Are You There, Sensitivity Reader? It’s Me, Margaret

Katy Waldman describes how authors are using “sensitivity readers” to give input on manuscripts:

These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.

Their advice can be subtle:

Is the book about the girl struggling with her weight too much about a girl, well, struggling with her weight? Does a character’s reference to his “shrink” denigrate therapy?

Naturally, issues to do with race, sex, and gender loom large, but recommended edits cover all possible sources of aggravated self-consciousness, including religion, “mental illness, abuse and neglect, poverty, disability, or chronic pain.”

Of course, authors have always sought advice on their handling of tricky topics. Waldman makes clear, however, that publishers are now using professional sensitivity readers to tweak the political messages embedded in their products:

Some publishing houses provide their own sensitivity readers, particularly in genres—such as young adult literature—where the industry feels protective of its audience. Stacy Whitman, who helms the middle-grade imprint of Lee & Low Books, explained that on most manuscripts her team consults a plexus of “cultural experts” they’ve discovered through “networking and research.” The responses flow back to the author “as part of the editorial process,” and each reader earns a modest honorarium. (The site Writing in the Margins recommends $250 per manuscript as a starting fee.) By the time Whitman started at Lee & Low in 2010, she told me, seeking input from reviewers with firsthand knowledge of minority traditions and experiences had already become standard practice at the company.

An inevitable development, I suppose. But why not go further? Maybe one day these sensitivity readers can be fully professionalized, with licensing requirements and certified training courses and agencies to contract out their services.

Then, when an author is criticized for her handling of race (as will surely still happen), she can say in her defense, “But my publisher already hired a sensitivity reader! It wasn’t my artistic decision. Don’t blame me!”

And when attention turns to the publisher, the publisher can issue a statement saying, “We want our readers to know that we do our best to ensure every manuscript rises to the highest standards of cultural sensitivity. For that reason we use Intersectionalia Inc., considered to be an industry leader in sensitivity assurance, to check every work we publish for sensitivity-related material.”

And when outrage shifts to the agency employing sensitivity readers, Intersectionalia Inc. can say, “Our clients are deeply important to us, and this is why we take pride in rigorously screening all our sensitivity readers to ensure they properly express the ethical commitments of our company. Inevitably, at times, a reader will fall short of our high standards, and when this happens we take appropriate steps to the remedy the error.”

At which they will go ahead fire the offending sensitivity reader, and everyone will be happy.

Except, of course, for the sensitivity reader herself, who has now proven to be something other than a perfectly dependable representative of her ethnic and sexual group, something less than a foolproof authority on audience expectations, something more interesting than a QA hireling for purveyors of mass entertainment–that is to say, an ordinary person full of idiosyncratic and unreliable opinions–and thus totally expendable from the perspective of a corporate entity.

In all seriousness, what American publishing needs isn’t more books expressing sensitivity toward members of minority groups. It’s more books expressing insensitivity, written by members of minority groups. The opportunity to be insensitive–prickly, obtrusive, noisy, sometimes offensive, unpredictable, and ultimately unclassifiable–is implicitly the opportunity to be a person, not merely a model queer woman or a typical Muslim American or some other reductive thing.

The need to assert that freedom to be oneself–rough edges, abrasive attitudes, unpopular opinions and all–is what leads people write novels in the first place.

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Cuck or Rabbit?

[T]he swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.

So writes Tom Pepinsky , citing this as an example of “observational equivalence”:

“We have two theories of why something is happening, and yet we cannot tell which is the “correct” theory based on the data that we observe.”

Hum, hum, hum. A certain fellow called Quine comes to mind. Quine was a philosopher who studied indeterminacy, particularly in matters of language translation–which is to say, in areas that can only be understood by reference to human intentions. Daniel Dennet used the example of a triple agent as an illustration of Quine’s ideas.

Imagine a mole planted undercover in a foreign spy agency. The mole’s duty is to spy on the foreign government for the benefit of his countrymen. However, to spy effectively he must seem to be spying on his countrymen for the benefit of foreigners–otherwise he will he discovered as a mole, and his mission will fail.

But it’s quite possible that this spy has turned traitor, and that his pretense is actually sincere: he not only seems to be spying on behalf of a foreign government; he really is spying on behalf of a foreign government. But what’s to say this appearance of tripled loyalties isn’t itself part of the original plot? It may be that the spy is only pretending to be a triple agent for the sake of deceiving the foreign government in which he has been embedded, thereby gaining the trust of his enemies, making him a more effective spy for his allies.

And so on, indefinitely. We can never arrive at a certain interpretation of the spy’s loyalty by observing his behavior, since the spy’s duty, as a spy, is to dissemble. We can even imagine a scenario in which the spy wavers in his loyalties without ever changing his actions. At one minute he feels loyal to his countrymen; at the next feels loyal to their enemies. Yet he goes on acting the same way, spying on both countries even while his allegiance oscillates. Until the spy takes some definite action that makes questions of loyalty pragmatic rather than notional, there’s no way for anyone else to know whom he truly serves.

This is the scenario that John Le Carre made famous in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and that David Foster Wallace spoofed in his footnote on Rodney Tine in Infinite Jest:

(Rodney Tine, Sr., Chief of Unspecified Services, acknowledged architect of O.N.A.N. and continental Reconfiguration, who held the ear of the White House of U.S.A., and whose stenographer had long doubled as the stenographer-cum-jeune-fille-de-Vendredi of M. DuPlessis, former asst. coordinator of the pan-Canadian Resistance, and whose passionate, ill-disguised attachment (Tine’s) to this double-amanuensis–one Mlle. Luria Perec, of Lamartine county L’Islet, Quebec–gave rise to these questions of the high-level loyalties of Tine, whether he ‘doubled’ for Quebec out of the love for Luria or ‘tripled’ the loyalties, pretending only to divulge secrets while secretly maintaining his U.S.A. fealty against the pull of an irresistible love, it was said.)

Chief of Unspecified Services: not a bad title for Steve Bannon.

So we come to the question on everyone’s mind: whether the Trump administration intends to wreck our government as part of a plot to seize power, or will inadvertently wreck our government out of administrative incompetence.

I think it’s clear where consensus lies. Pundits always gravitate to the argument that Trump is clueless and doomed to fail, their reasoning being roughly as follows:

Trump doesn’t do what we, the opinion leaders, believe he ought to do, and even when he does, he doesn’t do it in the way we believe he ought do it.

We, the opinion leaders, have come to be successful because we are reasonable and well-informed; what’s more, being reasonable and well-informed, we deserve our success.

Because Trump doesn’t do what we wish him to do, Trump must be unreasonable. Because Trump is unreasonable, he neither deserves nor is likely to find success. Ergo, Trump will fail.

This is essentially the attitude that prevailed during the election, when every reasonable observer came to believe that Trump’s campaign was a garbage fire that had scorched and scotched all conventional rules, and that therefore Trump was doomed to lose. Now the same experts assure us that while they were wrong about Trump’s campaign management, they’re right about Trump’s presidency, because after all, holding office is very different from seeking office.

Fair enough. But imagine the following. Say Trump destabilizes the world order and makes a mess of the U.S. government. In a time of destabilization and messy government, people naturally gravitate to strong leaders. This gives Trump more power, which he uses to spread further destabilization. The cycle repeats until it reaches some decisive crisis–a war, a legal battle, a systemic collapse–or some externally conditoned terminus, like Trump’s death or a scheduled election.

In that case, we’ll never be able to say whether Trump’s destructive actions were devious or clueless, whether he planned to spread disorder as a means of gaining power, or merely acquired power as an ironic consequence of incapacity. Indeed, we’ll never be able to determine in what measure Trump’s actions were guided by idiocy versus strategy, since both lead to the same result.

What we will be able to describe–what we can already describe, I think, with reasonable confidence–is the general pattern of Trump’s behavior, which is the praxis of demagogues everywhere. He rails against corruption and disorder. He presents himself as the only solution to corruption and disorder. He attributes corruption and disorder to vice and weakness, and associates vice and weakness with foreign threats and local scapegoats. Finally, he acts in such a way as to spread corruption and disorder, which keeps the whole cycle spinning round.

Does Trump believe any of this stuff? Does he have a long-term plan? Who cares? This is his modus operandi.

The pundits wring their hands and screw up their faces, asking in the pained voices of intellectuals pinched between two historic epochs, “Will our institutions save us?” Are they nuts? Our institutions have already failed. That’s how Trump got to be where he is.

In his current position, Trump is ideally positioned to A: cause disruption and B: profit from disruption. We’ve seen that he excels at both.

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A Dis, of Course

Hey, why are you reading the interwebs, you grimy little appeaser? You could be punching Nazis right now.

I finally caught up with Freddie deBoer’s posts on the Spencer punch incident. (See this among others.) I’m not sure why I bothered, since I’ve been reading Freddie long enough that there were no real surprises. His characteristic maneuver on politic subjects is to make pragmatism into a form of purism. Success becomes the ultimate measure of morality, in a way that at times eerily echoes Donald Trump. Trump promises that his followers will eventually get tired of winning; Freddie laments that his fellow leftists never tire of losing.

Naturally, Freddie’s response to the Nazi Punch harps on tactics. Will violence help the left beat the right? Is this a good long-term plan? Why, Freddie asks, isn’t anyone talking about efficacy?

Curiously, the discussions I’ve seen–if snide jokes and shouting matches can be called “discussions”–have mostly been about efficacy. Those in favor of violence argue that it will suppress hateful speakers, and since hateful speakers themselves incite violence, this will eventually lead to a more peaceful society. In their view, the mechanisms that normally curb hateful speech, like the media and the law, have become corrupt or incompetent, leaving violence as a necessary resort.

They also argue that violence has symbolic or inspirational value. A given act of violence may not accomplish much in itself, but it attracts a lot of commentary, gives people something to cheer about, and thereby draws attention to important issues and spurs others to collective action. (I think this argument implies that punching white supremacists is a good use of violence, in that it gets people excited without doing much actual harm. While assassinating Congressmen, say, would be a bad use of violence, in that it would horrify people without meaningfully changing the system.)

Those opposed to the use of violence argue that it begets more violence, which leads to an escalation of hostilities, which ends up giving more power to strongmen and demagogues. They also argue that violence drives away the moderates and everyday citizens needed for a broad coalition, in that every act of violence undermines ethical ideals, like equal rights and the golden rule, that most Americans hold dear.

The point is that these arguments about strategy depend on beliefs about morality, because everyone now assumes that political action is largely a matter of effective messaging. If most citizens think violence is admirable, then the use of violence will attract and inspire new followers. If most citizens think violence is reprehensible, then the use of violence will repel potential sympathizers.

Freddie–along with every other sensible person who has written on this issue–makes the valid and vital point that most ethicists, most moralists, and most ordinary people see violence as justified only as a form of defense. That’s why champions of The Punch have been so eager to frame it as an act of defense, arguing that Spencer’s speech is itself a form of violence that terrorizes the oppressed.

I find that argument sophistic, but beyond that, I found the tone of the ensuing conversation almost inexpressibly repugnant. The problem, as always, isn’t that people on the left want to debate morality versus strategy, but that the most vocal partisans now treat “strategy” and “morality” and “debate” as equally dirty words. To the extent that such words have any meaning, they refer to ideas and ideals, and every right-thinking radical on the internet already knows that ideas and ideals are only flimsy pretexts for the abuse of power.

As cathartic as people may have found the black-bloc punch and its violent import, I notice that it hasn’t yet inspired a popular revolution. The real story, as always, was one of wounded feelings. The people initially cheering the punch included  folks who had been suffering alt-right harassment for years. They understandably took satisfaction in seeing one of their tormentors get his comeuppance. When moralists started wagging fingers, their natural reaction was to think, “Really? With all that’s happening, you’re scolding me? ME?” So they responded by dismissing the moralizers as frauds and cowards and appeasers. Others were dragooned into showing emotional support. And so most of the energy, as always, went into humiliating and jeering at people who showed themselves to be insufficiently zealous, who dared to speak of strategies OR morals OR beliefs, who suggested with their actions or words or even their conspicuous silence that there was a conversation to be had. The controversy over abstract ideas became a proxy war for human passions.

So it goes on social media. I have to say, a movement so invested in sneering at people who presume to advocate for nonviolence is one with which I have no spiritual affinity. But this alone leads me to wonder whether all the talk of strategy and coalition-building, at least as it relates to messaging, matters very much at all. The Spencer Punch furor, which began so innocuously, has left me alienated from the political movement to which I notionally belong. Yet I can’t see myself doing anything but going to the same marches, voting for the same politicians, sending out the same letters and donations–doing more or less what I’ve done before, but in a spirit of grim compliance rather than one of hopeful solidarity.

To the extent that the left has a strategy, then, it’s one that has utterly failed to win my sympathy. But I can only go on being leftist in practice if not in spirit, because the very same values–I would even call them “old-fashioned values”–that leave me appalled by leftist strategy have made me horrified by rightist policy. I find myself in the perplexed position of belonging to a coalition that I would say has bad morals, bad ideas, bad habits, and bad strategies, but is ultimately fighting for good causes.

Is this simply the nature of politics? I wonder how many other people feel the same.

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To Dream the Impossiblie Dream

The Onion tells us how to fix the internet:

Across the world, discussions have taken place as to how the internet, if it is one day revived, could be made less appalling. Several guidelines have reportedly been proposed, including a minimum age requirement and a questionnaire aimed at identifying the most frivolous or virulent users, and then either barring them entirely or corralling them inside a section of the internet dedicated to people who do nothing but make humanity worse.

While access to email and online weather services would remain largely unchanged, sources confirmed that Reddit and 4chan would be eliminated entirely, and the internet would be strictly limited to a single, reliable database of song lyrics.

Reliable song lyrics? And you thought tech utopianism was dead.

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Even Autocrats Can Be Incompetent

David Brooks, two weeks ago, on Trump’s erratic leadership:

If the figure at the center can’t give consistent, clear and informed direction, the whole system goes haywire, with vicious infighting and creeping anarchy.

Thus the current centrist consensus: that the real danger of a Trump presidency isn’t oppression but incompetence. Instead of an autocratic menace seizing power through fiendish plots, Trump will be a weak buffoon who spreads disorder through careless errors. Because he’s all gut, no head, his administration will lurch from one crisis to another, but without exerting real control, much less gaining power. If you want to explain the Trump presidency, think maladroitness, not malfeasance.

I think these centrist critics of Trump don’t quite understand the implications of their own critique.

Sure, Trump’s presidency is anarchic. But how is Trump likely to respond to that anarchy? If Trump’s carelessness leads to general mayhem, how else can he respond but by doubling down on the political skills he demonstrably does possess: fearmongering, propaganda, demagoguery, and a talent for redirecting public attention toward the farce or scandal or scapegoat du jour?

Maybe Trump will blame his misfortunes on the media. Maybe he’ll pick flamboyant fights with other D.C. factions. Maybe he’ll blame foreigners. Maybe he’ll mollify his supporters by persecuting minorities and dissenters. Or maybe he’ll choose symbolic sacrifices from among his crew of toadies and hangers-on, as he did with the bumblers and thugs on his campaign staff. Probably he’ll do all of the above.

Then what? All this Sturm und Drang will only make things more chaotic, more vicious, more anarchic. Leading to greater strife in the government and greater discontent in the populace. Leading to more paranoia and insecurity on Trump’s part, leading to more scapegoating and sensational feuds, leading to more unrest and anger …

This is the essence of politics in the personal style: everything revolves around the leader’s persona, his fights, his fancies, his favorites, his fears. Political fortunes depend on loyalty and court intrigue and the leader’s manipulation of his subordinates, making corruption the essence of government. A corrupt government is ineffective and untrustworthy, so the leader can only keep power by casting his rotten regime as the inevitable alternative to some scarier existential threat–an enemy abroad, a traitor within. This leads to pointless battles and cruel persecutions, which diverts energy from the ordinary work of government and provokes stronger dissent. And on and on.

Right-leaning moderates like Brooks all seem to think that because Trump is new to Washington, responsible Republicans and D.C. fixtures will have the skill and probity to “contain” him, which is to say, that they’ll be willing and able to interrupt the cycle described above. At worst, we’ll get four years of factionalism and inaction. At best (in their view), we’ll get something like the neocon agenda, artfully assembled by Pence and Ryan while Trump squats somewhere with his fast food and Twitter account.

Really? Who are these responsible, capable, upstanding Republicans? What government have the pundits been covering? Come to think of it, I’d say that liberals hoping for Trump to be exposed as a fraud and denounced as a failure have underestimated Trump and overestimated the public. Trump’s administration will either be bumblingly inert or actively destructive. Either way, he’ll have ample cause to do what he does best: telling lies and laying blame. It’s worked pretty well for him so far.

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Notes on Nicks

There’s some okay stuff in this Amanda Petrusich piece on Stevie Nicks. Her comments on Nicks’ “girlishness,” for one. Long before Lady Gaga wore a mantle of bunched Kermit dolls, Nicks was dressing with the corny exuberance of a girl who’d just raided her grandma’s attic. And Nicks has a knack for writing lyrics that sound both deeply personal and mushily vague, like a fourteen year-old scribbling thoughts in her diary:

And the days go by
Like a strand in the wind
In the web that is my own
I begin again
Said to my friend, baby
Nothin’ else matters

Do you know what that means? I’m not sure I do. But I know how it feels. In a rock song, that’s what matters.

Even when Stevie Nicks was coked to the gills–no, especially when she was coked to the gills–she had an air of wispy self-sufficiency. Her songs are mostly about vulnerability–not only the heartache of women in love, but the unease of men surprised by intimacy. What a contrast with our own day’s pop superstars, always shouting in the Whitney Houston mode about how proud they are to be themselves. I like the contrast Petrusich draws between Nicks’s soft romanticism and today’s bombastic arena anthems. Whatever happened to wistful pop?

The trouble is that profiles like this always scant the songcraft. They give you a performer’s image, her aura, her legacy, her clothes. They linger over lyrics and stray quotations, which tend to sound dumb when removed from their songs of origin, like fragments of high school poetry. But what about the tunes, the instruments, the arrangements? What about the music that actually makes pop stars famous?

It’s especially frustrating here, because Nicks, unlike many of today’s superstars, actually wrote most of her own material. And her recordings, especially her classic records, have a characteristic sound. It’s worth giving a little attention to that sound and how she created it.

The Nicks formula starts with a steady drumbeat at a moderate tempo, usually playing standard, unadorned pop-rock accents. One-TWO-three-FOUR. Instruments come in gradually: a subdued bass, maybe a muted electric guitar. Keyboards or an organ lay down basic chords, nothing adventurous, often broken up over several beats. A lead guitar adds tremulous coloring. The arrangement makes heavy use of vocal harmonies and backing singers. Often the songs are outright duets. Although synthesizers feature prominently, fancy production effects are kept to a minimum.

The result can be schmaltzy, especially with those woozy synths and lounge-like backing vocals. But it does evoke a distinctive mood. As a compositional approach, the method relies on empty space, the lonely plodding of the drums, the mournful bent notes of the lead guitar. The instrument parts, stripped down to a few simple accents, figure like distant sounds in a desolate area, horns at sea, sirens on a dark street. Mood intensifies through a slow accumulation of simple harmonies: guitar, keyboard, vocals, weaving together.

It’s not music you dance to. It’s music you drive to, singing along in the solitude of your car, the thrum of the highway doubled by those steady rhythm sections. Music you put on at evening, alone, with a dark mass of rain pushing up the valley, a few headlights curving by on the county road. At the whiskey hour.

“Nightbird,” “Sable on Blonde,” “Bella Donna,” “Kind of Woman,” “Outside the Rain,” “Wild Heart”: these are good examples of the signature Nicks style. Her upbeat songs have faster tempos, happier chords, busier arrangements, but still make use of the same basic elements: strong quarter-note accents, prominent backing vocals, layered instrumentation, plaintive guitar and keyboard riffs trading places in the bridge and post-chorus. I don’t know exactly how much of the credit for this sound goes to Nicks’ producer, Jimmy Iovine, but it’s worth noting that many of the hits she recorded with Fleetwood Mac–“Dreams,” “Rhiannon,” “Sara,” “Gypsy”–have the same distinguishing marks. Even some of her later tracks, which all too frequently collapse under pileups of eighties-tastic synth effects, have vestiges of the style; check out “Some Become Strangers” or “Nightmare.”

For an illuminating contrast, try listening to some of the fluffy, boppy hits written by Nicks’ bandmates in Fleetwood Mac: “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Hold Me,” “Little Lies,” “Over My Head.” Rhythm guitars and bouncy keyboards fill out the verses. Backing vocals are present but not prominent. We hear no interweaving of doleful synths and haunting electric guitar, just little bursts of radio-friendly licks. The tempo is quick but not urgent. Musical gimmicks and production effects cue shifts in mood, which generally ranges from mellow to buoyant.

Some of these are decent pop songs. But they sound different from Stevie Nicks songs.

This helps explain, I think, why Stevie Nicks is remembered for being Stevie Nicks, while Fleetwood Mac are remembered for being a groovy old Boomer band that gets dredged up for national campaign events. Nicks did something tricky. She made popular music about unpopular feelings: mournfulness, fragility, sorrow, regret. Everything about her public presence–the ethereal clothes, the brooding lyrics, the air of wounded innocence–and the songs themselves, with their hollow spaces, wistful vocals, and keening instrumentation–reinforced that image.

That kind of personal mystique can get you a reputation as a poetess, a witch, a visionary, a genius. I’m not sure we need to go that far. Maybe Stevie Nicks is something less mysterious. Maybe she’s just a talented musician.

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A Little More on Clinton

I’ve been thinking more about this argument liberals are having. How much should we blame Hillary Clinton for losing the election? Did running Clinton as a candidate have anything to do with Trump’s win? Would someone else have been better?

It’s strange how even these internal debates end up splitting along partisan lines. People who think Clinton lost the election also seem to think she was a terrible candidate overall–corrupt and incompetent and entitled and undeserving. And people who support Clinton often talk as if it’s traitorous and misogynistic to point out any of her flaws, as if this kind of honest critiquing was what ended up tainting a totally spotless politician.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Clinton would have made a good president–better than the men who were running, anyway–but had major liabilities as a campaigner.

Does it matter? Isn’t it all just crying over spilled milk?

It matters if progressives have a message to offer. Because they ran Clinton as their candidate, the election became–at least on the left–a referendum on her personal record. That didn’t leave much room for visions, promises, or hopeful rhetoric, especially since Clinton herself isn’t great at that kind of talk.

Liberals had three answers to this problem:

  1. “Yes, but she’ll be our first woman president! Isn’t that, in itself, inspiring enough?” In other words, let’s do the Obama thing again, but this time with sex instead of race. This is a hopeful message; the trouble is that the candidate herself wasn’t in a good position to deliver it. Clinton couldn’t get up in the debates and spend the whole time saying, “A vote for me will be a vote for women’s equality!” Obama had other things to talk about: he was young, he was new, he’d voted against the Iraq War, and most important, he was personally committed to a vision of a unified America. What could Clinton say along those lines?
  2. “Maybe Clinton’s not especially inspiring, but if you really dig into the policy details, you’ll find that her proposed budget, along with her recommended tweaks to the ACA, are projected to produce an increase in household income over the next four years of …” Um, no. The more rousing version of this appeal was, “Clinton’s a hardheaded pragmatist, just the kind of workmanlike leader we need.” This is actually the theme that won me over. But I’m not surprised it didn’t work on, say, young people.
  3. “Sure, Clinton has problems. But Trump!” Good argument. The trouble is, it’s not inspiring. It’s depressing. It’s the kind of message that whips up core supporters but dampens overall enthusiasm. Which lowers turnout. Which is what happened.

On the right, the election was a referendum on Trump’s character. He compensated for that handicap with big promises. “We’re going to protect jobs. We’re going to build bridges, factories, airports. We’re going to stop terrorism. We’re going to end corruption. We’re going to bring change. We’re going to make America great again.” It was all a bunch of baloney, of course. And Trump’s character is so atrocious it almost didn’t matter.

But he had a hopeful story to tell. Clinton couldn’t pull that off. She had to rely on hopeful stories other people were telling. That’s not good enough.

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Taking the Measure of Clinton’s Poor Performance

A few days ago the wife and I were discussing our primary votes. I confessed I had decided to cast what I called a “naïve” vote for Hillary Clinton. In using the word naïve, I meant I had made a deliberate choice to put aside strategic concerns and simply vote for the candidate I preferred.

I knew Clinton was harried by scandal, but I personally thought the scandals were arcane and overblown.

I knew Clinton was considered unlikable–and I, certainly, don’t find her appealing–but I thought crowd-pleasing charisma was overrated.

I knew Clinton was a hawk, but I decided I could live with it–especially since the Middle East is such a mess that I’m not sure isolationism or pacifism would work better.

I knew Clinton was an establishment candidate, a guarded insider, a Washington fixture saddled with decades of political baggage, but I admired her professionalism and poise.

In an era of angry revolution, I gravitated to a candidate who represented the converse of angry revolution.

That seems to have been a bad gamble.

It has to be said that Clinton performed very poorly. She fell behind Obama’s totals in just about every category. She lost young voters, black voters, Latino voters, Asian-American voters. She lost almost as many votes among black women as she did among white men. She never managed to boost Democratic turnout, even against an enemy like Trump. And she never inspired the anticipated surge among women.

Think about that. One month after the Hollywood Access leak, Clinton underperformed among women. That’s just terrible.

I’m not sure this can be blamed on Clinton or her team. In retrospect, they ran a campaign that played to her strengths and her opponent’s weaknesses. They raked in money from big donors, banked on Obama’s popularity, relied on celebrities to reach out to young voters, harped on Trump’s bad character, and baited their opponent into frequent crazy displays. The last in particular was probably a good strategy. Every time Trump launched one of his bizarre vendettas, the polls swung against him.

But an attack-driven campaign is inherently risky, and the timing didn’t work out. If the sexual harassment scandal had broken when the Comey announcement did, we might have been looking at a Clinton presidency. Yet the furor died down. Disgust with Trump simply didn’t translate into enthusiasm for Clinton.

I know, I know. Clinton’s campaign ignored the working class. She didn’t pay enough visits to Wisconsin. She took the Democratic base for granted.

But would she ever have won those people? I’m not sure this problem could have been fixed by shuffling around a few campaign stops.

One trope that bugged me throughout the campaign was the depiction of Clinton as a kind of granny president–warm, fuzzy, maternal–an ubermom who was going to bustle into Washington, soothe everyone’s anxieties, and clean up the country’s messes. It was infantilizing, it smacked of desperation, and it made for a grotesque mismatch with Clinton’s actual record. (That’s our Hillary–the lovable old babushka who bakes cookies for Goldman Sachs bankers and bombed the bejeezus out of Libya.) I’ve often heard that Clinton is more charismatic in person than onstage. But how many union blokes was she supposed to shake hands with? How many disgruntled Flint women could she hope to take out for coffee?

No, the problems with Clinton’s candidacy were there from the start. We knew what they were. Clinton did too. She tried to compensate by clinging to Obama’s coalition. It didn’t work.

Would Sanders have done better? Perhaps he would have been tainted by his socialist sympathies. Perhaps the inevitable third-term hurdle was too high for any Democrat to clear. Perhaps something unexpected would have sunk his unorthodox candidacy. We’ll never know.

I still believe Clinton, of the available candidates, would have done the best job as president. We’ll never know that, either.

But we do know this. Clinton’s candidacy failed in all the ways that matter. She didn’t boost turnout among Latinos. She didn’t energize young voters. She didn’t excite the base. She didn’t win over significant numbers of vacillating Republicans.

She did all the things, in essence, that were expected of her. And it didn’t work.

She was my first choice, my personal choice, and in that sense, a naïve choice. But I have to admit, she seems to have been a bad choice.

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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.


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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