Posts Tagged 'donald trump'

Right, and right again.

Months ago I clipped out this National Post article about how our society is increasingly “consumed by loneliness”.

One of the experts quoted is Dr. Fay Bound Alberti, “cultural historian of gender, emotion and medicine”, who identifies neoliberalism, individualism, and nationalism as isolating trends that have severed people from the support of their traditional communities – “whether that was good or bad”.

This gives the author her opening for the ritual denunciation of you-know-who:

The rise of populism can further pit people against others – blacks, Mexicans, immigrants – while at the same time creating a seeming sense of belonging.

The “Make America great again” rallying campaign slogan “theoretically represents a common purpose – or a new ‘religion’, given how evangelical Trump’s rallies can appear,” Bound Alberti said. “But it’s based on exclusion, division and difference.”

You’d think a topic like loneliness would be safely remote from the realm of partisan finger-jabbing. Turns out, no. I had the exhausted reaction once described by Alan Jacobs: “Is there any chance of my getting through a recent essay, an article, a story, an interview, without a reference to That Man?

I have a less self-contradictory theory for how loneliness is connected to “the rise of populism”. We retreat from human interaction because we fear that if we shared our unguarded opinions with co-workers, family members, and friends, we’d end up scratching each other’s eyes out.

***

Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse is about a private eye protecting a troubled girl who believes that, under the influence of the title curse, she’s responsible for a rash of murders that have occurred in her vicinity. She cites her oddly-shaped face and ears, and the “fog” that prevents her from thinking “even the simplest thoughts”, as evidence that the sins of her parents have corrupted her bloodline.

The private eye reassures her that she’s perfectly normal:

“Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.”

Whether the private eye believes this, who knows. He’s a hard-boiled type who’ll say anything to manipulate the squirrelly mooks and screwy dames he encounters. And whether Hammett believed it, again, who knows. He spent the last thirty years of his life as an unwavering follower of the Communist Party line, holding tight to his goofy opinions even when they led to prison and the blacklist during the McCarthy era.

Anyway, I believe it. Life is a half-waking stagger through a crowded underlit arcade with neon flashing, klaxons wailing, jabbering teenagers jostling you on all sides, and you’re lucky if you can focus your attention on anything for two seconds consecutively, let alone accurately describe your perceptions afterward. That’s how I feel most of the time, anyway. I assume everyone else is going through the same thing, so I try to cut them some slack when they spill their drinks down the back of my shirt.

At his trial, Socrates claimed that if he was wiser than other men, it was only in being wise enough to realize how little he knew. I’ll go Socrates one further: I’m wise enough to admit that those supposed wise men in the newspapers, on TV, on Twitter, who to me seem such overconfident know-it-alls, are probably wiser than me after all.

The trouble is, the wise men all contradict each other, so I’m forced to rely on what scraps of wisdom I can retrieve from the foggy muddle.

***

Best I can remember, I started paying serious attention to public affairs sometime in my mid-teens, which would be the early nineties – let’s say around the start of the Clinton administration in the US, and Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in my native Canada. Since then I’ve lived through four presidents – two Democrats and two Republicans – and four prime ministers – three Liberals, one Conservative.

That’s not much of a sample, but it’s enough that I’ve begun to notice that right-wing and left-wing governments affect my beliefs in different ways. Namely, when right-wingers are in power, either in Washington or Ottawa, I become more sympathetic to conservative ideas; but when left-wingers seize the helm there is no compensating effect on my philosophical orientation.

Thus I find myself becoming more and more right-wing.

It’s not because I have an “authoritarian personality” which makes right-wing arguments somehow seem more convincing when backed by the iron fist of the ruling party. It’s actually kind of the opposite. I live almost entirely in a left-wing milieu. My friends and nearest family are left-wingers. The restaurants I eat in, the neighbourhoods I hang out in, are populated mostly by left-wingers. And the media I consume – apart from conservative news sources I’ve sought out deliberately in the interest of balance – is produced largely by left-wingers.

When leftists are running things, the left-wing masses are content. Sure, they’ll still bitch about the horrible things those fascist pigs are planning to do if they ever take over, but there’s a complacent undertone to their bitching. They’re convinced of the long-term inevitability of their victory – the arc of the moral universe bending toward what they regard as justice. Aren’t all the cool young people left-wing? Aren’t all the high-birthrate immigrants left-wing? Aren’t all the old fascists dying off, their communities withering, their perks sustained only by anachronisms like the electoral college and first-past-the-post voting? We’ll be rid of ’em soon. Just a few mopping-up operations, that’s all.

But when the fascists upset their sense of destiny by actually winning elections, left-wingers go absolutely nuts. Where before they might have lobbed the occasional snide comment into the opposing trenches, in the spirit of keeping the enemy on their toes, now the barrage becomes nonstop and desperate. You flip open the arts section and every book review includes an irrelevant swipe at the uncultured rednecks occupying the capital. You sit down in a coffeeshop and the kiddies at the next table are bewailing some half-remembered social media listicle about the government’s viciousness. You attend a dinner party and sit biting your lip through a series of wisecracks made in the assurance that no-one present could ever support those ignoramuses who have tricked and slandered and demagogued their way into power.

Now, I’m pretty sure that in a right-wing milieu, the masses act out just as annoyingly when left-wingers are in charge. Never having lived in such a milieu, it’s never concerned me. Living the lifestyle I do, it’s pretty easy for me to tune out right-wing idiocy. Left-wing idiocy I simply can’t escape. And I react to it by sympathizing with the targets of left-wing ire.

It may seem silly to think of Donald Trump and George W. Bush and Stephen Harper as underdogs. Objectively, they aren’t. But from my perspective, in the milieu I inhabit, when left-wingers are on the attack, right-wing ideas appear harried, besieged, bombarded with disproportionate force. Which makes them sympathetic. So I migrate rightward – until left-wingers resume power and call off the siege, and I resume my state of indecisive stasis.

(I have also considered the idea, of course, that I’m simply getting older, and older people tend to be more right-wing – maybe because of growing wisdom, or aversion to change, or because we hold on to the same middle-of-the-road opinions we held in our youth and discover to our surprise that they’re now considered conservative.

There’s also the possibility that left-wing ideology, at least in its popular form, is becoming more unhinged with each passing decade, and older people are the only ones who’ve been around long enough to notice.)

***

During the last provincial election I read an op-ed about British Columbia’s log policy. I had been unaware of the elaborate system of rules governing when unprocessed logs can be shipped abroad and when they must be retained locally in order to provide work for our own sawmills. I can’t remember if the op-ed was pro-log policy or anti-log policy. My reaction was something like: ugh, yet another goddamn thing to think about.

I’m pretty dumb and lazy – maybe dumber, definitely lazier than the average. But I doubt all my intelligence and effort could add much to the log policy debate. The many, many British Columbians who are smarter than me, and the practically all of them who are more energetic than me, for all their deep thought and careful analysis haven’t managed to arrive at a consensus yet. Instead, unsurprisingly, they’ve clustered around two viewpoints which we might tag (however arbitrarily) as left-wing and right-wing – with the right-wingers, in this case, supporting the liberty of logging companies to market their logs abroad in pursuit of higher prices, while the left-wingers want to keep the logs here to preserve blue-collar jobs.

(A hundred years ago, the “left” side of this argument would have been for free trade, while the “right” would have favoured a mercantilist National Policy. With Trumpist protectionism ascendant on the right and “open borders” the rallying cry on the left, the two sides appear to be in the process of swapping places again.)

I’m not sure how I’d balance those two values – economic liberty for all, versus job security for a few – assuming that the anti-traders are even correct that limiting exports helps preserve local jobs. I recently spent an hour reading up on the subject, bashing my head on jargon like the Surplus Test and Fee-In-Lieu Of Manufacture, and I’m no wiser than when I began.

But if BC’s log policy for some reason became a topic of heated national debate – with my left-wing friends all reposting conspiracy theories about how this or that pundit was in the pocket of Big Logging; with John Oliver and Samantha Bee snarking about those halfwit Log Denialists; with websites supposedly dedicated to movies or comics sanctimoniously trumpeting their participation in the International Day Without Logs – well, that would clarify things enormously. The surest way to align my sympathies with the right is for the left to decide that no intelligent person could disagree with them.

It appears I’m as susceptible to brainwashing as the most credulous left-wing dunderhead. Turn bien-pensant opinion against something and I soon start seeing the good points in it.

M.

I’m afraid this is all ground I’ve covered before, for instance in my discussions of Jordan Peterson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jane Jacobs and the flexible definition of “populism”, and why I can’t be bothered to vote.

Pretty / fair assessment.

I didn’t pay all that much attention to the recently concluded Canadian election campaign. It was only on voting day, while scraping together links to give the illusion of substance to my hot take on the outcome, that I learned about Maxime Bernier’s one-sided feud with Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg’s name you already know – she’s the sixteen year old Swede who skipped school to protest government insouciance toward what she believes is a looming global warming apocalypse, thus sparking an international campaign of climate truancy.

Bernier is the leader of the conservative splinter faction the People’s Party, who, after eliciting torrents of outrage from Canadian commentators about the infection of our heretofore pristine politics by an alien strain of right-wing populism, managed in the end to nab 1.6% of the vote.

A week before the election call, referring to an Instagram post in which Thunberg had discussed how her Asperger’s made her “a bit different from the norm”, Bernier tweeted:

@GretaThunberg is clearly mentally unstable. Not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive, eating disorder, depression and lethargy, and she lives in a constant state of fear.

She wants us to feel the same: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I fear every day.”

For this and other offenses to propriety he was challenged by a questioner at the English language leaders’ debate, who wondered whether a politician willing to express such thoughts had the “character and integrity” to serve as prime minister.

Now, I don’t think Bernier’s tweet was so horrible. I guess the idea is that Thunberg, as a mere child, is too precious to be exposed to such a vicious partisan attack.

Putting aside the question of why, then, we ought to be taking seriously the opinions of the wee dainty thing, pretending to worry about a political foe’s mental stability strikes me as a more gentlemanly way to discredit her than the customary tactic of questioning her decency or honesty.

Compare Nancy Pelosi’s comment, after a noisy meeting with Donald Trump, that the president was losing his grip and that we all ought to “pray for his health”. I mean, sure it was cynical and sanctimonious. Still, it was a refreshing change from calling him a racist liar like she does every other day of the week.

But I suppose I’m defending Bernier because, when I saw that famous picture of Thunberg at the climax of her speech at the UN – the “How dare you” speech – I couldn’t help thinking, “The poor kid looks nuts.”

greta thunberg how dare you

Jason Decrow, AP Images.

Speaking of unflattering pictures, a couple months back this letter to the editor appeared in the print edition of the Vancouver Sun:

I was struck by the rather telling body language in the photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump on Page NP1 of Monday’s Sun. Trudeau smiles and extends a hand in conventional diplomatic greeting while Trump looks away with a disdainful expression and keeps his hands clasped together. The picture neatly summarizes our two countries’ relationship and shows Trump has no tact.

When I got home that evening I looked up the photo, which was taken at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France:

trump trudeau handshake g7 meeting 2019

“In my considered opinion as a professional photojournalist, the key moment of this encounter occurred just after the leaders’ handshake, as the president turned to look for his chair.” – Nicholas Kamm, Agence France-Presse.

No doubt the author of that letter would deny that his political opinions are so malleable that a photograph could alter them. He wouldn’t despise Trump a jot less if the Sun had opted to publish this more conventional shot, taken a few seconds earlier:

trump trudeau handshake g7 meeting 2019

Carlos Barria, Reuters.

I’m not so confident that I’m immune to the effects of media image manipulation. Suppose I’d never seen that memorable photo of Thunberg with her face twisted in rage – suppose the Vancouver Sun had instead gone with the more complimentary angle favoured by the Toronto Star:

greta thunberg how dare you

Spencer Platt, Getty Images.

In that case, when I later came across Bernier’s ruminations about Thunberg’s mental health, they would have struck me as entirely out of left field.

I don’t mean to imply that the Sun, or the many other newspapers that published the rage-face photo, were trying to discredit Thunberg. It’s definitely the more interesting image, just as the image of Trump appearing to snub Trudeau is more interesting than a customary grip-and-grin would have been.

But even when we all see the same image, we don’t. For those already panicky about global warming, Thunberg’s emotionalism seems appropriately modulated: she should be that outraged. Why aren’t the rest of us?

While to cynical geezers like me and, I suppose, Maxime Bernier, she just looks like an overwrought kid who needs a hug.

Looking again at that Trump-Trudeau handshake, to me it’s not the president but the PM who comes off poorly. With his camera-ready grin Trudeau has always struck me as glossy and artificial, like a second-rate game show host; while Trump, for whom I have a grudging fondness, seems appealingly rumpled and unrehearsed.

Obviously this has nothing to do with the two men’s respective policies. Just as obviously, it colours the way I perceive those policies. A news media intent on subtly shifting my political sympathies could probably do so, over the course of many months, by showing me photos of Trudeau looking less like an airbrushed phony, and Trump like more of one.

They’ve been doing that kind of thing – making Personality A look like a saint and Personality B like a shifty weirdo – since the invention of the news. But until quite recently the media’s efforts at thought manipulation have been limited,

First, by the temptation of profits, which created an incentive to publish visually arresting but off-message pictures;

Second, by the diversity of the media market, which meant there was usually a competing newspaper or TV network to serve as a reality check for skeptical audiences;

Third, by the fact that a substantial minority of the audience would always turn out to be perversely attracted to whatever the majority found ugly.

But media consolidation has reduced the salience of the first two factors, while the third – the glorious, ridiculous unruliness of individual human judgement – may turn out to be algorithmically tameable.

Soon media companies will have the power to fine-tune their image delivery to individual readers: to show me Trudeau with a frown and five-o’clock shadow where my neighbour sees him grinning with baby-smooth cheeks; to show me Thunberg cool and scientific where my neighbour sees her bawling for our doomed planet; and we’ll both arrive, by seeming serendipity, at exactly the same set of opinions.

M.

The media vs. the populists.

In June I published a long essay inspired by the memoirs of John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957-63.

It’s kind of rambling and haphazard and I wouldn’t say it has a thesis, exactly. But to my mind its various digressions share a common theme, which is how in many ways Diefenbaker presaged modern populist conservatives like Trump, FarageLe Pen, Salvini, Orban, etc. – not in his policies, which were particular to mid-century Canada, nor in his rhetoric, which was pompous and long-winded by modern standards, but in the intense allergic reaction he provoked in the establishment, especially the media.

For those unfamiliar with Diefenbaker’s career (and not quite up to tackling my 6,000-word essay): in 1957 his Progressive Conservatives edged out a Liberal government that had been in power seemingly forever; the following year he won what was up to then Canada’s largest ever parliamentary majority; and in 1963, fatally wounded by a mutinous cabinet, a hostile media, and an opposition Liberal Party openly in cahoots with the U.S. administration of John F. Kennedy, he was defeated.

He made many unforced errors during his six years in office, and his bristly, paranoid personality alienated many allies. But the specific issue that led to his downfall was his resistance to accepting American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missile system his government had over-hastily purchased a few years earlier to contribute to continental defence against Soviet bombers.

Diefenbaker seems initially to have been happy to take the nukes, subject to negotiations to ensure that Ottawa would have a meaningful say if it ever came to launching them. He dragged his feet for a few years, attempting to reconcile his cabinet’s hawks and doves, but was finally won over to his foreign minister’s position: that there was no formula for hosting U.S. nukes that would preserve Canada’s military sovereignty, that a nuclear-armed Canada would lose the moral authority to argue for disarmament, and that the Bomarcs were pretty much useless anyway, with or without nukes.

I’m neutral on the nuclear issue. I can see how Diefenbaker might have accepted the need to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty in order to preserve a strong NATO front against the Soviets. I can also see how nuking up might have seemed to him a provocation more likely to lead to war than to deter it.

But as a Generation Xer who has spent his whole life steeped in a media culture that portrayed the arms race as little better than a case of collective hysteria, and the pro-nuclear side as a mob of sinister psychopaths and spittle-spraying buffoons, I was surprised by the consistently negative spin mid-’60s journalists put on Diefenbaker’s anti-nuke stance. They called it incoherent, divisive, anti-American, and most of all, the word that shows up again and again in nearly every account of the Diefenbaker years, indecisive.

