Monday, January 30, 2017

Alternative Facts

If you haven’t noticed, America’s place in the world is becoming rather dramatically different. Here is a long and seemingly never-ending paragraph with a partial list.
For all practical purposes, as Israel flaunts approving massive new West Bank Jewish settlements with Trump consent and Trump begins to rub salt into Palestinian wounds by beginning plans to move the US embassy to the contested religious city (to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike) of Jerusalem, the two-state goal of every American administration since the early 1990s – GOP and Democratic – is dead. Our long term commitment to battling factually indisputable climate change is dead. Our tolerance of undocumented aliens, willing to do jobs Americans will just not do, is dead… although there are going to be some very nasty confrontations between the leadership of heavy Latino-based-population-states and the feds. Roe vs Wade may topple. Healthcare is completely up in the air, with a high probability that a lot of folks with coverage today will not have any real coverage options soon. Financial and environmental investigations and regulations are like to vaporize or find lackadaisical enforcement. Internet data usage is very likely to skyrocket as net neutrality is crushed in its tracks. Federal support for the arts and scientific research will erode like the rain-soaked hills of Los Angeles. Minimum wage and worker protection expansion priorities are gone. Social inequalities, including the application of criminal justice laws and racial inequality, are no longer important to the feds. Taxes for the rich are likely to plunge. The United States is giving up its preeminence in global trade to China, a nation that Trump seems to delight in taunting. The Trump administration is challenging foreign policy pledges made by Republicans and Democrats alike, building a physical wall on our second longest border, questioning NATO and the United Nations, and is cozying up to a manipulative dictator who has traditionally opposed the US at every turn. Our intelligence community has been instructed to reconsider “black sites” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” as viable tools against terrorism. Efforts to restrain the proliferation of guns are over. We are building our military and deemphasizing most every other federal agency.
Whew, I am out of breath. But believe it or not, these changes are really not the focus of today’s blog. Whether you believe in these policies or not. They serve simply as a backdrop for how our non-governmental institutions, and the “people,” are setting to deal with these changes. We can summarize these reactions in two categories: confrontation and denial. We’re seeing confrontation in the Women’s March and the stated refusal to cooperate in immigration enforcement, especially from California – individual cities and the state itself. But the more interesting phenomenon, at least until the resistance reaches the level of violence we all fear, is the notion of denial.
We seem to have a new mega-trend – simply making up “facts” (“fake news” or the George Orwell-coined “alternative facts”) or denying what would otherwise be irrefutable under the most simplistic and unbiased review of reality. Scientists have been downgraded to close-to-irrelevant. Reports of reality that does not jibe with a Trumpist view are purged.
The EPA and FDA have been muzzled and told to stop wasting money on investigations and research. The president has ordered the feds to prove that the voter fraud he claims without evidence is true, one way or the other. Even as the National Park Service tweeted scientific facts about climate change, they were shut down by their new bosses. “The Trump administration has ordered a freeze on federal grant spending at several government agencies, followed by memos telling employees not to send out news releases or to create social media posts, blog entries or official website content, and to consult with senior officials before speaking to the news media.” New York Times, January 26th.  But the private sector appears to be playing along as well.
For example: All of the instability and uncertainty engendered by the above and so many other obvious changes being implemented by the Trump administration should, under a logical understanding of finance and economics, be plunging Wall Street into panicked collapse. Instead, the stock market is reaching new heights, as institutional investors seem to be reassuring each other that “everything is OK, and we have a businessman at the helm” instead of looking at what’s really going on. The last time I saw this “massive mutual reassurance” trend was Wall Street’s double-down on subprime mortgage bundles just before the 2007/8 crash. The more this denial continues to build, the more I worry that the fall will be that much faster and more precipitous when it happens. Tick, tick, tick…
You have to ask yourself if uttering clear falsehoods are lies if the speaker really believes what he/she is saying. Even if the speaker is trying to convince himself/herself that the falsehood is actually true, that those opposing the falsehood are merely conspirators against the speaking party, and that if you repeat something enough, regardless of the facts, it must be true… The notion of “post-truth” – where the underlying feelings, and not the “facts,” are all that matters – has redefined governmental relations with the media.
The Trump administration seems hell-bent on punishing the media, where traditional journalists have committed themselves to investigating stories in search of the truth. The sin is simply challenging or disagreeing with anything that Trump or his administration says. Trump mouthpieces, Sean Spicer and Kelly Conaway, have the rapt attention and belief of the Trump faithful while remaining a running joke with traditional media and Democrats.
The president has refused to acknowledge CNN at a press conference, thrown other journalists out of access and is threatening to move the press entirely out of their long-standing premises within the White House. At his recent CIA meeting, speaking before an audience to whom media relations were hardly the hot topic, the president stated: “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
Without a shred of proof, Trump maintains he actually won the popular vote because there were three to five million votes from non-citizens, an assertion that even those from his own party – from House Speaker Paul Ryan to Lindsey Graham – completely disagree with. And despite photographic proof to the contrary, Trump insisted that his inauguration had the greatest attendance in history. Even when presented with obvious photographic evidence of crowds at various inauguration ceremonies that clearly show fewer people at Trump’s event, Trump supporters continue to believe Trump’s statements.
According to the January 25th Washington Post, seven out ten Trump supporters pretty much agree with Trump’s “alternative facts,” even when there is a rather drama lack of proof (or, worse, clear proof to the contrary). These self-same Trumpists simply only follow “reportage” that agrees with their view, and when the president trashes a particular media site, that news source is even further ignored. James Hamblin, writing for the January 24th The Atlantic, asks us exactly what do we mean by the term, “the media”:
“The sentiment capitalizes and expands upon an unprecedented divide: As of September of 2016, according to a Gallup poll, more Americans distrust ‘the media’ than ever before. Especially among Republicans: Only 14 percent have even a ‘fair amount of trust in the media.’
“Yet while ‘the media’ is a term that most Americans use, many fewer can easily define it (at least according to my months of conversational field surveys). Personally I’ve stopped using it… Among Trump’s staff, the term has been used almost invariably in condemnation. ‘The media’ has been applied to anyone who reports even the most objectively provable facts—from approval ratings to the size of the inaugural crowd—if those facts reflect poorly on Donald Trump. (Though people with large platforms who have not challenged Trump, like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, seem exempt.)
“The term ‘the media’ was first used as a singular, collective noun around 100 years ago, meaning ‘an intervening agency, means, or instrument.’ The instrument (or medium) of the time was the printing press. People in the business of operating printing presses were a distinct group. Now mediums abound—many like Twitter and Facebook are still known as social media, even though the platforms have faded toward something closer to personal printing presses. At the same time, traditional media institutions are publishing on these platforms—and others like Medium and YouTube—alongside non-journalists. Everyone plays a role as an intermediary to some degree, an intervening agent in each news story, choosing what to share and how to frame it. As the term was originally conceived, many people would now qualify as part of ‘the media.’
“So most likely when Trump refers to ‘the media’ as the most dishonest people on the planet, he refers only to professional journalists. This is a contradiction in terms, because modern journalism is a profession predicated on conveying truth. Journalists’ currency is credibility. To quibble with a particular journalist’s motives is to quibble with their identity: Are they journalists? Or entertainers, ideologues, or advocates?
“The goal in journalism is to be the best at identifying and conveying said truth. The entire concept of the profession is antithetical to lying. So it’s difficult to imagine objecting to the idea of journalism, in principle: to have people whose job is to act as dispassionate arbiters who discern truth. People who are fair, who are trustworthy, who do not slander, who are not beholden to any particular interest but seek transparency, to highlight injustice, and to hold people in power accountable.”
It seems that fake news is vastly more relevant than truth, and that magnificent “fifth estate” that is supposed to keep government honest is now a bigger enemy than Russia.  Will Trump wear down or muzzle the mainstream press? What are the long-term ramifications for the survival of our country if that succeeds? Can fake news ever be contained? We cannot assume that his efforts will not be successful. Trump seems not to care when those that did not vote for him challenge his statements or try and show his rather low level of popularity. He simply continues to double down.
For empiricists in the United States, these are going to be harsh times. And when the government acts based on falsehoods and fake news as if they were true, when policy directives are not anchored in truth and reality, what kind of long-term and perhaps irreparable damage will be inflicted on the United States? Can we actually survive this shift in values and practices? Whatever happens, it isn’t going to be pretty. Don’t like it? Deluge your elected representatives with personalized mail and electronic communications… not prewritten forms.
I’m Peter Dekom, and this is the way it is, Trump is highly unlikely to change and we might just have to get used to this new “alternative reality.”

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