen.

The impeachable offenses committed by Donald Trump and his loyalists are piling up; nothing like this has ever been seen before. In just the last few weeks, we have seen abuse of power, rent-seeking, influence peddling, perjury, and now treason. Of course treason has long been suspected of Trump and his campaign; further investigation will almost certainly bring those details to light. But now it’s overt, and in-your-face. And yet the Republican party line is: Get over it and move on. No situation in American history has so clearly demanded an impartial investigation than the current one, and yet Republicans steadfastly refuse even to consider a special commission, much less the special prosecutor they insisted upon when it looked like a Democratic president had been on the receiving end of an intern’s blowjob. Never has a political party worn its venality, its disdain for rule of law, its contempt for the country and its citizens, and its breathtaking hypocrisy so blatantly on its sleeve. The GOP isn’t even pretending very much anymore to believe in truth, in justice, in the constitution, or in anything other than their sworn mission to dismantle the fabric of the US government and to transfer as much wealth as possible from the majority into the endlessly greedy hands of the 2%. Their obstructionism in the face of the obvious criminality of their leadership reminds me of a bad guy running for the exit with his bag of swag and twitching furniture behind him into the way of his pursuers. They know that this assault on the nation can’t last forever; so on their way out, they’re running roughshod over social programs, environmental initiatives, education, health care, human rights legislation, and every other good thing their predecessors have done – all to finance the greatest upward redistribution of wealth the world has ever seen.

The question used to be: What will it take to shake the GOP out of their sullen refusal to uphold their oaths of office and put their country before their party? That is no longer a reasonable question, because by their inaction the Republicans have answered it. There is nothing whatsoever that Donald Trump can do that would alienate his solid base of support. He said it best when he said he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose a single voter. Except it’s not voters who will stand by him; it’s members of Congress. The GOP has such contempt for the people of the United States that they don’t even care about the 2018 midterms or even the general election in 2020. As long as they fill their pockets and offshore accounts between now and then, they will not turn against Trump. Some believe they can carry the con even further and survive a vote; others don’t care and are happy to retire in insulated wealth while the country crumbles into 3rd World chaos.

In the world of political punditry, rumours of sealed indictments by several grand juries are circulating. We now have to wait and see. If those indictments are real and if they are indictments of Donald Trump and others in the White House, there will be an unimaginable constitutional crisis; what would actually happen if federal marshals were to serve the papers on the President and slap the cuffs on him? What kind of an upheaval can we expect if justice is served and those at the very top of the food chain in US politics were to be charged and arrested for their crimes? No one knows. But we are now at a point where it has to happen and we will find out; or we can sit on the sidelines and watch the United States of America collapse under its own greed.

ENDITEM….

 

A bang or a whimper? Either way, it ends.

A Tangled Web

Pagun

 

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) When I taught journalism at universities, I would always put All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward on the reading list. For other courses I

Redford and Hoffman in
All the President’s Men

taught in which journalism was touched upon, if not the primary focus, I would often assign the movie version of that book (Dir. Alan J. Pakula, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) as outside viewing. The book and movie are wonderful examples of dogged investigative journalism at its best and serve as templates for how the fourth estate can act as a critical part of any democratic system of government, and be in the US at least, as important as the legislative, the judicial, and the executive, the three constitutionally mandated branches.

I have always been astonished at the complexity of the cast of characters and roles they played in the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up; even more impressive is the way Woodward and Bernstein put it all together and sorted it all out into a comprehensible narrative. When the last domino fell, even those among us who weren’t obsessive US politics junkies were able to follow the story and make sense of what happened in the most multifaceted and intricate criminal conspiracy in US political history. And without the work of a free press, dedicated journalists, and courageous publishers, the “cancer on the presidency”[i] would never have been exposed and excised.

The concern that I and many fellow journalists share is that, in today’s political zeitgeist, there is neither the will nor the skill to expose an even more serious cancer on a different presidency. The scandals that will ultimately bring President Donald Trump down are by orders of magnitude farther-reaching, more tangled, and more damaging to the country than anything Richard Nixon did or approved of. There are literally dozens of confirmed and suspected criminal acts attributable to the president and his men (and one or two women), ranging from soliciting bribes and influence peddling to espionage and treason; in between are money laundering, abuses of power, and obstruction of justice. The whole mishegas is so vast that it is unlikely that it will ever be encapsulated in a single book, movie, or impeachment hearing. When Donald Trump goes down, it will be because some investigation has focused exclusively on a single or small number of related criminal acts and decided that these would be the easiest to prove. But what won’t happen in today’s world is the daily exposure of the President’s crimes in a clearly explicated, step by methodical step exposure and explanation by the Fourth Estate.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that journalism no longer resembles the respected, admirable, nearly sacred calling it was during Watergate and its aftermath. I and every other budding journalist I know of in those days saw our profession as a vital and valued component of a democratic society. We sought out the truth; our loyalty was to facts. We saw ourselves as watchdogs who kept politics honest and protected the people from unscrupulous or corrupt leaders. But something happened; journalism became entertainment. Ratings became more important than honest, fact-based reporting. Sensationalism, not truth was what reporters tracked down. And at the same time, with the advent of Fox News, objectivity and balanced reporting began to disappear from the airwaves and never made a strong appearance on the Internet. Fox was a de facto propaganda arm of the Republican Party and showcased the rantings of assorted right wing and evangelical Christian nutjobs. Conspiracy theories proliferated on the ‘Net and with Trump, the last vestiges of old school fact-based reporting were labelled “Fake News”. All news is now suspect unless it is a partisan claim that happens to reinforce an already held belief. It is hard to imagine who could write a genuinely objective summary of the entire Trump presidency when all the dust has settled. (My money would be on Rachel Maddow and her team, but even though she is scrupulous and thorough in her reporting, she will be dismissed as partisan. She’s right, but that won’t matter in today’s world of binary politics).

The second reason is the scale of the malfeasance this time around. The Watergate dust-up seemed byzantine at the time. It all started with a bungled break-in at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington. It turned out that the burglars were paid out of an illegal slush fund traced back to the Committee to Re-elect the President (identified by one of the all-time greatest acronyms: CREEP). Ultimately it turned out that the president and his closest advisors were aware of the fund and the criminal activities it financed; the trail led right to the top. But, as we all know, the cover-up is what ultimately undid President Nixon.

This time around the crimes that are being investigated are nothing like the vaguely comical bungled break-in organised by the cartoon figure, G. Gordon Liddy. Today’s crimes make Watergate look like a particularly puerile frat boy’s prank gone wrong. Here we have international espionage and treason. We actually have the certain knowledge that the president was helped along in his campaign by Russian dirty tricks. It is virtually certain that his people have coordinated with the Russians to swing the election away from his opponent. And we have a Republican Party that acknowledges all that but doesn’t believe it’s important enough to appoint a special commission, let alone a special prosecutor. Bear in mind that this is the same party that spent years and millions of dollars on an investigation, prosecution, impeachment, and failed attempt to convict a Democratic president over an illicit blowjob.

Entangled in this mess is the possibility, even the likelihood that the president is compromised because the Russians have videos of his aberrant sexual acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. We know for certain that his national security advisor was a Russian agent; we know for certain that the president was aware of that. We also know that his campaign manager was a foreign agent. His new Attorney General, who helped run his campaign, is in charge of the agency tasked with investigating espionage in the country. And none of this even touches on Trump’s paying off favours to industrialists by letting them mine and otherwise lay waste to national parks. Or using his office to pimp his daughter’s line of apparel. Or his family selling visas at inflated rates to Chinese businessmen.

The web is so vast and so tangled that today’s ineffective and defanged press will not hold anyone’s feet to the fire. There will continue to be hysterical shouts from clickbait producers and accusations of snowflakery in response, but this time we need to see if the system still works. Only the political system as defined by the US Constitution will be able to bring this despicable and hateful regime down and take its leaders to task. So far it has failed. If the nation’s last hope, Congress that is dominated by political hacks who always, always, put party before country, the great experiment in democracy will have failed in a spectacularly obvious way. And that is happening in front of our eyes in real time. I have very faint hope indeed that the United States of America will survive their national idiocy in having elected Donald J. Trump.

ENDITEM…

 

Meet the new boss, completely different from the old boss…

The Genie’s Out of the Bottle

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND)  Any rational person who is aware of actual – as opposed to ‘alternative’ – facts will acknowledge that the Trump presidency thus far has been a chaotic clown show. At one time I believed that the vast majority of people fell into the category of being rational and fact aware; now I continue to believe it is a majority, but only by a razor thin margin. One of the most perplexing facts about the Trump phenomenon is that, at this writing, the percentage of acknowledged Trump voters who now regret their vote is somewhere between 3 and 5. You heard that right. Despite the many anecdotal instances of regretful Trump supporters, 95 to 97 percent of them say they would vote for him again if there were to be an election tomorrow.

This is despite his failures to keep any of his campaign promises, from the Muslim ban, to the Mexican wall; from repealing and replacing Obama care with something better to ‘draining the swamp’. This is despite the almost daily reminders of his utter ignorance of how government works; of what is actually in the trade agreements he claimed were terrible; of diplomacy; of American or world history; of the US Constitution; and of the limits and extent of presidential, judicial, and congressional powers and responsibilities. The Trump base is comprised of the people most affected by losing Medicare, Medicaid, and any of the other social programs to which this administration is laying waste. Well, except for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the subsidies for Public Broadcasting. They won’t miss those. That all those programs are being eliminated or severely hamstrung by budget slashing is being done specifically to help pay for tax breaks and incentives that only apply to the very wealthiest Americans doesn’t even seem to annoy them.

And most bewildering of all, his rock-solid base is not perturbed in the slightest that it’s becoming more and more apparent with each passing day that his election was largely due to illegal interference in the process by Russia. Moreover, his people continue to resist the very idea of a genuinely impartial investigation into what is almost certainly treasonous activity on the part of his closest and most powerful inner circle, and very likely on the part of Trump himself.

What is going on here? How can this scorched earth model of governance be accepted by the very people who are inhaling the smoke and being barbequed by the flames? Why, apart from commentaries like this one being run on the Internet and published in print, is there so little outrage when one would expect there to be millions of villagers with torches and pitchforks assaulting the White House?

The answer is oddly paradoxical. The lack of overwhelming grassroots backlash to Trump’s appalling agenda is due both to the outrageously unprecedented nature of the 45th US president’s shambolic administration, and to the fact that the insanity surrounding and permeating the administration is becoming normalised.

For any constitution or other formalised plan of government to work, the consent of the governed is necessary, and much of the quotidian activity carried out in the halls of government is not covered by a constitution, but is managed and directed by precedent, by tacit agreement, by convention, and by tradition. These need to be respected by both those in government and by those governed; it is impossible for even the most prescient document to anticipate every eventuality and address it with specific rules or even guidelines. For example, the US Constitution does not require candidates for high office to release their personal income tax returns for public scrutiny. The self-evident need for that disclosure was not a failing on the part of the Founding Fathers; there was no income tax at the time and none was foreseen. The first such tax was the Revenue Act of 1861, a century after the signing of the constitution, and it was a temporary wartime measure. The 16th Amendment passed in 1913 established the tax as it is known today. But candidates, by convention and tradition, have been expected to disclose their returns since the post-war period. There is therefore no mechanism (yet) to compel presidential candidates to disclose.

Nevertheless, tradition, etiquette, and convention is so important to the smooth running of government that even Donald Trump assured voters that he would disclose his returns should he choose to run for office. Later, as a candidate, he promised to disclose them as soon as a routine audit was completed. Later still, as president, through his spokesperson Kellyanne (Alternative Facts) Conway, he told the country that he wouldn’t be disclosing them, as his victory demonstrated that the people weren’t really interested. The brazenness of that lie, combined with the tortured logic behind it had no precedent in US federal politics prior to Donald Trump’s appearance on the scene. It was outrageous; it was an in-your-face middle finger to the US citizens and the rest of the world. But it wasn’t out of character. Trump had made a successful presidential candidacy out of outrage and running roughshod over tacitly understood mores, customs, and traditions. Just to demonstrate how outrageous and beyond the pale Trump was prepared to venture, let’s remember Trump’s straight faced assertion that sitting president Barrack Obama, with the help of former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had founded ISIS. Not in any figurative sense, not meaning that their policies had led to the formation of ISIS; no, he insisted that they were the actual and literal founders of the radical Islamic terrorist army.

We have to remind ourselves of that because it is so profoundly delusional. It causes a certain cognitive dissonance because there is nothing in our collective memory to reconcile the fact that such a clearly insane accusation could have been made, repeated, expanded upon, and doubled down on by a man who was only months later elected to the presidency of the United States of America.

Whether by design or by accident, the Trump approach to politics has normalised the shocking, the despicable, the outrageous. Actions taken by this administration, had they occurred under the authority of any previous president, would have sparked a backlash that probably would have removed him from office. The brazen profiteering and self-enrichment that is commonplace under this administration would have led to investigations and impeachment motions. Ditto for the scenario in which a political appointment recuses himself from an investigation into activities in which he was involved, but nevertheless is able to fire the person responsible for leading the investigation. It is even business as usual when Congress, under the control of the President’s own party, refuses to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate charges of espionage and treason at the very highest levels of the administration, despite the overwhelming evidence of a massive conspiracy against the nation.

The problem, no matter what happens next, is that the unspoken rules of the political game have all been changed now. And they won’t be changed back. Just like the first time the word ‘fuck’ was spoken out loud in a movie, a certain Rubicon had been crossed. It has now become normal. Thanks to Trump and his idiot diehard supporters, American politics have been coarsened, campaigns have become blood sports where policy means nothing, promises have no meaning, debate means character assassination, and governance means personal enrichment. Even if Trump and Pence and half the cabinet were to be impeached and imprisoned, the face of political discourse in the US has been forever disfigured. The genie is out and he’s not going back in.

ENDITEM…

The scent of desperation

Incompetence? Or a Wild Gamble?

Pagun

 

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The current atmosphere in Washington and especially in the White House is so chaotic and fraught with cliques, factions, and competing interests that pinpointing the exact and

The White House at Work

proximate reason for President Trump’s decision to fire FBI chief James Comey is a pointless exercise. Suffice it to say that, love him or loath him, Comey is one more piece of collateral damage in the clusterfuck that US politics has become.

