I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

(more…)

donald_trump_signs_orders_to_green-light_the_keystone_xl_and_dakota_access_pipelines_bannon_cropI wasn’t the only one to notice that Stephen Bannon is driving policy decisions in Trump’s administration. All the major news media has noticed that this week as well. And so they decided it’s time to find out some stuff about this Bannon guy.

I’ve read some of the articles, and I have to say, Bannon and I have some things in common.  We both are interested in making movies. We both study military history and strategy. We even seemingly have the same unorthodox theory of politics: globalism vs. nationalism. We just happen to be on opposite sides of that divide.

There are two competing narratives about Bannon. Some think he is a mastermind who brilliantly oversaw Trump’s stunning victory and now is laying the groundwork for a powerful, militaristic, authoritarian nationalism. Others view him as a washed-up hack writer who Trump has appointed to positions for which he is patently unqualified.

Bannon is clearly a slob in his personal appearance–even when he wears a suit and tie, he looks disheveled. But don’t let that fool you.  Bill Belichick is also known for dressing like a vagrant, and he is a strategic genius in his own field. Looks can be deceiving.

In fact, it wouldn’t shock me if Bannon does that on purpose: people underestimate him because he looks like a slovenly bum, thus giving him an advantage.

Bannon’s beliefs are reprehensible, and his personal conduct even more so, but I don’t doubt his skill as a strategist.  And unlike the President he advises, he does have a coherent political philosophy that guides his thinking.  Not “right” or “moral”, you understand, but coherent.

So keep an eye on him, is all I’m saying.

Well, it’s been about 8 days since Donald Trump officially became President.  Here are some facts that have jumped out to me about his administration:

1. Trump is influenced heavily by what he sees on TV, especially CNN and Fox News.

Starting with the crowd size kerfuffle, it’s clear that image matters a lot to President Trump.  He was upset when he saw reports on CNN comparing his smaller crowd with the one at the Inauguration of President Obama in 2009. He was so incensed that he sent his newly-minted spokesman out to argue with the Press Corps about it. This was widely seen as a huge disaster, since it was done in such haste and with such lack of preparation, and was ultimately a losing argument anyway.

That has been a pattern throughout the week: Trump reacts to what he sees on television. Perhaps the most striking example was this:

Bottom line: Trump watches the news, and responds to what he sees. This is interesting because it inadvertently makes Fox News and CNN way more powerful than they already were, since they are clearly influencing the opinions of the most powerful man in the world.

If I were an executive at either network, I’d be delighted by this. It means that their reports now carry unprecedented weight. This could be used to shape the President’s agenda in a variety of ways.

2. Stephen Bannon is the driving force behind the administration’s actions.

Not really a surprise, but good to have it confirmed.  Bannon’s hand was obvious in Trump’s inaugural address, and all subsequent actions have conformed to Bannon’s pro-nationalist, anti-globalist philosophy.

Clearly, Bannon is the main guy Trump listens to.  What is not yet clear is whether Trump’s other advisors are ok with this, or if they are disagreeing with Bannon and being overruled. I suspect, based on the leaks that have occurred so far, that at least some of them are not satisfied with this state of affairs.

There appear to be two distinct lines of command that go as follows:

trump-org-chart

Note which one of these branches is tasked with crafting substantive action, and which one was used for a pointless and unwinnable argument with the press.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”–Polonius. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2.

In an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump once again complained about the Saturday Night Live sketches mocking him:

“It’s a failing show, it’s not funny. Alec Baldwin’s a disaster, he’s terrible on the show and, by the way, I don’t mind some humor but it’s terrible.”

People have again expressed amazement at how thin-skinned the guy is.  And he is, but there’s actually a bit more going on here besides that.

SNL isn’t exactly the only shop in the Trump-mocking business. Making fun of the President isn’t a niche or novel concept, and Trump is currently very unpopular. Lots of comics and satirists are mocking him. MAD magazine mocks the hell out of him, and I’ve yet to hear him complain about it.

If Trump were just hellbent on responding to everyone who mocks him, he’d never do anything else. No, he singles out SNL.

Why?

I have a theory: NBC, which broadcasts SNL,  is also the network that aired Trump’s show The Apprentice. I suspect Trump has some feud with the upper management at NBC, and so is fighting a proxy war against them by attacking one of their shows.

Another frequent target of Trump’s wrath is CNN, which he repeatedly attacks as “dishonest” or lately, “fake news”. But CNN isn’t the only news organization to report negative stories about him–CBS does that too, as does ABC.  And PBS does too. (Yes, I know he plans to shut that down, but that’s a standard Republican wish-list item. I don’t recall him tweeting about it.)

It makes more sense once you know that the President of CNN is one Jeff Zucker, who had been President of NBC until a few years ago.  In fact, Zucker originally signed Trump for The Apprentice. I don’t know all the details, but it seems likely that Trump had some sort of falling out with him.  I hear Trump can be temperamental, believe it or not.

My point is, Trump isn’t just randomly lashing out at any group that insults him.  Rather, he is deliberately lashing out at specific organizations tied to people whom he most likely personally dislikes.

Read Richard Branson’s account of meeting Trump–it indicates that Trump has personal animosity towards specific individuals. Most of the people Trump personally knows, whether as friends or enemies, are wealthy men like himself. So I’m guessing that when he starts attacking something, it’s usually because it’s owned or managed by some personal foe of his.

This weekend, in response to the Women’s Marches in various cities across the country, the new President tweeted:

The President of the United States had 140 characters to comment on massive protests against him and his policies, and he used 24 of them to offer the advice that celebrities were detrimental to the protest effort.

Now, why would he bother to do that? What interest does he have in teaching them how to protest more effectively?

Answer: the celebrities are actually very effective.  Thus, he is trying to discourage the Democrats and other groups opposed to him from utilizing them.

Let me repeat what I said in my first post on this subject:

[Celebrity supporters] made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

Again, it’s instructive to look at examples of a similar phenomenon from the past: Democrats advising Republicans on what sort of candidate they should run to win elections.

“You can never win with somebody so unpalatable to the diverse, socially liberal electorate”, they said. “Republicans need moderates like McCain and Romney if they want to win elections”.

This line of thinking was so influential that prominent Republicans bought into it.

The Democrats, meanwhile, convinced themselves that running against an extreme candidate like Trump would mean an easy win for them.

This was conventional wisdom in both the Republican and Democratic establishments. And it was wrong. The Republicans didn’t win with moderates, but did win with an extremist, completely contrary to what the Democrats (and the moderate Republicans) said would happen.

Let me repeat myself: Democrats would be wise not to listen to the advice given by their opponents.

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“Denial” (Image via Wikipedia)

Denial is a courtroom drama about the libel lawsuit filed by author David Irving (portayed by Timothy Spall) against Prof. Deborah Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). Irving sued Lipstadt for calling him a “Holocaust denier” in one of her books. Because Irving brought the case in England, the burden of proof is on the accused, and so Lipstadt and her legal team are required to prove Irving knowingly lied in denying the Holocaust.

As part of the research for the trial, Lipstadt and her lawyers go to Auschwitz, where her barrister, Richard Rampton, asks a series of matter-of-fact questions about the camp and the methods of killing. This makes Lipstadt very uncomfortable, but Rampton argues it is necessary to build their case.

As the trial begins, it is clear that Irving is a master of public relations.  He acts as his own lawyer, against Lipstadt’s well-financed legal team, to cast himself as an underdog and create a “David vs. Goliath” image.

As part of their strategy, Lipstadt’s lawyers don’t allow her to speak at the trial, or to the press.  They also refuse to allow Holocaust survivors to speak, even after Lipstadt is approached by one, pleading with her to allow their voices to be heard.

Lipstadt is greatly distressed by this. But as Rampton explains, these are the sacrifices they must make. “It’s the price you pay for winning,” he tells Lipstadt. The goal is to make the trial not about the Holocaust, but about Irving himself.

The strategy works well, and gradually they begin to expose Irving as an anti-Semite, and his “historical errors” as deliberately calculated to paint Hitler in the best possible light.  Ultimately, their strategy succeeds, and Irving is ruled to have knowingly lied to deny the Holocaust.

The victory is satisfying, but Irving remains a genius at the dark art of “spin”–after the verdict is announced Lipstadt watches as Irving is interview on television saying that he obviously beat Lipstadt’s legal team, but was just not forceful enough to convince the Judge.

Although the ending of the film is as upbeat as one could expect, given the subject matter, there is a certain subtext that suggests Irving may have lost in court, but will use his skills as a showman to win with the press.  I’m not even sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Irving is portrayed as a shrewd and manipulative man, and the implication seems to be that he–and others like him–could continue to trick uninformed people.

The acting is terrific throughout. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as Lipstadt, right down to her Queens accent. Timothy Spall plays Irving as a man of intelligence and a veneer of “old English gentleman” charm masking a core of hatred. Every performance is excellent.

The script is not bad, but at times tries too hard to be clever and snappy (a common flaw in dramas nowadays), and too often has characters blatantly stating exposition or background information for the benefit of the audience.

The annoying wordiness of the script is compounded by the fact that some of the film’s most powerful scenes are the ones where the characters don’t speak. The scenes at Auschwitz are every bit as powerfully haunting as they should be, without any words being necessary.

Of course, a courtroom drama is bound to have some talking, and the script is certainly good enough when it needs to be. The trial scenes are riveting, even knowing the outcome.

It’s a dark film, and not only because of the Holocaust subject matter, but also because of its depiction of how the bigot Irving advances his agenda with lies and clever manipulation of the press and public alike.  The concept of truth itself comes under attack from Irving, and Lipstadt is forced to confront the possibility that to even respond would be to lend him legitimacy.

Overall, a very good and interesting film. I recommend it. It prompted me to do more research regarding Irving, the lawsuit, and the subject of Holocaust denial generally.  I have a lot more to write on those topics, but that will be a separate post.

 

Everyone is talking about the above speech.  Trump himself, who can never resist a celebrity feud, was compelled to respond on Twitter.  Apparently, that took priority over listening to intelligence briefings.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain, also tweeted about it, saying:

This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how – you will help him get re-elected

This echoes many commentators, both Republicans and Democrats, who blame Hillary Clinton’s loss partly on her support from various actors, singers, and other celebrities. It made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

President Obama received overwhelming celebrity support in both of his campaigns. That didn’t hurt him a bit.  If anything, it helped, because many people admire celebrities and respect their opinions.

Moreover, Trump went out of his way to bring up all his celebrity endorsements, even though he had way fewer than Clinton.  He would even claim celebrities supported him when it wasn’t clear that they did.

So, if that’s the case, why do we keep hearing this “blame-the-celebs” line?

Simple: Republicans fear the Democrats’ famous and influential supporters.  So they are trying to stop them.

This is nothing new. Lots of Democrats (and moderate Republicans) said Republicans could never win with someone like Trump as their nominee.  They claimed they could not get enough votes with a candidate so widely despised.

But clearly, that claim was incorrect. And many of the people who made it probably knew it was incorrect. The real reason they did not want the Republicans to nominate Trump was precisely because they feared he would win.

It is the same thing here: Republicans are attempting to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage in mobilizing voters using celebrity endorsements. Democrats should not listen to them.

In his memoir Where Else Would You Rather Be?, Hall of Fame football coach Marv Levy offered some advice to coaches on how to speak to the press. Levy recognized that offense wins games, but defense wins championships–but he also knew that sportswriters prefer to hear, and write, about offense.  So he advised the following:

Talk about offense. Talk about your aerial circus. Give it a signature name. Call it “The Coast-to-Coast Offense,” or announce, as an alternative, that it will be known–if your last name is Kappelmeier–by the appellation “Air Kappelmeier”. Talk about how innovative you are. Tell them you invented the spiral. Tell them that you like to roll the dice, that punting is for sissies, and that defense is for criminal lawyers. Use words like “razzle dazzle” and every synonymous term you can dredge up. Don’t talk about reverses; talk about triple reverses and fake reverses. Tell the world how you are going to go for it on fourth down, probably with a play-action pass. Say something catchy, such as, “Our offense will take no prisoners” or “Wait until you see our weapons of mass destruction.” And then–do what it takes to win. (p. 214)

Levy’s advice applies to other endeavors besides football.  More often than not, what people want to hear and what actually needs to be done to succeed are very different.

This is why the field of public relations exists. In theory, the job of a public relations person is to handle saying what people want to hear, while the rest of the organization handles doing what needs to be done.

Some people can do what Levy describes: they can wear their public relations hat and tell everyone what sounds good, and then take off that hat and resume doing their jobs. I’m no expert, but I get the sense that Steve Jobs was one of these people.

Where problems happen is if you get a P.R. person who believes their own P.R. pitch running the show.  If somebody who is great at telling people what they want to hear accidentally takes control of the behind-the-scenes stuff, it can lead to prolonged problems for an organization.  Worse yet, it’s hard to get rid of such a person, because he will keep telling people what they want to hear, and thus they will be sympathetic towards him and too willing to forgive failures.

Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

–John 18:37-38, King James Version

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.
“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James – it’s turtles all the way down.”

–J.R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax. 1967, via Wikipeida

Everything sticks until it goes away / And the truth is we don’t know anything.

–They Might Be Giants, Ana Ng.

I got into a debate the other day with a Trump supporter. Our disagreement was originally whether or not Russia had attempted to influence the U.S. Election by hacking into Democratic Party files and releasing them via Wikileaks.

My position was that the Russians did it. As evidence, I cited the fact that they had motive, opportunity, ability, and that the U.S. Intelligence agencies have now said that the Russians did exactly this.

My opponent conceded that the Russians did have motive and opportunity, but argued that many other nations did as well.  Moreover, he argued, there was no evidence the Russians had done it, and no one at the CIA had said the Russians did it. That was propaganda from the liberals to delegitimize Trump.

“What about the Director of the CIA saying as much?” I asked.

“Made-up story,” he countered. “Fake news.”

According to my opponent, this is a typical strategy used by Democrats to undercut Republicans who win Presidential elections.  He claims that they have done similar things in the past–for example, they told everyone that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.

“Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000″, I responded.

He shakes his head.  “No–liberal propaganda.”

“You can look up the vote count online,” I persisted.

He was dismissive. “The government is run by liberals–they lie about the votes.”

It quickly became clear that there was no way we could ever conclude this argument.  Both of us had to invoke authorities the other considered unreliable. If I referred him to the National Archives count of the votes, he deemed it liberal propaganda. Similarly, if he referred me to Breitbart or Rush Limbaugh supposedly refuting the published vote tallies, I would deem that conservative propaganda.

The only way it could possibly be resolved would be if the two of us were able to personally count all the ballots ourselves. And even then it wouldn’t work–if it came out against him, my opponent would no doubt insist that liberals had secretly removed some ballots before the counting.

And when you get right down to it, I can’t absolutely prove that’s false. I can make all sorts of educated guesses, assert things with 99.99% confidence, but I technically can’t prove it beyond all doubt.

If you push it far enough, no one truly knows much of anything with “absolute metaphysical certitude”, as John McLaughlin would say.  People are just proceeding based on logical assumptions. We don’t know for absolute certain that aliens didn’t secretly replace all our family and friends with evil body doubles overnight–but it’s fair to feel confident they probably didn’t.

There’s a term for this need for absolute certainty: it’s a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People with this disorder experience crippling anxiety and disturbing thoughts because they have uncertainty about something.

You have to either accept some level of uncertainty, or live a miserable life.

At the moment, the entire country suffers from this crippling anxiety because they have lost faith in all the old institutions–the Press, the Government, and even Religious organizations. (Except on the issue of abortion, where Priests and Preachers still have some influence.)

The real problem is that people have not only lost their faith in old institutions, but put their faith in new, highly dubious ones, that promise to assuage their anxieties. It reminds me of a quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton:

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

This may not always be true of single individuals, but I think it is true of populations. Once a whole culture has lost faith in the institutions they used to believe in, they are vulnerable to being taken in by any charismatic con man with a compelling tale.

Scientific reasoning is about analyzing data gathered via scientific methods. It does not allow for appeals to authority.  However, the average person does not have time to rigorously test every single issue that might affect his or her life. This means that it is sometimes necessary to either believe authority or, if the authority is thought to be untrustworthy, find a new one. As my vote-count problem above illustrates, there are some matters that cannot be personally verified by every single person.

But, in a quest for reassurance from authority, people will not seek the authorities who give them the most truthful answer, but rather the most comforting. A man with the supreme confidence to assert “I alone can fix it”, whether he can or not, will inevitably be more popular with people adrift in a world of doubt and uncertainty than one who seems unsure.

There’s a final irony to this: Trump himself talks about the importance of making decisions while uncertain.  In The Art of the Deal, he discusses how many of his deals involve some element of risk-taking.  He says he simply makes decisions by gathering information from as many people with knowledge of the issue as he can, and then going with whatever his gut instincts tell him.

Most executives, military commanders, and other leaders throughout history learned to cope with the idea of uncertainty or risk.  They simply made the best decision they could with the information available. They did not constantly question all information or demand it be replaced with new information that was favorable to them.

(Interestingly, people like Stalin and Hitler would require that their intelligence be favorable to them, and filled most of their officer corps with politicians and “yes-men” who wouldn’t give them the full story.)

The argument strategy like the one I described above is to first devalue all information by emphasizing the tiny element of uncertainty that exists in everything not witnessed first-hand, and then appeal to charismatic and reassuring authorities who promise to fix all problems.

The best way to counter it is as follows: argue based simply on facts everyone–or at least, the person with whom you are arguing–agrees on, and extrapolate logically from there. As I said, even my bull-headed opponent had to admit the Russians had motive and opportunity for hacking the election.

Above all, when arguing with someone like that, don’t make any appeal to authority, or cite any source, because they will immediately dismiss it.

I love conspiracy theories. I wrote a novella centered on the conspiracy theories and political machinations.  (Not to spoil it, but it involves a takeover of the United States government by an insane dictator.  But that’s another story.) The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time reading popular conspiracy theories.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “fake news” on social media, and the role they played in the recent U.S. Election.

I’m not sure why they are calling these stories “fake news”–they appear to be similar to the old conspiracy theories that flourished, beginning in the late 1990s.  It’s part and parcel of what Warren Spector, the creator of the great conspiracy-theory video game Deus Ex, called “millennial weirdness”.

People who listen to the radio frequently are familiar with these things.  A lot of strange ideas have been floated over the air on shows like Coast to Coast AM for decades now. It’s not new.

I think what is new is the politicization of conspiracy theories. In the old days, conspiracies were about the Illuminati or Extraterrestrial life, and those are never on the ballot. But now, the conspiracy theories are deliberately meant to certain political factions.

It may have started with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which were inevitably explicitly political in nature.  Or it might have just been that political strategists realized they could take advantage of people’s love for conspiracies in order to advance their aims.  (Good strategists are always looking for any edge they can get.)

But I’m curious about is why the term “fake news” (which evokes something more like satirical sites on the order of The Onion) seems to have supplanted the term “conspiracy theory”. What reasons could there be for this?