(Then they praised Liberal leader and secular saint Lester B. Pearson for, uh…decisively repudiating his previously held position, and announcing that he would take the nukes Dief had refused.)

It’s not searchable on Google Books and I’m too lazy to confirm by re-reading the whole thing, but I’d guess that the words indecision and indecisive appear on every fifth or sixth page of Peter C. Newman’s bestselling critical account of the Diefenbaker years, Renegade in Power; and that if I threw in synonyms and near-synonyms like hesitate, prevaricate, waffle, etc., I’d find a reference to Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness on every other page.

Indecision was to the Diefenbaker years what chaos has been to the Trump years – the lens through which journalists observe their subject, bringing certain events and narratives into focus while reducing others to an irrelevant background blur.

Take this editorial by John Ivison in the National Post back in June, in which President Trump’s reluctance to blame the Iranian leadership for an attack on oil shipping in the Persian Gulf was cast as an instance of Trumpian chaos:

Trump had his own theory about what might have happened. “I may be wrong but I may be right and I’m right a lot,” he said, positing that someone down the chain of command had ordered the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

It was a classic example of Trump’s political improv – a stream of consciousness, informed by his own narrow experience, based on evidence that conforms to his own prejudices and rejects evidence that contradicts them. War and peace; life and death, all governed by the chaos theory that permanent destabilization works to America’s advantage.

While there are any number of U.S. actions in recent years to which the description “permanent destabilization” might reasonably apply, surely declining to launch missiles at Iran isn’t one of them. But when evaluating Trump, Ivison’s instruments of punditry are permanently set to “chaos”, so that’s all he’s capable of seeing.

***

Speaking of Ivison, I chuckled at his quixotic attempt a couple weeks ago to paint Canada’s relentlessly progressive prime minister as a populist:

[T]here are few more capable exponents of populist techniques than Justin Trudeau. He is clearly not an authoritarian right-wing demagogue, playing on the insecurities created by cultural competition that have left many voters feeling estranged from the predominant values in their own country.

But even if his causes are more cosmopolitan – globalism, diversity, women’s empowerment – they are similarly tribal and, at times, equally disdainful of divergence from their orthodoxy.

Trudeau and his team have been adept at using polarizing rhetoric, symbolism and identity issues, even while accusing his opponents of adopting “the politics of division.”

What is a populist, anyway? In his memoirs Diefenbaker recalled challenging a Conservative Party bigwig who’d dismissed him as a “western populist” to explain what he meant by the phrase:

He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Diefenbaker’s “western populist” government relaxed immigration rules, expanded social welfare programs, made liberal reforms to the criminal justice system, and took modest steps to make government more accessible to linguistic and ethnic minorities. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that Diefenbaker refused to go along with the agenda of a glamorous Democratic president who was beloved by the media. Therefore he could be dismissed as an uncultured bigmouth from the sticks.

(I suspect that if Diefenbaker had stayed in office long enough to quarrel with the unloved Lyndon Johnson, he’d have a much better reputation today.)

Nowadays, the populist agenda includes restricting immigration, using targeted tariffs to protect blue-collar jobs, and bringing the troops back home. These are currently associated with Donald Trump and the American right, but until a few years ago the latter two causes were largely the province of the left.

(Through the Bill Clinton era, the left also harboured a significant anti-immigration constituency; Bernie Sanders was playing to this vanished audience as recently as 2015.)

In 2016 Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump; her agenda was, arguably, more popular than his. And yet it was Trump, and not Clinton, who was labelled a populist. Clearly this had less to do with Trump’s popularity than with his unpopularity among those with the power to label him.

As Diefenbaker put it, populism encompasses all those things the influential people disapprove of. Or to be more precise, it’s whatever is currently popular among ordinary folks and unpopular among the elite.

***

At the local level, populism often entails citizens rebelling against plans imposed by a remote and unresponsive city hall – plans like paving over beloved green spaces, plunking social housing in sleepy suburbs, and rezoning low-density neighbourhoods to permit apartment blocks. Such rebellions also tend to jumble left-right ideological alignments.

Think of the writer Jane Jacobs, who rose to local fame organizing the opposition to a planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. As described by Alex Mazer in The Walrus,

Backed by her own lack of formal training (she left Columbia University after two years of undergraduate study) and her grandmotherly demeanour, she cast herself as an underdog in a world of credentialed experts – be they economists, traffic engineers, civil servants, or professors – and her attacks on them could be unrelenting. Like a populist politician, she cast her opponents as out of touch with reality, ignorant of plain facts, and dismissive of regular folks.

The urban model Jacobs advocated – bustling, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use streets like those of her beloved (1960s-era) Greenwich Village – is now generally associated with the progressive left, and opposed by the kind of populists who rail against bike lanes and gas taxes. And yet her most famous book, 1960’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a paean to small businesses and bottom-up organization.

Nowadays she’s as likely to be lauded in right-wing publications like The American Conservative and City Journal as in left-wing ones like Salon and Slate; if anything, she gets rougher handling on the left, where the woke vanguard kvetches that she was white and out-of-touch.

Death and Life lambastes the practices of her era’s urban planners, under whose guidance cities were diligently bulldozing poor but functioning “slums” and replacing them with brand-new public housing projects that quickly became cesspits of crime and decay.

They pursued these ruinous policies in the name of an academic fad Jacobs mocks as “radiant garden cities”, combining aspects of Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow into a glossy vision of urban life with all its noise and disorder banished to the margins.

The trouble was that in the real world, banishing noise and disorder also entailed banishing street life and economic diversity, creating at best well-manicured dead zones, and at worst unfenced reservations for street punks to roam.

While some of Jacobs’ modern fans would like to believe that her foes were villains “oozing arrogance and reptilian cunning”, she’s clear in Death and Life that the “radiant garden city” vision was pursued by intelligent men with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people whose neighbourhoods they were wrecking. Jacobs compares them to an earlier movement of self-confident blunderers:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by which rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, Jacobs goes on, the practice of bloodletting was “tempered with a certain amount of common sense”, until in the United States it was pushed to new levels of recklessness by the brilliant and revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, under whose instruction the technique was applied “in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use”:

He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians.

And yet, as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling “the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

Jacobs doesn’t mention that Dr. Turner’s opposition to bloodletting derived from his adherence to a then-trendy form of alternative medicine known as the “chrono-thermal system”, brainchild of the Scottish doctor Samuel Dickson.

Dr. Turner wrote the introduction to the American edition of Dickson’s jeremiad The Principles of the Chrono-thermal System of Medicine, which had been ridiculed in the British and Foreign Medical Review:

The plain truth is, as every one must see, the whole book is a farrago of nonsense; a hash of a few old truths and many fantastic speculations, made piquant by the most amusing self-laudation on the part of its author, and the most extravagant abuse of his professional brethren and imagined rivals.

I’m no doctor, but from what I can glean of his system, Dickson was indeed some kind of crank. However, if you submitted to his treatment, the worst that was likely to happen was he failed to cure you; whereas a doctor who stuck to the conventional wisdom as represented by the British and Foreign Medical Review might very well open your vein and kill you.

The 1960s urban planning consensus has held out a little better than the 1850s medical consensus. While doctors rarely bleed their patients these days, planners continue to blight cities with roads that hinder the movement of pedestrians while doing little to improve the movement of cars. Still, Jacobs’ critique has been so successful that it no longer qualifies as populist: it has been absorbed into the establishment against whom the anti-density, pro-freeway rabble hoist their pitchforks.

I won’t make a fool of myself by attempting to predict which wacky idea currently disdained by the academy, the media, and most of the people reading this essay will in a half-century be seen as so obvious that only fools and villains could ever have opposed it. Today’s populism will become tomorrow’s establishment, and a new populism will burble up to be snickered at and hand-wrung over.

M.

Owning (some) blame.

Saturday night here in Vancouver I went to a screening of the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with live electro-hypnotic-avant-garde accompaniment by the Oliver-Film Ensemble, conducted by Mark Oliver, a grandson of one of the film’s producers. It was excellent. I encourage you, if the Ensemble ever brings its act to your neighbourhood arthouse, to check it out.

Oliver introduced Caligari as the story of a sideshow barker who hypnotizes people to perform wicked acts against their will. He proposed that it remains eerily relevant today – particularly, he added, in light of the events of the past week. It was an overwhelmingly lefty-artistic crowd so he didn’t need to stage-whisper Caligari is Donald Trump for us to get his drift.

At the risk of spoiling the ending of a film that’s closing in on its hundredth birthday, Oliver’s synopsis was a little incomplete. In the final moments we discover that the narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum, and that the nightmarish tale he’s just finished telling us is a delusion into which he’s woven his fellow patients and the hospital staff, with the head doctor in the role of the sinister puppetmaster Caligari. [1]

I can’t have been the only one thinking, as Mark Oliver returned to the podium for the post-show Q&A, Hang on, doesn’t that ending kind of invert the moral of your Trump analogy? But I wasn’t about to risk the crowd’s wrath by suggesting a different parallel between Caligari and our anxious post-election mood – the possibility that progressives have been kicking and spitting at an enemy partly of their own invention.

***

There’s been a lot of encouragingly thoughtful talk since last Tuesday about media bubbles, epistemic closure, ideological silos…I went with “cocoons” in my last post so I’ll stick with that.

We’re all in cocoons. Some of our cocoons are tight and cozy, while others are roomy enough to permit a degree of shouting back and forth. But all of them muffle and distort outside voices.

We couldn’t stay sane uncocooned. The amount of data in the world is overwhelming. State elections in India, minor disasters in Africa, run-of-the-mill atrocities just one town over – our cocoons filter out all this useless information. We’re aware, dimly, that the five or ten or twenty stories being talked about inside the cocoon are only a tiny sample of all the events that have occurred outside in the last few weeks. But we believe they’re a meaningful sample.

When we run into those weirdos from the next cocoon over, it’s hard to get a conversation going. Inside our cocoon we all share the same basic beliefs, so we can compress a lot into a few words. You and I know what we mean by justice. We don’t have to trace the philosophical threads all the way back to Plato. When we talk to outsiders all our certainties are set adrift. Justice? Diversity? Progress? You can spend all night trying to figure out where your definitions diverged, before you can even begin to argue about how those concepts apply to the latest celebrity tweet crisis.

It’s less stressful to simply avoid awkward conversations with outsiders. And they’re easy to avoid these days, when you can build an ever more exclusive cocoon with far-flung people you meet on the internet. Our cocoons are getting ever cozier, their walls ever thicker. With a little effort, we need never go anywhere there’s a chance of having to converse with someone who doesn’t share our beliefs.

But we still have to share our countries with them. And when they win elections, and threaten to impose policies we think are deranged because we’ve never heard them objectively let alone sympathetically described – it’s terrifying.

***

You sometimes hear progressives arguing that speech isn’t just a right, it’s a responsibility. They say conservatives shouldn’t go around making reckless and dishonest claims and then yelling “Freedom of speech!” when they’re challenged.

I agree one shouldn’t make reckless and dishonest claims. But if everyone agreed on the definition of recklessness and dishonesty there would be no need for speech protections. Person A thinks it’s irresponsible to talk about illegal immigrant rapists and drug dealers; Person B thinks it’s irresponsible to euphemize illegal immigrants as “undocumented citizens”. Okay, each side started out thinking the other was wrong, and all we’ve added with this irrelevant talk of “responsibility” is that each side can now accuse the other of being illegitimate, not even worth listening to. The slim chance of mutual understanding, therefore of intelligent argument, has been made even slimmer.

However, maybe there’s another responsibility that free speech entails – the responsibility to try, wherever possible, to increase understanding. And it occurs to me that, during the just-ended U.S. election, those of us in the broad middle-of-the-road – those of us whose cocoons overlapped supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – shirked that responsibility.

Take my own case. Along with a plurality of anti-Trump opinions ranging from the right to the centre-left, my cocoon takes in a handful of pro-Trump voices of the centre (Mickey Kaus, Scott Adams) and the right (Mark Steyn, Steve Sailer). Which means that I’ve seen some of the more simplistic anti-Trump narratives challenged. And I’ve been exposed to some anti-Clinton narratives that my left-cocooned friends have been shielded from. But most importantly, I got a more accurate picture of what Trump support looked like than most of my friends, who could dismiss it as a remote upwelling of inarticulate white male resentment unlikely to be present in any intelligent lifeform they’d encounter. I learned more about the mood of America from occasionally skimming the comments on Sailer’s blog than I ever did from reading the National Post‘s editorial page – but, primed by the media to regard those commenters as uncouth barbarians who’d soon be slouching back to their wattle-and-daub huts beyond the Rhine, I gave their observations less weight than they deserved.

So I kept my mouth shut even when I heard my progressive friends denounce Trump and his base in ways that struck me as, in either sense of the word, unbalanced. I figured, Ah, what does it matter – he’s gonna lose anyway – why make stress by arguing.

My influence is infinitesimal. I never had the power to sway a single vote. I’m not even American. But there must have been millions of Americans – undecideds and independents and miscellaneouses like me – who felt there was something off about the media’s election coverage, who found themselves questioning the non-stop Madman Trump narrative, and who chose to remain aloof. In retrospect, that was irresponsible of us. In the role of neutral envoys we might have insinuated a few Trump-sympathetic messages into our progressive friends’ awareness, helping to disabuse them of the smug belief that their cocoon encompassed all thinking people. Which might have forced their candidate to come up with a more compelling argument than “Fall in line, losers”.

M.

1. Apparently Caligari’s writers protested the insertion of the framing story, which they felt negated the film’s anti-authoritarian message. They had a point – but without that last-minute twist, their one-note plot would scarcely have held filmgoers’ attention for ninety-odd years.

In a post last year I discussed Bertrand Russell’s and G.K. Chesterton’s constrasting takes on ideological cocooning.

Inevitable Trump hangover reflections.

I spent most of election day writing. Two posts in one day! I guess I was keyed up. The internet was emotional – I assume it still is – I’ve been rationing my media exposure since Donald Trump’s victory speech. Even when I don’t share the public’s passions, even when I’m unable to fully understand them, mere proximity can be exhausting.

There’s an incident in Philip Roth’s memoir The Facts that resonates for me. After the release of his first book Goodbye, Columbus in 1960, Roth – who of course is Jewish – was accused by some critics of having portrayed Jews in an unflattering light, of reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes, even of being himself an anti-Semite. Roth rejected these criticisms completely. As he saw it, even setting aside his writerly obligation to accurately observe, it was more sympathetic to portray Jews as fully realized human beings – flawed, complex, often ridiculous – than as wooden icons of persecuted dignity.

He describes a symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University where he was questioned over the supposedly dangerous content of his stories. The moderator set the tone: “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?” It only got worse from there:

Thirty minutes later, I was still being grilled. No response I gave was satisfactory and, when the audience was allowed to take up the challenge, I realized that I was not just opposed but hated. I’ve never forgotten my reaction: an undertow of bodily fatigue took hold and began sweeping me away from that auditorium even as I tried to reply coherently to one denunciation after another (for we had by then proceeded beyond interrogation to anathema). My combative instinct, which was not undeveloped, simply withered away and I had actually to suppress a desire to close my eyes and, in my chair at the panelists’ table, with an open microphone only inches from my perspiring face, drift into unconsciousness.

That’s how I feel whenever I’m exposed to online invective. Not just when it’s directed at me – which luckily hasn’t often happened, as no-one cares enough to abuse me – but when I see it anywhere. It makes me feel heavy and tired. I slept a lot today.

***

There was a revealing election-day story in the Vancouver Sun. A reporter went to a downtown bar where a crowd of expatriate Americans and sympathetic Canadians had gathered to watch the returns. After interviewing one Clinton supporter after another, the reporter was reduced to yelling, “Are there any Trump fans in here?” The response was laughter and jeers. Someone suggested she’d have a better chance if she headed out to the Fraser Valley – i.e., to the boondocks where the rubes and rednecks dwell.

I’d guess there were one or two Trump supporters in that bar who decided it would be best for their social standing – maybe even for their personal safety – to stay quiet.

I watched the results streaming online on NBC. Usually election night coverage will include, along with the panel of supposedly unbiased analysts, a representative or two from the competing camps. And although I didn’t recognize most of the faces, it was clear from their conversation that NBC had dutifully drafted a couple Republicans to fill out their bench. But the Republicans weren’t triumphant: the spectrum of opinion ranged from apocalyptic to merely despairing to, at the rightmost fringe, willingness to indulge a faint hope that doom might be avoided.

At one point the now-elderly Tom Brokaw repeated (while running through the litany of groups the president-elect had insulted) the story that Trump had mocked a reporter for his disability. And yet that story is far from clear-cut. (Short version: Trump frequently uses an arms-flailing gesture when he imitates dummies who oppose him. It’s only when you deceptively freeze-frame the clip of him mid-arm-flail that it appears he’s imitating the reporter’s withered arm specifically.) Brokaw didn’t seem to be aware of this – and why would he? Who was there to challenge him? His network couldn’t dredge up a single unapologetic Trump supporter to sit on their election night panel.

Half the American electorate – and they couldn’t find one.

(For reference, here’s Ann Coulter’s refutation of the reporter-mocking story and the Washington Post‘s refutation of her refutation.)

It’s hard to convince people of the intellectual dangers of ideological cocooning. They don’t seem like dangers if you’re convinced you’ve found the correct cocoon. But at least we could reduce our stress levels if we paid a little more attention to transmissions from neighbouring cocoons. We might be setting our hair afire unnecessarily – the opposing candidate might be, while still terrible, not quite as irredeemably terrible as we’ve been led to believe. (And yes, I’d be making the exact same point, with different illustrations, if it were Clinton who’d been elected.)

***

Reason‘s Robby Soave quotes from Trump’s victory speech:

“For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help, so that we can work together and unify our great country,” he said.

It’s a small thing, but it illustrates something I’ve observed throughout the campaign. The line might more helpfully have been transcribed this way:

For those who have chosen not to support me in the past – of which there were [pause, shrug] a few people – I’m reaching out to you…[etc.]

It was a self-deprecating ad-lib that got a knowing laugh from his crowd. But if you read it without the stage directions, it might easily come off as arrogant – as though Trump were unaware or dismissive of the fact that more than a few people have – to put it mildly – chosen not to support him.

I don’t watch much TV, so most of my Trump exposure has come via quotes like this in the written media. On the few occasions I’ve clicked through to the video, it’s been conspicuous to me how much less crazy he seems when you see him actually delivering his “crazy” lines. The media – used to campaigns like Clinton’s that have pre-sifted her every quip for particles of potential offense – gravely take down Trump’s tics and mouth-farts as if they were policy pronouncements. I wonder if the older demographic that still gets its news from TV was inclined to be a bit more forgiving, while younger voters were more easily incited by decontextualized snippets on Twitter.

Not that even the most forgiving interpretation of Trump’s campaign can make all the outrageous stuff go away. I don’t blame people for feeling panicky. But the victory speech, at least, was reassuring. I’m going with measured optimism.

M.

Last-minute Trump risk calculations.

To quote the scuttled first draft of what was meant to be my election-eve blog post:

While I’m generally pro-trade and pro-immigration, I’m in partial agreement with Donald Trump on this, at least: to tolerate uncontrolled low-skilled immigration into your country, while simultaneously signing trade deals with low-wage countries that will accelerate the departure of low-skilled jobs, is self-evidently self-sabotaging. One or the other, maybe. Not both.

This was to be the beginning of my argument that, in spite of all the sound and oft-aired reasons not to vote Trump, it was defensible for an American (which I’m not) concerned about the disappearance of well-paid manual-labour jobs (which I am) to consider voting Trump anyway. But I abandoned it because A) I was afraid it would make my progressive friends mad at me, and B) I discovered that Mickey Kaus had already said pretty much exactly what I wanted to say (but better) in his election-eve blog post:

Trump opens up a different path, where we are willing to give up a few points of GDP – slowing trade, controlling the influx of eager new workers – in order to have the kind of society we want, where communities are displaced more slowly and “we are equal in the eyes of each other.” We could still let in plenty of newcomers, of course. But we would democratically choose to do so.

Add to this Trump’s seeming intention to protect entitlements from Ryanesque plans that subject them to market-like uncertainty, and his resistance to regime-changing military adventures, and you’ve beneficially transformed the Republican party along four major axes.

Kaus is a Democrat, a centrist ex-Slate blogger, who in 2010 ran a no-hope primary campaign for California senator Barbara Boxer’s seat. (He got 5%.) His number one issue – the issue he’s been banging on about for a decade or more – is enforcement-first immigration reform. He argues that until the inflow of new illegal immigrants is stopped, granting amnesty to existing illegals is irresponsible, as it will only incentivize future millions to enter the U.S. in hopes of qualifying for the inevitable next amnesty, a couple decades down the road. (The previous amnesty, remember, was in 1986, ten or twelve million illegals ago.) Only once numbers are stabilized should Americans move on to deciding whether and how to grant permanent status to those already in the country.

It would be a stretch to try and smear Kaus as a racist or demagogue. Even if you disagree with him, you can’t say that his manner is aggressive or that his rhetoric is extreme. He builds his case around the traditional left-wing theme of egalitarianism – that while illegal immigration increases the supply and thus undercuts the price of unskilled labour, driving down wages for Americans who work with their hands, those who work with their brains are becoming ever richer, losing all connection and sense of social obligation to their unluckier fellow citizens.

One predictable outcome of this separation is that figures like Trump will arise to channel the inarticulate anger of the unlucky. Those who are comfortable under current arrangements dismiss the plebs’ champion as a crude buffoon – fairly enough, in this case – but their offered alternative, the globetrotting, Hollywood-hobnobbing, million-dollar-speechgiving wife of an ex-president, seems to have been consciously designed as a living totem of everything her foes are resentful about. Her only memorable comment of the entire campaign was to dismiss those foes – well, half of them – as a “basket of deplorables”.

Anyway, after a decade hammering away at his enforcement-first message – reasonably, sanely, non-scarily – Kaus has gotten nowhere. It’s forgivable for him to conclude that Trump, an ugly and overloaded vehicle, is the only ride into town.

***

I won’t try and predict which way the vote will go. Trump thinks he’s in good shape because polls don’t capture his true strength. A lot of his supporters, he claims, are “shy” – embarrassed to admit, even anonymously to pollsters, that they’re thinking of voting for him.

I think this is a real phenomenon. Why? Well, look at me: I’m reluctant even to publish this non-pro but not-exactly-anti-Trump post. I find myself compelled to throw in phrases like “crude buffoon” and to include the caveat that I expect Trump, as president, would be a disaster. Which is truthful, but when I say “disaster” I’m thinking in recent-historical terms: he could be a George W. Bush-scale disaster, a Lyndon Johnson-scale disaster, maybe even a Richard Nixon-scale disaster. But a lot of people – serious, intelligent, non-crazy people, including some who are good friends of mine – believe Trump will destroy one or both of A) American democracy, and B) the world.

Normally I’d write that off as election-season hyperbole, but I think they’re sincere. Which might explain why so many middle-of-the-road voters – non-pro-but-not-exactly-antis like me – proved immune to the yearlong eruption of scandal that inescapably infected our Facebook feeds with the tangerine hue of Trumpish scowls. Because, look: if you believed it was the only thing preventing The Next Hitler from coming to power, you’d go on TV and say The Next Hitler had grabbed your pussy. Wouldn’t you? If you believed this wasn’t just a race between two deeply flawed but basically well-meaning candidates, but in fact a struggle for the survival of liberty, of the United States of America, of humanity itself – what skulduggery would you refuse to stoop to?

Can you blame pro-Trumpers, then, for suspecting that anti-Trumpers would do anything to take him down? When you hear liberals’ dark prophecies of vengeful white mobs descending on innocent Mexicans, of Commandante Trump teaming up with Vladimir Putin to drop atom bombs on Aleppo, of David Duke and Pepe the Frog roaming the West Wing arm-in-arm – if they sincerely fear these things, all preventative measures must be on the table. Mustn’t they?

Paranoia is infectious.

***

This seems like the place to mention Scott Alexander’s anti-Trump piece, by far the most clear-eyed I’ve come across. His argument is that Trump is the high-variance candidate. We know what to expect from Hillary Clinton: roughly the same stuff we’ve gotten from Obama – the measured expansion of the nanny state – with an uptick in petty corruption of the email-deletion variety, maybe a sex scandal or two courtesy of the First Gentleman. Nothing to get excited for, but nothing to be terribly scared of either.

Whereas with Trump, the likeliest outcome is four years of incompetent flailing enlivened by the occasional entertaining temper tantrum – but, there’s a non-negligible risk of him doing something really stupid and destroying, if not the world, then at least the American economy.

Is he that reckless? Who knows. He seems to have been a quite successful real estate developer, which I assume requires a great deal of skill – but he’s had an entire lifetime to learn that skill. Whereas he would have to pick up the knack of being president in just a couple months. Judging by his rambling stump speeches and debate appearances, he doesn’t appear to have much – or really any discernible – grasp of policy. But then, he’s not concentrating on being the president right now, he’s concentrating on running for president. And he’s doing pretty well at it, despite having had his chances written off over and over by the know-it-alls in the media. So it’s possible to hope that, safely elected, he might buckle down and figure out how to be successful at the presidency the same way he’s been successful in business – presumably, by setting broad policy goals and delegating the details to capable minions.

I’m not expecting this to happen. However if, per Scott Alexander, Trump is the high-variance candidate, his range of potential presidential outcomes would encompass not just world-destruction but also the possibility of surprising competence. Or, to put it another way, if it’s not crazy for his opponents to fear that Trump will destroy the world, neither is it crazy for his supporters to hope he’ll do a decent job.

Just a few more hours for pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers to indulge their hopes and fears. Tonight, very probably, Hillary Clinton will eke out her long-predicted victory and restore us to boring, comfortable stasis.

***

Later in his election-eve post, Kaus tries to calculate whether, given his plentiful reservations, it’s still justifiable to vote Trump. He concludes that since he lives in California – whose 55 electoral votes are guaranteed to go to Clinton regardless – he can risk a Trump vote to send a message to future, less-hysteria-inducing candidates that a firmer stance on illegal immigration can find support even in an immigrant-heavy state.

Of course – and Kaus doesn’t mention this – if Trump wins, he could misinterpret the message as “I’m 100% behind you, Donald! Follow your most reckless instincts!” That’s the problem with trying to send a message via ballot. The nuances tend to get lost.

I don’t think I could vote Trump, even as a throwaway protest in a safe state. My preference is for the narrowest possible Clinton victory both in the popular vote and the electoral college, with the Senate and House staying in Republican hands to constrain her. Right now this seems like the likeliest outcome anyway, so rather than dirty my hands with a Trump vote that I’d probably regret if he actually won, I’d vote Libertarian, or spoil my ballot. If I lived in a competitive state the calculation would be different. But luckily I’m Canadian, so it doesn’t really matter. Don’t worry, Democrats, there’s little chance of me moving to the States anytime soon.

M.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker