Cold Cases and Warm Bodies in the Supreme Court

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.

Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.

There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).

Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.

We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.

And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.

Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.

What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.

And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.

Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).

To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.

By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?

If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.

Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?

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What We Are Supposed to Believe

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Most of us believe the United States intelligence apparatus, regardless of precisely however many separate agencies it comprises, manages to identify not only Russian hacking of our public communications networks and our process for swaying public political opinion, but can identify specific individuals, in Russia, as among the perpetrators, with sufficient evidence to justify a formal indictment of twelve suspects. Further, we believe it is already well established, thanks to leaks and whistle-blowers, that the most secretive of our national security apparatus has the means to monitor not some, but all, communications among Americans, not to mention a significant percentage of foreign nationals, both within our borders and within the confines of their own nations; they can monitor phone conversations, text messages, and emails, and record and store all of these data streams for further, more prolonged, and deeper analysis. They can identify the individuals and the roles they play within foreign diplomatic delegations, whatever their formally declared as well as their covert assignments while operating within our borders, and, furthermore, identify them even on foreign soil, including their native countries. We can identify them and, if need be by way of sanctions, deport any number or all of them from our country. We can and do indict them in our own country, as already mentioned.

We have had these capabilities, and performed these and similar actions for years. In many cases the power to do so has been possible and has been deployed in actual practice for decades. If anything, with the passage of time, we have become more proficient and adept and sophisticated in the development of the capabilities of these technologies and their application for purposes of what is generally labeled as something like “national security.”

Further, we apparently have the capability of covertly gathering information in the multifarious forms of analyzable data from deep within the operational apparatus of foreign governments – both among our allies and our more hostile economic and geopolitical rivals (including former and potential future enemies of our state). We are capable of, and have committed acts in the past of, disrupting or in other ways influencing the internal politics as well as the governance by duly appointed, in many instances democratically elected, state officials and functionaries. We have insinuated ourselves into the affairs of sovereign nations, and implicated ourselves in the overthrow of legitimate representational as well as despotic usurping governments.

Admittedly capable of and actually perpetrating all of these actions, our government has done and will undoubtedly continue to do so. That is, they will, short of self-imposed internal political constraints. For example, as we have seen in the past 17 years, the Congress can and will pass enabling legislation permitting the president to take executive action in the pursuit of protecting our national security. As we have seen in the past 19 months, conversely, Congress could but won’t merely constrain a president in order to proscribe undesired acts, like firing his own officials, in the execution of his office. Nevertheless, repeatedly our government has demonstrated the successful implementation of strategies in pursuit of national objectives using such intelligence capabilities paid for by American taxpayers nominally in their interests.

All that is said and done. Now we have as President an individual positioned by dint of his public prominence in the worlds of national and global commerce, as a recognized and readily recognizable public figure in the realm of entertainment, with well-publicized personal views on matters of national and international political significance, of avowed, if not merely self-declared, great financial stature, with personal and corporate ties and obligations – long since documented and well-known through dissemination by national and international news organizations – to banks, governments, and private funding sources throughout the world, with sufficient resources and persistent media attention to declare his candidacy for office who has managed in two years with no prior record as an elected official to catapult himself, in a single national election, to the office of arguably the most powerful governing executive in the world.

Are we to believe that if the American intelligence apparatus has any information about this individual that supports further investigation for evidence of indictable criminal behavior within the scope of the entire aggregate criminal code of the 50 states and the federal government, it was not already known, recognized as such, and being analyzed for the appropriate venue and charges to be prosecuted? And furthermore, if such information exists, even short of constituting evidence suitable for the consideration of a grand jury in any localized or federal jurisdiction, it would not already have been leaked, reported on, and the subject of ongoing and rigorous journalistic inquiry?

High intelligence, let alone Machiavellian skills at deviousness, and the mastery of a brilliant intelligence agent, on the order of a Kim Philby or a Colonel Abel, are not requirements for the office of President of the United States. In any event, there was never a demonstration of such qualities in Donald Trump up to the day of his inauguration in that office. If anything, since that day, all evidence, readily observable in plain sight, whatever your news source, points to the absence of even a scintilla of such qualities.

Are we to believe he is positioned, and qualified, to be an agent of the Russian government? Are we to believe he even is susceptible to recruitment as a willing and compliant “asset” (a concept about which, apparently, millions of Americans are suddenly expert) of that government – or would be attractive to that government in such a role (I used the descriptors “willing” and “compliant” deliberately)? Are we to believe that the Russian government, keeping in mind the entirety of its prior 27 year history starting with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was in a position to recruit such an asset because of a rational expectation that he was credibly capable of attaining the office he now has at any time prior to three years ago when he declared his candidacy?

I don’t believe any of it. I do believe that in his avaricious, amoral, egomaniacal pursuit of real wealth (instead of the sleight-of-hand appearance of it) and power, and a pathological need for public attention on a grand scale beyond the insulating buffer of an inner circle of enablers and sycophants, he became an ideal dupe – cluelessly and involuntarily collaborating, not only with the true “deep state” of the 1/10 of 1% who own as much of American wealth as the bottom 90% and who wish not only to preserve it, but have it grow, but collaborating as well, equally clueless, with the geopolitical aims of a Russian autocrat, the center of a ring of oligarchs who wish to see the resurrection of their country as an influential, implacable superpower, which has been their ultimate aim at least since Putin first served as Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin in 1999.

In 1999, looking forward to 2000, there was talk of Donald Trump running for President, as a possible candidate of the Reform Party. And his preferred running mate, he said… None other than Oprah Winfrey. But the country wasn’t ready for Trump. Nor did they need him. They had George W. Bush.

How have the people who believe the increasingly ludicrous things they do come to do so? Unrelieved grief and despair will do that. All the more reason not to lose one’s head.

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Normalization, Again

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Normalization is a problem of the past, not the present

I have said repeatedly, usually, I admit, to no one in particular, from the first time I heard the usage as a warning, usually screamed (figuratively) in my (virtual) face from a (virtual) hysteric in that inevitable nearly impossible place, all too real, for all its virtuality, Facebook: “Don’t talk about normalizing Trump!” There’s no danger there. It too is impossible. It’s not entirely what the word means anyway.

What we have to fear is an adjustment and periodic readjustment in our perception of all that has come before, which was never normal at the time (and the farther back you go, the farther goes one’s sense of the craziness of the errant behavior). As Corey Robin points out in his essay “Forget About It” in the current Harper’s [paywall], though it’s here, if you want to take a shot at getting access (see below), it’s our constant reassessment upwards of the assault on our notion of normal during the administrations of Richard Nixon, and then later George W. Bush – “Hey those guys weren’t so bad, after all, were they?” – that is the real danger. And it’s a danger not because of the infamous reality distortion field identified by Steve Jobs in one of his P.T. Barnum moments. We’re not likely to accept anything that happens today, that is, any time at all during the tenure of the current incumbent of the White House, will register as normal, not to anyone with any vestige of sanity. It’s the extent to which by comparison some future rough beast (to use that particular, but miserably and perpetually apt trope) may make today’s beast look not half bad to our future selves. Or whoever has managed to replace us.

In short, the dangers of normalization are not to the future or even the present. We like to think we are always capable of vigilance, resistance, and clear-headedness. The danger, because we are never sufficiently in possession of those qualities, is to the past, where we think some pastoral and salubrious notion of normal resides. After all, it’s to that instinct that Trump so scurrilously adverts with his now patent cynicism of a slogan about what we can make of America. What we are making of it, because we suffer the distortions of sensibility that alter our notion of what is normal. And as we seek our way back to some semblance of it, we discover, as we have done repeatedly, that we have lost our way. Possibly irrevocably.

‘“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually [Philip] Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.’ — Corey Robin

Here’s that Robin essay: https://harpers.org/archive/2018/04/forget-about-it/

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Some Things I Can’t Reconcile in Today’s News

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Doesn’t “compute:” The apparent perception that the shutdown of government is either a viable political tactic or, more importantly, part of some larger political strategy – especially by the party not in power in any sane and predictable course toward overturning the present ratio of power in an election ten months hence. The plight of the Dreamers is now going on 20 years. The crippling of liberal, never mind progressive, objectives is an ongoing current crisis, in which the left continues to be at a disadvantage.

Makes no sense: The expectation that officeholders, especially congressional Democrats with seats in peril in the next national election, should vote along ideological lines for positions they know do not square with their constituencies. And that they should do so at peril of being challenged for those seats by more hardline partisans of progressive principles in a primary. If I were an incumbent trying to reconcile a successful campaign strategy for reelection with my own sense of adherence to principles, I’d say to challengers, bring it on. Either one argument will win the nomination or the other will – presumably the incumbent knows more about holding onto the seat. When did the electoral process get subverted with a preference for brinksmanship in legislative standoffs?

The New York Times today reports this:

“The grass-roots are rightly furious with a slew of elected Democrats,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org. “In the Obama years, Republicans learned to be more afraid of primary challenges than general elections. But Democrats are still operating as though the Tea Party is more powerful than The Resistance.”

What I’d like to know is, how did the Times know that “The Resistance” was in upper case capitals? And whatever the case, what exactly is “the resistance?” To what? Who comprises it? How large a percentage of the electorate is it? This sounds discouragingly like propagandistic rhetoric of the left. MoveOn has a not too unblemished history of its own.

from today’s NYTimes:
Senate Democrats’ Vote to End Shutdown Infuriates Some on the Left

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/us/politics/liberal-activists-democrats-betrayal-shutdown.html

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Out of the Mouths of Knaves

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Forget Walter Cronkite. The best we’re going to do these days about truth from behind the curtain are Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon.

We all look to heroes in the form of truth-tellers when our lives seem imperilled, especially by the larger, the more global, forms of threat. When mired in the disorder and chaos of war, or epidemic, or the greater natural catastrophes, we have always found in their words a kind of anchor for our fading sense of security and some glimmer of a chance at survival – if it’s not existential continuity that is jeopardized, too often the threat is to our apprehension of the decay of any hope of the feeling, vague, surely inchoate, but always real, of well-being. This notion that life, despite its hiccups and glitches, its disappoints and frustrations, will somehow overall be OK is possibly as essential to our will to go on as is being free of real and immediate palpable dangers to our lives.

In the past, especially during what is now effectively a two-hundred year epoch of accessible mass communications, first with pamphlets and broadsheets printed cheaply on paper, and more lately with instantaneous digital emissions that appear in the cold glow of our portable screens, we’re turned to those who somehow establish for themselves a quality that goes by various labels, but all of these amounting to some warrant of credibility and trust. With the shaming and exposure of the last crop of avatars of a semblance of truth, maybe better understood as “brands” of what passes for truth – hoist on their own petards of randiness and an arrogance of power; in case I am being too allusive here, I am speaking of the ruined careers of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose (not to show any political bias in pointing at skullduggers) – we are losing even the sense of some remnant of the kind of trust that not too many decades ago we placed in the hands and velvet delivery of such seemingly noble individuals as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Not only have we been steadily trading down in what we find acceptable to label as “truth,” with some of us exercising even lower standards, and lesser indices, than others of us. Concommitantly we have obviously demanded less and less of our public seers and glorified towncriers, even as we’ve rewarded them with higher and higher emoluments for their ability to draw and keep a loyal, and preferably unquestioning, but certainly not taxing audience of followers and adherents. What we’ve lost with the downfall of this last crop of exposed sexual predators is not so much a reliable source of truth, sometimes not comforting to hear, but reassuring for its show of courage in the form of veracity. We’ve mainly lost the comfort of a familiar and expected face. In the end, I suspect, it may be no worse than the adjustments required of us when death strikes a celebrated and popular figure prematurely, not to mention unexpectedly.

Some of us may feel there’s not much lost at all. The greater loss is something more abstract. It’s the loss akin to the loss of reason. Even as reason and logic are thrashed, as a manifestation of the age, along with their greater, if more abstract, sibling truth. I’ve long since convinced myself that the result is that even greater loss: a reluctance to accept the truth in whatever unexpected form we find it, perhaps sealed in a shipping carton, like an Amazon reward, or perhaps a bomb, or perhaps merely a load of horse manure right on our front steps when we open the front door of a morning.

What I’m getting at with all this is that we must cling to whatever shreds of truth we discern whatever the source. We may have to credit that source with whatever tatters of humanity necessary to honor in them as a sign, indeed, of some vestigial humanity of their own. It’s a bestowal of recognition we may be reluctant to extend, for any number of arguably good and justifiable reasons given their apparent characters and past behaviors. There is something to be credited though, if there is any hope of America (and Americans) for survival as a respectable political entity in a world where this is still the first best way of establishing bona fides in the commmunity of nations.

It’s possible that one unseen benefit, an artifact of some still nascent healing process, will be to tune our instruments for eliciting compassion and empathy by conveying the smallest necessary bit of credibility – as I say, where we can find it – on those whom otherwise we might cast utterly into a state of non-existence simply because they are not so much evil as hideously inconvenient to our own possibly too rigid sense of the proper constituency of an acceptable world order. We are all fragile vessels, and perhaps it is true that in the language of such a trope their fragility is greater than ours, but we must acquiesce I’m afraid, if there is to be any real hope of progress, in the recognition that even these are humans after all.

And of course, there is that sought-after solace, and that comforting sense of security, and that hope, however vague and evanescent it seems at the moment, in accepting that, despite the messenger, there simply is a certain stubborn immutable truth in the pronouncements of Rex Tillerson, a few months ago (concerning the effective cerebral competence of our president), or of Steve Bannon, just yesterday (concerning the dire insinuation of incompetence, and worse, into the administration in the characters of the president’s own offspring).

I personally am reassured in persuading myself there is sufficient credibility to build on, and see these provocative pronouncements as more than transitory, possibly even involuntary, utterances of a kind of rueful humor. As merely that, they get us nowhere.

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The Poses of Dotards and Madmen

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

I may dip as far down into my being as I care to and come up with the solid sense that what I feel is what must be the right way to feel. It is. For me. That’s not to say I doubt my beliefs and interpretation of how to go about life and get around the world I inhabit. I’m thoughtful and analytical, and prudent and careful. I can be punctilious, and, even more, scrupulous in my choices. I am rarely rash. Nevertheless, I have to keep reminding myself that what I think is right is not necessarily what everyone who is right-thinking in their own minds believes as well. As of this morning, the clash between North Korea and the United States has taken an incremental change to the status of personal feud, between two tyrannical egomaniacs—both small change when it comes to their worth as moral and ethical leaders, but each with his fingers on very lethal nuclear buttons.

It occurs to me, as I ponder the possible outcomes, that at least part of the analysis of what strategy will work in terms of neutralizing a rogue threat—lest there be any mistake, I am talking about Kim Jung Un and his small but deadly arsenal—now must take into account matters of character, role-playing, and the myths we all cherish about heroes and champions, and how the latter are supposed to behave in times of peril. No matter how bellicose in many other regards, especially behind the faceless abstractions of military strategies implemented on a grand scale with talk of “forces” and “troops” and “armies” and “civilians,” that is, always plural and mass nouns (so there is no incentive for the ordinary citizen to think, even for a minute, that in actuality we are talking about the actions of individual combatants, ordinary men and women like ourselves, under orders, or merely about the individual victims of execution of a particular order of battle, the dead and wounded of bombings, errant drones, missiles, and small arms fire), American presidents and then down the chain of command, pretty much without exception, tend to try to appear to be grave, serious, sober, rational, and above all cautious, so as not to make it a contest of individual wills or personalities. They work mightily not to have it appear personal, for sure, but they also work mightily to wear the mantle of responsibilty for the actions of the mightiest military force that has ever existed. They pay a price for proceeding cautiously, at the hands of critics who, at least philosophically, embrace a posture of displaying greater strength and the ultimate ability to crush virtually any enemy—short of bullying, of course, though there are those voices, always, in the halls of government, and among the rabble, who believe that the label “champion” is synonymous with “tough guy.” And tough guys talk tough.

Trump certainly talks tough, and it repulses me, more than anything else. But I sit in my zero-gravity chair (there is enough tension in my life, in the personal sphere and in the global sphere, that I don’t want to put any more strain on my back than I have to, on top of ingesting unpleasant news about the state of the world) reading today’s New York Times with its account of the exchange of school yard taunts traveling around half the world between Washington and Pyongyang and I am left to ponder what’s going on—to examine the meta-text so to speak, and compare my spontaneous reactions to what I imagine are the responses of others, especially those unlike myself. First, the shot across the bow, while Trump stands defiant and bristling with menace on the deck of the good ship United Nations: “dotard,” that now rare, vaguely British and hence vaguely charming and formal epithet—and, so, given the source, vaguely comic and yet apt… would that we all had the presence of mind, the nous (that Greek philosophical term, with its overlay as a quality of intellect: that determining affect of “gumption”) to call Trump what he is, among other things, and that is just another alter kacker. And, with his enfeebled and meager arsenal of taunts and insults—with which he is admittedly quite effective, there’s something to be said for a limited range of weapons, used repeatedly and in volume—Trump counters with “madman,” quickly abandoning the actually jaunty (and probably mistaken) provocation of “rocket man,” well intended, but in a different way than Kim’s use of an archaism to belittle he who is, indeed, an ancient one, falling comically into the swirl of spent cultural memes.

If only we needed to look forward merely to a battle of words. I’ll put the latter-day masters of the language that gave us Wilde and W.S. Gilbert, Shaw and Joyce, Orwell, the Python, and leaping across the ocean to our shores, also gave us Twain, Mencken, Parker, Kauffman, Perlman, and Marx (and I don’t mean Karl) up against a post-adolescent who nevertheless does throw across some incisive verbal weaponry, albeit with the added burden of having to work in a language other than his own, for the sake of the larger audience (and because he doesn’t have to work very hard to shore up his constituency, which he has, for the time being, let us concede, largely by the short hairs). But there is always the risk, as there has been on the Korean peninsula since the ascendancy of the Communist Chinese on the mainland in 1949, that it will become a very hot war of deadly weapons.

And what I wonder, after a lifetime, mine, of living with such a threat, which flows and ebbs like the proverbial tide, over us from so far away in the world, how many people—sick, perhaps, of the dread, of the nameless anxiety, at once ridiculous and real, fomented by a backward country of 25 million subjugated people who have withstood possible annihilation in the form of hot war, cold war, famine, and the ravages of capitulating to the demands of a regime, now three generations old, whose sole reasons for being are to be venerated (for whatever complex set of reasons) and to be self-perpetuating—are thinking and feeling the same thing, opposite those feelings of nausea and repulsion of mine. “Yeah, it’s about time.”
“Who are they to push us around?”
“We need to talk tough, and stand tall, and not take any guff [use whatever other euphemism you like here].”
“Thank god. Trump will show them! And teach them a lesson.”

At this stage, it little matters what the actual consequences will be of “talking tough” in a way that materially is no different than the resistance, cajolery, diplomacy (both visible and behind the scenes), and cautious but prudent policies we have exercised for over 60 years, while two armies of Koreans eye each other across no man’s land. That there are now significant rhetorical differences is clear*, but even these have consequences, which will not become clear until we learn exactly what Trump thinks he is doing, beyond imposing on as many people as he can at once with the mere tactics of swagger and braggadocio (and I don’t pretend to believe for a moment that he is unaware of exactly what maneuvers he has at his disposal to deploy—and even taking into account that he is also likely aware by now, eight months into his fragile tenure, that in Kim he is no longer dealing with a business adversary akin to those he faced while trying to build a hotel in a Middle East oasis). He does not do well with humiliation—which he is courting, if he actually has no desire to act like the monster he would be if he attempted to unleash our forces, in any way that exceeds a token show that somehow manages to be effective in humiliating his adversary, the scion of a tradition that has its own monstrous ways of neutralizing much smaller incidents of being humbled.

* One problem is that political discourse has become coarsened, and generally less civil, as a result of the past five cycles of presidential politics—with all of the more localized interstitial contests increasing the opportunities for vulgarizing and debasing not only the vocabulary, but the general rhetorical tenor. Now, with the most proficient perpetrator ever of applying the vernacular to the previously fairly elevated, if not polite, stage of addressing opponents, adversaries, and even colleagues and allies, with some degree of tacitly accepted decorum on a world stage, it is that much harder to assess the impact—never mind the underlying significance, at least in terms of degree, if not force of influence—of street language that could as easily be bluster as it is mere verbal prelude to mortal physical engagement. Parley is an art that was invented in the days of leather and steel armor, when potential combatants rode on horseback. It is an art, I am afraid, that has had its methods and techniques fade and wither. Today, the battle is usually for people’s “minds,” that is, the inclination, hopefully favorable, to those who are the authors of the utterances. But the effect of Trump’s words—the ability to differentiate real intent from figurative manipulation of popular sentiment is beyond me, and as far as I can tell, beyond every commentator, interpreter, analyst, pundit, you name the expert, that I have seen—must, at some point, do more than keep an entire population in thrall. At some point, actions will occur. And it is what they may be that I dread, far more than the largely inept usages he deploys.

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Head In Ground; Mouth Zipped

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Two things I’ve seen online this morning prompt today’s meditation. Let me just say, though, that I am reminded above all, ignorance is bliss. Dangerous, but bliss.

One is a post in my newsfeed from a Facebook “friend,” someone who, it happens, is a published author and life-long journalist on political matters and foreign affairs. He tends to take a moderate view on many things, and is quite serious, if not wholly sober-minded about what it is that is appropriate for a professional press to cover—not only in terms of subject matter, but appropriate for tone, manner, POV, and the usual journalistic decorum as it’s been practiced in American media for, let us say, the past 75 or 80 years.

Two days running on page one of the NY Times and in this additional piece, the Mediator guy says in his first sentence that the Trump/Joe and Mika episode contains “a lot of insights” for us to ponder. Really? I can’t think of any fresh insights. We learn, big surprise, that Trump is still a Howard Stern barbarian type, even as president, and we are reminded that Joe and Mika–now engaged!–are the usual cable TV smarmy phony types, having previously sucked up to Trump when it was useful to them. TELL ME WHY I CARE. Bury this story in the back pages and keep the focus on the health care bill, the wars in Iraq/Syria/Afghanistan, the opioid crisis and all else that really matters. Not this Acela story.

‘Morning Joe’ Row Is Fresh Sign of TV’s Iron Grip on Trump> There are many insights to be drawn from the latest media maelstrom involving President Trump, including that a presidency born of television still lives there. [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/business/media/morning-joe-trump-twitter.html]

And the other is, I suppose, strictly to be categorized as an opinion piece, now largely the meat of the “fake media,” like the “Washington Post” and “The New York Times,” the two papers, along with two or three others, usually designated national papers of record. The “Post” and the “Times” have significantly ramped up the number of pieces they publish daily with a byline, and the clear differentiation of being, editorially, commentary or opinion. They do this even as they have strayed somewhat in their beat and investigative work from the strait-jacket of the protocols and style of serious news reporting in the United States of neutral, fair and balanced observation and analysis without interpretation.

This piece, labeled “perspective,” appeared in the “Washington Post” this morning, and it has the teeth of coming from the point of view of a former CIA analyst whose job it was to determine the areas of a nation’s leader’s weakness and strength, by whatever process of ferreting, winnowing, and discovering evidence obtained by whatever overt and covert means are put at the disposal of her agency (and its counterparts in all foreign governments): [https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/president-trumps-twitter-feed-is-a-gold-mine-for-foreign-spies/2017/06/23/e3e3b0b0-5764-11e7-a204-ad706461fa4f\_story.html?tid=hybrid\_experimentrandom\_1\_na&utm\_term=.0c3f699d8d66]

Well, my friend (who will go unnamed), it’s natural for those of us with a more refined sense of what is appropriate for mature and serious adults to ponder in the give and take of world events to decry, not just the breach, but the rupture, of what has always been a somewhat fragile code of the protocols and public demeanor of not only the citizenry of a sovereign nation, but the consciously professional members of its fourth estate. And while we’re at it, we tend to bemoan the rude tastes and predilections of whole swathes of the American electorate, who seem to have a constant and robust appetite for the unsavory, if not the debased, if not the DMZ between civility and barbarity.

However, it’s not just we and whatever “class” we represent, it’s not just the more prudent members of an elite in our society comprised of those of all political stripes, and it’s not just the rank-and-file, the hoi-polloi, the salt of the earth, and the deplorables of the national array of citizens who are taking in the behavior of those in Washington and in the outposts of the apparatus of government. And I mean, as well, the modus operandi of those charged with monitoring that behavior with whatever ill-defined, if not unhinged, sense of mission they have—not the real journalists, but the pretenders: all the self-styled reporters, bloggers, podcasters, pundits, and colorful personalities. As I’m sure you know, there is also a whole world of official watchers; friends, enemies, allies, antagonists, and lurkers alike who hang on every word, every tweet, every gif, every snap, every youtube (snippet or full-length feature), that now issues from our seat of government. I am usually mindful of this qualifying point of view, but the WaPo Bakos “perspective” piece is a pointed reminder not to stop paying attention. And it’s because no one off our shores, the millions of people employed full-time by foreign powers to study us, ever take their eyes and ears off us.

So I don’t know about you, but I can tell you why I care, whether I personally really want to or not. The whole world is watching, and it redounds, wholly involuntarily and wholly unasked for, upon me, as well as in excess of three hundred million other souls. As well, I am too unknowing, if not stupefyingly ignorant, of how exactly—beyond one’s sense of spiritual malaise (which I can live with; I have so far, for several decades)—these seemingly inconsequential acts, so mean and debased and sometimes prurient, performed by people I would, in any other universe, not care about or pay attention to in the least, will someday redound on me in existential terms. 
If for no other reasons, I would say, I pay attention (at least to the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a few other still trustworthy news carriers—there is no reason to get on Twitter, watch MSNBC or its brethren), because I don’t like surprises.

I woke up on November 9, 2016, neither surprised nor defeated. Overwhelmed by the depth of my ignorance, but neither of the latter sensations. I didn’t like the result, but there is nothing I can do about what the actions of people who believe the unbelievable. And these folks do reinforce their beliefs, their sense of “truth,” by indulging in all that those spurious and unreliable outlets had brought about, despite both my best intentions and what actions, as an ordinary citizen, I can take. I still see no reason to believe that by ignoring these signs and pointers to portents that we cannot afford to allow to carry on unattended, that somehow there will be some different future outcome. I cannot pretend that the act of behaving as if these real occurrences had no connection to my life would mean they, in fact, do not. That’s a form of delusion—the first thing all of us decry in our tormentors.

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Desperate Optimism

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

A national sense of shame because of the bad acts of a sitting president is an entirely new condition. It must be optimism that drives one positive perception about the current and ongoing phenomena. On the upside of the political history of the United States it’s taken us about 230 years of uninterrupted decorum to arrive at the sudden recurrent experience of having a president whose behavior in public has become a matter of concern. Not simply partisan observers, not simply the press, not simply pundits with an air of presumption, and not simply foreign commentators regard the status of our country as somehow imperilled.

Why are there no rules, however minimally formal—never mind actual laws, but even mere recorded precedent and a response, or a hastily written set of guidelines in the form of a personal note from a departing incumbent to a new chief executive—is because we’ve never needed them. But then, we’ve never had a president so evidently ignorant of the more homely and everyday aspects of the social contract that even children in tenements in obscure urban centers, or toddlers on isolated farms in the hinterlands seem to grasp and adopt from an early age.

Moreover, this president seems also not to grasp, or if he does, he does as he does so much else, that is, in the hermetic and very tight confines of some silent private code that determines he acts only in such a way as redounds entirely to himself—regardless of, though too often despite—how his actions seem to define a new and different character for our entire nation. We ask ourself if he really, truly understands. It has become evident long since that it doesn’t matter. The more relevant question is, does he care? Every day, in a different way, however small the difference, however unexpected the context—though even the expanse of the locus of his departures from convention seems to shrink, given the diminished impact on his ability to shock and disgust even the most thin-skinned; he does it in the White House, he does it online, he does it in foreign centers of power and governance, he does it on the telephone, on television, on the radio—he demonstrates a blatant disregard of circumstance and context. We must conclude there either are no scruples at work here whatsoever, to such an extent that even a predecessor who seemed amoral now seems a paragon, or that there is an idiocy working overtime as to redefine the meaning of genius.

The succession of lies has given rise now to a formal index, kept by no less than the newspaper of record. The succession of mean-spirited, heartless orders and proposed laws has now become so numerous that it keeps a self-appointed marshal of such a seemingly haphazard, but consummately systematic dismantling of our code of ethics—even to the negation of our compact and fundamental principles of liberty and independence from tyranny—busy tracking and codifying them, in anticipation of some future reckoning, as a permanent weekly enterprise for the duration of his tenure (see Amy Siskind on Medium.com), and now going into its 32nd week.

What was merely habit or perhaps a laughable character flaw in an otherwise harmless larger than life celebrity figure, has now become, with his investiture to national office, a grave embarrassment that has long since burst from the boundaries of media bleats, tweets, crawls, and blasts. It pervades our everyday lives. It does so whether we are resolute in our self-imposed news blackouts, or we bathe masochistically in the fetid waters of wall-to-wall coverage in all media 24 hours a day. It does so often, and with such disregard for even the most trivial of expectations of decorum. The only rationale is that he has warned all and several, generally and specifically, that, as his wife, and as a spokesperson on the government payroll have told us with straight faces, that if he is insulted, he will return the favor, ten times worse. Ahab famously exclaimed, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!” We are all the president’s white whale.

What is to be done? Apparently nothing.

We are to take solace in our ability to allow regular stresses of this insubstantial sort to leave us at worst numb to further onslaughts. It is after all just words. The positive view, as I started by saying, is that at least we’ve not had to confront this before, nor have our forebears, lo, unto ten or a dozen generations.

However, numb as we may be, we cannot allow that lull to set in that leads inevitably to a sleep. Early on, the caution was not to allow any of a consort of forces, the perpetrator himself, or any of those resources of information we all depend upon, regardless of political affiliation or persuasion that unceasingly report on and then perseverate on the meaning of his latest twisted utterance, to allow us to believe that there is something normal about this behavior. So far few see it as normal. And those who believe that avoiding the subject will somehow convey protection, they will inevitably discover that, like Rip van Winkle did, not paying attention, even voluntarily, will lead to shocks he never had to contend with.

For the culprit, there is no apparent effort involved in being himself. The energy required will always outlast the aggregate energy we must all expend, first, trying to keep up, and then, recognizing the impossibility of the task—the fount of opprobrium that is his consciousness is inexhaustible—we stop paying attention altogether and let him just carry on.

Rather we must have some faith that there will be some intervention from sources unknown, and essentially unpredictable. We have never seen such an affront to reason and civility, and it is ridiculous to expect that the only remedy will derive from some zealous application of reason, never before mustered and never before applied—just as reason and civility and determination have saved us from more easily characterizable global threats, blessedly palpable and substantive in their being, in the past, they are of no use now.

If there is some secret worm of genius at work here, the only objective can be that indeed, eventually, we will all get so tired we will just let him carry on. And indeed, the insults will stop, because the chief trigger is any expression of the reality he prefers not to confront and never has his entire life.

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Corey Robin Reviews a Book About Trump

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

The following transcribes my email to a correspondent who provided the original link to this blog entry by Corey Robin. I used to see these (and comment) on Facebook. But I’ve managed lately (like for the better part of a week) so far to stay away from Facebook, except at arm’s length.

Here’s the link to the book review http://coreyrobin.com/2017/03/14/the-real-parallel-between-hitler-and-trump/

And here’s what I had to say:

Email to a friend, today’s date, about the current Corey Robin blog entry

I am predicting you won’t mind my lapse into old ways and responding directly to what I saw was a recent post while making one of my lightning checks of Facebook.

I feel so much better, incidentally, these days, avoiding Facebook consciously, indeed mindfully, as it’s still necessary to resist the unconscious reflex after perusing this or that news site on the web to drop down my bookmark menu for “Social” and click on the blue F (good title for a murder mystery, “The Blue F”). I realized without undue mental exertion that what depressed me was not the news—though it’s surely no cause for joy or a sense of well-being—but the peculiar embellishment of the effects of relentless dispatches from the front lines of anarchy, otherwise known as the White House (have you noticed that increasingly the news media have taken to iconizing the actual physical seat of executive administration of the government, just as the Brits did decades and decades ago with 10 Downing Street? My theory is, it’s a way for the news “good guys”—what we usually call, as if there were something vaguely blasphemic about the epithet, the establishment news or the mainstream media—to continue to separate the Trump administration from the rest of the government, which they hope not only metaphorically to quarantine, but to do so literally, lest the contagion spread uncontrollably like the super bacterium it is [trying to think of another metaphor yet, to throw into the mix, but that’s enough], and also, of course, as a way, literally as well, to avoid having to set the name Trump in type yet again, bolstering the data mining results of the future). It’s not what the news media say, though enough of it constitute crimes against English, if not against truth altogether, beyond mere execrable writing.

Cover of Making of Donald Trump

The Making of Donald Trump bookcover

In any event, thanks for the Corey Robin link [to his review of the David Cay Johnston book, The Making of Donald Trump], as it, if for no other reason, reminds me that I have to subscribe to his feed or I will no longer, in the medium to long run, be reminded by you to see if there are a few unbruised fruit and un-blighted seeds to harvest from his particular tree of knowledge.

Nice to see that he seems to have put back under control his tendency to foam at the mouth.

This was a nice review, and true enough, I’m sure, but it’s evidence of the continuing crime of recycling old news. Why is it that so many liberals, if not those further left on the spectrum, think that the regular glance “rere regardant,” as Joyce put it in Ulysses, is necessary to keep from repeating old sins? Or, more likely, as if keeping the misfortunes of our time in the forefront of our consciousness will somehow ameliorate the abstract condition of our lives by halting, through a sheer act of collective will, the progress of the ill effects of the latest form of exploitation (like enough, surely, ever more virulent—there’s that super bacterium metaphor again…), in this case aka “the White House.” I won’t even talk about what Johnston is doing with such a book, aside from a public service of course for those not paying attention to the last 30 years. It was likely a lot of work, and I don’t criticize that, or begrudge him the rewards of an appreciative marketplace.

So, finally, and then I’ll let this, and you, go. He (Corey that is) says, “the systemic corruption of our rentier economy,” which is a nice twist I guess on a slightly shopworn locution. Except, as usual, I must take, indeed, exception to the use of “corruption,” suggesting that, at some previous time, the system of which we all are part, was sound and pure and unsullied by decay. Which I don’t believe. I think it (the system) has some genes deep within that, though not manifest at conception, inevitably prove an almost unavoidable tendency to develop a cancer. Back in the day, I mean 1781, they simply hadn’t yet conceived of the banking laws we are so clever to have ginned up starting back in the 1920s, if not earlier. For example.

And, I would prefer had he (Corey) stuck to the more prevalent condition in the use of the phrase—which was used most poignantly for me when my shrink told me at some point during the analysis to which I subjected myself for about four years back in the 1980s, when I had money to donate to my shrink’s mortgage holder, “we’re all renters.” True enough, I’ve come to discover, especially in that the phrase applies in all situations, just like “this too shall pass.” It’s only a very small number of self-privileged ones, somehow impervious to the corruption in which they thrive (what is evil, after all, to the devil?) who can legitimately call themselves, as well, “rentiers.” So. Not so clever after all. It’s just rubbing it in.

see you elsewhere on the ‘net, I hope…

xoxo

hhd

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In Medio Facebook

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

I tend to think about my life these days in terms of a cultural phenomenon I have, at best, ambivalent feelings about. There is a strong trend, as we like to say on the Internet, to loathing. I am talking about Facebook, of course. Life tends to divide, thinking about it from the vantage of now, among pre-Facebook, and being in the midst of it, and what I hope I will be able to label as post-Facebook. I am in the middle of withdrawal.

It’s not the first time. I subscribed to Facebook, though I contributed in an insignificant way at the beginning: from the time of its inception as a public forum on the web. It was in 2007. I became more and more active, and increasingly vociferous about my discomfort participating, starting in 2009. The record, or partially so, of all this is recorded here on 1StandardDeviation.com. Included in the archive (you won’t find it on Facebook because I deleted my first account in 2012 for a period of about eight months) is a farewell to Facebook—also here.

I’m sorry, you’ll have to search. I am not encouraging you to read it, given my recidivism. I rejoined Facebook that same year, and have been quite active, with a voluminous output mainly in the form of lengthy posts, largely (to my mind) in the form of an extended and fractionated apologia. There were also many many links posted, with what I hoped always were evocative or enlightened or, possibly, provocative introductory comments. Most of these were, from the evidence of the overall responsiveness of a closed readership, either ignored, or not too inspiring, or (what I believe is most likely) never seen because of Facebook management’s strange protocols and algorithms for distributing posts even to one’s own manageable friends’ list. I rarely, if ever, posted publicly (because of a distaste for engaging with potential trolls—the mere day-to-day of absorbing the less-than-determinative mix of elements I was exposed to on the famous newsfeed, and responding in a measured, rational, and well-meaning way, as much as possible with good will and humor is enough of a challenge). I have just a little over 100 well-chosen and considered individuals on my list of Facebook friends.

I accepted long since, because I don’t have the desire to “follow” each of them persistently, if not doggedly and grudgingly, that it was probably also true about each of them with regard to my choices as to what to lay at their doorsill for review, if not perusal. Hence, likely as not, the chief reason they didn’t respond in any way—the preponderance of them with not even a “like”—was because they didn’t even see a post, which is not to dismiss the possibility they saw none. Ever.

I am someone who gets on a social medium for the sociability of it—the only reason for the connection is the connection, the sense of having ties and to take advantage of the opportunity to converse, however etiolated the connection. I do and have always appreciated the band of “regulars” I seemed to have cultivated. The usual roundup of Renaultean “suspects” were the people I could count on to offer a comment and thereby, often enough, start a conversation. Stilted as it may have been—a phenomenon attributable solely to me, because I was mindful, likely overly so, that private as the space may seem on Facebook, someone is always monitoring and filtering. It is a public space, no matter what alterations to the policy statement, especially that regarding our so-called “privacy,” the jejune and profit-grubbing commissariat of Facebook might testify otherwise periodically.

The pleasure of connecting with friends was valuable, and in a good way, measured in the spirit of the exchanges, incalculable. However nothing about it was unique to Facebook. The only thing unique is the peculiar condition of seeming round-the-clock access one has to one’s friends. Not all of one’s friends, for sure. At least in my case, a significant number of friends forbore and either never joined Facebook or had the greater strength than I could muster, but that one time, and removed themselves, pretty well for good. I maintain contact with them in the “old” ways, which still work, of course.

One of the deficits to Facebook, in order to glean what measured and titrated pleasures it affords, is the amount of time one must devote to it to exact those pleasures as a kind of reward. I don’t need Facebook for any other purpose to which people put a whole arsenal of means of contact together. Indeed, some methods, like good old-fashioned email, are still better, given a certain mix of demographic characteristics in any segment of one’s social set. Our neighbors—literally the people who live in a state of propinquity in our town—still best confer for whatever communal purpose by email. Only one of our neighbors, and she is one of my valued, staunch, and consistent “usual suspects” among the tiny number, really, of reliable correspondents, is on Facebook.

The overall deficiency of Facebook is determined not only by the disproportion of desired opportunities for substantive contact with other human beings, balanced against exposure to the clichéd booming buzzing chaos of society at large in the myriad forms this disorder takes on Facebook, inescapably, and is colored, indeed overshadowed emotionally by the dark view I get of humanity at large thereby. It may all be me. But if so, it’s a problem I’d rather deal with by removing myself from the provocation.

In all events, I find myself, once again, feeling, at best (and it’s a deteriorating condition) ambivalent about this social boon, which at latest count (according to Statistica) stands at over 1.85 billion people around the world subscribing and, theoretically at least, potentially online all at the same time. It’s more a testament to the triumph of the technology necessary, and the cleverness exercised at developing and managing that technology in real time—reliably and transparently, indeed oiling the mechanism to make it seem effortless—that allows the possibility. It is not a testament to the wish of any sane person to want to have contact with any representative sampling of humanity, never mind fully one-quarter of mankind inhabiting the planet all at once.

In all events, it’s my sanity that I feel is being tested. More my equanimity and sense of well-being, with a realistic sense of my worth, and the worth of my time, best spent in productive pursuits as I define them than my ability to be rational. But these are times where rationality must be not merely clinged to, as a life preserver, but stood behind as a bulwark to help keep the vessel afloat and on course. Increasingly, as we all confront the swells of the waves, and the tempests that rise up to stir up and electrify the whole atmosphere, it’s more important to see to the fitness of the vessel than merely to worry about survival by finding diversions and distractions. There are plenty of each of these on Facebook. And I needn’t do more than mention, never mind even think of belaboring, the inadequacy of the channel called Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg is working with desperate ingenuity to turn into a medium that will serve all purposes, no matter how ill-suited it is to inform without bias, and to provide safe harbor from hysteria.

All of what I’ve said in the foregoing is prelude and prologue to writing I have done, and am continuing to write, about the phenomenon of Facebook, especially insofar as one person, myself, has experienced it, and spent far too much time in one regard pondering that experience and trying to elicit some sense. In the hopes that I have begun to delineate that sense and it’s a sense that may prove useful to others trying to understand, if not merely decipher, one of the major phenomena of our time that is bound to define at least this episode, now ten years in duration and promising to continue, in the formation of the culture, the living culture, in which we all are a part.


What’s past is prolog; Facebook as reality distortion—a foreword

One difference between pre- and post-FB behavior is the loss of that restraint that allowed us to keep thoughts to ourselves, reserving judgment on whether it’s appropriate even to say things to the few people for whom they are truly intended. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to say things publicly that, if we thought about it, will give offense to somebody and beyond that, even if truly innocuous, is of fleeting interest to most.

Mindy Kaling, one of the great comic sages of our time (yes this is sarcasm) had a great aperçu—undoubtedly an accident, but then she tweets all the time, so statistics are on her side—and that is, “People take things at face value on social media. Earnestness is the assumption.” Better that, I suppose than having to craft an apology, as in the old days, when you spoke out of turn, or unwisely hit the “send” button. However, this is merely the largest of the ineluctable consequences of making all personal communications accessible through public channels (yes, I’m being ornery and contrary; FB is not a medium—paint is a medium, pen and ink is a medium—it’s a channel, you know?, a conduit, a canal or, if you prefer, a sewer). We’ve lost nuance. I’d suggest we’ve also lost perspective.

The highest grossing movies, at least within the generation of Judd Apatow—the current Socrates and Aristophanes rolled into one of our era, at least in America—are rife with what pass for jokes, mainly about reproductive and excretory body parts, acts of coitus and oral/sexual contact, and put-downs. Yet all of these, plus sarcasm (which is irony, an absolutely useless mode on social media, without the benefit of your higher brain function) and slapstick, are strictly prohibited on Facebook. Try them, see how fast your “friends” shut you down.

As a consequence, we spend some part of each day on a virtual version of Soma (Google or Wiki it, look under Aldous Huxley and his novel Brave New World), assuming we have fallen prey to the need to stay in touch via Mark Zuckerberg’s jejune, if not wholly ill-adjusted, notions of what constitutes the proper means of maintaining meaningful personal relations with other humans whose contact we value. That these relations are eviscerated by the unspoken and unwritten etiquette of Facebook contact (unless it is wholly private—sending messages one-on-one does beg the question of whether Facebook is the best vehicle for communication in this form) goes without saying. We “speak” to one another in a different way than we do in person (persuade yourself otherwise if you like; if you are truly mindful of what you are saying and to whom, and at the same time mindful that there is likely a larger audience, you will say it, whatever it happens to be, with, shall I say, a little less juice—otherwise consider the possibility that you have a need to demonstrate to others just how caring, sweet, and civilized you are).

You may be completely in control of the various channels of communication you have open to you, depending on the audience, and more power to you. There’s no doubt Facebook serves some need. Even as significant a cynic as I am cannot argue with an overall membership of over one-and-a-half billion people, who use Facebook daily a half-billion at a time. Whatever the need, Facebook fills it. I note with some rue that Zuckerberg has organized a consortium of like-minded enterprises to extend the fundamental benefits of Facebook to the other five billion people in the world. The initiative (with several B-players in supporting roles, and a giant called Samsung also on board) is called internet.org [http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9241768/Facebook_s_Zuckerberg_wants_to_connect_the_rest_of_the_world]. However, the insidious effects of Facebook are not to be denied, and the results have only started to come in from research that substantiates just what social impact this particular channel of networking on a grand scale has.

A recent study, that received some (but, in my opinion, not enough) attention from the University of Michigan concentrated on the effect of Facebook use on college-age adults. In brief, here is the abstract of that study:

“Over 500 million people interact daily with Facebook. Yet, whether Facebook use influences subjective well-being over time is unknown. We addressed this issue using experience-sampling, the most reliable method for measuring in-vivo behavior and psychological experience. We text-messaged people five times per day for two-weeks to examine how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives. Our results indicate that Facebook use predicts negative shifts on both of these variables over time. The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time. Interacting with other people ‘‘directly’’ did not predict these negative outcomes. They were also not moderated by the size of people’s Facebook networks, their perceived supportiveness, motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, self-esteem, or depression. On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

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