18 December 2016

Narrative Power: Power Narratives, Pt. 3

[The first two installments can be read here, below this post.]

Re-reading the previous post, I recognize there's an aura of sexism in saying the perceived narratives of the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election could be boiled down to something like "The Strong Man vs. The Good Wife." The themes and tropes and memes of the respective campaign narratives, however, support this reading and make the conclusion practically inevitable. I will address this objection in these next two entries.

One of Clinton's main arguments about Trump's unfitness for the office of president had to do with his lack of presidential temperament. On multiple occasions, when asked about this critique, Trump shrugged it off, disagreed, and spoke about "winning" as his temperament. Winning, of course, implies besting someone, beating them, conquering them. It is a trope of masculinity. He turned her vague, insider-ist criticism into a reinforcement of his masculinist narrative.

This was either a deliberate and crafty deflection on his part or a simple misunderstanding of what Clinton was implying—and I will admit, on first hearing him say it, I thought it was the latter. It does not matter which. Being a winner was not what Clinton was referring to when she spoke about his lack of Presidential temperament. Yet, Trump managed to turn her negative implication into a positive quality that played perfectly into his "Strong Man" narrative.

A further problem of this attack: many, if not most, of the people who heard this during the debate did not understand what she was referring to by temperament. Trump's masculinist trope trumped her effete, elitist-sounding critique in their minds. The perception was that he managed to bull his way through her, dare I say, constant nagging about what a bad man he was.

Likewise, the leak of Trump's "pussy" grabbing video reinforced the masculinist theme of his narrative. The video was somehow leaked from Mark Burnett's NBC archives and absolutely dominated the news coverage for weeks—particularly as more and more women came forward accusing Trump of being a masher and a potential criminal sexual abuser. This clearly hurt Trump with feminists and their liberal allies. But they were never going to vote for him anyway. The effect on his base, those looking for a strong man as a leader, someone who knows what he wants and knows how to go out and get it—regardless of the consequences—was, I suspect, somewhat different.

What I found interesting is how and why that video turned up when it did. Burnett is Trump's partner on NBC's reality television show "Celebrity Apprentice." One suspects those behind-the-scenes videos are locked up somewhere in his personal vault. (And, as a parenthetical, I would note that no one ever found out who leaked this particular video and no other videos turned up during the campaign. Watch this space to see if Burnett, the man who made Trump a TV star, is rewarded somehow by Trump. Billy Bush, the other participant in the video dialogue, was paid $10 million for his part in the matter and "dismissed" from his job at NBC.) The video appeared on October 7, 2016, and, one can fairly say, it rocked the world.

That very same day, however, The New York Times also reported, "The Obama administration on Friday formally accused the Russian government of stealing and disclosing emails from the Democratic National Committee and a range of other institutions and prominent individuals..." This news, with potential elements of espionage and collusion and treason and computer hacking, had all the earmarks of a game-changing October surprise. Yet, it seemed to fade into the background when, by all rights, it should have been the single most important piece of news in the entire campaign. (To anticipate one argument, even if it wasn't the Russians who did the hacking and leaking to Wikileaks, the fact that the Obama administration publicly called Putin out on this matter was a major development that should have sent media and investigative reporters scrambling.) Instead, everybody got caught up in the lurid braggadocio of the GOP candidate, believing it would bring down Trump's campaign.

Yet, the opposite happened, and it happened because of its narrative significance. Though initially it registered negatively in the Pecksniffian press and media (often so predictably puritannical about sexual matters), as with any good plot point in a novel, this video managed to serve several important narrative purposes crucial to Trump's campaign narrative:
  • it brought massive amounts of attention—and further name recognition—to the Trump campaign (something I wrote about at length right after the party conventions);
  • at the same time, it provided cover for and a very real distraction from the truly world-shaking news that Vladimir Putin was actively intervening to affect our election process;
  • and, perhaps more importantly (certainly for purposes of this post), it perfectly reinforced Trump's masculinist narrative.
This was a critical moment in the campaign, and Trump's people knew it. If it came out that the Republican Presidential Nominee was somehow tainted or even in cahoots with the Russian dictator, the campaign was finished. Remarkably, the video was leaked. Was it an attempt by NBC to derail Trump, as many, especially at FoxNews complained? Or, was it a black bag or psy-op by the Trump campaign to take the scrutiny off his own business's and campaign's connections to Russia? Who's to say?

The point is: it happened, and Trump's personal masculinist narrative prevailed.

That is narrative power.

[to be cont'd]

12 December 2016

Narrative Power: Power Narratives, Pt. 2

[Part 1 can be found here]

In order to win, a competent United States presidential campaign must tell an effective story. It must provide a disparate, desperate, disaffected electorate/audience with a persuasive narrative.

The Trump campaign narrative was nearly mythic heroic in conception, analogous to the stories of Hercules: the entire country (its economy, its employment, its trade, its military, &c.) is a disaster, the U.S. government is a swamp of corruption and insider elitism, its establishment (all three branches of government and mainstream press & media) has no credibility, and the world-order is crumbling. All of this is conspiring against real Americans; and only he, Trump, can fix it. He will drain the swamp—clean out the Augean stables, if you will.

The Clinton narrative was more akin to a classic marriage plot. Our heroine achieves her aim by capturing and marrying the seemingly indifferent object of her affection—the voter. Clinton sought to cast the American electorate as the romantic lead whom she aimed to woo with her appeals to love and caring. She cares about good governance, keeping the household of state in order, dedicates herself completely and totally to it, and wants to bring the country together in a sense of shared patriotism. Capturing the vote would achieve the feel-good denouement—the happy ending—she, and by implication we all, desire.

The strong man vs. the good wife.

As I pointed out in the first post: "A coherent narrative, i.e., a well-told story, satisfies at least two basic human needs: (a) the need for authority and (b) the need for meaning." In a structural sense, these two fundamental goals of narrative in general actually worked in Trump's favor in this election, and he was able to exploit this advantage fairly convincingly.

In my pre-election six-part Frameworks series and post-election Aftermath post, I pointed out how Trump offered himself up as a classic Romantic hero, a candidate for the role of the "great man" of history consistent with a Republican deontological ethical philosophy. [Sorry about the big words.] Like a great novel, his narrative generated conflict after conflict, feuds, outrages, obstacles, and, importantly, Antagonists. He scapegoated Mexicans, Arabs, immigrants, inner city Democrats, corrupt Establishments in both parties, coastal elites, celebrities, and on and on. What's more, and as proof of concept, he managed to quell an apparently feuding GOP Establishment and bring them to heel. He gave a face to the causes of the angst he stoked in his followers, and he offered himself up as the strong Protagonist who alone could vanquish all those bugabears—including Hillary Clinton in all her corruption and dishonesty. He offered authority and meaning.

What's more, Trump managed to portray Hillary Clinton as ineffective, as a member of the elite, as an embodiment of the Establishment, as the face of all that 'otherness' that he asserted conspired against his constituency. And this portrayal of her stuck because it comported with her own self-characterization as a champion of diversity.

For my money, the absolute narrative climax of the campaign came in the second debate when Trump got in Clinton's face, pointed his finger at her, raised his voice angrily, and called her a criminal and said if he became President he was going to throw her in jail. He wasn't speaking to the moderator or the audience. He was confronting HER. It was a shocking moment. Nevermind the niggling protest of the Constitutional Separation of Powers, this was the Protagonist confronting and, at least rhetorically and showily, vanquishing his antagonist. It took.

It was the high point of an effective narrative. Character-driven. Full of intriguing plot twists and turns. A real page-turner. One simply did not know what the protagonist would do next (though you could rest assured it would be entertaining and rife with conflict). And the collective catharsis among his constituency when he won was as intensely purgative as Aristotle told us that a well-told tragedy should be after their emotions of (self-)pity and fear were triggered and, satifyingly, soothed.

The moral here is: Never underestimate the power of a good narrative, nor the consequences of failing to relate one. Quite frankly, the Clinton narrative did not have the classic power of Trump's. She was unable to wrestle the diverse, micro-targeted messages she was seeking to convey into a compelling, unified story. And in failing to do so, perhaps more importantly, she failed to portray herself as a powerful protagonist. She came across more often as a constant victim—of a vast right-wing conspiracy, of a Russian hack, of a rogue FBI faction and its intemperate Director, of a resentful mostly millennial Bernie constituency. Even of ill health.

And no one likes a passive hero. [Except, of course, for the 60+ million who voted for her, giving her at last count nearly three million more votes than Trump.]

What's more, she managed (with Trump's stong help) to come across as a classic unreliable narrator. In telling her own story, no one felt they could grasp quite what she really believed—again, a natural consequence of what I have called her all-things-to-all-people approach. Moreover, the promise of on-going scandal and investigation continuing long after her election did not portend a satisfying catharsis.

Clinton's appeal to love and positivity and diversity and competence, though denigrating Trump as a rank and divisive amateur, failed to identify a true villain or even any kind of strong cause for the brooding sense of anxiety that seemed to grip the electorate this cycle. And, perhaps most damningly, her campaign narrative had no effective climax or closure. No moral. She merely asked for everyone's votes because she deserved them. Very unsatisfying!

[to be cont'd]

29 November 2016

Narrative Power: Power Narratives, Pt. 1

There are many ways of looking at a thing. Some are more comprehensive than others, some more pointed. Even among the comprehensive views, there can be competing narratives. And that is the subject of this post.

In my previous posts, Aftermath and Post Mortem: Moral Morass, I've looked at the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election from the points of view of the philosophico-ethical theories driving the two campaigns and of the moral sentiments of the two audiences the two campaigns sought to engage. This post will examine the competing narratives the two campaigns sought to convey to their targeted constituencies—and their relative successes.

A political campaign seeks to tell a story—to present a narrative—about itself (and, of course, its adversary) that will persuade enough voters of the power of its cause. In this most recent election, roughly speaking, the Trump campaign narrative was something like: a smug Pepe the Frog vs. a corrupt, collapsing Meemaw. The Clinton campaign narrative, in broad strokes, was something like: Hermione Granger vs. Amateur Voldemort.

Those of us who write stories understand the power of narrative. But what is a narrative? And how does understanding the nature of narrative help us understand what happened in the 2016 Election?

Simply put, a narrative tells a story. Stories, first and foremost, seek to entertain us. They often provide examples that instruct us as well. Stories serve a further societal purpose—and have done so probably since the earliest peoples sat around fires and recounted their battle with a mastodon or their escape from a saber toothed tiger—they serve to bring people together.

Narratives satisfy at least two basic human needs: (a) the need for authority and (b) the need for meaning. They do this because every story: (a') must have a teller, i.e., a point of view or an authority and (b') carries some message or moral. Thus, stories essentially serve to: (a") salve the psychic wounds from the pervasive anxiety of existential insecurity and (b") reinforce our sense of the order of things. These are, by the way, essentially conservative functions.

A coherent narrative posits that everything is somehow connected and orderly, and that there is some author(-ity) behind this order providing meaning. That is why we turn to stories—on television, at the movies, in books, etc.—for comfort and a retreat from an otherwise indifferent and chaotic world.

I will end the first part of this essay with a quote from David Foster Wallace's essay "The Empty Plenum," his analysis of David Markson's experimental novel Wittgenstein's Mistress, where he puts it, inimitably, like this:
T. Pynchon, who has done in literature for paranoia what Sächer-Masoch did for whips, argues in his Gravity's Rainbow for why the paranoid delusion of complete & malevolent connection, whacko & unpleasant though it be, is preferable at least to its opposite—the conviction that nothing is connected to anything else & that nothing has anything intrinsically to do with you.
Narratives inflate our sense of self. Often falsely. At the same time, they comfort us with the illusion that things are somehow under control, and that it's probably better that they are.

[to be cont'd]

11 November 2016

Post Mortem: A Moral Morass

In my last post, Aftermath, I mentioned what I take to be the two distinct ethical philosophies motivating the two Presidential candidates. I had explored these views in a bit more depth in my post-Convention six-part essay Frameworks, if you're interested. In this post, instead of looking at how the candidates' strategies, tactics, and messages sought to implement their philosophies, I want to look at the intended audiences of those messages—the targets, the voters. How did those philosophies appeal to them? Why did they vote the way the did?

I want to warn you ahead of time, this is an uncomfortable post to write, and I suspect it will be uncomfortable in places to read. It deals with what is a divisive and often taboo subject, to wit: morality.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election saw an electorate divided almost precisely in half. Out of some 120 million votes cast, Hillary Clinton received around 230,000 more votes than Donald Trump—or 47.7% to 47.5% (as of this writing). Trump, of course, won the presidency due to the quirks of the way votes are apportioned by state in the Electoral College. I suggest that this split represents two very distinct views of morality and is, in effect, a war for the very soul of America.

Clinton's campaign sought to mobilize a broad and diverse and inclusive coalition of constituencies, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, feminists, millennials, and academics and urban intelligentsia, among others. Trump's campaign, by contrast, sought to energize a base of predominantly white, rural working class and otherwise disaffected voters. Before the election, it was practically a given that the former campaign approach would prevail—and, in fact, it did by a razor-thin margin that was insufficient to carry the electoral college. As I stated, however: "In retrospect, Clinton's coalition proved to be insufficiently broad and ultimately shallow, while Trump's base turned out to be unexpectedly deep and extremely motivated. Resentment and iconoclasm prevailed over progressive values and competent continuity."

An ethical philosophy seeks to explain the way people make decisions. Morality, by contrast, has to do with the way people feel about right and wrong, their judgment of things as good and bad. My view is that, among voters, the clash of two competing and, ultimately, incompatible moralities explains the split among the electorate.

The prevailing morality of Clinton's voters, I would suggest, is rights based. That is good which expands or protects or is sensitive to their vision of fundamental human rights. For example, the political and economic rights of minorities and the oppressed, or the right of a woman to control her reproductive choices, or the right to express one's bodily freedom and to self-identify, or the political right to exercise unfettered speech and assembly (within certain limits having to do with infringement of others' rights), etc. Clinton's voters, I believe, felt their view of morality was ascendant, and the last eight years under President Obama has done nothing to contradict this. Under their moral view, it is wrong or bad to oppose or limit these rights, and people who seek to do so are racist or xenophobic or homophobic or bigoted or misogynistic, for example. Make no mistake, these are terms of moral opprobrium. These are explicitly moral judgments.

This differs from what I take to be the prevailing morality of Trump's voters. In a word, their morality derives from certain traditional codes of behavior and social order. Morally, they see Clinton's voters as degenerates and baby killers. They see the moral order of things under assault. They are offended by open licentiousness in the broader culture and what they view as the heedless slaughter of the innocents. And for at least the last eight years they have felt their moral feelings have been increasingly under siege by the prevailing culture and politics. They resent the ascendancy of Clinton's constituencies and long for a time when what they view as basic moral decency prevailed. They feel hurt and insulted and seek to punish those who have held them in contempt as ignorant and bigoted. And, in a very real and larger sense, when they say they want to "Make America Great Again," they are asserting their own need to retreat to a moral "safe space."

Where Clinton voters woke up on November 9 wondering how they were going to explain to their children that the country elected a racist and sexist bigot as president, Trump's voters have been despairing about how to explain to their own children that a man who leads a sexually perverse lifestyle is the head of the U.S. Army or that a Reality TV star and former Olympic decathlon Gold Medalist considers himself to be a woman or that the Planned Parenthood in their neighborhood gets away with the brutal, heartless murder of precious human lives. Where Clinton's voters see progress being made with respect to the expansion of a diverse set of human rights, Trump's voters see an America sliding into the sort of decadence that doomed the Roman Empire. The left views the right as intolerant; the right sees the left as invasive.

Such moral feelings are not easily assuaged—on either side—precisely because they are feelings. What's more, what one side views as a moral issue may not be shared by the other side. For example, the issue with respect to abortion has been joined: women's right to bodily self-control vs. infanticide. This moral divide seems unbridgeable. Likewise, the issues surrounding LGBTQ people: the rights to self-identify and to love whomever one chooses vs. degeneracy and perversity.

Other issues are not so cleanly defined—at least in the moral realm. For example, where Clinton's constituents may see their opponents as racists, many of Trump's voters feel unfairly libeled. Certainly, the racist right identifies with Trump's brand of politics, but not all of his supporters feel they should be lumped in with the Klan and its allies. Many know and work and socialize with people of color and other ethnicities on a regular basis. Many others live in pockets where, in their day to day lives, they simply do not encounter such difference. Racist motives do not always come into play for many of them. Similarly, much of the anti-immigrant stance of the Trump constituency, while condemned as racist and xenophobic by Clinton's voters, might better be viewed as economically motivated; though, without question, there are necessarily racist and xenophobic elements in the mix.

These differences in how and which issues are joined can be traced back to something I argued in Frameworks and Aftermath. The deontological right judges actions by the intentions and motives of the actors; the consequentialist left, by contrast, looks primarily at the effects of the actions. Thus, if the effect of an anti-immigrant sentiment inequitably targets a minority group, the left rightfully in its view sees this as racist and/or xenophobic whereas the right might legitimately claim its motives were purely economic. (NB: We've seen some shenanigans in some places like North Carolina where admittedly racist voter suppression acts were cloaked in seemingly legitimate motives as a pretext. That is why courts are often called upon to look at the demographic effects of political actions to determine whether they impermissibly violate Constitutionally protected rights.)

As an aside: The moral conundrum (for me at least) of this election has to do with Donald Trump as the standard bearer of the right. He is a known philanderer, thrice-married, a womanizer; a litigious, corrupt fraud and gambling magnate; a coarse and vulgar Reality TV entertainer. Thoroughly immoral by either standard. Yet he carried the moralistic right—including evangelicals and other moral scolds—against a woman who is widely reputed to be a good Methodist. It would be easy to chalk this up to hypocrisy, but I do not think that such name-calling is a productive analysis. Rather, I surmise those on the moralistic right saw Clinton as someone who would continue the progressive assault on their heartfelt moral values that they believe has been on-going since at least the time of her husband. They believe that this progress is reversible and that America can be morally great again. And they see Donald Trump as an albeit flawed champion who can halt its spread in the culture. Whether they are deluded remains to be seen.

All that to say that moral issues are tangled and intensely felt. The moral divide I've described does not perfectly explain the 2016 election, but it does go a long way to providing some helpful context for understanding what is happening in our country. And it helps to explain why the campaigns ran the sort of messages (see Frameworks and Aftermath) they did, appealing to these divergent moral sentiments of their perceived bases of support.

As it stands, the country seems about evenly divided between two intractable moral systems, and right now one side holds all the levers of power. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to inculcate their values in the political and legal realms and, what's more, the extent to which these two incompatible moral visions can continue to peaceably coexist.

09 November 2016


The U.S. presidential election of 2016 is over now. Donald J. Trump will be the next President of the United States of America. How did this happen? What does it mean? Where do we go from here? On this morning after, I want to attempt to answer these questions.

Analysis is not prophecy, but a good, accurate analysis can clarify issues and reveal and anticipate underlying truths. Back in August, after the national political conventions, I posted a six-part essay analyzing the ethical underpinnings, the strategies, the tactics, and the messages of the two major political parties' candidates called Frameworks. You can find it here. Now the election's over, and it's time to take stock.

If you follow me on Twitter (@140xLangame) (and I encourage you to do so!), you will be aware of my political sentiments. Neither Frameworks nor this Post Script discuss or debate the merits of specific policy proposals of the candidates—or my political feelings.

Briefly, Frameworks posited that the ethical philosophy the GOP tends to favor is a deontological approach. That's a big word that means they prefer political decisions and actions that follow certain predetermined rules or principles or values without regard to the consequences and who might be affected by them. As a corollary, this favors a strong-man type leader who will pursue the agreed-upon ideology "damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" and lead the faithful against all criticism and opposition. The Democratic ethical philosophy favors a more consequentialist approach, asking how a given decision or action will affect its various constituencies. It favors an inclusive leader, sensitive to the demands of the people.

Strategically, Frameworks argued, the GOP and Trump was seeking to excite its base of supporters, exploiting their grievances and resentment and even rage against "the Establishment". The Democrats and Clinton, by contrast, sought to craft a broad, inclusive coalition of diverse constituencies. Tactically, Trump was relying on outrage, seeking to gin up conflicts and feuds and controversies that would generate free media for his message, hoping to translate this into actual votes. In this, he was wildly successful. In Frameworks, I made the observation that Clinton was seeking to implement a tried-and-true, data-driven, micro-targeting approach to get a message out that would please a set diverse constituencies. She was marginally effective in this, but seemed to miss out on and failed to address the concerns of perhaps the largest constituency in the overall electorate: economically disaffected and rural white voters.

In retrospect, Clinton's coalition proved to be insufficiently broad and ultimately shallow, while Trump's base turned out to be unexpectedly deep and extremely motivated. Resentment and iconoclasm prevailed over progressive values and competent continuity. (In my personal opinion, while Clinton failed to address this constituency, Trump's resort to anti-immigrant and anti-trade scapegoating misses the real root cause of the economic disaffection felt by his base, to wit: the upheavals brought about by rapid technological change on a scale not witnessed since, perhaps, the Guttenberg Revolution. For example, what's going to happen to all the truck drivers, cabbies, Über and Lyft drivers, etc., when self-driving vehicles displace them? Those jobs will not be lost to immigrants or foreign trade agreements. Watch this space for more analysis of the effects of this ongoing technological revolution.)

This is to say nothing of specific policy issues. Trump's main issues seemed to be: immigration reform, infrastructure upgrade, economic populism, and an America first trade and foreign policy. These policies were never developed in any kind of granular detail, and he has been inconsistent in his statements of his feelings about them. I suspect he will leave that for lower level managers to hammer out. And what's more, unlike President Obama, he will not have the enormous disadvantage of an organized, minority party opposition with significant control of any of the levers of power. He will have no excuses—or Democratic scapegoats to blame—if he does not come through for his rabid base.

Though explicitly detailed, Clinton's 'all things to all people' approach to policy—issuing policy prescriptions aiming to please all the people all the time—failed to generate the sort of excitement it takes to win a convincing national electoral majority. (Though, as of this writing, she appears to have won the popular vote). It is not clear whether the Democrats will feel the need to alter their detailed policy prescriptions approach going forward.

The recriminations on the Democratic side, however, will now begin. In no particular order:

  • Did entrenched misogyny play a role in the defeat of Hillary Clinton?
  • Could Sen. Bernie Sanders have won the general election if the DNC hadn't conspired against him (as many of his supporters believe), or, more likely, did the pique of Sanders' passionate supporters and his own lukewarm support for Clinton dampen Democratic turnout in the general election?
  • Was Russia/Wikileaks running an undercover operation against her?
  • Did FBI Director James Comey's meddling affect the process, especially early voting?
  • Did states' voter suppression tactics after the repeal of sections of the Voting Rights Act lead to disenfranchisement of her natural constituencies?
  • Were third party candidates' vote totals sufficient to make up Clinton's margin of defeat in key battleground states?
  • Was Clinton simply an awful candidate, especially given her health issues?
  • Was Clinton too apparently aligned with neo-Con hawks to sufficiently bring out her base?
  • Was her campaign team too smug and over-confident, too reliant on polls that proved misleading and wrong?
  • Did the media's normalization of Trump's outrages and its constant uncritical airing of GOP anti-Clinton talking points dampen her turnout?
  • Did years of GOP and Congressional Committee coordinated attacks on her trustworthiness and character assassination (Benghazi, emails, etc.) finally take its toll on her ability to get her message of competence across?
  • All of the above?

I suspect there are good arguments, pro and con, on each of these points. Likewise, I don't believe any one of them was sufficient of itself to sway the election—especially given Clinton's popular vote win. Most likely it was some combination of all these factors.

Given these points, I do not know what shape a Democratic minority opposition will take going forward. The GOP has certainly set a template with its obstructionism—from the so-called 'cloakroom conspiracy' back in January, 2008, to its shutting down the government in 2013 and continued threats to do so again, to its blockade of the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court this year. The Democrats will have to continue to reach out to the broadest, most diverse constituencies; it's in their DNA. But the party will also need to address the sense of displacement and disenfranchisement pervasive in the land. And it will have to do so with conviction and emotion—not simply technocratic, wonky policy white papers. (And as I opined above, by getting at the true root causes of this despair: the upheavals due to the massive ongoing technology revolution.)

President-elect Trump will now begin to consolidate his power, figure out what he truly wants to do, assess what he can and cannot get away with, and put assets in place to carry out his plans. There are still rifts in the GOP, and I do not know whether its moderate wing can survive other than as a whimpering, submissive abused puppy. Others, likely a reformed RNC, will take to heart the message that a combination of brash leadership and extremism on the right can excite a very real disaffected base of support sufficient to sustain a national electoral tsunami.

This was not a traditional Conservative/Liberal election, though. That much is clear. Nor was it precisely a Class Warfare referendum, the GOP being traditionally the party of the "haves". The divides, rather, seem to lie more on the fault lines of educated/uneducated, urban/rural, majority (white-straight)/minority, Southern + Rust Belt/coastal schisms. Though, given the propensities of the GOP, there does seem to be a good chance they will interpret this victory as somehow a vindication of Randian policies—again, missing the point entirely. Whether Trump allows them to revert to this typical knee-jerk reaction or whether the powers that be bring him to heel, however, remains to be seen.

04 November 2016

J-tree Silhouettes

Thumbing through the tons of photographs I took on my trip to Joshua Tree National Park this week, I noticed an interesting theme emerging: Silhouettes. It's a place you must see! It has a pre-historic feel. Here's a selection of my snaps (as always, click a pic to embiggen a slideshow; right click to download)(all, by the way, taken with my iPhone 6—Wisdoc kept her good camera to/for herself):

26 October 2016

In the Shadows

In 1989 Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, published the following comic book: Shadowplay: The Secret Team. (He also published a companion piece which will follow shortly here.)

For those of you too young to remember, this concerns a so-called Shadow Government being run out of the "basement" of the Reagan White House that engaged in illegal deals with the Iranian revolutionary government, drug smuggling, and arms running—and included elements of the CIA and the National Security Council. If you think there are shenanigans going on in the current election cycle, this was a genuine conspiracy—no theory here. Pres. Reagan admitted it on national television. There were actual convictions (subsequently overturned on technicalities having to do with prior Congressional grants of immunity). This was ugly. People died.

Sometimes a dark comic book can be the best way of bringing home the reality of that era. Nothing about it, however, is funny.

[If the above embedded comic book is not fully functional, you can find the web archive here and even download it for free.]

21 October 2016

This Week in Water

I apologize for not posting regularly. I've been distracted by clamorous U.S. politics, the glimmer at the end of the tunnel of my second novel, Twitter, October baseball, inter alia. However, our home planet's most precious resource is still in peril and should lay claim to our attention.

Plastic pollution, virtually indestructible, is choking oceanic ecosystems and threatening coastal economies.

The presence of trillions of pieces of plastic garbage in Earth's oceans is a chief component of evidence for the argument by scientists that the planet has entered a new epoch, the Antropocene, defined by human meddling and spoilage. The Smithsonian looks at the global water shortages to identify truly stressed areas in the Anthropocene.

Tropical fish collectors in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are killing the coral reefs with cyanide and bleach used to stun the colorful aquarium dwellers.

High salt and arsenic concentrations are threatening one of the world's largest freshwater aquifers in South Asia which supplies some three-quarters of a billion people.

Unified Native American and First Nations tribal groups continue to protest a Dakota Access Pipeline on reservation land near Standing Rock, North Dakota, that will endanger freshwater sources. Keep up with the news here.

Flint, Michigan's drinking water crisis continues. News here.

Water has become a luxury for the people of the Indian state of Punjab, much of it shipped in from elsewhere as the drought there continues.

A large sinkhole sent contaminated water and fertilizer plant waste into Florida's main drinking-water aquifer.

An unknown but substantial amount of coal ash was discharged from Duke Energy storage ponds into the Neuse River as a result of flooding from Hurricane Matthew in Eastern North Carolina.

The largest recorded earthquake in East Texas was triggered by hydrofracking, the high-volume injection of wastewater from oil and gas activities deep underground.

The world is unprepared for the "truly staggering" effects of a warming ocean.

Iran's salty Lake Urmia turned from a deep green to blood red due to algae and bacteria blooms caused by drought, heat, and demand for irrigation water.

Greenland's ice is melting even faster than scientists previously calculated.

The island nation of Kiribati is doomed by rising seas and will soon be completely underwater.

Migrants seeking refuge in Europe continue to die in unprecedented numbers in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted evidence of water vapor plumes on Europa, one of Jupiter's moon. Meanwhile, NASA's Cassini space probe has found evidence of a global ocean beneath the icy crust of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons.

22 September 2016

This Week in Water

Lots to report on this week. It's easy to focus on the depredations of flood, drought, overheating and rising seas, pollution, &c, with respect to our world's most precious resource. However, as promised last time, this post will focus on some positive and interesting aspects on this always timely subject.

Spending time in, on, around, and under the ocean reduces the stress hormone cortisol and increases the feel-good hormones—serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine—in humans. [And you wonder why scuba diving is one of my favorite things in the world!]

President Obama has quadrupled the size of the world's largest natural marine sanctuary, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii.

Wondering what we can do to preserve our oceans and other international bodies of water? Here's one look at the subject.

Dolphins use complex language and sentences to chat with each other much the same way humans do. We have yet to crack their code or effectively translate.

Deep water desalination from Monterey Bay may resolve environmental problems posed by seawater intakes from shallower, closer in sources.

One of the driest countries on Earth, Israel, now makes more freshwater than it needs.

Scientists are improving desalination technologies throughout the Middle East, reducing both (a) excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the region's oil and natural gas extrusion industries and (b) excess briny salt waste from desalination.

Engineers from Georgia Tech and Nanjing University have developed a new solar desalination process based on self-assembling nanoparticle membranes using low-cost, abundant, stable materials.

After raising some 1.5 billion Euros, a 21-year old whom we've reported on before is set to test his technological solution for ridding the ocean of plastic.

Harvard scientists have created an artificial photosynthesis system—a bionic leaf—that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels—which may obviate someday the need for drilling for fossil fuels.

Nanotechnology may save the Cascajo wetlands an endangered and contaminated lake near Lima, Peru.

NASA plans to map coral reefs from the air to further demonstrate the impact of climate change and ocean warming.

NASA's Dawn space probe has found signs of water on dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered evidence of volcanoes erupting under ice sheets on the Red Planet billions of years ago.

NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft discovered a distinct water-ice signature on the surface of Pluto's outermost moon, Hydra.

NOAA scientists discovered a new form of jellyfish that lights up like a children's toy.

Physicists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have discovered a new state of water molecule—beyond gas, liquid, and solid.

Good stuff!

06 September 2016

Baby Blue

I used to do more of this—themed DJ-ing, that is. Got a wild hair this Labor Day weekend and decided to publish a playlist of songs from my iTunes with "Baby Blue" in the title (at least the ones I could find on YouTube). And, still, the greatest use of a power pop tune by a television show or movie has to be the Badfinger version in the final scene of Breaking Bad. Simply. Perfect.

(P.S. There's a terrific song by Evelyn Forever which I cannot find on-line. It's from their album 'Lost in the Supermarket'.)

26 August 2016

This Week in Water

Still playing a bit of catch-up here. Lots to report, so let's dig in:

In the U.S., the state of Louisiana experienced unprecedented rainfall and widespread destructive flooding.

The historic drought in Southern California has caused a spate of catastrophic fires in and around the Los Angeles area.

Algae blooms in U.S. bodies of water are becoming all too common.

Farm fertilizer runoff is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of the state of Connecticut.

Permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes is thawing as a result of increasingly warmer winters.

Arctic sea ice may be reaching its lowest-ever levels and could become ice-free for the first time in 100,000 years.

In Syria, amid the on-going civil war and devastation, the embattled city of Aleppo has no running water.

In Iran, Lake Urmia has turned from a deep green to blood red due to algae and bacteria blooms.

In Africa, Lake Tanganyika fisheries are declining from overfishing and the effects of global warming.

Historic flooding in Paris threatened artworks in the Louvre and Orsay museums.

Let's leave it off here. Next time we'll look at some positive developments in the world of our planet's most precious resource.

17 August 2016

Frameworks, Pt. 6

Let's see if we can bring this unruly essay full circle. We began with a general ethical framework for looking at the two major U.S. political parties. Republican candidates, we asserted, tend to be 'deontological' in orientation, and Democrats tend to be 'consquentialist' in their choice of candidates.

That's a couple of pretty big terms. Don't let that turn you off. Let's try to unpack them. Deontological ethics, which has its origins in religious texts and moral codes, judges the rightness or wrongness of a given action by whether it adheres to a given set of rules or, generously, principles. It looks at the character of the act itself, and in certain political iterations at the virtuous intentions of the actor to adhere to those rules. Shorthand version: rule-following is good; purity of intentions is better.

Consequentialist ethics, which is a by-product of the rationalist Enlightenment, judges the rightness or wrongness of a given action by the effects it seeks to bring about. Utilitarianism (see, e.g., Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill) is a species of consequentialism which states that a given political action should produce the greatest amount of pleasure (or good or happiness—however defined) for the greatest number. Consequentialism tends to favor a certain pragmatism in action, but is more concerned with the effects a given action causes. Shorthand: what's good is what's good for the greatest number; what's best is what's good for all.

These, of necessity, are very cursory definitions of these two approaches to gauging political actions, but for purposes of this blog essay, they will suffice.

Generations of philosophy students will be familiar with the old hypothetical thought experiment of being thrust into a situation in a remote village where you are forced to make a decision either (a) to personally execute one innocent member of a group of hostages, or else (b) to do nothing, in which case the hostage-takers will murder the entire village. If you are a confirmed rule-follower who operates under a "thou shall not kill" ethos—that is to say a deontologist—then you will likely choose as a matter personal morality not to kill the innocent hostage. If you are a consequentialist, on the other hand, you might decide that it is better to swallow your pride and sacrifice your integrity and kill an innocent person in the hopes of saving the rest of the village.

Neither choice is particularly savory, obviously. But political decisions, I suspect, can often be like that. Bright-line rules don't always apply. Principles crumple in the face of unforeseen circumstances. I do believe that this type of analysis can help to understand the two major presidential candidates this year.

Within this ethical framework, we've looked at the candidacy of Donald Trump as projecting the image of a strong individual whose every action as President will inculcate a certain set of rules and principles (specifically conservative ones)—regardless of outcome and effect on, for example, the economy or international relations or entire classes of people. Hillary Clinton's image, by contrast, is that of a competent and experienced political actor whose actions seek the input of the broadest manageable coalition of her constituents and therefore will redound to the benefit the greatest number of people—beholden to no hard and fast particular ideological set of rules or principles (right or left).

Philosophically, this is how I see the choice this year. This has been my look at how I believe the candidates propose to govern, not what their specific policies or promises might be. I believe this is an incredibly important analysis because, frankly, no one can predict what sorts of issues or changed circumstances the next president will have to face. Promises are promises and often fall by the wayside in the face of obstruction and opposition or changed circumstances. Likewise, policies are policies, but unreasoning or even forced application of a given set of policies to different situations could have unforeseeable and potentially disastrous results.

[As a footnote, a quick analysis of Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, on this framework might look something like this: like Trump, she appears to be a deontologist, but unlike Trump her operant rules and principles are doctrinaire leftist in orientation. Her intentions might be pure (as, for example, an environmentalist)—and that is her strong allure—but she doesn't have the coalition of constituencies necessary at the outset to be able to gauge what would be the best sort of particular actions to bring about a desired set of results in any given situation. Even a pure leftist cannot rule by fiat in a democratic society.

Gary Johnson, by contrast, looks to me like a consequentialist of sorts, but a wrongheaded one. His policies are libertarian in orientation. He seeks to cut government out of nearly every aspect of life. The inevitable, direct result of radically cutting government regulation and taxes will be increased inequality—whether this is intentional or unintentional is unknown. His actions will directly benefit those few already in a position to maintain or even advance their economic and political interests on their own. It will directly remove protections for the most vulnerable. He seems to believe that such a move will indirectly and at some future point in time benefit the majority—though that can never be guaranteed.]

15 August 2016

Frameworks, Pt. 5

To recap Part 3, Donald Trump's tactical approach to consolidating and energizing his base is to manufacture outrage. In Part 4, we discussed the contrasting strategic approach of the Hillary Clinton campaign. How, then, is Hillary Clinton attempting to carry out her 'all things to all people' strategy?

Where Trump needs to build toward an electoral majority from a solid base on the extreme right wing, Clinton needs to stake out a broad segment of the general electorate from a center-left position. To do this, her campaign is seeking to expand her coalition by moving both leftward toward the Sanders base of the Democratic party and allied independents and rightward toward the middle in order to capture a broad majority.

As we've seen, Trump's is a bit of a blunderbuss maneuver—earned media, tweets, gigantic rallies (all empowered by his ratings manipulating outrageous "bullshit"). Clinton's tactical approach is the tried-and-true use of data-driven messaging, or micro-targeting.

If the Clinton campaign wants to appeal to a certain demographic that relies heavily on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, &c.) they employ celebrities and commenters the users of these platforms like/follow/&c. To appeal to serious policy types, she and her influential surrogates publish policy papers and statements in important journals and magazines and newspaper editorial pages. To target informed members of the boomer generation who get most of their information from cable television, her campaign distributes talking points and deploys winsome, attractive talkers to significant programs and talk shows. To appeal to traditional Democrats, the campaign brings out party bigwigs to rallies, fund-raisers, television and radio programs to extol her policies and virtues. She holds private fund-raisers for wealthy donors. She gives talks to a wide range of interest groups. She holds campaign rallies in key precincts and swing districts (something the Trump campaign has yet to master!). Moreover, the campaign and its allies are using traditional, professionally-created ads to reach specific low-information populations through the television and radio programming they consume. And, lastly, the campaign is deploying many professionals and many more volunteers to battleground areas they believe they can win in order to get out the vote—the so-called ground game.

This is the traditional data-driven path to electoral victory we are used to seeing in U.S. elections. It is expensive and involves an enormous amount of energy and resources. It also requires precise data and precision targeting of resources. The Clinton campaign has drawn on and updated Obama's wildly and unexpectedly successful 2008 campaign playbook. It is a very professional operation which seems to have learned key lessons from it previous mistakes and failures.

The essential message of the campaign, as we've indicated, is that Hillary Clinton has the knowledge, experience, and competence required for the job of the presidency. Again, in contrast to Trump's wildly outlandish and, frankly, amateurish claims, her message—agree or disagree—is precise, consistent, and focused.

She has been the wife of a President, a U.S. Senator, and the Secretary of State—all of which count as relevant experiences. It is certainly appropriate to take exception to any of her specific policy proposals or to debate the merits of her specific prior actions or performance in government or out (and that's not what this series of posts is about). Only one of those prior roles, however, specifically and directly relates to her 'all things to all people' strategic claim: her experience as Senator. And there are really only two data points worth considering in this regard.

Clinton was first elected Senator from the State of New York in 2000 by a 55-43% vote. She served for 6 years and ran for re-election in 2006, winning by a 67-31% electoral landslide. That's an enormous 12% increase in popularity after serving for 6 years, with a population sample size of 19 million and during which time New York had a Republican Governor, George Pataki (1995-2005).

Can she be all things to all people? No. But she proved to the people of New York that she could increase her popularity and outreach to a very broad spectrum of a diverse electorate.

The Clinton organization knows who the targets of her campaign should be, and they are aggressively messaging them. They seem to be willing to write off the 10% or so of the Bernie Sanders supporters who will never vote for her in order to appeal to the broad moderate middle of the electorate. They know, too, they can never win over the staunch, near-extremist base of support for Donald Trump. But between those two constituencies there is a lot of room to maneuver, and that's where they've chosen to set their sites and target their message.

11 August 2016

Frameworks, Pt. 4

[Quick reminder: in this first major section of this on-going Frameworks essay, we are attempting to analyze the strategies of the two major presidential campaigns. This is not an issue-by-issue policy examination or critique; it's more in the nature of a look at the animating, or structural, philosophies behind whatever specific rhetoric and policy provisions they have and will put forth.]

As we've seen with in Pt. 2 and Pt. 3, Trump and the GOP are using controversy and even fractious conflict to manufacture outrage in the belief it will be sufficient to drive an expanded and newly energized base to the polls in November.

The Democrats and Hillary Clinton are pursuing a very different strategy. At their convention, they trotted out a dizzyingly diverse array of political star power—the sorts of cabinet members, Governors, Senators, Representatives, and local and regional politicians that were noticeably missing from the Republican convention. They appealed to a broad range of constituencies. Where Trump and the GOP are directing their efforts specifically to a circumscribed base, Clinton's approach is more of an "all things to all people" approach.

The Democrats reached out to the passionately committed supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders' insurgency campaign as well as to the national security professional class. They spotlighted Black Lives Matter as well as police unions. They specifically appealed to various individual identity interest groups: LGBTQ people, African-Americans, Latinos, Arab-Americans, Jews, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, among others. They actively sought the votes of working and middle class folks as well as billionaire donors—labor, management, and owners. They even courted moderate Republicans!

Their hope is to expand their coalition of constituencies rather than constrict their focus to their base. Their convention was a clamorous and somewhat racous cacophany of competing interest groups vying for attention. It used a grand spectacle replete with a mixture of unabashed patriotism and specific policy proposals to attempt to ensure everyone who wanted to be was heard on the issues that matter to them. If the Republicans sought to move toward a more right-wing extremism, the Democrats sought to expand from the middle outward in both directions.

Where the GOP convention offered a vision of a crumbling, humiliated America, the Democratic convention proclaimed that America was once again on the rise—a great nation that will only get greater. The overriding theme had to do with the progress the country has made since President Obama took office after the disastrous Republican presidency of George W. Bush in the midst of the deepest and most serious recession since the 1930's and two seemingly interminable quagmire wars while admitting that there was more work to be done, more progress to be made.

Where Trump is selling outrage in the face of despair, Clinton is selling steady progress and calm continuity. Clinton's campaign is more policy- and performance-driven. She is running on her resume, her knowledge, and her competence. She claims that, by virtue of her vast experience in government, she is ready to hit the ground running on day one. She offers a smorgasbord of well-developed and well-thought-out and vetted policies suggested by a broad range of constituencies. And she knows how to work the levers of power to accomplish those aims.

The Democratic convention also offered a direct and precise emotional counterbalance to the Republican's Trumpfest. If Trump projected an image of the pessimistic, stern, domineering, even distant father who always knows what's best for his dependents but who assures them he is there to defend them, Clinton projected an image of the compassionate, empathic grandmotherly figure standing ready with open arms to soothe the emotional scars and welcome and protect the child from the intemperate outrages of the abusive father. "Love Trumps Hate," as the slogan goes.

[This may sound like simplistic psychobabble, but make no mistake about it: infantilizing the electorate is always a part of both political conventions' emotional subtext. George Lakoff's brilliant essay "Understanding Trump" explains why this so: "What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families." This is the rhetorical frame Republicans are particularly good at exploiting, he asserts, and that Democrats perennially fail at. It is my hope that this series of posts will explain, at least in part from a philosophical point of view, why this is necessarily the case and why that is not necessarily a bad thing.]

If the Democrats' strategy works, it could be a game-changer, signalling a new political landscape balance and reversing what has been the standard demographic trends since the Reagan era.

Next: How does Hillary Clinton hope to carry out this strategy?