The Verdicts of History

Near the end of 1940, with Britain fighting alone against Nazi Germany, the famously appeasing former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain died. Prime Minister Winston Churchill eulogized him in the House of Commons, saying:
“It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.”
There are three aspects of this thought that are worthy of attention. The first is the changing appreciation of the past when viewed through the lens of current events. The second is the idea of the “telescoping” effect of examining history. People look at events, outcomes – maybe even debates – and do not see the human dimension surrounding the focal points of historical events. The third idea here is an argument for morality, without knowing what will happen in the future, or how any action may be perceived, it is important to do what one thinks is right in the moment.
The Second World War, a truly seminal and unique event in world history, is actually a multitude of related events with social, political, and of course, military dimensions. Most date the War as beginning in September 1939 and ending in September 1945 – but the Japanese invasion of China began in earnest in 1937, and the Japanese annexation of a province in Northern China began in 1931. Colonialism, social injustice, the failures of Capitalism, scientifically-precise industrialization, monetary systems, modern information technology, and forms of government all had a starring role in the upheaval of the so-called Second World War.
And our perceptions of the War have changed over time too. Once a beyond-reproach moral victory for the West, the actions of the Allies, and the United States in particular, have been brought under scrutiny. This is not to diminish the evil (yes, I will use the absolutist term of “evil”) of the Nazis, the Fascists in Europe broadly, and the racist, genocidal violence perpetrated by the Japanese in their (Orwellian-named) Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But – as time skidded into the future, the Allied bombing campaigns (including the use of the atomic bombs), the “take-no-prisoners” attitude and taking of gruesome trophies by American soldiers in the Pacific, and the ruthless appropriation of the underpinnings of the British Empire by the Americans have all come under a moral examination.
All of the aspects of the Second World War which I just mentioned share a common theme, they all involve a type of mental foreshortening of events. Mental foreshortening occurs for the sake of convenience, things that are too complex to understand are made simpler, perhaps with a narrative: “World War 2 occurred because Hitler decided to invade countries surrounding Germany.” It occurs because the emotional content that drove decisions is not always apparent in historical sources and a “zeitgeist” can be difficult to measure: “Germany was taken over by the Nazi’s because of the Great Depression.” And it occurs because we want to protect our moral integrity, or the moral integrity of aspects of our chosen identity: “The US had to bomb those cities like that because it was the only way to win the War quickly.” [Note: this is very similar to what Epsilon Theory calls “abstraction” and “memes.”]
We like to put neat labels on events to make them easier to understand, but history, just as current events, flows and ebbs like a tide, it does not run straight between banks like a river. And as the generation that lived through World War 2 fades, the memories of the past fade too. We can scarcely imagine the mass mobilization, the mass feeling, the patriotism, the colossal scale of horror of the Second World War now.
So what can this knowledge tell us about the issues and events of the day?
Firstly, in the Impeachment of President Donald Trump, the Democrats are looking for a “savior” and are appealing to the “verdict of history” in trying to sway Republicans to their point of view. Democrats will find this effort to be in vain. Any individual Senator or Cabinet official will not be remembered as a “coward.” If they are remembered at all, it will be as a gear in a large machine. (How many people have strong feelings about Senator Aldrich – besides Twitter’s Rudy Havenstein?) When you hear people “appealing to history” it is an acknowledgment of the failure to obtain or exercise power. There is no possible conception of how history will view the Impeachment, or the Trump presidency, without knowing the consequences of his tenure in office beforehand.
“History,” in its simplification and smoothing of emotions, will remember the Impeachment as an aspect of the failure of the political parties to compromise – the entire period may well be seen as being defined by (in another Epsilon Theory phrase) the “widening gyre.” There are too many things happening, too many different aspects of the present age to consider, for any individuals without the magnetic presence of Trump to be remembered for much of anything – they will be cut out. Appeals to history are ineffective, unrealistic, and arrogant. In 700 AD, a single history or document would serve to color our perceptions of an entire time period or of a leader’s rule, but no more. Evidence and multitudinous documentation now exist for every moment of our lives. (Incidentally, this may lead to some more “mental foreshortening” to reduce complexity and assign a narrative, but it may be difficult for any single actor to create that simplification.) Churchill famously tried to define his place in history by “writing” it, but those narratives are coming undone now too.
Climate-change is another fraught topic. One that involves appeals to an absolute and certain view of the future. On both sides – “nothing will happen, its all a scam” and “it is the end of the world” – the outcomes are both unknowable. So what is there to say about this that “history” can teach us? Future scientists (if we’re not all dead, under 20 feet of water) will almost certainly say that our predictions were wildly incorrect, and that the movements were more a product of social issues than actual environmental concerns. The view of our present moment will change when viewed through the distant and holistic lens of the future. Political clashes resulting from differing views on climate change will be hard to understand, as the firm convictions and views of the participants will find their sharp edges dulled by subsequent, factual events. With this in mind, it would behoove both sides to take measured, morally-correct actions in the present. Instead of trying to force massive change (or no change), a holistic view of both shortcomings in knowledge and inclusion of all impacted parties should be implemented. In practice this means trying to find economic solutions for developing countries, attempts to innovate technologically, and to ameliorate the political fears of climate-change deniers.
A history of post-9/11 America is being formulated now too, but its dimensions are vague. Modern capitalism is being questioned in a way that seemed to vanish after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic and political and military power all seem to be waning for the United States, but it is unclear to what degree this is occurring. A narrative will be assigned to America’s fate – after it is obvious.
Beware of trying to assign a specific or complex historical value to events happening now. If you are going to conduct an action that is tangential to the broad history of the nation or world (supporting a political party, allocating your resources in a political manner – boycotts, cryptocurrency, ESG-investing) then you must act by what you think is right, not by what history will say about the movements. Predicting the future is the Quixotic task of legions of technological innovations and industrial-scale processes, but it will always fail. We are achieving the opposite of Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory, we may be able to predict the short-term future, or the actions of one individual, but definitely not all of humanity. Stay closer to the ground, more self-contained. Act boldly for what you think is right, but leave the predictions, and the verdicts of history, to those future generations looking backward with a mirror.

Sound and Fury

Sound and Fury

Amid the uproar over the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, documenting (supposedly) the inner workings of the Trump White House and campaign, two incidents have not gotten the attention they deserve. And they portend grave ills in our political system.

First, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exempted the state of Florida from natural gas and oil drilling off its coast. Republican governor Rick Scott met with Zinke and afterward Zinke indicated that he had allowed the exemption at the governor’s request. Zinke has not indicated that democratically-run states could get similar exemptions. Along with the tax bill recently passed this is a clear example of Republican punishment of blue states.

Second, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein unilaterally released testimony by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS (commissioners of the infamous Steele dossier) without the consent and approval of Republicans. This action outraged the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Partisan clefting in the Committee displays an utter lack of cooperation and shared goals by the individuals tasked with running our government.

Winner-take-all

Key to these two incidents is evidence of intensifying winner-take-all effects in American political life. Laws are not passed and policy changes are not made unless one party controls majorities in the branches of government.

This fact is salient: Government has shifted from the mean to the outliers. While it may be true that our government was not as bipartisan in the past as it may seem from our current perspective, the political parties no longer shift to the middle in order to enact policy or win votes. Intolerant minorities now control policy and because of people’s political tribalism they will vote with a party or candidate with an extreme view as long as they are labeled Republican or Democrat. That is to say: people would rather vote and support a viewpoint with which they do not strongly agree as long as those candidates and policies are labeled and marketed as being part of their party.

Going as far back as the Affordable Care Act’s passage under the Obama Administration, passed with no Republican votes, the political parties have shown an inability to compromise. While this changing landscape has been analyzed, remarked-upon, and derided it has recently lost some attention due to the abhorrent and tumultuous Trump Administration. It is clear that the Trump Administration is a symptom, not the disease.

Going Forward

Partisanship, particularly the takeover of the Republican Party by an intolerant, radical minority, will stretch beyond the current administration. It is myopic to believe that all will be well after the inevitable downfall of President Trump – the American people and political system are not dealing with the causes of Trump’s rise in the first instance.

It is an irony that part of Trump’s appeal was in not belonging to a political party, that he was not part of the stagnant and dysfunctional establishment, but that his election has exacerbated the partisan divide in the country.

Dysfunction in Washington is here to stay, and while the issues of collusion and incompetence are important, in the arc of history it will be remembered as being “sound and fury” and not the central issue of the time.

Asymmetry Between Trump and the Media

Lies and Truth

Modern political history is replete with an interesting oddity. One politician is accused of inappropriate conduct in a salacious sex scandal and their career is ruined. Another is accused and nothing happens.

President Trump lies incessantly. No one truly disputes this, even supporters. At this point, Trump’s lies present an exclamation point on his out-sized personality and don’t have any truly negative consequences. On the other hand, if CNN makes a slight error in its reporting on Trump, there is outrage and disaster.

Since Trump’s swearing-in there have been dozens of stories that were negative of the Trump administration that have been retracted or corrected. Every time this happens it provides ammunition for Trump and those who maintain his cult to fire broadsides against the “fake news media.”

Every time Trump lies nothing happens, every time a news outlet “lies” there is serious harm to their credibility, especially in the eyes of Trump supporters. This asymmetry in consequences for mistakes and untruth is devastating to news organizations.

Since the philosophy and public function of news organizations is centered around truthfulness they have more to lose by being seen as “untruthful” than someone who has no credibility in terms of honesty. Failure to be accurate and honest in covering the Trump administration may only happen a very small number of times in any particular “news room” but that happening undermines honest, incisive reporting of abuses by the government.

The Ethics of Journalism and Bias

At the founding of the nation, there were not “journalistic” ethics like we currently have. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, in particular, ran newspapers that reported unverified, scandalous and insulting stories and opinion pieces attacking one another’s political parties. There was no pretension to high ethics and impartiality: newspapers were on the parapets of an ideological battlefield between differing visions for the government and country. People were deeply divided and the interest of party often predominated over the interests of the nation, there were unsettled legal questions as to what powers belonged to which segments of government, and there were abuses of the peoples’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. In spite of all this venom and difficulty, the nation continued to grow and prosper.

What now?

It is foolish to directly compare any two historical time periods, narratives and anecdotes make two eras appear more similar than they actually were. But what we can take from journalism at the founding of our nation is the idea that perhaps the secret to dealing with a lying President and a media with no credibility is to ignore them both. Time will reveal the successes or failures of the current President (and I believe time will not be kind to him) and it will smooth the breathless, semi-hysterical coverage proffered by news organizations.

When there are severe abuses and corruption, they should be checked, vigorously inspected, and the information used for opposition, but the reports should truly be scandalous. In the recent past a major headline may have presented itself to a reader twice a day, or once on the evening news. That gave both journalists and the public time to ingest important information and for journalists to check the accuracy of their reporting. Speed in reporting and the constant inundation of news has made the signal indistinct from the noise. Ironically, news outlets not interested in placing themselves on the pedestal of journalistic ethics lose their asymmetry in regards to their coverage of government, and this President and need not worry about this danger of speed in reporting.

Media companies on the right, with no pretension of pure and absolute integrity, have a tremendous advantage over the media organizations which claim they are journalistic watchdogs. Breitbart, for instance, can propagandize without losing legitimacy for inaccuracies. Once again, it all comes down to the people who read the news, and ignorance is bliss.

Individuals who are less plugged-in to the news, who are less concerned about both the stream of lies from the President and catching the President in a lie, are more likely to eventually receive truly accurate news about the state of the country and the government. On the other hand, this present state of affairs is probably not going to be “solved.” It is naive to think that news organizations who only propagandize can produce critical reporting, just as it is naive to think that “traditional” news organizations will stop rushing to produce headlines (and thereby suffer the reverses that erode the public’s faith in them). It is also totally naive to believe that people will suddenly become more careful and cautious consumers of media, people will remain as they have throughout history. They may be periodically influenced by journalism, advertising, and propaganda, but they will certainly not suddenly become aware of all their own biases and shortcomings and correct themselves.

Our country and government survived the vicious “journalistic” atmosphere at the founding of the nation by simply persevering until new standards and technologies and beliefs changed the cultural and social landscape. Disasters will force action, otherwise people and nations will continue to plug along. In short, there is nothing much the public, or journalism, can do to confront the issues made plain by the asymmetry between Trump and the media outlets which report on him. We may all be a little healthier by trying to unplug a little more, however.

The Megyn Kelly Mistake

In a television interview of Alex Jones, the radio broadcasting conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars.com, NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly tore into him over his support for the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a government-backed conspiracy. By all accounts she acquitted herself well and made Alex Jones look bad. But none of that matters. She was broadcasting to the wrong audience, and in turn, received no viewership for her new flagship program.

In a stinging stab of irony, the same people who listen to Alex Jones are probably the people she was most effective in appealing to in her previous career at Fox News.

Megyn Kelly was successful on Fox News as an anchor – she is intelligent, dogged, beautiful, and persuasive. Her profile continued to rise as an anchor and fill-in on Fox News and she received her own program, The Kelly File, on October, 7th, 2013. She did very well on the program being tough and probing (she was formally a prosecutor) and had excellent ratings, occasionally edging Bill O’Reilly. But when her contract ended with Fox News she chose to go to NBC and was elevated to the position of a lead anchor for three separate broadcast efforts.

NBC and Megyn Kelly failed to understand the new political-media landscape. There are no more trusted, non-partisan figures who can draw audiences. Its all about the audience, and bending your performance to suit their beliefs. The people who surrounded Megyn Kelly on Fox News were indicative of this media terrain. Tucker Carlson (who took Kelly’s time slot) and Sean Hannity have abandoned any pretense of moderation or fairness and appeal directly to the Trump/conservative political base.

Many on the right of the political spectrum understand the new realities of finely divided demographics. There are a host of provocateurs who have targeted Trump supporters and right-wingers as if they were a business targeting their products toward a certain demographic. These people are engaging in a scheme to make money, not to uphold their political beliefs.

Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Paul Joseph Watson are the foremost examples of people who have taken advantage of the internet and the media of political affirmation to benefit financially from targeting the “alt-right.” They spread lies, disinformation, and back Trump unreservedly in an attempt to attract an audience.

Megyn Kelly will probably fail as a news anchor for NBC in drawing audiences because liberals will not watch her because of her association with Fox News, and conservatives and Trump supporters will not watch her because she is not unabashedly backing their view points.

Fame, Alexander Pope, and Kim Kardashian

Alexander Pope is considered by many critics and scholars to be the greatest British poet of the classical era (specifically referred to as the era of Augustan literature). His subjects seem to not have lasted the test of time, as he is little known today outside of academia. Besides a few famous lines the vast majority of people have no connection whatsoever to Alexander Pope. But in his era he was famous.

He was concerned with fame, and who was famous, and why they were famous – and he even wrote a poem, The Temple of Fame, criticizing those who had earned fame through less than reputable means. The Temple of Fame is a re-imagining of Chaucer’s House of Fame. An early poem of Chaucer that finds him being guided through a personifications and allegorical representations of rumors and famous chroniclers and poets. In Pope’s poem the author receives a revelation in reverie of the “Temple” of the Goddess Fame and its inhabitants. He condemns tyrants and warriors who earned their fame through violence and enmity and those who engage in court gossip and idle lives but become famous through their positions.

Kim Kardashian (a metonymy for any people receiving unearned fame) is famous because she’s beautiful, rich, and leveraged an incident of public exposure (her sex tape). Being famous now requires that one be on television or the internet enough to be seen by enough people. Mass media has changed the nature of fame. Generally in the past, people had to be truly terrible or truly extraordinary in order to be known by a majority of people who had never seen or met them. Part of our mass and consumerist culture has degraded the honor of fame and made it a common thing. Andy Warhol spoke truly when he said that everyone would receive their “15 minutes.” In turn, the ordinariness of fame has dulled peoples’ aspirations and changed the value of role models indelibly.

Our modern culture would benefit from remembering Pope’s closing plea in The Temple of Fame: “Oh, grant an honest fame, or grant me none!”