Trump, the Democrats, and Narcissus Narcosis

                    Keith has posted a couple of provocative pieces on these pages in recent weeks. The first one (American Counterpoint 1/31/17) was entitled "Trump Pro and Con", and the second (AC 2/21/17) "Outline for a Democratic Opposition Strategy".  I'm going to conflate these two articles, and my objective is to troll them for insights into America's current political dynamic. There's room for hope here, but only if enough of us can shake off the ugly media-induced stupor we seem to be falling into. 

                    It's my judgment that my blog partner  represents the best of his Party in the sense both of an honest commitment  to core values and a sound problem-solving intelligence. At the same time, though, he - again in my judgment - at times himself falls prey to the various odd manias, phobias, reality distortions and self-delusions that have so damaged his party and exposed it to its recent well-deserved electoral defeat at the hands of someone who should never even have been in the running. The Democrats' own self-degradation, as I see it,  paved the way for Trumpism. Thus,  the manner in which Keith sorts through all this, separating the good from the bad, may be instructive to all of us here who are presently scratching our heads in the effort  to divine the future of our country.
Victory's Poison Chalice

                    What the Democrats do now is important because it's also my observation that the Republican victory was shallow, and that any show of genuine political vigor from a renewed Democratic Party stands a good chance of  turning the tables again by 2020.  Victory was probably the worst thing that could have happened for the Republicans, because it's likely to short-circuit whatever dynamic energies might otherwise have risen to the surface to rid that Party - my Party - of its dogmas, know-nothing smugness,  and tired approaches to critical problems. The theory of democracy - a sound one in my view and I think Keith's - is that healthy contention invigorates political combatants, gives them new ideas, sweeps aside pedantic ideologies,  and propels everybody, even if against their own will, into a promising new space.

                    The other side of this coin, of course, is the darker reality that should this process break down and abandon America's political factions to their present state of bitter dysfunction, then the poison already seeping in around the edges will spread.  Destructive forces have always lurked at the fringes of both parties, and these elements are sensing opportunity in current ominous stalemate.

Serious Liberalism
               Let's start with the upside. Keith opened his 1/31 article by putting his cards on the table. He called himself a "serious liberal" and made reference to his personal history of activist support for civil rights, environmental protection, and other causes to which most of our political factions give lip service but which for the most part only the political Left has worked consistently over the years to advance. Keith unsurprisingly expresses extreme distaste for Donald Trump's character, attitudes, style, behavior and politics. He then, however, makes a remarkable declaration. He says "I respect the voters" (italics mine) and  proceeds to paddle against the current of his own bias to examine Trump's policy prescriptions objectively in an attempt to discover what it was about Trump that attracted enough votes to win the election. Keith does not undergo any epiphanies during this exercise, and he certainly doesn't alter his basic conclusions, but he does present a constructive role model to members of both parties who seem furiously immobilized by their biases right now.

               Likewise, in his 2/21 posting Keith attempts to step back from anti-Trump hysteria. In crafting his outline for an opposition strategy, he says "we need to take a calmer and more calculated approach than has yet materialized". This is not really an invocation to compromise as such,  but rather to rationalism and a willingness to consider all policies consistent with the Party's core values, even where they overlap with Trump's or those of traditional Republicans.  The list of policy and strategy recommendations that follows is generally left of center but includes certain ideas with which many of us on the center-right would concur. In other words, there is common ground here upon which, in theory at least,  a civil governing coalition could form.

Unserious Liberalism
               Unfortunately, I see few signs that Keith's rationalism is even vaguely representative of his party right now.  I have never in my lifetime observed such a vituperative storm of irrational abuse visited upon a new president as Mr. Trump has suffered. He brought much of it on himself, of course, by his boorish style and carelessly inflammatory rhetoric, but his opponents have gone so completely overboard in their overreaction as to be looked upon as people in spiritual meltdown. This is alarming and dangerous.

               The most visible manifestation of frenetic liberal partisanship today may be among professional entertainers, for whom acute outrage seems on its way to becoming chronic and debilitating. Like many people, my wife and I surf the late-night talk shows before drifting off to sleep most evenings and we watch the various comics: Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel, O'Brien, etc. The experience used to be reliably soporific. In recent months, however, not one of these people has been able to get more than fifteen seconds or so into his opening routine before unleashing the initial bitter Trump jokes which often accelerate from there. The newest arrival to this dotty company is TBS's Samantha Bee, whose sudden ascendency in the nighttime funny business seems powered almost exclusively by a non-stop anti-Trump lather.
                Turning to what one might expect to be a marginally less politicized sector of America's cultural establishment, our actors and musicians are if anything even worse. The endless series of self-congratulatory award shows these folks put on for themselves - Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, MTV Awards, etc., etc., -  have long been platforms for overwrought liberal posturing. Since Trump's appearance on the political scene, however, either Trump jokes or teary-eyed denunciations of him have become de rigueur  among honorees mounting the stages to lay hands on their prizes. It's interesting to note that TV viewership for this year's Oscars was down substantially from previous years, almost certainly reflecting at least in part a weariness among the public at having to endure leftish political sermons from celebrities who have just spent more on their couture for the night than many families do on food and housing in a year.