But if there is anything more coordinated in the White House than could be seen at an unsupervised gathering of spoiled, over-privileged, hyperactive pre-adolescents, today’s news is breathtakingly sinister.

James Comey

The Deputy Attorney General’s letter to Trump includes the following paragraph:

“Over the past year however, the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage. . . I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgement that he was mistaken.”

 

Rod Resenstein

It is abundantly clear that by “the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton” emails” Resenstein is referring to Comey’s conclusion that, while her handling of those emails was extraordinarily careless, her culpability didn’t rise to the level of criminality and that no responsible  prosecutor would pursue criminal charges. It should be clear to anyone watching this drama that the groundwork is being laid and the stage is being set to find some way to charge Hillary Clinton with some serious criminal offense(s).

The idea of a manifestly incompetent and power hungry head of state preparing to fulfil his campaign promise/slogan to lock up his opponent in a national election – one that is universally recognized to have been influenced by a hostile foreign government – is terrifying. Nothing could scream “Banana Republic” louder or clearer than the pretender to the presidency orchestrating the incarceration of his more popular one-time rival on bogus charges. But that’s the thing with populist demagogues like Donald Trump; somehow they persuade their devoted and even fanatical followers that they are actually saving the nation, while they strive destroy its very foundations.

Donald Trump is ignorant of virtually everything with which a national leader should be conversant. “Who knew health insurance was so complicated?” “People should know that Lincoln was a Republican.” Pretty much everyone in the world did, of course, except for the president of the United States. To be as uninformed as the American President requires a significant lack of intelligence. To remain that way, as Trump has, demands an even greater degree of stupidity. But although Donald Trump is both unintelligent and ignorant, he is a master at manipulation through the media. And this might just be his greatest feat of sleight of hand.

The walls are closing in on the president and his team of pillagers ensconced in the White House. Despite the valiant efforts of the entire GOP to thrust a stick into their spokes, the various investigations into the Russian influence on the election are uncovering more and more evidence of what looks like treason on the part of President Trump’s closest advisors. Despite the GOP’s refusal to appoint a special prosecutor to carry out a thorough and non-partisan investigation, it is only a matter of time before the President himself is identified as having colluded with Russia to swing the election in his favour. The evidence is overwhelming and it is piling up.

So, while the entire criminal edifice that makes up the Trump administration frantically tries to cash in; while the President’s family and friends brazenly use their official and non-official statuses to solicit bribes and special favours for their various personal companies, the administration throws up this frightening smoke screen. This may well be the desperate move of a failing dictatorship. It may well be the sudden panicky attack mode of a rat that finds itself cornered. But if the GOP faithful don’t soon – immediately – each grow a pair, it could be the masterstroke that establishes an overt dictatorial oligarchy as the new political paradigm in the United States. This may be a wild gamble on Team Trump’s part; it may be pushing its pile of chips to the centre of the table and going all in.

It’s important to remember that the ultimate decision as to whether an indictment be sought or charges brought against Ms. Clinton is in the hands of Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General and Trump toady. Attorney General Sessions is a mean spirited, vindictive little sycophant who will do whatever he believes Donald Trump wants him to do. If the White House, overtly or covertly, signals him that it’s time to move, he will order one of the law enforcement agencies under his control – probably the FBI – to go ahead and slap the cuffs on her. If that happens, the world will know that the coup d’état is underway and Ms. Clinton is the first of many to find themselves in the cross hairs of the new regime.

Whether this is just another example of desperate flailing about or, on the other hand, a reckless gamble with the future of the country will soon become clear. Better buckle up. It looks like we’re in for a bumpy ride.

ENDITEM…

Let the finger pointing begin…

The News Media’s Responsibility for 2016

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Some things that rational people have suspected for many years have been confirmed over the last year and a half of the US presidential campaign.

Those of us who watch the United States from outside of its borders have long suspected colorblind-thoughtthat racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny were alive and well in the US; they were bubbling and seething just below the surface, ready to explode into the mainstream, if societal pressure was released for a moment. The Donald J Trump candidacy did exactly that. It made hatred and intolerance legitimate and exposed the depth and intensity of the hatred that, until Trump gave it his blessing, couldn’t be expressed in polite company. Trump’s campaign even managed to do away with the notion of polite company.

Prior to Donald Trump’s announcement of his intention to seek the highest office in the land and the position of most powerful person in the world, many political observers, including me, have remarked upon the dumbing down of public discourse; some, also including me, have even tried to focus attention on the very real decrease in the average IQ of Americans, as stupidity is being selected for in the patterns of human reproduction in the country. Of course, as intelligence wanes, an understanding of evolution tends to fade away too; there is a correlated disappearance of worry about the increasing stupidity that defines the US.

But even more than those suspicions, which the presidential campaign has confirmed, newsthe frequently noted degeneration of the American news media has become patently evident. Whatever happens on November 8 and in the immediate aftermath, it’s important that we be very aware of the fact that the entire debacle of the 2016 election campaign was largely the result of a news industry that has completely lost its way. The clusterfuck that we have been force-fed for one and a half years is the result of a news media that no longer deserves to be called anything but entertainment.

When television networks looked at their programming lineups decades ago, and50s-tv noticed that their most reliable and consistent viewership was during the time set aside for the news, the powers of capitalism and free enterprise couldn’t be restrained. For years, the news had been broadcast as a public service. It was not intended that news be a profit centre. Back in the days before everyone controlled their television viewing with a remote control, people had to stand up, walk to the TV, and physically change the dial to the network they wanted to watch. Network loyalty was an important factor in programming. So, the only reason ratings were important to news broadcasts was for the bragging rights and the rather nebulous assumption that people would be inclined to leave the dial on whatever channel they were watching when the news broadcast ended and prime-time viewing started.

networksocialmediachart_6But when the big money people realised that they could sell advertising on news broadcasts, it became a race for the bottom. News was only as important as it was likely to increase viewership. If it bleeds, it leads, was always a cynical dictum of news editing; with the race for ratings, blood became only one of the leads. Celebrity gossip, pathos, sex; all of those were sure to bring in the viewers, so they became the standard fare of broadcast ‘journalism’. Politics made the editorial cut if it involved the White House, because the president could be sold as a celebrity. Other politicians were only interesting if they could be reported on as celebrities, too. Salacious stories involving the sexual misadventures of legislators became newsworthy; actual political news didn’t grab the lowest common denominator, the hypothetical viewer for whom the news is edited.

Newsworthiness is judged simply by the ratings. The desperate battle for attention spilled over to other media; print media started to die when it tried to compete for internet-newssalaciousness and titillation; the Internet spawned thousands of sites that cater to every perverted taste. The result was a vast, nearly infinite forum in which genuine professional journalism is given equal time with rabidly fanatic partisan propaganda; with clickbait sites devoid of content but displaying outrageous headlines; with joke sites that parody the news; with hate sites; with sites claiming to be journalism, but lacking any understanding of basics like sourcing, independent confirmation, or fact-checking.

And the bastard child of the media’s infatuation with ratings is the dismissal and rejection of reporting on anything of substance. Only the sexy, the violent, or the outrageous draws enough attention to make it into the mainstream news. And the mainstream news fell for the ploy of one of the world’s greatest media whores and media-whorecheesiest hucksters. They let him define the terms of the election coverage and they played into his tacky, tasteless, deeply offensive strategy.

Donald Trump is not smart enough to have planned this campaign and then followed through on a pre-existing strategy. But he does have a low animal cunning and some sort of instinct for manipulating the media. Modern media manipulation isn’t all that complicated. All it takes is a willingness to wallow in sewage and have no regard whatsoever for human decency or civilised behaviour.

He started garnering media coverage by targeting those who share his racist views. In his very first speech as a candidate, he fired up anti-immigrant sentiment and described Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers. He followed that up with an absurd promise topoorly-educated build an enormous wall along the US/Mexican border to eliminate illegal migration, despite the fact (barely mentioned in the media) that net migration is southward, as Hispanics overall are leaving the US to return to Mexico. The press, true to its mission of whoring for ratings (or clicks), reported the outrageous promise as though it deserved to be taken seriously. And Trump, true to the B.F. Skinner model of human behaviour, was gratified by the positive reinforcement he received from an uncritical press. He quickly realised that he could press the buttons that result in adulation from his fellow bigots, and they found themselves able to express their long suppressed bigotry without condemnation in the media. Hatred was not only okay again; it was a courageous refusal to kowtow to ‘political correctness’. And the mainstream media kept reporting the increasingly delusional statements, pledges, and promises of a clearly mentally disturbed candidate as though he was making sense.

Trump was a goldmine. He was ignorant enough to appeal (“I love the poorly educated”) to the ignorant. And, as we have seen, the ignorant were forming an increasingly word-saladsignificant block of the electorate. But because Trump could be depended upon to do or say something over-the-top and outrageously offensive, the news media gave him so much airtime that he spent zero on television campaign ads in the primaries. It didn’t matter if it made the slightest bit of sense; Trump meant ratings. Media analysts have estimated the advertising value of the unwarranted coverage he got, for simply being a loudmouthed asshole, in the billions of dollars.

The media was enjoying a windfall and they didn’t want it ever to end. They handed him the nomination and no one was more surprised than Trump insiders that he was now the candidate of one of the two major political parties in the US. Trump, who had started the idiotic campaign with no more of an agenda than increasing his brand’s value through media manipulation, soon started to believe his own press; he began to believe that he is the future of America. And as we watch Americans go to the polls, we can all be afraid that he is.

I'm a defense attorney and this clown is our consultant in the event the case becomes a media circus.

But starting now, whatever happens on the 8th, the news industry is going to have to take a long hard look at themselves. Trump is a refection of every ignoble aspect of the American psyche and is an embarrassment to the nation. He was created by the systemic bigotry and ignorance espoused by the party that nominated him, and he is a logical outgrowth of their platform and policies. But he was elevated to importance and to a level of significance that makes him an existential threat to democracy in the United States by the media. It is time that the news industry does some real soul searching and rethinks the very paradigms that have dominated the news media for several decades.

ENDITEM…

 

What if…

The World of Trump

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Despite the uproar caused by the inexplicably ham-fisted mountain-or-molehillrelease of yet another batch of innocuous Hillary Clinton emails, with less than a week until the US presidential election, the Democrats are on track to win the White House for another four years. The prospect of the needed humiliating landslide has dimmed somewhat, but a Hillary Clinton presidency is still the most likely outcome of the most bizarre and ugly political contest in American history.

Nevertheless, I have spoken to several political junkies and people on both sides of the battle for the position of most powerful person in the world, and indulged in a little trumphousefantasising and prognosticating in a masochistic attempt to imagine a world in which Donald J Trump wins the election. It doesn’t do anyone any good, but like poking with your tongue at a loose tooth, it’s hard to resist. So, to make sure that we do it right, I’ve also imagined that the Republicans also cement their domination of the House of Representatives and, what the hell, win a majority in the Senate as well. The scenario is unlikely to unfold, but, being technically possible, is scary to contemplate.

The first thing to consider is that, before the inauguration in January next year, it is virtually certain that the stock markets in the United States, and to a very slightly lesser extent the rest of the world will take a nosedive. We know this because within the last crashfew weeks, when Trump’s poll numbers rose for a few days, the markets immediately reacted by plunging by hundreds of points before recovering when Hillary Clinton climbed back up. It is a truism that markets abhor volatility; whatever policies a government supports, stability and predictability are what investors crave. Uncertainty sends them running for safe harbour; money moves from corporate stocks to perceived safety in things like gold investments. Trump has said many times that he likes to be unpredictable and to keep people in suspense.

the-1As the stock markets crash, Trump’s wealthy friends and the rest of the 1% will have protected themselves and moved their investments into insulated assets, but the rest of the country will see a recession that will make the 2008 crisis that Obama clawed the country out of look like a blip on the screen. There is every possibility that the stock market plunge will lead to a panic resulting in a depression every bit as brutal, or even worse that the crash in 1929.

With that as a backdrop, Trump will take office in January of 2017. At that point the question will be whether the new president will throw himself into the job and get down trump-cabinetto the work of governing. Or will President Trump, as many of us have speculated he might do, leave all the heavy lifting to his coterie of acolytes while he does little more than bask in the focus and attention his office guarantees? We know he has a severely limited attention span, and he certainly knows virtually nothing about policy, domestic or foreign, has no understanding of the powers of his office or the US Constitution, and is completely ignorant of economics. Perhaps it would be all for the best if he chooses to remain nothing more than a figurehead.

One thing we know for sure about Trump is that he lies with breathtaking frequency; should we expect him to keep any of the promises that fired up his followers and form the basis of his support? There is no reason we should expect Trump to follow through on any of his promises; the only thing we could count on is his mismanagement and an trumpwallair of chaos surrounding the governance of the US. Nevertheless, let us assume that either the president or his inner circle decides to fulfill his first and arguably most contentious campaign promise. He will begin to build a wall along the US/Mexican border. Congress will, of course, have to allocate billions of dollars for the project, as Mexico certainly won’t be paying for it. And with Trump’s abysmal track record of completing projects on time or on budget, that wall will be a boondoggle riddled with squandered funds, corruption in the bidding and purchasing processes, and will be a black hole into which taxpayers’ money disappears, while the farcical project just goes on and on with no end in sight.

Given Trump’s history and business practices, contractors will be lined up to file suits for non-payment, labour unrest will be a daily issue, and racial tensions, especially in blameobamaborder states, but also throughout the country, will escalate to crisis levels. While the White House will push the narrative that the broken economy, the massive unemployment, and the racial and class conflict are all the fault of the previous administration, the alt right and white supremacists will be emboldened and become a visible and violent part of the political scene.

We will almost certainly see instance after instance of the deployment of militarised police forces and the mobilising of the federal National Guard to quell civil unrest; theadam12 White House will show the country just what Donald Trump meant by his promises to “get tough”. The military itself will be in disarray as the natural result of ethical general officers resigning their commissions rather than having to obey unlawful orders from their commander in chief. Torture will be re-introduced, and it will be employed on those who object to the actions of the executive branch, in the interests of “national security”. The president will subscribe fully to Nixon’s delusion that “if the president does it, it’s legal”. With no coherent domestic policy, civil unrest, in disparate pockets and population centres throughout the country, will be rampant and increasingly violent as demonstrations will be crushed with increasingly harsh methods.

There will arise a movement in opposition to the excesses of Trump’s military and quasi-military assets in unconstitutional ways for unconstitutional ends. This will put the country into a state of perpetual military readiness to defend against its own citizens. With a cooperative Congress, Trump will immediately fill the current Supreme Court partisansupreme_500vacancy with a reliably compliant Justice. But even scarier is the thought that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now 83 years-old, Justice Arthur Kennedy is 80, and Justice Stephen Breyer is 78; any or all of them could retire at pretty much any time, allowing for the SCOTUS to be packed with Trump selections, skewing the highest court toward fascism for decades.

In this atmosphere, initiatives like creating a “deportation force” to round up millions of undocumented immigrants; placing a “temporary but total and complete ban” on any Muslim from entering the country; legislating “some kind of punishment’ for women civil-rights-suspendedwho undergo abortions; “tightening” control of the media, especially the press; and restricting freedom of expression by “opening” legislation regarding libel, slander, and defamation lawsuits are all distinct possibilities. None of those are far-fetched or paranoid fantasies; each of those initiatives has been promised by the Republican candidate, and each enjoys broad support among Republican voters.

From there it isn’t any kind of leap of the imagination to take Trump at his word and expect him to use – or abuse – his authority to “lock her up”; to put his rival candidate in prison, despite her having been cleared of any criminality in every one of the countless investigations to which the Republicans have subjected Hillary Clinton. That specific initiative doesn’t just have the support of Donald Trump’s base; it is one of their primary rallying points. Trump’s supporters will not just approve of incarcerating Clinton; they will demand it.

This deeply disturbing exercise could be extended to imagine the next generation and more if Trump were to succeed in his bid for the White House, we could continue to envision the dystopia that those who claim to want to “shake things up” would wreak upon the US and the world. But let’s just stop here and look at the United States as we have imagined it would be in the short to medium term after a Trump win in November.

police-stateA country in financial crisis, riddled with civil unrest; race riots being quelled by increasingly militaristic domestic police; civil rights suspended; executive power maximised and centralised without congressional or Supreme Court restraint; political opponents jailed without due process; habeas corpus suspended or not applicable to certain religious groups. This is a picture of the world’s largest banana republic. This is a vision of the end of the United States as we know it. This may well be what the US looks like just before its balkanisation as one state – or group of states – after another simply opts out of the union and refuses to accept the legitimacy of federal authority.

Can’t happen in the US? Of course it can. It has happened throughout history to empires and regimes that had been around a lot longer than the US has. It is currently the state of affairs in Putin’s Russia, and there are plenty of tin-pot populist wannabes in countries all over the world just waiting in the wings with ambitions and egos similar to Trump’s. A Trump presidency must be guarded against; it must not happen. If it should come to pass, all bets are off. Except this: The United States will not be a place rational and moral people would want to be.

ENDITEM…

 

Just Ahead: The Final Curtain

Endgame

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) With less than two weeks left of the ugliest presidential campaign in living memory, it is now evident, to all but the hardest of the hardcore bubbleheadconspiracy theorists and the most willfully bubble-dwelling Trump supporters, that Donald Trump, the candidate that never should have been, will lose decisively at the polls on November 8, 2016.

If there remains anyone in the Trump camp with a modicum of rationality, they will know that, because of the campaign they have run, even more damaging WikiLeaks revelations are unlikely to reverse the trend of voters gravitating toward Hillary Clinton and at long last rejecting Trump. As President Obama tours the country campaigning for his successor and scoring points off those opponents who made his term of office a hellish experience, with their obstructionism and thinly disguised racially motivated legislative sabotage, Republicans are distancing themselves from their nominee with allrat-with-life-preserver the subtlety of rats strapping on life jackets. In a little more than a week, down-ticket Republicans are going to have to answer for their contributions to the most useless and blindly partisan Congresses in American history. Some will lose their seats as a direct result of their bitter and persistent attacks on a president destined to go down in history as one of the greats.

There is now no realistic chance of the tide receding again and returning to sweep the Republican nominee into the White House; and that is largely because of the gamble that Trump took. He gambled from the beginning that he could run a completely negative campaign and bully his way to the finish line, picking up enough support along the way to pull off an upset. Insofar as he had any actual strategy, it was one of scorched earth; attack, attack, attack. However, Trump and his inner circle confused strategy with

Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump holds a plane-side rally at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, Ohio, Monday, March 14, 2016.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

tactics. Looking back over the campaign, each time his senior campaign officials were replaced, that absence of coherent strategy was evident in that nothing of substance changed in any significant way. There were moments, even days, when Trump was reined in; during those brief periods, Trump stayed on script, used a teleprompter, didn’t light up the Twittersphere with midnight storms of 140 or fewer characters, and enjoyed a few moments of being taken seriously by the country. But he was never able to maintain that façade of adult-level seriousness. Abandoning anything resembling a strategy, he resorted to tactics.

Trump was a media whore for his entire adult life. He cultivated a public persona and revelled in the attention he managed to generate by his unceasing pandering to the media. Early on, he recognised that he could stay in the public eye by outrageous tacky-trumpbehaviour; he was a natural for Howard Stern’s shock radio show, and he and Stern fed off each other. He was a natural at reality TV as well, his bad boy billionaire character, and his gaudy life of breathtakingly tacky, tasteless, excess brought in viewers who are impressed by such things. But what he discovered when, after years of threatening to do so, he decided to dip his toe into the waters of national politics, was that his previous experience of media attention was only a gateway drug. As the primaries wore on and he rose from being a joke candidate to winning the Republican nomination, he experienced the real thing; he had been given a taste of the hard stuff and he couldn’t get enough.

And like every other pathologically addictive personality, he needed more and more to achieve the same high. There are some junkies who can get a regular dose of their drug heroin-2and just float along on a quotidian buzz, never quite coming down, and never needing more than that. There are others, and Trump is among them, who never seem to get quite high enough; they push the envelope by demanding higher and higher doses, more and more frequently. They flirt with overdose every time they use. Those junkies are the crash and burn types; they don’t survive very long at that level of neediness, and, one day, they inevitably go too far.

It’s not entirely clear whether there is such a thing as a death from overdose when the addiction is to public adulation. But what is clear is that, at some point, the supply dries up. The very people who once provided the fix, become the ones who turn on their former idol and reject the market’s oversaturation. What was once brash and refreshing, trump-the-carnival-barkerbecomes obnoxious and crude. After enough exposure to the spotlights, the manufactured public persona becomes seen for what it is: a tawdry and cheesy patina; a threadbare and tacky suit, covering up a phony with all the depth and sincerity of an aged and hungover carnival barker.

At this point, Trump is still in desperate need of an ever-larger fix. He will, until the election, continue to hold rallies while eschewing any other kind of campaigning; rallies give him the kick, being packed to the rafters with the remaining cretins who still look to him for validation of their prejudices, fears, and suspicions of conspiracies. But even Trump knows that the party’s over when he loses the election. He will never again, as a laughably inept and failed candidate, garner the attention and free media he thrived on during the last fifteen or so months. But, being allergic to being exposed as a failure, not wanting to be seen as his favourite epithet, “a loser”, he has victimbeen preparing the groundwork for his sound defeat on the 8th of November. He is increasing his outrage factor by assuring the country and the world that the election is rigged, that the fix is in.

