Poor, Poor Polls

I keep seeing articles asking “where did the polls go wrong?” Once again, I feel like the pundits are living in a different world.

Like everyone, I watched the polls obsessively throughout this campaign. They showed a surprisingly tight race that consistently defied pundits’ predictions. And that’s what we got.

In the primary, polls showed Trump with a clear and consistent lead. Pundits said it couldn’t last. The polls were right.

As we moved to the general, pundits said Trump would fail to expand his base. But the polls showed what looked an awful lot like a typical D vs. R race, albeit with some weird volatility. We saw the usual convention bounces, the usual dips and swings in response to scandals and news cycles. Pundits said to ignore all that; Trump was too reliant on his base.

Going into the first debate, we saw Trump pulling even with Clinton, even nosing ahead. By this point, it was clear that all the talk about his 30% base and her indomitable coalition had been proven wrong. But the pundits said that Clinton’s debate performances proved there was nothing to worry about.

Finally, on the eve of the election, polls showed a nail-bitingly close race, with the effects of Trump’s harassment scandal totally wiped out and Clinton ahead by a narrow and slimming margin. By this point, everyone I know was seriously alarmed. But pundits said not to worry; Clinton was all but a shoe-in.

It’s not the polls that were wrong. The polls showed mainstream Republicans rallying to Trump–and they did. The polls showed that Clinton had failed to excite much enthusiasm–and she didn’t. The polls showed a race tightening in the final hours–which it did. The final result was roughly compatible with stated margins of error and recent trends.

Now the pundits are telling us they couldn’t possibly have seen this coming; it was the polling math that betrayed them. But the polls weren’t the problem. The poll-readers were.

The polls also showed something else. They showed that Trump took a big hit in popularity when he had the spotlight, but when he held back and focused on his ground game, his numbers recovered. A lot of voters were genuinely put off by Trump’s behavior, but ultimately felt other issues were more important. This will be something to remember going forward.

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Something I Should Have Posted a Month Ago

(I wrote this essay in mid-October (October 17, according to the timestamp on the file) and meant to publish it then. But I neglected to pay the hosting fees for my web site, and it got taken down. So now the piece will have to serve as a belated artifact of a troubled time.–NW)

I don’t expect this to change anyone’s mind or make one jot of difference, but I’ll post it here nonetheless, as a record of my response to an unusual historical moment.

I don’t think Donald J. Trump should be president.

The problem with Donald J. Trump isn’t that he turned American electoral politics into another form of reality television. Electoral politics was already a form of reality television. That’s why Trump got as far as he did.

The problem with Donald J. Trump, in my view, isn’t that he has bad policies. He has no policies at all–only evil dreams and noxious fantasies that might one day coalesce into bad policies, under the influence of capable minions.

The problem with Donald J. Trump isn’t that he’s a fascist. Anyway, I don’t think so. I’ve never been quite sure what that word is supposed to mean.

The problem with Donald J. Trump isn’t that he’s racist, or sexist, or xenophobic. He often seems to be all those things–even goes out of his way to seem as xenophobic and sexist as possible. But as any good liberal can tell you, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are endemic in our society–as they are, I suspect, in all societies. So why beat up on Trump?

Finally, the problem with Donald Trump isn’t that he failed in business, or that he was born rich, or that he looks odd, or that he’s inarticulate. Lots of people have those problems.

No, the problem with Donald J. Trump is, quite simply, that he’s Donald J. Trump: so far as it’s possible to tell (and when can we ever tell for sure?) a petty, irresponsible, and vindictive man.

I don’t think Donald Trump feels much personal enmity toward blacks, or Mexicans, or the Chinese, or even Muslims. He says cruel things about these groups because people cheer when he does so, and Donald Trump likes it when people cheer.

I don’t think Donald Trump cheats and bilks his business partners because he’s greedy in the ordinary sense. I think he does it because it’s an easy power play. (“And what if I don’t pay ya, huh? Watcha gonna do about it, sue me?”) Donald Trump likes to feel powerful.

I do think Donald Trump has nasty views towards women, but I don’t think they fully explain his behavior. He goes out of his way to demean and degrade women not because he believes–in any coherent, disciplined way–that they’re inherently inferior, but because it makes him feel like a big man. And Donald Trump likes being a big man.

Finally, I don’t think Donald Trump wants to become president because he has a serious interest in controlling immigration, or fighting terrorism, or righting trade imbalances, or curtailing foreign adventurism, or negotiating with Russia, or anything else. He wants to become president because “That’ll show ’em!”

Some people say: “Sure, Donald Trump has personal flaws. But he listened to a part of the electorate that others overlooked. He gave voice to their concerns, at least some of which are legitimate. Shouldn’t we take those concerns seriously?”

To which I say: “I’m quite ready to take such people and their concerns seriously, so long as they’re divorced from the vain and spiteful figure of Donald J. Trump.” Seeing people support Trump makes me think they’re not especially serious–that they’re more interested in having someone channel their rage than in bringing about meaningful changes.

Some people say: “Sure, Donald Trump’s a buffoon. But isn’t that a good thing? Imagine what a competent person might do in his position! Shouldn’t we support Trump’s doomed candidacy now, as a clever way to short-circuit the rise of a fiendishly capable demagogue down the line?”

To which I say, “This is too sophisticated for me. All I can say for sure is that Donald Trump is an awful candidate, who seems to be awful in his own special way. Let’s deal with other bad candidates as they come.”

Some people say: “Yes, Donald Trump’s amoral, but the only real alternative is Hillary Clinton, and isn’t she just as bad? She played fast and loose with state secrets. She feels a raging sense of entitlement. She sold out our people in Benghazi. She curries favor through a corrupt foundation and countless back-door deals. She pretends to be a brave feminist, but rode to power on the coattails of a lecherous husband. She cozies up to bankers, supports reckless wars. How can we ever choose between such wicked candidates?”

I think Clinton’s faults have been exaggerated, but what does it matter? We’re talking about Donald J. Trump. If people think Clinton’s a terrible candidate, they shouldn’t vote for her. I don’t think they should vote for Trump either.

It’s rare in politics to be faced with such a stark moral question–a choice that speaks not to differing party affiliations, differing policy preferences, differing institutional loyalties, or even different beliefs, but to basic questions of morality and conduct. Watching Donald J. Trump over the past year, I’ve been reminded often of an early childhood memory. I must have been about seven or eight at the time, and I was playing in the schoolyard with some toys and a green caterpillar. A group of boys came to taunt me, squashed the caterpillar, and smeared its oozing remains over my toys.

It was the first time I thought seriously about human cruelty. Those boys had killed an innocent creature for the purpose of soiling something I loved, and they had done it only to savor the thrill of humiliating me. I marveled at the petty meanness of the act, wondering why anyone would be so gratuitously nasty. I still don’t know why, not really, but I’ve come to recognize that vindictive urge in myself, to be wary of it in others, to see it as an ineradicable element of human nature–the temptation to assert power through inflicting pain.

This seems to me to be the governing urge of Donald Trump’s personality. He needs to feel big by making others feel small. Does he need anything else, want anything else, value anything else in this world? Sometimes I wonder. It’s common to include the word bully in a long list of Trump’s defects: a bully, a blowhard, a racist, a fearmonger, an ignoramus, and on and on.

I say the word bully covers it. Donald J. Trump is a bully and nothing more.

I doubt Trump really hates Mexicans or immigrants. He attacks them because people want him to attack them, and Trump has a bully’s affinity for angry mobs.

I doubt Trump really hates Muslims. He attacks them because they’re a vulnerable group in America, and Trump has a bully’s instinct for preying on the weak.

