Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Why Art?

Why study the arts? Some politicians ask the question as a joke, mocking this or that discipline as impractical. Those who defend the arts and humanities answer in economic terms, arguing for the rich and versatile skills one learns in the humanities classroom. I have made that economic case myself. As far as it goes, it is true. But it is not the only argument, and it does not go far enough.

We need the humanities because we are human. We need the arts because we are mortal. We need art and poetry because everyone we love will some day die.

We are human, and so we have problems that we cannot solve. That is not pessimism. Life is also full of beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. But even the best life includes the certainty of pain and loss. They are sure to come, and there is no "practical" solution for them.

Medicine can cure disease, it can ease suffering, it can extend life. It cannot banish death. Medicine does remarkable things, and I am grateful for it. But the larger problem remains.

Human ingenuity and practicality and industry can do wonders, and I am lucky for everything technology has done for me. But technology does not end the problems of the human spirit: loss and loneliness, wounded hearts and broken souls. We will never have a technological fix for these problems. There is not an app for that.

Right now, somewhere in California, some of the richest men alive are trying to find a technological solution to the problem of death. They have come to believe, or at least to hope, that money and technology will buy them immortality. What does this teach us? That people like Larry Ellison, Sergei Brin, and Peter Thiel, for all their fabulous wealth and admirable math skills, can be complete idiots. This problem is not to be solved in the way they hope. (The idea that immortality would come out of Silicon Valley, whose products are not built to last even a single decade, is hilarious.) The problem that they want to overcome is called "thermodynamics." It is part of the nature of all things. Silicon Valley's riches do not change that. They only fuel the hubris that lets billionaires mislead themselves.

None of us, personally or as a society, are ready to look straight ahead at problems like death, or to think about them too long. We have built marvelous toys to distract ourselves, like children putting off bedtime. The old folk saying about only using ten percent of our brainpower is not quite true; the truth is we use ninety percent of our brain power to trick ourselves out of dealing with the truths we can't face.

But we will all find ourselves, sooner or later, dealing with problems that money and technology cannot solve:

                   Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
                   mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
                   che la diritta via era smarrita.

                  (In the middle of our road of life,
                  I found myself in a darkened wood
                  Where the right path was lost.)

When that happens, and it will happen to all of us, we will be stuck with it. We will not be able to write a check. We will not be able to take a pill. We will not be able to ask Siri for the answers. The new car won't save us, because we'll already be off the road.

For these moments, humankind has invented the many arts and disciplines called "the humanities." Philosophy, art, literature, history, religion, theater. These disciplines do not solve the fundamental problems in the sense that those problems go away. No poem will keep you from dying. But all of these arts search for ways to deal with those problems, to come to grips with them honestly. Technology solves the problems that can be solved. Art faces the problems that cannot be solved.

Those problems do not go away. But the accumulated human wisdom of a few millennia does often help. Sometimes, what you need most is perspective, and sometimes, alas, there is nothing to give you but perspective. Philosophy, literature, and art are tools for broadening and deepening your perspective. You are a thinking soul in a difficult and transient material world. When there is nothing for you to do except to think, nothing you can change but your own thoughts, Tolstoy and Milton and Yeats are there to help.

And when all else fails, as eventually it must fail, the arts provide consolation. When the matter fails you, you will be forced to seek the comfort of self-deception or to reach for the hard-won consolation of difficult truths. For some, that consolation is philosophy, for others faith, for still others art. But I would humbly suggest that you rely on everything you can.

If nothing else, the arts and humanities give us something durable to think about in our fleeting, temporary world: things that, if not eternal exactly, are at least durable. When the world changes under your feet, the thought of something that came long before you and will remain long after you are gone is a kind of comfort. At least, it has been for me. And then I am like the poet Keats, who could no longer deceive himself about his death), looking at the ancient Greek pottery which would outlive him:

     When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man ...
What else to say? We are flawed and human and fragile, and we need all the friends that we can get.
 
cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog


Monday, September 05, 2016

Balanced Coverage and Baseball

So today, Paul Krugman told it like it is about the newspaper that employs him and its strange "balance via bias" coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, in which the Grey Lady tries to give both candidates equivalent amounts of negative coverage. This requires (or allows) the Times to exhaustively cover "shadows over" and "questions about" the Clinton campaign while outright ignoring outrageous Trump behavior (such as funneling $25,000 to a state DA who was considering whether to sue one of Trump's businesses). The Times has written multiple stories on donors to the Clinton Foundation asking for favors and (wait for it) not getting them, while writing no (none, nada, zero) stories about the Trump Foundation giving the Florida DA twenty-five grand while a lawsuit was being considered. That's fair, right?