He is trying, at one and the same time, to persuade his followers to get out and vote for him, and to tell them that their votes will be stolen; that the election is a fraud and that they should participate as though it isn’t. In his increasingly deranged carnival barker’s patter, he makes it clear that the only way to know that the elections are fair and democratic, would be to see him elected. If he loses, as he most assuredly will, that will constitute proof that there exists a conspiracy against him.

Trump is gambling at this point that he can raise so much distrust and suspicion of the electoral process that his supporters will reject the election’s outcome. He is counting on post election chaos and turmoil; if he succeeds in instigating widespread upheaval and violence, he believes that he will still be relevant. What he sees his role to be in such aendgame scenario isn’t clear. It isn’t clear to us and it is almost certainly not clear to him. Remember, he has no strategy; he has tactics. All he knows is that if the country is rocked by a large enough and violent enough group of people that buy his snake oil, he will still be the centre of attention; and that’s the fix he needs.

What comes next? To Trump, it’s irrelevant, as long as people continue to pay attention to him. For the rest of the world, it’s hard to say. But predictions vary from simply a period of violence and acrimony that will ultimately die down before things return to normal, to the prediction of the end of that great experiment in democracy that is the United States of America.

ENDITEM…

Democracy? What Democracy?

Democracy in America 2016

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND) The Washington Post recently published an article describing the results of a study that seem to show that Americans’ confidence in their government is at its lowest ebb since the Civil War. Perhaps even more significantly, confidence in the very idea of democracy has waned to the point that a majority now distrust democracy as a governance paradigm. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this distrust is manifested most strongly in young adults. As many as half of millennials claim that they accept-resultswill not accept the legitimacy of the elections or the new president if their candidate loses. That refusal to acknowledge the results of next month’s election is expressed in a majority of Trump’s supporters and a significant minority of Clinton’s.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to point out that for a democracy to function at all, the people must be prepared to accept the wishes of the majority and respect the democratic mechanisms in place to determine the will of the people. Without that social contract, no form of democratic governance – government by the people – is even possible. For it to work, a democratic system must be supported by all the people, not just those whose candidate prevails.

It is for that reason that one is hard pressed to disagree with the cynicism of those who no longer have confidence in the democracy of the United States of America. At the very outset of the Obama presidency, the Republican Party, unable to accept Barack Obama as their president, made it a policy to disrupt, to block, to hamstring his every effort to govern. One of the two major parties in an essentially blame-obamatwo-party system refused to accept the legitimacy of a democratically elected black president. Democracy American style began its death spiral on inauguration day 2008, when GOP leaders met and formulated their policy of refusing to cooperate with a White House occupied by a black man. The first concerted effort to reject democracy as the paradigm of US governance was made by the party of Lincoln.

Donald Trump is the logical outgrowth of the Republican’s policy of ending democracy in America. He was created by the GOP and every one of his outrages was perfectly predictable, given the direction in which the party was heading. He is an unabashed racist; perfectly in line with the Republicans’ disdain for African Americans and other minorities. He is a misogynist; appropriate for the party that wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and return women to the kitchens. He is a climate change denier; right in line with the party that’s bought and paid for by big oil. But mostly he is a fascist, with dreams of ruling the people he despises; a perfect nominee for a party that rejects democracy.

As the campaign lurches into its final days, the toxic shitshow of which Trump is the ringmaster reaches a new low point virtually every day. But since the Republican nominee has exhausted the supply of ethnic groups to trumpolinimalign and has already alienated pretty much every demographic except poorly educated white males, he has now decided to dispense with any pretensions of being anything but an authoritarian with a vision of America that can’t be honestly described as anything but fascist.

In what democracy on earth does a candidate vow to imprison his opponent if he wins? The most accurate answer to the question is that it doesn’t occur in a democracy; it happens in the United States of America. The United States of America hasn’t been a true democracy for some time. In a democracy, there would have been no President George W. Bush to lie, knowingly and deliberately, to the country in order to start a war to enrich himself, his cronies, and his ego. There would have been no President George W. Bush because the candidate elected by the people, Al Gore, would have been inaugurated instead. In fact, in any country other than the US, George W Bush’s assumption of the presidency would have been recognised for what it was, and described as such: a coup d’etat.

But the Republican mission to bring an end to democracy in the US should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention; that intention has been out in the open for decades. When Ronald Reagan, at every opportunity from the Johnny Carson Show to the State of the Union Address, reagan-idiotasserted that people shouldn’t look to the government for solutions to their problems; that government was the problem, nobody believed he meant that literally. After all, he lived in government housing, and deposited his government cheque, and flew on government transportation, in the company of dozens of others who all did the same. In truth, he didn’t mean that the notion of government is wrong per se. He meant that democratic government was wrong; he clearly believed that leaders like himself and his select subordinates and their families should continue to draw their incomes from public coffers but the people who fill those coffers should not have access to them. The people should be self reliant and fend for themselves; anything else was immoral. He wasn’t a small ‘D’ democrat; he was a plutocrat. The United States is a plutocracy now, and this election is offering the people an opportunity to become a purely fascist plutocracy.

The Republicans have all along supported the plutocracy and in this election cycle they are simply asking for the final seal of approval in an effort to remove the necessity of pretending it is anything else. Remember Grover Norquist vowing to shrink government down to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub? He didn’t mean all government. He meant those parts of the government that are involved in corporatewelfarevssocialwelfareproviding social services and programmes for those in need. He meant those aspects of government that could be considered democratic. He had no problem with the government stepping in to control women’s bodies, or providing billions of dollars annually to corporate interests. Democracy, not government was the problem. Note the gerrymandering that ensured a Republican House for the foreseeable future; note the Republican organised efforts at voter suppression; they weren’t even pretending to want a democracy. Putting a fascist in the White House, particularly an inept, not terribly bright, and easily manipulated fascist, wofree-pressuld ensure the long term survival of the plutocracy.

Donald Trump suits the needs of the entrenched powers. They know that he’s lazy, ignorant, and far more interested in the trappings of power than actually administrating the affairs of state. As long as he gets to attend rallies and hear his name chanted, others will be able to maintain and ensure the survival of the plutocracy. With him in the White House, the limitations on the rights and freedoms of the people will be easy to manage. Trump has free-speechalready promised to impose stricter limits on the free press. He has already promised to impose stricter limits on free speech. He built his campaign on promises to take actions that are not permitted under the constitution as it currently exists. His handlers will have no problem imposing fascism under a Trump presidency.

The only real problem facing the Republicans at the moment is the establishment of a true hierarchy of hidden power. In their view, Trump will be the figurehead national leader while his strings are pulled by the true wielders of power; but who will that be? The party is falling apart because of utter internal chaos and an apparent inability to organise anything more complicated than a month or two vacation for themselves.

But should the Koch Brothers finally get fed up with all the clowning around in the GOP, for-sale-your-soulthey’ll just put their financial foot down and read them the riot act. They’ll tell them what to do and the soulless legislators they own will snap to attention and do as they’re told. The plutocracy will prevail. It won’t hit the tipping point this time, because Trump is going to get his ass handed to him in November. But Hillary as president won’t change much, and the Republicans will have four, or possibly eight years to regroup. And then, unless there is some cataclysmic change, or a revolution in the thinking of the people of the US, the plutocracy will once again flirt with fascism.