I doubt Trump believes women should be second-class citizens. He insults and assaults them because he enjoys seeing them humiliated. All chauvinists are bullies at heart.

I doubt Trump traffics in conspiracy theories because he finds them intellectually appealing. He believes them because they gratify his ego, because he suffers from a bully’s limitless sense of persecution.

And so it goes. The disdainful treatment of business partners, the systematic exploitation of the needy, the red-faced railing against elites, the obsession with attacking allies and humiliating supporters, the vengeful feuds with disabled people and sick children and grieving parents, the lawsuits, the mood swings, the disconnected litanies, the short attention span …

If we could listen in on Trump’s interior monologue, I imagine we’d hear something like this.

… SHOW EM ALL. OH, I’LL SHOW EM. THEY’RE ALL AGAINST ME. WHY ME? I’M AN OKAY GUY. A GREAT GUY. BUT THEY’RE ALL OUT TO GET ME. SUCH AWFUL PEOPLE. TRYING TO HUMILIATE ME. I’LL HUMILIATE THEM! I’LL PROVE IT. I’LL BE THE BEST. THEN THEY’LL SEE. LIARS, TRAITORS, CHEATS, PLOTTERS … OH, I’LL SHOW EM. I’LL SHOW EM GOOD …

Forever and ever, in an endless stream.

This is what accounts for Trump’s strange magnetism. Most people are complex in their motives. But Trump is surreally simple. It’s all wounded pride, all day, all night. And this is what justifies the comparisons to Hitler, who came from a different culture, championed different beliefs, pursued different goals, wanted different things–who was, in short, a very different political figure–but had the same genius for fathomless resentment.

In George Orwell’s often-quoted words:

[Hitler’s] is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to.

Trump has become a lightning rod for the outraged suffering of the masses because, like all great revolutionary figures, he embodies and concentrates their pain. It’s a truism that bullies are in pain–pacing the carpet at 3 AM, brooding on real and imagined slights, lashing out in every direction, smothering a sourceless hurt with gold and spectacle and comfort food. In a bully’s mind, he’s the real victim–a conviction that can always be justified, because we are each of us small and frail and the world is full of terrors.

That’s why the proper response to Trump’s erratic presidential campaign is not gleeful disdain or bitter rage, but sorrow and concern. Only profound pain could make a man act this way, raving and posturing like an abused child. And only deep distress could lead millions of people to turn to him.

I suspect Trump’s followers would say something like this in response.

“You make us sound like fools or bad people, but that’s all wrong. For decades, we’ve been crushed, abused, insulted by elites. They take jobs from our towns, money from our accounts, food from our tables, land from under our feet, and what do they do with it? Either keep it for themselves, or throw it away overseas. Which would be one thing, if they were actually helping anyone. But no, the rest of the world is a mess, too. So they rob us here at home to pay for their meddling in other countries. Poking their nose into everyone’s business, never doing anyone any good.

“You think we don’t know how it works? That it’s all a mass of lies, hypocrisy, insider dealing, payola? The banks pay the lobbyists, the lobbyists pay the politicians, the politicians lie, the media spins the lie. Same as it ever was.

“But that’s not the worst of it. Hell, there’s always been rich and poor. Always been corruption, always been incompetence. Everyone knows that.

“No, the worst is the insult. The mockery. The unimaginable contempt. Because apparently it’s not enough for rich people to take what’s ours. Not enough for them to interfere in our business. Not enough for them to go and pull the same trick on others, bossing folks around and screwing things up, everywhere across the world.

“No, no, they have to put you down while they’re doing it. Act like they’re the great shining heroes, everyone else is depraved and sinful. Go on TV, make fun of our food, our hobbies, our teeth, our culture, our speech. Try to say anything about it, they call you a racist. Ask to be left alone, they call that oppression. They fill the airwaves with their propaganda, come into our communities with their armies of regulators, tell us how to talk, how to act, what to feel, what to think, how to raise our kids, heck, even where to take a piss, then they try to make out like we’re the authoritarians.

“Oh, they want it all. Not only our property, not only our rights, but our freedom, our pride, faith, our dreams. You look for comfort in the house of the Lord, they call you a bigot. Look for solace in the past, they call that bigotry too. Look for comfort in the arms of a lover, they tell you everything you do is sexist. Buy a gun to hunt or defend yourself, the president of the nation’ll go on TV to insult you.

“It’s not even consistent. They’re all for women’s rights, till it comes to offending Muslims. They’re all for respecting Muslims, till they feel like pulling strings in the Middle East. They’re all for messing around in foreign countries, till it comes to actually stopping terrorists–then, suddenly, they get cold feet. They go on and on about how much black lives matter, but they’re the ones who let black neighborhoods go to hell. Instead of fixing that problem, what do they do? Come out in defense of rioters and criminals, celebrate rabble-rousers and hatemongers. They persecute the cops who are trying to clean up the streets, pal around with big-money types who helped cause the problem, glorify criminals in songs and movies, then try to blame the whole mess on people with hardly an ounce of real power. It’s our fault, they say, because of ‘privilege.’ Meanwhile, they’re sitting in their TV studios, their lecture rooms, their corner offices, raking in the big bucks for putting other people down.

“They come up with ideas–about sex, faith, family–that would seem crazy and offensive to just about anyone on the planet–anyone in history–then act like you’re a monster if you don’t fall in line. Hell, they act like you’re a monster even if you do fall in line, so what’s the point? They treat millions of people as backwards, superstitious, ignorant, wrong, then say in the same breath how you have to respect other cultures. So, what, it’s fine when they do it? No matter what you do or say, they got a word or phrase–implicit bias, structural racism, ethnocentrism, cultural appropriation, unexamined sexism, ‘echoes of anti-semitism’–to explain how it’s evil and foolish and depraved. Like the old witch hunts–confess you’re a bigot, or we’ll condemn you for denying your bigotry. So why not just give in and carry that cross? Yeah, I’m politically incorrect–screw you.

“They act so smart and enlightened and educated … it’s all about education, they keep saying, everyone’s got to get educated … then all they seem to want to teach is how bigoted and stupid and wicked they think everyone is. Jack up tuition, let standards go to hell, stifle speech, sell out their intellectual heritage, that’s all fine, so long as they get to stand at the head of the class, preaching shame and hatred to anyone who comes in the room.

“You listen to these people, you read what they write, you see the contradictions, you watch them on TV, mugging and smirking and cracking their jokes–you look at the hypocrisy, the unbelievable hypocrisy–and after a while, you realize what it’s all about. Not justice, like they say. It’s not about money. It’s got a lot to do with power, sure, but what doesn’t?

“No, what it’s really about is sneering and jeering. Sneering at people who grow their food, clean their toilets, take away their trash. Jeering at people who fight to protect them. Sneering at cops, at parishioners, at ordinary folks who respect tradition. Even sneering and jeering at each other, because there’s nothing they respect, no one they’ll spare, nothing they really hold sacred except their own invincible smugness. Any excuse, any justification’ll do, so long as they get to feel superior. That’s what being an elite means these days: making money off sneering and jeering at people who do honest work.

“And you call us the bullies? Take a look! Those are the real bullies–the Ivy League kids and their power-player parents, rigging the rules, hoarding the big bucks, writing speech codes, all so they can flaunt how much contempt they have for ordinary folks. They have the money. They have the platform. They have the power. They own the culture, and they make–and waste–billions of dollars trying to force it on other people around the world. They’ve stomped us all into the ground, and still they insist on kicking dirt into our faces. Because nothing will ever be enough for them–nothing less than total control, total domination, total humiliation for the millions of people they find ‘deplorable.’

