“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 United States of America sprung full grown from the Enlightenment as a nation-state like Athena from the mind of Zeus. It became a nation without going through the complexities of the European nation-states, which grew through feudal and class systems under aristocracies and absolute rulers to form modern states. America’s ideological foundation is firmly centered on the idea of the supremacy of ideas and ideals – primarily the idea of the nation as a system of laws and legally-established structures.
Intellectuals driving the ideology of the Trump movement (people like Steve Bannon) believe that the US is held together by white, Anglo-Saxon, and Judeo-Christian values. They are terribly wrong. They have misread the diversity of America as a weakness, or as a threat to the life of the nation. In the United States there has been diversity for much of the history of the nation, and fears that immigration from Latin America threatens the values and cohesiveness of the nation are histrionic. Without the concepts of justice and limited government, there is nothing to hold the nation from spinning apart.
Trump has consistently played to his base, and his pardon of Joe Arpaio is no different – many politicians and presidents over the history of the United States have played to their key supporters. But this is different than previous pardons and pandering. In several key ways the pardon undermines the rule of law.
Firstly, Joe Arpaio is a key political supporter of President Trump, especially on the divisive issue of immigration. Pardoning any key political supporter convicted of ignoring a federal court order is weighted with undermining the impartiality of the justice system. By doing this Trump is essentially placing political allegiance above the law and the separation of powers.
Secondly, the specific crime which Joe Arpaio was convicted for violating was a court order. “America’s toughest sheriff” flaunted the judiciary’s authority to determine whether or not his actions were constitutional. So the pardon was a direct challenge to the constitutional position of the judiciary, one of the three pillars of balanced government.
Thirdly, Joe Arpaio was pardoned without going through the normal legal process. Normally pardons are issued after a person has been sentenced and after they have appealed to the president to be pardoned. Furthermore, the individuals are normally pardoned in the interests of justice.
A key argument of Trump supporters is one of equivalency. This is an argument used with consistency by those supporting Donald Trump, and it is a dangerous form of sophistry. False equivalency blurs obvious moral and legal boundaries. In philosophical logic this is known as the “tu quoque” fallacy. Rather than addressing the logic of the argument presented against them, in this case “President Trump used his power to pardon to undermine the separation of powers and the ‘rule of law,'” supporters of the President will respond: “where was the outrage when Obama pardoned thugs and criminals?”
To address this fallacious argument it is instructive to examine some of the most controversial pardons and acts of clemency in recent American history. The first one that comes to mind is the pardon of Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate Scandal and forced to resign the presidency, was pardoned by President Gerald Ford shortly after he took office. Because Nixon had so poisoned the public perception of the Republican Party and the reasons for pardoning him were for the interest of the nation, it has generally been excused and vindicated by historians and politicians. This act, though enormously controversial at the time, was not made to a political supporter, and could not have been made for any feasible reason besides to move the nation past the tragedy of Nixon’s presidency. There was no personal loyalty, quid pro quo, or undermining of the law – the outcome of Nixon resigning the office and the implication of guilt were more in the public’s interest than his conviction in a trial.
Faction and partisanship have always been a threat to democracy and good government in America. Our Founding Fathers were concerned about the establishment of political parties and their ability to undermine the principals of republican government. Instead of ruining the government however, parties throughout the history of the United States have tended to operate within general bounds of fairness and legality, and as institutions have helped to channel a diverse and dissimilar population into orderly groups that can fight for general political principles. Several times the political parties have broken down, most catastrophically before the Civil War, where the regional demands on a single government became so great that the country was torn in half. Recently the rise of Donald Trump both displayed the weaknesses in the modern Republican and Democratic parties, and then tore them to shreds. Without the political parties channeling differences into governmental policy and actions the United States is left with the aimless politics of the dynamic politicians who rise to the top. In this case we have Donald Trump – not attempting to placate a political party who is willing to work within governmental structures, but appealing directly to his loyal, self-made political base of disaffected white Americans. Without a tradition, understanding, or respect for the government and law, he appeals directly to this political base. This is how democracy is undermined in America: it is done by breaking down the legal and heuristic edifices that keep the passions of people channeled and within recognized bounds of justice and fairness. Donald Trump doesn’t need to abolish the Constitution or rule by fiat to crack the United States of America’s foundations of individual liberty, limited government, and sharing of power.
The threat Trump poses is beyond the scope of contemporary conservative or liberal issues, he is his own class of threat. It started with denigration of the media – this allowed his supporters to feel that Trump was being misrepresented and victimized no matter his actions or words – making him nearly immune from criticism from his new political base; it was followed by the destruction of the coalitions that made the political parties (which they themselves are largely responsible for by growing so far from the people and interests they purport to represent); and now has moved on to the elevation of his political views over the laws of the nation.
A resolution was passed condemning pornography in Utah several months ago and a number of conservatives have recently spoken out about the harmfulness of pornography. Pornography is not inherently harmful, though studies show that many people view it as immoral. In that way it is similar to drugs and drug use. It can be harmful, and may be viewed as immoral, but it is not necessarily so. Leaving out outdated notions of sinfulness, pornography does produce something that doesn’t exist in nature and releases endorphins in a rush familiar to drug users – and it also reveals men’s connection to ancient dominance and misogyny.
Sex is hardwired into some of the deepest and most animal parts of our brains, and it makes sense that the pleasure derived from sexual gratification would be so similar to the euphoria provided by drugs. Some of the most popular search terms for pornography on the internet involve acts that are commonly seen as degrading to women. In modern society, largely based on systems and law, which have replaced bestial and pack nature, or sublimated them into unseen systems – raw expressions of dominance, sexual desire, and pleasure are connections directly to our ancestry. Men are, apparently, inherently misogynistic and violent.
Perhaps people are afraid of biblical sin, but it seems like some conservatives and politicians are horrified by the idea of unfettered access to the deepest parts of our minds, untouched by modern social and political systems.
If there is actually a problem with pornography it is the same problem that is permeating the rest of our culture and society. An abundance and easily accessible cache of drugs, media, food, and pornography has either been designed or made available on demand and drives deep into our pleasure centers. Our potential for addiction to pornography, and everything else, has never been greater. This is the true threat of pornography, not misguided and outdated moral outrage.