ENDITEM…

Language in the era of uncertainty

Declining Standards or a Sea Change?

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) I use the phrase “Sea Change” ironically to point out the declining standards also referred to in the slug above this essay.

Although Shakespeare used the phrase in Ariel’s Song in The Tempest, the expression “sea change” is bardactually a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the bard’s greatest tragedy, Prince Hamlet of Denmark undergoes a nearly inexplicable modification of his personality and character during an off-stage adventure at sea, which is not performed, but only described to the audience by means of the play’s dialogue. Unobserved by the audience, Hamlet embarks on the adventure as the melancholy Dane, an indecisive, dithering mass of uncertainty. When he returns, he is strong, focused, stalwart, and determined. He has undergone a sea change.

That phrase is commonly employed by writers today who mean little more than a modification of the status quo; as a metaphor, it has lost its punch through misuse and overuse.

I only mention that single and not terribly important example as an indicator of an increasing degradation of the English language. Unexamined metaphors are one thing, but the erosion of the fundamentals of the language is something else again. The inclination to disregard rules and conventions of usage is a clear trend, and it is snowballing as it gathers strength and increases in acceptability. I doubt if anyone who is proficient in grammar, spelling, and word usage has failed to notice, and even decry, the way the English language has lost much of its beauty and elegance in an unequal trade for a naturalistic sound in published prose.

toystory-badwritingEven a cursory look through the Internet editions of highly respected publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, or Time Magazine will reveal typo after typo, syntactical errors, and misused words. Just today, I saw an article by a professional journalist who used the word “clique” where she clearly meant “cliché”. An error on the part of an auto-correct feature? Perhaps. A slip as a result of writing under the pressure of deadline? Could be. But the point is that errors of all types are increasingly common. What is significant, though, is not so much the frequency of errors, but the indifference displayed even by professionals to their appearance in print or online.

It is exceedingly rare to read anything online today that is entirely free of errors. What is becoming increasingly common, though, is the deliberate employment of chatty colloquialisms, Web-jargon, and acronyms. Serious articles contain expressions like LOL, or WTF, even presidential candidates rely on social media familiarity by posting phrases like “delete your account”, which would have been meaningless even a decade ago.

Now this essay isn’t intended to be a crotchety, pedantic, lament from a professional writer for “the good good-newsold days”. On the contrary. I’m writing this piece to suggest that we may just be at a watershed point in the history of the English language. Historically, it wouldn’t be the first time the language has undergone a process of rapidly overhauling itself.

The Great Vowel Shift of the 15th to 17th Centuries was a process of radical modification in the way English was pronounced; essentially, English was spoken like Chaucerian English before the shift, and like Shakespearean English afterwards. At roughly the same time the pronunciation was changing, the language itself was changing from Middle English to Modern English. A quick way to get a sense of the scope of the change is to compare the readability of something by Sir Thomas Malory from the early-mid 15th Century, to the ease of access enjoyed by the King James version of The Bible, written between 1604 and 1611.

Two great dictionariests also had marked impact on the English language. In 1746 in Great Britain, Samuel Johnson was contracted to produce a more definitive English dictionary than the haphazardly researched ones then available. Over nine years, he single handedly researched, compiled, and wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, sometimes printed as Johnson’s Dictionary. Widely recognised as being among the greatest scholarly achievements in history, Dr. Johnson’s magnum opus remained the standard English language reference until The Oxford English Dictionary was completed over 170 years later. Thanks to Johnson, spelling became standardised. Prior to his dictionary, spelling was idiosyncratic and capricious, with words being written however the writer heard it in his head at that moment. William Shakespeare famously even spelled his own name differently on different occasions. Now there was a correct and an incorrect way of writing the spoken language.webster-johnson

On the other side of the pond, in 1806 Noah Webster’s first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, was published. Webster can be credited with standardising the American spelling of English language words, and formalising the differences between British and American spelling. In America, centre became center; labour, neighbour, and favour all lost their Us and became labor, neighbor, and favor; specialise swapped its second S for a Z (now called zee rather than zed) and was spelled more like it is pronounced: specialize; and so with civilize, vitalize, recognize, and harmonize.

And all of these mowilliamdifications, shifts, and changes are in the relatively modern history of the language. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, a modern English speaker would not have understood a Briton’s language at all; the introduction of Norman French to the language of the Angles and Saxons altered the language of the British Isles and sent it off on a trajectory that culminated in today’s version.

That we are in a new period of flux and uncertainty regarding English usage can be attributed to the Internet, of course, but there is also a sociological and even political component at work.

The Internet has provided an audience undreamed of by writers even 20 years ago. And that audience is available to literally anyone who has something to say and access to a computer. For those of us who started our careers in print media, we were second guessed on newsroom-old-schoolmatters of adherence to the publication’s style manual, on spelling, on usage, and our editors always had a spike waiting if we wrote crap. Nothing was set in type without having been seen by at least five sets of eyes. Mistakes in print, therefore, were rare. In contrast, for the vast majority of people who post on social media, or even personal blogs and websites, there is no third party filter; there is no editor to exercise control over content, there are no copy editors to impose style, spelling, and usage standards, and there are no proofreaders to provide a final check for errors. What they post can be stream of consciousness, straight from their keyboards to a potential audience of hundreds of millions of internet-warriorpeople. And no matter how unhinged the copy is, it can find an audience within that vast amorphous crowd who wants to read more of it. That’s how The Drudge Report and Breitbart manage to stay in business.

People are becoming accustomed to sloppy syntax, to the casual employment of neologisms, unconventional grammar, usage, and spelling. The unprofessional writing standards of even very successful Internet outlets has become the new normal. And that’s where the sociological and political component comes in.

For about 20 years now and increasingly every day, a movement within conservative circles has deliberately disparaged and undermined any hint of intellectualism, or expertise. Part of the new conservatism, especially as represented by the so called “alt right”, is an insistence that an expert opinion is just an opinion and anybody, however ignorant of the subject, can have an equally valid opinion. Scientific claims can be refuted, in the conservative zeitgeist, by anyone who makes a contrary claim; accepting an expert’s claim is seen as elitism unless even the least educated counterclaim is given equal standing.

That, of course, crosses over into the field of writing. A professional who anti-intellectual-1automatically avoids splitting infinitives, who ensures that verb and subject agree, chooses words with care, and is consistently accurate in his spelling, is condescended to as an “elitist”. The anti-elitist thinking goes so far as to suggest that it is safe to reject the arguments of someone who frames them logically, presents them with precision and care, and supports his points with factual evidence. To criticise the quality of writing in the blog of someone who is barely literate, is to invite a rebuttal that would argue that it must be good writing because of the number of hits it racks up. Popularity justifies bad writing. Bad writing is becoming standardised. But this may be the dawn of another shift; this time from Modern English to a 21st Century English language.

For a new and updated version of the English language to become the agreed upon standard, perhaps a period of fluidity, of flux, is a necessary precondition. Before a Samuel Johnson can emerge and rewrite the standards of acceptability in the new New English, it may be necessary for people to become dissatisfied with the capricious way people speak and write. If so, that probably won’t take very long. The problem with people using language willy-nilly, without reference to conventions or rules, is that communication suffers.