Democracy's Facilitator Is Broken
          Maybe entertainers can be forgiven, however,  because they are generally not taken all that seriously in the first place. The people whose bias is harder to overlook are our journalists. The founders and guardians of American Democracy have over the years always proudly pointed to a free and robust press as essential to our system of open politics, an idea enshrined in our Bill of Rights. The underlying  concept is that voters must have a relatively unhindered flow of accurate information if they are to be expected collectively to exercise sound control over their government.

               One of the most frightening things coming out of this recent election was the rapid popularization of the term "fake news". Why did this notion suddenly blossom? The phenomenon has been around for a long time, of course,  known as "disinformation" by the world's intelligence agencies, who have long used it as a tool for influencing and destabilizing foreign governments, and in some cases controlling domestic politics. Disinformation comes naturally to totalitarian  politicians and was used to good effect by the Nazis in the years leading up to World War II. However, it was the Soviet Union's intelligence services that developed disinformation into the high art form it became in the post-war period under Joseph Stalin and his successors. They routinely employed it in their own country and wherever possible in foreign countries that became targets  for their many campaigns of influence and destabilization. 
               It's interesting to note that concerns about disinformation were usually dismissed by the liberal pundits of the day as stemming from anti-Soviet hysteria. It's of further interest and a point of irony that Vladimir Putin should be at the center of our current fake news controversy,  since he honed his political skills as a KGB agent during the latter Cold War years when the Russian disinformation machine was operating full-tilt under KGB auspices.

               I'm pretty sure it was the Democrats who first introduced the fake-news meme into public awareness during the recent election. They were angry at the demonstrably false stories about  Hillary Clinton, President Obama and other Democrats that kept popping up in the right-wing press. Examples would be the narrative that Obama was a foreign-born Muslim, or that Hillary ordered the murder of Clinton White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster in 1993. While their outrage was understandable, Democrats  conveniently overlooked the fact that the fringe Left also has it media outlets which have long been sources of politically-motivated false news stories that had a way of leaking into the mainstream.
               One of the most far-fetched of these that gained a fair amount of traction had George Bush, in collaboration with his "Neo-Con" backers, personally authorizing the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 to garner support for their subsequent "War on Terror". This, in turn, was a plot to justify either imposing a Fascist state on America, committing genocide against Muslims, or seizing control of Middle Eastern oil fields, depending on which version of the theory one subscribed to. Surveys conducted in the last years of Bush's presidency showed a surprising number of registered Democrats actually gave credence to much of this. Conspiracy theories and the fanciful "news" stories supporting them were part of the anti-Bush and anti-Republican media barrage that, together with the financial collapse and the Iraq quagmire,  helped pave the way for the Democrats' electoral landslide in 2008.

Enter Trump
               In 2017 Donald Trump was quick to spot the hypocrisy in the Democrats' attempt to hang the fake-news odium exclusively on him and his supporters. Using the new bully pulpit he now controlled as President, he turned the charge around on his opponents in the Media and accused them instead  of being the ones to spread fake news. And he had a point, although less in the sense of de novo fabrication of news than of selective reporting and politically-motivated distortion. The most effective lies are, after all, usually 90% true. Trump has repeatedly singled out CNN as among the worst offenders for this sort of thing.

               I've found it interesting and, in recent years,  disheartening to follow CNN's evolution. It was founded in 1980 but really started coming into its own in the early 1990's after receiving a boost from its extraordinary coverage of the First Gulf War. I grew up in the era when TV news meant Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley at six o-clock, and that was pretty much it.  I remember feeling very exited in the beginning by the idea of 24/7 news coverage, and CNN was at the forefront of this development. Having honest reporters out gathering the news on a continuous basis and feeding it back to all of us was a breathtaking idea. This seemed like a true engine for democracy because it would guarantee a knowledgeable citizenry. The informed "Wisdom Of Crowds" would rationalize and optimize politics in our democratic system. The idea was truly thrilling.

Dumbing Down With Bias
               It was also soon to prove itself naive. Maybe it was for cost reasons, but CNN gradually moved away from comprehensive news coverage, although it kept the 24/7 format. What I gradually woke up to was that CNN was distilling the wonderful complexity of the news day down to a  handful of stories that it kept repeating over and over and over. Then over again.

                I still spent a fair amount of time in front of my screen watching CNN, but I soon realized that I was getting less and less actual information from this source. Furthermore, CNN seemed to be obliterating the line between news and "spin". Commentators would rarely present the facts of a story without a context that overshadowed the story itself. Rather than giving its viewers a factual basis upon which to establish a point of view, CNN was imparting the point of view first and then hammering it home with selective facts, carefully avoiding any that might complicate the  narrative.

               I'm singling out CNN here because Trump has done so and because the network today is probably the most influential of the liberal media outlets. The fact is, however, that the CNN-style of manipulative  journalism is becoming universal, even among time-honored print outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post. Newspaper headline-writing was at one time a pragmatic discipline aimed at communicating objectively the gist of a story in as few words as possible. However, like other aspects of modern journalism, headline generation has morphed into a political art designed to emphasize a story's spin more than its content.    
To illustrate, a really fast scan of just one day's headlines (for 3/6/17)  yielded the following:

               David Letterman calls President Donald Trump Ignorant (ABC)
               The Dangerous Rage of Donald Trump (Washington Post)
               Trump's Travel Ban is Still Cruel and Still Unconstitutional (Washington  Post)            
           Donald Trump Reads, Once Again, From Roy Cohn's McCarthyite Playbook (Daily Beast)                                                 
          Donald Trump spends 31 percent of time on vacation, plays golf 8 times in  6  weeks—on taxpayer dime (Daily Kos)
  Barbara Streisand Says Trump Presidency Is Making Her Gain Weight (Huffington Post)

           These are just a few representative headlines, six among hundreds on this one day alone. Perusing the articles themselves reveals them to contain little informational content. This is pure spin not even trying very hard to disguise itself, yet it's being reported in a traditional format that allows readers so inclined to imagine they're being informed by objective news reporting.
          Is there any wonder that Donald Trump feels under assault from a biased media?

          Then, of course,  there's Fox News. The preponderance of the mainstream media outlets in America are decidedly liberal in orientation, but Fox instead reflects the other side. Hopefully that's what their copyrighted "Fair and Balanced" tagline is meant to imply, because otherwise Fox represents nothing of the kind. Fox has learned to emulate CNN in its endless harping on a handful of stories supported by facts molded into a pre-determined narrative. The only difference is the ideological slant.

          Listening to Fox as a balance to CNN is like trying to counteract damage from a high-fat diet by consuming large quantities of sugar. Our modern media provides little in the way of real nutrition and a good deal of poison.  The media's failure is undermining our democracy.

Confirmation Bias Is Powering Extremism
               Cognitive psychologists employ the term "confirmation bias" to describe the tendency of humans to seek out information confirming their existing opinions. A related term the theorists use is "cognitive dissonance",  which alludes to the discomfort we all feel upon encountering evidence contradicting dearly-held assumptions.

               Modern media technology has evolved in such a way that makes it easier for us to surrender to confirmation bias  and thereby avoid cognitive dissonance. Flipping cable channels or hyper-linking through web-pages on the Internet allows us, if we choose, to enter a large and selective universe of people who think much as we do and to screen out the others.  People holding contrary views appear only in caricatured form as enemies, fools or freaks. They become dehumanized and it's OK to hate them or even contemplate violence against them. They're the threatening tribe from the other side of the mountain out to destroy us,  like monstrous foes in a video game.
               Last week I watched an interview that Tucker Carlson conducted with a woman having the oddly asymmetrical  name of Sunsara Taylor. It wasn't clear to me at the time exactly who Ms. Taylor was, but she was well-groomed and reasonably attractive except for the Manson-like glare she affected for the camera. She even seemed well-spoken  until you allowed your mind to drift on to what was being said, at which point your blood went cold. She was calling for "a mass uprising" to combat "Fascism in America". She repeated this at least four or five times.

               Giving her the benefit of the doubt and hoping her to be an ingénue who perhaps failed to grasp the creepy historical import of her own words,   I Googled her afterwards. It would seem she's no ingénue - she knows what she's talking about, and what she wants is blood in the streets. On her Twitter page, she identifies herself as a disciple of a fellow named Bob Avakian, who is an aging SDS zealot who never lost the faith. He currently heads a neo-Maoist organization known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, which is one of the groups fielding  the coordinated violent leftist gangs repeatedly popping up in various American cities and on college campuses to protest Donald Trump's election and to "fight Fascism".

               The opposite numbers on the Right, of course, are the armed militias, skinheads and Klansmen eager to have it out with Mr. Avakian and his ilk. These people all need one another because extreme enemies justify one another's existence and scare moderate or apolitical people into taking sides. The center atrophies as more and more people drift to the radical fringes. This is how civil wars get underway.

Are We Being Hypnotized?
               Marshall McLuhan was a communications theorist who died in relative obscurity in 1980. He had been quite famous for a while in the 1960's, however,  because his theories about how media affects human consciousness spoke to the spirit of the age. I remember reading a couple of his books at the time and being intrigued.  He talked about media - starting with print - as an almost spiritual force that re-orders our sensory apparatus and takes control of our neural pathways in ways of which we're totally unaware.

               I found myself thinking about him again recently, for no apparent reason, and did some hasty research to reacquaint myself. I ran across the following passage from an interview he did in 1969 with Playboy Magazine:

"I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible."
This is McLuhan as I remember him. McLuhan died when the Internet was in its infancy, but the idea of continuous and universal human interconnection would have set his intellect on fire. This is McLuhan's "global village", to employ one his famous phrases, rampaging on steroids half a century later.

               I would like borrow his term "Narcissus Narcosis" and add to it the word "parallel" to to describe what I believe to be the media-induced environment in which all of us are caught up in 2017. This makes the phrase "Parallel Narcissus Narcosis", which implies separate sensory universes, i.e. hypnotic trances, in which everything appears backwards relative to what people in the other  universe are experiencing. We can all see each other, even talk to each other, but everybody on the other side of the invisible divide seems crazy, because they're seeing black as white and up as down. Only we ourselves see things as they are. Only we are rational.

               This is, of course, a dangerous false consciousness. It leads to political dysfunction at the very least and, if not overcome, ultimately to violence, since people who disagree with  us represent a threat to the very fabric of reality. We have to combat them in the streets.

Escaping The Trap
               Which brings me back to Keith's articles,  and, incidentally, to the purpose of this blog. Most of us, usually without knowing it, wear our biases like chains. Through selective association and selective reading, we imagine ourselves to be broadening our life experience when often what we're doing is little more than tightening the chains.

               The way out of the trap is to embrace the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and take it as a learning experience. This does not mean converting to the other side's point of view or necessarily even agreeing with a single thing being said over there. But it does mean  acknowledging our own limitations and the fact that we're ultimately all in the same boat here. It also means thickening our skins and putting up with opposition that will at times appear nasty and stupid, and will often actually be so. It means trying to contribute our own insights into the common pool of understanding in the belief that the sum of all this is greater than what any of us put into it.
               This is the theory of democracy, and it always works if we let it. The alternative is dismal.



1 comment:

  1. The following comment was submitted by our guest contributor Tania Azarchs:

    Mark, I would like to take exception to the parallels you draw between the lists of conservative and liberal "false news" items. There have always been the lunatic fringe stories promulgated by members of both political bents; granted, they seem to be experiencing explosive growth, but rational people can usually filter these out. I do not believe that any significant number of Democrats gave credence to the conspiracy theories on 9/11 that you mention. I certainly don't know of any. And these theories never appeared in any mainstream liberal news outlets. The difference now, is that the fake news is emanating from the White House and the formerly fringe but now anointed as mainstream conservative media. In previous administrations, one might not have liked the spin put on news; one could be indignant but ultimately concede that it was fair game that both sides played equally. What is happening now is of an entirely different order. Perhaps the greatest tactical success of this strategy is that it has, as both you and Keith point out, reduced the Democrats to a state of breathless, spluttering indignation that expresses itself in vituperation.

    I agree with all the points Keith makes about the absence of a real Democratic party agenda. Democrats are playing defense, reacting from a position of weakness to the agenda set by the administration. They splint themselves against the pain they feel, and scream ever harder, acting on instinct rather than a mindful recognition that the screams are counterproductive. It seems to me that Democrats do not appear to have a cohesive agenda because they do not yet see themselves as trying to create a revolution, which, as I wrote earlier, is what the new-Cons are trying to do--to substantially dismantle both the federal and the state governments' roles in human welfare. Democrats are coasting on a traditional view of government as a continuous process of trying improve the welfare of the population one issue at a time, a necessarily fragmented message. They have not yet recognized a need to reaffirm what had been a widely accepted role for government by writing manifestos. Therefore, there are no ringing battle-cries to unite the populous. When they do recognize that what is happening is a war between two radically different visions, the manifestos will come. I would be very loathe to imply that there is a paucity of vision among Democrats, just a state of shock that has not yet coalesced into strategic thinking.