Lacrimosa: The Weeping Woman

Q: How stupid do they think we are? A: Very.

Last night, Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time in his presidency. The event was largely seen as a test in the wake of a first month in office that has been so chaotic, so cataclysmic, and so darkly portentous of what is to come that scarcely a day has passed without some new aberration.

Perhaps because the crazed rollercoaster ride of Trump’s administration has (as it is intended to) incited collective whiplash and instilled a deep emotional exhaustion, many, even vocal Trump critics, seemed desperate for him to behave in a way that could be read as “normal.” Days before the speech itself, it was being framed as an opportunity for a “reset.” People deluded themselves into believing that now (not after the Mexican rapists comment or Pussygate or Michael Flynn or telling black people they have nothing or not paying his taxes or dealing with nuclear policy emergencies at dinner with civilians in his private club or praising Putin), now was the time he’d reset and finally become presidential. Our capacity for optimism is great, but our capacity for total denial appears to be boundless.

Trump knows this, and his team knows this, and so they delivered. The night’s crucial moment was a gift of high political theater and military-grade optical tactics for the administration. Trump — in his “restrained,” “presidential” (apparently these words now mean “not tweeting lunacy at 5 a.m.”) mode, praised Navy SEAL’ William “Ryan” Owen’s memory as his widow joined her hands in prayer and raised her tear-stained face to heaven. Carryn Owens looked like a religious icon. Trump looked like a benevolent deity shedding light on her husband’s memory. Ivanka sat next to her, the embodiment of beatific sympathy. The composition of the image was Medici-perfect. The spectacle was any politician’s wet dream. The base loved it. Congress loved it. Some of Trump’s most vocal critics loved it. He was honoring fallen heroes. He was being presidential. He was reassuring us that we could all work together and he could stop being divisive.

The problem with the picture is that it is a lie, his tone was a barely sustained act, and the Trump critics praising him didn’t love it — they fell for it.

Owens died in an ill-planned raid (Trump gave the go-ahead, as is his wont, over dinner) that was carelessly thought out and stupidly executed. Civilians and children also died in it. While the Trump camp ranted and raved about preventing terrorism by refusing entry to people from countries who have not been involved in a single terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 (sweet American Southern boy Dylann Roof shot up a Bible study group in Charleston), the raid cost the U.S. the ability to carry out ground missions in Yemen — a critical operating theater in the actual fight against global terror since at least the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden Harbor seventeen years ago.

Owens is dead, and his wife is a widow, and it is Trump’s fault. (He tried to blame the generals.) Others will die because of this administration’s negligence, fear-mongering, terrorist-stoking tactics. That will also be his fault. He will also try to blame someone else.

So how, when we know these things, do not only members of government and civil society, but the very press whose job it is to be critical, and who Bannon has dubbed the “opposition party” get taken in? How does someone like Van Jones, who has never pulled his verbal punches when it comes to Trump, who has been a consistent and relentless voice of reason and condemnation, end up referring to this as ““one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period,” and claiming that, in that moment, Trump “became president of the United States”?

Because Trump used the spectacle of a grieving woman — the Virgin’s tears, the fragile silhouette pacing the widow’s walk — and leveraged it to his advantage. In a dispatch on the Women’s Marches that I wrote for N+1 what seems like a century ago but in fact was only a few weeks, I talked about the twisted chivalry that protects white women. It was that twisted chivalry that made the Women’s March a peaceful gathering of cute hats and winky signs, instead of the teargassed bloodbath it would have been had Black Lives matter congregated on the Mall. It’s the same twisted chivalry that drives 53% of white women to vote for an avowed and unapologetic serial sexual harasser.

And it’s the same chivalry that Trump shamelessly, cynically used to make himself look good last night. He built up his credibility on the tears of a woman whose husband is dead because of him.

Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer

Deeply embedded in the masculinist, white-supremacist DNA of the U.S.’s history, identity, and national psyche is the belief that white men are the protectors of white women, and that this undergirds the entire social order. That everyone’s safety, even our very existence, depends on this protection. It’s difficult to overstate how toxic this is: it deprives women of agency and deludes them into believing that leaving their fates in the hands of a daddy-figure is in their best interest — even if he is an abuser, a rapist, a thief. And it is so powerfully tied into our emotional wiring that even those who know better are susceptible. A close friend recently reminded me that facts matter less than feelings to most people; at no point has that been in starker relief than it was last night.

We should not now make the error Jones and others made. Rather, we can continue to learn what authoritarianism looks like on our own soil, in our own language and visual vocabulary. Authoritarianism is about spectacle, and anyone who believes last night represented a shift towards a more inclusive or democratic style of government has it precisely backward: the spectacle of the Great Leader protecting the Widow of the Martyr is vintage authoritarianism, as any cursory look at Soviet or Nazi propaganda will show you. Trump was not changing anything — he was doubling down. As Sarah Kendzior wrote today, “Every autocrat flirts with benevolence, promoting themselves as the sole protector against threats, the strongman who remembers ‘the forgotten people.’” By this measure, last night’s false empathy was simply another predictable step in the playbook.

Authoritarianism is also about crushing acceleration and destabilization. Events that in any other time would be seismic, epoch-defining, seem to linger in the public mind for barely the time it takes a puff of smoke to clear a room. (Whether our country will ever escape the motel-room reek of the Trump presidency remains to be seen.) The Women’s Marches; the shock-and-awe tactics of the Muslim ban; the threat to send federal troops into cities; the rounding-up of immigrants; the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for his illegal conversations with Russian contacts; the Golden Showers brief; kicking the head of the Joint Chiefs out of the National Security Council and appointing Steve Bannon; the ever-burgeoning evidence of the Trump team’s ties to Russia; Education Secretary Besty DeVos citing the HBCUs established under Jim Crow as a stellar example of “school choice;” the President threatening a business for severing ties with his daughter’s company; the continuing emoluments issues; the nuclear football posing for selfies at Mar-a-Lago; the gutting of the State Department under Putin Order of Friendship Recipient Rex Tillerson; the scorched-earth attack on voting rights led by the president and his attorney general; the systematic dismantling of the EPA and a host of other agencies — these are but the tip of the iceberg. Taken alone, any one of these events is astonishing. As an ensemble, the picture they create is perhaps too overwhelming to be taken as a whole, which may be why viewers last night, including vocal Trump critics, were desperate for a respite.

The respite is not something we will get by wishing for it, and the desire to succumb to illusory versions of normalcy is akin to falling asleep in the snow. Trump reset nothing. He represented himself as exactly what we know him to be: a callous, infinitely selfish entertainer who will stop at nothing to keep looting our country for his personal benefit for as long as possible. If ever you need a refresher on what the president thinks of those who die serving to our country, remember his treatment of Humayun Khan’s parents. And remember that nothing — not a polished speech, not even a widow’s tears — can wash William Owens’s blood from Trump’s hands.

 

A Hierarchy of Emergencies

We're Past the  Distraction Stage. 

A mere week into the Trump presidency, too many things have changed radically to enumerate here. All of those large and small insanities add up to one big change that can be helpful in adjusting our minds to the new realities. Until recently it felt helpful to say, “X is a distraction from [Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, Golden Showers kompromat, Bannon in the White House, discrediting the intelligence community, attacking the press, gutting the State Department, etc., etc.]. Here’s the real story!” That no longer works. As an example: Was attacking John Lewis on Twitter bad? Yes. Was it a distraction from the confirmation hearings and Jared Kushner’s entrance to the White House? Yes. Is it still good and important that almost everyone in America rushed to John Lewis’s defense, including high-level government officials? Also yes. Should we have been silent on Lewis and focused only on policy? Absolutely not.

It’s time for a new paradigm: it is all a distraction, and none of it is a distraction. We are facing what my brilliant friend and former colleague, Anh-Thu Nguyen, termed a “hierarchy of emergencies.”

What does this mean, practically? It means we must acclimate our minds to a political and social climate of absolute chaos, and that that chaos is driven by both intention (Steve Bannon just wants to see the world burn) and incompetence (Sean Spicer is a terrible press secretary — it’s not totally his fault, he’s answerable to a lunatic.)

There’s another level, since this is basically an Escher drawing of dystopian bullshit. The chaos reflects the Administration’s strength as much as its weakness. It is in this Administration’s interest to sow chaos in some targeted ways:

  • Decimating State’s career staff and senior leadership means Tillerson can do his business deals with Putin, or that Trump can ram through his appalling/absurd/illegal/unconstitutional ban without facing even a whimper of resistance.

  • Undermining the intelligence community discredits the very credible findings of Russian tampering in the election.

  • Having us all look at the Golden Showers brief for giggles, and then saying it was all made up — including the much more important revelationthat Trump and his camp have been accepting intelligence from Russia for at least five years, and that Michael Flynn has been involved in collusion—creates an atmosphere of doubt and darkness. (Never mind that the former MI6 agent who compiled the brief has fled for his life; never mind all its mentions of sources “unavailable” or “silenced;” never mind that people associated with it are still dying.)

  • Attacking the press doubles down on a long, long effort, largely driven by the GOP since the Nixon years but perfected by the Trump team, of attacking and discrediting the media. Trump has said the Times ought to be purchased by someone competent — i.e. a Trump shill — or be allowed to “fold with dignity.” This is a basic authoritarian move — create your own press — that reinforces the central authoritarian premise: you can’t believe the people you are supposed to believe. You believe only the Leader.

The chaos is also a sign of genuine, uncontrolled incompetence, though: it’s a bloody knife-fight in there. (Just like every garbage-fire business fake-tycoon Trump has ever touched.) Conway is supposedly gunning for Spicer and supposedly punched someone at the inaugural ball; Trump himself is rumored to have problems with Flynn. The swamp-drainers have turned the White House into a swamp of infighting, disinformation, and chaos. They still share one goal: to climb to the top of this trash heap of illegitimate power and cling to it for dear life. But they’re in over their heads too, and this ship is rudderless.

Nonetheless, the distractions serve their purpose. The fact that many of them are staggeringly inept at the jobs they are nominally supposed to be doing doesn’t mean that they’re not enabling a broader set of goals that most individual members (including Trump) don’t fully understand. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to look everywhere at once.

It means we have to learn to categorize our emergencies. Steve Bannon on the National Security Council is a Tier 1 emergency. Sweaty Sean Spicer in his bad suit ranting at the press like a drunken groomsman is a Tier 2 emergency (he may be a clown, but he’s still a clown threatening the First Amendment from a White House podium). A Chinese official saying war with the United States is becoming a practical reality is a Tier 1 emergency. Kellyanne Conway lying so hard you can hear her makeup peeling as Anderson Cooper rolls his eyes at her just means its Tuesday. The Department of Homeland Security attempting to overrule the judiciary is a Tier 1 Emergency.

It’s time to start listening to all the hawkish friends, the weary lifetime intel officers, the wary vets that you might have thought sounded paranoid or crazy. People didn’t think this could happen here. It has. It is.

The “good” news is that authoritarians are not original. Soon after the election, I wrote a piece called “Smart or Not,” attempting to identify signals of how this would go. I no longer consider that piece terribly relevant (it had the fatal flaw of presuming some small pretense of an intention to govern normally). What does remain relevant, and is playing out faster than most Americans are keeping up, are the predictable steps of the authoritarian playbook: 1) Target the press 2) Identify a convenient minority to marginalize and attack 3) Dismantle the judiciary. Goal: *Consolidate power in the hands of an unaccountable oligarchy*

In the hierarchy of emergencies, nothing is a distraction. A “minor incident of harassment” of a hijabi might distract from the bigger geopolitical picture; it’s also a sign of a rupturing social fabric; without that social fabric resistance stands no chance.

Authoritarianism, fascism in particular, feeds on spectacle. See that too. And cultivate the hierarchy of emergencies because the next thing it will feed on is our own fatigue, our own sense of impotence, our own desire to avert our eyes. The hierarchy is more than a conceptual model: it’s a practice for controlling your own emotional and intellectual state. Every day, you can choose what to respond to. It’s definitely all too much but there is no choice, because it is happening whether we want to see it or not.

Some days your biggest patriotic action will be holding the door for your neighbor. Some days it will be reading a book (like this or this or this.) Some days, you’ll raise money, go to a demonstration, show up at an elected official’s office and speak truth to power. There will be the macro hierarchy of geopolitical emergencies, which will be complex and emerge only through patience, long study, and breaks for evaluation, and the micro list you make of what you can honestly take on every day.

It’s all a distraction, and none of it is: that is the rotten core of this brave new world. They lie to show they can; they distract to create blinding, devastating, exhausting chaos; they screw up because a lot of them are incompetent thugs. It will take deep reserves of strength and steadiness to resist it. Fascism thrives on instinct and manipulation. Creating your own hierarchy grounds you in reality every day; that’s an important start.

How the Press Can Beat Trump

This piece originally appeared on Medium on January 23, 2017.

Last week, the Times published one of its most important pieces on the Trump administration, Jim Rutenberg’s “As Trump Berates News Media, A New Strategy is Needed to Cover Him.” Mr. Rutenberg wrote, “The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president. It better figure things out […]”

Mr. Rutenberg’s piece is vitally important because the press is in an unprecedentedly difficult position: First, it must remind the world that it is one of the pillars on which democracy stands (there is a reason the first amendment is first); second, it is a constant and particular target of the President; and third, it must figure out how to do its job in a strange and chaotic landscape in order to disrupt the vicious cycle generated by the first two factors. If it is ill equipped to keep itself alive, its survival is bound up with the Republic’s.

Mr. Rutenberg wrote that journalists must “find the courage to change the things they can, in the right ways, not the wrong ways.” Reporters can safeguard their duty with a simple but effective shift in coverage: they must report on patterns and actions, not “content.” Trump lies and contradicts himself so consistently, so intentionally, that reporting his words as though they contain actual information is a waste of time and an accelerant of his agenda. An effective report, rather than beginning, “Trump says…”, might read, “Trump continues stream of Twitter rants laced with inaccuracies, falsehoods, and inconsistencies.” This method identifies the real story: the pattern, the phenomenon, the what of what Trump is doing.

But to report (or worse, retweet) each of his deliberately false statements, as many in the news media have been doing, spreads mendacious content that adds no value to the general body of knowledge and continues to miss the real story: that the President of the United States is engaged in a longterm and ongoing practice of publishing lies and deceit via a personal channel, consolidating federal authority within himself, confusing personal reaction with national policy.

Authoritarians sow chaos so they can act while others are still stunned reacting. Journalists, appalled (as most normal humans would be, presented with such a staggering conflagration of nonsense and falsehood) are left sputtering in shock, looking foolish and impotent. Reporting the patterns of the President’s (and his staff’s) mendacity, rather than trying to react to the lies themselves, denies them this power.

This week, the news media appear to have begun catching on. On January 21, after Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, welcomed the press to the White House briefing room by berating them and then unleashing a tirade of lies about inauguration numbers, the Times headline read, “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift.” The same day, on “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd interrupted Kellyanne Conway’s astounding claim that the White House was offering “alternative facts” to defuse the term: “those are falsehoods.

The press can beat Trump, and they must. To do so will require them to eschew the presumed traditions of access journalism, and to take the Trump administration up on its adversarial challenge. They must meet its corrosive antagonism with ferocious defiance. Courageously, relentlessly, and fearlessly, they must dig, uncover, reveal, and name. Under appalling duress, they can save themselves — and preserve the Republic — by doing their jobs.

Bad Faith and Political Mad Libs

This piece originally appeared on Medium on December 5, 2016.

The election of Donald Trump was a tremendous shock for many. (Whether this was from sheer delusion; whether the polls were wrong and to what extentwhether there was low- or high-level voter fraud; whether everyone believed too much in the inevitability of the Clinton juggernaut; how much Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had to do with it — all these questions have been addressed by others, at great length and in admirable depth, so they are not my concern here). I am interested in the election’s seismic effect on our cultural consciousness, in how the aftershocks will be worse than the quake itself.

A lot of things that seemed stable now require urgent reevaluation or active defense. As Masha Gessen wrote, many of the civic protections and institutional norms we take for granted are enshrined in culture, not law. This means that, rather than resting on a solid bedrock of legal protection, we’re basically on a crumbly limestone cliff of tradition and presumed good intentions.

This election — not in its progress and outcome, but in the composition of its discourse — has revealed the ungainly syntheses and violent clashes between written law and lived culture and reminded us that language is ineluctably, and maybe fatally, at the core of both. Nowhere is this more raw, nor urgent, than in questions around free speech and censorship, particularly in the Wild West of the internet, most especially as we face the unprecedented situation of a president-elect who is somehow both a foreign-policy-flouting Luddite (blithely speaking on the phone with the President of Taiwan and then rage-baiting China) and that most bizarre techno-reptilian spawn of the internet, a Twitter troll.

Language takes us over. Our brains are linguistically ordered: linguists differ on the extent and exact neurological structure, but it is a defining feature of the human condition. One major, and still influential, theory of linguistics holds that language literally shapes our thoughts. Many of the aftershocks of this election are inextricably tied to language — and to each other — in ways that require early clarification and identification lest they become hardwired as new realities of social cognition. To my mind, there are three components to the rapid transformation our language and communication are undergoing that require scrutiny.

1. Language is a primary battleground

It’s not simply that we had a seemingly fact-free election in what it’s now cliché to call a “post-factual” world. Facts do not cease to exist; rather their construction comes apart. What we engage with as social facts are more precisely compositions and structures of language, and language is precipitously close to signifying nothing. For all the sound and fury, a leitmotif of the Trump campaign, gospel in the inner circles, is that his words are not to be taken literally. And from the man himself: “It’s just words, folks.” This light-hearted, folksy defense is astounding: it is in fact among the more chilling and effectively destabilizing things he has said.

Sloppiness around language is not new in America (we’re the nation of Yogi Berra, not Flaubert) but it is not usually so brazen, nor so dangerous. The threads in the culture were already there, in the raging about “political correctness” or the easy adoption of the “alt-right” terminology to make white nationalism palatable, which amounts to putting solid-gold lipstick on a cyanide pig. (It is worth noting that the easy way the majority of news outlets and individuals have accepted, and thus validated the term, is a perfect if un-obvious example of the “anticipatory obedience” Timothy Snyder warns against in his excellent piece on resisting authoritarianism.)

On the other side are the educators and activists who sought to create safe spaces — either physical or discursive or both. The “trigger warnings” that came to characterize, and, to my mind, overdetermine, this discourse were a frequent target not only of the Pepe crowd but of university leaders and scholars. As always, there were complicated intersections: as a scholar and educator myself, I am a staunch advocate for safe spaces but have more complicated feelings about trigger warnings with literature. (The feminist writer and cultural critic Marcie Bianco, with whom I agree on most things, wrote a lucid list of feminist arguments against trigger warnings in the classroom.)

The questions are not simple, but the essential detail is this: language — what we do with it, what it does to us — has reached a breaking point in our culture. That rupture — a “witches’ brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies” — was a crucial element in the tide Trump rode to power, and it is the foundation on which he will build his gilded kleptocracy.

2. Social media language is fast and sneaky:

Insidiously, cleverly, the white nationalists have wrapped themselves in the banner of the First Amendment in their war on “political correctness”; on the message boards and on Twitter and on Facebook, they made it fun to be vile. The bully that bloodied your nose then said you couldn’t take a joke became a righteous figure, an enlightened defender of free speech. You don’t have to be a white nationalist to play this nasty brinksmanship: a quieter variation happens every day. In Facebook comment threads, Twitter feeds, and friendly emails, “censorship” has become a facile, righteous cry of “moral foul” (usually when someone deletes a comment deemed hurtful, insulting, offensive, rude, or simply annoying). Because language breaks down in easy ways, though, and because the collapse of personal relationships is at the heart of what enables authoritarianism to function on a quotidian level, what is happening is graver than mere annoyance. It is revealing, and it is alarming.

3. Legal language matters: what censorship really means

Legal language is under assault from both sides: in the seemingly innocuous ways we wield it as civilians, and in the very real attacks on the legal rights of the press that have already begun.

In American law, Black’s Law Dictionary defines censorship as:

“Review of publications, movies, plays, and the like for the purpose of prohibiting the publication, distribution, or production of material deemed objectionable as obscene, indecent, or immoral. Such actions are frequently challenged as constituting a denial of freedom of press and speech. Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 716, 51 S.Ct. 625, 75 L.Ed. 1357; Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498; Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 22, 93 S.Ct. 2607, 37 L.Ed.2d 4 19.”

The Black’s definition is illuminating. For one thing, the stakes it lays out are intrinsically higher than those in a social media post. It is concerned not with interpersonal communication, but with larger scales of production and distribution — it’s for Gutenberg, not billets-doux. It is not about intimate dialogue, but about the dissemination of media and its limitation by a reviewing body. Secondly, it shows that there is indeed a long case history of censorious actions being “frequently challenged as constituting a denial of freedom of press and speech.” Whatever the motivations of the parties in question, it is heartening to look back at American history and see how vociferously and constantly the freedoms of press and speech have been defended.

Those freedoms of press and speech are grounded in the First Amendment guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The crux, as it applies to our own moment and to how we communicate in the evolving landscape of social media, is this: “Congress shall make no law.” In depriving someone of space on your own personal platform, as is the case with Facebook comments and Twitter replies, you are not a) a government b) making a law or c) abridging the freedom of anyone’s speech. A concise example: Trump threatening the press constitutes a real threat of censorship; the Times choosing not to print your op-ed does not.

Censorship is a practice of most governments, to varying extents and for more and less defensible reasons. Trump has already attacked the press and claimed he will “open up” libel laws (whatever that means) so he can sue people — and publications — who criticize him. What we are dealing with here is not the business-as-usual keeping of information from the public, it is the president-elect of the United States threatening repression of the free press for political reasons. Censorship of the press matters because of its reach, because of the inherent inequality of its impact: the Washington Post has an access, and a presumed authority, that the average individual civilian does not (hence the legal definition’s emphasis on publication and distribution).

By contrast, anyone who is posting on someone else’s social-media thread suffers no parallel inequality — they have the (unabridged) freedom to post on their own, identical page. This slippery false equivalence, disguised as righteousness, has, I suspect, driven many people to enable and participate in discourses that they know to be problematic, damaging, and in bad faith.

When the president-elect constantly excoriates the press, when members of his staff say journalists should be imprisoned for doing their jobs, then the threat of censorship is real. In the countless daily personal fracas involving Facebook comments or Twitter feeds it is not real (unless you are denied access at all because you are in, say, North Korea). Deleting someone’s post from one’s personal feed, or blocking someone on Twitter, does not infringe on their First Amendment rights. It does not impede them from speaking, writing, or publishing freely. It is not censorship. Solzhenitsyn was censored. Bulgakov was censored. Rushdie was censored. Xialou Gou and Bao Pu were censored. The Marquis de Sade was censored. The aggrieved poster of a deleted Facebook comment is not.

*

Perhaps it speaks to the magnitude of privilege in the United States that so many people feel comfortable throwing the word “censorship” around, proclaiming themselves victims of something very few in this country have ever truly experienced or understood. A less generous reading is that they know full well what they are doing, and are employing a bullying and disingenuous tactic to shut down those who, quite simply, choose not to engage their level of discourse. Whatever the case, true censorship — the scary kind, the kind that involves prison and real suffering — is now very much on our national horizon. The stakes are too high to play political Mad Libs. It’s time to use our words with intention, with clarity, and with a sense of — and responsibility to — history.