Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 24th, 2017

The Styrofoam Presidency

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Masha Gessen writes in the NY Review of Books:

The writer Andrei Sinyavsky, perhaps the first person to become known as a Soviet dissident, once quipped that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” Buried in a dense autobiographical essay and qualified as a joke, the line nonetheless was and remains one of the most-repeated sentences among the differently minded in the Soviet Union and in Putin’s Russia. It has a way of coming to mind every time one cringes at Russia’s political spectacle—which is nearly every time one turns on the television or radio or picks up a newspaper. Whether it’s the sight of Putin entering a room like a thug who owns it, or the sound of his below-the-belt jokes, or the ritual of politicians and talking heads trying to out-scream and out-sabre-rattle one another as they engage in what passes for discussion on television—though none of them seems to be able to form a complete sentence—it has a way of making one ashamed of seeing and hearing.

More than half a century after Sinyavsky came up with the phrase, Americans who witnessed Donald Trump’s inaugural weekend can now fully grasp its meaning. Throughout the campaign, anyone who watched Trump could see that he used a different aesthetic vocabulary than any candidate in living memory: his bullying was shameless, his hatred was naked, his disregard for decency and decorum was gratuitous. He mocked a disabled reporter, he humiliated women in a wide variety of ways, and he made highly ritualized occasions such as the presidential debates and the Al Smith dinner painful to watch. Most important, he lied constantly, blatantly, and inconsistently, stripping words of their meaning. Still, hope somehow persisted that the fact of becoming president would somehow elevate Trump—as though his aesthetics were not a reflection of his entire political self but merely a style that could be dropped when the occasion demanded it. But when the inauguration came, Trump, for twenty-four hours, not only trampled on some of the most hallowed public rituals of American power; he made a spectacle of it.

He defiled the inauguration with a speech that was not only mean and meaningless but also badly written, pitched to the basest level of emotion and intelligence. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon” was how he summed up the American foreign policy legacy: a zero-sum game in which a penny spent—whether on the Marshall Plan or an ill-conceived war – is a penny lost. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost” is how he summed up the work of all the men and women who have come before him, in effect the entire political history of the country, which he declared to be over: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Having dismissed the political past, he offered, by way of vision, the future of a fortress under siege: a walled country that puts itself first, the way a self-help manual might advise you to “put yourself first,” convention and consideration for others be damned.

In his small-mindedness and lack of aspiration, Trump curiously resembles Putin, though the origins of the two men’s stubborn mediocrity could not be more different. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2017 at 9:03 pm

It has begun: Badlands National Park’s Viral Tweets on Climate Change Just Disappeared

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Tim Murphy reports in Mother Jones on a move typical of an autocratic, authoritarian society: the government shutting down information channels and trying to control all communication. The EPA is no longer allowed to communicate, nor is the USDA. And now the report linked above.

Seems as though we’ve seen this movie before. It’s about time for the heroes to show up, but I see damn few in Congress for such a role.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2017 at 4:56 pm

Must be something in the water: More plagiarism

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Dana Milbank has the story (in some detail) in the Washington Post. He does allow that there could be an innocent explanation (which for whatever reason McGahn refuses to give).

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2017 at 2:49 pm

Insightful post by Tyler Cowen: Why Trump’s Staff Is Lying

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Tyler Cowen writes at Bloomberg:

One of the most striking features of the early Trump administration has been its political uses of lying. The big weekend story was the obviously false claim of Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Trump pulled in the largest inauguration crowds in American history. This raises the question of why a leader might find it advantageous to promote such lies from his subordinates.

First and most obviously, the leader wishes to mislead the public, and wants to have subordinates doing so, in part because many citizens won’t pursue fact-checking. But that’s the obvious explanation, and the truth runs much deeper.

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. [The iconic Mafia version: requiring someone to murder a friend or family member. – LG] If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

In this view, loyalty tests are especially frequent for new hires and at the beginning of new regimes, when the least is known about the propensities of subordinates. You don’t have to view President Trump as necessarily making a lot of complicated calculations, rather he may simply be replicating tactics that he found useful in his earlier business and media careers.

Trump’s supporters are indeed correct to point out that previous administrations also told many lies, albeit of a different sort. Imagine, for instance, . . .

Continue reading.

And do read the whole thing. Later in the column:

. . . Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment. For another, joining the Trump coalition has been made costlier for marginal outsiders and ignoring the Trump coalition is now less likely for committed opponents. In other words, the Trump administration is itself sending loyalty signals to its supporters by burning its bridges with other groups.

These lower-status lies are also a short-run strategy. They represent a belief that a lot can be pushed through fairly quickly, bundled with some obfuscation of the truth, and that long-term credibility does not need to be maintained. Once we get past blaming Trump for various misdeeds, it’s worth taking a moment to admit we should be scared he might be right about that. . .

Emphasis added, but probably the whole column should be emphasized.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2017 at 1:58 pm

Autocracy: Rules for Survival

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Masha Gessen writes in the NY Review of Books:

“Thank you, my friends. Thank you. Thank you. We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.”

That, or something like that, is what Hillary Clinton should have said on Wednesday. Instead, she said, resignedly,

We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle [that] we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.

Hours later, President Barack Obama was even more conciliatory:

We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country. The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world….We have to remember that we’re actually all on one team.

The president added, “The point, though, is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.” As if Donald Trump had not conned his way into hours of free press coverage, as though he had released (and paid) his taxes, or not brazenly denigrated our system of government, from the courts and Congress, to the election process itself—as if, in other words, he had not won the election precisely by acting in bad faith.

Similar refrains were heard from various members of the liberal commentariat, with Tom Friedman vowing, “I am not going to try to make my president fail,” to Nick Kristof calling on “the approximately 52 percent majority of voters who supported someone other than Donald Trump” to “give president Trump a chance.” Even the politicians who have in the past appealed to the less-establishment part of the Democratic electorate sounded the conciliatory note. Senator Elizabeth Warren promised to “put aside our differences.” Senator Bernie Sanders was only slightly more cautious, vowing to try to find the good in Trump: “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.”

However well-intentioned, this talk assumes that Trump is prepared to find common ground with his many opponents, respect the institutions of government, and repudiate almost everything he has stood for during the campaign. In short, it is treating him as a “normal” politician. There has until now been little evidence that he can be one.

More dangerously, Clinton’s and Obama’s very civil passages, which ended in applause lines, seemed to close off alternative responses to his minority victory. (It was hard not to be reminded of Neville Chamberlain’s statement, that “We should seek by all means in our power to avoid war, by analyzing possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will.”) Both Clinton’s and Obama’s phrases about the peaceful transfer of power concealed the omission of a call to action. The protesters who took to the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and other American cities on Wednesday night did so not because of Clinton’s speech but in spite of it. One of the falsehoods in the Clinton speech was the implied equivalency between civil resistance and insurgency. This is an autocrat’s favorite con, the explanation for the violent suppression of peaceful protests the world over.

The second falsehood is the pretense that America is starting from scratch and its president-elect is a tabula rasa. Or we are: “we owe him an open mind.” It was as though Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself. It was as though those statements and many more could be written off as so much campaign hyperbole and now that the campaign was over, Trump would be eager to become a regular, rule-abiding politician of the pre-Trump era.

But Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. Trump will be only the fourth candidate in history and the second in more than a century to win the presidency after losing the popular vote. He is also probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: “The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly” rather than those protesters’ “liver should have been spread all over the pavement.” Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one. For all the admiration Trump has expressed for Putin, the two men are very different; if anything, there is even more reason to listen to everything Trump has said. He has no political establishment into which to fold himself following the campaign, and therefore no reason to shed his campaign rhetoric. On the contrary: it is now the establishment that is rushing to accommodate him—from the president, who met with him at the White House on Thursday, to the leaders of the Republican Party, who are discarding their long-held scruples to embrace his radical positions.

