Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump

A most pitiful ambition

with one comment

In Magic and Showmanship, which is one of my favorite books on storytelling of any kind, the magician and polymath Henning Nelms sets forth a principle that ought to be remembered by all artists:

An illusion is, by definition, untrue. In every field, we detect untruth by inconsistency. We recognize statements as false when they contradict themselves. An actor who does something which is not in keeping with his role falls out of character, and the spell of the play is broken. If a conjurer’s words and actions fail to match the powers he claims, he pricks the bubble of illusion; he may still entertain his audience with a trick, but he loses the magic of drama. Consistency is the key to conviction.

Nelms adds that consistency is also the key to entertainment, and that it achieves its greatest impact when all of its resources are directed toward the same goal. He continues:

Consistency implies a standard. We cannot merely be consistent; we must be consistent with something. In creating an illusion, our standard is the theme. Once you realize this, you will find that the theme provides a guide to every detail of your presentation. This is a tremendous asset. It answers many questions almost before you can ask them.

And Nelms concludes with a powerful rule: “Plan a routine as if every element of the theme—personalities, phenomena, purpose, and proof—were literally true.”

To some extent, this is simply a restatement of what John Gardner calls “the vivid and continuous fictional dream.” Any lapse or inconsistency will draw viewers or readers out of the performance, and it can be hard to get them back again. As Nelms puts it:

Although the “as if” rule is an inspiring guide, it is also a strict taskmaster. Consistency is essential to any suspension of disbelief. No conviction is so deep that it cannot be destroyed by a discrepancy in the presentation. On the contrary, the more profoundly the spectators are enthralled by a performance, the more likely they are to be jerked back to reality by anything which is not in harmony with the illusion.

Even more usefully, Nelms frames this rule as a courtesy to the magician himself, since it provides a source of information at times when we might otherwise be lost: “It not only helps us to make decisions, but suggests ideas.” He also helpfully observes that it can be more productive, on a creative level, to focus on eliminating discrepancies, rather than on heightening the elements that are already effective:

My whole procedure as a showman is based on a technique of hunting for faults and ruthlessly eliminating them…The good parts of a play or routine take care of themselves. If I see a way to improve them, I do so. But I never worry about them. Instead, I concentrate on spotting and correcting the flaws. These are the places that offer the greatest opportunities for improvement. Hence, they are also the places where time and effort devoted to improvement will produce the greatest results.

On a practical level, Nelms suggests that you write down an outline of the illusion as if it were literally true, and then see where you have to depart from this ideal for technical reasons—which is where you should concentrate your attention to minimize any obvious discrepancies. This all seems like common sense, and if writers and performers sometimes forget this, it’s because they get attached to inconsistencies that provide some other benefit in the short term. Nelms writes:

Many dramas have been ruined by actors who tried to enliven serious scenes by being funny. The spectators laughed at the comedy, but they were bored by the play. The same law holds true for conjuring: No matter how effective an inconsistent part may be, the damage that it does to the routine as a whole more than offsets whatever advantages it may have in itself.

He continues: “Directors and performers alike are so flattered by hearing an audience laugh or exclaim over some line or action that they blind themselves to the harm it does to the play or the illusion.” This tendency is as old as drama itself, as we see in Hamlet’s advice to the players, and it can have a troubling effect on the audience:

A discrepancy may escape conscious notice and still weaken conviction. The suspension of disbelief is a subconscious process. No one says to himself, “If I am to enjoy this performance to the full, I must accept it as true and close my mind to the fact that I know it to be false.” Spectators can be led to adopt this attitude, but they must do so without thinking—and without realizing that they have done anything of the kind.

Which brings us, unfortunately, to Donald Trump. If you’re a progressive who is convinced that the president is trying to put one over on the public, you also have to confront the fact that he isn’t especially good at it. Not only are the discrepancies glaring, but they occur with a clockwork regularity that would be funny if it weren’t so horrifying. After the Washington Post reported that Trump had disclosed classified information—remember that?—to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, his national security adviser said: “I was in the room. It did not happen.” The next day, Trump tweeted that he “wanted to share” the facts with Russia, as he had “the absolute right to do.” After James Comey was fired, the White House issued a statement saying that Trump had acted on the advice of the Justice Department, which based its recommendation on Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails. Two days later, Trump contradicted both points in an interview with Lester Holt: “I was going to fire Comey. My decision…In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said: ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’” And when his staff repeatedly asserted that the refugee order wasn’t a travel ban, only to have Trump insist that it was, it felt like a cutaway gag on Arrested Development. You’ll sometimes see arguments that Trump is a chess master, creating distractions like a magician utilizing the technique of misdirection, which strikes me as a weird form of liberal consolation. (It reminds me of what Cooder the carny says of being grifted by Homer Simpson: “Well, there’s no shame in bein’ beaten by the best.” When his son tries to point out that Homer didn’t seem very smart, Cooder interrupts angrily: “We were beaten by the best.”) But the real answer is close at hand. Let’s look at Hamlet’s speech again:

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.

This may be the best thing ever written about the Trump administration. Trump has been trained for years to go for the easy laugh or the quick reaction from the crowd, and he’ll continue to do so, even as “necessary questions” need to be considered. He’s done pretty well with it so far. And he has a receptive audience that seems willing to tell itself exactly what Nelms thought was impossible: “If I am to enjoy this performance to the full, I must accept it as true and close my mind to the fact that I know it to be false.”

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2017 at 9:02 am

The Comey Files

with one comment

About a month ago, for some reason, I decided to write a blog post about James Comey. I was inspired by an article by Nate Silver titled “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton the Election,” which outlined its case in compelling terms:

Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28. The letter, which said the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the private email server that Clinton used as secretary of state, upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperiling her position in the Electoral College…At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by three or four percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than one point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.

Silver added that this fact has largely gone unacknowledged by the media: “From almost the moment that Trump won the White House, many mainstream journalists have been in denial about the impact of Comey’s letter…The motivation for this seems fairly clear: If Comey’s letter altered the outcome of the election, the media may have some responsibility for the result.” He concluded:

One can believe that the Comey letter cost Clinton the election without thinking that the media cost her the election—it was an urgent story that any newsroom had to cover. But if the Comey letter had a decisive effect and the story was mishandled by the press…the media needs to grapple with how it approached the story.

Of course, there’s more than one way to read the evidence. Silver’s doppelgänger, Nate Cohn of the New York Times, looked at the data for “the Comey effect” and argued against it:

These polls are consistent with an alternative election narrative in which the Comey letter had no discernible effect on the outcome. In this telling, Mrs. Clinton had a big lead after the third presidential debate…But her advantage dwindled over the following week, as post-debate coverage faded and Republican-leaning voters belatedly and finally decided to back their traditional party’s nontraditional candidate…In such a close election, anything and everything could have plausibly been decisive.

The italics are mine. No matter what you believe about what Comey did, it’s that “anything and everything” that haunts me, at least in terms of what politicians—and the rest of us—can hope to learn from the whole mess. As Nate Silver said at the end of his piece, again with my emphasis:

In normal presidential campaigns, preparing for the debates, staging the conventions and picking a solid running mate are about as high-stakes as decisions get…If I were advising a future candidate on what to learn from 2016, I’d tell him or her to mostly forget about the Comey letter and focus on the factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump.

When you think about it, this is an extraordinary statement. Comey’s letter may have been decisive, but it isn’t the kind of development that a candidate can anticipate, so the best policy is still to concentrate on the more controllable factors that can cause a race to tighten in the first place.

As far as takeaways are concerned, this one isn’t too bad. It’s basically a reworking of the familiar advice that we should behave as prudently and consistently as we can, independent of luck, which positions us to deal with unforeseen events as they arise. I was preparing to write a post on that subject. Then a lot of other stuff happened, and I dropped it. Now that Comey is back in the news, I’ve been mulling it over again, and it occurs to me that the real case study in behavior here isn’t Clinton or Trump, but Comey himself—and it speaks as much to the limits of this approach as to its benefits. Regardless of how you feel about the consequences of his choices, there’s no doubt, at least in my mind, that he has behaved consistently, making decisions based on his own best judgment and thinking through the alternatives before committing himself to a course of action, however undesirable it might be. This didn’t exactly endear him to Democrats during the election, and afterward, it left him isolated in an administration that placed a premium on other qualities. Comey’s prepared testimony is remarkable, and as Nick Asbury of McSweeney’s points out, it reads weirdly in places like a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, but this is the paragraph that sticks with me the most:

Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.”

Comey adds: “It is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term—honest loyalty—had helped end a very awkward conversation.” And many of his actions over the next few months seem to have been designed to avoid such awkwardness again, to the point where he reportedly asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump.

