Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump

The confidence tricksters

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When I look back at my life, I find that I’ve always been fascinated by a certain type of personality, at least when observed from a safe distance. I may as well start with Orson Welles, who has been on my mind a lot recently. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud: “Yes, he was a trickster, a rather nasty operator, a credit thief, a bully, a manipulator, a shallow genius…a less than wholesome great man…oh, very well, a habitual liar, a liar of genius.” But in his discussion of the late masterwork F for Fake, Thomson also hints at the essence of Welles’s appeal:

The happiness in F for Fake, the exhilaration, comes from the discovery and the jubilation that knows there is no higher calling than being a magician, a storyteller, a fake who passes the time. This is the work in which Welles finally reconciled the lofty, European, intellectual aspect of himself and the tent show demon who sawed cute dames and wild dreams in half. For it can be very hard to live with the belief that nothing matters in life, that nothing is solid or real, that everything is a show in the egotist’s head. It loses friends, trust, children, home, money, security, and maybe reason. So it is comforting indeed, late in life, to come upon a proof that the emptiness and the trickery are valid and sufficient.

Welles claimed afterward that he had been “faking” his confession of being a charlatan, as if it were somehow incompatible with being an artist—although the great lesson of his life is that it can be possible and necessary to be both at the same time.

This is the kind of figure to whom I’m helplessly drawn—the genius who is also a con artist. You could even make much the same case, with strong reservations, for L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t like him or most of his work, and he caused more pain to other people than anyone else in Astounding. Yet the best clue I’ve ever found to figuring out his character is a passage by Lawrence Wright, who writes shrewdly in Going Clear:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man…The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis…But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling.

I’ve spent more time thinking about this than I ever wanted, and I’ve grudgingly concluded that Wright has a point. Hubbard was frankly more interesting than most of his detractors, and he couldn’t have accomplished half of what he did if it weren’t for his enormous, slippery gifts for storytelling, in person if not on the page. (On some level, he also seems to have believed in his own work, which complicates our picture of him as a con artist—although he certainly wasn’t averse to squeezing as much money out of his followers as possible.) I’ve often compared Welles to Campbell, but he has equally profound affinities with Hubbard, whose favorite film was Citizen Kane, and who perpetuated a science fiction hoax that dwarfed The War of the Worlds.

But I’m also attracted by such examples because they get at something crucial about the life of any artist, in which genius and trickery are often entwined. I don’t think of myself as a particularly devious person, but I’ve had to develop certain survival skills just to keep working, and a lot of writers come to think of themselves in the fond terms that W.H. Auden uses in The Dyer’s Hand:

All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

The similarities between the artist and the confidence man tend to appeal to authors with a high degree of technical facility, like David Mamet, who returns to the subject obsessively. In the lovely essay “Pool Halls,” Mamet writes: “The point of the pool hall was the intersection of two American Loves: the Game of Skill and the Short Con…Well, I guess that America is gone. We no longer revere skill, and the short con of the pool hustle and the Murphy Man and the Fuller Brush Man. The short con, which flourished in a life lived on the street and among strangers, has been supplanted by the Big Con of a life with no excitement in it at all.”

As Mamet implies, there’s something undeniably American about these figures. The confidence man has been part of this country’s mythology from the beginning, undoubtedly because it was a society that was inventing itself as it went along. There’s even an element of nostalgia at work. But I also don’t want to romanticize it. Most of our trickster heroes are white and male, which tells us something about the privilege that underlies successful fakery. A con man, like a startup founder, has to evade questions for just long enough to get away with it. That’s true of most artists, too, and the quintessentially American advice to fake it till you make it applies mostly to those who have the cultural security to pull it off. (If we’re so fascinated by confidence tricksters who were women, it might be because they weren’t held back by impostor syndrome.) Of course, the dark side of this tradition, which is where laughter dies in the throat, can be seen in the White House, which is currently occupied by the greatest con artist in American history. I don’t even mean this as an insult, but as a fundamental observation. If we’re going to venerate the con man as an American archetype, we have to acknowledge that Trump has consistently outplayed us all, even when the trick, or troll, was unfolding in plain sight. This also says something about our national character, and if Trump reminds me of Hubbard, he’s also forced me to rethink Citizen Kane. But there’s another side to the coin. During times of oppression and reaction, a different kind of deviousness can emerge, one that channels these old impulses toward ingenuity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, humor, and trickery, which are usually used to further the confidence man’s private interests, toward very different goals. If we’re going to make it through the next two years, we need to draw deeply on this tradition of genius. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2018 at 8:32 am

Wounded Knee and the Achilles heel

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On February 27, 1973, two hundred Native American activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. They were protesting against the unpopular tribal president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, along with the federal government’s failure to negotiate treaties, and the ensuing standoff—which resulted in two deaths, a serious casualty, and a disappearance—lasted for over seventy days. It also galvanized many of those who watched it unfold, including the author Paul Chaat Smith, who writes in his excellent book Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong:

Lots occurred over the next two and a half months, including a curious incident in which some of the hungry, blockaded Indians attempted to slaughter a cow. Reporters and photographers gathered to watch. Nothing happened. None of the Indians—some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations—actually knew how to butcher cattle. Fortunately, a few of the journalists did know, and they took over, ensuring dinner for the starving rebels. That was a much discussed event during and after Wounded Knee. The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes. Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.

Smith dryly notes that the protesters “lost points” with observers after this episode, which overshadowed many of the more significant aspects of the occupation, and he concludes: “I myself know nothing about butchering cattle, and would hope that doesn’t invalidate my remarks about the global news media and human rights.”

I got to thinking about this passage in the aftermath of Elizabeth Warren’s very bad week. More specifically, I was reminded of it by a column by the Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank, who focuses on Warren’s submissions to the cookbook Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes, which was edited by her cousin three decades ago. One of the recipes that Warren contributed was “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing,” which leads Milbank to crack: “A traditional Cherokee dish with mayonnaise, a nineteenth-century condiment imported by settlers? A crab dish from landlocked Oklahoma? This can mean only one thing: canned crab. Warren is unfit to lead.” He’s speaking with tongue partially in cheek—a point that probably won’t be caught by thousands of people who are just browsing the headlines—but when I read these words, I thought immediately of these lines from Smith’s book:

It presents the unavoidable question: Are Indian people allowed to change? Are we allowed to invent completely new ways of being Indian that have no connection to previous ways we have lived? Authenticity for Indians is a brutal measuring device that says we are only Indian as long as we are authentic. Part of the measurement is about percentage of Indian blood. The more, the better. Fluency in one’s Indian language is always a high card. Spiritual practices, living in one’s ancestral homeland, attending powwows, all are necessary to ace the authenticity test. Yet many of us believe taking the authenticity tests is like drinking the colonizer’s Kool-Aid—a practice designed to strengthen our commitment to our own internally warped minds. In this way, we become our own prison guards.

And while there may be other issues with Warren’s recipe, it’s revealing that we often act as if the Cherokee Nation somehow ceased to evolve—or cook for itself—after the introduction of mayonnaise.

This may seem like a tiny point, but it’s also an early warning of a monstrous cultural reckoning lurking just around the corner, at at time when we might have thought that we had exhausted every possible way to feel miserable and divided. If Warren runs for president, which I hope she does, we’re going to be plunged into what Smith aptly describes as a “snake pit” that terrifies most public figures. As Smith writes in a paragraph that I never tire of quoting:

Generally speaking, smart white people realize early on, probably even as children, that the whole Indian thing is an exhausting, dangerous, and complicated snake pit of lies. And…the really smart ones somehow intuit that these lies are mysteriously and profoundly linked to the basic construction of the reality of daily life, now and into the foreseeable future. And without it ever quite being a conscious thought, these intelligent white people come to understand that there is no percentage, none, in considering the Indian question, and so the acceptable result is to, at least subconsciously, acknowledge that everything they are likely to learn about Indians in school, from books and movies and television programs, from dialogue with Indians, from Indian art and stories, from museum exhibits about Indians, is probably going to be crap, so they should be avoided.

This leads him to an unforgettable conclusion: “Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright.” But that’s only because most of the others are prudent enough to stay well away—and even Warren, who is undeniably smart, doesn’t seem to have realized that this was a fight that she couldn’t possibly win.

One white person who seems unquestionably interested in Indians, in his own way, is Donald Trump. True to form, he may not be very bright, but he also displays what Newt Gingrich calls a “sixth sense,” in this case for finding a formidable opponent’s Achilles heel and hammering at it relentlessly. Elizabeth Warren is one of the most interesting people to consider a presidential run in a long time, but Trump may have already hamstrung her candidacy by zeroing in on what might look like a trivial vulnerability. And the really important point here is that if Warren’s claims about her Native American heritage turn out to be her downfall, it’s because the rest of us have never come to terms with our guilt. The whole subject is so unsettling that we’ve collectively just agreed not to talk about it, and Warren made the unforgivable mistake, a long time ago, of folding it into her biography. If she’s being punished for it now, it’s because it precipitates something that was invisibly there all along, and this may only be the beginning. Along the way, we’re going to run up against a lot of unexamined assumptions, like Milbank’s amusement at that canned crab. (As Smith reminds us: “Indians are okay, as long as they meet non-Indian expectations about Indian religious and political beliefs. And what it really comes down to is that Indians are okay as long as we don’t change too much. Yes, we can fly planes and listen to hip-hop, but we must do these things in moderation and always in a true Indian way.” And mayonnaise is definitely out.) Depending on your point of view, this issue is either irrelevant or the most important problem imaginable, and like so much else these days, it may take a moronic quip from Trump—call it the Access Hollywood principle—to catalyze a debate that more reasonable minds have postponed. In his discussion of Wounded Knee, Smith concludes: “Yes, the news media always want the most dramatic story. But I would argue there is an overlay with Indian stories that makes it especially difficult.” And we might be about to find out how difficult it really is.

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2018 at 8:44 am

The chosen ones

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In his recent New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Osnos quotes one of the Facebook founder’s close friends: “I think Mark has always seen himself as a man of history, someone who is destined to be great, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term.” Zuckerberg feels “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen,” and in his case, it happened to be correct. Yet this tells us almost nothing abut Zuckerberg himself, because I can safely say that most other undergraduates at Harvard feel the same way. A writer for The Simpsons once claimed that the show had so many presidential jokes—like the one about Grover Cleveland spanking Grandpa “on two non-consecutive occasions”—because most of the writers secretly once thought that they would be president themselves, and he had a point. It’s very hard to do anything interesting in life without the certainty that you’re somehow one of the chosen ones, even if your estimation of yourself turns out to be wildly off the mark. (When I was in my twenties, my favorite point of comparison was Napoleon, while Zuckerberg seems to be more fond of Augustus: “You have all these good and bad and complex figures. I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating. Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.”) This kind of conviction is necessary for success, although hardly sufficient. The first human beings to walk on Mars may have already been born. Deep down, they know it, and this knowledge will determine their decisions for the rest of their lives. Of course, thousands of others “know” it, too. And just a few of them will turn out to be right.

One of my persistent themes on this blog is how we tend to confuse talent with luck, or, more generally, to underestimate the role that chance plays in success or failure. I never tire of quoting the economist Daniel Kahneman, who in Thinking Fast and Slow shares what he calls his favorite equation:

Success = Talent + Luck
Great Success = A little more talent + A lot of luck

The truth of this statement seems incontestable. Yet we’re all reluctant to acknowledge its power in our own lives, and this tendency only increases as the roles played by luck and privilege assume a greater importance. This week has been bracketed by news stories about two men who embody this attitude at its most extreme. On the one hand, you have Brett Kavanaugh, a Yale legacy student who seems unable to recognize that his drinking and his professional success weren’t mutually exclusive, but closer to the opposite. He occupied a cultural and social stratum that gave him the chance to screw up repeatedly without lasting consequences, and we’re about to learn how far that privilege truly extends. On the other hand, you have yesterday’s New York Times exposé of Donald Trump, who took hundreds of millions of dollars from his father’s real estate empire—often in the form of bailouts for his own failed investments—while constantly describing himself as a self-made billionaire. This is hardly surprising, but it’s still striking to see the extent to which Fred Trump played along with his son’s story. He understood the value of that myth.

This gets at an important point about privilege, no matter which form it takes. We have a way of visualizing these matters in spatial terms—”upper class,” “lower class,” “class pyramid,” “rising,” “falling,” or “stratum” in the sense that I used it above. But true privilege isn’t spatial, but temporal. It unfolds over time, by giving its beneficiaries more opportunities to fail and recover, when those living at the edge might not be able to come back from the slightest misstep. We like to say that a privileged person is someone who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple, but it’s more like being granted unlimited turns at bat. Kavanaugh provides a vivid reminder, in case we needed one, that a man who fits a certain profile has the freedom to make all kinds of mistakes, the smallest of which would be fatal for someone who didn’t look like he did. And this doesn’t just apply to drunken misbehavior, criminal or otherwise, but even to the legitimate failures that are necessary for the vast majority of us to achieve real success. When you come from the right background, it’s easier to survive for long enough to benefit from the effects of luck, which influences the way that we talk about failure itself. Silicon Valley speaks of “failing faster,” which only makes sense when the price of failure is humiliation or the loss of investment capital, not falling permanently out of the middle class. And as I’ve noted before, Pixar’s creative philosophy, which Andrew Stanton described as a process in which “the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them,” is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts at the top, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted.

This may all come across as unbelievably depressing, but there’s a silver lining, and it took me years to figure it out. The odds of succeeding in any creative field—which includes nearly everything in which the standard career path isn’t clearly marked—are minuscule. Few who try will ever make it, even if they have “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen.” This isn’t due to a lack of drive or talent, but of time and second chances. When you combine the absence of any straightforward instructions with the crucial role played by luck, you get a process in which repeated failure over a long period is almost inevitable. Those who drop out don’t suffer from weak nerves, but from the fact that they’ve used up all of their extra lives. Privilege allows you to stay in the game for long enough for the odds to turn in your favor, and if you’ve got it, you may as well use it. (An Ivy League education doesn’t guarantee success, but it drastically increases your ability to stick around in the middle class in the meantime.) In its absence, you can find strategies of minimizing risk in small ways while increasing it on the highest levels, which just another word for becoming a bohemian. And the big takeaway here is that since the probability of success is already so low, you may as well do exactly what you want. It can be tempting to tailor your work to the market, reasoning that it will increase your chances ever so slightly, but in reality, the difference is infinitesimal. An objective observer would conclude that you’re not going to make it either way, and even if you do, it will take about the same amount of time to succeed by selling out as it would by staying true to yourself. You should still do everything that you can to make the odds more favorable, but if you’re probably going to fail anyway, you might as well do it on your own terms. And that’s the only choice that matters.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2018 at 8:59 am

The flat earth society

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In his indispensable book Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster draws a famous distinction between flat and round characters in fiction. This classification has been beaten to death in countless high school literature classes, so it can be bracing to revisit his original language:

In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round…One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.

This kind of insight from a professional novelist is cold, hard cash, and it reminds us that a round character isn’t necessarily better than a flat one. “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round,” Forster says, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I frequently get more enjoyment from stories populated by vivid flat characters than by the indistinguishable round ones of so much modernist realism.

Yet there’s an even deeper point to be made here, which is that flatness may actually be closer to how we think about the people around us, or even about ourselves. We can start with Forster’s observation that flat characters are often more memorable than round ones: “They remain in [the reader’s] mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances; they moved through circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality, and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.” And I’d argue that we also remember flat characters more clearly because they partake of the ways in which we see the supporting players in our own lives. When we think of neighbors, coworkers, and other casual acquaintances, we’re likely to associate them with one or two obvious qualities, if we even manage to have a distinct impression of them at all. It’s only the ones we know best—our families, lovers and closest friends—that we can grasp with the nuance with which we view the roundest characters in fiction. And this can even extend to our own motivations. It’s hard for us to integrate all aspects of our past and personality at once, except when it takes the form of instinct. Most of our actions are intuitive or habitual, and when we need to consciously pay attention, it’s easier to emphasize one part of our identity at a time. We can switch between roles multiple times each day, or we can play a single part for years. It’s an adaptive strategy that makes it easier for us to act and make decisions. We’re only one thing at a time because that’s all we can keep in our heads at once, and the other sides of ourselves have a way of falling into line.

