Thursday, December 31, 2015

Creating The Space For Your Dreams

Don't let 2016 be another year where you work harder for someone else than yourself! 

What We Refuse To Accept About Donald Trump

"Let me go over that again: Reagan’s popularity was popular. When you went through the various traits of Reagan and what Reagan stood for and his policies and so on vast numbers of people disliked nearly all of them. What was popular was his popularity and I don’t think that Reagan’s alone in this."           

Rick Roderick 

In lecture eight of The Self Under Siege series professor Rick Roderick used Ronald Reagan's presidency to explain Jean Baudrillard's notion of the Hyperreal. The Hyperreal, as theorized by Baudrillard, is any image of reality that can replace reality. The perception of Reagan was so great that it morphed into a creation of its own. In reality President Reagan was dealing with early stages of Alzheimer's disease, but the perception was that he single-handedly ended the Cold War, saved capitalism, and restored America's status as the global hegemon. Claims that on the surface hold just enough truth and have been repeated so often that they are socially accepted statements of fact. There were several significant factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but to understand those factors one would have to engage in a lot of reading and thinking- two pastimes that seem to be falling by the wayside. Critically thinking about tough issues is a time consuming process. It's easier to watch a half-hour news cast than read three or four different accounts about a single issue.  

Our country's fascination with celebrity combined with the media's TMZ style guerrilla coverage of everything Donald Trump has replaced the reality of the Trump candidacy: many of his policies are unpopular, unconstitutional or impossible to implement. The myth of Donald Trump, for many, has killed the reality of Donald Trump. Even when he goes full Trump and makes ignorant and thoughtless statements it doesn't faze his supporters; for them, Donald Trump manifests an Uber machismo version of the American Dream: It's Rich, It's Powerful, It doesn't answer to anyone, and it's relentless. Conservatives love celebrities who identify with their beliefs. Forget all of their anti-Hollywood rhetoric over the years. The right loves celebrity; Clint Eastwood, Dennis Miller, and a slew of country music artists have filled that void for them, but Trump is a super celebrity candidate who feeds on attention and uses it to normalize anger and resentment. 

I've read dozens of articles written by men and women much more credentialed than I am. Many of those early articles predicted Donald Trump would fade out and be an after thought. In the last few weeks many of those same writers have accepted the reality that Trump will be part of the process for the foreseeable future, and some have come to grips with the reality that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination. The last three election cycles have been very different from previous election cycles. Every conventional wisdom from the past has been more wrong than right when it comes to handicapping the nomination process. It's fair to say that a majority of the experts damage their credibility every time they appear on the Sunday shows pretending to know the electorate they cover. If you're looking at past trends as a guidepost for what's to come then you risk making the same mistake our pundit class is making: attempting to normalize a process that has broken away from normality. 

Donald Trump is to the far-right what President Obama was to the far-left: a personality who transcends the political process while simultaneously commanding the media's attention. The same conservatives who were upset about the media's treatment of President Obama in 2008 have gone quiet in the face of Donald Trump's media domination. The myth of a left-wing mainstream media was shattered long ago by Dr. Michael Parenti, but ABC news covering Donald Trump for 81 minutes compared to the less than 30 seconds of coverage for Bernie Sanders is a tacit admission that equally covering political campaigns falls behind ratings on the list of journalistic priorities. 

Too many people are waiting for Donald Trump to have his Howard Dean moment: it's not going to happen. Too many political strategist on the left and right are waiting for his lack of specificity to catch up with him: it won't. There's not a set of historically verifiable and empirically accurate facts that can make journalists find the courage to fact check him on the spot when he makes false statements, or force his supporters to believe them if they do. Donald Trump is seen as vile, racist, and misogynistic by some, but he's genuinely liked by his supporters- some of them exclusively- for his statements. It seems like a lifetime ago when "binders full of women" got Mitt Romney in trouble. The 2016 race is happening without the "experts". It's quite possible we could see, in real time, YouTube shows originating from the Trump campaign chronicling his march towards Super Tuesday and the GOP convention. If he wins one of he early contests the last six months will seem calm compared to what could happen next.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Are Modern Populist Movements So Ineffective?

Using Zizek's model, a case can be made that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was more violent than the rioters who hijacked the peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014 was a year that saw populist movements take their grievances to the streets (or the ranch in the case of  Cliven Bundy's supporters). What's become obvious to me over the last few years is that many of these left wing and right wing populist movements, dating back to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, aren't as far apart ideologically as they are thought to be. The sadder connection they share is that they have been ineffective in using the momentum and spotlight they've garnered to cause a fundamental shift in the status quo.

The right wing, Tea Party and Bundy supporters have ditched their anti-government rhetoric and replaced it with patriotic flag waving. They have adopted wholesale condemnation of those on the left who have taken to the streets protesting grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri (over the killing of Mike Brown), and New York City (over stop-and-frisk and the killing of Eric Garner). The symbolic order of their protest was reversed. Their reflexive hatred of President Obama provided cover for their deeply treasonous behavior. As long as the face of government tyranny was the president their cause had life; The minute a police uniform was the symbol of state sponsored oppression their focus shifted.

These contradictions work at a deeper level. The populist right wing anger against the government uses President Obama as its symbol of tyranny. The symbolic use of the president as the embodied manifestation of the "other" is unifying to many who see their actions as patriotic. The fact that people still question his citizenship, religion, sexuality, and patriotism are symptomatic of his otherness. The positions many on the right took against the government weren't based on any macro level or systemic changes. The acronym Taxed Enough Already is a testament to the level of hypocrisy built into their movement. When the president signed his stimulus package into law he actually lowered taxes for the majority of Americans.