Comey, in short, was behaving like a man who had arrived at the uncomfortable realization that despite his adherence to a personal code, he was stranded in a world in which it no longer mattered. If he had managed to hang on, he would have endured as the least popular man in Washington, distrusted by Democrats and Republicans alike. Then Trump fired him, which was an unforeseeable event in his life comparable to the havoc that his letter had wreaked on the election. The logic behind the move, to the extent that it had any at all, was expressed by Jared Kushner, a strong advocate of the firing, as the New York Times outlined his alleged reasoning: “It would be a political ‘win’ that would neutralize protesting Democrats because they had called for Mr. Comey’s ouster over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.” That isn’t quite how it turned out, and there’s something undeniably funny in how quickly progressives like me rallied behind Comey, like Homer Simpson deciding that he’s been an Isotopes fan all along. Yet this was also when Comey’s strategy finally paid off. It wouldn’t have been as easy for liberals to flip the switch if it hadn’t been obvious that Comey was fundamentally a decent man, regardless of how badly he misjudged the political environment in which his actions would be received. (The evidence suggests that Comey made the same mistake as a lot of other rational actors—he simply thought that Clinton would win the election no matter what he did.) It’s a moment of vindication for the unfashionable virtues of punctuality, personal attention, courage, and thoroughness, which have been trampled into the mud over the last six months, in no small part because of Comey’s letter. If anything undermines Nate Silver’s argument that political candidates should focus on “factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump,” it’s Trump himself, who has handled countless matters as badly as one could imagine and still fallen backwards into a position of incomprehensible power. If you were to freeze the picture here, you could only conclude that everything you believed about how to act in life was wrong. Maybe it is. But I don’t think so. The story isn’t over yet. And if there’s any lesson that we can take from the Comey affair, it’s that we should all act with an eye on the long game.

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2017 at 8:27 am

On a wing and a prayer

leave a comment »

“It was the greatest career move in the history of entertainment,” David Thomson writes in an entry in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He’s speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan:

He was a hugely successful and evasive president, as blind to disaster, inquiry, and humiliation as he was to the Constitution. And he was as lucky as he had been a loser in pictures…To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the wisdom and integrity of someone told where to stand and what to say for twenty years were made manifest. The fraudulence of the presidency was revealed so that the office could never quite be honored again.

When I look at these lines now, especially that last sentence, they can start to seem rather quaint. But Reagan has a lot to tell us about Trump, and not simply because he looks so much better by comparison. “An actor is playing the president,” Paul Slansky lamented in The Clothes Have No Emperor, a book—with its painstaking chronology of the unlikely events of the Reagan Administration—that looks increasingly funny, resonant, and frightening these days. Yet the presidency has always been something of a performance. As Malcolm Gladwell recently noted to The Undefeated, most presidents have been white men of a certain age and height:

Viewed statistically it’s absurd. Why would you limit your search for the most important job in the land to this tiny group of people? But it’s an incredibly common thing. We do a category selection before we do individual analysis.

In other words, we cast men who look the part, and then we judge them by how well they fulfill our idea of the role.

Reagan, like Trump, was unusually prone to improvising, or, in Thomson’s words, “deftly feeding the lines and situations of Warner Brothers in the 1940s back into world affairs.” Occasionally, he would tell a story to put himself in a favorable light, as when he made the peculiar claim—to Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, no less—that he had personally shot documentary film of the concentration camps after World War II. (In reality, Reagan spent the war in Hollywood, where he assisted in processing footage taken by others in Europe.) But sometimes his reasons were harder to pin down. On December 12, 1983, Reagan told a story in a speech to the annual convention of the Congressional Medal Honor Society:

A B‑17 was coming back across the channel from a raid over Europe, badly shot up by anti‑aircraft; the ball turret that hung underneath the belly of the plane had taken a hit. The young ball‑turret gunner was wounded, and they couldn’t get him out of the turret there while flying. But over the channel, the plane began to lose altitude, and the commander had to order, “Bail out.” And as the men started to leave the plane, the last one to leave—the boy, understandably, knowing he was being left behind to go down with the plane, cried out in terror—the last man to leave the plane saw the commander sit down on the floor. He took the boy’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” Congressional Medal of honor posthumously awarded.

Reagan recounted this story on numerous other occasions. But as Lars-Erik Nelson, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, subsequently determined, after checking hundreds of Medal of Honor citations from World War II: “It didn’t happen. It’s a Reagan story…The president of the United States went before an audience of three hundred real Congressional Medal of Honor winners and told them about a make‑believe Medal of Honor winner.”

There’s no doubt that Reagan, who often grew visibly moved as he recounted this story, believed that it was true, and it has even been used as a case study in the creation of false memories. Nelson traced it back to a scene in the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer, as well as to a similar apocryphal item that appeared that year in Reader’s Digest. (The same story, incidentally, later became the basis for an episode of Amazing Stories, “The Mission,” starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tony Kushner once claimed that Spielberg’s movies “are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism,” and this is the most compelling point I’ve seen in that argument’s favor.) But the most Trumpian aspect of the entire incident was the response of Reagan’s staff. As the Washington Post reported a few days later:

A determined White House is searching the records of American servicemen awarded the Medal of Honor in an effort to authenticate a disputed World War II story President Reagan told last week at a ceremony honoring recipients of the medal…The White House then began checking records to document the episode. Reagan is said by aides to be certain that he saw the citation exactly as he recounted it. The citations are summarized in a book published by Congress, but none of these summaries seem to fit precisely the episode Reagan described, although some are similar…The White House is now attempting to look beyond the summaries to more detailed accounts to see if one of the episodes may be the one Reagan mentioned. “We will find it,” said Misty Church, a researcher for the White House.

They never did. And the image of White House staffers frantically trying to justify something that the president said off the cuff certainly seems familiar today.

But what strikes me the most about this story is that Reagan himself had nothing to gain from it. Most of Trump’s fabrications are designed to make him look better, more successful, or more impressive than he actually is, while Reagan’s fable is rooted in a sentimental ideal of heroism itself. (It’s hard to even imagine a version of this story that Trump might have told, since the most admirable figure in it winds up dead. As Trump might say, he likes pilots who weren’t shot down.) Which isn’t to say that Reagan’s mythologizing isn’t problematic in itself, as Nelson pointed out:

[It’s] the difference between a make-believe pilot, dying nobly and needlessly to comfort a wounded boy, and the real-life pilots, bombardiers and navigators who struggled to save their planes, their crews and themselves and died trying. It’s the difference between war and a war story.

And while this might seem preferable to Trump’s approach, which avoids any talk of sacrifice in favor of scenarios in which everybody wins, or we stick other people with the cost of our actions, it still closes off higher levels of thought in favor of an appeal to emotion. Reagan was an infinitely more capable actor than Trump, and he was much easier to love, which shouldn’t blind us to what they have in common. They were both winging it. And the most characteristic remark to come out of the whole affair is how Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman under Reagan, responded when asked if the account was accurate: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”

Who we are in the moment

with 58 comments

Jordan Horowitz and Barry Jenkins

By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about what happened at the Oscars. I’m getting a little tired of it, too, even though it was possibly the strangest and most riveting two minutes I’ve ever seen on live television. It left me feeling sorry for everyone involved, but there are at least three bright spots. The first is that it’s going to make a great case study for somebody like Malcolm Gladwell, who is always looking for a showy anecdote to serve as a grabber opening for a book or article. So many different things had to go wrong for it to happen—on the levels of design, human error, and simple dumb luck—that you can use it to illustrate just about any point you like. A second silver lining is that it highlights the basically arbitrary nature of all such awards. As time passes, the list of Best Picture winners starts to look inevitable, as if Cimarron and Gandhi and Chariots of Fire had all been canonized by a comprehensible historical process. If anything, the cycle of inevitability is accelerating, so that within seconds of any win, the narratives are already locking into place. As soon as La La Land was announced as the winner, a story was emerging about how Hollywood always goes for the safe, predictable choice. The first thing that Dave Itzkoff, a very smart reporter, posted on the New York Times live chat was: “Of course.” Within a couple of minutes, however, that plot line had been yanked away and replaced with one for Moonlight. And the fact that the two versions were all but superimposed onscreen should warn us against reading too much into outcomes that could have gone any number of ways.

But what I want to keep in mind above all else is the example of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who, at a moment of unbelievable pressure, simply said: “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” It was the best thing that anybody could have uttered under those circumstances, and it tells us a lot about Horowitz himself. If you were going to design a psychological experiment to test a subject’s reaction under the most extreme conditions imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better one—although it might strike a grant committee as possibly too expensive. It takes what is undoubtedly one of the high points of someone’s life and twists it instantly into what, if perhaps not the worst moment, at least amounts to a savage correction. Everything that the participants onstage did or said, down to the facial expressions of those standing in the background, has been subjected to a level of scrutiny worthy of the Zapruder film. At the end of an event in which very little occurs that hasn’t been scripted or premeditated, a lot of people were called upon to figure out how to act in real time in front of an audience of hundreds of millions. It’s proverbial that nobody tells the truth in Hollywood, an industry that inspires insider accounts with titles like Hello, He Lied and Which Lie Did I Tell? A mixup like the one at the Oscars might have been expressly conceived as a stress test to bring out everyone’s true colors. Yet Horowitz said what he did. And I suspect that it will do more for his career than even an outright win would have accomplished.