I started thinking about this after reading an article by Perry Bacon, Jr. on FiveThirtyEight on how Americans seem to be shifting other aspects of their identity—like religion or ethnicity—to fit their political affiliations. This conclusion is based on a paper by the political scientist Patrick Egan, who analyzed a series of surveys that were given to the same group of respondents over time. He found that what we tend to see as relatively fixed demographic information can actually be quite fluid, and that these changes are strongly correlated with the political labels that we embrace. As Bacon sums up the results:

Liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to start identifying as Latino or saying that their ancestry was African, Asian or Hispanic.

Conservative Republicans were much more likely than liberal Democrats to become born-again Christians and to stop identifying as non-religious; liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to leave religion and stop describing themselves as born-again.

Conservative Republicans were more likely than liberal Democrats to stop describing themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual; liberal-leaning Democrats were more likely to start identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Bacon concludes: “Increasingly, the political party you belong to represents a big part of your identity and is not just a reflection of your political views. It may even be your most important identity.” And this strikes me as only a specific case of the way in which we flatten ourselves out to make our inner lives more manageable. We pick and choose what else we emphasize to better fit with the overall story that we’re telling. It’s just more obvious these days.

And while this might seem like a stretch, I can’t resist drawing a comparison between our two most recent presidents. Whatever else you might think of Obama, he was undeniably complicated, with a personality shaped by a vast network of pressures and expectations. From a literary standpoint, he was a round character. Trump, by contrast, can seem ridiculously flat. Nearly everything that he does can be adequately explained by his vanity, or his desire to project weakness as strength, and he emerges as a far more sinister version of a flat character like Mr. Pickwick. As Forster writes: “It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something.” And there’s a real mismatch between Trump’s flatness, which is traditionally a comic quality, and the tragic consequences of his actions. Here’s Forster again:

[Flat people] are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying “Revenge!” or “My heart bleeds for humanity!” or whatever his formula is, our hearts sink…It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humor and appropriateness.

Cultures have a way of taking psychological cues from their heads of state. As Forster says of one critical objection to flat characters: “Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” When the president himself is flat—which is another way of saying that he can no longer surprise us on the downside—it has implications both for our literature and for our private lives. The process is already happening. And it shouldn’t astonish us if we all wake up one day to discover that the world is flat.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2018 at 8:39 am

The paper of record

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One of my favorite conventions in suspense fiction is the trope known as Authentication by Newspaper. It’s the moment in a movie, novel, or television show—and sometimes even in reality—when the kidnapper sends a picture of the victim holding a copy of a recent paper, with the date and headline clearly visible, as a form of proof of life. (You can also use it with piles of illicit cash, to prove that you’re ready to send payment.) The idea frequently pops up in such movies as Midnight Run and Mission: Impossible 2, and it also inspired a classic headline from The Onion: “Report: Majority Of Newspapers Now Purchased By Kidnappers To Prove Date.” It all depends on the fact that a newspaper is a datable object that is widely available and impossible to fake in advance, which means that it can be used to definitively establish the earliest possible day in which an event could have taken place. And you can also use the paper to verify a past date in subtler ways. A few weeks ago, Motherboard had a fascinating article on a time-stamping service called Surety, which provides the equivalent of a dated seal for digital documents. To make it impossible to change the date on one of these files, every week, for more than twenty years, Surety has generated a public hash value from its internal client database and published it in the classified ad section of the New York Times. As the company notes: “This makes it impossible for anyone—including Surety—to backdate timestamps or validate electronic records that were not exact copies of the original.”

I was reminded of all this yesterday, after the Times posted an anonymous opinion piece titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The essay, which the paper credits to “a senior official,” describes what amounts to a shadow government within the White House devoted to saving the president—and the rest of the country—from his worst impulses. And while the author may prefer to remain nameless, he certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of humility:

Many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them…It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.

The result, he claims, is “a two-track presidency,” with a group of principled advisors doing their best to counteract Trump’s admiration for autocrats and contempt for international relations: “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.” He even reveals that there was early discussion among cabinet members of using the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove Trump from office, although it was scuttled by concern of precipitating a crisis somehow worse than the one in which we’ve found ourselves.

Not surprisingly, the piece has generated a firestorm of speculation about the author’s identity, both online and in the White House itself, which I won’t bother covering here. What interests me are the writer’s reasons for publishing it in the first place. Over the short term, it can only destabilize an already volatile situation, and everyone involved will suffer for it. This implies that the author has a long game in mind, and it had better be pretty compelling. On Twitter, Nate Silver proposed one popular theory: “It seems like the person’s goal is to get outed and secure a very generous advance on a book deal.” He may be right—although if that’s the case, the plan has quickly gone sideways. Reaction on both sides has been far more critical than positive, with Erik Wemple of the Washington Post perhaps putting it best:

Like most anonymous quotes and tracts, this one is a PR stunt. Mr. Senior Administration Official gets to use the distributive power of the New York Times to recast an entire class of federal appointees. No longer are they enablers of a foolish and capricious president. They are now the country’s most precious and valued patriots. In an appearance on Wednesday afternoon, the president pronounced it all a “gutless” exercise. No argument here.

Or as the political blogger Charles P. Pierce says even more savagely in his response on Esquire: “Just shut up and quit.”

But Wemple’s offhand reference to “the distributive power” of the Times makes me think that the real motive is staring us right in the face. It’s a form of Authentication by Newspaper. Let’s say that you’re a senior official in the Trump administration who knows that time is running out. You’re afraid to openly defy the president, but you also want to benefit—or at least to survive—after the ship goes down. In the aftermath, everyone will be scrambling to position themselves for some kind of future career, even though the events of the last few years have left most of them irrevocably tainted. By the time it falls apart, it will be too late to claim that you were gravely concerned. But the solution is a stroke of genius. You plant an anonymous piece in the Times, like the founders of Surety publishing its hash value in the classified ads, except that your platform is vastly more prominent. And you place it there precisely so that you can point to it in the future. After Trump is no longer a threat, you can reveal yourself, with full corroboration from the paper of record, to show that you had the best interests of the country in mind all along. You were one of the good ones. The datestamp is right there. That’s your endgame, no matter how much pain it causes in the meantime. It’s brilliant. But it may not work. As nearly everyone has realized by now, the fact that a “steady state” of conservatives is working to minimize the damage of a Trump presidency to achieve “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more” is a scandal in itself. This isn’t proof of life. It’s the opposite.

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2018 at 8:59 am

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

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Note: My article “The Campbell Machine,” which describes one of the strangest episodes in the history of Astounding Science Fiction, is now available online and in the July/August issue of Analog. To celebrate its publication, I’m republishing a series about an equally curious point of intersection between science fiction and the paranormal. This post combines two pieces that originally appeared, in substantially different form, on February 17 and December 6, 2017.

Last year, an excellent profile in The Atlantic by McKay Coppins attempted to answer a question that is both simpler and more complicated than it might initially seem—namely how a devout Christian like Mike Pence can justify hitching his career to the rise of a man whose life makes a mockery of the ideals that most evangelicals claim to value. You could cynically assume that Pence, like so many others, has coldly calculated that Trump’s support on a few key issues, like abortion, outweighs literally everything else that he could say or do, and you might be right. But Pence also seems to sincerely believe that he’s an instrument of divine will, a conviction that dates back at least to his successful campaign for the House of Representatives. Coppins writes:

By the time a congressional seat opened up ahead of the 2000 election, Pence was a minor Indiana celebrity and state Republicans were urging him to run. In the summer of 1999, as he was mulling the decision, he took his family on a trip to Colorado. One day while horseback riding in the mountains, he and Karen looked heavenward and saw two red-tailed hawks soaring over them. They took it as a sign, Karen recalled years later: Pence would run again, but this time there would be “no flapping.” He would glide to victory.

For obvious reasons, this anecdote caught my eye, but this version leaves out a number of details. As far as I can tell, it first appears in a profile that ran in Roll Call back in 2010. The article observes that Pence keeps a plaque on his desk that reads “No Flapping,” and it situates the incident, curiously, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, not in Colorado:

“We were trying to make a decision as a family about whether to sell our house, move back home and make another run for Congress, and we saw these two red-tailed hawks coming up from the valley floor,” Pence says. He adds that the birds weren’t flapping their wings at all; instead, they were gliding through the air. As they watched the hawks, Pence’s wife told him she was onboard with a third run. “I said, ‘If we do it, we need to do it like those hawks. We just need to spread our wings and let God lift us up where he wants to take us,’” Pence remembers. “And my wife looked at me and said, ‘That’ll be how we do it, no flapping.’ So I keep that on my desk to remember every time my wings get sore, stop flapping.”

Neither article mentions it, but I’m reasonably sure that Pence was thinking of the verse in the Book of Job, which he undoubtedly knows well, that marks the only significant appearance of a hawk in the Bible: “Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?” As one scholarly commentary notes, with my italics added: “Aside from calling attention to the miraculous flight, this might refer to migration, or to the wonderful soaring exhibitions of these birds.”

So what does this have to do with the other hawks that I’ve been discussing here this week? In each case, it involves looking at the world—or at a work of literature or scripture—and extracting a meaning that can be applied to the present moment. It’s literally a form of augury, which originally referred to a form of divination based on the flight of birds. In my handy Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, we read of its use in Rome:

The natural region to look to for signs of the will of Jupiter was the sky, where lightning and the flight of birds seemed directed by him as counsel to men. The latter, however, was the more difficult of interpretation, and upon it, therefore, mainly hinged the system of divination with which the augurs were occupied…[This included] signs from birds (signa ex avibus), with reference to the direction of their flight, and also to their singing, or uttering other sounds. To the first class, called alites, belonged the eagle and the vulture; to the second, called oscines, the owl, the crow and the raven. The mere appearance of certain birds indicated good or ill luck, while others had a reference only to definite persons or events. In matters of ordinary life on which divine counsel was prayed for, it was usual to have recourse to this form of divination.

In reality, as the risk consultant John C. Hulsman has recently observed of the Priestess of Apollo at Delphi, the augurs were meant to provide justification or counsel on matters of policy. As Cicero, who was an augur himself, wrote in De Divinatione: “I think that, although in the beginning augural law was established from a belief in divination, yet later it was maintained and preserved from considerations of political expediency.”

The flight or appearance of birds in the sky amounts to a source of statistically random noise, and it’s just as useful for divination as similar expedients are today for cryptography. And you don’t even need to look at the sky to get the noise that you need. As I’ve noted here before, you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and varied corpus of facts. Sometimes, as in the case of the hawks that I’ve been tracking in science fiction, it’s little more than an amusing game, but it can also assume more troubling forms. In the social sciences, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their occurrences, and publishing a paper about the result. And in politics, whether out of unscrupulousness or expediency, it can be easy to find omens that justify the actions that we’ve already decided to take. It’s easy to make fun of Mike Pence for drawing meaning from two hawks in North Dakota, but it’s really no stranger than trying to make a case for this administration’s policy of family separation by selectively citing the Bible. (Incidentally, Uri Geller, who is still around, predicted last year that Donald Trump would win the presidential election, based primarily on the fact that Trump’s name contains eleven letters. Geller has a lot to say about the number eleven, which, if you squint just right, looks a bit like two hawks perched side by side, their heads in profile.) When I think of Pence’s hawks, I’m reminded of the rest of that passage from Job: “Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.” But I also recall the bird of prey in a poem that is quoted more these days than ever: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” And a few lines later, Yeats evokes the sphinx, like an Egyptian god, slouching toward Bethlehem, “moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.”

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Written by nevalalee

June 20, 2018 at 8:03 am

Bonfire of the vanities

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A while back, Michael Wolff, the journalist and controversial author of Fire and Fury, observed of a certain presidential candidate in an article for Vanity Fair:

Bill Clinton’s sexual life…is about shame and need, whereas his seems to be about an entirely different conception of marriage and family. It’s a resistance to modern marriage—to the man-woman parity thing. He’s unreconstructed, and proudly so. He’s shameless. There’s no apology about him doing what he wants to do…[He arguably] is the most anti-family-values candidate in the race (this or any other). And yet, in some sense—which could be playing well with the right wing—what he may be doing is going to the deeper meaning of family values, which is about male prerogative, an older, stubborn, my-way-or-the-highway, when-men-were-men, don’t-tread-on-me kind of thing…He has always been surrounded by concentric and sometimes intersecting circles of reasonable and professional people and greater and lesser inappropriate types…It is, however…the inappropriate ones that dominate his mind share, staffers who have tended him so long and enabled him so well…that they are, in their fashion, crazy, too.

