Trump and the Rewriting of History

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W.J. Astore

George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom.  Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons.  You can limit how and what they think.  You can, in a major way, control the future.  Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.

Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com.  They make no apologies and take no prisoners.  They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth.  The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).

Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House.  They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.

As the Congressional Budget Office reported:

The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.

I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.

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George Orwell

Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place.  Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.

In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):

I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.

One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.

In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.

American TV and Movies: Superheroes, Cops, and the Military

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A still from the new CBS Series, “SEAL Team”

W.J. Astore

Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies.  Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human.  Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows).  Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies.  Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.

On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.”  The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis).  Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.

Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed).  As the New York Times recently noted:

One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances.  CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”

Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.

Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves.  But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think.  It suggests what is possible and what isn’t.   By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society.  The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries.  Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.

I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe.  They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money.  They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless.  The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them.  And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.

But, again, it’s more complicated than that.  The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors.  Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice.  Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that).  They also establish boundaries.  To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic.  They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.

Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity?  How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction!  Starting in the USA!  Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming.  Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.

Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see?  Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.

Trump Shares Classified Material with Russia — Duck and Cover!

W.J. Astore

U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel.  For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.

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Today, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defends Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians

A couple of comments.  First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others.  Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.

Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the U.S. government.  Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else.  There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.

Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on.  I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert.  So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blase attitude is feigned or not is unknown.

Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently.  He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox.  Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.

Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred.  Transparency is desirable.  So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends.  Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

The U.S. Military’s Ethos: Of Busy-work, Sweaty Suffering, White Wall Haircuts, Beribboned Uniforms, and Warrior Talk

W.J. Astore

Why does the U.S. military invest so much pride in working to the point of tedium, if not exhaustion?  A friend of mine, an Army major, worked at the Pentagon.  He worked hard during his normal shift, after which he did what sensible people do – he went home.  His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.”  He’d reply, I can leave on-time because I don’t waste hours at the coffee maker or in the gym.

A caffeinated emphasis on work and fitness, another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “managerial culture” of the 1960s.  As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the ‘right stuff’ [in the U.S. military] is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”

Two recent examples of work- and fitness-mania are Army Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.  The U.S. media extolled them as ascetic-warriors, yet both flamed out due to serious errors in judgment (Petraeus for an affair with his biographer, with whom he illegally shared highly classified information, and McChrystal for tolerating a climate that undermined his civilian chain of command).  Asceticism and sweaty fitness routines, after all, are no substitute for sound judgment and a disciplined mind.

Busy-work within the military is related to Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted to it.  In this case, with America’s wars on terror being open-ended, or “multi-generational” as the U.S. military puts it, the “work” on these wars will continue to expand to fill this time, with the added benefit of “validating” the extra money ($54 billion in 2017 alone) being shoveled to the Pentagon by President Trump.

Along with busy-work are the virtues of suffering, as related by a societal celebration of Navy SEALs and similar special forces (“100 men will test today/but only three win the Green Beret”).  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read articles and seen films featuring these “supermen” and their arduous training.  The meme of “sweet–and public–suffering” is related to the whole “warrior” ideal (more on this later) within the U.S. military.  There’s a self-righteous shininess here, a triumph of image over substance, or image as substance.  (Being physically tough is of course an asset in close quarters combat, but it’s no guarantor of strategic sense or even of common sense.)

In the past, some of America’s finest military leaders had no shame in appearing common, most famously the “shabby” Ulysses S. Grant during the U.S. Civil War.

Grant at Cold Harbor, 1864

Civil War officers – true citizen-soldiers, most of them – often had unruly hair and unkempt beards, but they sure as hell fought hard and got the job done.  Nowadays, as another reader put it, “there appears to be a whole lot of Army officers who think a white sidewall haircut proves you’re a great officer. It actually is a homage to the Prussian Army that shaved its soldiers’ heads to prevent lice.”

Speaking again of image, let’s take a close look at the beribboned uniforms of today’s military officers.  General Joseph Votel, presently U.S. Centcom commander, is only the most recent example of an excess of ribbons, badges, and other devices:

Contrast Votel’s image to that of General George C. Marshall, who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.

Marshall in 1946

How did Marshall manage such military feats with so few ribbons?  Nowadays, U.S. generals sport more bling than the Kardashians.

But let’s return to the notion of U.S. troops as “warriors” and “warfighters.”  I’ve written extensively on this subject.  I see today’s “warrior” conceit as a way of eliminating our democratic citizen-soldier ideal, making the U.S. military a thoroughly professional force, subservient to the government and divorced from the people.

However, there’s another aspect to this “warrior” mythology, a powerful psychological one: the duping of the “warriors” themselves, distracting them from a bitter reality they may be little more than cannon fodder for greed-war.*  The U.S. military today is awash with warrior creeds that to me are antithetical to the citizen-soldier ideal of America.

To sum up the U.S. military’s current ethos, then: We have a lot of guys who take great pride in constant busy-work and excessive physical exertion, sporting high and tight haircuts, their uniforms festooned with bewildering displays of ribbons and medals and badges, extolling a warrior code in the service of a government that tells them that multi-generational wars are unavoidable.

And so it shall prove, if these shadows remain unaltered.

*Thanks to Michael Murry for bringing my attention to how the semiotics of “warrior” are dramatically changed if we substitute “gladiator” for “warrior,” followed by less grandiose terms such as “those about to die,” i.e. as scapegoats to the king’s ambition, an insight he gleaned from reading Umberto Eco.

Trump, Time Magazine’s Narcissist of the Millennium

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W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I caught President Trump’s speech before the CIA.  As he stood before the wall of honor, surrounded by the stars on that wall that represent those who gave their lives for their country, Trump deviated from his prepared comments to boast about how many times he’d appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Here’s what he said: I HAVE BEEN ON THEIR COVER ABOUT 14 OR 15 TIMES. I THINK WE HAVE THE ALL-TIME RECORD IN THE HISTORY OF TIME MAGAZINE — IF TOM BRADY IS ON THE COVER, IT’S ONE TIME. I’VE BEEN ON 15 TIMES. I THINK THAT’S A RECORD THAT COULD NEVER BE BROKEN.

Really, President Trump?  You’re giving a speech before members of the CIA, and what comes to mind is the number of times your own mug has appeared on a magazine cover? And you’re doing this in front of the CIA’s wall of honor, which, according to your own words, is “very special”?

Whatever one thinks of the CIA and its history, one thing is certain from this speech: America has elected an appallingly tone-deaf and callous narcissist as its 45th president.

 

Democracy is Impossible in Post-Truth America

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Post-truth is Anti-democracy (Getty Images at The Week)

W.J. Astore

“Post-truth” was the big word for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries. And why not? Donald Trump won the presidency with lies and half-truths and spin, so the word does indeed resonate.

But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say.  The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.

More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones.  All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion.  The result?  Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941.  (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)

Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.”  So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.

America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump.  Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.

As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency.  As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.”  Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem.  Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.

Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America.  For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.

Quick Thoughts on Hillary and Trump before the Debate

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Hail Caesar!

W.J. Astore

Sorry, I have no special insight into tonight’s debate.  I’m guessing Hillary will win based on points, but that Trump will also win by being present on the same stage.  More celebrity than politician, more showman than man of substance, Trump knows how to control his own image. Hillary will command the facts; Trump will command the audience’s attention.  It’s a win-win for them but a lose-lose for America.

I had a strange dream last night.  I dreamed that Trump arrived at the debate, riding a chariot and posing as Caesar.  And the audience applauded.  I was desperate to ask a question (yes, I was in the audience, don’t ask me how), and got the chance.  I said something like this: “I was in the military for 20 years, serving my country, yet you, Donald Trump, dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.  You claim to be on the side of veterans, but you arrive here dressed as Caesar, as a conquering hero, even though you yourself never served.  Have you no sense of decency, sir?  Have you no shame?”

I swear: I rarely remember my dreams, and those that I do remember have nothing whatsoever to do with presidential politics.  In my waking hours, I don’t think of Trump as Caesar.  He’s more of a Nero, a deeply flawed narcissist who will fiddle while America burns.

Hillary raises different issues.  I keep seeing, both in print and on TV, the argument that Hillary is imperfect, secretive, compromised by special interests, a person of questionable judgment, but that we must vote for her simply because SHE’S NOT TRUMP.  Trump is so bad, such a hazard to democracy, the argument goes, that we must swallow the jagged big pill that is Hillary, no matter how painful that pill may prove, simply because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

It’s sad indeed that some people’s best (only?) argument for Hillary is that SHE’S NOT TRUMP. For me, I can’t get past the Democratic Party’s efforts to rig the primary process in her favor against a true populist with integrity, Bernie Sanders.  It’s Bernie, not Hillary, who should be running against Trump, but the Democratic Party establishment determined from the beginning that Hillary, not Bernie, would be its nominee.

Of course, both parties, Republican and Democrat, want to keep alternatives from us.  The shameful part of tonight’s debate is that Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green) are excluded.  In short, there will be no “debate” tonight in any meaningful sense of that word. Instead, we will get a narrow discussion of establishment views with considerable jousting and posturing (and perhaps some mugging from Trump), generating some heat but precious little light.

Yes, I will watch the debate.  I just hope some version of my dream of Caesar’s rapturous appearance doesn’t come to pass.