Friday, May 26, 2017

The Devil





I once wrote a blog entry about the song, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia."  In the song, a boy named Johnny bets his soul for the chance to win a golden fiddle.  My point was that once Johnny enters the bargain, he loses no matter what.  Either his soul is immediately gone, or it gets corrupted by his cynical act.  The Devil himself cannot lose.  It seems almost optimal for him to send the shiny fiddle out into the world with the boy, a catalyst of envy and pride centered on acquisition and ostentation.

What does this have to do with Donald Trump?   Although Trump is not literally the Devil, there is something Screwtape-Letter-ish about him.  To engage with him is to face the possibility of great corruption and descent.  It is to encounter a critical moment of choice.  To bow to Trump, hoping for power or money, to praise or normalize him,  is to suffer a taint.  This includes defending him even when you know he is wrong, or should know.

Trump, on the other hand, can't lose.  He is devilishly impervious.  His infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" remarks to Billy Bush on the Hollywood Access tape cost the latter his job.  Bush wasn't the one saying offensive things.  He chuckled and affirmed, which was bad enough for damnation.   Trump defended himself by claiming it was "locker room talk."  Athletes everywhere took offense.  Nevertheless, Trump went on to win the Presidency, thereby gaining a perverse reinforcement of public approval, and showcasing how deep the rabbit hole of sexism goes.

Bush recently said, "I'm in a lot of locker rooms, I am an athlete, and no, that is not the type of conversation that goes on or that I've participated in."  He added that he regretted his response to Trump's comments.  After listening to the tape replayed just once, he said he was "shocked and alarmed and totally and completely gutted."

Donald Trump 1, Billy Bush 0. 

Consider Trump in relation to women, money and prestige.  In all cases, he accumulates 'victories,' measured by crass standards, while spreading harm, pain and anti-virtues, which is to say, sinful attitudes and acts.  His so-called victories are ethical tragedies, bringing out the worst in people, groups, towns, and now even a nation.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Trump will maim the world order.  The USA, his bully pulpit, sets an imperious standard.

Regarding females, Trump habitually focuses on physical appearance and sex.  He has bragged coarsely about his exploits and dropped insults of the most vulgar sort.  A large number of women have come out and claimed he has assaulted them.  Over years of visits on the Howard Stern show, he amused a large audience with the crudest of objectifications.  Miss America entrants report abuse and voyeurism, including participants in Miss Teenage America.

Concerning money, Trump swims in a golden lifestyle.  His aureate towers surely remind well-read Christians of Baal, the false god in the Bible whose symbol was the golden calf.  He has gone bankrupt a number of times, leaving  a wake of ruined investors and crumbled enterprises, including casinos.  Many have claimed he cheated or swindled them.  He settled one recent lawsuit concerning Trump University for an undisclosed amount. 

In terms of prestige, Trump has been a mogul, a media star, and now the most powerful man in the world.  A large portion of Americans support him ardently.  Wherever he goes there are fawning admirers and servile workers.  And yet he lies continuously.  These lies are of such flagrant magnitude that for almost anyone else they would bring backlash and downfall.  Trump hurtles onward.  He throws juvenile insults at anyone he wants, it seems.  A war hero.  The parents of a slain soldier.  A disabled journalist.  Fellow Republicans.  Women.  Blacks.  Immigrants.  It doesn't stop.

In a Devil-worthy sense, you could say that Trump has it all.  He revels in carnal obscenity and filthy lucre, infecting as he goes.  To be clear, making  money is not necessarily a bad thing.  The female/male interaction can be complementary and beautiful.  And fame offers a platform for healthy role-modeling.  But Trump redefines achievement as narcissistic excess.  He renders it ugly.  He rides a zeitgeist of anger that festers in a bigoted demographic.  He is, in essence, an ambassador of bullying.   Verbal violence has been his way to reach conclusions and win arguments.  Physical violence will also be his tool, now that he has control of military and police forces.

David Letterman recently remarked that Trump has no soul.  Letterman hosted Trump many times on his show ("He was just a big, wealthy dope who’d come on and we would make fun of his hair").  But now, "He’s demonstrated himself to be a man without a core, a man without a soul ... Is there a guy in there?”

One of the scariest commentaries comes from the person who ghost-wrote  "The Art of the Deal."  Tony Schwartz now has massive regret.  In the New Yorker he says, "I put lipstick on a pig."  It wasn't sufficient for his contrition.  In a Washington Post article a few days ago, he writes:


Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time ... When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down — even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt.


At Halloween, many of us roleplay the Darth Vader, the monster, the vampire.  We might fantasize about being a dictator.  Wouldn't it be nice to be rich, surrounded by servants, to insult and command who we want?  But Trump makes it obvious that he is in his own personal hell.  The fantasy of power is not the reality.

Maybe Trump's most devilish quality is that he seems like somebody who has already lost their soul.  It's not that the soul will be lost later as part of some Faustian bargain. 

Schwartz again:


From the very first time I interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower in 1985, the image I had of Trump was that of a black hole. Whatever goes in quickly disappears without a trace. Nothing sustains. It’s forever uncertain when someone or something will throw Trump off his precarious perch — when his sense of equilibrium will be threatened and he’ll feel an overwhelming compulsion to restore it.


Bottomless addiction.  Permanent shallowness.  Incessant pain.  It's a sad tale.  It makes me think of a person who has been 'taken', a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

A lot of Trumpian traits are common.  Domestic abusers contradict reality.  Pathological criminals claim innocence, show no compunction, manipulate with ease.  Addicts accuse others.  The general tactic of ranting to subvert critical thought is ubiquitous.

If Trump is like the Devil then the Devil is impotent.  Small and diminished of capacity and sense.  Closing the mind and refusing to budge is cowardice next to a journey of self-reflection, education, and all the wonderful, painful, joyous freedoms that arise.  The ability to appreciate in humility at the miraculous level, attaining a fundamental compassion, is humanity at its best.

I said above that Billy Bush lost.  But he didn't.  He won.  Bush is now trying to make a comeback.  He says that his experience with Trump has made him more aware of the issues women face.  He has connected more with his three daughters.

We romanticize dark gambles.  Johnny betting his soul for a golden instrument.  The real way to win is not to play, to eschew the bargain.  Trump shows us that sexism, racism, and many other psychological sicknesses are prevalent.  He shows us what we need to change, if civilization is to survive.  We should resist Trumpian dysfunctions, not just as standards for our leaders but as social norms as well.  On one side sits a conformist intransigence whose mortar is hate.  On the other, a fascinating frontier of mind and passion awaits us.



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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ignorance As Capital




Trump has shown us that ignorance is a kind of capital.  The Penguin Dictionary of Economics defines "capital" as:  "Assests which are capable of generating income and which have themselves been produced."  Is ignorance produced?  Belief systems that embrace ignorance are constantly being disseminated, inculcated and reinforced.  One example is the incessant social recreation of sexism in our institutions, communities, habits, and thoughts.  It need not be, and usually isn't, blatant, of course.  It is frequently subtle, subliminal, insinuative.

The other part of the definition concerns money.  How does ignorance generate income?  The basic answer is that ignorance brings power.  And power, of course, can generate income.  Any successful demagogue can gain revenue via donations, perks, connections and corruptions. 

However, the power of a President or politician is much more than a revenue magnet.  Such power can directly affect human behavior on a tremendous scale.  It orchestrates what sociologists call 'swarm behavior.'  National behavior. 

So, ignorance as capital can be lucrative and transformative in striking ways, to understate the matter. 

Such capital, we are seeing, more than ever, is reliable, trustworthy, stable.  Recent events have shown that this is true,  even in a democracy, where free speech allows access to all sides of an argument with considerably clarity.  Ignorance, properly maintained, is as structural as a factory or mobilization of engines, producing power for its owner.   Today in American, at the very top, the owner is Donald Trump. 

Again, from the Dictionary :  "All capital is ... the product of labour and raw materials."  What is the labor here, in terms of producing ignorance?  It is rhetorical persuasion.  The ability to pitch.  A labor of rhetoric is, in part, a labor of ideas--in the form of bigotries, fallacies, sophistries, flourishes, insinuations, paranoias and hate-strategies--working on the raw minds of the masses.  Charisma is essential, body language and tone.  Trump has a genius for convincing people that he is 'like them,' 'understands them' and is 'on their side.'  A salesman's guile. 

The raw material, then, for the capital of ignorance, is no less than the malleable human mind.

Republicans are starting to catch on.  They are, at some level, beginning to realize the extraordinary value of ignorance as capital.  They knew something about it before.  They are like minor snake oil sellers, now learning from a master deceiver. 

At the start of his Presidential campaign, everyone on both sides laughed at Trump.  He is absurd, he is preposterous.  A clown.  He blatantly lies.  He is rude and offensive.  The joke, though, is on us.  Masses of blue collar Americans were sick of traitorous politicians, exemplified by the economic collapse of 2008.   Trump went to work on them to build his capital of ignorance.  His approval rating climbed, even as he led the pack of GOP candidates early on. 

And then it turned out that he could say almost anything, no matter how implausible, and his followers would nod or even cheer.

Thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11on the rooftops of New York.  No problem.  Calling a war hero, who is also a Republican Senator, a coward.  Easy.  Dissing a gold star father whose military son was slain in the call of duty.  Why not?  Mock a disabled reporter with crude gestures?  Great.  Embrace the dictator Putin and liken America to Russia in terms of its injustices?  Yeah. 

And on and on.

Trump even said, ominously, that he could shoot someone in the street and his followers would lie down for him.  Just yesterday, Trump did in effect shoot, launching missiles at the Syria government.  With so much ignorance on his side, churning out power for him, he can, it seems, 'shoot' anywhere he wants. 

Here's Trump getting his followers to blindly raise their hands in a quite recognizable gesture:


http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/03/05/trump_supporters_raise_right_hands_to_pledge_support_to_donald_trump.html


What about hideous and disgusting sexist remarks ("just grab 'em by the pussy") and racist remarks ("rapists and criminals")?  These strengthen Trump's anti-virtuous assets in the profitable realm of ignorance.  The machinery of ignorance. after all, runs on nasty things.   An oil of hate, a grease of fear, gears and sprockets that chew up specific scapegoats.

"Make America Great Again" translates into "Make America White , with Male Leadership, Again." This commercial-worthy trick is obvious from a marketer's perspective.  There are so many dog whistles and clues in Trump's speeches, tweets and style. 

But, one of the 'great' things about investing in ignorance is that it becomes self-justifying.  "Logic Immune" is taped on the side of ignorance's packaging.  As I said, the capital of ignorance is very stable.  More than any of us thought it could be, at least in America, not so long ago.

Over and over, I have heard pundits say that Trump is unpredictable.  This is totally wrong.  His underlying message is steeped in a consistent white nationalism.  There are many fascist elements.  These include militarism, industrialization, protectionism, jingoism, divinity (perfect leader), the ideal of a purified people, a lost golden era (righteous nostalgia), authoritarianism, patriarchy, and surely more that I've missed.

To the extent that Trump is unpredictable , it can work for him.  As a diversionary tactic.  As a way to test what works best.  As a means to cement loyalty and trust.   If a follower cannot rationally justify the bizarre behavior of a leader, they will do so, instead, with emotion--emotion that rises to whatever level of intensity is necessary.  Indeed, the option of true discernment, of real consideration, gets shut down and forgotten. 

What else is great about ignorance as capital, as a way to produce power?  We've seen that it is stable.  That it generates income.  That it moves minds and bodies on a mass scale.   How strong is this people- control?  I have said that ignorance undercuts reason.  Actually, it co-opts reason.  When that happens, even the most intelligent people will spin arguments to fit their prejudice.  In psychological jargon:  confirmation bias.

Taped on the side of the packaging of ignorance:  "Logic Immune" and "Smart Ignorance (c)"

So, yes, ignorance can be very smart.  Even brilliant in service to its owner.  It can facilitate its own spread.  That is another tremendous plus, hard to overestimate.

Is that all?  Is there more?  What else can this mind-control aspect of ignorance achieve?  The answer is:  major parasitism.  A demagogue who has amassed enough ignorance can siphon followers' money, even make them poor, sacrifice their health, rob them of opportunity, dignity and benefits.  

"Logic Immune"  "Smart Ignorance (c)"  "Self-Spreading" "Improved Parasite Grip (c)"

It is a trick long known to Republicans.  The strategy:  (a) appeal to deep social values to capture your audience, then (b) once elected, pass economic policies that hurt them.   It started with Nixon's Southern Strategy, a successful move to harness racism. 

Important to emphasize;  the capital of ignorance is not about eliminating, diminishing or criticizing racism or other entrenched unfairness; it is, rather, about stoking unfairness to generate power.  Until the collapse of 2008, this worked well enough for Republicans.  Then Trump came along and took the rhetoric to a new, extreme level.

What did we learn from Trump's extreme (which is now the new norm)?  In the language of gamers, an 'exploit' was discovered in human psychology.  Trump's crass clown show proved that the Emperor could indeed wear no clothes.  Trump accomplished this in a wealthy nation, where people were relatively well-off, healthy and getting by, at least compared to most countries. 

We have an exploit in our mental systems, one that, once employed, turns us into fawning followers.

In the fairytale version, the Emperor is exposed when one person stands up to the conformity.  And maybe Republicans were afraid of something like this, at first. Some child standing on her seat in a croweded Trump rally and saying, with innocent candor, "You're lying."

But there is no such child.  And it wouldn't matter.  Ignorance is a reliable, strong, smart, parasitic form of capital.  The duplicitous, denying Donald, inaugurated now as the face of American success, has shown this.  And now, Republicans are circling like investment sharks to get a chunk of the mind-control pie. 

It is repugnant.  It is atrocious.  It is beyond venal.  Witnessing Trump's incredible level of sin, who could not have stood up and spoken in defense of cherished ideals, such as equality and freedom to pursue happiness for all?

The answer is:  about half the leadership of the USA.  The right wing is eager to sell out our country for a chance to own a stake in the capital of ignorance. 

We have, then, an utter disregard for virtue and ethics, replaced by a worldview whose lens is crudely economic.  Greed is good.  Wealth is the standard of virtue.  Everything, and everybody, is a number in a vanity competition of "resources," "consumption," "exploitation," "acquisition," commodification."

Ego-tripping Trump is the paragon of it all.  A billionaire without a conscience who competes with callous, ruthless, narcissistic obsession.  A master of persuasion and the shell game--an agile thimblerigger--who convinces tens of millions of Christians to suffer for him, even as he brings out traits condemned in the Bible, firing up greed, envy, pride, cruelty, pugnacity, pettiness, deception, bigotry, infidelity, hate.

Short-sightedly, slaveringly, the Republican leadership is going for it.

Invest!  Invest in the capital of ignorance, now!  Before it's too late!


Owl

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