Kellyanne Conway

It also reminds me of other instances over the last year in which we’ve learned exactly what someone thinks. When we get in trouble for a remark picked up on a hot mike, we often say that it doesn’t reflect who we really are—which is just another way of stating that it doesn’t live up to the versions of ourselves that we create for public consumption. It’s far crueler, but also more convincing, to argue that it’s exactly in those unguarded, unscripted moments that our true selves emerge. (Freud, whose intuition on such matters was uncanny, was onto something when he focused on verbal mistakes and slips of the tongue.) The justifications that we use are equally revealing. Maybe we dismiss it as “locker room talk,” even if it didn’t take place anywhere near a locker room. Kellyanne Conway excused her reference to the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre by saying “I misspoke one word,” even though she misspoke it on three separate occasions. It doesn’t even need to be something said on the spur of the moment. At his confirmation hearing for the position of ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman apologized for an opinion piece he had written before the election: “These were hurtful words, and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.” Friedman also said that “the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over,” as if it were an impersonal force that briefly took possession of its users and then departed. We ask to be judged on our most composed selves, not the ones that we reveal at our worst.

To some extent, that’s a reasonable request. I’ve said things in public and in private that I’ve regretted, and I wouldn’t want to be judged solely on my worst moments as a writer or parent. At a time when a life can be ruined by a single tweet, it’s often best to err on the side of forgiveness, especially when there’s any chance of misinterpretation. But there’s also a place for common sense. You don’t refer to an event as a “massacre” unless you really think of it that way or want to encourage others to do so. And we judge our public figures by what they say when they think that nobody is listening, or when they let their guard down. It might seem like an impossibly high standard, but it’s also the one that’s effectively applied in practice. You can respond by becoming inhumanly disciplined, like Obama, who in a decade of public life has said maybe five things he has reason to regret. Or you can react like Trump, who says five regrettable things every day and trusts that its sheer volume will reduce it to a kind of background noise—which has awakened us, as Trump has in so many other ways, to a political option that we didn’t even knew existed. Both strategies are exhausting, and most of us don’t have the energy to pursue either path. Instead, we’re left with the practical solution of cultivating the inner voice that, as I wrote last week, allows us to act instinctively. Kant writes: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” Which is another way of saying that we should strive to be the best version of ourselves at all times. It’s probably impossible. But it’s easier than wearing a mask.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2017 at 9:00 am

The year of magical thinking

with one comment

Elon Musk at Trump Tower

Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.

—Homer Simpson, “Whacking Day”

Yesterday, Tesla founder Elon Musk defended his decision to remain on President Trump’s economic advisory council, stating on Twitter: “My goals are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization.” A few weeks earlier, Peter Thiel, another member of the PayPal mafia and one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, said obscurely to the New York Times: “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic—The Jetsons, Star Trek. They’re dated but futuristic.” Musk and Thiel both tend to speak using the language of science fiction, in part because it’s the idiom that they know best. Musk includes Asimov’s Foundation series among his favorite books, and he’s a recipient of the Heinlein Prize for accomplishments in commercial space activities. Thiel is a major voice in the transhumanist movement, and he’s underwritten so much research into seasteading that I’m indebted to him for practically all the technical background of my novella “The Proving Ground.” As Thiel said to The New Yorker several years ago, in words that have a somewhat different ring today:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, “Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,” and in 2008 it was, like, “The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”

Despite their shared origins at PayPal, Musk and Thiel aren’t exactly equivalent here: Musk has been open about his misgivings toward Trump’s policy on refugees, while Thiel, who seems to have little choice but to double down, had a spokesperson issue the bland statement: “Peter doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one.” Yet it’s still striking to see two of our most visible futurists staking their legacies on a relationship with Trump, even if they’re coming at it from different angles. As far as Musk is concerned, I don’t agree with his reasoning, but I understand it. His decision to serve in an advisory capacity to Trump seems to come down to his relative weighting of two factors, which aren’t mutually exclusive, but are at least inversely proportional. The first is the possibility that his presence will allow him to give advice that will affect policy decisions to some incremental but nontrivial extent. It’s better, this argument runs, to provide a reasonable voice than to allow Trump to be surrounded by nothing but manipulative Wormtongues. The second possibility is that his involvement with the administration will somehow legitimize or enable its policies, and that this risk far exceeds his slight chance of influencing the outcome. It’s a judgment call, and you can assign whatever values you like to those two scenarios. Musk has clearly thought long and hard about it. But I’ll just say that if it turns out that there’s even the tiniest chance that an occasional meeting with Musk—who will be sharing the table with eighteen others—could possibly outweigh the constant presence of Steve Bannon, a Republican congressional majority, and millions of angry constituents in any meaningful way, I’ll eat my copy of the Foundation trilogy.

Donald Trump and Peter Thiel

Musk’s belief that his presence on the advisory council might have an impact on a president who has zero incentive to appeal to anyone but his own supporters is a form of magical thinking. In a way, though, I’m not surprised, and it’s possible that everything I admire in Musk is inseparable from the delusion that underlies this decision. Whatever you might think of them personally, Musk and Thiel are undoubtedly imaginative. In his New Yorker profile, Thiel blamed many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. Achieving such goals requires not only vision, but a kind of childlike stubbornness that chases a vanishingly small chance of success in the face of all evidence to the contrary. What makes Musk and Thiel so fascinating is their shared determination to take a fortune built on something as prosaic as an online payments system and to turn it into a spaceship. So far, Musk has been much more successful at translating his dreams into reality, and Thiel’s greatest triumph to date has been the destruction of Gawker Media. But they’ve both seen their gambles pay off to an extent that might mislead them about their ability to make it happen again. It’s this sort of indispensable naïveté that underlies Musk’s faith in his ability to nudge Trump in the right direction, and, on a more sinister level, Thiel’s eagerness to convince us to sign up for a grand experiment with high volatility in both directions—even if most of us don’t have the option of fleeing to New Zealand if it all goes up in flames.

This willingness to submit involuntary test subjects to a hazardous cultural project isn’t unique to science fiction fans. It’s the same attitude that led Norman Mailer, when asked about his support of the killer Jack Henry Abbott, to state: “I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.” (And it’s worth remembering that the man whom Abbott stabbed to death, Richard Adan, was the son of Cuban immigrants.) But when Thiel advised us before the election not to take Trump “literally,” it felt like a symptom of the suspension of disbelief that both science fiction writers and startup founders have to cultivate:

I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not “Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?” or, you know, “How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?” What they hear is “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

We’ll see how that works out. But in the meantime, the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard is a useful one. Plenty of science fiction writers, including John W. Campbell, A.E. van Vogt, and Theodore Sturgeon, were persuaded by dianetics, in part because it struck them as a risky idea with an unlimited upside. Yet whatever psychological benefits dianetics provided—and it probably wasn’t any less effective than many forms of talk therapy—were far outweighed by the damage that Hubbard and his followers inflicted. It might help to mentally replace the name “Trump” with “Hubbard” whenever an ethical choice needs to be made. What would it mean to take Hubbard “seriously, but not literally?” And if Hubbard asked you to join his board of advisors, would it seem likely that you could have a positive influence, even if it meant adding your name to the advisory council of the Church of Scientology? Or would it make more sense to invest the same energy into helping those whose lives the church was destroying?

From Xenu to Xanadu

leave a comment »

L. Ron Hubbard

I do know that I could form a political platform, for instance, which would encompass the support of the unemployed, the industrialist and the clerk and day laborer all at one and the same time. And enthusiastic support it would be.

L. Ron Hubbard, in a letter to his wife Polly, October 1938

Yesterday, my article “Xenu’s Paradox: The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard and the Making of Scientology” was published on Longreads. I’d been working on this piece, off and on, for the better part of a year, almost from the moment I knew that I was going to be writing the book Astounding. As part of my research, I had to read just about everything Hubbard ever wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and I ended up working my way through well over a million words of his prose. The essay that emerged from this process was inspired by a simple question. Hubbard clearly didn’t much care for science fiction, and he wrote it primarily for the money. Yet when the time came to invent a founding myth for Scientology, he turned to the conventions of space opera, which had previously played a minimal role in his work. Both his critics and his followers have looked hard at his published stories to find hints of the ideas to come, and there are a few that seem to point toward later developments. (One that frequently gets mentioned is “One Was Stubborn,” in which a fake religious messiah convinces people to believe in the nonexistence of matter so that he can rule the universe. There’s circumstantial evidence, however, that the premise came mostly from John W. Campbell, and that Hubbard wrote it up on the train ride home from New York to Puget Sound.) Still, it’s a tiny fraction of the whole. And such stories by other writers as “The Double Minds” by Campbell, “Lost Legacy” by Robert A. Heinlein, and The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt make for more compelling precursors to dianetics than anything Hubbard ever wrote.

The solution to the mystery, as I discuss at length in the article, is that Hubbard tailored his teachings to the small circle of followers he had available after his blowup with Campbell, many of whom were science fiction fans who owed their first exposure to his ideas to magazines like Astounding. And this was only the most dramatic and decisive instance of a pattern that is visible throughout his life. Hubbard is often called a fabulist who compulsively embellished own accomplishments and turned himself into something more than he really was. But it would be even more accurate to say that Hubbard transformed himself into whatever he thought the people around him wanted him to be. When he was hanging out with members of the Explorers Club, he became a barnstormer, world traveler, and intrepid explorer of the Caribbean and Alaska. Around his fellow authors, he presented himself as the most productive pulp writer of all time, inflating his already impressive word count to a ridiculous extent. During the war, he spun stories about his exploits in battle, claiming to have been repeatedly sunk and wounded, and even a former naval officer as intelligent and experienced as Heinlein evidently took him at his word. Hubbard simply became whatever seemed necessary at the time—as long as he was the most impressive man in the room. It wasn’t until he found himself surrounded by science fiction fans, whom he had mostly avoided until then, that he assumed the form that he would take for the rest of his career. He had never been interested in past lives, but many of his followers were, and the memories that they were “recovering” in their auditing sessions were often colored by the imagery of the stories they had read. And Hubbard responded by coming up with the grandest, most unbelievable space opera saga of them all.

Donald Trump

This leaves us with a few important takeaways. The first is that Hubbard, in the early days, was basically harmless. He had invented a colorful background for himself, but he wasn’t alone: Lester del Rey, among others, seems to have engaged in the same kind of self-mythologizing. His first marriage wasn’t a happy one, and he was always something of a blowhard, determined to outshine everyone he met. Yet he also genuinely impressed John and Doña Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and many other perceptive men and women. It wasn’t until after the unexpected success of dianetics that he grew convinced of his own infallibility, casting off such inconvenient collaborators as Campbell and Joseph Winter as obstacles to his power. Even after he went off to Wichita with his remaining disciples, he might have become little more than a harmless crank. As he began to feel persecuted by the government and professional organizations, however, his mood curdled into something poisonous, and it happened at a time in which he had undisputed authority over the people around him. It wasn’t a huge kingdom, but because of its isolation—particularly when he was at sea—he was able to exercise a terrifying amount of control over his closest followers. Hubbard didn’t even enjoy it. He had wealth, fame, and the adulation of a handful of true believers, but he grew increasingly paranoid and miserable. At the time of his death, his wrath was restricted to his critics and to anyone within arm’s reach, but he created a culture of oppression that his successor cheerfully extended against current and former members in faraway places, until no one inside or outside the Church of Scientology was safe.

I wrote the first draft of this essay in May of last year, but it’s hard to read it now without thinking of Donald Trump. Like Hubbard, Trump spent much of his life as an annoying but harmless windbag: a relentless self-promoter who constantly inflated his own achievements. As with Hubbard, everything that he did had to be the biggest and best, and until recently, he was too conscious of the value of his own brand to risk alienating too many people at once. After a lifetime of random grabs for attention, however, he latched onto a cause—the birther movement—that was more powerful than anything he had encountered before, and, like Hubbard, he began to focus on the small number of passionate followers he had attracted. His presidential campaign seems to have been conceived as yet another form of brand extension, culminating in the establishment of a Trump Television network. He shaped his message in response to the crowds who came to his rallies, and before long, he was caught in the same kind of cycle: a man who had once believed in nothing but himself gradually came to believe his own words. (Hubbard and Trump have both been described as con men, but the former spent countless hours auditing himself, and Trump no longer seems conscious of his own lies.) Both fell upward into positions of power that exceeded their wildest expectations, and it’s frightening to consider what might come next, when we consider how Hubbard was transformed. During his lifetime, Hubbard had a small handful of active followers; the Church of Scientology has perhaps 30,000, although, like Trump, they’re prone to exaggerate such numbers; Trump has millions. It’s especially telling that both Hubbard and Trump loved Citizen Kane. I love it, too. But both men ended up in their own personal Xanadu. And as I’ve noted before, the only problem with that movie is that our affection for Orson Welles distracts us from the fact that Kane ultimately went crazy.

An open letter to my daughter

with 4 comments

The author's daughter

Dear Beatrix,

As I write these words, you’re four years old. Last week, you went to your first ice skating lesson. You’d been looking forward to it all month, and you excitedly told all of your friends that you were going, but when you came home that afternoon, you were almost in tears. When I asked you what was wrong, you said that it was harder than you thought it would be, and that you kept falling down. I responded as I suppose most decent fathers would. It takes a while, I told you, to get the hang of a new skill; it’s normal to fall down a lot at the beginning; and you should keep trying until you get better. After you’ve practiced enough, I concluded, you won’t even remember how difficult it used to be. You asked: “But what if it’s still in my head?” And I wasn’t quite sure what to tell you. As you’ve probably figured out by now, adults aren’t always great at following their own advice. They’re haunted by their failures, and they often resist pushing themselves or trying new things. I know I do. But you know better. You’ve been to free skate twice now, and every time you’ve gone out on the ice, you’ve gotten further without falling than ever before. Whenever you fall down, your pick yourself up. It’s more than I could do at my age. And I won’t pretend that the courage that you’ve shown is thanks to anything that I’ve taught you. You did it yourself. My one piece of advice, in fact, is that you hold onto as much of it as you can. You can judge grownups by how much they show of that kind of bravery, and it can take us decades to rediscover what we knew as children. So I hope that you hang onto it—it’ll save you time and wasted effort later on.

When you finally read this letter, you’ll be a little older—maybe eight or so. That’s hard for me to believe. I remember being eight. It’s one of the earliest ages at which I have a clear sense of what I was thinking at the time: not just events, but my inner life of dreams, fantasies, impressions. I don’t remember much from before that. It tells me that the years of your life that we’ve shared together so far might end up as a blur, much as they sometimes are to me already, and that only a few isolated flashes will survive for when you’re older. If I’m honest, the thought of this is slightly painful: you and I have been through so much, but I don’t know how much of it will persist for you in ways that you can consciously recall. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. For all I know, it may matter more than anything else. I hope that your mother and I have shown you sufficient love and patience that you can take it for granted, and that the memories that you keep are good ones. And I also hope that you can remember President Obama. It’s a small thing, but I’d like him to be the first memory you have of the presidency. You seem drawn to him, as a lot of kids are, even if you’re usually more interested in Michelle. Maybe one day it will all seem like a dream, as it does to me even now. For all the ups and downs of the last eight years, I still believe that Obama was a far better man than we deserved, or at least that a series of unlikely developments meant that we got him before we were collectively ready. I used to think that was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure. But I’m glad that you were around for some of it.

The author's daughter

Now we’re about to get a president who, by any measure, is worse than any of us deserve, thanks to a series of equally implausible events. (Which is just to say that they seem improbable by historical standards, which is probably an illusion in itself. If the stars could align to give us Obama eight years too soon, it stands to reason that they could also combine, on the downside, to give us a President Trump. Volatility on the whole seems to be rising, and past performance is not indicative of future returns.) By the time you read this, maybe we’ll have another president. I don’t know if we will. Frankly, I’m not even sure I’ll have completely figured out this last election by then. Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable. Which doesn’t rule out the possibility that it was both. I think it’s fair to say that the fundamentals were closer than most progressives believed or that the numbers seemed to indicate, which meant that a few small factors—some from home, some from abroad—were enough to affect the results in three states just enough to make a difference. If fifty thousand voters had changed their minds, I’d be writing you a very different letter. Perhaps, in some other timeline, I am. But the fact that it was close enough for a few nudges in the right place to affect the result implies that there was something larger at play. Periods of progress are always followed by periods of reaction, and it’s clear, looking around the world, that we’re in the middle of a particularly severe one. That isn’t much consolation. But it was bound to happen eventually. It’s just sooner and far worse than anyone could have expected.

I wish I could tell you that everything will be fine, but I can’t. It emphatically won’t be fine for a lot of people, at least if the incoming administration keeps the least of its promises, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t. Our family is luckier than most, and I don’t know how our lives—or the ones of those we love—will change. I also don’t know what the psychological consequences will be. You’re about to spend some of the crucial years of your childhood in an atmosphere that can only affect your feelings about the presidency, this country, and your place in the world. And I’m not going to lie to you: a lot of things that we care about are about to be destroyed. They’ll be rolled back at once or in pieces, openly or in secret, for no better reason than it’s easier to destroy than to create. It’s enough to make me wonder whether any of it was worth it, and I’m afraid that you’ll grow up asking the same thing. But it made a difference. History alternates between eras of advancement and regression, the latter of which can last for centuries, but the trend over the longest possible timeline is clear. We take two steps forward and one step back, and we can only hope that we’ve planted the standard of humanity far enough forward into chaos that we end up slightly ahead of where we started, in defiance of all the forces that want to turn back the clock. Many of those who voted to enable it were motivated by the same feelings that I’ve described here: they looked into the faces of their daughters and sons and worried about the lives they would have. I’m sorry that a minority of my generation decided that this was what was best for yours. We screwed up, and I don’t know if we can fix things by the time you’re old enough to understand this. Maybe it will be up to you. All I can do is try to learn from your example. I need to get back on the ice and skate.

Love, Daddy

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

%d bloggers like this: