The biggest problem in American politics is not the Republicans. It’s not the Democrats, either. It’s not even Donald Trump, the man who broke and domesticated the former in order to run roughshod over the latter.

No, all these things are mere symptoms of the disease. But what is the disease? We have to understand the affliction before we can cure the body politic.

The disease is nothing less than a fundamental breakdown in human communication itself. It takes time to analyze something and appreciate all the nuances of a given issue. And people don’t have time for that. They would rather pass judgment immediately than take the time to think things through.

Indeed, people who even attempt to think about things in-depth are automatically condemned as traitors by their own side. Pointing out nuances or subtleties is never something zealots are interested in, and in today’s climate, you’re either a zealot or you’re intimidated into silence by the zealots. “The best lack all conviction,” etc.

Back in the ’90s, there was an extremely popular business book by Stephen Covey called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like all self-help books for business types, it contained its share of platitudes and buzzwords, but there was also some very sound advice. The part I remember most was habit number 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is extremely good advice, and it’s something that seems to be rarely heeded these days. Certainly not in the world of online political debate, where humanity seems to have regressed to its most primitive societal constructs: small villages of like-minded individuals who venture out only to engage in raids against rival tribes.

Pamphlets

There is some historical precedent that we can use to guide us in understanding how social media has changed communication. In the late 1500s, the spread of the printing press made it easier for people to create and distribute  pamphlets. These were used to attack or defend certain people, ideas, nations, religions etc., much as social media is today. As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes: “In addition, pamphlets were also used for romantic fiction, autobiography, scurrilous personal abuse, and social criticism.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The most famous pamphlet in history is probably Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which advocated for the independence of the American colonies and attacked the British monarchy. This was pretty late in the pamphlet game, though. The real high point of pamphlets-as-propaganda seems to have been in the 1600s, when they played a major role in fomenting and prolonging the English Civil War.

Governments gradually adapted and shut down such publications, mostly by use of copyright and libel laws. It’s possible that down the road, the same thing will happen with social media. However, this is not a great solution, since it could very easily turn into a totalitarian dystopia where all speech is controlled. Paradoxically, history suggests that nothing clears the path for rigid totalitarian control so smoothly as anarchic mob rule. I suspect the internet is no exception to this pattern.

Besides the role of laws and censors in reducing the relevance of pamphlets, there was also a change in social norms. Now they are ignored or seen as the hallmark of political fringe elements. If somebody gives you a printed pamphlet about their cause, it makes them seem slightly kooky. These days, if you want to be seen as legitimate, you have to have a website and a Twitter account, or at least a blog.

It’s possible that with time, social media as we currently know it will fall out of favor, and be replaced with something else.  It’s already skewing away from the written word and towards pictures: in 2004, blogs were all the rage. By 2010, it was Twitter. Now it’s moving towards things like Instagram, which by design is meant for pictures, not words.

In a way, I think this is a good thing. People who like fashion (and by fashion, I don’t just mean clothes, but everything, from movies to political views, that is seen as fashionable)  can have their site, and people who don’t care about fashion—that is, people who do care about substance—can stay on their stodgy old blogs and have real discussions.

Charisma

The internet isn’t the only issue, though. The rise of mass-media, which acts as a force-multiplier for charismatic leaders, has been gradually paving the way for this for decades.

I’ve talked about this at length in other posts, but I want to briefly make some points about the role of charisma, because it’s the single most important force there is in modern politics. Televised political events, debates, ads, and so on were the equivalent of atomic energy as far as revolutionizing politics, and charisma is the reason why.

The average person does not have the time to understand all the issues they are voting on. It’s hard enough to hold a job, raise a family, take vacations and live a normal, healthy life without having to also be an expert on the multiple dimensions of policy that they are electing officials to manage.

A person naturally looks for shortcuts to make the decision easier. This has been true certainly throughout U.S. history, and probably the history of all democracies. Once mass communication technology became widespread, politicians were quick to leverage it to their advantage, just as those in an earlier era used bribes and grift.

It will always be easier to vote for the candidate who “seems like a better person” than it is to study and fully understand all the potential policy implications of a candidate’s platform. I would say that no one person can fully understand all the different spheres of policy that the president, for example, can affect. People dedicate their entire careers to understanding just one of them.

People vote for the person they like better. And what determines whether you like someone or not has very little to do with a rational weighing and measuring of objective facts, and a great deal to do with hardwired human instincts combined with subconscious associations based on your past experiences.

Thus, politicians try all kinds of tricks to associate themselves with things that people like–they seek the endorsements of movie stars, championship-winning athletes, other popular politicians, etc. They try to prove that they are “just regular folks” like the voters. But that only helps with the subconscious association part of the equation. The instinct part was decided centuries before, as people developed their instincts to survive in a very different world than the one we live in now.

Here’s an example: the fundamental thought-process underlying sexism is that, in our primitive mind, we think of men as stronger than women because men, on average, have greater upper-body strength, and in ancient times, that was important because you wanted your leader to be able to climb, or carry heavy animal carcasses, or win a physical fight.

Of course, that’s irrelevant to the present day for two reasons: first, the strength gap between men and women is narrowing, and second, because the modern day leader doesn’t need to do any of that–but the hardwired instincts in the average human brain don’t know that.

Charisma is about appealing to our instincts; our so-called “lizard brains“. And we voters are all too happy to let them appeal to us this way; because it’s much easier than the fundamentally impossible task of learning about all the issues.

The way mass media has changed politics has been a gradual shift. It started with small things, like Kennedy beating Nixon by knowing he needed to use makeup in televised debates. A half-century later, a reality TV star won the Presidency.

Trump

I’ve tried to avoid talking about Trump too much on this blog, partially because it’s nearly impossible to get away from news about him as it is, and partially because the mere mention of his name tends to bring out strong negative emotions in people–both his detractors, who become enraged, and his supporters, who viciously attack his detractors. It’s unproductive.

But there is no way of writing about this subject without discussing him. Trump’s entire PR strategy depends on appeals to deep, instinctual feelings. Tribalism, nostalgia, fear of the unknown, etc.–Trump taps into all of these things in order to galvanize his supporters. And he largely relies on TV and social media to do it.

Of course, he isn’t the first politician to do this. All of them try, to some extent. Trump is just better at it. His competitors in 2016 felt like they had to keep at least one foot planted in the world of policy. But they were living in the past. In the new system of politics, being a reality TV host is far better training than service in government or the military.

This is where the charisma-infused cult-style politics, with mass media acting as a catalyst, combine to create an extremely potent brew that tells voters to revert to their most basic urges, and do what is easy and comes naturally.

Taking the time to understand others does not fit into that equation. Nor does analyzing policies and examining complicated issues with ambiguities and shades of grey. Ironically, in this regard as well, modern technology has once again just made it easier for people to revert to the ancient practice of following the tribal chieftain.

Solution?

The human tendency to fall in line behind a charismatic leader and the acceleration of technologies that gratify our desire for easy answers and acceptance by our tribe have combined to make politics poisonous. 

Is there a way out?

For a lot of people, I think the answer is no. Many people have no interest in thoughtful debates or analysis; they just want to say their piece and have instant agreement. Trying to debate such people is a waste of time for everyone. It just makes both sides mad.

One of the most common pieces of advice for dealing with a toxic relationship is simply to leave it. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow, because usually people feel some strong urge, be it guilt, money, fear, or something else, that tells them to stay in the relationship. 

The same dynamic is at work most political arguments. In the majority of debates, no minds will be changed, and all that will happen is that people will get angry. That’s practically the definition of toxic. And yet, to just quit arguing altogether seems wrong. It feels like giving up on your own beliefs. After all, if you don’t argue for your own beliefs, who will?

You should stand up for your beliefs, absolutely. In that regard, it’s actually OK to follow the crowd and just put your opinion out there. Say what you think and why you think it’s true. Instead of reacting to someone who you think is wrong, just say what you think is right. That’s what’s really important anyway. After all, there are a theoretically infinite number of wrong ideas in the world; right ideas are a far more limited and therefore valuable commodity.

“But won’t that in itself lead to group think and insularity?” you ask. “Isn’t this how the dreaded ‘epistemic closure’ begins?”

I agree that it certainly sounds like it could, but it’s going to take a lot to prevent like-minded people from flocking together. As we’ve seen, technology and human nature are both pushing us strongly towards doing that. We can’t fight that trend; nor would we even necessarily want to, as like-minded people grouping together can produce great things. But we can and do want to mitigate the trend of different groups getting into protracted and pointless fights with each other.

The key part is that when people try to argue with you—and inevitably, they will–you will have to use your judgment as to how best to handle them. I don’t want to offer too much advice on this, as there are lots of possible angles from which they might attack, from the most childish insults to actual threats to strong, well-reasoned arguments. Each one requires a specific response.

That said, here are two key things to keep in mind: first, every argument feels like a personal attack, whether it is or not.  And in fact, almost none of them are; even the ones that are designed to seem like it. The natural instinct is to strike back immediately (I’ve been guilty of this) but it’s better to take a little time to ask yourself “Is this worth responding to?” Often, it isn’t. If it is, it probably means that somewhere, it contains a nugget of useful or interesting information. Address that, and disregard the chaff.

The second thing is that the vast majority of arguments online are all formulaic lines that the arguers themselves didn’t originate. They just got them from some source of pre-made arguments for their side. If you read an online political debate as a neutral observer, you’ll realize that it’s not organic—it’s a choreographed dance where each side unwittingly follows the pattern their party has set down for them. It’s an understatement to say both sides do this—all sides do this. Most people don’t know how to argue, so they look to others (often charismatic leaders) to show them how.

Don’t be like most people. Focus on having something new to say, both in your original statement and your counter-arguments. You can quote others as supporting evidence, but your central point should be your own. After all, if somebody else already said it, why should you say it again?

This method has two good results, which act as antibodies to the disease that’s killing communication. One is that if you strive to create something original, whatever ideas you come up with are likely to be well-thought-out and robust, because you’ll have to work hard to think of them. And the second benefit is that to a degree it protects you against the charismatic leaders who are trying to cajole you into echoing them.

Ultimately, political debates will be settled by the test of which ones have the most success in the real world. So don’t worry about trying to correct people who are wrong, unless they signal that they’re open to correction. Wrongness is its own punishment, in the end. Focus on getting your own ideas right, engage with the people who have something useful to contribute, and ignore the others.

51fQAjMRx9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This book gives a comprehensive and thorough history of the United States government’s plans for surviving a nuclear war. The book spans the Atomic Age, with detailed information from the Truman through Obama administrations, with occasional references to the comparatively primitive security measures under earlier presidents.

There are a number of interesting stories in the book, from the day that President Truman practically shut down Washington as he stepped out to go to the bank to the total chaos and confusion that reigned on 9/11, when the emergency procedures were implemented rather haphazardly.

For all the programs aimed at “continuity of government”, the ultimate conclusion of Presidents, generals, CEOs, and bureaucrats throughout the decades seems to invariably have been that in the event of a nuclear attack, the United States as we know it would cease to exist, and survivors—if any—would live under martial law at best for a considerable length of time.

And yet, the preparation proceeds anyway, as the government tries to figure out a way to survive the unsurvivable. In one memorable section, Graff discusses a secret bunker at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, complete with underground chambers for the House and Senate to convene, all maintained without the knowledge of even the CEO of the resort himself.

Throughout the book, I repeatedly thought of this exchange from the British political sitcom Yes, Minister:

Sir Humphrey: There has to be somewhere to carry on government, even if everything else stops.

Minister Hacker: Why?

Sir Humphrey: Well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed!

That really summarizes the absurdity of the whole enterprise. The book’s subtitle, “The story of the U.S. government’s secret plan to save itself–while the rest of us die” is a bit unnecessarily hysterical and sinister-sounding, (they can’t really be expected to save everyone, can they?) but it does underscore the inescapable problem of attempting to preserve a way of life that can’t exist in the unimaginably horrible new world that would be created after the bombs went off.

Graff did a lot of research for this book, but too often sacrificed readability in the interest of being thorough. There are plenty of paragraphs that bog down in the alphabet soup of government programs, plans and agency acronyms. (This is perhaps inevitable to some degree—the government loves acronyms.) Even more confusingly, information is sometimes poorly organized, and occasionally repeated in different sections. Once or twice this caused me to think I had accidentally gone back to a section I’d already read.

 

There’s also at least one flat-out error: on page 278 of the Kindle version, Graff asserts that “Reagan was the first president shot in nearly a century.” This is obviously not true, and probably the result of some kind of copy/paste error. That’s one that anybody would know is wrong, but it made me wonder what other, less-apparent-but-equally-serious errors the editors might have missed.

So, should you read it? A lot of the negative reviews say things like “I could have gotten all this from Wikipedia”. Which is true, but also raises the question, “Then why didn’t you?” A journalist like Graff isn’t required to discover new information—compiling and correlating existing information into one convenient book is also useful. 

Unfortunately, Raven Rock isn’t as convenient as it could have been. A bit more editing and condensing would have improved the book a great deal. As it is, though, there’s a wealth of information for those willing to slog through and find out what secret projects the government has been spending our taxes on in the hopes of surviving Armageddon.

The creator of the paranormal/conspiracy theory-themed radio show Coast to Coast AM passed away yesterday.

I enjoyed listening to Coast to Coast when Bell hosted. I hear the show has become politicized now, but in Bell’s time, it was focused on weird and otherworldly subjects instead of political ones. The government was always covering things up, but it was always assumed to be the whole government.

Needless to say, the show was great for a lover of weird fiction. Nothing gets the imagination going like listening to people telling ghost stories late at night, especially on or around Halloween.

The guests and callers seemed to be largely a mix of crazy people and hucksters. Maybe some of them really had seen unexplained phenomena, but it was never easy to tell who was who.

But Bell didn’t judge. He let his guests and callers speak their minds, and unless they were obviously lying as a prank, he wouldn’t silence them. I don’t know what Bell’s beliefs were, beyond the fact that he obviously had some general belief or interest in the paranormal and the supernatural. He would accept his guests and callers on their terms, and let them speak their minds.

I really admired Bell’s interviewing style–he wouldn’t talk over his guests or try to impose his own views on the subject at hand. He would just ask and let them have their say, even if he didn’t agree.

Now, you might argue that all of it was insane, and that Bell shouldn’t have given airtime to such outlandish claims in the first place. But part of what made his show great was the feeling of being able to kick around weird ideas. If you want to try to think of novel ideas, you have to be willing to think of things that sound crazy. And most of them are crazy, but a few might actually be useful.

You would think this sort of attitude would be more common now that we have social media, but in fact the opposite seems to be true. You generally don’t want to try discussing new ideas on Twitter, for example, because it can very quickly devolve into a back-and-forth of argument and ridicule. Instead of being liberating, the censorious nature of social media makes people more careful about what they say. (Unless of course they are a troll. Which creates the problem that thoughtful people are afraid to speak, and thoughtless people aren’t.)

When it was great, Coast to Coast reflected Bell’s personality: eccentric, but very independent and open-minded. Actually, these last two are probably the most important traits for a talk show host or interviewer: a willingness to admit that you don’t have all the answers, and to listen to things that most other people would automatically dismiss. It’s bound to take you to some pretty weird places, but it’s also a good way of learning new things.

More media personalities and hosts should study Bell’s style. If mainstream talk-shows were willing to approach politics and current events as thoughtfully as Bell approached subjects like cryptids and ghosts, they might be more informative.

“’You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.’”Charles Dickens. Our Mutual Friend. 1865

Ernest (angrily): “When you come to think of it, it’s extremely injudicious to admit into a conspiracy every pudding-headed baboon who presents himself!”—W.S Gilbert. The Grand Duke. 1896

220px-Fire_and_Fury_Michael_WolffI love politics. And I love unreliable narrator stories. So reading Fire and Fury was like a dream come true for me—not only are all of the book’s subjects unreliable narrators, presenting contradictory views and advocating mutually exclusive objectives, but the author himself is a sketchy character with questionable ethics and suspect motives. I’ve not witnessed such a kaleidoscope of political and journalistic deception since the movie Jackie.

But while the Kennedy administration was retroactively known as “Camelot”, the present one would be more accurately branded with another three-syllable word beginning with “c”. Forgive me if I shock you, but such vivid language is often employed by the President and his staffers in this book, especially Steve Bannon–certain quotes from whom helped drive sales of the book as well as end Bannon’s career at Breitbart.

For the first part of this review, I’m going to write as though everything the author reports is true, and provide analysis based on that. After that, I’ll discuss some of the weird things that cast doubt on Wolff’s account.

The central thread running through the book, which spans from Election Day in November 2016 to sometime in early Autumn of 2017, is the struggle for power between two factions: The President’s self-described “nationalist” strategist Steve Bannon on one side, and his adviser/daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared (“Jarvanka”, in the Bannon side’s terminology) on the other.

Behind most of the strange day-to-day details, the gossipy infighting, and Machiavellian backstabbing, this is the driving force of the whole drama, even more than the President’s fixation on what the mainstream news outlets are saying about him.

Most of the bizarre occurrences that we remember from the first year of this administration were the results of proxy wars between Bannon and the President’s daughter and son-in-law. For example, the infamous ten-day tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications director was a move by Ivanka’s side against Bannon’s. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was a victory by the Bannon side against Ivanka’s.

Bannon is motivated by resentment against the permanent government in Washington, which, in the Bannon version of history, has sold out the interests of the United States to foreign powers, and become a corrupt network of out-of-touch intellectuals and bureaucrats.

The Ivanka side’s motives are a little less clear. Preservation of their family business combined with horror at the President allying with a man so closely tied to the openly racist “alt-right” movement seem to be the main ones. (Cynical observers might say that it’s really their horror at what being associated with the alt-right does to the family brand.)

The mainstream Republicans—represented for most of the book by then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus–are mostly offstage, and only intermittently have contact with the President, who does not like to be bored by the complicated business of hammering out legislation. He prefers to watch television and gossip with other businessmen about his problems.

While Bannon sees the world as a clash of civilizations, his boss sees it as a clash of personalities—in particular, media personalities, like himself. To him, politics is just the New York business scene writ large; and the political press just an expanded version of the New York tabloids, to which various competing interests leak stories—sometimes “fake news”—to get better deals.

Over all of the gossip, be it Bannon constantly insulting Ivanka or the President’s various complaints about the accommodations or the servants or the press or whatever else is bothering him that day, the book paints the President as an easily-distracted man who changes his mind seemingly every hour, and his staff as a group of people feverishly scrambling to achieve their own goals by trying to curry favor with him.

And then, of course, there is Russia. Wolff actually takes a semi-sympathetic view to the administration on this point, arguing that they are too disorganized to carry out a massive conspiracy with a foreign government, and that the press has made this conspiracy up out of a few disjointed bits and pieces of evidence that don’t really add up to much.

Curiously, this is also Bannon’s view of the Russia issue, and he repeatedly stresses the facts that (a) the Mueller investigation is all the fault of Ivanka and Jared for urging the firing of FBI Director Comey and (b) that he, Bannon, has no ties to Russia whatsoever, and doesn’t know any Russians and is totally not involved with anything to do with Russia.

Given that Bannon is constantly likening the entire administration to Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps he’d be familiar with the concept of “protesting too much”. It’s true you rarely hear his name in connection with the Russia ties, suggesting he’s either innocent or better at covering his tracks than the rest of them.

And this is where we have to start some meta-analysis of this book. Bannon, like the Shakespearean protagonist he apparently thinks he is, gives lots of soliloquies about a number of subjects. At least, that’s the impression you get from the book. But much as I enjoy imagining Steve Bannon wandering around the White House giving long philosophical speeches to nobody in particular, it seems pretty clear that he was willing to talk to Wolff all the time, more so than anybody else in the administration. Also, the fact that Wolff’s time in the White House ended shortly after Bannon left bolsters the claim that it was Bannon who was giving him all this access.

Why on Earth would Bannon do that? It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it, and when you factor in that Bannon lost his relationship with the President and his job with Breitbart as a result of the book’s publication, it seems even more peculiar.

One possible theory is that this was yet another in a long series of Steve Bannon schemes that had the precise opposite effect of the one intended. Bannon let Wolff in to glorify him and destroy his internal enemies, and wound up destroying his own career instead.

Another possibility is that Wolff tricked Bannon just as he tricked the President, and that the nickname “Sloppy Steve” is as much a comment on Bannon’s ability to keep his mouth shut as it is his style of dress.

Or maybe Bannon invited him in, thinking he would chronicle the glorious success of their first year in power, and when it didn’t turn out that way he forgot to tell him to take a hike.

The most interesting possibility is that Bannon wanted someone to give an account that would absolve him of any involvement with the Russia scandal. Maybe sacrificing his career was worth it to him to get the word out that he was totally not involved with any Russia stuff.

All of this speculation assumes that what Wolff has written is true, and there’s plenty of reason to doubt that as well. Throughout the book, there are snippets of conversation that, upon reflection, seem hard to imagine Wolff obtained any other way than downright espionage. (Assuming he didn’t just make them up.) How does he know, for example, what the President said on the phone in his bed at night? Does Wolff know which of his business associates he called, and interview them? If so, how does he know they are telling the truth?

There’s a chance that the entire thing is made up (although if it were, presumably Bannon would have denied the bits that got him in trouble). I think a big reason Wolff got a free pass from much of the press on checking his accuracy is that he doesn’t report anything contrary to the impression most people have of each member of the administration. Everyone acts pretty much like you’d expect them to, given everything else we have seen of them. So it seems plausible.

Which could mean either that all of them are exactly like they seem on TV, or that Wolff made up a story using the members of the administration as “stock characters” in a drama of his own invention. But I don’t think that’s what he did—at least not for the major players. Because the book doesn’t really have a story worth inventing, other than perhaps the story of Steve Bannon’s rapid and unlikely rise to a position of power, followed by his equally rapid fall after he was undone by his own arrogance. I guess it is rather Shakespearean after all!

Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.

I have yet to read the book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by  Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  It sounds promising, though–full of interviews from campaign insiders giving first-hand accounts of what went wrong.

But the common thread coming out of reviews of the book, interviews with the authors like this one, and of Clinton campaign autopsies generally, is really ringing false to me. Or, maybe not exactly false, but at least woefully incomplete.

There are two main theories that have emerged as explanations for why Clinton lost. They are:

  1. The controversy surrounding her email server
  2. Her inability to connect with people

Both of these are valid explanations.  But I have not seen anyone analyze how these two things are related; and moreover, why the mainstream political press did not realize it until after the election.

This requires further investigation.  We will start by tackling point 2 first, since it is related to my favorite subject: the importance of charisma.

I firmly believe in the theory that charisma wins elections.  And Hillary Clinton has been my go-to example of someone who does not have charisma for years now. (Note: lack of charisma is often described as “could not connect” or “was not likeable”.)

So, to that extent, I agree that Clinton lost because the voters could not connect with her the way they could with a charismatic billionaire television star who lives in a golden tower.

The problem is, everyone has known for years that Clinton doesn’t have charisma.  It is not like this is some big revelation. This doesn’t mean the press is wrong to say that is the reason she lost… it is just that until election night, the press was right there with her, convinced she would win.

When the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would win, the mainstream political press dismissed concerns about her likeability.  When Clinton suddenly lost, they picked up on this as the obvious explanation for why she did.

And maybe it is.  But if that is the case, why didn’t the press seize on it sooner?  This isn’t the first time we ever had an election–they should have some idea of what is likely to happen based on past elections.  The charisma theory holds up pretty well over the past 50+ years of Presidential elections, so you would think there would have been more talk about it beforehand.

Part of it is the old “hindsight is 2020” problem.  And another part of it is groupthink: Once a few experts started saying Clinton would win, a lot of other people assumed the experts would know, and started following them. (I myself was guilty of this–I ignored Trump’s obvious charisma advantage because so many of the major forecasters were favoring Clinton.)

There’s an even bigger problem with political journalism here, but I want to wait to examine that.  For now, we can just say that it seems probable that Clinton could not connect with voters in 2016, since that had long been a problem for her.

Now to address the theory that it was not Clinton’s anti-charisma that cost her, but rather her email server–or more specifically, the FBI’s investigation of her email server. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has some convincing data indicating that it was FBI director Comey’s letter to Congress that swung the election to Trump.

Intuition seems to favor the “lack of charisma/could not connect” explanation; the hard data indicates that Comey’s letter was decisive.

Here is the significant thing, though: both explanations can be correct.

In truth, the letter was pretty mild.  It cast a cloud of suspicion over Clinton and enabled Trump to ramp up the number of sinister insinuations he made about her, but that’s about it.  Compared with the Access Hollywood tape which featured Trump literally admitting to a crime, it was small potatoes.

Yet the press hyped the Comey letter as though it were comparable. Why?

The answer is… charisma.  Remember, charisma is the ability to make people want to like you, irrespective of anything you do.

Trump has charisma.  That is why so many voters wanted to like him, and were willing to overlook so much to vote for him.

In contrast, Clinton does not have charisma and as a result many voters were glad to seize on any excuse to vote against her, even a trumped-up (pun not intended) one.

If the email thing had happened to Obama, he could have weathered it.  It probably would not have even been front-page news.

By the same token, if it had not happened to Clinton, there would have been some other heavily-hyped scandal the press would have touted.  Scandals make for good stories, and plenty of people wanted to read about the alleged crimes of Hillary Clinton. People were looking for an excuse to dislike Clinton.

Another key factor to remember is that charisma works on the press, too.  They try to be neutral, but they are just human beings–their personal feelings about a candidate are going to affect their coverage. So,if they are covering somebody who is uncharismatic, they are going to include that in their narrative, even if only subconsciously.

This is leading me to that bigger problem that I mentioned earlier, and it has to do with how the press covers everything.  The problem is that they need to have a simple answer for everything. They cannot say, “we do not understand what happened”.  They have to come up with some explanation, and it has to be something simple that they can explain quickly.

This does not just apply in politics, but to pretty much all mainstream press analysis of anything.  I remember, as my liberal friends and I watched the election results in mounting horror, I kept thinking inexplicably about Super Bowl XXV.

If you are unfamiliar with football history, it went like this: the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills and their record-setting offense lost by a single point to the New York Giants and their strong defense.  On the last play of the game, the Bills missed a field goal that would have given them the victory.

The “narrative” coming out of that game was that the Giants’ defense stifled the mighty Bills offense. (Then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s game plan is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) But if the Bills had made the field goal, it would have been different–even though the Giants defensive performance would have been exactly the same.

The perception of both the Giants’ defense and the Bills’ offense was decided by the performance of neither unit, but by the Bills’ kicking game.

This does not mean that defense does not win championships, any more than the fact that Clinton winning the popular vote means charisma does not win elections.  We have enough examples of both throughout history that it is fair to say it constitutes a pattern.

But the sporting press largely did not acknowledge that prior to the game, just as the political press didn’t acknowledge charisma’s strong track record prior to the election.

In each case, it took a specific event (a missed field goal/the Comey letter) before the press were able to recognize the larger pattern.  (Defense wins championships/charisma wins elections.)

In other words, if a Clinton scandal did not exist, the press would have found it necessary to invent one.

The press does not analyze things as closely as they want you to think they do.  They generally report on what happened and then seize on anything that seems convenient to explain why it happened.

(Another area where this is especially transparent is business and financial journalism.  Most journalists have no idea what made the markets go up or down, unless there’s some major world-shattering event that makes it obvious. Most of the time they just make some guess that investors are optimistic or pessimistic based on same random bit of data that seems plausible.)

In general, the press wants their viewers to think they know what is going on.  This makes sense, because the purpose of the press is to convey information.  However, if you do not have all the information readily available, it is hard to know what is going on. This leaves journalists with two options: They can either admit they do not know what is going on, or they can spin some narrative that sounds plausible.

Option 1 is unattractive for a couple of reasons.  First, it is always hard to admit you don’t know something people expect you to know.  And second, suppose some rival press outfit does know what is going on.  Then they might gain an edge in credibility and thus increase their audience.

Option 2 looks a lot better.  If you do that, people come away thinking they learned something.

To most people, Option 2 sounds a lot like lying.  But it’s not the same thing–most journalists aren’t deliberately making up lies; they’re just saying stuff that seems like it’s probably true.  And most of the time, it is true.  If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

But sometimes it is not a duck.  Sometimes, it is a black swan. And when that happens, the press can look pretty stupid.

Trump and his campaign were so weird that it distracted the press from the fundamentals of politics.  Trump’s charisma advantage got overlooked or minimized because everything else about him was in total opposition to the normal laws of politics.

This is the ultimate problem with the political press: once a narrative gets established they tend to disregard all information that contradicts that narrative, unless it becomes impossible.

But even once a narrative has been conclusively disproved, the press still has a hard time putting the pieces together and explaining why the narrative was wrong. Notice how, in the interview linked at the top of this post, Allen keeps coming back to the “email scandal” as the deciding factor. He is not completely wrong, since the emails led to the FBI investigation, but he has trouble putting it all in context.

The correct interpretation is that Clinton lost because her lack of charisma made many voters predisposed to dislike her, and the sensational coverage of the allegations about her email server–and the FBI’s investigation into it–turned enough swing voters against her.

This is a fairly straightforward explanation: Clinton’s lack of charisma was an ongoing problem throughout her career, and the email investigation was the catalyst that ignited the anti-Clinton sentiment that was created by her lack of charisma.

I think many journalists are reluctant to put it in these terms however, since according to this interpretation, they were accessories to the loss because of how they covered the email investigation.

On CNN this morning they were talking about the fact that Trump has been golfing far more than previous Presidents.  What makes this especially ironic is that before he ran for office, he tweeted all sorts of insults at then-President Obama for how much time he spent golfing. And before that, Democrats criticized George W. Bush for this:

(Bush quit golfing shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

As I’ve discussed in the past, I don’t actually mind that Presidents (or other executives) play golf.  Their jobs mostly involve giving people orders, and as long as they have working communications equipment, that can be done from a golf course.

The problem with Trump’s golfing is that he plays at courses he owns, which means his company charges his government support staff for the use of equipment and facilities while they are there to provide security and other support to Trump.

This is a massive conflict of interest, but seemingly no one in government can be bothered to make Trump stop doing it and go play on a course he doesn’t own instead.  The press should focus more on that and less on the raw amount of time that Trump spends golfing.

I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?”  Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”

Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.

McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.

And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment.  In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.

For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.

It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.

The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.

No, the real problem is that the serious stories in politics are slow-moving and gradual phenomena, and are imperceptible over the course of a week or even a year.  You have to be able to see the big picture, not just which party is winning or losing on a given day, in order to understand them.

[The video above is substantially the same as the text below.  The text has more links and a few additional notes.  The video may be more convenient for some.]

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very interesting column imagining a conversation between Jesus Christ and Speaker Paul Ryan. There will no doubt be controversy as to whether it is brilliant satire or blasphemy.

Kristof’s point is that Ryan is a hypocrite for professing to be a Christian and yet supporting a health care bill that would result in poor people losing health insurance coverage.

The theme is one that Democrats have hammered on for decades: how can the Republicans get such strong support from Christians, and vocally proclaim their own devout Christianity, while simultaneously pushing policies that appear to be in opposition to what Christ taught?

Not being a religious person, I don’t really consider myself qualified to get involved in this argument.  What I can do, though, is talk about the historical and philosophical background of this apparent hypocrisy.  As my readers know, I like to try to understand things in their historical context.

In this case, we are going to need some 2000 years of historical context to properly understand what’s going on here.

Buckle up.

(more…)

I was right there with you, watching that disaster unfold on the Rachel Maddow show last night. Not to brag, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t going to live up to the hype even before the show started:

In general, if something is truly-earth shattering news, they will tell you about it right away, not tease it out with a countdown clock. That’s why election night coverage isn’t: “You’ll be shocked when you see who won the Presidency! Details at 11.”

David Cay Johnston, the journalist who says he received the tax forms in the mail, allowed that it was possible that Trump himself might have leaked them. However, the fact that Trump has tweeted angrily about it afterwards has led people to think that he probably didn’t leak them after all:

People, in my opinion, are way too gullible.  The wording of Trump’s tweet is highly suspicious. For one thing, he phrases it in the form of a question–he doesn’t say it didn’t happen; he just asks if people believe it.

Now, I admit: I myself am a bit skeptical of Johnston’s story. He says he got a package in the mail that contained these tax returns.  Apparently, he doesn’t know who sent it to him or how they obtained it.  Which would raise questions as to its veracity, except that the White House almost immediately verified it last night!

Either Johnston is an idiot who didn’t think it was worth looking into why he got the President’s tax returns in the mail–very unlikely, since he’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist–or he’s lying to protect a source.

So, Trump (a) knew immediately that it really was his 2005 1040 form and (b) questioned Johnston’s story as to how he got it. This strongly suggests that Trump knows perfectly well how Johnston got it–which in turn suggests that some agent acting on orders from Trump gave it to him.

As Johnston himself admitted, the tax forms are actually favorable to Trump. They prove he did pay taxes for at least that one year, and show little evidence of nefarious dealings.

The end result is that Rachel Maddow got humiliated. (I’m sorry; I usually like Maddow’s work a lot, but she really screwed up here.) More importantly, though, Trump can now use this episode as an excuse to brush off all further questions about his taxes. Journalists won’t ask about it because they don’t want to screw up like Maddow did.

And what’s worse is that if anyone does somehow get hold of more of his taxes, people will be less inclined to pay attention to it. “It’s another publicity stunt,” they’ll say.

It’s true: I’ve always found the whole Trump-won’t-release-his-taxes story to be a bit overhyped. Yes, it was bad and a violation of historical precedent that he didn’t release them. But, on the list of “things that are bad and violate historical precedent” that Trump has done, it’s far from the worst.

And then there’s fact that there can’t be anything that damning in them.  They are taxes. They go to the Federal government. Logically, Trump is not going to put down anything illegal that he might be doing in his taxes.

As a thought experiment, let’s say the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Trump are true, and he’s actually colluding with the Russian government.  He’s not going to put that in his taxes.  There is no box that asks “Are you a spy for Russia?” on tax forms.

Furthermore, any circumstantial evidence that would suggest illegal activity by Trump, he would also not put in his taxes. If someone is already willing to commit crimes, he’s not going to hesitate to commit tax fraud to cover them up.

I’m not saying Trump has done any of this, but even if he has, there won’t be hard evidence of it in his taxes. At best, there might be circumstantial evidence, which Trump can dismiss with a simple “FAKE NEWS. Sad!” tweet.