John Oliver’s reality check on the refugee “crisis”

Scary times call for a scared man.

Tucked away in the late-Sunday-night ghetto of pay cable, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has been on hiatus since late last year; it’s scheduled to return on Sunday, February 12. What differentiates Oliver’s satiric current affairs program from others like The Daily Show are the 10-20 minute deeply researched, informational reports on a variety of subjects — everything from retirement plans to Trump University, and more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these without learning something I didn’t know before. (And as something of a public service, HBO posts these reports on YouTube the day after they air on HBO. You can find a full archive of them here.)

Last September, Oliver explained the process by which refugees are investigated before being allowed into the US — something that came up again this weekend. So here’s a little education for you. And no doubt Oliver will hit the ground running later in February.

Et tu, Kellyanne?

In the aftermath of the “alternative facts” imbroglio set off by Trump Administration Virago-in-Chief Kellyanne Conway earlier this week, Merriam-Webster briefly and uncharacteristically dropped into the political fray with this tweet:

Armed with this little dart, the Dumptrumpsters cheered, whistled, and stamped their feet, claiming validation and victory. Such mob responses always generate suspicion in me, I’m afraid, and it may be that I was one of a very few who couldn’t help but hear an echo of former President Bill Clinton’s interesting epistemological challenge, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” in the Minister of Propaganda’s suggestion.

In that presented as lies the problem. As anyone who has seen Rashomon will tell you, information can be presented as objective reality from a variety of perspectives, and you don’t need to be a student of Asian cinema — or an admirer of classical philosophy, obsessed since the construction of the stoa with the question “What is truth?” — to realize it. What’s more interesting to me is that Comrades Conway and Sean Spicer appear to have taken the same classes as I did in college.

Back in darkest antiquity — oh, the 1980s or so — the liberal arts were awash in a assault on the concept of truth itself. Especially in literary studies, philosophy, and history, the professoriate, many of whom were veterans of the upheavals of the 1960s, had the same attitude towards facts and reality as the current administration. Literature, abstract thought, and historical events were all brought under the new lenses introduced by philosophers, most of them from France. Your Honor, I wish to introduce the following Wikipedia definitions into evidence and request to have them read into the record, stipulating that Wikipedia definitions appear to be as good as any others in defining terms which themselves beggar definition:

Structuralism: The belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture.

Deconstruction: The object of language and what upon which any text is founded is irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible. … [O]riginary complexity, which by definition cannot ever be completely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects.

Reader-response criticism: Literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance.

Like it or not, the American academy greeted these ideas with hosannas, and subsequently they gave rise to a variety of epistemological disciplines (if they can be called that; perhaps “mutations” would be a better word) that have kept the professoriate busy to the present day. Here were ideas you could base any number of papers, books, and theories on, spewing language like spiders spin webs; you can defend anything so long as proof and even defense are by definition impossible, and at length and with terminologies and vocabularies that would test the imagination of a Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. Jonathan Swift deftly ridiculed all of this in A Tale of a Tub more than 300 years ago, and his refutation continues to stand.

All this is harmless, fine and dandy as long as it takes place around the circle-jerk of a seminar table at a small private liberal arts college in the northeastern United States; there is some validity in some of it, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day. But once it seeps out into the dog’s breakfast of American culture-at-large, you’ve got trouble. “The president does believe that [voter fraud took place] … based on studies and evidence people have presented to him,” Spicer said yesterday, and what is this but Trump’s own unique, text-related performance? And according to this story, Herr Trump has requested that the government conduct its own seminar on contemporary epistemology in the public sphere, evading the controversy altogether. Also on the reading list, no doubt, will be the voter fraud accusations that arose during the Democratic primaries from Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, and their minions. I imagine we can expect the final papers coming due sometime during some unforeseeable but inevitable future scandal, when, like most academic final papers, they will be quietly read and graded by some poor graduate assistant and subsequently tossed into the recycle bin.

Just as much as anybody else, I’d love to see Trump return to the backwaters of the celebrity swamp, and as soon as possible, but it’s worth considering our own role in our present tribulations. It turns out that facts and history are not quite as mutable as the theorists would have them; they do come in handy at times. But it’s a bit surprising to note, perhaps, that the President’s philosophical ancestor is Paul de Man — a leading light of the deconstructionist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, until it was revealed that he had in fact been a Nazi collaborator and the author of anti-Semitic tracts in Belgium during World War II. Hm. Perhaps not surprising after all.

A lofty ideal

Like many people around the world, I’ve seen photographs — lots and lots of photographs — of Saturday’s marches; I was watching. So was the new Liar-in-Chief. Said he:

He was right, of course; we did just have an election, but I’m guessing that most of the people in the US marches did indeed vote; in fact, 65,844,610 Americans voted for his opponent, 2,864,974 more than voted for him (one of those un-alternative facts that neither he, his lackeys, nor his supporters have yet acknowledged). If it weren’t for the baffling Electoral College system in these 50 states, he’d be stewing at Mar-a-Lago today. And he’s right about celebrities too, as he should know — he is one.

A number of rationales have been put forward to justify the continued existence of the Electoral College, none of them convincing. The original theory for the College was that an East Coast elite would be prevented from saddling the nation with a President unsympathetic to the yeo-men and -women of this great land; now that the White House can advertise itself as a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs, however, this seems a flawed proposition at best. But that’s not all. “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” Founding-father-du-jour Alexander Hamilton wrote in support of the Electoral College in No. 68 of the Federalist Papers. “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.” That it has turned around and bitten us in the ass we can assign, once again, to the omnipotent Law of Unintended Consequences.

Reichsmarschalls Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway spent the weekend propping up their Führer‘s fragile ego, and those of his footsoldiers, with smoke, mirrors, and lies, and it’s likely that they’ll go on doing so. Which means it is not what happened on Saturday that will be important (as impressive as it was), but what happens today and through the next few years, once the adrenaline has drained from the body politic. The below comment has been making the rounds of social media, and it’s laudable, but I’m not sure that it will be entirely enough:

Remember this date: November 6, 2018. That’s the date on which 33 senate seats, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and 14 governorship’s will be up for re-election. Put it on your calendar now and be prepared to be an informed voter. If you are worried, concerned, angry, disappointed about the direction the government is going this is the most effective way to make a change, stop complaining and start planning. Remember the president is only one cog in the government machine, and you can make effective change through voting for your local and state representatives, this is the check that can balance this situation.

Well, the last election proves that sometimes voting isn’t sufficient. Most worrisome is that there are few Democratic or even independent politicos who seem to be able to grab the attention of the electorate. Bernie Sanders was as much a demagogue as the Orange One, though more intelligent; few are able to engage the attention and affection of the progressive or even moderate left, which is in even more of a shambles than the Democratic Party.

Another option, on the other end of the spectrum, is to follow the lead of Trump supporters and do nothing — to wait and see, to allow the leader to lead, to give him a chance to prove himself, grow in the office, and unify the nation. This is just nonsense. If his inauguration speech didn’t make this impossible with its references to carnage and violence (it’s certainly the most bloodthirsty speech appealing for unity I’ve heard in years), there was his entire campaign, which he launched on July 16, 2015 — nearly a year and a half in which to convince me he was fit for the office, and with every day and his every utterance I became more and more convinced of just the opposite. Stick a fork in it; it’s done.

While there must be more than laughter, there must be laughter — at Trump, at his minions (who are public officials, after all), at the grotesqueries of gullibility and stupidity in American culture that led us to the pass in the first place. First, a sense of humor is a sign of sanity (and Trump seems to have absolutely nothing of either). Second, lampoon, ridicule, and satire have been an essential part of American political life ever since Benjamin Franklin first inked up his press in Philadelphia — hell, it’s patriotic to make fun of your leaders. As that ur-American Mark Twain once wrote, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” If true facts won’t shame Trump supporters into silence, maybe ridicule can.

It may of course be a losing battle; but to go down laughing is a victory too, and a damn sight better than going down in tears. If you believe in freedom and liberty at all, for all, there’ll be plenty to laugh at in the next four years. The odds may be against us, but when H.L. Mencken can put it like this, there’s always hope for light:

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Unchecked passions

Well, has our system of government finally bitten down on the cyanide capsule after 240 years? On December 17, 1814, John Adams, one of the most important architects of American democracy, wrote from Quincy, Massachusetts, to John Taylor:

I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

Not a cheerful thought, but there aren’t many around New York this morning. It’s hard to be more cynical, but there was nothing quite as cynical last night as Trump’s speech acknowledging his victory. “We owe [Hillary Clinton] a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country,” he said. “Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential” — this from a man who only recently threatened to jail her, hired lawyers only yesterday to keep votes from Hispanic Americans from being counted, and stoked the fires of hatred, resentment, and spite against women, people of color, and the press; the list goes on and on. Which is the real Donald Trump? The man who says he wants to “bind the wounds of division” or the man who more than anyone else deepened those wounds and exploited them to his own selfish ends? I’m not sure which would be worse. If the first, it indicates that he was willing to say anything, to cater to the worst qualities of Americans, in order to get elected; if the second, he possesses those qualities himself.

During the Obama administration, the system of checks and balances — and it’s a pesky system, this, if you want to get anything of importance done — more or less worked; it didn’t make anybody particularly happy, but it didn’t lead to any constitutional crisis either. There will be no such check or balance on a Trump administration, which will begin in January backed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, in state governorships — and, soon enough I’m sure, on the Supreme Court.

This morning we had to explain to our daughters — seven and six years old — why Hillary Clinton lost the election, especially since they identified so strongly with her message and the opportunities she presented to them, the promise that she represented for the places that women can take in society. I don’t really think we were able to explain it fully. What I would really like to do is have someone who voted for Trump — and I know a few of them — watch this video with them:

Then I’d like that person to explain to them how he’ll be a good President. They are already expressing concern that some of their classmates will be deported because of the color of their skin. Life for kids is already pretty hard. This is just going to make it much harder. It’s going to make everything much harder.

On my Twitter and Facebook feeds I’m seeing Clinton supporters turn to each other to say that it’s time to get angry — but anger (and fear, something else Clinton supporters are expressing) is exactly what led to the Trump election. The Trump campaign legitimized the rhetoric of anger, hate, and fear as valid expressions of political opinion, and we now know where that rhetoric gets us.

So what to do next? Stay close and get closer to our family and friends; encourage our children to stand up for what they believe in, shield our daughters as much as we can from the toxic personalities, bigotry, and prejudices of Trump supporters, and provide them with the strength to oppose that bigotry and prejudice where they find it; and pay more attention to what Edmund Burke called our “little platoons” of family and local community  — “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” he wrote. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

And one more thing. This year I joined a church, and it appears that I joined it just in time. Over the next four years I imagine I’ll very often be turning to the Sermon on the Mount for comfort and guidance. And I’ll be praying. A lot.

On the campaign trail

VOTERS-VOTE-IN-A-VOTING-B-009One of the more amusing pieces of electronic ephemera this election season is the new Twitter account Trump Reviews, which turns Trumpian rhetoric against literature instead of political candidates. Compared to Barack Obama’s interpretive skills, Trump’s evaluations aren’t even in the game, but they have a certain charm of their own. Here’s a sample:

Oedipus Rex (Sophocles): Failed king Oedipus made one of history’s worst decisions. STUPID to marry someone you know nothing about — BE CAREFUL

The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald): Sad little man Gatsby can’t get anyone to like him. Maybe he’s not as rich as he thinks. NOT GREAT AT ALL

And my personal favorite:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Eliot): Little bald Prufrock had his chance and blew it. Won’t even dare to eat a peach. He’s a total loser!

More here.

Tucked away on page A3 of this morning’s New York Times is this little piece of Republican/Democrat comparison embedded in a wonky analysis of convention delegate rules, courtesy of Toni Monkovic:

The superdelegates also offer some expertise. These days, Democrats typically have more trust in that quality. In a Pew survey, 68 percent of politically engaged Republicans said “ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials solving the country’s problems.” A smaller percentage of Democratic counterparts, 48 percent, felt the same way.

Maybe expertise shouldn’t be played down. Many Americans don’t know that crime is declining, but a lot of them believe that Bigfoot exists. And while Democrats are more likely to trust experts like scientists who say humans are causing climate change, they’re also more likely than Republicans to believe in astrology.

Mitt Romney’s ultimately ineffective takedown of Donald Trump on March 3 quoted from a letter by John Adams; here’s the full quote:

I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.