Short pieces from the month gathered into a single post
Living in the Age of Makebelieve
Once upon a time people held the opinion that the truth is the truth, period end of story. Those days seem distant now, whether fortunately or unfortunately depends on your perspective (and likely on your political party alignments). Truth has become entirely instrumental, just one of the things in a person’s toolkit to pursue a particular agenda. The catchphrases that have emerged in the course of this shift are alternately hilarious and horrifying. Take “alternative facts,” for example, that quintessential tool of semantic repurposing that Kellyanne Conway has perfected (even though it doesn’t seem to be working on her husband LOL). It reminds me of a series of books for kids called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” It’s all about picking a narrative path — everything is relative and open-ended. Truth is not truth until you pick it from any number of other potential truths. In millennial speak: “Whatever.”
This process of manufacturing truth is in fact fraught with dangers and its consequences are negative for both the individual and the collective. The major agenda these days appears not to be ferreting out the truth and dealing with it. The goal instead is to make people believe your own version of “truth” with no concern about whether or not any facts line up behind it. That’s makebelieve in the truest sense, when you make others believe a concept whether it’s legitimately credible or not. The national emergency Trump declared is a prime example of such instrumental makebelieve, designed to serve a political purpose relevant only to Trump himself. He no longer even bothers to maintain the fiction of veracity, he admits quite freely that he doesn’t really have to do it, but he’s gonna do it anyway because he wants to. Then weeks of discussion ensue among the talking heads about what “emergency” actually means. And of course we can’t forget Rudy Giuliani’s “truth is not truth.” But he’s a lawyer so you expect balderdash like that to come out of his mouth, it goes with the territory LOL.
The Trump administration has announced that it will form a special committee of the National Security Council to investigate whether the claims in the report on climate change issued late last year by the U.S. government are credible. The committee will be chaired by a yet another Old White Guy climate change sceptic who has stated that carbon dioxide … wait for it … gets the same treatment Jews got under Hitler. I don’t think I’m the only person stunned into silence by the lunacy of that statement. This new committee will be yet another example of disingenuous “truth-seeking” by an administration whose head recently urged the Tennessee Valley Authority to continue the use of coal-fired power plants because a major campaign donor of his has an economic stake in them. That’s instrumental truth with a capital T, that is. What we used to call truth gets lost in that revolting shuffle.
This erosion of truth has been going on for a long time. It’s only now at this extreme stage of the game that we see plainly its long-term erosive effects on the conceptual landscape, which is already compromised to the point that actual truth can barely survive in it. Soon the soil of the public commons will itself become toxic and produce a conceptual ecosystem where truth becomes yet another species of beingness on the fast track to extinction.
The phrase “incommensurability of discourse” is the proper diagnosis of the relationship between makebelieve masquerading as truth and the real McCoy. There’s no way communication can happen between those two domains because they have no common reality that enables significators to share meaning — which is what communication is all about, of course. When the construction and maintenance of that incommensurability themselves become a conscious strategy then all that remains possible is self-referential feedback. It’s the KOD for shared reality on the basis of objectivity. We’ve already crossed that line. The question remaining is whether we manage to slip back across it before the rhetorical environment we inhabit becomes unable to sustain real discourse. It’s the conceptual analogue to climate change: after you reach a tipping point there’s no going back and no fixing it.
I recently came across an excellent article in The New Yorker by Isaac Chotiner (here) entitled “A Political Economist on the End of the Age of Objectivity,” an interview with William Davies, a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, who recently published the book Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. Davies hits the nail on the head:
What we’ve seen in the late twentieth century is an aspect of that quasi-warlike mentality, which is founded on treating knowledge not as something that should be shared, as a basis for some kind of consensus through publishing, through contributing knowledge to the common good. Knowledge starts to be treated as some kind of commodity in the private sphere, something that has to be had faster than other people, needs to be privatized for things such as property rights. Effectively, the question of “who knows” is something where I need to know more than my rival, as some sort of competitive advantage. That’s the tradition of market deregulation that takes hold in the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties. There is an underappreciation of a public realm, in which there is sufficient regulation and investment in the resources that allow people to carry on maintaining certain kinds of political and democratic consensus.
What has, I think, exacerbated that are things like fake news and post-truth. We’ve developed an attitude that treats knowledge not as something to sustain common agreement but instead sees knowledge as something that needs to be checked as frequently as possible. We need our knowledge to be as up to the minute as possible. We see knowledge less as something that gives us an objective picture of the world and more as, say, a means of sensing a world that is in constant flux. A core claim that I make in the book is that this is a sensibility that originates not in civil society but actually in conflict.
It’s not surprising at the end of the day that our rhetoric should follow our economics — that mirroring has been with us far longer than since the 1990’s. Our economic situation of radical wealth polarization has become a threat to the weave of our civilizational fabric. So too has our discourse landscape become a threat to our ability to construct a viable joint reality for ourselves and for those who come after us.
That crisis of viability defines for me the primary index of need for the post-Trump era. We must regain the ability to engage reality-based discourse and communicate with one another. The Age of Makebelieve must come to an end and we must return to a basis in objectivity. I’m old enough to remember the days when that condition obtained as the default. There was no need for “guardrails” or “adults in the room” because reality performed those functions quite well all by itself. There was no such thing as a “four pinocchios.” We disregard the functional necessity of truth in public life at our peril because we’re only one small element of a larger physical reality that cares not a fig for our opinions and doesn’t forgive our mistakes. The climate system is a perfect example. We can dither back and forth until we’re all blue in the face but the reality of what’s really happening stands apart from our opinions. We’ll suffer the consequences of our effects on that larger reality even if our opinions continue to be makebelieve with no basis in fact.
None of this is rocket science, it’s just common sense. Why in this day and age common sense should be in such short supply, I can’t say. The only explanation I find ready to hand is mass psychosis. My fingers are crossed and I’m hoping beyond hope that when the Trump debacle comes to an end we’ll find ourselves catapulted into a stark awareness of where we actually stand, like somebody who’s just had a car crash and sits dazed while the mind reels to take in what has happened and how bad the damage really is.
If we don’t find the truth again and cling to it like the life raft it in fact is we’ll all end up dithering while Rome burns (along with much of the United States). Every generation that follows us will be perfectly justified in hating us as the people who ruined life for everyone. Here’s hoping that reality grips us once again and shakes us out of our collective La La Land. It’s the only way we’ll be able to meet the realities facing us as we move forward with our collective life.
Citizenship Is Now a Full-Time Job
It hasn’t always been this way, you know — take it from an oldie like me. In my youth the word “emoluments” never came up in the evening news. We didn’t have the habit of downloading sentencing memos in order to understand what we read in magazine articles. It wasn’t necessary to define a personal strategy to navigate your way through the torrent of reporting that floods the media every day. I remember a time when you could responsibly discharge your duty as a citizen by following the news in the same way everybody else did. We all assumed there was one set of facts no matter how divergent our opinions about those facts might be. There was no such thing as “alternative facts.” “Gaslighting” was not yet a commonly used verb or a staple of our rhetorical diet.
I recently came across an article by American professor Christopher Hebert in The Guardian (that UK bastion of sensible discourse) that made me put on my thinking cap. The title of the article is “My year of living ignorantly: I entered a news blackout the day Trump was elected” (full article here). He gave me food for thought because for the past month or so I’ve been wrestling with the dilemma of wanting to be informed while realizing that news consumption these days resembles the method sometimes used to poison kings in ancient times — give them doses that go undetected until it builds up in the system and finally takes them out. Day after day of talking heads and articles that speculate on evidence that’s tenuous at best has left me sliding down on my chair with my citizen crown decidedly at a tilt, wondering if I’m near the dosage threshold. There’s a cost to being fully informed these days, as Mr. Hebert explains:
Like a lot of people I know, I’m a news junkie.
My particular weakness is the radio. It’s what I shower to, dress to, cook to, clean to. I drink my coffee to the New York Times. I exercise to CBS This Morning. All day long there’s Apple News on my phone and Twitter on my browser. No news quiz can stump me.
I feel informed, righteously so. The other thing I feel, a lot of the time, is rage. Rage and depression. Throughout the 2016 US presidential campaign season, my wife and son learn to measure the thoroughness of my daily intake of news by how furiously I chop vegetables for dinner, fuming at All Things Considered.
But when You Know When came into the picture everything changed. Mr. Hebert was so disgusted he made a radical decision that mirrors my own at the time:
… For the next year, I won’t turn the radio back on again. I won’t turn on the TV news. I won’t read a paper. I will embark on a journey into purposeful, determined ignorance
Trust me, Bridget, I know whereof he speaks. I was on that bandwagon, too, although my motive was a bit different. Some may think my reason uncharitable. My rationale was this: if the American political system and enough of the American electorate chooses to go over this cliff, then fine — have at it, kids. Don’t come crying to me when you suddenly realize that things aren’t working out so great. I moved outside the USA six months after Inauguration Day and as I boarded the plane I shook the dust from my shoes. Tra-la, tra-la, life is but a dream, especially if you’re halfway around the world from where the You Know What is hitting the fan.
This year I resume partial-year residence in the USA so I’ve been making up for lost time. I’ve been like a black hole for news reporting. I just checked the folder of articles and videos I’ve saved — 412 files in 17 subfolders containing 3.96GB of data. That doesn’t include all the hours of talking heads my poor brain has absorbed. A good example of how one thing leads to another is an article I saved discussing an amicus brief — now there’s a term for discussion over the dinner table — filed in the emoluments case against Trump involving his D.C. hotel. I learned that two professors had done linguistic analysis on 200 years of data on the use of the word “emoluments” in order to offer a definition of the word for legal purposes since the Constitution is vague on the subject — as it’s vague on so many subjects. The appellate court ruled in favor of the term “emolument” applying to the financial assets claimed as such in the complaint. Yeehaw. This sort of thing happens all too often these days. I find it deeply unsettling that I now know what a writ of certiorari is. I no longer need recourse to Google when I come across the legal term respondeat superior in relation to RICO indictments. All this has wreaked havoc on my small talk at parties, I can tell you. Let something like that drop in passing and you can be dead sure folk will bolt for the punchbowl.
I mentioned in an earlier journal post that I had to step back from the omnivorous news consumption pattern I kept up for a few months — it was just too much. Mr. Hebert brings up the same issue:
Listening to NPR 24-hours a day. Getting depressed. Yelling at the TV. Complaining with friends. Tweeting about how mad we are. We spend so much time consuming news, Jennifer says, that we don’t have any energy or emotion left to do anything about it.
But without it, I say, aren’t we just going through the motions—acting without knowing why?
I can answer that question only for myself and the answer is: NO. It’s a matter of momentum. Once you get to cruise speed you can take your foot off the gas and coast for a while. I know now almost by heart the text of Articles I and II of the Constitution, so if they come up in the news I’ve got it covered. I know the background of the DC emoluments case so the headlines are enough to tip me off to its progress (or lack thereof). I feel like I’ve been having regular chat-and-chews with Robert Mueller for the past four months so when we meet now all I need is just a few words to the wise and I’m good.
I’ll admit that the same impulse I had in 2017 has returned — just to wait for the sh*tshow to end and then carry on when life once more becomes possible. I can’t do anything to influence the course of events in congressional investigations or prosecutions in the Southern District of New York. All I can hope for is that the wheels of law enforcement and justice in the United States will grind exceeding fine. So I’ll skim the headlines and keep my cruise speed steady as we go over the summit of the pass and head down the other side. My hope lies with those beseiged stewards of our survival who will decide what happens before the ride finally comes to an end. Keep that seatbelt fastened.
Slip Sliding Down the Democracy List
Oops. Looks like we in the States stepped on a political banana peel. I recently read an opinion article by Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times (which, by the way, doesn’t at all appear to be failing :-)) that reveals we’ve slipped again in the democracy ranking done annually by Freedom House. Ms. Goldberg’s article is here and the full Freedom House report is here. From Ms. Goldberg:
For decades, both Republican and Democratic leaders saw the values championed by Freedom House, which is partly funded by the United States government, as quintessentially American, and the United States has generally scored quite high on Freedom House’s index. Recently, however, that has begun to change.
The latest edition of “Freedom in the World,” Freedom House’s flagship report, has just been released. For the second year in a row, the United States had a score of 86, down from 94 in 2009. According to Michael Abramowitz, Freedom House’s president, it’s the lowest score for the United States since the survey began.
Not good news, but can we be surprised? Given the assault on the democratic infrastructure over the past few years it’s no wonder. Because I did a graduate degree in German studies I inevitably ended up learning more than I ever wanted to know about the Third Reich. Even after two full years of having it continually in my face I still found myself thinking on occasion, “How was this even possible?” Certainly the political straits of Germany at the time were far more dire than ours today. The country had been reduced to penury in the aftermath of World War I because the Allies decided to bleed it dry so it could never become strong again. Didn’t work, did it. What it did was set off a wave of insanity that swept over the whole of Europe. One focus of my degree work was the theoretical literature written during and after the Third Reich that analyzed the ideological phenomena contributing to its rise. Over the course of my adult life things I’ve observed in my own world have touched off points of recognition with those analyses. I wish that weren’t the case.