It was the summer of 2007, and Wolff was writing about Rudy Giuliani. (I’ve slightly edited the text above to replace personal names with pronouns.) At the time, Giuliani seemed to have a genuine shot at becoming the Republican candidate for president, which only points to how much time as passed—and also, sadly, to the ways in which we’ve come full circle.

In the early days of the Trump administration, one of the few silver linings was that we seemed to be seeing less of Giuliani than I had once feared. For reasons of my own, though, I decided last year to read a very interesting book titled The Campaign, by Evan J. Mandery, which recounts his experiences as the research director for Ruth Messinger’s doomed campaign for mayor of New York in 1997. As a result, I ended up thinking more about Giuliani than I might have liked, and I was particularly struck by a story that I either had forgotten or had never heard. Mandery’s book is structured as a diary, and in an entry from early August, he writes:

On an otherwise sleepy Sunday, we’re awakened by the news that Vanity Fair will publish an article this Wednesday (we have an advance copy) verifying that Giuliani has been having an extramarital affair with his communications director, Cristyne Lategano, and that he has bullied the press into suppressing the story…According to the article’s author, [Jennet] Conant, Lategano “openly idolizes Giuliani,” which generally helps one survive at City Hall.

I haven’t read the original article, which doesn’t seem to be available online, and it’s worth noting that both Giuliani and Lategano have steadfastly denied the allegations. In 2000, however, Giuliani’s wife, Donna Hanover, alluded to the rumors at a news conference in which she announced their separation: “For several years, it was difficult to participate in Rudy’s public life because of his relationship with one staff member.” And her spokeswoman later confirmed that Hanover was referring to Lategano.

But the alleged affair itself was less interesting than the responses that it inspired, both from Giulani’s team and from the media. According to Mandery, the Messinger campaign prudently declined to get involved, but a war of words broke out in New York. Local reporters pushed back against the article’s insinuation that they had neglected to pursue the story, with the Daily News writing in an editorial: “Adultery is a serious charge, and to move it from rumor to print requires real proof, which Vanity Fair apparently doesn’t have.” As for the mayor’s people, Mandery recalls:

Rather than attack the truth of the charges directly, the Giuliani team is attacking them indirectly by questioning Vanity Fair’s journalistic methods. Deputy Mayor Randy Levine faults the story for replying exclusively on unnamed sources. “It’s the worst kind of scurrilous journalism,” he said, “based on anonymous sources and hearsay.” “Where are the sources?” he asks…Lategano says, “Allegations by unnamed sources are not true, and there is no need to comment on malicious works of fiction.”

As Trump put it last year: “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names…it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers.” And when a reporter pressed him about his response to the rumors, Giuliani responded in a fashion that Trump might have admired: “That’s a really cheap question.”

And then, remarkably, it all sort of went away. Lategano remained on the payroll, Giuliani handily won the election, and everyone forgot about it—particularly after Giuliani left Hanover for another woman, Judith Nathan, with whom he had evidently had an affair. Last month, after fifteen years of marriage, Nathan filed for divorce. Two weeks later, Giuliani announced that he was joining Trump’s legal team. I have less insight into his inner life than I do for just about anyone else on the planet, but it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t feel the parallels between the president and himself, and that those resonances don’t shed some light on some of his actions in recent days. (Speaking of the Stormy Daniels case, Giuliani said earlier this week: “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton?” It was widely seen as an inexplicable statement that only made matters worse, but deep down, he might have just been thinking of the Lategano story, which broke in the middle of his own reelection campaign.) If Trump and Giuliani seem to be operating by their own playbook, it might be because they both know from experience how quickly such stories can fade in the fire and fury of a tumultuous public life. But things can change. Back in 1997, the journalist Michael Tomasky criticized the Vanity Fair article in New York Magazine, and he wondered aloud about what might be said in its defense:

First, that if the mayor’s marriage is on the rocks, it’s news. Sure, of a sort: he’s a public figure. Plug in George Steinbrenner or Donald Trump or Brad Pitt for Giuliani, and the papers run with it. Yes. But nobody’s going to wag a sanctimonious finger at Steinbrenner, [and] no editorialist is going to argue that the public may suffer from Trump’s infidelity.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2018 at 8:58 am

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