On defeating Teflon Trump

Long before he ever announced running, going back to the 2012 primaries, it has been hammered home that Donald Trump is incredibly unqualified for high elective office. But he managed to power through his opponents, despite most experts across the spectrum assuming he would burn out.

The disparity comes I think because Donald Trump is very well-suited to running for President. If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, Trump is the Teflon candidate. His public image and private life have been raked over the media for decades, such that we became desensitized to traits and actions that should be a huge deal. By 2016 all of it congealed into this buffonish likability, where faults strangely morph into assets given enough time. Hillary Clinton has Teflon aspects, but she never had the pop culture exposure that elevates someone from a (flawed, vulnerable) politician and not a character.

trump

Thus the zombie campaign. No matter how many shots are fired, there has never been a real dip in poll numbers for Trump since the beginning of the primaries. The only thing that would really have a serious impact, if we think primarily about his business and rhetoric, would be a full leak of his tax returns. But since he can keep tight about that until after the election, only a well-timed Wikileak is going to make that a reality.

This is why I feel the speech by Khizr Khan at the DNC, along with tons of follow-up media and a Washington Post editorial by his wife Ghazala, are really a tuning point against Teflon Trump. The usual criticism has lost its impact. He has no record in elected office. And his long-term political history is eclectic, since he was socially moderate and friendly with Democrats until recently. But that speech hit a fresh vein. Candidates are often criticized for not serving in the military, or for getting cushy posts away from the frontline. Personally, I don’t equate military service with patriotism and vice-versa. But going into the concept of sacrifice, which means so much more. And it’s a new way of looking at Trump’s wealth and privilege. If public servants are supposed to be selfless, then any good candidate should have had to sacrifice something. Trump has indeed sacrificed nothing, anything, while the Khan family lost their son.

When this speech went viral, Trump had a response that was unusually poor. Trump often says too much, or the wrong thing in public, but this always went back to the well-tread criticisms America had grown used to. He came off not only as an asshole, but unprepared to deal with the accusation that he has not known sacrifice. His plans to ban Muslim immigration came into new context, and he lacked the self-assuredness that allows his (usually half-baked) ideas to stand as legitimate policy planning. Instead of Teflon Trump, we saw a house of cards.

All of this should be surprising. Another late night monologue about his marital history and Trump Steaks seems trite. Khan in a few minutes managed to dig through Trump the character, the pop culture celebrity, and expose him as the racist, petty, vapid man he truly is. This needs to happen more. Trump is not a joke, he is a menace, and has made discrimination and harassment of non-white groups somehow acceptable to his supporters.

The Teflon Trump must lose his shine.

Journalism, propaganda, and the police

“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.” – Scott Adams 

Since a very young age (like the age of eight), I have considered myself a journalist. I made classroom newspapers in fourth grade, created the Pine Lane Linguist in seventh grade by roping in some friends and forcing Microsoft Word to cooperate with my plans. My senior project in high school was to create a news magazine, The Legionnaire, which was a bunch of really smart people I met in summer programs providing copy to something that’s like The Economist, but by a diverse cast of young people. And I’ve maintained this blog for over three years.

So I’ve long since internalized the norms of journalism, as taught to us in handbooks and All The President’s Men. Get the facts. Weigh the sources. Don’t get suckered. And for the love of god, don’t become a tool of outside forces.Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.45 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.51 AMThe body-cam footage of Ray Tensing shooting Sam Dubose once- clearly and intentionally- in the head, is horrifying. If you do want to see it, here’s The Stranger with the best short breakdown of what happened. What has happened since shows how the rest of society bails out the police when it shouldn’t.

A claim repeated over and over in every media story was that Tensing was dragged by the car prior to the shooting. This despite the fact that early on it was established that there was a body-cam recording of the traffic stop, and early reactions from people involved in the case were that the video was very, very bad. The only reason these media outlets reported this initial sequence of events was because Tensing and another officer, Eric Wiebel, said it was what happened. Dubose wasn’t available for comment on the story because he was shot once in the head at point-blank range.

This is the norm, both in cases where the victim was killed or when they are still alive and have their own account. The first narrative is the police narrative, which sinks into the consciousness. A later correction to “oh, the main claims by the officers were nonsense” doesn’t erase the mark set. How many people have you talked to that know about some current event but not the newest developments? Huge numbers of people still think Tensing was dragged by Dubose, prompting the shooting. It can never be fully cleansed from people’s minds.

Because of this acceptance of police testimony, in cases of rival narratives we often doubt the victim. There is a built in sense that even if they did nothing wrong, they have a criminal nature. A recurring tactic is to leak information about a victim’s drug history, asking the media to speculate from there. This happened (and its importance later debunked) with Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, using three high-profile examples. These cases become referendum on the behavior of those who have been beaten or killed- something the media is willingly complicit in. I’m pretty tired of stories with leading questions as their title. Nowhere near the amount of speculation is made about police officers, and their lives are never picked over the in the same crass manner.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 1.10.47 AM

Shaun King is a nice source of sanity- his Twitter account is a great resource for those of us who are passionate activists, but also loyal to getting things right in a particular, ethical way. Journalists should always factor in the one huge, monumental elephant in the room. If an unarmed person is killed by the police, the officer(s) involved, and their bosses have every reason in the world to lie. Maybe the police are a good source of information about the number of arrests made at a drunk driving checkpoint. But often they have their careers at stake.

Treating the police and the justice system as an rock-solid authoritative source is dangerous, and leads to the current fiasco with Dubose. A guy selling you his used car off of Craigslist would like you to take his story at face value. However, it would be more sensible to go to a third-party mechanic and ask their opinion. A third-party can evaluate the car and establish facts, independent of the stakes involved.

Journalists are supposed to be the mechanic, not a booster of the story the buyer wants to spin.

In the days of the original muckrakers, journalism was a force for liberation and taking down the powerful. It spoke for those who are not represented in the rest of society. Writing is a weapon, which can be used for good or evil.

Stopping stigma early

Mental illness as a topic is something society just has no idea how to handle. I’ve written about how mental illness is misused to score political points (usually by creating the illusion that a mental disorder is a prerequisite for horrendous crimes). Thankfully I stumbled across a compact guide, written by Margarita Tartakovsky, that tackles myths about mental illness and treatment. If you need to educate in a hurray, highly recommended.

The best section deals with the fact that children’s content is stigmatizing in a way that we don’t often consider. It’s not just murder-mystery hour-long dramas on CBS, the process of misrepresentation begins early:

Adult programs aren’t the only ones that portray mental illness negatively and inaccurately. “Children’s programs have a surprising amount of stigmatizing content,” Olson said. For instance, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast attempts to prove that Belle’s father is crazy and should be locked up, she said.

When Wahl and colleagues examined the content of children’s TV programs (Wahl, Hanrahan, Karl, Lasher & Swaye, 2007), they found that many used slang or disparaging language (e.g., “crazy,” “nuts,” “mad”). Characters with mental illness were typically depicted “as aggressive and threatening” and other characters feared, disrespected or avoided them. His earlier research also showed that children view mental illness as less desirable than other health conditions (Wahl, 2002).

Bad journalism, better journalism

The Columbia Journalism Review has issued its list of the worst journalism of 2014. Despite the popular focus on how terrible the Big 3 cable news channels are, the article emphasizes that hack-level reporting can pop up anywhere. Network, print, even outlets I rather enjoy, like Grantland, and New York, who failed to stick the year-end landing and got played by a bunch of teenagers for their December feature.

I feel bad for these outlets- who either produce good, analytical journalism, or used to, or are Fox News. In all of them there are great professionals with the education and experience to produce great work, but they are often stymied by executives and a suffocating business culture.

Though investigative journalism has fallen on hard times, it is great to see outlets like the Center for Investigative Reporting out. The corporate cronyism and corruption is still there, as it was in the days of the original muckrakers. All that’s needed are smart people, funds to keep them going, and a desire to do the unsexy work that leads to big, need-to-know stories. And for the love of god, no clickbait please.

Cover to cover

This afternoon I had a personal first- the first time I’ve ever read a news magazine in its entirety, front-to-back. Past issues of The Economist and The New Republic have come close, but there was always a trailing off towards the end. There is nothing special about the June issue of Mother Jones. No special feature drew me towards it, just an interest in some investigative journalism in an era characterized by recycling and Wikipedia plagiarism.

What the experience ended up being about is countering the 21st century tendency to only read news funneled towards you. Many of us buy something off the news rack due to the main feature; an enticing headline makes the few dollars worth spending. Reading methodically gives you the full breadth of ideas, and gets you interested in topics that you’ve never been exposed towards. Another habit of mine is to listen to albums beginning-to-end. The catchy singles may be great, but there is satisfaction in a complete picture of what the band was trying to accomplish.

With Facebook and tailored news sites, there’s an immense temptation to gorge on old favorites. And every time you click on another story on Orange is the New Black, or marriage equality, or whatever, algorithms tilt even more towards those topics. To be sure, this has eliminated a lot of crap we have no interest in, but it also isolates us. Technology optimists are right, information is a wonderful thing, but it’s only useful if people see and use it.

Imperialism

Modern television news-
a dirge of
bourgeoise society
dragged out
for 24 hours a day;
agony made spectacle

The collapse of yet another
African republic from
one half-century
of high tragedy
a brief slice
of the crawl
between news regarding
reagents centuries
past their place
but whose grandfathers
hold all the blame,
stowed in marble
sepulchers.

There is no abortion debate.

Sometimes a good habit can become suffocating. The reason I don’t post more often is I feel a need to add lots of sources and backing to what I say. This is healthy- the world could use a bit more empiricism- but it also brushes the smaller topics and random thoughts under the rug. This is an attempt to overcome that. Let’s roll. 

It seems that media commentary and opinion could gain much by starting every piece with “Let us define our terms”. People, organizations, ideologies. When someone supports or attacks a liberal politician, what do you they mean? Liberal, and liberalism, have many disparate meanings. Collectivist, libertarian- promoting freedom or constraining it. Arguments often become heated because the sides are talking past one another. If there is no agreement on what the founding parts of an issue are, how can you talk about it? In some sense you can’t. Two people are facing each other and talking to an imaginary opponent.

In some cases, the issue ceases to have any discourse. With honesty, the abortion “debate” is not a debate. Definitions of debate state that it is an exchange between opposing views. Almost all of the time in regards to abortion there are no opposing views. There are two main views that are not logical opposites. The “pro-life” camp talks about the sanctity of life and whether it is murder. The “pro-choice” camp emphasizes the inherent right of women to decide if they want children. A clue should be that both commonly-accepted terms don’t oppose each other- one is talking about what life is, the other is talking about what choice is. There is some debate- pro-choice individuals often debate what a “person” really is- but the primary arguments don’t intersect. There is nothing to stop someone from acknowledging abortion as murder and still thinking women have a right to choose. It’s not a matter of the two being mutually exclusive, it’s just an order of priorities. No wonder the issue is just as contentious as it was in 1973. No progress has been made in discussing the merits or evils of abortion.

Other issues involve two sides that pit a civil rights argument versus an absolute moral or religious principle. Often they are not in direct dialogue. Perhaps that is why same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action etc. often have caricatures. Waxing philosophical, a caricature is not always used to exaggerate an opponent. It can in fact become a substitute for an opponent that doesn’t exist. Pro-choice people want to talk about civil rights. They create a side that is also talking about civil rights. Pro-life people want to talk about life, so they form an opponent who is talking about murdering babies. That’s their plank.

When an opinion column is published, one can become quite angry reading it. Some of that is that the person has defined their terms in a very different way. I read a vintage Limbaugh column a few months ago and found my irritation originated from his original point, which influenced all the consequences he described. I still know we’re not in agreement on the issue, but part of that is that the gulf begins early- before most of the substance. And you can’t tell a nationally-syndicated columnist all your reservations. They’re not right in front of you- there’s no luxury of response.

I’m not calling for a return to the “good old days” of discourse- any survey of history shows that such a period never existed- only that the nicer parts tend to stick around. Just that there seem to be very concrete issues. And it seems that the pointlessness of argument is in part rooted in this disagreement of terms and priorities. Of course there’s no way to change that person’s mind. None of what was said challenged what they find important about an issue.

It’s as if there were a war and both sides showed up on different continents. Lots of anger and destruction, but the confrontation is non-existent.