People simply won’t be able to understand one another clearly without conventions of usage. We have paul-ryan-trump-ap-reuters-640x480already seen the bastardisation of the English language leading to confusion in the current US presidential election. The mutability of words allows, for example, Paul Ryan to refuse to defend his party’s nominee; to acknowledge that Donald Trump is the very definition of a racist, to report being “sickened” by his misogyny, but somehow continue to endorse him. When words do not have a clearly understood shared meaning, every statement made can be weaseled out of as having been misunderstood. That’s where we are now.

But soon, one can hope, people will reject the muddy, indefinite, and vacillating use of language that is so common today. A new set of conventions will, one can hope, emerge, and lead to a comfortable period of clarity, understanding, and perhaps even elegance of expression in the English language. Perhaps then public figures won’t be able to get away so easily with claiming they didn’t say something they were recorded saying. Words have power; it’s incumbent upon us all to insist that the power be used with care.

ENDITEM….

 

The Fact-free Future

Embracing Ignorance

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) As western politics become increasingly polarised, and the liberal vs. conservative battle lines are drawn ever more far apart, one feature of the conflict becomes particularly bemusing: questions of scientific fact have become politicised.

In the 21st Century, issues that are clearly susceptible to empirical investigation and rational analysis have become litmus tests for one’s political persuasion, despite the salient fact that, on the surface at life-beginsleast, there is nothing whatever political about the subjects. At what moment does human life start? At birth? At viability? At quickening? At conception? At erection? Scientific questions, certainly, but the religious implications are clear; and where issues of religion and legislation collide, politics becomes the battlefield. But then there are other clearly scientific subjects that have even more tenuous connections to politics.

Anthropogenic climate change is simply and obviously a question that falls squarely within the realm of scientific analysis. And yet its acceptance or rejection is an indicator of one’s political leanings. Ditto for the purely scientific discussion of evolution and the part it plays in human and other organisms’ development over Earth’s history. Nevertheless, both of those subjects, within the political world at least, are deeply divisive. In the scientific world, there is no genuine controversy over either scientific theory; climate change is real and it is caused by human activity; evolution is real and it is the explanation for the origin and development of species.

quantum2The interesting thing, though, about the politicisation of those scientific theories is that their acceptance is virtually universal by the political left, while their rejection is comparably pervasive by the right. How does it happen that the conservative political stance has come to include a contemptuous disdain for science, for expertise, education, and knowledge on the one hand, and an enthusiastic embrace of gut feeling, of unsupported dogma, and of belief over knowledge? And why is the left more predisposed to accept science and rational analysis as their decision-making criteria than the right?

The short answer is that the conservative viewpoint tends to be shared, in North America particularly, by those who self-define as Christian, evangelical, fundamentalist, or born again; it is the religious conviction of conservatives that makes scientific questions political. Politics, as such, has no disagreement with science; but the religion of political conservatives most certainly does. Religion, persecutionparticularly Christianity, has a long and chequered history of butting heads with science. Scientists, Galileo perhaps most famously, have put their lives at risk to express scientific discoveries that met with the disapproval of the Christian church leaders.

 Stephen J Gould proposed the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria”. The idea was to separate the realms of science and religion and accord each the respect they deserve, while accepting that their intellectual content did not intrude on each other’s; that their areas – magisteria – of subject matter did not overlap. Science, according to Gould’s doctrine of NOM, would deal with questions susceptible to empirical and rational observation and investigation, while religion would deal with matters of revealed knowledge, the supernatural, and faith-based belief. Unfortunately, Professor Gould’s elegant and simple solution to the conflict between religious belief and science couldn’t stand up to real life testing.

an_inconvenient_truth_vs_a_reassuring_lieThe main problem with the NOM doctrine with respect to the political realm is that Christian activists are dedicated to the elimination of the separation of church and state; activist Christian groups are explicitly working to bring about a Christian theocracy in the United States. And, given that their brand of Christianity is largely based on the view that every word of their Bible is literally true, they read the bible as a scientific and historical text as well as a theological text.

Thus, the US conservative movement is comprised of those who adhere to the scientifically ludicrous “young Earth” dogma. The notion that every genuine scientist is simply wrong in the assertion the Earth formed some four and a half billion years ago and that life arose eons later and through a process of natural selection evolved into what we see around us today, is part of their religious belief. Therefore, their religious dogma that the Earth was created in seven twenty-four hour days some six thousand years ago, that mankind shared the planet with dinosaurs, that Noah’s flood somehow explains the stratification of the Grand Canyon, etc. etc. has become their political position as well as their scientific assertion and historical understanding.

As their religious-political-scientific-historical worldview is rejected by the majority of people who are less extreme in their beliefs and agendas, the religious right has for more than a decade employed a science-1strategy they openly call “the wedge”. The idea is to demonise and ultimately eliminate Darwinian evolution from the classroom. Their technique is Machiavellian and has been frighteningly successful in The US. Since the US Supreme Court has declared that teaching creationism as science violates the constitutional prohibition of the establishment of a state religion, they propose a modified version they call “intelligent design”. Then they argue that since evolution is merely a theory, alternative theories, ought to be on the curriculum.

Court after court has ruled that IT or intelligent design is nothing more than a tarted up version of creationism, and that it doesn’t come close to meeting the criteria to be called a scientific theory. Nevertheless, its supporters are indefatigable; they just keep on trying. After all, they are on a holy mission. And from their viewpoint, their crusade is blessed by their god because they know the Truth.

This politicisation of the goals of the theocratically inclined right wing is becoming increasingly confrontational with the current presidential contest. Not that Donald Trump is particularly religious; he’s not. Not even a little bit. He believes in Donald J Trump and nothing else. But the religious right is just wild about him. And that dynamic seems to have baffled a few pundits.science-gop

Why wouldn’t the religious right support Hillary Clinton, a church going, family values candidate whose history shows just how seriously she takes the sanctity of marriage? Why would they gravitate en masse to Trump, who can’t remember a single chapter of their bible, a man who bragged openly about his infidelities and is on his third wife? The short answer is that all that family values rhetoric and posturing, so common in Republican circles, is sheer hypocrisy.

The truth is that what Donald Trump represents to them is a rejection of rational thought, a dismissal of critical thinking, and a strong anti-science and anti-intellectual inclination. He loves the poorly educated, he once enthused. They know that with the dumbing down of America and the rise of a fact-free world order, their utterly fanciful and delusional beliefs about science, history, and even morality will have an atmosphere in which they would thrive. They are excited about the prospect of an America in which their Christian Taliban can wield power. They love things like the law Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate recently enacted in his home state; the law requires a funeral – arranged through a licenced funeral parlour – for all foetuses that are either aborted or miscarried. They know that the implicit rejection of centuries of scientific progress is the sort of fertile ground in which their idiot ideas will flourish.

Other cultures have taken retrograde steps and rejected learning and fact-based thinking. Look at Islam. It was once the centre of science and art and was centuries ahead of the west in the sophistication of its society. Fundamentalism rose, however, and the current barbarity that much of Islam embraces is the direct result of choosing religion over science. It is not unduly fanciful to fear a similar fate for the US in the event of a Trump presidency.

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