Finally, Noah Goats has a new novel out, called The Unpublishables. I’m only about 1/5 of the way into it, but I’m enjoying it immensely. I’m going to have lots more to say about it when I write my review, but for now, just know that it’s a book especially for indie authors. Read the description on Amazon, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s both a love letter to, and a gentle satire of, books and the people who write them.
People on Twitter have been praising the interviewer. I don’t see why. Too many of his questions are combative and uninformative. He repeatedly asks questions about what Ellis believes Trump’s motivations are, rather than asking Ellis about whatever it is Ellis believes.
Ellis is just as bad, if not worse, at being interviewed. He seems not to have read his own book, and when questioned. seemed not to care about the subject.
The number one problem in our political system is the inability to communicate–so I try to study the most extreme examples of bad communication, so as to avoid making the same mistakes that we see here.
Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox LuxbeforeA Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.
And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.
When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.
And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.
Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?
Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel, you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.
Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.
Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.
In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:
Hey, turn the light on ‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way. Please, I will follow ‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say
This is the chorus:
So teach me. Show me all you’ve got And in your words, I will be wrapped up. Speak to me, you’re my last hope And I will say nothing and listen to your love.
I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?
At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.
Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”
Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)
Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.
In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”
Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.
The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.
And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.
The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.
Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.
As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.
And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.
Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.
Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:
“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”
In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.
The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”
Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.
Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.
She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”
They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.
This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.
I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.
The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.
And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.
Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!
A few noteworthy items. Most of this is old news if you follow me on Twitter.
Chris Avellone, my favorite game designer, posted this on Twitter today. It’s part of a larger thread about the game industry, but it’s also great advice for almost anybody working in a big organization:
Respect the company, but value those you work with first, and do not assume that “following the company line” will be rewarded – personal relationships and valued relationships are the true rewards. (4/#)
Maggie, AKA Thingy, has started blogging again after a long hiatus. I am beyond thrilled about this–I’d really missed her blog. You can find her here.
Mark Paxson and Noah Goats, two terrific authors, have both declared their candidacy for President. I’m really hoping for a grand coalition Paxson/Goats ticket. I’ve offered my help to both of them. I bring my experience as a volunteer for the Russ Sype 2016 campaign.
I can’t help myself; I have to write about this. I know there’s probably no point, but I am going to do it anyway just in case. Immediately after this, I’m going to post some Christmas videos to make up for it.
On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria. Immediately, hawks in both parties attacked the decision, arguing that it will allow ISIS to regain strength. Many of Trump’s usual allies argued for keeping the troops there longer, and urged him to reverse the decision so ISIS can be defeated.
Here’s my problem with this: the reason ISIS is a household name is because of U.S. military intervention in Iraq. When we installed the new Iraqi government in ’03-‘04, we threw all of Saddam Hussein’s underlings out of power. This was called “de-Ba’athification”, because they were all in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, but it might as well have been called “de-Sunnification” because they were all Sunnis.
As a result, we had a bunch of Sunnis who were exiled, armed, and extremely mad at us and at the heavily Shia government we installed.
Hey, Foreign Policy wonks! Can you guess what happened?
So now the military-industrial complexforeign policy experts say that we need to keep intervening militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities being committed by a group that exists because we intervened militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities.
Look: I’m all about preventing atrocities. I really am. If the most powerful military in the world can’t be used to protect innocent people from evil ones, then what’s it good for? It’s just that I want to hear one of the people currently urging a continued military action explain why this won’t end in a massive disaster like the last one did.
And no, Senator Rubio, I don’t want to hear that “the military advised President Trump not to withdraw.” Of course they did! They’re the military! When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when all you have is the most powerful fighting force in history, everything looks like it needs to be occupied by it.
I don’t blame the military commanders for opposing withdrawal. But unless they can give a definitive timeline—“e.g. we will achieve victory in Syria in one year or you can fire all us generals”—they can’t be given the final say on this.
A lot of people will say Trump only did this because his policies mysteriously seem to align with Vladimir Putin’s on every issue. But you know what? “Trump-is-a-puppet” is not in itself a valid criticism. If he does the right thing for the wrong reasons, it’s still the right thing. So if you want to keep the troops in Syria, don’t tell me that a withdrawal benefits Putin. This isn’t a zero-sum game where every action that helps Russia is an automatic loss for the USA.
The folks in the upper-echelons of government still don’t seem to get that the reason so many people voted for Trump was that they were furious at the mistakes the government had made over the years—the mismanagement of the Iraq invasion being one of the biggest examples. If they want to win back their credibility as experts—and with it, the awesome and terrible power of commanding the United States military—they need to prove that they have learned from their mistakes.
One last note: I’ve seen a number of people complain that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria makes Israel less safe. In my opinion, this is a pretty glass half-empty way to look at it. Yes, it’s true that now Israel will have lost a big ally fighting Iran in the region. But I’m not sure that U.S. participation automatically makes things safer for them. Again, look at what happened with Iraq. Is Israel really safer now that there is a massive terrorist group inadvertently created by the U.S. intervention in Iraq running loose?
The U.S. government is a bloated bureaucracy, led by an ever-rotating cast of characters who change every two to four years, and constantly want to drastically shift policy direction, which is a bit like trying to race an 18-wheeler on a Formula Onetrack. Most of the people involved are well-intentioned, but the result tends to be that U.S. government intervention causes chaos rather than stability.
If we’re going to stay and fix the mess in Syria, we have to do it the right way: figure out who the enemy is, have Congress formally declare war on them, institute a draft, and use the full power of the military to defeat them. That was how the United States won its greatest victories, achieved superpower status, and made itself synonymous with Liberty across the globe. Unless we’re willing to do as much again, we will cause more problems than we solve.
I’ve been writing a long post about politics. It’s detailed, and wide-ranging, andit criticizes everybody in politics for various things, and I think it’s pretty much guaranteed to make lots of people mad.
I’ve been down this road before, though. I’ve written many, many posts like that over the years. Looking back, I’m not sure there was much point in it. I espouse my views, and in the best case scenario, the people who agree say “Yeah” and move on. The people who disagree keep on disagreeing. I don’t think anyone does anything different as a result of reading political blog posts.
The other day, I jokingly said on Twitter:
What if all our problems *can* be solved by politicians giving speeches, it’s just that no one has given the right one yet? pic.twitter.com/DxnwjTjZKE
I wrote that after watching yet another politician bemoaning the state of the country, for what felt like the millionth time. You could make same joke could about political blog posts, though. There are so many of them written every day. You’d think if things could be fixed by blogging, it would have happened already.
Longtime readers may have noticed I’ve dialed back the political posts a lot over the last couple years. It’s ticked up a bit again recently but it’s nothing like it used to be. Politics was nearly all I posted about back in, say, 2011. But lately, I’ve shifted to posting more about writing, entertainment, and criticism.
That’s not an accident. Those subjects produce far more rewarding and engaging discussions than political blogging does. And for a simple reason: people enjoy it more. Pat Prescott, my fellow blogger and longtime reader, can probably comment on this, since he’s been with me since the days when the blog was heavily political.
I used to enjoy writing about politics. Or I thought I did, at least. But at some point, once I realized I wasn’t really changing anything by writing about it, I started to lose my zest for it.
The funny thing is, most people are way more open to new ideas, creative reinterpretations, and even harsh critiques, when it comes to the world of fiction and entertainment than they are when it comes to real-life politics. I include myself in that. There are people who lose themselves in the political intricacies of totally fictional worlds while holding the most simplistic and unexamined views of the world they live in. I mean, there are probably people who could tell you they understand both sides of the Geth/Quarian conflict, but couldn’t do anything beyond parrot the talking points of their preferred real-life political party.
That sounds kind of harsh, but I don’t actually mean it to put people down. People like what they like, and wishing they liked other things is like wishing we all had wings and could fly.
That’s why I decided it was time to shift my focus to things that were more rewarding, both for me and for my readers. Things like book reviews, and art, and writing fiction. (Now admittedly, I did put some allegorical references to my politics in The Directorate. I figured that way I could say a few things in a way that was entertaining rather than stridently preachy.)
Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and there’s no doubt that politics is inherently combative. Which means everyone tends to be in fight mode when talking politics. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but it makes collaboration nearly impossible. I sometimes think that asking for cooperation in modern politics is almost an oxymoron.
If you can get people out of the political sphere, however, you’ll usually find a lot of room for communicating, making deals, and exchanging knowledge that is useful to everyone involved.
As a result of the shift from political blogging to topics like writing, I’ve met all kinds of wonderful writers and readers. And in many cases, I have an idea of their political leanings from following them on social media. I have readers and authors with widely diverging views—and I’ve learned plenty from each of them, especially the ones I disagree with.
So it might be that that the key to improving political discourse is… not to engage in it so much. It’s easy to hate people when you know nothing about them other than their politics—but if you’ve already met through some other common interest, it becomes much easier to see their side of things.
I know I’ve said this before, but you can get a pretty decent overview of how government works by watching the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister. The series is premised on the conflict between the naïve, attention-seeking British Cabinet minister James Hacker and the cynical, experienced civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. Most episodes follow this formula:
Hacker comes up with some well-meaning but often-ill-considered policy reform to fix a problem.
Sir Humphrey uses cunning, bureaucratic jargon, and his connections in the Civil Service to prevent any changes being made to government policy.
Sir Humphrey explains to Hacker why things are better off staying as they are.
Because it was a sitcom, Hacker sometimes wins—usually by using Sir Humphrey’s own tactics against him. But the basic dynamic is what’s key here: the approval-seeking politician who wants to change everything vs. the entrenched bureaucracy that wants to keep things as they are until they can retire and collect a pension.
The thing is, it’s possible to cast either side’s motivations as good or bad: the politicians could be called heroes trying to do the work of the people, or attention-craving narcissists trying to get famous. The bureaucrats could be called lazy do-nothings stubbornly resisting change, or intelligent and competent administrators unwilling to bow to the fashions of the moment.
This is the same dynamic that’s at work when you hear people talk about the “Deep State”. It gets dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but that’s largely because of the terminology:“Deep State” sounds a lot more sinister and intimidating than the more accurate label, “the permanent bureaucracy”. The former makes you think of shadowy figures in Deus Ex-style Illuminati conference rooms holding secret meetings. The latter evokes some balding pencil-pushers.
We citizens tend to think of “government” as the politicians we elect every couple of years. But they are only the tip of the iceberg—the real government consists of people working in various agencies to carry out policy. These people are, for the most part, not politicians at all, but simply technicians trying to keep the machine of bureaucracy running. And they don’t run for office.
Technically, these people work for the politicians. But that’s only in a nominal sense—in practice, someone who has decades of experience working at a Federal agency knows a lot more about the nitty-gritty details of governance than a newly-elected politician.
Canny politicians know how to work the system to their advantage. For example, in the book Angler, Barton Gellman describes how then-Vice-President Dick Cheney contacted a relatively low-ranking official in the Department of the Interior in order to implement a change to government environmental policy.
Cheney had worked in government since 1969, and had a thorough knowledge of who did what, and which strings to pull in order to advance his agenda. Love him or hate him, he was an excellent example of someone who thoroughly understood the bureaucracy.
But most politicians aren’t like Cheney.For one thing, he started out as a congressman from uncompetitive and tiny Wyoming, and didn’t have to spend a lot of time campaigning. Other politicians don’t have that luxury. They rely on other people to handle the bureaucracy for them. Besides, many of the politicians are in it because they love crowds and applause and power and prestige. The bit where you iron out the policy details is boring.
This creates a disconnect: the people nominally in charge of governing are on a track that’s entirely separate from those who actually handle the day-to-day business of implementing government policies. So it’s true: there are people in government who ignore what the elected officials say, and keep doing what they’ve been doing. Whether you think these people are heroes or villains depends largely on your opinion of the government’s overall performance over the long-term—say, the last half-decade.
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.
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 distributepamphlets. 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.
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.
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.
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.