He has received the support he needed to win, and the adulation he craves, precisely because of his outrageous threats. Trump rally crowds have chanted “Lock her up!” They, and he, meant every word. If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.

To begin jailing his political opponents, or just one opponent, Trump will begin by trying to capture members of the judicial system. Observers and even activists functioning in the normal-election mode are fixated on the Supreme Court as the site of the highest-risk impending Trump appointment. There is little doubt that Trump will appoint someone who will cause the Court to veer to the right; there is also the risk that it might be someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court. And since Trump plans to use the judicial system to carry out his political vendettas, his pick for attorney general will be no less important. Imagine former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie going after Hillary Clinton on orders from President Trump; quite aside from their approach to issues such as the Geneva Conventions, the use of police powers, criminal justice reforms, and other urgent concerns.

Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2017 at 12:07 pm

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality

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Josh Jones has an interesting post at Open Culture:

At least when I was in grade school, we learned the very basics of how the Third Reich came to power in the early 1930s. Paramilitary gangs terrorizing the opposition, the incompetence and opportunism of German conservatives, the Reichstag Fire. And we learned about the critical importance of propaganda, the deliberate misinforming of the public in order to sway opinions en masse and achieve popular support (or at least the appearance of it). While Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels purged Jewish and leftist artists and writers, he built a massive media infrastructure that played, writes PBS, “probably the most important role in creating an atmosphere in Germany that made it possible for the Nazis to commit terrible atrocities against Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities.”

How did the minority party of Hitler and Goebbels take over and break the will of the German people so thoroughly that they would allow and participate in mass murder? Post-war scholars of totalitarianism like Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt asked that question over and over, for several decades afterward. Their earliest studies on the subject looked at two sides of the equation. Adorno contributed to a massive volume of social psychology called The Authoritarian Personality, which studied individuals predisposed to the appeals of totalitarianism. He invented what he called the F-Scale (“F” for “fascism”), one of several measures he used to theorize the Authoritarian Personality Type.

Arendt, on the other hand, looked closely at the regimes of Hitler and Stalin and their functionaries, at the ideology of scientific racism, and at the mechanism of propaganda in fostering “a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism with which each member… is expected to react to the changing lying statements of the leaders.” So she wrote in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, going on to elaborate that this “mixture of gullibility and cynicism… is prevalent in all ranks of totalitarian movements”:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Why the constant, often blatant lying? For one thing, it functioned as a means of fully dominating subordinates, who would have to cast aside all their integrity to repeat outrageous falsehoods and would then be bound to the leader by shame and complicity. “The great analysts of truth and language in politics”—writes McGill University political philosophy professor Jacob T. Levy—including “George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is…. Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”

Arendt and others recognized, writes Levy, that “being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless.” She also recognized the function of an avalanche of lies to render a populace powerless to resist, the phenomenon we now refer to as “gaslighting”:

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.

The epistemological ground thus pulled out from under them, most would depend on whatever the leader said, no matter its relation to truth. “The essential conviction shared by all ranks,” Arendt concluded, “from fellow traveler to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating and that the ‘first commandment’ of the movement: ‘The Fuehrer is always right,’ is as necessary for the purposes of world politics, i.e., world-wide cheating, as the rules of military discipline are for the purposes of war.”

“We too,” writes Jeffrey Isaacs at The Washington Post, “live in dark times”—an allusion to another of Arendt’s sobering analyses—“even if they are different and perhaps less dark.” Arendt wrote Origins of Totalitarianism from research and observations gathered during the 1940s, a very specific historical period. Nonetheless the book, Isaacs remarks, . . .

Continue reading.

“Facts don’t matter anymore.”

“Alternative facts.”

Something wicked this way comes.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2017 at 12:04 pm

Important caution for the months ahead: Focus on Deception, Not Lying

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Kevin Drum had an excellent post a few years back in which he gives his guidelines for judging the truth of statements by politicians. He notes in the post:

. . . There are two big problems with getting obsessed about “lies.” The first is that it’s usually too hard to prove. You have to show not only that something is unquestionably factually wrong, but that the speaker knew it was wrong. That’s seldom possible. The second problem is that it’s too narrow. Politicians try to mislead voters all the time, and only occasionally do they do this with flat-out lies. Bottom line: if you focus only on actual lies, you miss too much. But if you try to turn everything into a lie, you sound like a hack.

A better approach is to focus instead on attempts to mislead. But how do you judge that? A few years ago I developed a three-part test that I use to check my immediate emotional reaction to things politicians say. I’ve found it pretty useful in practice, though it’s not perfect and it doesn’t apply to every kind of slippery statement. . .

Here is the test:

  1. What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it’s what gets us away from “lying” and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.
  2. What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?
  3. How much would accuracy damage the speaker’s point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker’s point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker’s point completely, it’s as bad as an actual lie.

He provides a couple of examples, which show that in one case the deception is worse than it initially appeared, and the other that it was not so bad as it seemed. By moving away from the “lie” touchstone and looking at “deception” instead, you get a better handle on what’s happening.

Here’s an example from Ryan’s speech, where he talked about the $716 billion “funneled out of Medicare by President Obama”:

  1. He’s implying that Obama reduced Medicare spending and this will hurt Medicare beneficiaries, something that Republicans oppose.
  2. A more defensible version might be something like this: “Obama has reduced payments to hospitals and private Medicare plans. This will lead to less service, lower quality, and fewer plan choices for seniors. Until a few weeks ago, I thought this was a good idea and proposed the same cuts in my budget, which was supported by 95% of the Republican caucus in the House.”
  3. The first two sentences don’t damage Ryan’s point much at all. The third sentence is a major change that turns it completely on its head. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is reserved for flat-out lies, this is about a 9. There’s obviously a huge attempt to mislead here.

Here’s another one. Ryan talked about Obama’s 2008 visit to a GM plant in Janesville, where he told the workers, “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” On Wednesday Ryan said: “Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.”

  1. He’s implying that the plant closed on Obama’s watch and that lots of other plants remain shuttered because the economy has remained weak.
  2. A more accurate version would go something like this: “That plant closed before Obama took office, and none of his bailouts or stimulus bills were able to bring it back to life. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.”
  3. This is a small change, and frankly, it doesn’t really change the emotional resonance of the sentence much. It’s maybe a 2.

I chose these two examples for a reason. The first one, on examination, was worse than I thought. Obama did cut planned Medicare spending by $716 billion, so at first glance an accurate rephrasing didn’t change Ryan’s point much. But when I remembered that Ryan and the entire Republican caucus had supported those cuts just a few months ago, it was obvious that this was a major-league whopper — and there’s simply no way to restate it without changing its impact completely. The attempt to mislead is enormous.

Conversely, the second example annoyed me a lot when I first heard it, but when I went through the exercise of writing a more accurate version, I realized that it didn’t really change things much. The restated version has much the same impact as the original. There’s an attempt to mislead here, but for most listeners it’s fairly subtle.

It’s Step 2 of this test that’s key. You have to rewrite the offending statement to be defensibly accurate. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean rewriting conservative attacks to include every possible liberal talking point. This is a presidential campaign, not a graduate seminar. You need to do the absolute minimum it would take to make the statement tolerably defensible.

Needless to say, this doesn’t work for everything. In Romney’s infamous welfare ad, for example, he says that Obama is “dropping work requirements” and “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.” This actually is a flat-out lie, not merely an attempt to mislead. Beyond that, though, the real dirty work of the ad is the way it pushes obvious racial hot buttons, and that’s simply not something you can judge on a scale of truthfulness vs. deceit.

His entire post is well worth reading, and I think we’re going to find the test useful in coming months.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2017 at 10:01 am

Posted in Politics

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