Using this logic, the armed men and women who migrated to Cliven Bundy's ranch weren't pointing guns at federal agents, but at a president they didn't like or respect. The fact that the Nevada incident didn't end in a Ruby Ridge or Waco style massacre was twofold: on one hand the professionalism and calm of the agents on the scene diffused a situation that escalated rapidly, but on a deeper and perhaps subconscious level the fact that the majority of the protesters were white bought them the kind of leeway armed minorities are rarely, if ever, afforded.

Before the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner several prominent religious leaders, public intellectuals and civil rights activists called for massive protests of the NYPD's use of stop-and frisk. October was a month that was set aside for protests, and though several of these events saw hundreds of people participate in them, they went largely ignored. It took a small group of looters to force the nation to engage in the dialogue that the protesters were trying to have. Even as I write this our efforts are failing. Every time there's a challenge to the legitimacy of the practices used to police minority communities, the official response from the state is to appoint someone to investigate the matter: as if we don't already know what happened. The senseless killings of NYPD officers Ramos and Liu further complicate matters. Those who seek to discredit and ignore the veracity of the claims made by protesters have used the actions of a mentally disturbed man and those looting to shift the focus of the conversation.

We will fail to get the changes we're seeking. Sooner than later the nation's attention will shift to something else and our apathetic nature will take over. The biggest reason for our failure will be our unwillingness to sacrifice. I support and endorse a systematic and long-term boycott. Too many inside of our movement aren't willing to exercise the leverage we have. It was a boycott of the bus system in 1956 that lead to the integration of public transportation in the south; a strategy South Africans used in Pretoria, in 1957. The blue print is out, but too few are willing to follow it. 

If I had my way our boycott would work as follows: for 60 days no one would purchase any fast food, a week after that no one would go to the movies, amusement parks, or professional sporting events for 60 days, the following week we would boycott Coca Cola, Frito Lay, and General mills for 60 days, then we would boycott all alcohol and tobacco products for 60 days. A month into our boycott we would have everyone's attention. There are several rungs to this ladder that culminate in a mass withdrawal of money from the banking system. This approach is radical and would hurt a lot people, but conventional means of negotiating aren't working. We lack the collective will to see any of this through, so we will be left with a system that does't respect or protect us. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Crying Out To An Apathetic Nation

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

--Steven Weinberg

This kind of radical imagery is necessary if religious and secular people of good faith and intentions are ever going to shatter a cultural symbolic order that allows us to ignore the suffering of others. We ingest this symbolic order through daily conversations, it's disseminated through television and other forms of media. We are consciously and sometimes subconsciously conditioned to see classes of people as less than us. This dehumanizing is necessary for us to continue to ignore or (in some cases) justify the suffering endured by the individuals who comprise the groups we label as other. The most violent thing we can do to combat this kind of psychological warfare is make it impossible for those unaware of this conditioning to deny reality. It's not enough to tell people that children are being raped and killed; sometimes we have to show them their mangled bodies. We live in an era where information is easier to acquire than ever, yet objective truths are routinely trampled in favor of partisan political narratives.

The kid in this video made a poor decision: he chose to be born at the wrong time in Syrian history; had he used more foresight he would have chosen a more stable part of the world to be born into. America's response to the refugee crisis has been mostly indifferent, but after Paris and San Bernardino there's a very vocal call to cease all plans to bring Syrians to America. We claim to be a shining city on a hill, a Christian nation, and the best hope of the free world, yet too often we qualify these claims. Yes, we will help you, but first fill out this questionnaire. There's a moving target as to who we share our sympathies with. There's nothing like terrorism or the mass killing of people from the developing world to draw this distinction. It's an empirical fact that the American media focuses more on atrocities in Europe than similar attacks in other parts of the world, yet fear, death, and grief are universal. We have a continental and cultural hierarchy in place that controls who we feel sorry for and who we ignore. 

I haven't written anything that most of us don't know, yet we (as a nation) are stuck in the gap between America's stated ideology and the way fear causes us to ignore the principles that ground those beliefs. The true intractability of this situation doesn't exist between what we say and what we do, but in the ways we seek to justify our hypocrisy while maintaining the illusion of higher moral ground. I don't hold the view that America is the last best hope for the world. The philanthropic work done by Americans should be viewed separately from the actions of our government. I concede the fact that some citizens routinely go above and beyond what could be reasonably expected, but I don't confuse the generosity of our fellow citizens with policy decisions that adversely affect people who aren't in a position to help themselves. This is a negative cycle of fear. something happens, we get scared, we either give away more of our freedoms or close avenues to help for those deemed other, and then the pundit class seeks to legitimize the decision to compromise our principles.

I understand how fear and hatred function in the face of terror, but if we decide to let fear and uncertainty usurp our sense of duty we should agree to leave God and decency out of our rhetoric. Maybe we, progressives, are wrong for continually putting this system on blast. Maybe we should be trying to destroy the institutions we're trying to wake up. A media and government that can ignore or justify tragedies like the little boy in this video face needs to be deconstructed. We can debate ways to help kids like this, we can focus on the underlying cause(s) of their suffering as a way to shift any responsibility to some other nation, or we can affirm their humanity and conduct ourselves in a way that makes our actions align with our beliefs. I know this kid and his sisters won't be the last victims of the evil that's plaguing the world or the indifference that allows it to fester, but we can adjust our response to it. If this kid was from Paris we would work harder to insure his future, but he's not and we won't.

Steven Weinberg was a bit shortsighted in the quote I opened with. Fear and xenophobia can #Trump religion when it comes to making good people do evil things.