Radio Without Money Episode 5: Brevity Is the Soul of Wit

In this exceptionally brief (for us!) episode of Radio Without Money, the official WritersWithoutMoney.com podcast, Ross Snider and Aloysius VI try to put lipstick on a pig by discussing Daniel Levine’s disappearance, user analytics, the budget, Wikipedia, propaganda, Facebook’s new fact-check alerts and the conflation of “neutrality” with “objectivity,” journalism in general, the aborted Republican health care legislation, and the conflation of neoliberalism with traditional, progressive liberalism.

brevity is the soul of wit

In this exceptionally brief (for us!) episode of Radio Without Money, the official WritersWithoutMoney.com podcast, Ross Snider and Aloysius VI try to put lipstick on a pig by discussing Daniel Levine’s disappearance, user analytics, the budget, Wikipedia, propaganda, Facebook’s new fact-check alerts and the conflation of “neutrality” with “objectivity,” journalism in general, the aborted Republican health care legislation, and the conflation of neoliberalism with traditional, progressive liberalism.

Podcast recorded Thursday, March 23rd through Friday, March 24th, 2017.

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Mediocrity, Propaganda and Trump

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THE INTERNET IS ITS OWN ECONOMIC SYSTEM AND IDEOLOGY

History seems to move faster at certain times than others. Now is one of those times.

Karl Marx, thinking about industrialization, claimed that a newly emergent economic force/system was actually revolutionary in the sense that it reshaped all the territory and politics it touched. 100 years later, Marshall McLuhan claimed similar powers for the emergence of technology. The internet differs from prior economic revolutions in that it seeks to reshape the current geographic layout of man in order to completely replace it. It literally recreates itself by writing itself on the landscape-anyone who’s ever used Snapchat or even Pokemon Go could tell you as much. The internet, at this point being both a new technological and new political formation, presents a two-front war with all of us unfortunately trapped in the middle.

RADICALIZATION IS A FEATURE, NOT A BUG

A library science professor I had in college assigned an academic paper whose author and title I forget. It dealt with the “bridging” vs. “bonding” elements in how internet communities were shaped. A “bonding” community was one that tended to increase homogeneity and insularity-it brought together people with a specific set of interests/demographics and isolated them from the outside world over time. A “bridging” community brought people together across demographics/interests. Internet communities were found to be almost exclusively “bonding”, while groups organizing on the physical proximity of persons were shown to fall more evenly across a bridge/bond spectrum.

The alt-righter thinks by himself: “If I feel wronged about anything, no matter how stupid or  illegitimate, I’m sure I can find people willing to indulge or enable me, and the more wronged and isolated I feel about the thing, the more time I’m willing to spend on the internet with these people enabling me. Because these people are now my real friends, they hold disproportionate social influence over me and my initial attraction to them doesn’t suggest strong independent thinking skills to begin with.”

The vernacular of internet discourse has centered around increasingly shocking content and progressive desensitization to extreme materials for nearly as long as the internet has existed. This is how the neo-Nazis and ISIS both recruit. This is how Gamergate happened. Etc. Etc. Etc.

The thing after neoliberalism is shaping up to be equal parts dialectics and The Producers-the far right parties have realized the worse they govern, the more terrorism they allow to happen, the more they’re rewarded under the current system.

THE SHIFT IN PROPAGANDA:

1)

It’s very important to remember there is always an external and an internal propaganda system. The external propaganda system legitimizes the group/regime to those outside. The internal propaganda system legitimizes and normalizes the group/regime to its members. These two systems often seem to work at cross-purposes and most propaganda doesn’t make its intended audience entirely obvious, especially to its intended audience. Why would it? Things always seem much more enticing when you’re not the person who’s supposed to be seeing them.

2)

Let’s use the Nazis and particularly Nazi cinema to illustrate this point.

Internal propaganda systems: The Nazis were the first modern political party to use street graffiti and a large part of how the rural population was sold on Hitler was through traveling screenings of short news reels. In many of these rural German communities, access to movies of any sort was rare. These newsreel films looked partly like ones that would be shown in US theaters at the time between cartoons and features. However, the repeated visual symbols were mostly morphed copies of ones in the classic USSR silent films. Further cases of internal propaganda include the numerous lesser known Nazi features. Films like Hans Westmar, a fictionalized version of a false story of Nazi “martyr” Horst Wessel, or Jud Suss, Der Rothschilds: Aktien Auf Waterloo, etc., were sold as entertaining historical melodramas. Hans Westmar in particular broadly resembles recent sentimentalized “martyr” films like American Sniper.

External propaganda: Hitler attempted to normalize and bring prestige to his movement/country abroad the same way many state governments do-by making fancy movies and sending them abroad to festivals. These include Triumph of the Will and Olympia. While both were screened in Germany, their intended audience was abroad. The continuing public perceptions that the Nazi government was meticulously well organized (they weren’t, many high up officials including Hitler were on meth for extended periods) or that Triumph of the Will was what sold the Germans on Hitler speak to the enduring power of this strategy.

3)

How does the internet change things?

Per Ernest Becker (by way of Otto Rank) : Man needs to be able to feel as though he is the hero of the narrative of his life.

Per Ray Kroc: Why wait 15 minutes when I can have it now?

Per Neil Postman: If you don’t think the medium of communications biases what can be communicated, try translating Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” into smoke signals.

Per Twitter: 140 characters or less.

Per Marshall McLuhan: The content of the new medium is always the medium it’s replacing.

Trump’s rise is inconceivable without the internet. Memes are graffitti/propaganda writ large and reduced to their simplest form. TV and cartoons were more effective than any propaganda medium prior because of their immediacy; looking at a comic strip or single panel lacking words, by the time you think “do I want to read this?” you’ve likely already read it. A meme is even more immediate-it lives or dies on the extent to which we can already predict what it’s going to say. At the same time, it creates a fake sense of community built around knowing who “Scumbag Steve” or “Bad Luck Brian” is. The sense of inclusion is created by removing all communal standards beyond the basic self-referential acknowledgement the “community” exists. It allows a sense of familiarity to push out critical judgement.

I got some shit for writing about Elliott Roger’s “manifesto” more than a year ago, but in retrospect, it seems to pretty accurately reflect what can be understood about the psychology of Trump voters-how many people in this country based their self-esteem and sense of specialness on how many Pokemon cards they had? How good they were at video games? The very fact that video games seemed to offer a clearly delineated meritocracy, however meaningless? How horrible was it when they saw on the internet there would always be someone with more Pokemon cards or a higher score; who made the commonplace banality of their struggles obvious; who pierced through any notion they were special? The internet of course also had little tribes and klans collecting these fresh malcontents; sometimes they were already assembled and simply soured when they felt angry enough on realizing however ironically they were not the special snowflakes they accused everyone else of idealizing themselves as; they were just waiting to be scooped up on bodybuilding forums and other pits of the internet.

And as with toxic narcissism in all its forms, the playground taunt “I know you are but what am I?” isn’t just the mature response but the necessary one. Much has been made of the fact that the districts most reliant on subsidized health care and welfare programs overwhelmingly voted for a man promising to eradicate these programs they depend on. Much of this discourse has unfortunately taken the closed discourse of self-satisfied liberalism-“What idiots!”-instead of investigation into the mechanics of self-loathing.

4) 

How do the internal and external propaganda systems of the US work?

Internal Propaganda Systems: These consist largely of the tendency that people are reaching at when they refer to “the mainstream media”. All the major news sources, particularly those on television, work first to legitimize the current political system by overemphasis on chaos and terror, by reporting on everything from tornadoes to mass shootings to the “inherent scariness” of non-mainstream ideologies. Their first priority is to legitimize the current system in whatever form it takes, both forwards and backwards in history. This is why all the reporting when Reagan died, even from ostensibly liberal outlets like NPR, was focused on his “great statesmanship” blahblahblah, while never mentioning Iran-Contra or his exacerbation of the drug or AIDS crises. Their second priority is partisan. MSNBC is already broadcasting stuff about how “presidential” Trump looked on Tuesday night because he…took advantage of the widow of a Navy Seal he sent to die for literally no reason for a photo op. Without the prestige of the government, the banal careerism of the many reporters employed by these institutions collapses. A popular war helps the media as much as it helps the president. The internal propaganda system also places a heavy emphasis on popular media-everything from the boring politically empty celebration of civics in something like Parks and Recreation through to the superheroes-as-Blackwater Wagner-lite of the Avengers/Iron Man movies to the sleight of hand use of martyrdom to cover a broken ideology in films like American Sniper to the use of hundreds of drones during the Super Bowl to normalize their use all feed into this larger ecosystem.

External Propaganda Systems: These would involve a much larger article. Ross Snider has written about them pretty extensively on this website. Overthrowing elections, exported versions of the propaganda vehicles mentioned above, etc etc etc.

5)

How do we innoculate ourselves and rebuild media into something humane that serves society?

Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it….

How is the New Fascism Different?

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Ippolito Caffi, “Interior of the Colosseum”, 1850s, National Gallery
Fascism has been frequently defined as “the merger of state and corporate power.” This phrase is commonly attributed to Mussolini, though there’s no evidence he said it. Regardless, this soundbite has resonated exists as the most common coherent definition of fascism and works well as a still object against which I can attempt to measure society’s current rapid motion.

The current fascist consolidation isn’t the same as the one that rose in the first half of the 20th century. The earlier fascism rose in a cultural moment of technological ascension that was genuinely convincing. The possibility of utopia seemed real in concrete ways that hadn’t prior; in just a generation the material constraints that had defined humanity had lifted. This possibility also contrasted with what historians of WWI have dubbed “the possibility of total annihilation” and that Eric Hobsbawm discusses in The Age of Extremes-the act of warfare was now the possibility of complete annihilation without even a corpse as a remnant. This tide of fascism was effectively bookended with the ultimate realization of total physical annihilation-the atom bomb. While regional fascisms continued after WWII, fascism in toto was seen until recently as a response to the interwar period. Until 2016 anyway.

What has changed in the interim and how do we need to adjust our understanding of fascism so we can effectively respond to it? I feel like the current situation is primarily driven by two factors: 1) A population that consciously/subconsciously understands that there is a very strong possibility of an extinction event or at least severe version of what evolution science calls “a bottleneck”. 2) The overt merger of corporate and state power being caused by the transition/collapse of capitalism into what I would call competitive feudalism.

Both of these subjects could and have been the core of numerous long books. For brevity’s sake I’m going to lay out the bones of my argument in numbered observations:

1. Fascism in its initial incarnation was Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism/Maoism’s mirror image. Each saw the possibility of social perfection in the broader project of mass industrialization but defined utopia differently. Nazism was aesthetically an attempt by a society to embody the orderly image of standardized mechanical production, as opposed to Stalinism/Maoism’s attempts to rapidly industrialize so that industrialization could be (at least in theory) harnessed for the good of the majority population. This note is strictly referring to the projected self-image of these three movements and not their actualities, which, as we all know, were far messier and eventually catastrophic. The “alt-right” fascism of 2016 was born out of chaos and is happy to project an outward image of chaos-Donald Trump’s bizarre self-contradiction and embrace of domestic terrorist organizations not directly under his command is much closer to Mao’s tactics for consolidating power during the Chinese Cultural Revolution than Hitler’s deification of orderly militarism.

2. The new fascism has grown in a period defined by the proliferation of very possible (probable?) end of human civilization, and possibly life on Earth itself. This would be either through a third world war going nuclear or an unseen multiplier effect to climate change. This isn’t an argument on the probability of either event-their omnipresence in discussion and mass consciousness is more than enough to engender complex and bizarre effects. Increasingly erratic weather can’t help but give a morbid pall to even sunny warm days, particularly when they’re falling in the middle of February. Pretending that the chaotic novelty of recent politics isn’t related to climate change or the clear end of the viability of capitalism just because its adherents claim not to believe in climate change or the potential that capitalism could ever end is ridiculous. The zombie-neoliberalism-professionalism of the Democrats and the lulz-racism-deathcult of the Republicans are both clearly responses to the constant obvious reminders of the very real possibility none of us are going to reach our sell-by date. The Democrats think that rigid adherence to capitalism as it was will rise a dead thing, or worse that technological accelerationism will save us just in the nick of time. The Republicans/neo-fascist parties worldwide think that if they can ritually cleanse society of people/things that annoy them or their constituents (everything from the guy serving them at McDonalds having an accent to invented wars on Christmas) they can return to an imagined and fictional happy equilibrium. Confusing correlation with causation isn’t a result of ignorance but a psychological tool for releasing cognitive dissonance. The feeling of “powerlessness” among young white men is not solely attributable to economic prospects declining but to the larger cultural sense that there very well could not be a future.

3. The new fascism is not a politics of possibility but a politics of exhaustion. It’s not founded in the shadow of imagined utopia but in the shadow of imagined extinction. Hitler had Speer drawing up plans for a grand new Berlin, Trump can’t even say whether he’s going to actually do any of that infrastructure whatever he was vaguely talking about.

4. The ready accessibility of more information than can possibly be processed even by people who spend all day trying to make sense of what’s going on, compounded by the strong probability most of this information is fake or misleading compounds this sense of helplessness. The internet has shifted from an object of liberation hopes to one of Orwellian control that Orwell didn’t have enough of the puzzle pieces to put together. Instead of a TV that watches us, we have a dispassionate TV where we flail up and down to get its attention-several thousand people do this for a living now. Social media as a primary distribution outlet for information is incompatible

5. The best way to measure this breakdown of public trust in well…the very concept of trust: satire requires a social narrative with clear boundaries regarding what can credibly be accepted as real. These boundaries have broken down. This is the age of #nottheonion, an age featuring traits both of Baudrillard’s simulacra and Debord’s Spectacle, where reality has finally outpaced speculative fiction. We are in the thing after satire and after capitalism, not because either collapsed but because both have triumphantly ascended to omnipresence and by doing so lost the other whose differance defined them.

6. The way that power is distributed through media, due to #4, is basically a thing that can only be mastered by a small group of people with extremely specialized skill sets. Social media as a primary distribution outlet for information is incompatible with representative democracy. The famous line is “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Now that everyone ostensibly owns a printing press, outside of the questionable credibility of something going “viral”, access to readership is pretty much entirely a matter of training in and adherence to what were once termed counterinsurgency principles or the money to continually push posts. Access to the kind of AI/data crunching capabilities that allow someone like Robert Mercer to get Donald Trump elected or get Britain to decide to leave the EU cost several million dollars at the bare minimum and is limited to those who have the infrastructure and the highly qualified/extremely limited number of individuals that can run such an operation. The more polarized and scared the country is, the more money Facebook makes.

7. Accordingly, the practice of psychology has revealed itself as being a tool of mass control first and a sort of therapeutic thing second. The part that benefits the ruling classes is not the therapeutic part and much of the “progress” that has occurred in the last 150 years both in the social and hard sciences rewrite society in a manner more akin to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics than a coming tech utopia or “luxury communism”.

8. The fact that the current business model of the largest companies in the country is “disrupt and then take advantage of however long we can maintain a monopoly” speaks to the fact that there isn’t any more space for capital to expand. The fact that the capitalist warlords can directly govern now instead of ruling through proxies speaks more to where the country was already headed than any huge seismic shift caused by Trumpism. Much of the country feels powerless because in terms of the broad levers of power, they are. The struggles going on between the tech and oil/old-new money takes on an apocalyptic Twilight of the Idols feel. They’re fighting over who gets to own the pie when the turnover of capitalism settles into a single totalistic owner-subject state not given over to whatever struggles of consolidation in the marketplace are still left.

What the Bowling Green Massacre Means

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Interior shot of Graceland. Elvis used to shoot out TVs with a handgun in the basement.


THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT LED TO THE BOWLING GREEN MASSACRE

The ubiquity of snuff films in the United States since 9-11 was symptomatic of a crisis of cultural capital. For 50+ years television had an unquestioned hegemony over the US media landscape. (It’s also interesting that these 50 years roughly overlap with the United States’ hegemony in world politics.) Television was a revolutionary and traumatic force that completely shifted how Americans became Americans. The sense of community that had before been engendered through shared architectural spaces-the church, the school, the cafe, the bar-was now engendered through the medium of the televised spectacle. Every time I’ve ever heard someone tell me the story of where they were when JFK was shot, the first part of the story always details their shock and the second part always details how soon they got to a television to be able to experience it with everyone else in America. Trauma creates an incredible sense of bonding and for an increasingly socially isolated population their sense of belonging to anything larger came to be mediated through the shared relationship to the television.

This sense of togetherness was an incredible high that America never was able to recapture, though it tried desperately over and over, with diminishing results. Everything on TV that could do so with any chance of not looking ludicrous for trying presented itself as “event television.” The moment in fictional cinema when the crisis occurs went from the Vorkapich style montage of spinning newspapers to the rapid cut montage of TV news anchors saying the same thing in different accents and languages. Every retrospective documentary about professional sports I’ve ever seen has a scene where someone, frequently an academic commentator, says something like “You had to be there-it was all that was on TV.” Our greatest nation-specific festival, the Super Bowl, is as much a celebration of what we can feel when we all decide to watch the same television program at the same time as it is anything to do with football. The TV inserted itself into the bars and schools and I remember getting to college and all the kids from different parts of the country realizing in certain aspects they had shared a childhood; the TV was something between a communal text and a pet that happened to be in all our living rooms at the same time.

If the JFK assassination was the first event cementing American identity in tuning in at the same time to the same thing and then remembering that rush over and over, it was also a plateau. Awful things from the Oklahoma City bombing to Columbine happened, and while everyone still flocked to their TVs and followed the details and commentary vigorously, no strangers are cornering you in a coffee shop (as several have done to me regarding JFK) to tell you where they were when either happened. That is, until 9-11.

My story of where I was when I found out about 9-11 is pretty much the JFK narrative. Our band teacher told us vaguely something bad had happened during the last period of the day, I took the bus home, and then everyone I knew from my parents to the couple that owned the deli down the street were glued to their TV sets for what seemed like and may have actually been several weeks, watching the towers fall again and again and again…

9-11 and JFK were bookends marking the opening and closing of the US as a TV society. In 2001, the thing that would swallow TV was making its way in the world. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

Experiencing traumatic events through the medium of the internet isn’t unifying or edifying the way that experiencing them through TV is. The US-as-TV-society looked to the news for regularly replenished mythology, not information. This isn’t an irrational response-there is an inverse correlation between the importance of an event usually reported on national television and the event’s direct relevance to the immediate experience of the viewer. It’s considered a strange and novel thing to have shown up on TV and anyone who shows up on the TV frequently begins to take on the aura of the mythic. The TV encourages this.

FROM TV SOCIETY TO THE FRACTURED HIVE MIND

The internet is too fragmented and dispersed to sustain any narrative that there is a monoculure. Tragedies can’t be nurtured into seeming significant as individual events anymore; a single spree shooting can’t take on the cultural space a Columbine did when there’s another shooting that’s reported on every day or two. Terrorism can’t sustain its narrative coherence when it becomes plainly obvious that most terrorism that happens in the US is the result of domestic white supremacists. The “us vs. them” narrative that seemed on its last sputtering legs when the best argument its proponents could muster was “the war might be wrong but you have to support the troops” has morphed into a delusional need for social cohesion that can’t be sated. The political capital and the sentimental reassurance there was a single “them” to be worried about is now patently absurd.

Oddly enough, the internet initially seemed to be doing the opposite-incredible threads written in bits and pieces by complete strangers on forums like Reddit showed remarkably similar patterns of communication leading to the notion of the hivemind. However, the hivemind was quick to factionalize and each hive soon found its reach far more limited than it had hoped. If the TV was a tool of pacification, the internet is a tool of radicalization. It frees the “community” from all the external constraints of physicality and geography; as such its only means for the “community” to maintain itself as a coherent social entity for those who rely on it extensively is to test its adherents allegiance through the devaluation and dismissal of the outside world. If they fail to escalate the shared delusions, the user must admit to themselves that they are alone. The internet, since Web 2.0, has been specifically designed to encourage reliance on itself to the exclusion of other factors.

So when Kellyanne Conway keeps talking about an obviously fake “Bowling Green Massacre” or Trump invents a nebulous something awful that didn’t happen in Sweden, it’s a tactic similar to quantitative easing-the political currency of tragedy has been depreciated to where it can no longer do the thing it had done for the last 50 years and the Trump administration is attempting to print money to make up for the lack. This isn’t the propaganda technique of the Nazis but of Nigerian Prince scams . The propaganda is stupid and obvious so as to weed out those who might be too difficult to contain within the constructed hivemind.

Framing the Violence Narrative

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In the past few months the term “fake news” has come into the mainstream in a major way. A cursory definition based on its usage would have you believe it’s just an updated synonym for the old standby “propaganda,” but is this true? Yes and no. Our full assimilation into the information age has drastically transformed the way propaganda functions. Whereas in the past it was possible to withhold information and only present your preferred narrative, the current climate invites everybody to share all their information for the express purpose of cutting it all down and putting it on the same playing field. The idea is to put it in people’s heads that no information is reliable, no matter the source. Once this has occurred you have successfully discredited rigorous investigative journalism based on truth and fact. It’s suddenly no more credible than the .com ramblings of some kook in his rural Texas basement or perhaps more foreboding, the media apparatus of the state (i.e. @realDonaldTrump). This has long been a part of Vladimir Putin’s playbook where the cardinal rule is that in order to get people to believe in something, you first have to get them to believe in nothing.

To simplify (TL:DR in modern web speak);

Pre-information age propaganda = limiting access to information

Post-information age propaganda = discrediting all information (ie, fake news)

If information isn’t credible, framing and emotional narrative rise to the forefront of importance. What you say is less important than how you say it and the cognitive effect it has on the person you are speaking to. This is why Democrats lose election after election in spite of superior policy – Republicans know how to appeal to emotion while Democrats don’t think they have to play that game. We’re seeing how this plays out in reality, and it’s not pretty. The latest activity on this matter is the development of the “violence narrative” –  an attempt to take the riotous activity of the anarchist group Black Bloc and associate it with the entire left-wing, liberal worldview. I will explain this soon but I want to start with a more obvious example of an expert in post-information age propaganda. I don’t mean Donald Trump (though he does qualify) but another media figure who has been compared to a more verbose version of Trump. That being cartoonist Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame.

This is the first paragraph of an article he recently wrote on climate change;

Before I start, let me say as clearly as possible that I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. If science says something is true – according to most scientists, and consistent with the scientific method – I accept their verdict.

This is the third paragraph;

“So when I say I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change, I’m endorsing the scientific consensus for the same reason I endorsed Hillary Clinton for the first part of the election – as a strategy to protect myself. I endorse the scientific consensus on climate change to protect my career and reputation. To do otherwise would be dumb, at least in my situation.”

What have here is a massive contradiction, but one stated with authority and conviction, not unlike the way President Trump plows through his own non-truths. The first thing Scott Adams wants you to know is that he accepts climate change is a real thing. It’s the first sentence in his article on the topic, so therefore it must be really really true. A professional like Mr. Adams would not dare deny the work of science when he himself is just a cultural media figure. Therefore it should come as a shock when two paragraphs later he states that the only reason he accepts the science on climate change is to protect his reputation. In other words he is saying that he doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change but he wants to confuse the reader into thinking he does so that he has more credibility. He’s giving you the runaround, like the narcissist he strives to be.

If we want to take Adams at his word in that he cares about his reputation and career (and this seems reasonable given that narcissists usually do care about this stuff)  I’d posit that he has an anti-climate change agenda. Despite his claims, that’s more beneficial to him personally and professionally at this point seeing he’s become a bit of a right wing media darling in a similar vein as Mike Rowe. As the article continues Adams goes to great lengths to disguise himself as being balanced, saying hyperbolic things like “this is the only place you’ll see both sides of the issue!” That isn’t to say he doesn’t make good or interesting points but that’s always been the hallmark of good propaganda, no matter what era it comes from. It always knows just where and when to sprinkle in just enough truth to lend itself credibility.

On surface level Adams seems to be writing about the difficulty in figuring out the truth behind climate change. In the era of fake news however only suckers read things surface level. Look not at content or facts but framing and intent. Then you might see that this piece is designed not to bring people closer to truthful concepts but rather to fan the flames of debate in order to increase his popularity with his new niche audience. He is playing into the recent right wing promotion of information chaos, which in turn helps to discredit the order and limits imposed by science (liberally biased, naturally). This helps push the right’s anti-climate change agenda which they need in order to pull back all those pesky regulations that prevent enterprising American capitalists from exploiting the environment for profit er… um… I mean creating bountiful high paying jobs for the working class.

When analyzing fake news  what one says often has less importance than when they say it – timing is everything. Just like you never get a second chance at a first impression, the first statement one makes tends to be the most revealing. Adams first statement was that he accepted climate change, though he carefully omitted his reasons for this until later. He dropped in a very mainstream point of view to set the frame that he was a credible guy. Compare this tactic to one used in numerous conservative responses to the recent punching of Richard Spencer on the day of Trump’s inauguration. This article by John Nolte of conservative news blog “Daily Wire” is a perfect example, though interestingly it’s a little bit trickier than what you get from a so called “master persuader” like Scott Adams. There’s some build up, starting with the first paragraph;

“Okay, fine, somewhere in my Twitter stream you will find a joke about my not being too terribly upset over this creep Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched on TV last week. My tweet was a joke, though, and I am clearly on record, time and time again, speaking out against violence and the encouraging/excusing of violence. Also, I am not The New York Times.”

Nolte is humanizing himself by letting us all know that yeah, he felt none too bad to see physical violence enacted against the self proclaimed leader of the “alt-right” (which is now synonymous with white supremacy). He goes as far as to call the guy a creep, just to make sure we all know that Mr. Nolte in no way approves of the viewpoints of Mr. Spencer. He also clarifies the he’s very much anti-violence in any way, shape or form (he was just joking, after all!), thus further laying down the frame that he’s a decent guy with good values. What follows is an overly elaborate and hypothetical construction of Spencer as an actual Nazi. Hypothetical because in reality Nolte wants to enforce the notion that really the guy is just an unpleasant kook and nowhere on the level of actual Hitler. This is down to downplay the danger people like Spencer represent to society and in particular minorities. This is summed up in his fourth “paragraph” (just one sentence, for potency I guess);

“For argument’s sake, I am ready to stipulate that Richard Spencer is one sick and twisted piece of racist garbage.”

In his next “paragraph” (again, one sentence) he drops the true bombshell, already hinted at in paragraph one;

“Nevertheless, in its attempt to normalize and excuse and rationalize any kind of political violence against anyone, even a Nazi, The New York Times is more a Nazi than Spencer.”

Though not as direct as Adams, the tactic Nolte uses is essentially the same. Adams emphatically stated that he believed in climate change but then quickly made that belief subordinate to another point about the fuzziness of truth and unreliability of science. Nolte emphatically states that he despises Spencer and goes as far to paint a picture of him as an honest to god Nazi before revealing his true target – the NYTimes and by proxy, the liberal left. From one of the final paragraphs in his piece;

“This push for and encouragement and normalizing of violence among the left and our national media, is no joke. It’s been going on for years, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, from the Obama White House, and within the institutional left.”

Let’s overlook the fact that a death from a purely ideological left wing terrorist attack hasn’t occurred on American soil since 1981. During that same time period since then there have been numerous deaths associated with domestic right wing terrorism in multiple attacks. That’s merely a side point to the fact that right-wing motivated violence is more likely to be state sponsored than left-wing violence which tends to come in the form of civil disobedience that generally spares harming  individuals in favor of property destruction. This paradigm works very well for the right because state sponsored violence is not only legal but far more brutal and effective than anything pesky civil disobedience can muster up. The military and police have wide latitude to do what they want and not face legal repercussions, for better or worse (some may argue they need that latitude to perform a tough thankless job, but that’s another topic).

State sponsored violence however doesn’t have to come from an organized and sanctioned group.  It can also be self-defense, and thus legal (ie Trayvon Martin). This point is reinforced by the creepy way Nolte’s article ends;

“Buy guns, America. You need to be able to defend yourselves and your loved ones.”

So just like Adams wrote an article denouncing climate change disguised as an article about the fuzzy nature of truth, Nolte has written an article essentially endorsing violence disguised as an article about how the left should be villainized because they endorse violence. Left is right. Up is down, something something 1984. It’s all very confusing and intellectually draining to try and follow. What’s not confusing is how Nolte comes very close to advocating the murder of political opponents by planting the seed in people’s minds that if you don’t kill the leftist first than the leftist might… um, sucker punch you in the face.

What we have seen happen here is an example of the right wing media writing about political violence in a way that falsely frames it as purely a leftist phenomenon. Were this just some rambling kook on a right wing dumping ground then this wouldn’t be much of a problem but sadly these things don’t stay so neatly contained. The extensive media coverage of the riots at UC  Berkeley in response to a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos handed the right wing media a golden opportunity for a more concentrated effort to paint the left as violent and threatening and possibly even something worth countering with violent force of your own, if necessary. This narrative has been created and framed independently of the facts, which in the case of both Berkeley and the Spencer punching still seem rather fuzzy, lost in the tides of information and “fake news”.

There is no doubt that violence is occurring in America in 2017 but who is really being harmed? Rather than accept right wing narratives at surface level, people need to be asking deeper questions. Is the broken window at Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley really more egregious than the thousands of sick and disabled people who could die with the repeal of the ACA? Is Spencer taking a sucker punch more disconcerting than the fear minorities live in thanks to the spread of his ideas? To me the answers here are obvious but perhaps the kind of violence I’m talking about is too esoteric to play well on CNN. On a logical level I think most of us know where the most harm is being committed but thanks to their expertise at controlling narratives, the right wing has put the emotional view front and center and are using it for political gain. Luckily enough their act is not a hard one to replicate, and the facts being on your side makes for a more definitive tie breaker than a Mike Pence trip to the Senate. It’s time the left learned how to beat the Breitbart’s and Daily Wire’s of the world at their own game.

The Narcissistic Charisma of Donald Trump

I grew up in a household defined by parental narcissism. I only figured this out roughly a year ago while on the road. Browsing random things on my phone, I stumbled on various pages describing theories and self-help literature revolving around what are called “adult children of narcissists”, or ACoNs. Going through various message boards and articles, I managed to untangle much of the complicated series of nonsensical events and outbursts which gave my upbringing much of its dada trainwreck aftertaste.

Eventually the time came when it was clear the situation was not going to get better and I had to cut my father off entirely for the good of the both of us. Searching online for guidance on how to confront this situation, I googled “adult children abandoning parents.” Bizarrely, I found that all of my results turned up websites and message boards relating to organized support and legal action groups put together by groups of parents claiming they were abused and neglected by their narcissistic children. Going through these threads, I noticed, insofar as you can diagnose such a thing based on a pattern of logic presented in message board posts, that most of the posters were in fact pathological narcissists. Their stories about their children had the consistency of Swiss cheese. They had projected the accusations of narcissism onto their estranged children. They’d come to a mutually reinforced unconscious conspiracy of enabling-as-solidarity.