And the logic here, as in much of the media coverage, is that Trump has done so many terrible things that there isn't room to cover them all. So if he behaves badly enough, he gets some free bad behavior as an incentive. What journalism!

Then the Times, in a not at all biased piece of behavior, responded like this:
The Times did eventually tweet a link to Krugman's column, about nine hours after Silver's public shaming. So public shaming, plus nine hours, to get the routine social media promotion that all the paper's op-ed columns get. Nice.

Now, I know some of you will want to get into the weeds about details of Hillary Clinton's e-mails and the penumbras and emanations of the meetings she did not actually hold. So let me switch the topic entirely. Let's talk about baseball.

Sixteen years ago (on August 29, 2000, to be precise), two baseball teams played a game in which an eye-popping eight members of one team, including the manager, were ejected by the umpires, while exactly none of the other team's players or coaches got thrown out. Eight ejections to no ejections. How can that be fair? I have occasionally heard sportscasters ask exactly that question. If one team has eight people thrown out and the other side none, I have heard one Hall of Famer say, something has to be wrong. Obviously, this discrepancy is a sign of biased umpiring, right? Right?

No. Not at all.

On the home team's first at-bat, the visiting pitcher, Pedro Martinez, hit the leadoff batter with a pitch. (Full disclosure: I am an ardent Red Sox fan, and a pretty big Pedro fan. But I will fully admit that Pedro Martinez sometimes threw at guys intentionally. I might be biased in the Red Sox's favor, but in this case all of the facts are clear beyond question.) The umpires, rightly or wrongly, believed that Martinez had hit the home team player (Gerald Williams of the Tampa Devil Rays) by accident.

Williams, however, chose to run out to the mound to attack the pitcher. This is a clear baseball no-no. It also led to nearly all the players from both teams rushing onto the field, pushing and shoving each other. Have I mentioned that the game had just started? The umpires regained control, sent everyone back to their places, and resumed the game. They ejected one player, the player who had rushed the pitcher's  mound, and kept everyone else in the game. That was basically the last eviction that involved the umpires' judgement calls. One Devil Ray ejected, no Red Sox ejected. Still with me?

A couple of innings later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits a Red Sox batter. This, too, may be an accident. But there is a clear baseball tradition of pitchers retaliating for hit batsman by going out and hitting one of the other team's batters as payback. At this point, the home team pitcher is not ejected. But, in baseball parlance, the benches are warned. This means that any further hit batters, or clear throws at batters, will lead to the automatic ejection of that pitcher AND his manager. Automatic. No questions. Great. Each team has hit one batter, one player has been ejected for starting a fight, and now both teams face automatic ejections if someone else gets hit.

Two batters later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits another Red Sox batter, the Red Sox's best hitter, pretty clearly not by accident but that's no longer even the question. The pitcher and the team manager get run off the field. 3 Devil Rays ejections, 0 Red Sox ejections.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are doing pretty well. They build up a three-run lead and -- this part will be important -- their pitcher Pedro Martinez is throwing a no-hitter. After hitting that first batter, he hasn't let anyone else on base. He has gotten every single Devil Ray batter out, inning after inning. They simply can't hit him. They can't even work a walk.

So, eventually, the Devil Rays pitchers hit, or try to hit, more Red Sox batters. When they do this the pitcher, and whichever coach is filling in as manager at that moment, get ejected. In one memorable sequence (and I still remember watching this), the Devil Rays pitcher throws at one Red Sox batter so that the pitch is literally behind the poor guy. That pitcher gets ejected, taking one of his coaches with him. The Devil Rays bring in a new relief pitcher, let him warm up, and he immediately hits the very same batter that the last pitcher was ejected for throwing at. Four ejections in one at-bat. This is how you get to eight.

Why did this happen? Because, after a certain point, the Rays kept hitting batters because they wanted to bait the opposing pitcher into hitting one of them. If he got upset and retaliated, he would be thrown out of the game. They desperately wanted him out of the game, because he was throwing a no-hitter. But he obviously was not going to do anything to get thrown out of the game for the very same reason: he was throwing a no-hitter, a record-book accomplishment that he had never achieved. He was not going to be ejected if he could help it, and since he could help it, he did.

The team that was getting repeatedly ejected were not being treated unfairly. They were breaking rules that the other team was following. They were doing it to bait the other side into a misstep, and also trying to work the umpires. Should one of the Red Sox been ejected for "balance" every time a Devil Rays player got ejected? If that were true, the Devil Rays could get the Red Sox punished for the Devil Rays' own bad behavior. Which brings us back to the 2016 election.

The Clinton-Trump election is like this. One side is way outside the established rules and falling behind. The other is playing carefully by the rules and winning. The rule-breakers are protesting loudly that things are not fair and many in the media (who now behave, in the worst possible way, like sportscasters) are coddling those complaints and seeking to punish the winning campaign for the losing campaign's misdeeds. This dynamic will only intensify when Trump next falls further behind in the polls. He will do his damnedest to get Hillary thrown out of the game.

To some, including some people who make their living as Serious Journalists, this seems only fair. Because they have lost their sense of what fairness actually entails.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Horserace? Or Hindenburg?

Donald Trump is clearly losing this election. What is the media going to do about it?

Even Trump understands that he's way behind in the polls and that those polls are on the level. That's why he shook up his campaign staff this morning to make it more Trump-y. (New campaign motto: "Let Trump be Trump. We're out of other options.") He's doing much worse than Mitt Romney was four years ago, and Romney lost by a solid margin.

Trump is actually doing so badly that he has defeated the national media's reflexive need to "balance" coverage and to present the Presidential election as a close contest. There are plenty of reporters out there happy, more than happy to write the "Trump Comeback" story or, if necessary, the "Trump: Down But Not Out" story. But Trump's campaign has been so, well, Trumpalicious that he hasn't given those reporters a chance. Trump is currently losing so badly that they can't spin the polls any other way. You can't write the comeback narrative if the comeback kid keeps falling further behind.

The great James Fallows tweeted last week that we were approaching a turning point, where the media would have to decide how to cover the election:
Well, this is the week for that collision. Trump's campaign shakeup is, among other things, a clear attempt to get some journalists back to the Comeback narrative, by giving them a "turning point" as a hook for those stories. That, after all, is how Trump's last shakeup, the firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, worked. It provided a peg to hang the "Trump is about to pivot" stories from. It's the equivalent of hanging an "Under New Management" sign on a restaurant that's been closed down over health violations. Now the pivot hasn't worked, because Trump didn't actually pivot, and so he has new new management and Paul Manafort now reports to someone who is basically Corey Lewandowski with even less campaign experience. Whee! Keep your hands and feet inside the roller coaster at all times!

But since the clear point of this reshuffle is to double down on Trump's previous unworkable strategy, there's a chance that it reinforces the Loser in Disarray story instead and brings on the mother of all media pile-ons. The standard thinking is that Trump is failing and flailing because he's refusing to act like a normal candidate. Now he's essentially declared that normal is for losers, and he's going to be more -- God help us -- unrestrained. More rallies, uglier personal attacks, no bothering with stuff like campaign offices in, say, states. Who knows? Maybe he'll burn a cross on his own lawn. Trump is simply going to flail away with both arms. Since most journalists understand Trump's Trumpiness as the reason he's losing, they are going to assume that turbo-Trumping the campaign will only make him a bigger loser.

The press wants a good horse race, always. The horse race means ratings and sales and advertising dollars. They want a close election the way sportscasters want a close game, because it delivers eyeballs. It takes an a lot to pry the media away from their desire to present a national election as neck-and-neck. An election that seems over before Labor Day is basically their worst nightmare: boring, predictable, and bad for business. How do you generate story ideas when the story is already over?

But the national press can also reach a tipping point where they no longer treat the election as a contest at all. Once that point is reached, the press will start to cover Trump and his campaign for the sheer curiosity value of public-self destruction. Not horse-race coverage, but Hindenburg coverage, where you stop pretending the thing is getting off the ground and just invite the viewers to watch the beautiful colors as it burns. This is how local news covers car crashes. This is how reality TV, from which Trump comes, covers the personal meltdowns of the psychologically troubled people they keep putting on camera. They learned early that the audience doesn't watch reality TV to see other people succeed. They watch reality TV to see other people flame out. When Trump's political failure becomes spectacular enough, the press will treat the disaster as a spectacle.

We've basically reached that tipping point now. It's becoming impossible to pretend that Trump has a fighting chance or that he's capable of taking it, that he is anything but a loser. And so the media will be forced to cover him as the huge, dangerously volatile bag of gas that he actually is. You will be able to see the explosion across New Jersey. And the press will just roll the cameras and watch him burn.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Outsourcing Political Violence: Trump and Daesh

There are still three months to go and we've already gotten to the smirking-death-threats portion of our general election. I can't even say that I'm surprised Trump did it. I just never expected it so early, and I'm sickened by the thought of how much lower the man will sink by November 8. It will get even worse. I mean, of course it will. There's no doubt. But I'm not looking forward to it.

If you have any doubts, or buy any spin, about whether or not Trump intended to threaten Clinton, stop listening tot he clip itself and listen to what he's said since. His campaign's apology isn't just a lie, but an aggressively transparent lie. It is an eff-you lie, designed to show contempt for the person being lied and challenge them to dispute the naked falsehood. (Eff-you lies re a key part of Trump's campaign M.O.)  And more important is what he hasn't said. At no point has he said explicitly, or even had his surrogates say, "We do not want any harm to come to Secretary Clinton." Trump hasn't said that because he doesn't want his followers to hear him saying that. Is it just his personality disorder, keeping him from ever apologizing or admitting a mistake? Is it fear of turning off his hard-core followers who are excited by the death threats? Does it even matter?

So we've reached the perennial question of Campaign 2016: Is It Fascism Yet? Today's answer is: close (all too close), but not quite.

I don't believe that Trump actually planned to threaten Clinton before the moment that he did it. Trump, as you may have noticed, does not think ahead. I think he improvised the threat in response to crowd mood, which is what Trump does at his rallies: feels out his crowd and gives them what they want. The problem, then, is that we now have a sizable number of our fellow Americans who want to go to a campaign rally and hear one candidate for President call for the other candidate's blood. That is a bad, bad thing, and threatens to be a problem long after Trump himself is gone. Trump himself is bad. But the audience Trump has attracted is worse, and might someday be harnessed by a demagogue more directly dangerous than Trump.

Trump has clearly identified, and responded to, a troubling appetite for political violence. What he hasn't done, and doesn't have the skills to do, is to actually organize political violence. I'd like to think he wouldn't have the stomach for that. I'm confident that he doesn't have the organizational ability. Trump isn't going to turn his most blood-thirsty followers into a cadre of brownshirts because, really. Trump can't even open a damned field office. Trump rallies are a ripe recruiting ground for potential thugs, but Trumps campaign can't even turn those rallies into a decent voter-contact list.

Instead, Trump is outsourcing the threat of violence: floating the threat out there in a nominally deniable way and seeing if anyone takes him up on it. Trump  has not thought through what would happen if some Travis Bickle out there took him at his word. or the horrible blowback he would suffer if, God forbid, someone actually took a shot at Clinton; Trump has not thought, in the normal sense of that word, at all. But he's played the same game before, in the primaries, when he muttered about "riots in the streets" if he were denied the nomination. And there the threat was clearly made in his direct political interests, suggesting to the Republican Party that people might use violence on Trump's behalf. This is a card Trump plays. He doesn't orchestrate violence, but uses code words that might lead someone else to become violent for him.

This strategy is very much like Trump's post-bankruptcy approach to real estate. Trump no longer puts up big buildings. He doesn't have the money or the credit with major lenders to do that. Instead, he attaches his name and brand to buildings other people finance and build. In the same way, he seems open to lending his name and brand to political violence that he, himself, does not have the ability to pull off. He can't afford his own stormtroopers, so he's exploring options for outsourcing.

What Trump has done also, alarmingly, echoes the even uglier strategy of Islamist terrorists like al-Qaeda and Daesh (the group often called "ISIS." I prefer the name Daesh, because they hate it.) Now, I am NOT comparing anything Trump has done to the scale or direct culpability of a group like Daesh. But those groups also outsource a lot of their violence. They cannot actually do nearly as much harm as they would like, so they spread their brand on social media and hope some poor, demented Travis Bickle type decides to declare allegiance to them before his grotesque murder-suicide. This makes the suicidal Travis Bickle feel connected to something bigger than his sad, failed self, and makes Daesh/ISIS/al-Qaeda appear capable of more violence, with a longer reach, than they can actually make happen on their own dime. In this way, terrorism and political violence in the 21st century is weirdly mimicking corporate behavior, reducing their own direct capabilities and outsourcing core activities through branding arrangements. If this is the future, I hate it.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Friday, July 29, 2016

Watch Donald Crack

I enjoyed that Democratic Convention a lot, and mostly for the right reasons. In fact, I'm still enjoying it, because I'm currently five time zones ahead of Philly time and so watch the major speeches the next day. [SPOILER ALERT: Don't tell me who they nominate in the finale!] The Democrats presented a positive vision about candidate, cause, and country: inspiring reminders about what they are about, what we are about, and what America is about. It's great, and also I'm walking around London with Stevie's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" stuck in my head. I am one happy Democrat.

This is a much happier feeling than watching the Republican convention was. That was a mix of fearful apprehension for my town, sickened horror at the speakers' outpouring of authoritarian hatred, and mocking schadenfreude at Trump's torpedoing his own convention. I had some fun in there, but it wasn't pleasant fun. It was more the point-and-laugh kind. It didn't make me feel especially good about myself. Thanks to Bill, Barack, and Hill for re-centering the moral compass.

There are far more opportunities for schadenfreude ahead, unfortunately. Because Donald Trump is already starting to come unglued.

One of the most useful psychiatric terms I've picked up in my travels is the word "decompensation." Decompensation is, just like it sounds, the opposite of "compensation." It is when a patient responds to stress or setbacks by getting sicker. The going gets tough, and the patient's symptoms get worse. That doesn't fix whatever's causing the stress; it just deepens it. An alcoholic gets fired and goes on a four-day bender.  A bipolar patient who's having trouble finding work becomes too depressed to even leave the house. Just when the patient needs to step up and cope with a challenge, they become even worse at coping. Bad, bad times.

It's been no secret on this blog that I consider Donald Trump to have at least one fairly serious psychiatric condition. He is, to put it politely, a profoundly disordered personality. And under the stress of the campaign, he is going to decompensate badly. Running for President of the United States is incredibly challenging and stressful, even for strong, sane people who have already run many successful campaigns. Donald Trump is neither strong nor sane, and he has never been elected to any public office in his life. Not dog-catcher, not zoning board, not public water commission. He is not going to be able to take this. He is going to crack.

In fact, he has already started.

Over the last few days, as the general election gets underway, he has done a huge number of maladaptive things: expressed his desire to punch various speakers from the Democratic convention, decided to rant on Twitter about how Mike Bloomberg was mean to him, and mostly damningly urged the Russian government to spy on his election opponent. None of that is rationally calculated to help him. None if it is something you would do to help yourself. And I don't think he planned to plea to Putin at all; it was just another troubled impulse he could not control. Lack of impulse control is one of his symptoms.

You can look at his behavior as demonstrating his lack of fitness for office, and you should. He is appallingly unfit for that office. But you can also understand what Trump is doing as the expression of psychiatric symptoms getting worse under pressure. Maybe that moves you to some compassion for him, and maybe it doesn't; Trump's condition prevents him from feeling compassion for anyone else, and in his current position he is extremely dangerous to our country. But we shouldn't necessarily lose our compassion because he has. We're bigger than he is.

Those symptoms are only going to get worse, because the pressure of the campaign is only going to get worse. I mean, the general election hasn't even really gotten started yet. Donald Trump is going to crack under that pressure, and he is going to do it in front of the entire world. I am not looking forward to watching that. But anything is better than watching him crack in the Oval Office.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog