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Monthly Archives: December 2016

identity-politics

If you’re more upset when your Presidential candidate loses an election than when your home team loses the World Series or Super Bowl you need to rethink your priorities.  And I’m not kidding.

The outpouring of grief, the lamentations, the rending of garments by supporters of Hillary Clinton is beginning to get embarrassing.  Get a grip people.  Think how those poor Cleveland Indian fans felt when they lost to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.  They haven’t won a championship since 1948. The Democrats won the Presidency just four years ago, and they won the one before that too.  Seems a little greedy to want to win them all.

“Oh, but the Presidency is so much more important than a baseball championship!”  That’s baloney.  There once was a time when we had elections for the purpose of organizing the government and deciding which economic theory would predominate for a while.  Now the purpose of an election seems to be having your values reaffirmed by the rest of the electorate and showing that you’re a superior person (i.e., as in proving that you’re not “deplorable.”)

Every election is now portrayed in apocalyptic terms or as a turning point in U.S. history.  Every four years people swear they’ll move to Canada if the other side wins.  And yet life goes on regardless of who’s president.  Eight years ago Republicans thought the world would come to an end if Barack Obama was elected, and since then their net worth has doubled (if it was invested in the stock market).  And back in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected, Democrats said he’d definitely get us into a nuclear war and he ended up making the world safer than it had been since the 1940s.  At the same time, he never got close to dismantling the New Deal as Republicans hoped and Democrats feared.

Except for the case of angry former manufacturing workers who thought Trump would bring back their jobs, economic self-interest was strangely absent from the 2016 election.  Thomas Frank identified this phenomenon in his book, “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” when he argued that working class voters were seduced by social issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) into voting against their self-interest, which Frank believes lies with the Democrats.  But you might as well ask “What’s The Matter With Connecticut,” where wealthy voters routinely vote for high-tax candidates.  Or for that matter, what about the key members of the Obama Coalition – blacks, Latinos and millennials – all of whom fared worst these past eight years but kept Obama in office.  They sure weren’t voting for their own self-interest.

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Instead of voting to further our economic interests we’ve started to consider elections a expression of tribalism, retreating to our bubbles and only interacting with like-minded people.  And with the proliferation of niche TV channels, websites and podcasts, it’s possible to go through life never hearing a differing opinion.

In the old days you would self-identify first with your family, then country, local community, church, college, profession, social clubs, sports teams and only then with political party.  And politics was only something that came up every four years (or every two years if you were really into it.)  But in our hyper-individualized lives we’ve lost a sense of broader community – we don’t go to church, feel bonded to the place we live, feel pride in the company we work for.  What’s taken its place is sports fanaticism and, worse, full-time non-stop political partisanship.

But rooting for your party as intensely as you root for your sports team is perverse.  Some of us live and die by sports but in the end we know it doesn’t mean that much. We tie our identity to a team so we can be part of a higher cause, but one with no consequences.  No one’s going to die or lose his job (except the coach) if your team loses.  There’s an irrational purity to being a sports fan; you root and care and experience catharsis for its own sake.

Most important, if you are a half-way rational fan, you don’t think you’re morally superior to other fans. If you’re a Red Sox fan you might say you “hate” Yankees fans, but not because you think they are actual cretins.

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No so in politics.  In our “all politics all the time” world, political partisans actually do think they’re morally superior to the other side.  Democrats think Republicans are racists, sexists, homophobes, greedy, religious fanatics.  Republicans believe that Democrats are either unproductive parasites with their hands out or elites trying to preserve their moral superiority through an ever-changing set of political correctness edicts.

Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss has turned the left into a bunch of cry-babies.  They’re still acting like someone in the family died, coming up to one another in the street with tears in their eyes and quaking in their boots about what mean Donald is going to do to them.  And it’s been one long string of excuses.  First it was the James Comey letter. Then it was fake news and now it’s all because of Vladimir Putin.

And after arguing before the election that it was impossible to have a rigged election and lecturing Republicans on how they had to accept the results, Democrats pulled out the stops to overturn the vote.  First it was recounts, where Trump actually picked up votes, and then it was an unprecedented campaign to bully the electoral college electors to vote against the candidate they were pledged to.  But in the end, Hillary lost more electors than Trump did.

Rather than pinning the blame elsewhere, did Democrats ever stop to consider what a bad candidate Hillary Clinton was?  So convinced were they that identity politics would trump message or charisma, they cleared the way for her nomination.  An African American had won in 2008 and now it was a woman’s turn!  That she’d been such a bad candidate in 2008 and was now eight years older and all that much more exposed didn’t seem to matter.  Gotta get a woman! But in the end the voters cared so little about identity politics that she didn’t even carry white women voters.  The Democrats forgot that they win when they nominate charismatic fresh faces that no one’s ever heard of (Kennedy, Carter, Clinton and Obama) and lose when they nominate well-worn party hacks (Mondale, Gore, Kerry and Clinton).

I can understand being disgusted with Trump personally but the fear seems way out of proportion.  New Yorkers pride themselves on being tough but they are trembling at the incoming Administration.  Mike Pence can’t even go to a Broadway show without the cast pleading with him to tell Daddy to be nice to them.  This is the message, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda:  “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”  Please, protect us!!!  Well, Trump has promised to beef up the police to protect us against crime; he’s promised a stronger military to protect against our foreign enemies; he’s promised to protect jobs against unfair trade.  I don’t think this is what Broadway stars mean by “protect.”  What are they so scared of? Really. What’s so frightening?  That the the incoming administration thinks differently that they do?  Maybe someone with a PhD in Liberal-ese can interpret but to me they seem most concerned that they’ll be treated like regular Americans instead of a separate group of diverse special-pleaders.

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Then there’s the fear that Trump will become a dictator.  Earlier this week Paul Krugman wrote a hysterical column “How Republics End,” which was then dutifully reposted all over Facebook.  Frankly, to my mind, democracy was more imperiled by Clinton, who would have expanded the reach and power of the federal government; we’re already at a stage when elections barely change anything and a massive government bureaucracy, abetted by an unelected Supreme Court routinely subverts the will of the people.

The fear of Trump overthrowing democracy seems based on the Hitler/Mussolini analogy.  But both Hitler and Mussolini were long-standing heads of their own parties who then put their own henchmen in power.  There is no Trump party. He’s a party of one.  There were no Trumpistas on the ballot.  He hijacked the Republican Party to be sure but that means he has to rely on regular conventional Republican Senators and Congressmen, many of whom did better than him at the ballot, to get anything done.  And even if Trump were to attempt a coup, does anyone really think that the military, starting with Defense Secretary James Mattis, would go along?  Besides, Trump is already 70 years old – I don’t think he will even seek reelection never mind try to become President for Life.

Here’s the thing about politics.  As a young pup I worked in Washington during the Reagan Administration and I can tell you that politics is not that important.  Certainly not important enough to fight about with your loved ones. Seriously, how stupid is it to ruin a Thanksgiving dinner arguing politics (and why is it always assumed that the “crazy” one at the table is the Fox-watching Crazy Uncle and not the MSNBC-watching Know-It-All-Aunt?)  I love politics and am happy to have an analytical discussion, but if you’re going to get emotional about it, or berate me at a Christmas party, I’d rather talk about sports.

Sometimes a President can make a real difference – I’m thinking about the Mount Rushmore Presidents plus FDR and Reagan.  But mostly Presidents can only nudge things along at the margins.  The real changes occur out there in the country.  We never had an election on whether we should wire all our computers together, create a new way of communicating, and undermine our entertainment, news, retail and services businesses, but we ended up with the Internet.  We never had an election to determine if we should invest in new technologies that would make our factories so efficient that we could get along without our workers, but it happened.  We didn’t vote on whether we should invent new ways of getting oil and natural gas from the ground and drive down the price of energy but some innovative engineers invented fracking anyway.  There was never a ballot initiative on whether doctors would prescribe a lot of opioids and create a heroin epidemic but it happened.  Most of the important things that happen in this country occur when the politicians are fighting about transgender bathrooms, whether convents should be required to offer birth control overage, or the War on Christmas.

Cheer up Democrats.  Thanks to human nature the party in power will eventually screw up or become tiresome to the electorate.  You’ll get your chance again in 2020 (unlike those poor Cleveland Indians fans who might die without ever seeing a World Series win).  If Trump is as bad as you think he is your chances will be pretty good, but only if you buck up, stop whining and honestly consider what it was about Trump that allowed him to win.  Not excuses like fake news and Russian hacking.  If you continue to think that Trump’s voters are racist, sexist and otherwise sub-human, you’re in for a long exile.

“Put not your faith in princes,” Psalm 146 warns.  Don’t fall in love with politicians unless they actually are extraordinary, which 99.99% are not.  Abraham Lincoln is not walking through that door.  Put your faith in LeBron James, Derek Jeter or Tom Brady instead.

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fake-news-sites

It’s been six weeks since the election, but the media are still buzzing about “fake news” and debating the extent to which it caused Hillary Clinton to lose the presidency.   I know the journo-industrial complex likes nothing more than to talk about itself, but the ongoing press meltdown over the possibility that an unemployed blogger in Macedonia might have brought down their candidate is beginning to get a little ridiculous.

To hear the media talk, you’d think that fake news was something unleashed by their nemesis Mark Zuckerberg, who also always seems to be plotting their eventual demise.

But fake news has a long and disreputable history in American journalism.  The earliest newspapers were controlled by the Founding Fathers, who printed lies and half-truths about each other (go see “Hamilton” for the details). Fake news (“Remember the Maine!”) led to the Spanish-American War.

Journalism supposedly cleaned up its act in the 20th century, and has been posing as the great purveyor of neutral, nonpartisan, essential news reporting for decades.  But somehow, even in the pre-Internet world, this didn’t stop the spread of very dubious stories, such as the canard that FDR allowed the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor despite being tipped off ahead of time, or more recently, that Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster.  To say nothing about ongoing conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. Compared to those stories, an alleged child sex ring in a pizza parlor is small potatoes.

And speaking of child sex rings, remember the media hysteria several decades ago about satanic sex rings in day-care centers, or the supposed outbreak of child kidnappings in the 1980s, both of which have since been disproved?  The mainstream media, especially television, were complicit in perpetuating that fake news.  And, again, that was before Facebook.

The mainstream media would probably dispute that their worst journalistic blunders should be classified as fake news because at least they were trying to uncover the truth, no matter how imperfectly. Actual fake news, as properly understood, is news made up out of whole cloth with no regard for the truth at all.

How then are we supposed to categorize the biggest journalistic blunder of 2015, Rolling Stone’s report about rape at a University of Virginia fraternity?   This was a huge national story that caused colleges across the country to crack down on fraternities. And then it turned out to have been made up out of, um, whole cloth.  If the Rolling Stone story wasn’t fake news, I don’t know what is — and yet there was President Obama himself appearing on the Rolling Stone cover immediately after the election, as if nothing had ever happened!

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And let’s not forget NBC’s 1993 phony exploding GM truck story, supposedly demonstrating that GM trucks explode upon collision.  In that case NBC set off explosive miniature rockets beneath the truck just before the crash. Or what about ABC’s stories about the since-disproved Toyota “sudden acceleration” controversy? To make its coverage more dramatic, ABC spliced footage of a surging tachometer into a segment with ABC reporter Brian Ross driving a supposedly out-of-control car.

The media’s chief complaint about what they call fake news is that it’s spread on Facebook and Twitter with no editorial control to screen out the most egregiously inaccurate stories.  Of course it would be almost impossible for any social media platform to confirm what’s true or not true on social media, so Facebook recently announced that it would be flagging content that seemed dubious according to the judgment of mainstream fact-checkers.

Scapegoating Facebook as a purveyor of fake news is the kind of mind-meld media pile-on that occurs all too often.  Some call the media a “hive.” Others have talked about their “herd mentality.” Whatever metaphor you want to use from the animal kingdom, it’s clear they’re in a bubble — or maybe it’s an echo chamber.

You have to wonder if these reporters ever used Facebook for anything other than promoting their personal brand. The thing about Facebook is that it’s been full of fake news since day one.  The whole point of social media is to present a highly curated, idealized version of your life. Half of the heart-warming videos that people share about generous subway musicians or ball girls making amazing catches are eventually outed as fake.  Obvious satirical pieces are accepted as real.

But does that make any difference?  Studies have repeatedly shown that people don’t form their opinions after carefully weighing the facts.  Instead they form opinions and then believe the “facts” that back them up, while dismissing the ones that don’t. If there’s one voter in America who was planning to vote for Clinton but changed his mind and voted for Trump after reading on Facebook that he’d been endorsed by the Pope, I’d like to meet him.

Far more influential than a post on Facebook that takes about 30 seconds to read are the hours and hours that people spend watching cable news. It’s pretty rich for MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who’s told some serious whoppers of his own, to complain about fake news on a network that can make no serious claim to impartiality.   The news networks gave Donald Trump $2 billion in free publicity — but now they blame some Reddit-inspired posts for his election?  Give me a break.

brady-foot-locker-commercialI recently realized that although I never watch live TV and aggressively fast-forward through commercials, I am still surprisingly familiar with a lot of ads: the Tom Brady Foot Locker ad; The Amy Schumer Old Navy commercial; the Ariana Grande T-Mobile spot.  I know about Flo from Progressive, the GEICO lizard and the Toyotathon. How do I know about them if I never watch commercials?

The media would have us believe that no one watches ads. But obviously someone sees a lot of them.  Nielsen’s C3 rating is a measure of ad viewing and even with competition from smartphones and whatnot, those aggregate ratings are remarkably high.  Those of us who “never” watch commercials think it must be all those other dumbbells out there who engage in the retrograde practice of ad watching

Or is it?  How many of us are deluding ourselves?

Speaking for myself, if pressed, I would concede that, yes, I actually do watch some (ok maybe more than some) live TV through sports and news shows.  And even if you only watch one football game a week you are still exposed to a ton of ads.

Scripted programming is also a surprising source of ad viewing, even for those who give their DVR a good workout because people aren’t as disciplined as they think about fast-forwarding through ads.

Ever since Nielsen began measuring commercial viewing it has been a rule of thumb that only about half of viewers fast-forward through commercials. But if everyone believes they’re the ones who zip through the ads there’s going to be a good deal of self-deception.

The reality of those Nielsen numbers is that among DVR users, some skip all ads, some don’t bother to fast-forward at all, and a great many skip some ads but watch others depending on their mood, energy level, or affinity for the ad.

At my house, what usually happens when we’re watching a DVR’d show is that when the commercial pod comes on I’ll watch the first 15 or 20 seconds in a stupor before my wife yells that we’re watching a commercial for cripes sake.  I’ll fast forward, usually stopping half-way through the pod because I think the show is finally coming on, only to discover that what I thought was the resumption of the show was actually another ad.  So after watching another 15 seconds of ads, I’ll continue my fast-forwarding, and land about a minute into the show. Then I’ll have to rewind, arriving this time about a half-minute back into the middle of the commercials. Commercial avoidance is a lot of work.

Am I the only one who thinks the precision of the DVR fast-forward function has degraded over time?  When we had our first DVR I used to be able to zoom through the commercials and land precisely at the second when the show started up again.  Now I can end up half a minute ahead or half a minute behind the resumption of the show because the technology has become so imprecise.  In other words, I watch a lot more ads than I realize because I usually give up trying to avoid them.

The other reason I watch recorded commercials is that sometimes they are so good I actually want to watch them.  The new Amazon ad about the priest and the imam sending each other knee pads for praying is something I’ll always watch it to the end whenever it’s on.  Same with the iPhone 7 ad with balloons floating throughout the city accompanied by a beautiful cover version of “I will follow you.” In fact it’s a huge irony that the best TV ads are now being produced by the same high tech companies (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) that have done so much to undermine the television business model.  They, at least, seem to recognize the power of television advertising.

And speaking of digital media, one place I do not enjoy seeing ads is online.  A two-minute commercial pod during a streaming TV show seems so much longer than a two-minute ad on TV.  When you’re watching an ad on TV you can get up and walk into the kitchen for a glass of water or go to the bathroom, but when you’re watching an online commercial you feel compelled to sit in front of your PC or to hold your smartphone in your hand doing a slow burn until the show resumes.

In 1984, the most memorable moment during the Democratic primaries occurred when Walter Mondale confronted Gary Hart during a debate and said that his policies reminded him of the woman in the Wendy’s commercial who asked “Where’s the beef?” It was a devastating put-down because Hart’s proposals seemed Utopian and lacking specifics.  And it was particularly damaging because everyone understood the reference to the ad.

In 2016, there was no similar advertising reference that any politician could cite to undermine a rival because TV ads no longer offer a common cultural connection.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t watch a lot of ads.  In fact, when I’m fast-forwarding through the commercial pod I almost always recognize ads that I’ve already seen dozens of times.  There are more ads than ever before and even the biggest snob who claims never to watch commercials is kidding himself.