It was utterly fascinating. A community based on shared support of a pathology.

A short while later I ended up at the home of a friend whose mother was an ardent watcher of Fox News. We ended up in his living room watching her watch TV. I noticed that the appeal of the network’s shows was similar to that of traditional hero narratives in the sense that Otto Rank and later Ernest Becker had framed them-they maintained the position of the viewer as the hero in their own personal narrative against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary inherent in their living situation. His mother was very much like Bill O’Reilly in her behavior. She couldn’t have conversations without constantly interrupting the person she was speaking with and making vague aggressive accusations against groups of people she had no direct knowledge of. She chose these people specifically because she had no knowledge of them and could more comfortably create a self within a closed feedback loop of a gerrymandered space of not-knowing. Attempts at introducing unknown variables into conversation were met with temper tantrums.

Marshall McLuhan once said “Charisma is looking like a lot of other people.” On TV and the internet, charisma becomes to the heroic presentation of common psychological profiles defined by decisive forward motion. Trump’s lack of concern about releasing policy papers is telling, as is his unorthodox choice not to apologize for social gaffs. He represents “self”, pure for its emptiness, decisively pushing forward. He is Nietzschean will to power without the complications. America wants to be sure of and proud of themselves, not right about things. Much as Americans will drift into the fantasy self of the heroic character in a TV program, or one of the actors in a pornographic film while handling themselves, so they see their projected fantasy self in Trump. Trump is the popular collective wish of one morning waking up on a giant pile of money. Like the male pornographic film performer (think Ron Jeremy), his clumsy ugliness is part of what makes the fantasy seem accessible.

A different friend once told me a short brilliant anecdote of dysfunction in his own childhood. “My dad was really drunk and started screaming at my mother. He shouted ‘You’re a fucking retarded Pollack!!!’ at my mother and stormed out. The thing is, he’s Polish, she isn’t.”

Most literature in the 20th century psychological tradition analyzing the roots and causes of fascism emphasizes the comforts fascism provides to the wounded narcissistic identity. Because the greatest fear of the pathological narcissist is the possibility of confronting the void of the self, a void which they’re constantly attracted to contemplating but can only contemplate in the projection of this wounded self into paranoia regarding their surroundings and always under the guise of talking about something else, the vague “national identity” becomes a perfect means for both their own projection and the construction of remarkably simple and cleanly efficient propaganda.

Fox News uses very simple psychological techniques to funnel the empty self-affirmation of a mentally ill populace toward the desired targets. Fox News is simply another manifestation of the desire in the TV viewer to see a recognizable version of their self in a position of exciting heroic swashbuckling. Endless websites, articles, and organizations attempting to point out blatant lies that Fox has told miss the point-the viewer goes to Fox to outsource the difficult work of bridging cognitive dissonance. They watch Fox because Fox is willing to confidently lie to them and never back down.

Donald Trump is the child of this dynamic; as a brand he represents little beyond the presentation of white wealth. That he represents little else is his public relations strength. His unapologetic nativism symbolically represents, for the victim-identity obsessed white population of this country, the most appealing redemption narrative-the one where they have to admit no wrong doing and can shift blame entirely onto the powerless.

I’m not sure a better object representing collective narcissism could be conceived than a giant wall built around a country that has no actual invaders.

Insofar as Trump would, in an earlier culture paradigm that the majority of commentators are still using to analyze the present, a parody of a traditional candidate, a cultural actor even more ludicrous than Reagan the cowboy actor was, he makes perfect sense in the context of the present. The political process has been dangled in front of the public as a lighthearted extension of the popular culture for so long, a toy that wasn’t supposed to played with, that Trump’s treatment of it as a toy that he can play with strikes a chord with those who admire him ironically. The importance of the sale and presentation of the item sold, be it a toilet cleaner or a presidential candidate, has come to far outweigh the traditional “use value” of the object itself.

As Slavoj Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, the experience of the consumer and the resolution of the neurotic condition created by the obvious irrationality of capitalism that cannot be acknowledged mixed with the desire to live an ethical life is now a dialectic tension that expands the surplus value of certain products. While Zizek mostly focuses on it in the context of “ethical consumerism” associated with the middle to upper class US left, the same cultural logic is pushing the response on both sides. Neurosis is defined by the urgency of its need to be resolved or sated. Trump and the modified fascism he represents offers the hope that this neurotic condition of the wounded narcissistic identity of his numerous followers can be repaired in projecting their empty selves into the exuberant narcissism of a man who does in fact understand their deepest problems from the inside.

God help us all.