“So go ahead, call Donald Trump a bully. But he’s fighting back against the bigger bullies–the cheats and hypocrites whose actions have proven they stand for nothing, value nothing, believe in nothing, but the joy of sneering and jeering at those who don’t fight back.”

I see a lot of truth in that indictment. (I wrote it, after all.) Yet I can’t help but sympathize with the people it indicts: the women and Blacks and Native Americans trying to claw free of a history of persecution, the gay and transgender people seeking intimacy and privacy in the face of punishing conventions, the immigrants struggling to find a place in a society built around European culture, and yes, even the elites, the financiers and journalists and consultants and politicians, who are struggling to build careers and do good work in a system of complex entanglements and distorted incentives.

So here we are, with the country trapped in a cycle of insults and grievances, everyone feeling bullied, everyone claiming to have been disrespected and victimized, and Donald Trump, avatar of outrage, standing at the center of the storm.

I wonder constantly how we came to this point, this national obsession with resentment and persecution.

Is it something that happens to all pluralistic societies? Are cultural differences inevitably magnified into existential threats?

Is it a product of rapid societal change: the old guard persecuted by the new guard, the new guard by the old?

Is it a result of growing inequality, with every member of society squeezed between a shrinking group of wary elites and an envious, less fortunate multitude?

Is it a perennial problem exacerbated by technology, now that every personal assertion is inundated by a flood of digital dissent?

Is it something subtler–a crumbling of our communities, a retreat from religion, a loss of contact with nature and soil, a decline of trades and handicrafts and creative work, a substitution of electric gossip for personal encounters, an affection for hi-tech spectacle over the sober study of the written word?

Or is there something simpler, more fundamental at work? Few people on either side of the current cultural clash would say that I myself belong to the ranks of the persecuted. Yet I’ve always felt, in some basic way, that the world is against me, largely for reasons inaccessible to everyone else: because I’ve always been lonely, because I’ve always doubted myself, because other children were often cruel to me–in the corners of dimly remembered playgrounds, years ago.

It’s so easy to feel bullied. So easy to look online, at the news, at our presidential debates, and find echoes of remembered taunts and attacks. So easy, really, that anyone can do it, tallying up the private wounds that every psyche inevitably suffers. Has there ever been a public figure as easily triggered as Donald Trump–icon of inherited advantage, obvious author of his own misfortunes, who nevertheless sees himself a maltreated underdog?

For a man with such power to carry it so gracelessly, cultivating such bitter paranoia in himself and others, for a presidential candidate to embrace the bully’s logic that an injured ego justifies any act, is atrocious. Does he have any honor, any decency, any character?

True, Donald Trump has spoken out against certain evils in our society–above all, the haughty insularity of the upper classes. But the moral gravity of this complaint is vitiated by Trump’s monstrous behavior and appalling motivations. He taints every issue he broaches with his viciousness, his lewdness, his transparent selfishness. Our country is divided, wounded, hurting. We need leaders of probity and dignity to help mend those divisions, not cynical opportunists who profit by exacerbating them.

At a time of evident crisis, when it’s our shared duty to nurture what is best in ourselves–patience, charity, sympathy, reflection, and consideration–Donald Trump represents all that’s worst in human nature. He provokes people into frenzies of hot-tempered judgment. He revels in greed, emulation, dishonesty. He jumps to conclusions, derides learning and wisdom. He sees empathy as error, compassion as weakness. He feeds on apathy, discord, and distrust.

His public words and actions conform to a crude philosophy: that the bully’s way is the only way. Don’t think, don’t hesitate, don’t get soft. Never admit error, never confess a sin, never trust anyone, never show concern. Never let anything hold you back. Just hit, hit hard, and keep on hitting.

In behaving this way, in promulgating this sick mindset, Donald Trump betrays everyone who deals with him. He teaches his supporters that they have to become bullies to overcome the indignities they’ve suffered. And, being a bully himself, he encourages enemies to see his supporters as bullies, too, and thereby to become bullies themselves.

It’s a temptation that should always be resisted. I don’t know the best response to the problems our society is facing. But I’m certain that Donald Trump’s toxic cocktail–rage, resentment, mockery, and haste–is the worst possible response to any crisis, ever.

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Why Naked Trump Misfires

Christine Cauterucci has some thoughts on the naked Trump statues that have been popping up in various cities:

“Encouraging people to laugh at the statue of Trump because it’s fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked doesn’t tell them Trump is a bad person. It tells them that fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked (or transgender, or intersex) people are funny to look at and should be embarrassed of their naked bodies. The statue’s name, with its focus on Trump’s lack of testicles, relies on the age-old rhetorical link between male genitalia and courage, a sexist connection that’s so hackneyed it’s almost more irksome than offensive at this point.”

Bottom line: the statue’s offensive. Well, of course it’s offensive. No one’s going to argue with that claim. But Cauterucci has a point, or a half a point. The problem with the naked Trump statues is that they’re offensive in the wrong way.

The easy critique here is that the statues are frivolous, a flagrantly shallow ad hominem attack, laying into Trump’s appearance when we should be focused on things like facts, positions, policies. Eh, whatever. The statues clearly belong to a long tradition of political satire. Here’s King George IV as depicted by James Gilray in 1792:Here’s French king Louis Philippe depicted by Daumier as Gargantua, the obscene giant invented by Rabelais:

Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast:

You could throw in illustrations to Gulliver’s Travels and a nearly infinite succession of political cartoons.

Like all art, this stuff has its own arcane codes, and each of these pieces uses physical flaws as metonyms for moral corruption. Corpulence signifies greed and grandiosity; age conveys decadence. This kind of crude symbolism seems bald and meanspirited by today’s standards. But there’s also a subtler level to the satire.

When political leaders present themselves as larger-than-life figures, they lay themselves open to having their flaws exaggerated along with their strengths. Strongman types have always fought this threat with visual propaganda: from Ancient Egyptian statues that depict divine pharaohs as eternally youthful warrior gods, to fussily posed portraits from the ancien regime, to the sentimental fictions of twentieth-century fascist art. Such vainglorious preening is most effectively undermined not by caricature, but by realism. The all-conquering leader wants to present himself as an indomitable force, an incarnation of strength, uniquely capable and destined for glory. Elites attribute their higher status to fantasies of innate superiority, deep as bone, passed down by blood–or, nowadays, stitched somewhere into the intricate, secret connections of the brain. Realistic portraiture deflates this kind of mythmaking by reminding us that supreme leaders and moneyed overlords are merely human beneath their gilt–veiny, saggy, sallow, decaying–aging animals, like the rest of us.

That’s what the Trump statues do–or could have done. The message comes across not in Trump’s lumpy body–handled properly, this style of hyperrealism can easily inspire pathos instead of contempt–but in the contrast between his ordinary physique and haughty expression. All of us end up with flabby middles and unsexy butts, but only some of us found political careers on projecting disdain for the weak.

Too bad the makers of the statues screwed it up. They had to do it: they went genital. And so what could have been a work of cutting political satire became little more than a locker-room prank. Pretty funny, huh? Trump’s got no balls! Sick burn!

Often the strongest insults have the weakest effect. What’s next, I wonder, making fun of Trump’s mother?

Goya’s famous painting of the family of Charles IV has often been seen as a sly critique of its royal subjects, not because it goes out of its way to mock their flaws, but because it takes the bold step of showing these potentates as they were–aging, self-conscious, a trifle awkward–something less than semi-divine. If only the makers of naked Trump had had the wit and wisdom to try something similar.

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So This Is the Game We’re Playing Now …

Forgot to post this when I wrote it last week, and as a result it’s already absurdly outdated. Stupid modern news cycle …

I woke a couple of days ago to learn that Donald Trump was feuding with … wait, what? A baby? Trump hates babies, now?

That’s not all. Trump also has it in for firemen, apparently, and heroic soldiers, and the people of Harrisburg, PA.

What a jerk, right? I mean, what a monumental ass.

Also, his campaign staff is fed up with him. Also, establishment Republicans are angry with him. Also, his toadies and sycophants are resentful about the way he’s treated them. Also he sort of said something flippant about the Purple Heart. Also, according to Joe Scarborough, some guy once said that Trump once said that something something something … nuclear bombs! Ahhhhhhhh!

Let the hate-fest begin.

Isn’t this getting a little ridiculous? Sure, Trump’s terrible, but it’s also clear that The Awful Thing Donald Trump Said is now the only news story in America. Let’s find something, anything, and get those teeth a-gnashing. Did Trump make a mean face at a puppy? Did Trump tweet something tone-deaf about Harry Potter? Rage time! Get it on.

There’s the Muslim ban, and then there’s “get that baby outta here.” Y’know, just Trump bein’ Trump.

Even trivial flubs can drive a news cycle, because reporters just add them to a long, long list of prior gaffes and offenses. Did you hear that Trump said a dumb thing about the county of Loudoun, Virginia? Yeah, I’m serious. Trump doesn’t even know what’s happening in Loudoun, Virginia. Everyone, you hear that? Loudoun, Virginia, people! I mean, what’s with this guy? Is he schizophrenic or sociopathic or what?

There are so many clichés out there now–wait, I’m supposed to call them “narratives”–there are so many narratives that virtually any slip, goof, tiff, or tidbit can be mocked up as “part of a worrisome trend.” Forget about Trump the racist. That’s old school. Trump the fascist was getting too heavy–besides, it forced us all to think about history. Now we’ve got Trump the nut and Trump the jerk, Trump the bully and Trump the charlatan, Trump the guy-who-just-can’t-let-it-go. As a catch-all option, there’s always Trump-the-political-neophyte-who-doesn’t-even-know-how-to-run-a-typical-campaign. Works every time. Hey, look, guys! Trump just did something! Everyone’s talking about it! You can see how this isn’t a typical campaign.

I think reporters may be getting a little too gleeful, a little too zealous, in their eagerness to pounce on every tiny thing Trump says. It almost seems a bit … hm, hate to say this … but it can start to seem a tad, y’know–biased?

At any rate, the rash of reflexive Trump bashing provokes an inevitable counter-reaction. And so we get pieces like this. Call it Trump ventriloquism, or “Trump has a point” contrarianism. If the in-people are now mobbing Trump, shouldn’t a good nonconformist push back? Shouldn’t someone, at least sometimes, come to the guy’s defense?

Gosh, it’s really hard to say this, but … could it be that Trump sort of hits the mark on some stuff? That he’s actually right about some things?

From such apostatic beginnings, a smart columnist like Ivan Eland or Rich Lowry or Damon Linker can go on to write 1000 words about how Trump might actually sort of have a meaningful message about the Iraq war, or the wisdom of interventionism, or immigration policy, or the treatment of the poor.

Would that it were so!

Look at Eland’s argument. He’s totally right about the awfulness of Bush’s foreign policy. He’s right that Obama and Clinton haven’t gone far enough in repudiating that foreign policy. He’s right that Humayun Khan died in the sort of meddlesome overseas adventure that has been a staple of American governance for the past seventy years.

He’s also right when he implies that Trump-hating is now a national pastime, as self-perpetuating as a Pokemon craze, driven, in some measure, by sheer habit. We hated Trump awful hard yesterday. Let’s hate him some more today!

Wouldn’t it be great if reasonable, critical-minded, unbiased people everywhere could actually be … well … fair and balanced, and argue that Trump has credible things to say about the Bush presidency, or the excesses of political correctness, or the mistreatment of the working classes?

Ah, but it can never be. When Trump criticizes the Iraq War, he does so not by renouncing Bush’s militarism, but by citing crackpot theories. When he lights into flawed political opponents, people who really should be criticized, he says … but we’ve all heard what Mr. Trump has said. When he objects to the Clinton campaign’s politicization of a soldier’s death, he does so using slapdash, brainless insults.

It’s no good saying “Hey, Trump may have a point.” Trump never has a point. The best anyone can do is project reasonable arguments onto his improvisational ramblings. Pick out a word here, an allegation there … Iraq War … mistake … Hillary Clinton … soldiers … you know, maybe it is worrisome that Clinton is prone to bombing the Middle East. That’s a good argument! There’s a real, worthy position here! And we arrived at that position by throwing together genuine, intelligible words that were actually spoken by this bloviating, free-associating loon. Does that mean Trump, somewhere deep down, actually knows what he’s talking about?

No.

Still, the farce goes on. Maybe, at the end of the season, we’ll be able to look back with pleasure, smug in the knowledge that we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.

For now, you can almost forget that this is supposed to be our highest calling as citizens of a democracy. You can almost kick back, taking in the show, as Trump continues to do his dirty work–turning representative politics into a new, lewd flavor of shock TV.

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I Get It, Now

I finally get it.

For months I’ve seen variations of this argument. Trump voters want respect! Trump voters want to be treated with dignity!

So they cherish respect and dignity. And they’re voting for … Donald Trump?

At first I was sincerely baffled. It’s not just that Trump lacks dignity in the specific sense prescribed by the punditocracy–that he mouths the wrong platitudes, or gives muddled interviews, or neglects pro-forma rituals of running ads and mounting a convention–that he is, in the favored phrasing, “unpresidential.”

No, Trump lacks dignity in the most ordinary sense. The definition of dignity is quite simple. Having dignity means treating others with dignity. That’s something Trump just doesn’t do.

But now I see that dignity isn’t the right word for what drives Trump supporters. Nor is anger. Nor is resentment.

The “Trumpkins want respect” argument only makes sense if you interpret it this way: Trump supporters used to want respect, but now they’ve given up. They think respect is just an Oleanna swindle. A dodge. A big fat lie.

There was a time when they might have appreciated a little respect. But we all missed the window. We didn’t listen. We sneered and jeered and hemmed and hawed, pretended like everything was OK. Now it’s too late, buddy. We blew it.

Of course Trump has no dignity. Of course he has no respect. That’s why they’re voting for him, because he’s a loudmouthed obnoxious jerk, and you know what, he’s gonna win anyway. They’re gonna put this undignified, undisciplined, vulgar, utterly disrespectful man in office. And what will respect count for then? Huh? What will character count for? What will “presidential bearing” count for?

Nothing, that’s what. These highfalutin notions’ll be exposed as what they are. Hypocritical figments. Snooty double-standards. Empty ciphers. Yeah, that’s right: Bullshit.

“You think dignity is so important? Well, here. Trump has none of your precious dignity. And he’s winning, winning, winning, all the way to the Oval Office. Suck it!”

You can swap in a lot of other words. Merit. Decency. Tolerance. Knowledge. Humility. Caution. Patience. Evenhandedness. Heck, even morals.

Every virtue that undergirds an invidious distinction. Every value associated with the liberal elite.

“You upper-class types and your so-called morals. Well, wait’ll Trump is up there, running the show! You wimps and phonies will be fleeing for cover–bleating about your morals all the way.”

That’s not exactly anger, that sentiment. I’d call it spite.

Spite: I don’t care if I get hurt, so long as you get hurt even worse.

Spite: I can’t enjoy something, so no one should get to enjoy it.

Spite: I want what you have–but only for the satisfaction of smashing it in front of your face.

Spite: If you think I’m a bad person, then to hell with being a good person.

Spite, I’ve come to think, is the curse of the lower classes. No, let me broaden that. Spite is the curse of the unsuccessful. Spite leads lonely guys to slander all women as whores. Spite makes a lonely woman dismiss all men as abusers. Spite is the addiction of struggling artists who mock all successful artists as phonies. Spite warps the pride of the poor.

Spite is worse than sour grapes, the urge to disparage what we can’t have. Spite is poison grapes.

I think back to childhood, when I was often mocked for my out-of-style clothes. Who cares about stylish clothes, I thought? Snobs, that’s who.

Eventually, I gave in. I bought the stylish clothes. Overpriced jeans, celebrity-endorsed sneakers. It worked. Sort of. I wasn’t popular, but I was less unpopular.

So the game really was that simple. Wear cheap sneakers, you’re a loser. Wear expensive sneakers, you’re OK.

Really, people, I thought? I mean, really?

I wanted nothing more than to rip up those fancy clothes and force them down the other kids’ throats.

Spite. And only spite could lead someone to think Donald Trump would make an acceptable president.

Tear it up! Burn it down! Break, smash, stomp, spit, destroy!

Then you’ll all be sorry!

But who ends up suffering more, in the end?

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An Obligatory Post on World Fantasy Con 2016

It’s a shame, what’s happening with World Fantasy Con.

I’ve never attended this con. I don’t know much about the organizers. I’m not familiar with the past offenses and imbroglios that others in the SF community have complained about.

But you can tell at a glance that the program for this year is skewed.

This kind of thing puts me in a weird spot. Problem is, I like all the old-white-male writing the program emphasizes. It’s what I grew up on (mostly). It’s what I know (mostly). It’s where I’m coming from.

Stiff-collared, stuffy types talking about European writers of the 1890s? That’s my kind of scene.

But that tradition, that strand, that sliver of literary history–it can only be appreciated when it’s put in its proper context: as one small group of voices in a big crowd.

When history’s white male writers are set up as imposing monoliths, it’s harder to appreciate them as the fallible, flawed artists they were.

When a genre’s past is celebrated at the expense of its present, a healthy interest in tradition petrifies into thoughtless archaism.

When white male artists are the only offering on the menu, that fosters resentment, hostility, and rejection.

And when a taste for certain authors becomes synonymous with narrow-mindedness, it’s hard to make a case for them that’s founded on old-fashioned readerly pleasures: curiosity, aesthetics, or plain escapism.

So, yeah, I like the old books. I think they have value. I can even enjoy Lovecraft, if the moon is out and the mood is right and a dark twisted branch is tapping at the windowpane.

I’d like for others to share that pleasure. But it can only be an invitation–never an imposition.

With a mix of perspectives, everyone benefits. And when all kinds of readers and all kinds of writers come together, literature benefits most of all.

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I Know I Shouldn’t Even Bring This Up, But …

Alarmists on the Right are having a field day with this HuffPo editorial by Jesse Benn defending violence against Trump supporters. I’m leery of giving his argument more attention than it deserves. But in the end, I think this impulse should be resisted wherever it appears.

Benn’s prompt is the recent furor at San Jose, where protesters apparently threw eggs and punches at Trump fans. Their actions earned widespread condemnation from mainstream media scolds. Benn, in turn, condemns the condemners, insisting that this kind of violence is justified.

His argument has three–well, actually four points.

First, that anything less than violence would normalize Trump’s toxic campaign. Per Benn: “Treating this like politics as usual allows it to become politics as usual, and those who do so risk complicity ushering in a new era of fascist politics in the United States.”

I don’t know what news he’s reading, but every single commentator I’ve read has been at pains to argue that Trump represents something other than politics as usual. Benn’s real argument is that merely saying so is pointless. Words are for wimps. If you’re serious about making a change, hit someone. But that’s the fascist instinct in embryo. Isn’t this part of what we’re trying to oppose?

At best, it begs the question. When is violence justified? Where’s the line? Benn makes no bones about it: “Violence that takes place at Trump rallies—in support or opposition—is a reaction to the tone he’s set.”

Tone? This gives Trump way too much credit, protesters too little. So Trump says, “Let’s rumble!” and people have no choice but to respond to the taunt? What is this, a cafeteria fight?

We have a choice in how we respond to Trump’s bluster. Saying, “He started it!” won’t get us off the hook, especially when people aren’t attacking Trump himself, but lashing out at his supporters. Which takes us to Benn’s second point.

Trump doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He’s the natural consequence of, among other things, Republicans longstanding embrace of racism, perpetual attacks on the credibility of media, scientists, and the federal government, defunding public education, railing against so-called PC culture, and using immigrants as scape goats. Defeating these systems of power and their underlying apparatuses—think tanks, conservative radio, Fox News, the Tea Party, etc.—is a much longer-term and more demanding task than assuring Trump isn’t elected.

Apart from HuffPo’s terrible editing, this is a good point, a great point, perhaps the most important point that can be made about Trump’s rise. But I don’t see how it helps Benn’s thesis. Millions of people support Trump. What are we supposed to do, start fistfights with them all? There aren’t enough rotten eggs in America to pelt them into submission.

Pundits have typed their fingers to the bone trying to figure out what the heck these folks are thinking. Are Trump supporters racist? Hopelessly stupid? Hypnotized? So blind with proletarian rage that they can’t think straight? Even if we accept, as Benn seems to, that they’re mostly White supremacists, that doesn’t tell us how to deal with them. The problem is not that such people exist, but that there are so darn many of them.

Half the electorate is prepared to accept Trump as a leader. Advocating violence against them means advocating civil war. It may come to that, but do we want to hasten the crisis?

We still haven’t gotten to the main question: when is violence advisable? In the third phase of his argument, Benn gives some examples. Four are riots. The fifth, naturally, is World War II.

It’s true that the Soviets eventually crushed Hitler’s regime–after the Nazis had invaded Russia. Unless a dictator hellbent on world domination marches across the U.S. border, that’s not the most persuasive example.

Let’s focus on Benn’s more substantial claim. He cites three major riots from U.S. history: Stonewall, Watts, and the LA riots of the 90s, noting that each had positive effects–LGBTQ solidarity, police reform, increased attention to racial injustice. He throws in the Ferguson and Baltimore protests for good measure. Benn uses the word “uprising” to refer to these events, probably to counter the common canard that riots are caused by bad people running wild.

I’m sticking with the word riot, though, because I think it emphasizes an important distinction. An essential feature of such events is that they’re unpremeditated and uncontrolled. That makes riots different from organized protests. It also makes them different from armed rebellions.

Riots have no leaders, no structure, no mission statements. They’re unpredictable. They emanate from widespread frustration, often in response to injustice. But there’s no telling what will spark a riot. And once a riot gets going, there’s no knowing who’ll get hurt or what will be destroyed.

That’s why it’s foolish to blame riots on their participants. They’re best viewed as a symptom of social pathology. If they lead to needed reforms, it’s because they call attention to systemic problems, chiefly abusive policing.

There’s a nasty reactionary tendency to treat riots as orgies of willful destruction. “Look at these awful people, trashing their own neighborhoods–animals!” But the liberal temptation to see them as disciplined crusades isn’t much more enlightened. Each view makes the mistake of attributing intent to chaos, ascribing goals to a process that’s out of control.

When riots happen, we should focus not on blaming or celebrating the participants, but on remedying the underlying causes: structural inequality, police brutality, widespread discrimination.

This kind of civic soul-searching is a far cry from advocating violent attacks on civilians. 43 people died in the Detroit riots, 34 in the Watts riots, 55 in the LA riots. To the extent that riots have positive effects, it’s because sane people want to prevent them.

Deliberately provoking disorganized mayhem is not only reckless but incoherent. Conflagrations, pandemics, and market bubbles can reveal serious flaws in our public services. In the long run, they can lead to good effects. That doesn’t mean we should urge people to sow panic, spread the flu, and set fire to their neighbors’ houses.

There’s an inherent cynicism in this idea that because terrible events sometimes have good outcomes, terrible events aren’t really terrible at all. Benn isn’t arguing that the ends justify the means. He’s saying that the ends sanctify the means. Sure, we might have to hurt or kill people to get what we want, but if this gives grief to Donald Trump, that will mean the killings aren’t only justified, but genuinely heroic.

What could lead someone to think this way?

Benn says his argument rests on the three points covered above. But he goes on to make a fourth point–perhaps his most telling point. Benn argues that condemning violence is really an expression of privilege:

[W]hen those who hold that privilege dismiss the potential validity or logic of violent resistance, it’s effectively an effort to dictate the rules under which oppressed peoples respond to existential threats, and to silence forms of resistance disagreeable to privileged sensibilities. Don’t be that liberal.

This cuts both ways, of course. Why should privileged people have any more right to condone violence than to denounce it? (“Hey, oppressed peoples, know what would be awesome right now? A street war!!!”–Signed, your friend, White College Grad.)

It also strikes me as profoundly patronizing, as if “oppressed peoples” are somehow immune to persuasion. Read Jamelle Bouie’s eloquent response to the San Jose agitators. He’s not dictating rules; he’s appealing to reason.

But I think it’s Benn’s last sentence that gives away the game, framing the whole issue–bloodshed, fascism, existential threats to civilization–as a matter of self-conscious posturing. “Don’t be that liberal,” he writes. You know, the kind who believes in peace. Don’t you know that all the cool kids now are into violence?

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The Second-Worst Dystopia Ever: Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over

The critic Louis Menand once compared economists to bulldozers, gleefully plowing through the preconceptions of common people. The book Average is Over, by famed economist Tyler Cowen, lives up to that description. Cowen’s subject is the American dream. And by the end of his analysis, he has pretty thoroughly plowed it into a pile of rubble and dirt.

Average is Over is a followup to Cowen’s earlier work, The Great Stagnation. In that short book, Cowen argued that a slowdown in innovation had accounted for many crummy features of late twentieth century life. Wages had stalled, inequality had risen, the national debt was exorbitant.

Most notably, the big breakthroughs of earlier years (radio, electricity, nuclear power, automobiles, antibiotics, mechanical computation) had given way to incremental tweaks. Sure, gadgets were getting smaller. But miracle inventions were at an ebb. We’d already picked all the low-hanging fruit.

In Average is Over Cowen extends his thesis to speculate about the near future. If a dearth of hi-tech wonders slowed us down in the last fifty years, what’s going to happen in the fifty to come?

Bad stuff.

Cowen warns that his predictions will be “uncomfortable” to many people. This discomfort, it turns out, can be roughly quantified. He thinks we’re heading for a world of severe inequality. In Cowen’s future, 10-15% of Americans will have lives of extreme luxury. Everyone else …

Maybe it’s better not to ask.

Some critics have pointed to a seeming inconsistency in Cowen’s analysis. If technological slowdown gave us problems in the past, why should technological advance cause similar problems in the future? Isn’t that a bit like Homer Simpson’s classic declaration that alcohol both causes and solves all life’s problems?

But Cowen’s narrative, though he doesn’t quite hit all the plot points, is consistent. He sticks to the view that we’ve run out of whiz-bang inventions, leaving us to tinker with small-scale upgrades. But in his reckoning, these little changes, each tiny on its own, will build up into huge productivity gains. What we’re facing is not a single, mind-blowing change that will radically alter our lives. It’s a steady drip of apps and bots and programs that will lead to constant economic insecurity. Those who thrive on insecurity will do better than ever, precisely because the grind is so merciless.

Life’s about to get a lot harsher. Get ready to bust your balls.

Cowen has a knack for breezy assertions with alarming implications. If the title of his book sounds like the pat header to a New York Times op-ed, that’s almost exactly what it is. The phrase “average is over” comes from Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often writes about similar themes.

But Cowen has none of Friedman’s blustering optimism or jet-set hyperbole. “This book is far from all good news,” he writes, and his tone throughout isn’t far from that of an American Idol judge coolly explaining to a group of children why they’ll never get to live their dreams. If Friedman’s the football coach who works you up for a tough game, Cowen’s the laconic theater director who cuts you down at the knees.

Here are just a few of his predictions.

For starters, Cowen thinks we’ll soon be shunting elderly people into Sao Paolo-like favelas, patched-up shantytowns in which the grandmas and grandpas of the future will survive on a diet of cheap TV and canned beans. These taco-munching, Hulu-watching shanty-dwellers, meager as their existence appears, will still benefit at the expense of their grandkids. The aging of the population will create a self-serving, senescent voting bloc that siphons government aid from the young and poor and channels it into wasteful entitlements.

The kids of the future will have a rough time, too. Crashing wages will leave twenty-somethings scraping out a day-to-day existence in grungy bohemias.

And that’s not all. We’ll see a full collapse of traditional media, worsening political polarization, a thorough vulgarization of public discourse, an increase in government gridlock and corruption.

The humanities will wither away, along with most of the university system. College professors will be out of work.

They won’t be alone.

The job markets in nearly every field will crater, leaving marketing and finance as the only healthy sectors. Mad men and bankers will hoard all the wealth.

Just what you hope for, huh? But don’t feel too envious of these professional takers, fakers, and shakedown artists. Their work will be more grueling than ever. Voice-recognition and face-scanning technology will spy on every human behavior, leading to an arms race of manipulation and deceit.

As discretionary income dams up in the accounts of elites, the service and entertainment industries will be forced to squabble for handouts from high-earners, who will in turn be harassed by relentless moochers and hangers-on.

Will STEM careers be the solution to this cyborgian rat race?

Keep dreaming! Science will become so abstruse and bureaucratic that people will give up even trying to understand it. We’ll slowly sink back into medieval superstition.

Silver linings? Try this. The creationism debate won’t much of an issue–because public schooling will have disappeared. Instead we’ll force kids through a gauntlet of relentless machine-drilling and life-coaching–“like the Marines,” as Cowen says.

Unlike the Marines, however, this model will benefit mostly women, as young men continue to slide inexorably into violence and apathy.

These restive lugs will be kept in line, though. Law enforcement will use Minority Report-style methods to predict antisocial behavior before it even takes place–using drones, for instance, to scan people for hostile body language. Talk about profiling. In this future, just walking funny will bring the cops to your door.

Indeed, most people will be under constant surveillance, tracked at work, in public, in their homes, with every peccadillo, every failure of efficiency, recorded and duly punished. Privacy will die.

So will hope. Genetic screening and constant monitoring will sort children into two stark categories: winners and failures. There won’t be much point dreaming of a better future. Machines will tell us all what to do, who to marry, even what to desire. Ideas like authority, dignity, responsibility, and autonomy will fade away. Oligarchs and hoi polloi alike will become “handmaidens to the computer.”

Not that it’s all bad. Some people will manage to evade this totalitarian meatgrinder. Cowen expects that large numbers of Americans will fall out of civilization entirely, railroaded into tent camps and anarchic trailer-slums, living a life of noisy desperation, off the grid, without amenities or water–without, really, much of anything at all, except, one imagines, a rusty machete hidden for defense under a sleeping bag.

“A lot of people will have serious objections to some of these trends,” Cowen writes. “So be it.”

2

When Average is Over hit the markets a few years ago, its weird mix of oracular diffidence and appalling prognostications provoked some strange responses.

Matt Yglesias chose to read it as a suite of policy prescriptions hidden inside a Cassandra-esque cautionary tale. Mark Hendrickson, at Forbes, was spurred to a panicked defense of capitalism. William Galston, at the WSJ, compared Cowen’s future to Swiftian satire.

Philip Delves Broughton, also at the WSJ, used his review to fret about how to save his own kids from Cowen’s grisly projections, like an 80s survivalist blueprinting a backyard bomb shelter after watching The Day AfterThe Economist indulged in predictable sneering about the bankruptcy of American exceptionalism.

David Brooks may have had the sanest response. He simply put most of Cowen’s argument aside and wandered off on his usual airport-lounge speculations.

Most reviewers were perplexed that such an acute social critic could be so complacent about the horrors he was describing. Doesn’t Cowen fear social disorder?

Not at all, Cowen says. Americans will have a reliable source of relief: they’ll console themselves with shallow patriotism and bitter xenophobia. That makes a certain sense. In Cowen’s view, the rest of the world will be in even worse shape.

With the exception of NPR, most commentators on the book have focused on the low end of the social divide, accepting Cowen’s assumption that the 10-15% in the elite will be living “fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives.”

Too few have looked at the way Cowen describes those upper-class lives. Shunted into boot-camp schooling, subjected to constant evaluation, competing for opportunities to toady and scrape around beleaguered billionaires, watched around the clock for hallmarks of untrustworthy behavior, until at last they wear out and tumble off the meritocratic hamster wheel into dusty obsolescence: in many ways, Cowen’s elites are worse off than his proles.

Technotopians like to say that automation will free us all to become more creative. Cowen makes short work of that notion. He uses the familiar term “cognitive elite” to describe his tranche of top earners, and his analysis often evokes Richard Florida’s vision of an ascendant creative class. He’s even said in interviews that his future will be much more “creative” than the present.

But Cowen’s is a strange kind of creativity.

What fires creative types, from entrepreneurs to artists to mathematicians, isn’t the production of knowledge itself, but the quest for understanding. In Cowen’s view, all real intellectual work will soon be done by computers. Few if any people will understand what those computers are doing. Fairly soon, a time will come when no human understands much of anything at all.

Computers will handle the real science–the real thinking–while human researchers toil like Pynchonesque engineers at small, hyperspecialized tasks: collecting data, managing inputs, slaving over fragments of giant equations. Elegant models, theories, and leaps of intuition will all be replaced by esoteric number-crunching.

Across the academic disciplines, from hard science to sociology (the humanities, remember, have already atrophied), imagination will give way to an assembly line of knowledge production, churning out IP as a sort of intangible commodity. The life of the mind will become thoroughly mechanical, and the days of true genius will be gone.

Even the robots who run this dispirited puppet show won’t be having a good time. Cowen pooh-poohs dreams of a Kurzweilian singularity, an emergence of mechanical superintelligence. No hard AI in his vision. No transhumanism. No lovable tin-man helpers. No Data. No Number Five. No Asimovian utopia presided over by solicitous robo-nursemaids.

In Cowen’s future, humans will be slaves to machines, but machines will still be slaves to humans. Everyone will be a slave, really, laboring in service to what he calls the “numerocracy”–a tyranny of statistical formulas.

What fun.

Paul Ryan might be licking his chops, but who else would want to live this way? The science fiction writer C. M. Kornbluth once described a world in which people had come to worship sadism as the only virtue. In his tale, Americans slowly tortured themselves to death over thirty-two generations.

That confers on Cowen a dubious distinction. He has now described the second worst society imaginable.

3

Let’s back up.

For all the talk of a hypermeritocracy, Cowen’s future looks drearily similar to history’s most corrupt regimes. At the bottom, a giant mass of abased peons. Further up, a much smaller class peons, hustling to keep above the wretched hordes below. And in some dwindling fraction of a percent at the top, the kingpins, buttressed by control of some finite needed resource, land or fuel or technical savvy.

Cowen does indeed see his future as a return to a kind of historical baseline. “There are many other historical periods,” he writes, “including medieval times, where inequality is high, upward mobility is fairly low, and the social order is fairly stable.”

Ah, yes, the Dark Ages. What a time to be alive.

The word “medieval” is rarely employed as a flattering adjective. Cowen’s use of it here points to a strange lacuna. What, apart from monstrous oppression, made the medieval order so cohesive?

Religion receives no attention in Average Is Over, apart from a brief suggestion, part Marx, part Obama, part Richard Dawkins, that people cling to faith when other sources of hope have died. Ditto for art, philosophy, and any other discipline that asks not what life is like, but what it ought to be like. Ethics gets no love in this book. Politics has been reduced to policy: perusal of polls and superintendence of the economy.

At the opening of his chapter on education, Cowen writes:

“We as a nation have been thinking about education without knowing what we really want from it. Do we want well-rounded young adults to emerge? Or good citizens? Role models? … For the purposes of this chapter, I’ll keep the goal simple. One goal of better education is to procure better earnings. How we might achieve that is the question.”

If that seems like an awfully big simplification, it’s symptomatic of the book as a whole. Throughout, Cowen uses chess as an allegory for economic affairs. And life, as he sees it, is exceedingly gamelike, with established rules, clear winners, and a lot of big, big losers.

Not that this is unusual. Today’s technocrats shy away from such scary, antiquated words as belief, morality, character, and duty. Even the word culture scares them, at least when it implies something to be valued and not merely indexed. Faith, for today’s elites, serves as a useful appurtenance to a political career, like a natty suit or a devoted spouse, but it’s rarely a call to deep reflection. The reigning ethos of our time is a bloodless libertarianism, which celebrates overweening narcissism not because anyone thinks this is a good trait, but because it’s the only trait everyone has in common.

A common mistake in speculation about the future is to focus on material innovations at the expense of social upheavals. Tools, agricultural methods, communication techniques, machines, plagues, and weapons are treated as the true drivers of society, while innovations in law, morality, manners, art, politics, and yes, religion are waved away as surface effects of economic forces.

This brings to the futurist an air of coolheaded disinterest, but makes for a sterile sort of history. Social and technological inventions have always been entangled. People have always sought not only to advance their fortunes, but to improve their souls.

The connection between ethics and technology is regularly misunderstood. Both are seen as natural enablers of individualism. But technology makes people less individual, not more so. In a technological world, tools are standardized, work is regulated, people are organized into classes and subjected to strict routines. Even the design of a hammer implies a “normal” hand.

A hunter-gatherer who travels in a band of thirty people, each of whom he knows personally, who fashions his own tools and instruments, makes his own music, tells his own stories, kills his own food, pits his own body against a wild environment, is much more individual, if not necessarily better off, than a modern man crushed into an airplane seat.

The trend of technological advance is always toward anonymity, enslavement, the dissolution of self. That’s why social and intellectual revolutions are so important to the modern world. They’re needed to guarantee a dignity that technological advance threatens to strip away.

Cowen’s predictions represent another tick of this old, old gear. It’s probably true that if we allow ourselves to become the slaves to our computers, the future will be as he describes. But how likely are we to do that?

Orwell famously portrayed the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever. Cowen’s future looks more like a human finger pushing one gray button into eternity. What does it say when the predictions of today’s top thinkers are bleaker, in their way, than the most nightmarish dystopia a survivor of two world wars could imagine?

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The Best Game Ever about a Giant Vagina

The hit indie game Journey is about a quest to pass through a giant vagina.

This isn’t a spoiler. The game makes its intentions clear at the start, when the main character is plunked down in a desert, toils up a hill, and gazes toward his goal: a shining slit in the distance. We already know we’re going to emerge from this quest coated in a thick caul of symbolism.

Life, death … all the big themes are on display.

Well, actually, just those two themes. But what else do you need?

Journey is a great game. There are lots of those. What makes this one notable is that it achieves greatness almost entirely by virtue of its symbolism. Art, music, narrative, gameplay, all have been paired down here to something with the pristine compactness of a Hans Christian Andersen tale.

You don’t do much in Journey. In an era when every action, from finishing a TV show to running a 2-K, comes with two dozen blips of online approval, you certainly don’t win very much. But everything here glows with significance.

Note my gendered pronouns: toward his goal. That’s not only sexist, it’s deceptive. The hero of this game has no gender at all. In Journey, you play a sexless, impish figure cloaked in orange tights and a concealing burnoose. Two cattish eyes peep from a void of a face.

Forget about revealing characteristics. This hero doesn’t even have arms.

The controls boil down to three actions: looking, jumping, and slogging. Mostly slogging.

If all this sounds like the worst kind of washed-out minimalism, take heart. Between our cloaked hero and his/her vulval goal lie acres of shining sand. That’s a good thing. The sand in this game looks great. Game designers like to brag about how hard they work on the details. They sweat over the physics of dripping blood. They fuss like Pope’s Belinda to get a heroine’s hair just right.

In Journey, it shows.

There’s a scene early on where you traipse through a sandy valley. Strong winds make the earth flow and ripple like the sea. A big gust catches your cloak, sends you skiing the powdery waves.

It doesn’t just look good. It feels good, like watching a kite weave in the sky.

Later, you trek into a ruined city at sunset. Light bounces off the sand. The ground blazes like money, achingly bright.

We gamers are always being admonished to rest our eyes. There were times, playing Journey, when I felt like I ought to be wearing polarizing lenses.

There’s a story, but it’s been trimmed down to picture-book dimensions. Most of Journey has you stumping through desert ruins. You do eventually find out why all those buildings are abandoned, and it’s exactly the answer you’d expect.

This is proper and satisfying. The worst thing a game like this can do is start monkeying around with plot. Journey almost loses focus when it complicates its elemental quest with antagonists: hulking war machines, like flying centipedes with spotlights for eyes.

The trouble with games, from an aesthetic standpoint, is not that they’re “interactive,” thus debarred forever from the salons of elite culture. It’s that there are higher and lower modes of interaction. The painter Edwin Church used to have opera glasses handed out at exhibitions of his mammoth pictures. The idea was for viewers to discover a canvas piece by piece, searching through swaths of meticulously painted rocks and foliage for near-invisible details: an exotic bird on a branch, a distant steeple.

It sounds like a nineteenth-century version of Where’s Waldo? It was. But Church was giving vulgar expression to an important truth. Far from being passive observers, we interact with even static art, first by looking, then by looking closer.

Every gamer knows that the best games don’t just taunt you into taking on harder challenges. They challenge you to see in deeper ways. Save for a few clunky moments, Journey skips the frustrations of button jamming and puzzle solving and plays on the simpler pleasures of sightseeing. You scan a vista, pick a distant point of interest, and hike in for a closer look.

It’s amazing how compelling this simple activity can be. I found myself bemused in later stages, when the game has you limp up a mountain at a starving man’s pace, driven back  by a blasting wind. This must be the only game that slows down for its denouement. How can such a tedious activity be tolerable, much less entertaining?

It works because the grueling pace forces you to recognize the mindlessness of your own obstinacy. “I will go on,” I said to myself, as I have during countless games, books, TV shows, exercise regimens, and God knows what else. “I’m going to finish this.”

The genius of Journey is that it never aspires to be about more than this basic, rather stupid urge: to keep going, keep crossing the ground ahead of you, even if it’s just a big pile of sand.

The game brings you steadily, at times rigorously, into a more intimate relationship with your own willpower. At the end, when you finally reach that shining vagina in the sky, something truly poignant has taken place.

We’ve all fantasized about stepping into a painting. In this game, you step into a gorgeous painting—and keep stepping, and stepping, and stepping. Who would have thought it? Slogging can be fun.

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Common Sense

You would think Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel were indefensible, but I do see people defending them. Mostly in comment boards. Yet here’s Pat Buchanan:

When Obama named Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, a woman of Puerto Rican descent who went through college on affirmative action scholarships, did Obama think this would not influence her decision when it came to whether or not to abolish affirmative action?

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” Sotomayor said in a speech at Berkeley law school and in other forums.

Translation: Ethnicity matters, and my Latina background helps guide my decisions.

Just to make this clear:

Trump wants to lock down the southern border and has said mean things about Mexicans. It’s perfectly sensible to guess that Curiel might oppose Trump politically and dislike him personally. Lots of people feel that way.

The question is, where do you go with that suspicion? And the answer is, you look hard for evidence of bias–in the judge’s actual behavior. If Curiel is so consumed with malice that it’s affected his legal judgment, it should be possible to challenge him through the usual legal methods. It’s not enough to wave your hands and say, “He’s Mexican!” And it’s ridiculous to say he should recuse himself because of his heritage. By that standard, no one would be able to judge any cases at all.

Are people affected by their backgrounds? Sure. Are people wholly conditioned by their backgrounds, reducible to ethnicity? If that’s true, Trump’s legal woes are the least of our worries.

Trump has a gajillion dollars. He can hire the best lawyers in the land. It’s their job to explain, in legal terms, what, if anything, Curiel’s been doing wrong.

I find myself agreeing with conservative pundits, here. This looks like the ne plus ultra of identity politics. And I do think there’s a connection to leftist rhetoric.

When a feminist casts a jaundiced eye on men who talk about abortion, that makes sense. Men don’t get pregnant. Surely that affects our views. It’s reasonable to think some men might have a personal stake in the question. But it’s not enough to say, “He’s a man–don’t listen!” You have to explain what the man got wrong.

If white people oppose benefits for the poor, that might be evidence of racism. It makes sense to think so. There’s historical precedent. But that’s the beginning of the argument, not the end. You still have to make your case.

To diverge from the theme slightly …

A common rebuke is to say that this kind of detailed debate shifts the onus to people with less power. Men are privileged over women. Whites are privileged over Blacks. The privileged already have things easier. Isn’t it unfair to expect women and Blacks to argue–over and over–for rights and respect that have been denied them?

Yes. But how else are things going to change? Minorities have to do something to get the power they’re owed. The question is what they should do. Fight? Beg? Tell their stories and try to gin up sympathy? Look for opportunities within the system? Wait quietly for things to change?

There’s a time and a place for each of those options. But the tradition of reasoned debate is still one of the most powerful tools people have for changing minds and reforming society. It has its disadvantages. It’s slow. It takes training. It suffers from the sea lion problem. But it’s a proud legacy. We should all try to live up to it.

Trump has shown himself to be an enemy of that tradition. This alone should disqualify him for office. Trump’s attacks on Curiel aren’t only an offense to Mexican-Americans. They’re an assault on law, reason, and civic order.

One last point. I’ve claimed that Trump’s illiberalism is reminiscent of leftist illiberalism. Can Trump’s me-against-the-Mexicans identity politics actually be blamed on the Left, as Rod Dreher says?

I think that’s a stretch. I don’t like the more extreme forms of liberal identity politics, as I’ve made clear. But they arose in response to white identity politics and male identity politics, which we know better as racism and sexism. They’re not an innovation but an overcompensation. The blame game goes a long way back.

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