Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sunday Reading

Back to the Future — Adam Gopnick in The New Yorker on how Orwell’s “1984” applies today.

I have, I’m afraid, a terrible confession to make: I have never been a huge fan of George Orwell’s “1984.” It always seemed, in its extrapolations from present to future, too pat, a little lacking in the imaginative extrapolations we want from dystopian literature. As the British author Anthony Burgess pointed out a long time ago, Orwell’s modern hell was basically a reproduction of British misery in the postwar rationing years, with the malice of Stalin’s police-state style added on. That other ninth-grade classic, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where a permanent playground of sex and drugs persists in a fiercely inegalitarian society, seemed to me far more prescient, and so did any work of Philip K. Dick’s that extrapolated forward our bizarre American entertainment obsessions into an ever more brutal future in which Ken and Barbie might be worshipped as gods. “1984” seemed, in contrast, too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination of the relation between authoritarian state and helpless citizens.

An unbidden apology rises to the lips, as Orwell’s book duly climbs high in the Amazon rankings: it was far better and smarter than good times past allowed us to think. What it took, of course, to change this view was the Presidency of Donald Trump. Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to “1984” because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.

There is nothing subtle about Trump’s behavior. He lies, he repeats the lie, and his listeners either cower in fear, stammer in disbelief, or try to see how they can turn the lie to their own benefit. Every continental wiseguy, from Žižek to Baudrillard, insisted that when they pulled the full totalitarian wool over our eyes next time, we wouldn’t even know it was happening. Not a bit of it. Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation. They are not postmodern traps and temptations; they are primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.

The blind, blatant disregard for truth is offered without even the sugar-façade of sweetness of temper or equableness or entertainment—offered not with a sheen of condescending consensus but in an ancient tone of rage, vanity, and vengeance. Trump is pure raging authoritarian id.

And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.

When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters—a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House “staffer,” not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true—he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of. People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.

And so CNN’s Jake Tapper, to his credit, may announce boldly that the story is false from beginning to end—but then he is led by his own caution and sense of professionalism to ask Trump whether, if he sees it as true, there ought to be an investigation into it. Tapper, like everyone else, knows perfectly well that a minimally honest investigation would turn up no proof of this absurdity at all. But that, of course, is the trap, the game. Watch: there will be a “commission” consisting of experts borrowed from Breitbart; it will hold no hearings, or hold absurdly closed ones; or hold ones with testimony from frequent callers to “The Alex Jones Show”—and this clownish commission will then baldly conclude that there is, indeed, widespread evidence of voter fraud. And Trump will reassert the lie and point to his commission’s findings as his evidence.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress, thoroughly intimidated, fear shining from one eye and cupidity from the other, will exploit the “question” of voter fraud to pursue policies of actually suppressing minority voters. Caligula, the mad Roman emperor, infamously appointed his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, and that has been for millennia a byword for cracked authoritarian action. But we now know what would happen if Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate if the modern Republican Party happened to be in the majority there: first the Republicans would say that they didn’t want to get into disputes about the Emperor’s personnel choices, and then they’d quickly see how the presence of the horse could help justify dismantling regulations in the horse-chariot industry. (“Well, you know, he’s an unorthodox kind of Emperor, so I don’t want to get into that, Jake—but I will say that, whatever the Emperor’s beliefs, we have a very inclusive party, and, if we’re slackening regulations on the stables, I want to point out it’s with the full and welcome participation of a horse.”) The Emperor’s lunacy and the senators’ larceny match perfectly.

Starting this week, it’s vital that everyone who is trying to maintain sanity understand that this is so—that it is a myth that reason, as normally undertaken, is going to affect this process or that “consequences,” as they are normally understood, will, either. Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason. Conservative intellectuals, as a reading of the Times each day reveals, turn out to share these resentments far more deeply than they value the rational practices. Having experienced this condescension, or so they imagine, on the larger stage of universities and publishing houses, they may mistrust the demagogue, but they actively hate those who demonstrate against him. The demagogue they regard only with disdain; his critics are an ancient object of hatred and contempt. If forced to choose, they will always choose the demagogue before the demonstrators. If there’s one thing we really do know from social science, it’s that people are far more determined to see their ancient enemies made miserable than themselves made happier.

On the positive side, well, there were the women’s marches last weekend, which filled any sane heart with hope. What had seemed doubtful a short week before—that there could be unified, peaceful, indeed joyous mass action against the madness—was fully realized, and for what one hopes will be only the first of many times. It left our minds inspired with simple slogans that did not oversimplify: Community is the only cure for catastrophe. Action is the only antidote to anger. If these sound a bit like Winston’s private mutterings in “1984”—when he writes secretly, for instance, that sanity is not statistical—at least they are, for the moment, still fully public truths. Pray that they remain so.

Their Lying’ Eyes — Alan Levinovitz in Slate on why Trump supporters insist on believing the lies.

The most frightening part of the otherwise ridiculous story about Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd size is not whether he believes his lie that his crowd was the biggest ever. It’s that a portion of his supporters bought it—and seem to still support it even when directly presented with photographic evidence to the contrary.

Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks asked 1,388 Americans questions about inauguration crowd sizes after showing participants two pictures—one from Obama’s 2009 inauguration and one from Trump’s. They asked half of the participants which (unlabeled) photo was from which inauguration and found that 41 percent of Trump supporters picked wrong. That was not terribly surprising. But the question they asked the second half of participants revealed something scary: They asked these people to just assess which photo showed more people. A full 15 percent of Trump supporters said his inauguration displayed more people, despite looking at direct photographic evidence to the contrary. (Read the researchers’ full write-up in the Washington Post.)

In the analysis of the research, the authors suggest that Trump supporters don’t actually believe the photo of his inauguration shows more people. “If there were no political controversy,” they write, “any respondent would see more people” in the Obama inauguration picture. Instead, Trump supporters are engaging in “expressive signaling,” where people purposely give the wrong answer as an ideological gesture.

There’s actually good reason to think that at least some Trump supporters really do believe there are more people in Trump’s inauguration photo. In the landmark 1956 sociological study, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter join an apocalyptic UFO cult. When the prophesied time comes and goes, the cult members do not lose faith. Instead, they came up with an alternative explanation—God saved the world thanks to their work—and continued to preach their message with even greater vigor. The same thing happened in 2011 with doomsday prophet Harold Camping, whose followers eagerly awaited the end of the world on May 21, despite Camping’s repeated failures in the past.

Trump and his vision actually have a lot in common with UFO-enthusiast cults. They’re both charlatans, selling snake oil. His appeal lies in the salvific vision he has sold to his supporters, a compelling narrative of paradise past, the fallen present, and a glorious future. For his followers, it is essential to reinterpret apparent facts so they fit this narrative—otherwise they lose the hope it provides and the dignity they’ve invested in its truth.

I’ve made this argument before. And here’s one major problem with charlatans:

The process of embracing a charlatan’s empowering vision is not rational, which means that rational arguments are unlikely, in isolation, to dispel it. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people cling tenaciously to their worldviews, and conflicting data may actually strengthen their beliefs. (Just look at this family who thinks Trump is “a man of faith who will bring Godliness back.”) To renounce Trump would mean admitting that one’s worldview—of a country wracked by carnage, as the president put it in his inaugural address, and a truth-telling hero who can heal it—is fundamentally mistaken. And that can also mean confronting existential panic without a panacea. It is much easier to forgive Trump for not locking her up than to wrestle with such truths.

It’s also much easier to convince yourself that a crowd is larger than it appears, particularly when the man you’ve put your faith in is arguing the same thing. And in the case of the photographs, it didn’t take much to come up with an explanation for the apparent discrepancy. Trump himself supplied it: Mainstream media manipulated both images to make it appear as if Obama’s had more. Trump even asked the National Park Service, which oversees the National Mall, for other aerial shots so that he could better assess the crowd sizes.

If Trump is really more like a false prophet than a political leader, we should expect his supporters to deny reality—not for the sake of expressive signaling, but because the coherence of their worldview depends on it. Once a false prophet has succeeded in gathering true believers, even doomsday can come and go without any repercussions, and the size of a crowd is whatever you want it to be. After all, that’s clearly how it works for Trump.

Throw Your Hat in the Air — Charlie Pierce pays tribute to Mary Tyler Moore.

No television show ever has meant as much to me as did The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I back up to nobody in my love for the original Law and Order or the original Star Trek. I have binged away on the various and glorious productions brought to us by HBO. But MTM holds a special place in my heart. I am not prepared to say why. The early shows, before it caught its stride, have not aged well. There’s too much of the old Laura (“Ohhhhh, Rawwwwwb!”) Petrie to Mary’s character. And I never could stand Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom.

But, as the show moved away from the apartment with the big white “M” on the wall and into the thickly linoleum’ed newsroom of WJM-TV, these problems melted away. The writing was sharpened and the characters made real and indelible. And it was not merely Mary Richards and Lou Grant, although their relationship became the heart of the show the moment that Ed Asner delivered the classic “I hate spunk!” in the series’ pilot.

They all had more than their share of moments, and Ted Knight made Ted Baxter the accepted shorthand for the vain, dim anchorman long before Will Ferrell ever got around to it. Sue Ann Nivens was the character that kicked off Betty White’s drive for immortality. (The scene in her Arabian Nights-meets-Tara-meets-The Bunny Ranch bedroom alone was enough to do that.) And, of course, it all came together in the unfortunate demise of Chuckles The Clown, which I will go to my grave believing is the funniest single half-hour of television comedy ever filmed.

It was perfect—from Sue Ann’s special, What’s All This Fuss About Famine?, to Ted’s anguish at being denied the chance to ride in the circus parade, to Lou’s old wire-service training kicking in (“The elephant’s name was Jocko!”), to Chuckles’ deathless sign-off:

A little song, a little dance/A little seltzer down your pants.”

But it was Mary’s show, always. She was occasionally wobbly, but ultimately the steadily beating heart of all the lives around her. She gave terrible parties—Johnny Carson and a pre-Fonz Henry Winkler were honored guests at two of the catastrophes—and she ended up entangled with Ted Bessell, of all people, at the end of things. And, in the last show, when everyone but Ted gets fired and they’re all leaving WJM for the last time, she spoke for all of them and for all of us, too:

“Well I just wanted to let you know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking that my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. But last night I thought what is family anyway? It’s the people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.”

Mary Tyler Moore died on Wednesday. She was 80 years old. Excuse me now, I’m going to go outside and throw my hat in the air.

Doonesbury — The doctor is out of it.