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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

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…

 

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…

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.

ENDITEM….

 

Lyin’, and Soundbites, and Memes…Oh My

Attention spans and politics

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) It’s no secret that attention spans are getting shorter. Arguably, that’s the fault of the Internet providing nearly instant response times, and keeping text content small while graphic and video content dominate on most sites. When I first started writing analysis and opinion pieces many years ago, the average column was about 1500 words and contained no visual content other than a headshot at the top, over the byline. Today, most of my editors are looking for columns of half that length, with 800 words the standard maximum.

attention-span

            I’ve had editors argue that the pay for shorter columns ought therefore to be about half of what they’d pay for twice the number of words. Truly professional editors, editors who started out as writers, see the fallacy in that argument. Winston Churchill, when he was earning his living as a political writer after he withdrew from political life, was once asked to write a specific piece of critical analysis for the London Times on short notice. He told the editor that he could get them 4000 words by the next day’s deadline. The editor responded that he would be happy with 2000 words, to which Churchill replied that he didn’t have enough time to write it that short. Churchill was acutely aware that cramming that much insight into a smaller piece was a far more difficult challenge than covering the same territory with enough room to express himself freely; condensing his thoughts and maintaining the same quality of analysis was a much tougher proposition.

            If a good writer takes a certain number of words to make and justify a point and then edits his

Winston Churchill...5th June 1941: Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965) pins his flag into his lapel after he had bought one in aid of Red Cross Day in London. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

own writing, eliminating any UEUE[1], any further cutting by an editor necessarily takes something away from the point and its supporting argument. And it’s safe to say that Churchill, the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature, was a good writer. Ideally, in commentary and analysis in periodicals, a writer will produce a piece that expresses a single main point and argue for it in the minimum number of words she or he feels covers the idea thoroughly. If the editorial constraints are too strict, the piece will be too short, and will spark rebuttals from readers who wish to dispute the points raised but insufficiently supported. If the piece is too long for a daily, it should perhaps be submitted to a weekly, or, if still too long, a monthly. If no periodical can accommodate its length, clearly the writer should be thinking in terms of a book.

            When I first started this site, I used to post 800 word pieces, sometimes with a graphic or two. That was because I had developed the habit of writing pieces on opinion pages of daily print media, for attentionwhom 800 words had become the standard. But over the years, I have discovered that 1300 to 1700 words is a far more comfortable size with which to get my point across. And now I add 5 or 6 graphics to each post because my research shows that, on the ‘net, people who are just clicking through, are put off by seeing blocks of text that aren’t broken up by visual content, and are likely to “bounce” as SEO experts express it.

            Having said all that, what is revolutionary about the current state of political reporting and commentary is that even the briefest analysis is beyond the attention span of the majority of people who aren’t either in politics, or in the media, or simply obsessed with the current US presidential election. A little over a year ago, the alt. right, after endorsing Donald Trump, claimed that they would win this election by memes. And of course the Trump campaign has taken on board as their CEO, the former head of alt. right news source, Breitbart, Stephen Bannon. And since Bannon took over, the campaign’s reliance on clickbait, memes, prepared soundbites, provocative tweets, and a refusal to take questions or engage in dialogue at press “conferences”, has contributed to Trump’s resurgence in the polls.

            Today, even the 800-word standard is too much for the demographic that gravitates to Trump. It is too much for them actually to read and understand facts in news reporting; it is completely beyond their grasp to understand thoughtful analysis. Memes are their preferred bite-sized nuggets of wisdom.memes For that demographic, memes are ideal. They say something briefly; they usually say it as though their opinion is an established fact; and the more offensive and confrontational they are, the more they are shared and circulated. Memes can’t be argued against because the person who posts them doesn’t necessarily take responsibility for them, and, like Trump, when called on it, they can claim to have been joking.

            The left doesn’t seem to be restricted to the same extent as the right is to those tiny thoughts expressed in photo shopped visuals and often misspelled one and two syllable words; the right wing, however, seems to employ them to the exclusion of more thorough analysis. Certainly, the left employs memes and tweets, but there is almost no thoughtful analysis of politics from a right wing viewpoint available online. In print, there is the Wall Street Journal, but even that bastion of conservative journalism has abandoned Trump and the alt. right. Right leaning blogs and news outlets tend to be hyperbolic in their condemnation and ad hominem pickard-facepalmattacks on the left; they tend to state opinions as fact, they support the wildest conspiracy theories without any critical analysis. In short, The National Enquirer is the standard of journalism to which they seem to aspire.

            There used to be intelligent if misguided think pieces in sensible right wing periodicals. Besides the WSJ, there was the National Review and other conservative outlets. The right wing, however, has moved so far into fascist territory that even William Buckley’s pseudo-intellectual conservative platform finds itself uncomfortably close to the centre.

            And this is the new face of journalism. On one side you have twfoxnewseets, memes, soundbites, slogans, catchphrases, and low rent sewer attack journalism. This is the Trump universe. There is not one single responsible and professional news outlet, in print, in broadcast, or in electronic format that supports Trump unreservedly. Even the worst excuse for television news, Fox News, can’t bring themselves to get fully behind their own creature; Trump has made the right wing echo chamber hesitate before fully committing to his political psychosis.

            The Trump ascendancy has destroyed civil political discourse, it has eliminated human decency in political campaigning, and perhaps worst of all, it has reduced journalism to the lowest ebb in its venerable and proud history. What Trump will do to international relations and world politics in the unthinkable event of his election is too horrible to contemplate rationally.

[1] UEUE is a word I invented to mean “extraneous and unnecessary additions to that which is essential”. Its genesis is the spelling of the word “queue”, in which the letters UEUE add nothing that isn’t said simply by “Q”.

ENDITEM….

A Moral Choice

It’s One or the Other

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) As the US presidential election approaches, and the summer of Trump turns into the autumn of everyone’s discontent, political pundits and our audiences have much to reflect upon. It is widely acknowledged that this year’s election cycle has been profoundly unusual if not entirely choices-unique. Thanks to the ego of a deeply disturbed narcissist with too much access to money, the world has been subjected to a disgraceful display: the celebration of the very worst in human nature, and ugliness, that ought to be suppressed, elevated to become the new normal. Nevertheless, in a desperate search for a silver lining, one thing comes to mind. In the United States, the choice between Democratic and Republican candidates is now quite simple.

            What progressives, liberals, and left leaning people in general have long suspected turns out to be true. There is a demonstrable moral difference between the polarised political left and right; the intransigent right wing has demonstrated its complete dearth of moral principles. If basic human morality with or without reference to any mainstream religion is part of a voter’s character, that person simply cannot vote for a Republican candidate.

            The right has always championed toughness, and has wrapped itself in self-righteous proclamations of its own clear-eyed realism. Austerity measures are the right’s go-to solution for any austerity-measureseconomic downturn. Cutting social programmes and throwing the most vulnerable members of society under the bus is considered ‘tough love” and defended as necessary, as fair, and as encouragement to the slothful to get up off their asses and contribute. The right routinely votes down anti-discrimination legislation as intruding on religious or economic freedoms. The right has traditionally led the country into wars and then, with equally falsely justified fervor, cut veteran’s benefits. School lunch programs, food stamps, health care, Planned Parenthood are all left wing initiatives and all are constantly under siege by the party that claims fiscal responsibility as part of their DNA.

            And, of course, it’s all a crock of shit. Imposing austerity measures at a time when interest rates infrastructure investmentare virtually zero, the economy is sluggish, and when the country is in desperate need of vast public works investment, are like a medieval surgeon bleeding a patient to treat anemia. An enormous injection of cheap capital would put billions of dollars into circulation, provide countless well-paying jobs, and, not incidentally, restore the crumbling infrastructure of the United States. The investment, according to economic analysts, would be repaid within two years of its inception and would continue to pay dividends for decades.

            The economic warriors who are quick to whip out their broadaxes when they see a programme that benefits the poor or the marginalized, see nothing whatever wrong with giving tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to wildly profitable corporations who pay their employees starvation wages, forcing corporate welfarethem to apply for food stamps – which are on the chopping block because the right considers such programmes to be coddling the lazy. Bottom line? The taxpayers are subsidising corporate CEOs and their billion dollar payoffs as well as their payroll. If a company’s employees need government support to live on their paycheques, the taxpayers are covering that company’s costs of doing business, and their employees are being blamed. Republican lawmakers argue that the people shouldn’t have to support underemployed citizens; they seem to have no problem asking those same taxpayers to pay for billion dollar wages and bonuses for contributors to Republican election campaigns.

            For decades now, the Republicans have been able to lie with barefaced unabashed aplomb and wmdnever be held accountable. George W. Bush’s war was justified by a simple policy of lying. There were no weapons of mass destruction despite the administration’s assurances that they would be found immediately upon invading. There were none, and they knew it. That kind of lie, which led to the deaths of countless innocent civilians and thousands of US soldiers, is the worst kind of lie. It wasn’t fudging, or exaggerating, or shading the truth; it was a flat out, straight in-your-face made up fact. The people were deliberately deceived to gain their support for Bush and Cheney’s mercantile interests and there has never been a reckoning.

            And on the subject of barefaced statements that are precisely the opposite of factual reality, the Republican party, as noted above, somehow manages to perpetuate the myth that they are the party of fiscal responsibility while the Democrats are all about “tax and spend”. Since back when the Reagan fiscal conservativesadministration tanked the economy by the imposition of the fatuous and self evidently ridiculous “trickle down” theory of enriching the rich, Democratic administrations have consistently and successfully attacked the budget deficit and the national debt, only to see the next Republican president piss it away. Bush the Younger inherited a balanced budget and more than two hundred billion dollars in surplus from Bill Clinton. He managed to run up several trillion dollars in debt after spending the surplus in record time. But, don’t fret, Haliburton did very well out of the war, and Bush got to wear a cool flight suit when he declared “Mission accomplished” a decade and more before the US pulled out. But that deficit is the windmill that the Republican legislators pretend to tilt at out of fiscal responsibility.

            All the foregoing and a great deal more can be laid at the Republican’s doorstep, and their mendacity and hypocrisy is obvious to anyone who watches anything other than Fox News. (Here’s a little true fact that you won’t hear from anyone in the GOP: amid the handwringing and discriminatory legislation proposed by the party of “family values”, in the storm of freaking out over the possibility of a transgender citizen using a washroom that corresponds to one’s current gender identity, the truth is that, statistically, you or your children are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted or harassed by a Republican senator than a transsexual person in a public washroom.) And as far as morality is concerned, let’s not forget the voter suppression methods employed by the GOP against minorities; let’s remember also the gerrymandering that Republican states have openly engaged in. Space and time simply don’t allow for an exhaustive list of the moral lapses that are central to Republican politics.

            But having said all that, until 2015, there was still a slim possibility that someone of decent moral character could rationalise supporting a Republican candidate. Somehow, with a healthy dose of sophistry, one could conceivably argue that a vote for the Republican candidate was not a moral abdication. But that is no longer the case.

            Donald Trump has made his entire pitch based on the most repugnant and morally reprehensible ryan racistpolicies and promises. He is an unashamed bigot of the very worst stripe. He encourages hatred and he deliberately instigates violence. Independent fact checkers have measured him as lying in 80% of the statements of fact he includes in his speeches. The very worst aspects of humanity are his calling card. These characteristics are not incidental to his appeal; they are the very basis and the raison d’etre of his candidacy. Apart from his hateful and rather malleable pledges to round up and deport 11,000,000 residents, to build his wall and make Mexico pay for it, to deny entry to an entire religion and to register and monitor those already here, he simply has no policies. He has slogans, he leads chants, but he has no domestic or foreign policy; an attitude is not policy. All he has is the hatred that he feeds off.

            And that means that if one supports Trump, one supports racism and hatred. One cannot support Trump in any way and justify one’s morality. If you vote for Trump, you vote for racism and bigotry. Not to put to fine a point on it, but if you support Trump, you are a racist.Dark side

            If you are not a racist, if you have any inclination to see yourself as a moral and decent human being you can’t vote for Donald Trump. There is no more avoiding the fact that to vote for the Republican nominee in 2016 is to choose evil. Welcome to the dark side.

ENDITEM…

The World According to Trump

Looking to a Grim Future

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The 2016 United States presidential election is different from any previous presidential political race. Few of the elements that make this election unique are, in and of themselves, completely new to US politics; taken together, though, they add up to an unprecedented political campaign.

            There have been candidates before Donald Trump who ran on an “America First” platform; indeed, the America First Committee formed in 1940 was a powerful pressure america firstgroup whose avowed purpose was to keep the US out of World War 2. Naturally, the group attracted Nazi supporters, including Hitler admirer Charles Lindbergh; The Trump campaign’s use of the slogan is a dogwhistle call to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other race baiting groups. But Trump’s overt racism and in-your-face hatred of minorities was also foreshadowed by George Wallace’s segregationist presidential bid.

            The vitriolic hate speech that forms the backbone of Trump’s rallies is different only in degree from some earlier campaigns. That Trump regularly and unabashedly calls his opponents criminals, bigots, and traitors, that Trump leads his acolytes in chants of “lock her up!”, that Trump routinely encourages violence against peaceful protesters, are all behaviours that are simply quantum leaps more extreme than previous campaign outrages.

            Even Trump’s success in creating a political atmosphere in which his policies are utterly incomprehensible, his statements contradict themselves daily, and in which he is free to lie, to mislead, and to make and double down on outrageous and entirely false and easily disproven accusations, is merely taking old unethical political tactics to their extreme. Candidates have accused one another of a variety of unsavoury actions in previous campaigns, but it took the Trump candidacy before we would see the Barack-Obama-Hillary-Clinton-ISISRepublican nominee stating flatly that the incumbent president and the current Democratic nominee and former secretary of state were literally co-founders of ISIS. Not in any metaphorical or figurative sense or anything, Trump assured us; but literally and factually, actual founders of the radical Islamic terrorist organisation.

            Donald Trump with his “political outsider” pretense is degrading not only the way politics is done in the US, but he is debasing the entire social atmosphere of the nation, and to a lesser extent, the world. In the year that Trump has dominated the media with his ludicrous campaign, the culture of the United States has been demonstrably coarsened and human decency, trump-effecttolerance, courtesy, and critical thinking have receded to the point that they are all treated as the laughable conceits of the cowardly and the pretentious. The emergence of ignorance, hatred, and violent confrontation as virtues can be credited to the account of Donald Trump.

            On this Labour Day, as I am busy gathering my seven-year-old boy’s back-to-school stuff in preparation for Grade Two tomorrow, I am naturally inclined to look toward the future that he is going to face both this year, and over the course of his life. With two more months to go until we can be certain that the Donald Trump infection has been finally eradicated, that future is somewhat uncertain. But I know one thing for sure; the world in which JJ will grow to adulthood is darker, uglier, and more dangerous than it was, even eighteen months ago.

            When I was his age, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments Joan_Baez_Bob_Dylanover the perceived chaos in the world as a result of the baby boom bubble coming into its own. Youth culture was emerging and the previous generation was afraid, was offended, but mostly was bewildered. The zeitgeist was indeed chaotic in the early Sixties. My generation was stretching its wings and flexing its muscles; we knew we wanted change although we weren’t sure what we wanted to change into. But whatever ideas we had about what the world ought to look like, we took it for granted that with cooperation, with dedication, and byhippy3 bringing our energy and commitment to bear, we could make it happen. We had great dreams and endless supplies of hope.

            Before that energy dissipated and our generation scattered and then succumbed to the “me” generation that followed, we managed to accomplish things that today would be considered hopeless tasks. By applying our will and energy, we managed to get civil rights legislation passed in the US, legal segregation was ended, Roe V. Wade made abortion legal, a Catholic president was elected, the Peace Corps was founded, we put humans on the moon, feminism became second nature to most people, environmental issues were raised and became part of the world’s discussion, we managed to turn the world against the Vietnam conflict and forced a president to pull American troops out, and far from least, we held a president’s feet to the fire and forced his resignation for having done politics in the traditional, unaccountable way.

Bookends

Time it was

And what a time it was

A time of innocence

A time of confidences

Long ago it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you

Simon and Garfunkel

simon and garfunkel

            But I look around now and I see what my son is going to face and I worry for his future. My son is a remarkable person. Although he can be exhausting because of his ADHD, I’m convinced that I learn as much from him as he does from me. He’s wicked smart; in some things, like places he’s been and people he’s met, his memory is eidetic; he has an autism-related difficulty with language acquisition, preferring to use words in a way that make sense to him, rather than employ the socially agreed-upon syntax. But mostly I am struck daily by his very un-autistic sense of empathy and sensitivity to the feelings of others. He is always the first one to run and hug another child who is sad or afraid. He cries when he hears something sad, he is more likely to give his lunch or his toys to someone who needs or wants them, than to monopolise or hoard them as most kids his age do. But he is of a visible minority, being brown skinned; he has speech issues; he is hypersensitive both physically and emotionally; he is very vulnerable.

            He will almost certainly be the target of bullying as he grows up and goes to school. The world that he is now inhabiting is far more likely to treat him cruelly or harshly than it was when I was young, and he is far less equipped than I was to cope with those sharp corners and elbows. The world that Donald Trump exemplifies and encourages, is full of intolerance and hatred. It is a world where walking all overBleakFutureAhead_B our weaker fellow humans is encouraged and admired, where kindness and decency are disdained as weakness or cowardice. It is a world without genuine confidence in the future, or any real hope for improvement as the result of our actions. Idealism, that sense of right and wrong and the value of working to make the world better, simply isn’t a big part of the world at the moment. And it makes me want to weep for him. Since I became a father late in life – I’m sixty and he’s seven – I am increasingly aware that I won’t be around to cushion the slings and arrows of everyday fortune when he is an adult.

            Largely for that reason, I have chosen to spend his critical early elementary school years in a small village in rural Vancouver Island, where we know all our neighbours, where there is a community of artists, hippies, free thinkers, and back to the land people, as well as environmentalists, vegans, and traditional farmers. A place where we often keep our doors unlocked, where neighbours take care of one another and their children feel free to knock on one’s door if frightened, or tired or lost.

            But eventually, when he is better able to accept that not everyone in this world is prepared for a _donald-trump-insanelittle boy who will spontaneously hug a stranger in a queue at the general store because he likes her voice, he will have to take his place in the hate-filled, and intolerant world that we are creating by accepting Donald Trump and his ilk. By letting his viciousness, his narcissism, his pathological inability to distinguish fact from fiction, and his bigotry to slide without instant, unanimous and vocal condemnation, we are normalising it and allowing it to become part of the new world order.

            Where we stand right now, should Trump manage to get himself elected, the world will be a nightmarish dystopia, and one for which it is impossible to prepare because of Trump’s instability and refusal to prepare in any way for the position he wants. But even if, as seems likely, he is trounced and sent packing, his legacy will live on. The world is a palpably worse place for his having occupied so much of our attention. And before the pendulum swings back, as it inevitably will, the world that my son should be looking forward to being a part of is going to be unpleasant, inhospitable, and a bleak, cold place. For that I can never forgive Donald Trump and his supporters.

ENDITEM….

Licence to Hate

The Rise and Fall and Rebirth of Political Correctness

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The first time I heard the phrase “political correctness” was some time back in the 70s, and it was used by my then agent to criticise a publisher’s rejection letter. She had submitted a manuscript of a mystery/thriller I had written, in which one of my more unsavoury characters, a debt collection agency owner, was named Lenny Stein. She faxed me a copy (faxes were new and high tech back then) of the rejection letter, as it was actually a personal note and not a form letter. The publisher, rejection-letter-socialin his rejection of one of the few substantial pieces of fiction I have ever written, was positive, if not actually effusive about my novel. He recommended a number of changes if I were to submit it elsewhere and explained frankly why he was turning it down and not asking me to resubmit it to him. He was offended, he explained, by my rampant antisemitism. That Lenny Stein was clearly intended to be an unscrupulous Jewish bill collector, was pure bigotry and intolerable to him.

Ironically, the character was actually deliberately based on an unscrupulous Jewish bill collector with a similar name. The character and his real life counterpart were similar, even in their physical descriptions, right down tpreppy waspo the perpetual dusting of dandruff on the shoulders of their cheap suits. (I wanted him to recognise himself despite the disclaimer). Nevertheless, the publisher was right; the character was clichéd and worked much better when I changed him to a very WASPish Upper Canada College preppy type, slumming in the debt recovery business. But it was my agent who was furious. She said in a very sarcastic tone that the submission had only been rejected as it was insufficiently “politically correct”.

The expression, “political correctness”, as a neologism of the latter half of the 20th Century became part of our everyday lexicon as a reaction to an historical period in which civil rights and racial, ethnic, and gender equality were finally becoming a reality against strong social pushback. By the late 60’s some of the most offensive epithets, slurs which had been commonly deployed in casual middle class discourse, had been suppressed and were recognised as trace hatehe hurtful expressions they always were. But ordinary people no longer felt free to use words like nigger, kike, spic, or broad any more. Civilised and courteous people eschewed language that was likely to offend; the now sidelined derogatory labels were only employed by die-hard bigots, and were used specifically because of their verboten nature when offense was the aim.

But like many other benign and even beneficial notions, the societal pressure to avoid giving offense became an exercise in playing gotcha! People began militantly dissecting the language of others in an attempt to find an expression, word, or phrase that carried the possibility of offending someone or some group. People without the tiniest bigoted bone in their bodies found themselves accused of being insensitive or even of willfully offending when they used a word they had no idea could be interpreted as racist. Someone who had routinely used the word “gypsy” metaphorically, or even simply to describe the people known for their caravans,colourful head scarfs, and fortune tellers, would find himself accused of unforgiveable racism. “Gypsy” was no longer politically correct; the proper descriptive term was now “Romany” people. My suspicion is that not a single Romany person had ever objected to being called a gypsy. As I recall, being a young boy in France in the late 50’s and early 60’s who loved to play with the children of the Romany people when they camped in the fields behind our house, they called themselves “gypsies” or its equivalent in the various languages they spoke.

There is no question that the PC impulse got out of hand, with people demanding the right to go politically correct fightingthrough life in a racially and culturally diverse society without ever being offended. At the height of the PC zeitgeist, I wrote emphatically against the restrictive nature of society’s impulse to stifle others’ freedom of expression. I remember moderating a discussion in which John Cleese (at the time still best known as a Python) very firmly held that he had the right to offend; that offending people was his job and was the job of all social critics and relevant comedians and always had been. I remember agreeing wholeheartedly with him. Political correctness, toward the end of the last century, found itself being disparaged and mocked.

People, while still trying to express themselves in ways that didn’t cause needless pain to others, began to refuse to tie themselves into knots simply to be politically correct. Referring to short people as being altitudinally challenged became the kind of joke critics of PC were making. The pendulum had swung far enough that simply referring to someone as being politically correct was the equivalent of saying they were unimaginative and feckless; that they were prissy prudes; simply put, they had a stick up their ass. clint_eastwood__by_cameron1395-d5spzncIn the current US election cycle, no less an icon than Clint Eastwood called those who reject Donald Trump’s in-your-face race baiting, “pussies” and urged us to “get over it”.

Arch liberal Bill Maher, called his ground-breaking political commentary/comedy show “Politically Incorrect” in an effort to re-humanise the parameters of permissible discussion. (As an aside, he was handed his walking papers for being, wait for it….politically incorrect when he said on his show that, to be realistic, one couldn’t honestly describe the suicide terrorists of 9/11 as being “cowards”. He was right, of course, but the PC police wanted his ass, and they got it.) So now it was the conservatives who were demanding political correctness while the progressives and liberals were rejecting it as stultifying and unreasonably restrictive.

The phrase was never employed in an approving manner; it has always carried some connotation of reflecting a sheep-like mindset, a knee-jerk deference to popular social trendiness. Until fairly recently it had seemed as though political correctness had completed its life cycle and was soon to be consigned to the dust bin of anachronistic language. In the last few years, however, the phrase has come roaring back into the vocabulary. The radicalised right wing has suddenly discovered that no one has had much respect for political correctness for years; that to describe someone as being politically correct is to suggest that their freedom of expression has been stolen from them, and that to abjure political correctness is to demonstrate courage and independence of thought.

Trump and PC           With Donald Trump leading the charge, the right, particularly the alt right, has embraced the disdain for PC and employs its rejection as protective colouration for the most appallingly vile public discourse the United States, and the world, has seen since the pre-civil rights era. They have discovered that all they have to do is preface a statement with the assertion that they refuse to be politically correct, and then they have somehow given themselves permission to speak hatred, racism, sexism, or any sort of disgusting bigotry. Where, not very long ago, even the worst example of a redneck racist hillbilly would have thought twice before using the word “nigger” in public, today, people are openly using it as a taunt and a verbal assault.

By implicitly claiming that the only reason people don’t use that and similar repugnant epithets is that they are slaves to PC; they seek to perpetuate the fiction that everyone has their kind of crude bigotry and intolerance bubbling just below the surface. They want everyone to think that only people of courage and honesty, that is people like them, have the integrity to reject political correctness and state the obvious.

So repulsive and so offensive is the licence they give themselves to speak hatred, that sometime soon, we will start to see a reaction to their hatred of and their disdain for political correctness. I believegood-manners- that PC will be reborn. It will have a different name, or no name at all, but the use of society’s surfeit of PC as an excuse to engage in hate speech and vicious, open bigotry will not continue to be acceptable in normal society. The idea of moderating one’s language in an effort to avoid unnecessary hurt will make a comeback as a reaction against the debasement of public discourse that is a direct result of Donald Trump’s emergence on the political landscape.

I just watched a video some Hillary Clinton hater posted on Facebook. Within the first 30 seconds of the ham-fisted clip, the narrator casually refers to Mrs. Clinton as, “that cunt.” By and large, in the comments, even those who don’t support her or her politics reacted negatively to that kind of offensive speech disguised as merely being politically incorrect. The coarsening of the public forums and the negative reaction to it from more enlightened souls is not a matter of political correctness or its rejection. That kind of political attack is simply too vulgar, to gratuitously hurtful, and too personally insulting to be taken seriously or accepted as anything more than ignorant logorrhea.free speech

Assuming, as we must, that Trump will be soundly defeated and Hillary Clinton will be the next US president, it seems likely that society will generally begin to reject the Trump style of rhetoric. There will be a period during which there will be incessant Trump style attacks on the president, but Trump himself will eventually get bored and leave, and his minions will disperse without him as a rallying point. In time it will once again become unacceptable to use racial or ethnic or sexual epithets; their casual employment in conversation will not much longer be seen as honest and brave. People who read, people who are able to think critically, people who have educated themselves will see through the smokescreen; decency, courtesy, and respect in all our dealings will once again be seen as virtues. All we have to do is send Trump and his knuckle dragging, mouth breathing band of bigots back down to the minors.

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