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second-best since Cantor

Category: politick

All seeing is seeing-as, or, Why Trump thinks you’re stupid.

I’ve said it before: stupidity is the problem.

Trump assumes that everyone is as ignorant as he is, lies as much as he does, hates as he does, precisely because he’s stupid — and he’s stupid because he’s apparently never, not even for a second, made any kind of intellectual or emotional effort in his life. He’s a xenophobe: he fears difference, newness. He believes himself historically unique, so everyone and everything is the Other, and he hates the Other. Which is why he’s infamously disloyal, a petty backstabbing coward, when it comes to anyone he doesn’t see as an extension of himself/his will.

Trump’s stupidity means that, as far as he knows, he occupies a stupid world — so why shouldn’t he rule it? He doesn’t know how to spot climate change, so climate change isn’t real. He doesn’t have any real relationships with women, so women are trash. Nazis make him feel good by puffing him up on Twitter and at rallies, so Nazis must be good.

Of course he relished a chest-puffing contest with the witless nepotist Kim Jong-Un. I imagine it made him feel less alone.

One of the saddest things I know is that more than 1/4 of Americans don’t read at all.1 Trump is, by his own admission, one of them. He might be a psychopath or a narcissist, but the reason he has such a dangerously, unfunnily narrow conception of the good — the reason he goes on endlessly about ‘deals’ but is incompetent to discuss the content, the meaning, of any of his business — is that he has no intellectual bulwark against the stupidity of the world he alone lives in. He fills up every day with the idiot stories he sees on Fox News because he doesn’t know how to find anything deeper in the world.

Trump can’t see, he can only see-as — not in the phenomenological sense, but in the coarse psychological one. He thinks you and I are idiots because he’s an idiot; he thinks he alone possesses The Whole Truth about this or that issue (the ‘climate change hoax,’ say, or ‘black-on-black crime’) because he can’t imagine anyone having an inner life that’s richer than his. He’s a ‘transactional’ being because any other kind of existence is literally impossible, and you’re stupid for thinking otherwise. (Look at how he treats his wives, at the obvious contempt he and Melania have for one another.)

I feel sorry for Donald Trump the boy, semiliterate, unloved, allowed by teachers and parents to remain forever angry and dumb. I suspect he’s wired wrong, but I’m certain he didn’t need to end up as he did. I feel no sympathy for the cruel ignorant coward he became.

Please, please, please: make sure your children love learning, which is to say, love life.


  1. Some are illiterate. Some can read but find it taxing. Some will tell you they don’t have the time — though I’ll bet you $5 that all but a vanishing minority of our non-readers make the time to watch television… 

Epistemic status; attention conservation warning.

Reading Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex (one of the best blogs out there, no question), I’m reminded of a feature of his blog that I wish were more widely adopted: the epistemic status note at the top of a post.

A recent example:

Epistemic status: idea for one’s toolbox of ideas; not to be followed off a cliff

Another:

Epistemic status: So, so speculative. Don’t take any of this seriously until it’s replicated and endorsed by other people.

You might think this is humourlessness, or the author assuming his readers’ humourlessness or poor reading comprehension, and some idiot is probably getting ready to use the phrase ‘Swiftian satire’; please don’t. What Scott is doing is suggesting one or more reading frames for his readers, in order to shape both their approach to the posts and the discussions that follow. But crucially, this isn’t about content — it’s just additional information about how strongly certain claims are intended to be taken.

This is the most important thing, I think, and the strongest indication that Scott’s site is ‘grownup’ in a way most modern-USA ‘intellectual’ discourse simply isn’t: he assumes that the point of his writing is to generate and contribute to robust adult communication, and avails himself of the right tools for that job. Moreover, he does not assume that his readers will agree with him (and they often don’t) — only that they’re willing to read in good faith and assume that he’s writing in the same spirit.

This isn’t quite the same as a content note: if you look at, say, shakesville.com, the ubiquitous content notes often (usually?) function as neutral guides to topics under discussion, but surprisingly often serve as editorial prefaces, e.g. a (hypothetical) discussion of rates of gender-detransition might be framed with a ‘transphobia’ content note. The purpose of such notes isn’t to increase reader flexibility, and they don’t assume readers’ good faith — they’re there in part to shape the readers’ attitude toward the content itself. They aren’t just warnings to stay away, of course: most readers will read the posts regardless of the content notes. For those readers, the content notes are just guides to reception posture at the level of content.

Scott’s ‘epistemic status’ warnings guard against unproductive forms of argument but are agnostic as to reader perspectives; Melissa’s, I’d argue, militate subtly against specific perspectives. Both are intended inclusively, I think, but my sense is that they don’t both function that way, at least not to the same degree.

The great and knowledgeable Cosma Shalizi includes ‘attention conservation notices’ atop his long posts, which are somewhat more complicated (or at any rate pretentious) than normal content notes/trigger warnings.

In theory, credentials serve as persistent epistemic status warnings: ‘I have a PhD in area XYZ, so I can be expected to know A, B, and C.’ But life is complicated and dumb.

But again: why would you take my word for any of this?

Difference and indifference.

The ‘Google guy’ was fired, which should worry anyone who cares about reasoned discourse (don’t worry, you are exempt), but since I can’t really affect Google hiring/training practices, I’ll stick to a small observation. The science about sex difference is settled, but not the way you probably think: meta-analyses of sex-difference studies going back decades suggest, unsurprisingly, that there are very large differences (link goes to Slate Star Codex) between physiological males and females in a host of areas relevant to the Google diversity discussion (e.g. people- vs thing-orientation), and very small differences in a host of areas where people might expect strong divergence.

In other words, the ‘Google guy’ wasn’t spouting pseudoscience in his ‘screed,’ he was spouting at least some actual science. If you used the word ‘pseudoscience’ to piss on him from your soapbox, consider the possibility that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Now, I’m sticking with links to/via Scott here, because he’s good at finding/collecting the kind of analysis I’m interested in, and I’m not. Your mileage, as they say, may vary — but only if you actually hit the road.

Sidebar: Scott (SSC’s author) points out that ‘Big Five’ sex differences are magnified by increased economic prosperity. Funny. No, not actually funny.

Scott also links to a piece by Freddie deBoer (who blocked me on Twitter when I pointed out that he’d cut short his mental-health Twitter break after like a day) called ‘Why selection bias is the most powerful force in education’ and you should read it:

Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school, and I can predict your outcomes – not perfectly, but well enough that it calls into question many of our core presumptions about how education works.

The SSC post closes with an aggressive attack on the prevailing narrative that the lack of women in Silicon Valley (or ‘tech’ writ large) is solely about entrenched sexism. Before he gets to the data, which is damning, Scott unspools a funny little rhetorical gambit:

In the year 1850, women were locked out of almost every major field, with a few exceptions like nursing and teaching. The average man of the day would have been equally confident that women were unfit for law, unfit for medicine, unfit for mathematics, unfit for linguistics, unfit for engineering, unfit for journalism, unfit for psychology, and unfit for biology. He would have had various sexist justifications – women shouldn’t be in law because it’s too competitive and high-pressure; women shouldn’t be in medicine because they’re fragile and will faint at the sight of blood; et cetera.

As the feminist movement gradually took hold, women conquered one of these fields after another. 51% of law students are now female. So are 49.8% of medical students, 45% of math majors, 60% of linguistics majors, 60% of journalism majors, 75% of psychology majors, and 60% of biology postdocs. Yet for some reason, engineering remains only about 20% female.

And everyone says “Aha! I bet it’s because of negative stereotypes!”

This makes no sense. There were negative stereotypes about everything! Somebody has to explain why the equal and greater negative stereotypes against women in law, medicine, etc were completely powerless, yet for some reason the negative stereotypes in engineering were the ones that took hold and prevented women from succeeding there…

Turns out the difficulty in getting women interested in programming kicks in by elementary school. Why is that? Hint: Scott links to the paper about prenatal androgen that you might’ve seen floating around this week.

(I’ll add a bit of handwavey, marginal speculation: it’s also worth looking specifically at differences in TV/videogame interest in very young kids; the videogame revolution does seem to correlate with the moment the undergrad CS enrollment starting tilting heavily toward boys…)

In the middle of talking about people/thing interest, Scott veers back to medicine, points out male/female variation between subfields, and offers these two graphs…

NewImage

NewImage

…which suggest that ludicrous people/things difference, y’know, the one some cultural-politics blogger told you was ‘pseudoscience.’

Reasoned discourse

The best thing about Scott’s post: it started out as a response to a piece by Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant (scare quotes only because I don’t know what precisely that job title means), and Professor Grant responded to the post — with Scott responding in turn. This is what actual grownup conversations look like, people.

One of Grant’s essential points — if sex/gender disparities in tech are about ‘interest, not ability,’ then we mustn’t forget that interests can be changed — is a very important one. Pushing back against dumb blankslateism isn’t the same thing as saying there’s no entrenched systemic sexism or just societal influence on development; that would be literally insane.

But what’s in our shared interest, culturewide? At the moment, one of the clear correlates of our elite/coastal push for equitable hiring everywhere is the literal suppression of basic scientific research (in popular discourse). Do you feel it’s worth it, on balance, to have twice as many female coders at Google, if one of the costs (not ‘effects’) is a marked increase in willful scientific illiteracy, which is already sky-high? Could we have it both ways? Yes — but that means letting go of ideologies which demand that we dismiss, or ‘merely’ aggressively cherrypick, basic science.

Scott’s last response to Grant (so far) closes like so:

If we continue to insist that, no, women really want to do tech, but stereotypes and sexists are pushing them out, we’ll end up with constantly increasing social engineering to prevent stereotypes, and constantly increasing purges to ferret out sexists (and “benevolent sexists”, and “unconscious sexists”, and people who are progressive but not progressive enough, and so on). Since these will never work (or even have paradoxical effects for the reasons mentioned above), we’ll just ramp these up more and more forever. I’m saying we don’t have to do this. We can fight any stereotypes and sexists we find, but understand we’re doing this in a context where even 100% success won’t achieve perfect gender balance.

We’re talking here about competing notions of freedom and of fulfillment, and I worry that the better, more sustainable such notions are being throttled. But don’t take my word for it.

Comey note: what matters and what very definitely does not.

Comey was ‘the bad guy’ when the entire Democratic Party turned on him and is ‘the good guy’ now that the entire Republican Party has turned on him, from my/our perspective, but the local lesson is that he was always just a man in a job, and the global lesson is that only Power benefits when we get wrapped up in the dumb psychodrama of modern media-politics.

The question of whether Comey is a partisan jerk wasn’t really ours to worry about, since there was nothing we could do about it one way or the other. (And anyway he doesn’t actually seem to be.) This is one of the deep problems with today’s news media: they can’t pose the questions that matter, because those questions can’t be answered or even substantively addressed in the context of the 24-hr ‘news cycle.’ This is about instant satisfaction beating deep fulfillment, ‘free’ beating ‘cheap,’ frictionless beating meaningful: the only thing that matters on TV news (and in Internet punditry) is the soundbite — moreso now than ever, in our era of ‘viral’ video clips substituting for actual journalism. TV (synecdoche for sensation-journalism) can’t ask, ‘What could Comey’s motivations for the Clinton revelations have been? What do we not know about the situation?’ So instead it asks: ‘Is Comey a partisan jerk?’ Or: ‘Do you think Trump did something wrong?!’

We hear these questions precisely because nothing at all is at stake in addressing them. A highly classified investigation of the White House inner circle is going on; there’s every chance it will find that the president obstructed justice and colluded with a foreign power. Your opinion of all this doesn’t matter; it’s being handled by actual experts, in appropriate secrecy and silence.

Meanwhile the Senate Republicans are steps away from gutting our healthcare system for short-term political gain. This matters, and more to the point, they can be stopped by the application of political pressure. Something is at stake.

It is too important to be left up to the people.

Which is why you’re not hearing about it on the news.

SHATTERED (Allen and Parnes, 2017).

Attention conservation notice: I wrote this a while back, after devouring the first 2/3 of the book (on Clinton vs Sanders) and choking down the rest. This 2,400-word ‘review’ started as a personal exercise in summary and reasoning-through, so don’t expect cogent argument or lofty rhetoric. The book is useful but not good, which is the best we can hope for this blogpost too. N.B. Subsequent events have changed my sense of Comey’s role in the election; I’m no longer sure that ‘sinister’ is at all the right word to describe his catastrophic intervention. –wa.

Terrifying, a little heartbreaking, but not a good book — the authors should be embarrassed. Shattered is essentially a less elegant Game Change.

It’s totally myopic in the same way as that earlier book: nothing matters but the campaign process, no one matters but the campaigners, every staff squabble is a nuclear war, every personality flaw is a great plague, and everyone is a hungry young assassin or a wizened old hand plus everyone (we’d never say this aloud) is a vicious sociopath. There is no world in Shattered except the campaign, and because the authors had no access to the Trump campaign (and almost none to the Sanders campaign), there are two kinds of events in the world of Shattered: what HRC’s campaign does, usually incompetently, and the inexplicable and unpredictable and above all totally unfair acts of God which happen to them.

This myopia means the book is worthless as an analysis of American politics in 2016, but in compensation Allen and Parnes happily deliver page after page of the court intrigue which again plagued the Clinton campaign. As a kind of implicit sequel to Game Change, Shattered delivers a genuine shock to those of us who took her competence for granted: Clinton and her team overreacted to the 2008 race without actually learning from it, and ran a totally incompetent trainwreck of a campaign.

Obligatory pitch and synopsis

The book is an inside-baseball account of Clinton’s 2014-2016 official/active run for president. (Surprising no one, Allen & Parnes make it clear that HRC’s work at the State Department was always intended as prelude to a 2016 run.) The central drama of the book is the generational fight within the Clinton campaign between the ‘data’-driven folks, led by millennial campaign manager Robby Mook, and an ‘intuitive’/retail-politics cohort which included John Podesta and ex-President Clinton himself.

(Scare quotes around ‘data’ because it’s not at all clear from Shattered alone that Mook has any actual expertise w/r/t his precious Numbers, just an abiding faith in what the analytics team put up in lieu of ‘old-fashioned polling.’ If there’s a villain in Shattered, it’s Trump, but Mook comes off worst relative to his reputation. If there’s justice, he’ll never work in Washington again, but I’m willing to bet he’s already making $200K+/yr somewhere.)

The authors conducted ‘scores’ of interviews entirely on background, with promises not to publish a word until after the election. As a result, they had a running commentary from inside the campaign, and the ambivalent and critical tone of the early interviews is telling. A&P write in the introduction that Trump’s victory finally ‘made sense of’ their reporting — they knew the Clinton campaign was an omnishambles and that the mainstream press was missing the deep electoral stories, but they couldn’t quite believe their eyes until election night.

Clinton not only never shared but apparently never actually possessed a clear vision of why she should run the country, only that she would (by dint of her mastery of policy, intense work ethic, extensive Washington experience, and enormous Rolodex) be good at it. Repeating one of the key mistakes of her 2008 race, she built a campaign organization characterized by the same sorts of warring cliques, and followed her campaign manager Robby Mook’s strategy of spending as little as possible, completely avoiding ‘retail’ politics, literally hiding from voters in ‘swing’ states, and making no attempt to convince undecided voters or those weakly supporting Trump (beyond pointing out what they already knew, i.e. that he’s a vile imbecile). Within her organization no one had permission to criticize her; the contrast with Obama’s ‘team of rivals,’ a purpose-driven organization built on ex-Professor Obama’s respect for competence, is striking.

This is difficult but important to understand: Clinton and company never saw Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump coming. They were tragically mistreated by the press and (sinisterly) by FBI head James Comey, whose reputation for unimpeachable nonpartisanship was badly wounded by his repeated political interventions in the race; not to mention more than a decade of coordinated voter disenfranchisement efforts by every level the Republican Party (no mention of this in the book, of course), but Clinton still could and should have won — Shattered makes clear that a competent campaign, never mind a competent and bold one, could have handled these external forces. The tide of history is against candidates like Clinton right now, but she and her team ran a bad campaign from beginning to end. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Clinton’s team bears much of it, as must Clinton herself.

Obligatory recommendation

Shattered is likely to remain the #1 source for telling anecdotes about Clinton’s miserable campaign, but hitting the high (low) points should suffice for normal people. Like the less ‘juicy’ but more skillful Game Change, it ends up an accidental portrait of the absolute hollowness of these wanting days of neoliberal empire, directly appealing to fans of a debased media-electoral process but indirectly (yet more importantly) throwing light on deeper problems with the republic.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose?

Allen and Parnes don’t know. They’d have you believe that it was mostly (1) the incompetence of Clinton’s campaign, which stemmed from (2) her catastrophic lack of any kind of vision for governing this country, which was only a problem because of (3) HRC’s combination of greed/cynicism/lust for power and her obsession with ‘wonkish’ policy details, all of which ran up against (4) Trump abstractly rendered and (5) the extraordinary intervention of Comey.

But that’s not an explanation, and it’s certainly not an analysis. Clinton had every imaginable institutional advantage and the best possible general-election opponent; if elections were sporting events 2016 couldn’t possibly have been anything but a blowout for Clinton. But elections are about voters, not candidates, and only D.C. myopes (is that a word?) and those addicted to/duped by the ‘horserace’ believe otherwise. Moreover, this revelation of incompetence isn’t even news: everyone knew Clinton’s campaign was a leaden disaster — even Obama got a big laugh at her expense all the way back in April, joking that her campaign slogan ‘Trudge Up the Hill’ had proven less than inspirational. Her inability to ‘crush’ Sanders was evidence of her campaign’s incompetence.

The news, which won’t reach the apologists who need to hear it most, is that the implausible ineffectiveness of HRC’s campaign trickled down from the candidate herself, who was unable (for a variety of reasons, not entirely her fault) to serve as a backstop, a guiding light, a strong and trustworthy chief executive. This is an ancient pattern with the Clintons: they can never fail, they can only be failed. (It was forbidden, inside the campaign, to criticize Clinton to her face — can you imagine? At points they had to bring in outside ‘friends of Hillary’ to point out her shortcomings.) Shattered reveals that Hillary doesn’t actually possess certain essential skills for executive leadership. Trump certainly doesn’t, and neither does Sanders, but then Clinton’s (not actually) (cf. Bush Sr, Nixon) the ‘most qualified candidate ever for this office’ etc., etc., etc. Her campaign was always a bid for meritocratic and technocratic ascendancy, which is why ‘inevitable’ really did strike the insiders as a plausible rationale: the correctness of her nomination and election could be logically deduced, and anyone who ‘disagreed’ — i.e. who failed to see the truth — was himself incompetent. Deplorably so.

And so anyone who says she should have reached out to white working class voters is a racist or a reactionary or a misogynist(?), even though the funny thing about Rust Belt working-class whites is that they were actually ‘undecided’ this time around, i.e. the exact people a candidate should be going after. They went for Sanders and then Trump in a big way because Clinton didn’t (couldn’t) talk to them on their terms. We’ll never know whether they would have been open to a Clinton campaign pitch, because as far as they knew Clinton didn’t actually make one. (‘But her policy papers are on the website!’ Sure, I’ll print them out and mail them to grandpa out in Little Valley.)

Maddeningly, Shattered doesn’t concern itself for even a single paragraph with why so many voters were furiously angry this electoral cycle. This is the authors’ greatest failing, and whatever their personal politics (betcha a dollar they’re 100% conventional Democrats), it’s enough to say that they come from the D.C. bubble, which is cut off from actual citizens’ concerns by design. (How can you get real work done if you have to listen to that braying and snorting all day?) Bill Clinton is derided repeatedly in Shattered for talking about Brexit, seemingly without context or provocation — which is to say his political instincts were still right on, but he didn’t know how to act on them, and his minders thought him a babbling old fool (because they’re deeply, deeply stupid). The idea that populist anger might be justified, that there might be anything questionable about the neoliberal consensus that Bill and his DLC fellow-travelers sold the post-Reagan Democratic Party a quarter-century ago, never crosses the authors’ minds, nor does it occur to even a single one of the alleged human beings in Shattered. Poverty and despair are ‘millennial’ concerns, you see, they’re not real.

In other words, Shattered both (cattily) renders and naively embodies the limitations of the D.C. consensus. The few moving moments in the book tend to involve mentions of the ‘eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling,’ reminding readers that Clinton’s appeal has always been her combination of bloodless technocratic competence and symbolism. She desperately wanted to be a candidate of destiny like Obama, but never found a way to make that case — opinion polls showed that 2016 voters didn’t care much about her sex, though on the other hand never forget that states which have never elected a female governor cut hard against her, i.e. culture is complicated and ugly, time to read (a synopsis of) Albion’s Seed.

I think the reason Hillary’s moments of humanity — maternal, teacherly — are so compelling in Shattered is that they make such a startling contrast, not only with Clinton’s alternately feckless and scolding managerial persona, but with the overall gossipy-melodramatic tone of the prose. In the midst of such a grim parade, the reminder that Hillary is a human being comes as a relief (rewatch the scene on Veep where Selina finds out she’ll be president, and hides in the bathroom) (Shattered confirms that Veep, along with The Wire, is the best-ever show about American politics). But oddly enough, her command of policy does not function the same way in the story — we learn in the first few chapter or two that the happiest time of the campaign for Hillary was the intial period of four-hour meetings with her policy director, hashing out the fine details of her plan for running the country. For someone like me, this is a genuinely heartwarming scene; I know how she feels, and in those moments I ‘connect’ with her ‘as a person.’ But the flipside of this portrait is the revelation that Clinton didn’t want to run, delayed entering the race partly for that reason, and admitted to aides over and over throughout the campaign that she had no idea what was going on in the country or why she wasn’t breaking through to voters.

The cost of running a ‘modest midwestern Methodist’ candidate, a ‘wonk in both the positive and negative sense,’ is just that: she had, and has always had, no idea how to reach people outside of her circle. This is a personal flaw, but a private citizen can make a life which mitigates it. For a lifelong politician and would-be chief executive, this is a crippling professional liability — though less so in the Senate than we might wish, since that august chamber is in the main a club for wealthy corporate-friendly compromisers (Clinton was, by all accounts, undistinguished but effective there).

So: is Hillary Clinton to blame for Donald Trump’s presidency? It’s an ill-posed question, sorry. ‘Monocausal’ is a bad word! And Trump’s margin of victory was miniscule, as my wife has repeatedly pointed out to me. But Shattered takes us back to 2008, to an odd and telling moment: desperate to figure out what went wrong against Obama, and wanting to root out leakers and disloyal courtiers, Hillary got administrator access to the campaign’s internal email server, and read all of her aides’ emails. (She and Bill then made up ‘loyalty cards’ indicating which ones should be purged from the party.) This is paranoid, yeah, but it’s also a contemptible violation of her employees’ privacy. And from her own action she drew an iiiinteresting (and sensible!) lesson: you have to control your email, because otherwise someone — someone like Hillary Clinton, perhaps — will come along and uncover your deepest secrets.

It’s an ugly and telling moment, the kind of on-the-nose foreshadowing a novelist would be embarrassed to invent. It made me pity and dislike her all over again.


OK, I’ve burnt out on this book despite having said only part of what needs saying. Let us summarize: Shattered suggests that Clinton’s 2016 campaign was a hollow, soulless disaster, which seems fair; it suggests that she and Robby Mook bear a big portion of the blame for the disastrous outcome, which also seems fair — they were in charge, after all. But Shattered has no interest in the historical forces which made a Trump candidacy possible (led to Brexit, brought Marine Le Pen closer than ever to running France, etc.), none whatsoever, nor do its authors evince any empathy with the tens of millions who got up on Election Day, waited in line to vote, and pulled the lever for one of the worst candidates (and now presidents) in history; its overemphasis on day-to-day campaign blunders is symptomatic of the same D.C.-insider cynicism that made Clinton’s candidacy ‘inevitable’ in the first place. Shattered suggests, but can’t quite admit, that regardless of the dangerous extremism and (at times hilarious) dysfunction of the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a shambling disaster — this isn’t a ‘big picture’ book. It’s an indictment, not a work of history. Clinton and her staffers should read it. I’m not sure anyone else should, but everyone should know what it says. It says: it didn’t, and hopefully doesn’t, need to be this way.

Antimodern.

There are two consistent threads in executive/legislative policy under Trump:

  1. Antimodern animus (xenophobia, neophobia, cowardice) and
  2. Equation of wealth and virtue (hatred of the needy).

Trump’s confusion and ignorance are not puzzling or surprising.

The President of the USA is mentally unwell — that has been apparent for years, actual literal years, and should now be obvious for all to see — and when rational people pointed out all through 2016 that Trump was ‘unfit for the presidency’ they meant that literally and straightforwardly. (Everyone who thought he was some canny operator playing n-dimensional chess should be ashamed.)

Those journalists, politicians, and DC parasites who feign surprise at the man’s extensively documented incompetence, ignorance, and viciousness are implicated in the trouble we’re in, and the trouble to come.

Stories are made of time and change, not information.

The justification for spoilers (beyond ‘I am anxious, impatient, and have no self-control’) is that you don’t need to receive the story’s info-payload at the moment prescribed by the writers — having the facts, we are told, only clarifies the story, it doesn’t diminish it. Knowing how it ends frees you up to enjoy the unfolding of the story without anxiety.

This disgusts and worries me.

We might think about stories this way:

Narrative structures aren’t vessels containing information, they’re machines for creating information in the mind of the audience. ‘Little Nell dies.’ ‘Oh, is that so? Who’s Little Nell?’ Little Nell is part of a structure which, when activated, effects psychotropism — mental transformation — in the reader. She’s not ‘contained’ in the machine The Old Curiosity Shop, she’s a gear in that machine. To put it another way: the production of fictional knowledge (e.g. ‘informing’/’teaching’ the reader about hobbit feet or the one-eyed bigot at a Dublin bar) is an epiphenomenon of the process of generating the experience of reading itself.

Fictions don’t contain facts, they contain meaningful time: algorithmically generated encounters between audience and story. The text exists to generate the experience of living through it. Characters, plot, setting, are just ‘local variables,’ generated at runtime, which cease to exist when the work is done. But more than that: the work of a fictional scene can’t simply be summarized after the fact (writing tip: if it can, the scene is bad and probably unnecessary). The story effects a set of transformations through sustained audience contact: it’s a smooth curve, flow, the path on which the fictional outcome is dependent. Alter the path, break the curve, obstruct the flow, and you lose the story. What remains are chains and gears, sprockets and lenses — pieces of the machine, meaningless outside of its working.

This isn’t a niggling narratological concern, it’s a serious cultural problem. What’s good about a story is the telling, the reading, the watching, encounter, immersion, sharing — the act of communication, the provisional formation of a network which includes reader, text, artists, imagined-artists (notions which complicate the reading experience), setting, moment… Surprise, as Joss Whedon puts it, is a ‘holy emotion,’ and even in the small doses afforded by the ‘literary novel,’ surprise is an essential element of the fictional contract. But it seems that more and more Americans are terrified of surprise. Parents, bosses, workers, people on dates, schoolteachers, students(!), and of course Discerning Media Audiences — we imbue surprise and uncertainty with anxiety (wishing not to be tested, to risk our precious selves, in a world where the Self is our only permanent or meaningful possession) and seek dumbly to control our microworlds instead of seeking out or cocreating new ones.

Serial novels (‘franchises’) sell like hotcakes, ‘literary’ fiction all but disappears. We read a dozen reviews before settling on a TV show. We ‘swipe right’ based on the literal covers of figurative books. Theaters (both cinemas and the other sort) run only remakes and sequels. We seek out films by particular studios. We welcome a new era of nakedly partisan pseudojournalism. A man who plays a businessman on television becomes president on the strength of his ‘business acumen.’ We are horrified by the news but can hardly pretend to be surprised…

In the grand scheme of things, ‘spoilers’ are a small thing. But as we reconceive what stories and storytelling are, what they’re for, we incur hidden costs. One honourable task for ‘critics’ in this fallen era would be to tally up those costs.

P.S. Scott Alexander writes authoritatively (vs anecdotally) about the value of ‘trigger warnings’, which I pass on as countermelody to my naïve carrying-on about ‘surprise’ as a pillar of fictional experience.

Where are the Dems?

Congressional Republicans imploded this week, which is cute, but where are the Dems? Why aren’t they pushing an alternative bill right now? Why didn’t they have such a bill ready to go, something limited in scope, with fixes to Obamacare which appeal to GOP reps and will actually do good for American citizens?

I understand the desire to play the Party of No — it worked wonders for unprincipled cowards like Mitch McConnell, and only cost everyone else in the country — but why not press their current tactical advantage to actually do some good? Find some conservative reps, pick a half-dozen cost-cutting measures, offer to share credit for the bill, and start working hard to restore Americans’ faith in Congress. Trump himself doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about the actual content of healthcare legislation — why not take a crack at getting a bipartisan modification to the ACA to his desk? Call it ‘repair and redesign’ or something to palliate the fundies, but try something, or this cycle of ideological turtling and self-segregation will continue to deepen.

I know ‘Medicare for all’ is too much to ask for, but surely someone in Washington is capable of thinking beyond the Sunday chat shows…

Cognitive dissonance on Trump’s ‘dealmaking’ persona.

Quoth Politico:

Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off.

“Forget about the little shit,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”

The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little shit” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.

“We’re talking about one-fifth of our economy,” a member told me afterward.

Filled with hope once again, Freedom Caucus members were once again promptly disappointed. This meeting was yet another “take one for the team” seminar. The atmosphere was friendly, and the president had the group laughing with irrelevant riffs and stories of negotiations past, but it became clear, as soon as he made the “little shit” comment, that no serious changes were going to be made, because the president didn’t have sufficient command of the policy details to negotiate what would or would not be realistic for Ryan to shepherd through the House.

Trump has never shown any particular abilities as a businessman — he’s a TV/tabloid performer whose job is to act the part of the dealmaking shark, and he’s paid handsomely to propagate that lie. Everyone knows that, right? Everyone I know is up on the salient bits of his life story: the repeated bankruptcies, the tax evasions, the Russian bailouts, the banks’ refusal to do business with him, ‘the only guy in history who went broke running a casino,’ etc. He’s a poseur who’d be broke in a ditch if it weren’t for Dad’s money, and later Putin’s.

Doesn’t everyone know all this? Why do gossip rags like Politico keep giving us Trump stories whose frame is ‘famed dealmaker finds Washington is more complicated than he thought,’ when he’s not famed for making deals, he’s famed for being rich?

But of course, my own cognitive dissonance isn’t as widely shared as I think/hope. A surprising chunk of the American population persists in its belief that the man knows what he’s doing: the folks who watched The Apprentice (I never have, alas) and believed it, who bought into the election-year narrative of Trump as outsider ‘swamp drainer,’ who seriously think of Trump as a master businessman, who voted for the man out of the belief that he’d bring some good ol’ capitalist efficiency to a dysfunctional federal government. I have to keep reminding myself that millions of people continue to think — against all evidence, all sense — that Trump’s doing a hell of a job.

They’re wrong, they’ve been suckered, and for years it’s been easy to see through the con and know how it would end. (And never ever forget that the Republican Party profited handsomely in the short term from the gulling of so many millions of media-addicted marks, at enormous long-term cost to all involved. This isn’t just about Trump; the Democrats are an unprincipled disaster but this particular cluster of lies only works in today’s Republican Party.) But you can’t tell anyone anything. We have to see and hear for ourselves; ask Thomas. With any luck, this first bout of cowardice and stupidity will enlighten a few hundred thousand voters, a couple million, and the inevitable selloff will begin sooner than anticipated.

I got the election outcome wrong (having denied the evidence of my own eyes), but I stand by this prediction: the GOP will turn on Trump the instant it’s politically expedient. Last year I figured that was 2019, but as the reptilian Mr Manafort offers to testify before Nunes and Schiff, I wonder if I wasn’t insufficiently optimistic (pessimistic?) to the tune of roughly two years…


The funniest part of the AHCA debacle, for me — the only funny part really — is that I agree 100% with Trump’s impatient dismissal of the House GOP caucus. The man’s never had a real job; he’s been his own boss all his life, in a flat organization which has allowed him to involve himself in whatever aspects of the business he wishes, to whatever degree he likes, solely according to his whims. He’s contemptible, alright? Yugely so. But he didn’t write a bill that would kick 20ish million people off the insurance rolls, and he didn’t insist on making the bill worse, deadlier, as a condition of his backing it. Trump doesn’t have principles or basic intelligence, but the House GOP is full of genuinely hateful guys. When Trump’s gone, our pseudoconservative ‘permanent opposition’ party will still be around. Trump is, in a sense, the easier problem to solve.