There’s really very little difference, for example, between the vocabulary of Nazi propaganda and much of what we call business double speak. The example that comes to mind is a row of trees standing beside a road in front of an area of forest that has been razed to the ground by a big paper company. There was a sign at the road into the project site with a bullet point proclaiming the use of a “visual management corridor.” That’s the row of trees left standing beside the road, which unfortunately were conifers with bare trunks between which you could easily see the carnage wrought. It struck me how much that phrase was like “Cleansing of the Race” (Rassenreinigung) or “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (Endlösung der Judenfrage).
Because I was steeped through university study in my young days in the linguistic perversities of the Third Reich I’ve always remained sensitive to deflections, inversions or other perversions of straight talk. It’s dangerous if you let it get away from you. We saw the evidence of that in Fascism and we still see it in the propaganda machines of modern states such as Russia and China — and to our infinite shame now in the White House and its state TV channel. If you keep your wits about you it’s possible to keep your head on straight while all the phony talk goes on. You just decode it before you discard it. It’s a bother, true, but if you don’t want to get messed up in the head that task is mandatory.
What we have going on in the USA now is the use of two strategies to disfigure discourse. One is the typical propaganda approach (aka “gaslighting”) and the other is silence, the suppression of discourse serving a strategy of deflection. The use of silence as a propaganda instrument is particularly pronounced in the White House. The strategy is that if you willfully don’t talk about something the issue ceases to exist because you’ve undone its reality. That applies even to things difficult to sweep under the rug like the rule of law or the separation of powers. People in the Trump administration think they’re fooling everyone when they do that, but they’re not fooling the folks over at Freedom House.
Oops. Down we slide in the democracy rankings.
Ms. Goldberg finishes her article with words we’d all do well to hold in mind:
If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to move beyond this foul moment and forgive those who were complicit in it. We’re not good at holding elites to account in America; the architects of both the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis have gone largely unpunished.
Still, I hope we can summon the political will for a reckoning with how thoroughly this administration has betrayed America’s highest ideals. We’ll need a full accounting of all the institutional corrosion the Trump presidency has caused, and all the money Trump and his associates have made off it.
The world offers more lessons about how democracies grow weak and brittle than how they can be revived. America may never again be taken seriously as the global champion of liberal democracy. But perhaps it could at least figure out a systematic way to repudiate illiberalism. We’re not the only country that’s going to need it.
That’s straight talk just the way I like it. The point about repudiating illiberalism is well made, especially this year as the spectre looms of far-right parties wreaking havoc with European Union parliamentary elections in May. It looks like the USA may be the first to put the kibosh on its dalliance with illiberalism if the blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections is any sign of what’s to come in 2020. Ms. Goldberg is right — it may well be up to the USA to stem the tide of illiberalism that seems to be growing in Europe like weeds taking over a garden. Here’s hoping we get ourselves sorted out by the time need arises so we can put our shoulder to that wheel. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it. Fingers crossed we’re up to the job when the time comes.
I Count My Blessings
I had a conversation over coffee the other day with an acquaintance of mine. He’s in his mid-30’s, has ten siblings and has worked since he was in his late teens. This fall he’ll finish a masters degree in business administration and hopes to get a job at a university teaching in his field. I’m at pains to explain why it fell to him to put five of his siblings through university. Since he’s eighth in the sequence I’d have thought that responsibility would fall to one of the older siblings, but no, he got saddled with the job. That’s just how things work here in PH.
In the course of our conversation it emerged that he’s hardly traveled in his life save for the sake of getting work. He’s been to Manila — to get a job, of course — and he’s been to Palawan once on a pleasure trip, which is not very far away, but he’s never been to Bacolod, a city that can be reached with a ferry that takes one hour to do a trip that costs about $8.00 — if you want to sit in the open air it can be even cheaper. If he’s had time he’s had no money. Conversely, if he’s had money it’s never been enough to do anything but push the eight ball back a bit until the next hit comes for family assistance. There’s never any question of getting ahead, saving for a splash-out vacation or anything of that sort.
So I’m counting my blessings and shaking my head at how hard life here is for people. They don’t want to hear it, of course, and I can’t blame them. The last thing I’d want to hear from some foreigner is how much they’ve travelled throughout the country and what they liked and didn’t like. So I kept my mouth shut and nodded as my friend told me about the few places he’s seen in his 34 years. Fortunately one of them is a place I’ve not visited so I could draw out stories at length by asking questions. I didn’t mention that I just spent a full day planning out the itinerary for a two-week trip to Bavaria to see the high points of South German Baroque in places like Würzburg. That seemed a cruel thing to do under the circumstances.
As the conversation went along I managed to ferret out more contextual information as is my wont. There’s a spread of 25 years between the eldest and the youngest of the 11 kids. The eldest is now 50 and the youngest hasn’t yet finished his undergraduate degree. With that evidence to hand it became clear to me that Ma and Pa churned out the sprogs over fully 1/2 of their adult lifespans, until the change of life kicked in and finally put Ma out of the baby business. I’ve become expert at dissimulating any expression of astonishment when I learn such things. My face is like the surface of a pond on a quiet day, perfectly calm. Inside my head, however, I hear myself thinking “AYFKM??” But it’s all Business As Usual here. If you’re an adult of reproductive age you can blithely churn out sprogs at an industrial pace without any responsibility for seeing to the future that awaits them. That’s their problem. The kids form a kind of self-help co-op responsible not only for getting themselves sorted out for the future but also for supporting the parents.
Yes, for supporting the parents. Go figure. There’s nothing I can do in the face of that circumstance except walk away counting my blessings. I put myself through college, which in my day and age wasn’t all that unusual and certainly didn’t present an insurmountable obstacle as it would these days. I didn’t have five siblings to put through university while working as a young person at the bottom of the earning scale I could expect to have over the course of my lifetime. I didn’t have to support my parents. In other words, compared to life here in PH I had it good, damn good, and that fact never fails to register in my awareness when I have conversations like the one with my acquaintance.
So when I count my blessings I count them in several quarters. It really was The Good Old Days when I was young because you could get a college degree without going into massive debt that takes twenty years to pay off. You could reasonably expect gainful employment after completing that degree. What you earned from your entry-level job would suffice to support a modest independent lifestyle. There may have been no BMW sports coupe in the offing right away, but neither were you reduced to eating oatmeal three days a week and sharing an apartment with three other people. Now that I’ve reached the “golden years” all the advantages I had from my earlier days have added up and so have my blessings, which I’m careful to count regularly.
The difficulty everybody has here reminds me of the difficulty younger people now have in the States. So I count my blessings and keep my fingers crossed that before I kick the bucket the Powers That Be will restore to younger people some of the advantages people my age enjoyed when we were young. Here’s hoping …
There’s Always a New Beginning
Even in this later phase of life I find myself looking for greener pastures. My time in the Philippines will end soon and I’m perfectly OK with it. It’s been a good run and I’ve learned a lot. Instead of resting on my laurels it’s time to kick into high gear and get a future planned out, at least for the short term. I was thinking the other day about how as a teenager elaborate visions of my future doing this or that would unfold in my head. From the teenage perspective there was nothing to say it couldn’t happen, which gave an enormous buoyancy to one’s perspective on life. I see now that I’ve recovered something of that buoyancy after ditching the world of work. In the workaday world there’s little room for buoyancy because you know you’re only gonna get as much freedom as your annual leave allows. Since throwing off those shackles I find myself with all my time free unless I do something to pin it down. What a revelation. What a delight.
In my middle age when I imagined myself being retired I thought along more conventional lines — do a bit of gardening, enjoy the landscape on long walks, scribble a bit, that sort of thing. Those thoughts came from listening to society instead of paying attention to my own nature. A year after retiring from a job abroad I was on a plane heading out to start a life in a country I’d never lived in. Now it’s a few years later and I’m getting ready to do the same thing all over again. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just the way things worked out. But I’m completely OK with it and find my reserves of energy and optimism still well up on the gauge.
There can always be a new beginning no matter what your age — that’s my takeway from this turn of events. I’m pleased as punch to say that this opinion comes from a basis of experience, not a platitude I mouth while looking ahead to a future of withering sameness. That teenage buoyancy of new beginnings I once had has revived and carries me along with its energy as I look ahead at the transitions in the offing. That’s exactly as it should be.
The day will come eventually, I know, when my future is so short that the sense of expansiveness I have at the moment will be squeezed out of the picture. Some may think it morbid to project myself into that moment from my present — most do their best to keep it out of mind entirely. But it’s important to me to use that point as a contexualizing framework. I know it’s bound to come and I allow its effects to energize my present. Make hay while the sun shines, as the old saying goes. Thinking ahead to the Big Bottleneck impels me to get out the scythe and get busy.
I don’t know how many more new beginnings I’ll have before my future shrinks to the point that none will fit into it any longer. While I’d be the first person to sign a petition of protest about the narrowing of the path I’m going to take that lemon and make lemonade. It’s the only sensible thing to do. I’ll just keep going and start anew whenever the fork in the road requires taking the path less trodden. It’s a good way to keep life limber. So here’s to new beginnings until the horizon gets so close the sunset is the only legitimate focus of attention. Cowabunga. 🙂
Cultural Context is Everything
As the time winds down here in the Philippines I’m brought back to thoughts of cultural context as I’ve experienced it over my lifetime. In my youth I lived in Germany for a few years and became more German than the Germans. When I returned to the USA it took me 3 weeks to speak English without stopping to search for words, an experience I never dreamed I’d encounter, but there it is. Over the course of my career I worked abroad a few times, once in Europe, once in Africa and a fairly long stint in Saudi Arabia, a gig that ended in 2015 with the Big R (retirement). I knew from the get-go that nothing I’d experienced elsewhere would prepare me for living in Saudi. How right I was. It was an engrossing experience but I don’t look back fondly on it and think, “gee, if only I could go back to _____ (fill in the blank).” I was there for a reason — a job — and did my best extract as much human enrichment from the experience as I could, but it’s a tough row to hoe. The same is also true of my experience here in the Philippines, curiously enough. I saw that one coming before my arrival but not at all to the degree it ultimately manifested itself.
After two years here in PH I’m ready to head out. Recent changes in the immigration laws and in official stance toward both tourist and foreign resident presence tipped over the edge a feeling I’ve had that it’s time to find other pastures. I’m up for a good adventure but that doesn’t include keeping tabs on the legislature in Manila while having my suitcases at the ready. I have better things to do with my time, thanks very much.
As I look forward to spending time in Latin America I see now that I’ve adapted to life here in the Philippines but never really entered into it in the same way I did in other countries where I’ve lived. Why? Good question. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
There’s a fundamental difference in the way people in Asia organize life that I only understand now after a couple years here. That awareness took a good while to build up from my experience and it’s only now that I feel I have my finger on it — for myself, of course, it comes through the filter of my own awareness and doubtless gets colored by the set of cultural spectacles I wear perched on my own nose. Being the Yank I am, raised in a culture of fierce individuality, the position of the individual is the nexus of difference for me with regard to cultural baselines. People in Asia don’t operate on the same model of individuality I have from American culture. There was no such cultural cleft in Europe that demanded my attention and much less of it in the Latino cultures I’ve experienced. Here the cleft has become a chasm that can’t be breached.
The individual here is always embedded in a larger structure and is wholly defined in relation to that larger structure. You’ll hear people here talk about wanting this or that for themselves, but their actions are entirely dominated by their embeddedness in the larger structure of family and social group. In practical terms it shows itself to someone like me in the appearance that the only things people ever think about are family and money. Period, end of story. People may talk about big plans for the future but they don’t walk the talk, they do what the family and the social structure program them to do.
If everybody’s doing that then fine, it’s Business As Usual. If you’re a foreigner like me, however, then you quickly realize that you’ll always be odd man out. Your sovereign individuality will attract locals like flowers attract bees, but there always comes a moment when what I call “The Matrix” will assert itself and pull them back into its clutches. The phenomenon is all-pervasive and inexorable. It underpins the reason that I’ve made no close friends here. I’ve stopped being surprised at seeing a man who’s 35 years old get a call from his mother — with whom he still lives because he’s unmarried — and have to leave immediately for home. I now know that 99% of the time the answer I’ll get to the question, “So, what do you want to do with your future?” will be, “I want to help my family.” I don’t even bother to ask the question anymore.
I’m quite aware that I inhabit a far end of the spectrum rather than its middle. Americans value individuality probably more than any culture in the world, even though many of us don’t manage to achieve its practical expression to as great a degree as we’d like. Latino cultures seem to me somewhere in the middle between the Asian and American extremes. They value individuality and it’s possible to engage people as individuals without having The Matrix throw itself between you and the other person as a matter of course. But they’re still more contextualized than most Americans and family still plays a much larger economic role in their lives than is the case with Americans.
So while I’ve done my best to meet people halfway here it just hasn’t worked. You’re either in or out, there’s no middle ground. I’m looking forward to living in a culture where the balance between the individual, the context and the larger culture isn’t like looking through the bars of a jail cell. If my past experience in Latino cultures is any indicator, it will be possible to make friends and engage with people as the individual I am on the basis of the individuals they are, much more like I’m used to doing in the States and in Europe.
There’s just one major drawback: I’m gonna have to learn some salsa moves. 😳
Business + Government = Oil + Water
If the Festival of Crap we’ve been watching for the past couple years in Washington, D.C reveals anything it’s that the U.S. Constitution is no way to run a business. The President makes that point over and over again by ignoring or abrogating it. Conversely, if you want to follow the Constitution you can’t take your cue from running a business. That’s what the Donald has been finding out with alarming regularity. It doesn’t help that if he ever had a civics class he obviously flunked it. Even in my rural backwater the notions of checks and balances and separation of powers managed to puncture the surface of my awareness in high school, so I find it inconceivable that in the Big Apple people lacked the advantage of similar exposure to facts of the land.
Clearly the problem goes deeper than ignorance. It’s a paradigm problem. The recent kerfuffle about Trump threatening action on non-disclosure agreements for leakers brings that fact to the fore. Non-disclosure agreements in the executive branch? Only a person who’s a combination of Old White Guy who flunked civics and skanky businessman would come up with the idea of using an instrument meant to forestall unfair competition between private businesses to zip the lips of staff in the executive branch of the Federal government. Clearly the Oval Office is just the same as Trump Tower for the Donald. Well think again, Mr. Pres. This isn’t USA, Inc. and a president is not a CEO. Clearly he missed that memo.
It’s been obvious for ages that Trump carries on in the White House exactly as he did in Trump Tower as the king of his smoke-and-mirrors empire. He brought in as many of the kids as he could since that’s what he had at the Trump Organization. He regards officials of the Department of Justice as his personal flunkeys in the same way he once regarded Ray Cohn and Michael Cohen. He considers money collected from taxpayers as capital to spend as he sees fit, just as he did with Trump Foundation funds that went for paintings, campaign costs and school tuition fees. It’s a pity a person has to declare a national emergency just to get that pesky Congress out of the way — things were so much easier at the Trump Organization where the Donald made all the decisions and nobody gave him any lip. And if things went south — as multiple bankruptcies clearly show they did — there were people around to clean up the mess while the boss prepared some fresh fiasco. Those were the good old days …
Investigative reporting has shown us the Trump New Yorkers have long known — the reckless, incompetent, pretentious and thoroughly risible figure that serious New York businesspeople have chuckled about for decades. Rick Wilson reported in an interview about his book Everthing That Trump Touches Dies a conversation he had with a billionaire in New York City. He mentioned Trump also being a billionaire and his interlocutor stopped him short: “No, I’m a billionaire. Donald Trump is a clown living on credit.” The clown part was obvious to those with eyes to see long before Inauguration Day in 2017. The credit part is about to be revealed through investigations by the House of Representatives which will scrub Trump’s red line into permanent oblivion. Pity we didn’t have that information sooner.
The President is a poster child for the dangers of combining business and government. So are the secretaries he’s appointed to federal agencies. Journalist Masha Gessen was dead right when she said that as soon as Trump got into office he’d begin destroying things. That’s what the secretaries are there to do, pull everything apart so the carcass of government can be picked clean by the industries from which the secretaries came. That practice has a business analogue known only too well to our wannabe oligarchs: hostile takeover. The secretaries in question are of such an age that they were in on that nastiness after deregulation in the 1980’s. So they, too, are doing the same thing they did in their corporate suites, just like the President. The results threatens to be catastrophic for American democracy as well as for the physical environment we all inhabit.
I’ve never had any use for business culture in the USA and stayed well away from it during my career. Oddly enough it was only in my last job before retirement that I entered the corporate world — outside the USA, however, while working on a project that had nothing to do with the major business of the corporation employing me. I continued my work of building cultural capital, not corporate assets, although I must admit I was paid much more handsomely for it by that corporation than ever I had been working for government or educational institutions in the States. Being in a large corporate structure served only to confirm to me that I’d chosen well to steer clear of corporate life in America. Its agenda is not my agenda, its modus operandi has never been what I wanted in my own experience. So I chose well when I decided early on to sidestep the entire affair.
To my mind the goings-on in Washington D.C. since Inauguration Day serve primarily to show the predatory, destructive nature of business culture and how little justice is done to the pervasive white-collar crime it perpetrates. Its track record in market capitalism is alarming enough, but in the arena of government it becomes disastrous. The premises of government are diametrically opposed to its ideological arsenal. We see clearly now that when the business hand of Trump touches things in government, they do indeed die. He brings in people whose primary goal is to throw the agencies of government — along with the electorate — under the bus. It’s all about taking things over and grabbing what’s there to fill your pockets and the pockets of your industry chums. The primary motivation is greed. The modus operandi is pillage and destruction. Thus you end up with a Secretary of Labor who points out in a televised interview that even if government workers suffer during a shutdown, they represent less than 1% of GDP so it’s not that big a deal. That’s what you get with when you bring corporate culture into government. No thanks.
Let’s use this unfortunate incursion of corporate culture into government for two purposes. First, let’s recognize that corporate culture and government can’t be combined without disastrous results. Second, let’s look long and hard at the practices of corporate Business As Usual and ask ourselves if that’s how we really want to live. If corporate culture is that toxic for government — ostensibly based on representation of the population and intended to secure its well-being — then maybe it’s not such a good idea to have it splatting all over the country doing its dirty work outside the halls of government, either. Maybe the idea of regulation isn’t so bad after all. Corporatocracy in government has quickly devolved into kakistocracy. Surely there must be a better way to conduct our affairs?
Let’s Hear It For the Press
The relationship between reporting in the press and subsequent action in the House of Representatives is so close these days it’s clear that the press deserves credit for doing a good bit of heavy lifting regarding the oversight function the House exercises as part of its constitutional mandate. In the past few months month it’s seemed to me that the press really does the bulk of the work of ferreting out appropriate targets for oversight. There’s so much stuff these days it takes a large number of full-scale news organizations active on their beats just to handle the workload.
That circumstance points out to me very clearly why dictators make takeover of the media one of their first priorities. I first saw that process in Africa, where in the 1980’s for three months I did a consultancy in an agency of the government of Burkina Faso, in the country’s capital Ouagadougou — a name so far fetched I don’t expect you to believe it really exists until you Google it, so go ahead and get that out of the way LOL. I’ll spare you the particulars other than to mention that a year before my arrival there had been a military coup. The building in which I worked still had bullet holes in the exterior walls to prove it. As his first coup agenda the general who subsequently became president moved troops to seize the radio and television stations — I think there was one of each. In my hotel room of an evening I was wont to watch what passed for news on the state-run TV channel. The presenters all wore military uniforms and the closing message was always the same: “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!” Which means: “the fatherland or death, we shall overcome.” It’s not something I remember Walter Cronkite saying after finishing the evening news, but hey — other people, other customs, as the French saying goes.
It was quickly brought to my attention when I began the consultancy that whatever documents we issued from our office needed to have that statement at the head. I built it into the memo template I created just to be sure I didn’t forget it. We certainly didn’t need any eyebrows raised in the main office. The department head was one of those rare creatures who’d survived the coup and kept his position after the military takeover. I never asked the reasons for his continuity from one regime to the other and didn’t want to know. One of the people in the office let me know in passing that although a very quiet man he should under no circumstances be underestimated. I took that word to the wise immediately to heart.
A look at the media organizations of dictatorships shows that such an approach is Business As Usual. Russian state TV is everything you’d imagine it to be — we saw it all under the former Soviet Union, Bad Vlad is just taking his playbook from the USSR he knew and still loves. Our current president has taken more than a few pages from that playbook and in the history books will probably be called the Propaganda President — both for calling the press fake and for producing plenty of his own hoopypoop every day. In the turnabouts reality so often plays on characters in bad fiction (or TV), he’s the one who’s the biggest source of fake news. The fact-checkers make that abundantly clear as he lies through his teeth every day and the tally of Four Pinocchios continues to rocket skyward.
So I’m immensely grateful to the mainstream press in the United States for all their hard work trying to bring the truth into the light of day so we outside the brouhaha of Washington, D.C. can see it. It makes my blood run cold to think what life would be like if there were only state TV available as was the case in Burkina Faso. Thank heavens we have reporters working hard to fish the truth out of the fetid swamp the current administration has created. For those of us who live at far remove from it that service is invaluable. Hats off to them and a huge thanks for their important service to the nation. Without it we’d be find ourselves sunk in the swamp instead of keeping our heads above the water.