Barry’s Blog # 235: Normalizing Trump, Part Four of Four

Some very fine people on both sides. – D. Trump

The Parkland, Florida shootings have kindled a long-awaited national movement for gun control. USA Today asked: “What has been so different from all the other mass shootings over the years?” That phrase – all the other mass shootings – indicates another kind of normalization. But many Black, Red and Brown Americans have asked whether it took a massacre of primarily white students to promote the issue to permanent awareness. Violence perpetrated by agents of the State against people of color, they point out, is hundreds of years old. Enter any room with several African Americans, mention this new normal and watch them role their eyeballs.

Lately we’ve seen countless attempts to understand Trump supporters (those who first normalized him) as being motivated primarily by economic insecurity. There’s plenty of evidence, however, that the real issue, as always, was and is race. These may be honest attempts to see things from all angles. But they are subtle indications of white privilege, and they slide easily into more false equivalencies, yet another way in which the gatekeepers do their normalization work. Hsu writes:

…in the rush to be radically empathetic, and reckon with another’s disaffection, a different kind of normalization occurs: We validate an identity politics that is often rooted in denying other people’s right to the same…What we think of as normal shapes our field of vision; it tells a story of the world and its possibilities. Racism, sexism, and the other hatreds and phobias lately on display didn’t become normalized this year. They’ve always been normal—for some of us.

As I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book,

Freedom became a holy term that meant all things to all people. Liberty (from a Roman epithet for Dionysus, Liber) implies release – the return of the repressed – and liberation, in both its Marxist and Buddhist meanings. Americans struggled for a while with the difference between positive liberty (the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential), and negative liberty (freedom from restraint, what one didn’t have to do). Eventually, the two forms of liberty birthed a monster: freedom became entitlement to do what one wants, regardless of the needs of the community, the power to achieve it and the privilege to take liberties with others (“to liberate” is military slang for looting). This interpretation of the pursuit of happiness led eventually to the liberties extended to non-human entities – corporations…The Enlightenment and the commercial revolution offered freedom without responsibility, but it had unexpected results, writes Historian John Hope Franklin. The passionate pursuit of liberty by some resulted in the “destruction of the rights of others to pursue the same ends…the freedom to destroy freedom.”

Domestic normalization of violence exactly mirrors the public’s acceptance of a permanent war economy and permanent war in the Middle East. There is a direct relationship between Parkland and Palestine. Only those of us who are still swimming in the pool of American innocence can think of this as new.

From the point of view of Black, Red and Brown Americans – the Others – the whole subject of the normalization of Trump is a small part of a much larger picture: the denial – by politicians, theologians, journalists, pundits and even psychologists – of our mad culture. But three years after the attacks on 9/11 that changed everything, at least for white people, the Black novelist Walter Mosely wrote, “I have never met an African-American who was surprised by the attack on the World Trade Center.”

Liberals, fondly (and innocently) remembering Barack Obama, have endured a year and a half quite justifiably horrified at the idea of Trump as president. This reaction, however, has birthed several other narratives, including the one claiming that “the Russians” hacked the election. Regardless of whether it is true or not,it has revived the oldest and nastiest of American traditions – the witch hunt, and this time from the “left.”

And it has served to distract millions from several much more influential factors in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. It has normalized her, her incompetent campaign, her warmongering history and (in case you haven’t noticed), the Democratic Party’s increased marginalization of its progressive wing. That marginalization has effectively supported the normalization of international violence. Daniel Lazare writes:

Rarely has war fever in Washington been deeper and more broad-based.  Everybody’s jumping on board – liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, human-rights advocates and neoconservatives. With the 2018 midterms fast approaching, it seems that the only choice voters will have is between a military conflict from column A and one from column B.  Which will it be – the clash with Putin that liberals are talking themselves into? Or the showdown with Iran that (John) Bolton has long advocated?…It’s a choice between cyanide and arsenic. One moment, Trump is threatening “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” while, in the next, the New York Times is demanding that he take off the gloves with regard to the Kremlin. The title of a Times editorial on Friday, March 15, said it all: “Finally, Trump Has Something Bad to Say About Russia.”

Here, gatekeeping is inseparable from normalization. The voice of the calm, reasonable, liberal center is literally taunting a man who is almost universally acknowledged as unstable and insecure about his masculinity with not being aggressive enough against a nuclear power! And yet even the NYT, in a rare 2008 moment of actual objectivity, acknowledged the constant presence of war hawks in the media:

…a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the (G. W. Bush) administration’s wartime performance…members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times (my italics) on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues…

So: why normalize the abnormal? Clearly, many players, from the Kochs and Mercers to Big Finance and Big Pharma to the NRA and the military, were highly motivated to support Trump and have done quite well under his administration. But all of them had prospered under Obama, and they all would have done so under Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps those who had the most to gain, however, were the fundamentalists. Chancey De Vega writes:

In all, it is increasingly clear that with Trump as the figurehead and Vice President Mike Pence as the puppet-master, Christian evangelicals have successfully completed a soft coup in America.

Andrew Whitehead, co-author of a new study of this issue,writes that Trump is

…a tool used by the Christian God to make America Christian again. He can be dispensed with when he is no longer useful.

“Useful tool” is a another euphemism, this time for “useful idiot,” a term first allegedly coined by Lenin, who said in a very different context that capitalist dupes “will sell us the rope with which to hang them.” Such luminaries as Madeleine Albright, former CIA Directors Michael Morell and Michael Hayden and Steve Bannon have all applied the term to Trump. trump-prayers But, to repeat, he has served all their agendas well. Only the fundamentalists would have failed to prosper under Clinton, so they win the prize for now.

But I must remind you that this essay is not really about politics, except to the extent that politics reflects mythology. Ultimately, the reason why the mainstream media have and will continue to normalize Trump is the same as why – eventually – they normalize every president.

Regardless of his documented crimes and personal failings, any man who assumes the presidency automatically takes on the public’s projection of the Sacred King (whether positive or negative), regardless of whether large numbers of us consider their elections to have been fraudulent. At the level of image, metaphor and deep narrative, these men are the nation because they embody it, and the nation must endure.

Why must the nation endure? In a demythologized world in which myth and ritual have declined, they are replaced by consumerism, fundamentalism, substance abuse – and nationalism, in which the individual identifies completely with the state, and is willing to sacrifice its young to its aims. No nation, no sacrifice, no individual.

For the sense of “nation,” with all its white privilege, economic disparities, imperial influence and permanent warfare, to endure, the media must continually try to shore up each new crack in the veneer of American innocence. So rehabilitating really terrible people is another function of the gatekeepers. Rebecca Gordon writes:

George W. Bush is hardly the first disgraced Republican president and war criminal to worm his way back into American esteem. Richard Nixon remains the leader in that department. He spent his later years being celebrated as an elder statesman…few even remembered that his was the first administration in which both the president and vice president resigned.

Ronald Reagan is now remembered by friend and foe alike as a kind, folksy president…When he died in June 2004, the New York Times was typical in the largely fawning obituary it ran, describing him as “the man who restored popular faith in the presidency and the American government.”

We respond to images, metaphors and narratives more than to logic. George Lakoff recalls Reagan being interviewed by that same Lesley Stahl, who was attacking everything he was doing as President.

The next day, she got a call from Reagan’s chief of staff, saying, thank you for this wonderful interview. And she said, but I was attacking Reagan. He said, it didn’t matter, if you turned off the sound he looked wonderful…And this is the same thing with Trump. So if you have a station where people are constantly sitting around analyzing Trump, some attacking him, some defending him, etc., that’s normalization. When you negate something, you’re activating it.

Gordon continues:

Nixon had to wait many years for his rehabilitation and Reagan’s was largely posthumous. At a vigorous 71, however, Bush seems to be slipping effortlessly back onto the national stage only nine years after leaving office essentially in disgrace…Articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Guardian eagerly reported Bush’s implicit criticisms of the president as a hopeful sign of resistance to Trumpism from the “responsible” Republican right.

The New Narrative: If the contrast with Trump now informs us that these men were not so evil, then it becomes easier for the whole nation to sink back into its default mode of innocence. Maybe, we tell ourselves, maybe we aren’t so terrible. And Trump in turn has normalized – given permission to – some of the darkest aspects of human nature to show themselves to us.

In a March 2018 poll, Trump’s popularity increased by seven points, even before he attacked Syria. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, he may be an SOB, but now he’s our SOB.

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Barry’s Blog # 234: Normalizing Trump, Part Three of Four

A Partial Timeline of Normalization

I really did have the feeling that the sense of gravity, and how big the problems are — it was sinking in, washing over him…I think he wanted the public to know that he understood that he had to shift gears and pay attention to the responsibilities now. – Leslie Stahl, 11/13/16

9/23/15: Trump appeared on Stephen Colbert’s very first CBS show. Colbert had cruelly satirized Trump long before the interview and has made a living doing so five nights a week ever since. ewerqfno9ngkksodsejo In taking a time out to engage in friendly banter with him, he was showing us that Trump was not so scary after all. In behaving well, Trump reinforced the new message.

11/07/2015: One year before the election, Trump (not for the first time) hosted Saturday Night Live.  The opening monologue featured him making fun of his own clownish persona as he stood between two Trump impersonators. The implication was that “it’s all in good fun.” More importantly, it reminded everyone that in this new world politics is actually indistinguishable from entertainment.

2/29/16: Cui Bono? Follow the money. Well into the primary season, CBS President Les Moonves predicted that Trump would be receiving literally billions in free publicity and acknowledged a grosser form of normalization:

Moonves called the campaign for president a “circus” full of “bomb throwing,” and he hopes it continues…”Most of the ads are not about issues. They’re sort of like the debates…Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?…The money’s rolling in and this is fun…I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

We can read his statement as an opening into mystery. I use this word deliberately because Moonves was acknowledging one half of something quite extraordinary. He was admitting – bragging, even – that the news media are first and foremost a business. And in selling its consumers – you and I – to its advertisers, it generates huge profits for its stockholders. This is the main reason why it exists.

His statement appeared at the beginning of the primary season, so we have no idea if he knew that Trump would win the nomination, let alone the general election. But from the perspective of this business function of media, and from his fiduciary duty to those stockholders, he certainly would have wanted Trump to win. Indeed, for over two years since his statement, CBS and all other major media (except for Fox of course) have feasted on the 24/7 tweet storms, insults, lies and staff scandals that define this president. It’s been a perfect revenue storm.

But “mystery” requires two sides that invite the possibility of a third. The second half of this mystery is the normalization process that had begun a year before his statement and has continued into the present. Even as the media have been nearly unanimous in demonizing Trump, especially with the unending Russiagate accusations (a new Cold War has also been great for ratings), it has gradually welcomed this nouveau riche poseur into the pale.

Around this time, Alec Baldwin began impersonating Trump on Saturday Night Live.

9/9/16: The second presidential debate. Republicans had begun to back away from Trump after news broke of the “Access Hollywood” tape. But Trump placed women in the audience who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Liberal critics pointed out that this was pure political theater, but many of them had ignored the accusations against Clinton back in the 1990s, and Trump’s people knew this. These complaints, writes Spiliakos, “were furious and self-righteous, but they were also a confession. Liberals didn’t say that Bill Clinton was innocent, whereas Trump was guilty.”

Later, Michael Wolff would write, “A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend download found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not.” Matthew Yglesias described this attitude:

We normalized Trump when we overlooked the accusations against Bill Clinton. We didn’t normalize lying when we elected a president who fibbed about whether his steak company was still in business. We normalized lying when we decided that perjury and obstruction of justice were not high crimes when committed by a popular president.

This writer was being too kind to journalists, who, decades before during the Watergate scandal, had said nothing when Richard Nixon denied being a “crook.”

9/15/16: NPR editorial director Michael Oreskes defended his news organization’s refusal to use the word “liar,” asserting that it constituted “an angry tone” of “editorializing” that “confirms opinions.”

11/08/16: Hillary Clinton’s concession speech could have been a warning about an ugly future and a call to immediate resistance, as such speeches often are in Latin America. Instead, she hoped that Trump would “be a successful president for all Americans” who would defend “the rule of law…We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” To not complain about voter suppression, computer fraud or FBI meddling, to take the high road and be a good loser to one who’d promised to contest the results if he lost, who’d called her a liar, stalked her onstage and threatened to jail her was to normalize, to give the Establishment’s initial stamp of approval.

11/13/16: Five days later, Trump appeared for a TV interview on the venerable 60 Minutes show. Carlos Maza writes that this was

…a master class in normalizing a dangerous demagogue – inviting…Trump to reintroduce himself as a reasonable politician…asking softball questions, fixating on Trump’s personal feelings about becoming president, and repeatedly minimizing Trump’s most dangerous promises as mere campaign talk…at the expense of more serious questions about what he actually plans to do as president…They also came at the expense of questions about ongoing controversies, lawsuits, and conflicts of interest surrounding the president-elect…

3/1/17: Less than an hour after Trump addressed a joint session of Congress and honored the widow of a slain NAVY Seal, Van Jones claimed on CNN that “He became President of the United States in that moment, period.”

I once had great respect for Van Jones. He made his reputation as a social progressive. But he is now a member, even if the most liberal, of the punditry. And, let’s be clear about this, one of the duties of every pundit is to normalize Trump even as he appears to be criticizing him. Hundreds of thousands of innocent liberals watched their main man on TV (outside of Stephen Colbert), a black activist, describe a schmaltzy, nationalistic, made-for-TV ceremony as “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.”

4/6/17: Trump reassured the Deep State, and the media responded in kind. The Syrians had allegedly used chemical weapons on a rebel neighborhood. After viewing the photos of those “beautiful babies, ” Trump directed the military to obliterate an empty Syrian airstrip with some sixty cruise missiles (cost: $1.41 million apiece) and then drop a $300 million bomb on some caves in Afghanistan. Out of 47 major editorials, only one opposed this wasteful and pointless gesture.

MSNBC’s Brian Williams quoted Leonard Cohen and raved about “the beauty of our fearsome armaments.” Fareed Zakaria offered an eloquent and predictable summation of the myth of American innocence:

I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night…for the first time really as president, he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world.

We note that this endorsement of the new guy was strictly in terms of Trump’s willingness to (safely, from a long distance) project the phallic symbols of American machismo, to use force. The draft-dodger was now a real man. Cheap (if not inexpensive) as the act was, Zakaria’s statement was situated in an immensely old tradition of pseudo-initiations through violence.

Twenty-eight years before, the NYT had praised George H. W. Bush for attacking Panama (killing 5,000 people in the process). Bush had succeeded in a “Presidential Rite of Passage” by being willing to shed blood.

And it wasn’t just the US press and the corporate-owned US political establishment, writes C. J. Hopkins:

The rest of the global capitalist empire (Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the European Council, Spain, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, et al.) were quick to cheer Trump’s transformation into a grown-up, moderate, more or less rational, or at least obedient, globalist puppet.

Any lingering fantasies held by either the military-industrial complex or certain anti-war types that Trump might actually be a loose cannon (in the good way) and change any long-term American imperial patterns were put to rest. And it was great for ratings.

– 4/27/17: The Comedy Central network premiered The President Show, which featured Anthony Atamanuik as a bumbling, bragging, lying, insulting, sex-obsessed, incompetent, childlike – and ultimately adorable – Trump.

5/3/17: The NYT employed classic false equivalencies to downplay the public’s growing sense that this man is deranged at best and dangerous at worst. This typical puff piece never mentioned climate change, immigration, deportation, Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, racism, abortion, LGBTs, Yemen or the Mueller investigation and ended with the implication that Trump could still yet become a “near great president.”

– 2/11/18: The Showtime network debuted Our Cartoon President, which joined SNL and The President Show to make a troika of well-meaning satires which inevitably degenerated into situation comedies with Trump as an unlikable yet harmless protagonist.

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All was in good fun, and the TV public, especially teenagers, received the unavoidable message, three times a week, that Trump was not particularly scary, Archie Bunker in a suit.

2/19/18: Two weeks before the ritual of the Gridiron Club dinner, the NYT informed the nation that the new tax overhaul

…now has more supporters than opponents…The growing public support for the law coincides with an eroding Democratic lead when voters are asked which party they would like to see control Congress. And it follows an aggressive effort by Republicans, backed by millions of dollars of advertising from conservative groups, to persuade voters of the law’s benefits…Lori Weigel, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm (said) “That is certainly in part due to consistent communications about the tax plan and the news coverage of prominent companies investing in workers.”… Just under one in five respondents expect to see either a raise or a bonus thanks to the law’s business tax cuts. Early returns from public companies indicate that’s an overshot.

Note the euphemism: “that’s an overshot.” The Times, of course, had been the major source of that “news coverage.” And, characteristically, the article had little to say about how the new law would create truly massive shifts of wealth from the workers to the bosses.

By the way, I encourage you to subscribe to the email newsletter of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, publishers of Counterspin, an outstanding critic of the mainstream media that regularly decodes the normalization process in the NYT and the WaPo. As I write this, their lead article is: Why Are Progressives Cheering Cable News’ Parade of Hawks and Liars?

— 4/12/18: In a cruel and pathetic attempt to distract attention from the Mueller investigation, Trump bombed Syria again to punish it for alleged chemical attacks, as if such weapons were any more lethal or immoral than those that at least seven nations and many rebel groups had been using there for years. He ordered the attacks with the full support of the NYT, Wapo, etc, which had been egging him on all week, even as they continued accusing him of corruption and collusion. They were now situating themselves to his right on foreign policy. The new normal.

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Barry’s Blog # 233: Normalizing Trump, Part Two of Four

“What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model. “They’re people just like me,” said Trump, “…only they’re poor.”  – Fire and Fury

The Gridiron Club Dinner was a ritual of confirmation. It didn’t make Trump acceptable. Normalization was a process that had been gradually unfolding for a year since the election – indeed, since the beginning of the primary season, or possibly for years. It publicly confirmed the end of the process, as the ceremony of awarding a doctoral degree confirms the acceptance of a dissertation that proves one’s expertize in an academic subject. It confirmed the dominance of norms over values.

 Values are consensual social agreements about about right and wrong, just and fair, good and bad. Some values found universally across cultures are compassion, honesty, integrity, love, fair play, friendship, the rule of law, etc. Specifically American values include freedom, equality, opportunity, hard work and competition.

Norms are unwritten codes of conduct, authentic patterns of more-or-less acceptable behavior – how people, especially in groups, actually act. American norms include white supremacy, gun violence, celebrity worship, detachment from politics,  black/white thinking, literalized religion, scapegoating of otherness, segregated housing and blaming the poor for their condition.

In moments of honesty, we may admit that most Americans do much of this, either directly or through passively tolerating such behavior and speech. Edward S. Herman writes:

…doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on “normalization.” This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.”

This is the behavioral expression of the myth of innocence.

Of course you and I don’t act this way. We have values, and our behavior reflects them…And I have a bridge to sell you.

Gatekeepers are the individuals who are selected, or who self-select, to engage in the rituals that confirm and celebrate society’s values and norms. It seems to me that their function is archetypal; that is, such roles are so ancient that they represent a basic aspect of the psyche, both personal and universal.

For many thousands of years (and in some remaining indigenous cultures) this was one of the roles of the village elders, singers and poets. Then, for four thousand years in mass societies, priests and some kings held this role. But with the decline of religion and royal authority and the rise of science in the past 3-400 years, the media (and in the U.S., media-enabled religious figures) have taken on the role of gatekeepers.

On a different level, the United States has a very long history of working class whites who find work as gatekeepers in the streets. This is the genesis of “gun rights” as well as of the police. Others have volunteered for such work, from the Ku Klux Klan in the South and the vigilantes in the West to the Militia and Minutemen who patrol the Mexican border.

But our American media gatekeepers have a particularly important function: to shore up the gaps that regularly appear in the fabric of the myth of American Innocence and remind (or convince) us that we all share the same values and norms, that despite our differences, we all care about the general welfare, that we are all Americans.

They do this in two major ways:

 1 – Marginalizing: defining what’s outside, unacceptable, dangerous – and potentially contagious. My book and most of my essays describe how and why Americans have repeated the stories of the fear of the Other for 400 years, so as to continually define themselves by what they are not. Our gatekeepers often present false equivalences between, for example, Obama “birthers” and scientists who question the official 9/11 or Kennedy assassination narratives. In between, we are told, lie the terms of acceptable debate. For more on these issues, look here, here and here.

2 – Normalizing: defining what’s inside, acceptable, non-controversial and safe. The rest of this essay will describe how the gatekeepers have (reluctantly at first) confirmed Trump’s status.

For gatekeepers of conscience, the imperative to normalize the abnormal creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Jay Rosen acknowledges that most journalists who cover Trump are perfectly aware of these factors:

  1. He isn’t good at anything a president has to do.

  2. He doesn’t know anything about the issues with which he must cope. Nor does this seem to bother him.

  3. He doesn’t care to learn.

  4. He has no views about public policy, just a few brute prejudices.

  5. Nothing he says can be trusted.

  6. His “model” of leadership is the humiliation of others.

I would add that, quite beyond Trump himself, they are also well aware of the sham debates, the softball questions, the unwillingness to follow bogus responses with factual information, the sound-bite time limits of discussion, the range of acceptable debate (from mainstream, loyal Democrats to far-right Republicans), the abject subservience to thugs masquerading as public servants and the patent insincerity, the parade of commentators (here are nineteen of them) who were wrong about Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction” yet who continue to pontificate on TV as experts on foreign policy.

Any child (before he or she is fully socialized) can see that neither the Emperor nor anyone around him has any clothes. But being told, repeatedly, that such people are worthy of our respect, that they are normal – despite what we see and hear – is one of the ways we become crazy.

In this mad time, even telling us that the Emperor is not worthy becomes a form of normalization, at least when “good taste” dictates the use of euphemisms. Journalist Kyle Pope laments:

We continue to spend our days, and our audience’s time, reacting to the president’s bumbling with a level of disbelief and outrage that has boiled over into a stinking froth…Often, the strategy seems to be to simply give Trump the forum in hopes, in hopes that he’ll pay us back by saying something outrageous enough to win us clicks or viewers. If the mission a year ago was to keep Trump from leading us around by the nose, I’m afraid we have failed…Narrative has become a maligned word of late, but we find ourselves today in a news environment where the narratives are established, and the days’ Trump coverage seems largely in service of reinforcing (for the left) or debunking (the right) that narrative. We say this, the president says that, we’re at an impasse.

He has a point. Here’s another one. Over on the left side of the dial, why do Amy Goodman and other Pacifica radio commentators regularly report that Trump or some other reactionary said something and then immediately assault us – repeatedly – with sound clips of him saying that exact same thing? Is this unintentional normalization? And what’s the alternative – not reporting the statement at all?

This isn’t rocket science. The alternative is to report – in the strongest language possible – that the SOB is lying again, period. Again, any child can see this – Trump is a pathological liar, and the media’s reluctance to report this simple truth is equally pathological. Consider the verbal gymnastics that reporters have gone in the past year to avoid using that simple word: “issued a series of escalating and contradictory false claims;” “falsely asserted;” “proved to be inaccurate;” “walks a rhetorical tightrope;” “unfounded statements;” “appeared to backpedal;” “misleading;” “This White House just keeps not telling the truth over and over and over again;” and (my favorite) “undermines veracity.” This phrasing, writes Reed Richardson,

…has become corporate media’s default alternative to directly accusing the powerful of lying. But the journalistic instinct to vary a story’s language also works in favor of the powerful, allowing euphemisms for official lies to multiply throughout coverage. And rarely do these replacements do anything but weaken the indictment against the liar.

On the marginalization side are those writers and activists outside that range who are never allowed to be heard because they are too persuassive. The best example, of course, is Noam Chomsky. In 1969 – yes, almost fifty years ago – William F. Buckley allowed Chomsky onto his TV show for a debate. The Jew Chomsky kicked the ass of the Yale man Buckley, who never allowed that to happen again. Nor did anyone else.

Chomsky went on to become one of the most cited scholars in history and was voted the world’s leading public intellectual in 2005. But that was not enough for mainstream TV. Other gatekeepers have complied: Wikipedia reports that “University departments devoted to history and political science rarely include Chomsky’s work on their syllabuses for undergraduate reading.”

By contrast, consider how Megyn Kelly (on NBC, not Fox) normalized Alex Jones.  415D282E00000578-4602204-image-m-136_1497417021954  It should be more distressing to note that Jon Stewart regularly normalized Bill O’Reilly and other right-wingers simply by interviewing them, joking with them and tossing them the usual softball questions. image O’Reilly often returned the favor, hosting Stewart for more jocularity. Was this the liberal press in action, showing (usually) men with reasonable differences in calm debate, or was it normalizing a racist warmonger and misogynist? Back to Jay Rosen:

It’s not like items 1-6 have been kept secret. Journalists tell us about them all the time. Their code requires that. Simultaneously, however, they are called by their code to respect the voters’ choice, as well as the American presidency, of which they see themselves a vital part, as well as the beat, the job of White House reporting. The two parts of the code are in conflict…If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that. This is “normalization.”

“Americanness is a sponge, not an ethnicity”, writes Hua Hsu:

…normalization is a key part of how it works. It resides in the way that we speak, in the ideas that get refined and reworked and encoded in ordinary words until they seem harmless enough. It’s the ability to fit things into a narrative that flatters our ability to reason.

Finally, for now, Pete Spiliakos writes:

 …we normalized Trump long ago…It would be comforting to think that we had seen some collapse of moral standards and reasoned debate during the last few years. But Trump prospered because too many Americans learned long ago to accept dishonesty, demagogy, and even criminality in their leaders.

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Barry’s Blog # 232: Normalizing Trump, Part One of Four

At some point I’m gonna be so presidential that you people will be so bored…I’ll come back as a presidential person, and instead of 10,000 people, I’ll have about 150 people. And they’ll say: ‘But, boy, he really looks presidential!’ – Donald Trump, spring 2016.

“I’m very excited to come here and ruin your evening in person.” On March 3rd, 2018, over a year after assuming the Presidency – a year, which by any standards was one of the most bizarre in American history – Donald Trump donned white tie and tuxedo and, reported the New York Times,

…joined the very journalists he loves to malign for an evening of humorous — and sometimes uncomfortable — verbal sparring at the 133rd annual Gridiron Club Dinner.

The club is “the Washington embodiment of political correctness.” The audience of 660 included Mike Pence (last year’s headliner), Madeleine Albright, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, most of the Cabinet, six senators, four House members, media executives and military officers.

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10/20/16: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the 71st annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York.

It also included dozens of journalists who make their livings attacking Trump. Each year, the dinner, wrote the Times,

…features speeches, skits and songs performed by the club’s members and invited political guests. But the highlight of the night always comes when the journalists offer the stage to the president for some self-deprecating jokes and good-natured roasting.

Trump joked about Sessions (“I offered Jeff a ride to the event, but he recused himself”), Kushner (“We were late tonight because Jared could not get through security”), Steve Bannon (who “leaked more than the Titanic”) and chaos in the White House (“Who is going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?”). Everyone enjoyed the schtick – and everyone understood that Trump’s appearance was especially meaningful.

Toward the end of his remarks on Saturday, Mr. Trump apologized that he had to be “up early tomorrow morning” to watch “Fox and Friends…This might be the most fun,” he added, “since watching your faces on election night.”

This a ritual that lets off the steam created in the daily battles of partisan politics. It also makes fun of those battles, and in doing so, subtly acknowledges that the people in the room – and there were plenty of Democrats – agree on probably 90 % of the issues, because most of them are rooted in the same social classes, attended the same elite universities and share a common sense of privilege and well-being.

We intuitively understand that the most powerful political and media leaders display their utter confidence when they are willing to made fun of. This was one of the functions of the Jester in medieval courts, and of Carnival tradition. The brief inversion of social roles actually re-enforces the validity of those roles.

But why was Trump’s appearance so significant (and did you notice the NYT’s use of the prefix Mr. before “Trump”)? Prior to that event, the NYT had often seen Trump, according to Michael Wolff, as “aberrant…a figure of ridicule.”

Since Trump had entered politics from the world of business hucksterism, reality TV and – yes – professional wrestling, the media had long seen him as a con man and a joke. During the campaign, however, The Atlantic observed that “ . . . the press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Soon after the election, writes Wolff,

…a theory emerged among Trump’s friends that he was not acting presidential, or, really, in any way taking into account his new status or restraining his behavior…because  he hadn’t taken the leap that others before him had taken. Most presidents arrived in the White House from more or less ordinary political life, and could not help but be awed and reminded of their transformed circumstances by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palacelike servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this would not have been that different from Trump’s former life in Trump Tower…The big deal of being president was not so apparent to him.

Formality and convention—before he became president, almost everybody without high celebrity or a billion dollars called him “Mr. Trump”—are a central part of his identity. Casualness is the enemy of pretense. And his pretense was that the Trump brand stood for power, wealth, arrival.

A year before, the newly arrived – yet obviously insecure – Trump refused to attend this dinner, as well as the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner. It was the first time a president had skipped such events in decades. Despite inheriting great wealth, his decades of constant bragging, tacky taste, reality-show celebrity, Mafia rumors, bankruptcies and nasty business deals had long marked him as nouveau riche. To the Washington and New York aristocracies, he had never been “our kind of people.” And he had not fared well among such company in the past. Indeed, said the Times,

In 2011, when Mr. Obama savaged him at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Mr. Trump appeared to take it badly, and some say his decision to run for president was a result in part of his anger at Mr. Obama for the jokes.

But that had all been then. So yes, this was an opportunity for self-identified representatives of the ruling class to party well, to do a little networking, to congratulate themselves on their increased wealth and, in welcoming Trump, to ratify their authority as gatekeepers. It was a ritual of normalization.

This year – despite the saber rattling; despite the eviscerations of environmental regulations and health care; despite the transfer of billions to the mega-rich; despite the horrific attacks on Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and the disabled; despite empowering right-wing violence; despite all the corrupt cronies nominated to destroy entire federal departments; despite the nasty tweets, the insults, the investigations, the chaos, the scandals, the corruption, the firings; despite the unrelenting attacks on the media (the people in this room!); despite the sleazy adulteries, divorces and lawsuits; despite the preposterous displays of piety before evangelical groups; despite a hundred days at his golf resorts; despite all the petty, juvenile infighting; despite the possibility that he might not even survive his first term; and perhaps most of all, the daily, brazen, pathological, unashamed stench of lies – the gatekeepers were opening the gates, and Trump was confidant enough to enter in triumph, like a Roman Emperor.

After all his promises to the angry white working class that he would drain the swamp and destroy politics as usual, it was now clear to everyone present at this formal dinner that Trump was now an honored member of that same Deep State. d6a3fdfe818d3d430b1c270d52bdcb23Despite the fact that he had no class, he was the New Normal. And, after a year of his presidency it was clear that he, in turn, had normalized (that is, given permission) racist, misogynist and violent behavior that had previously been considered unacceptable.

Next: What is normalization? Why does it matter?

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Barry’s Blog # 231: The Myth of Israeli Innocence, Part Two of Two

The crazy course of the 20th century produced a population of genocide survivors, the truly innocent victims of the Holocaust. In most cases these people could not return to their home countries. Many who attempted to do so suffered further violence and persecution. Without a doubt, the Jews of Eastern Europe required an innovative resolution to a thousand years of scapegoating and massacres.

For history to offer them justice and hope, however, it was necessary to revive the old narrative, the simplistic, Hollywood version popularized by the movie Exodus – and to scapegoat a second group, the indigenous population of Palestine. This required elaborating several myths. The first two were the familiar narratives of Jewish victimization and chosen people which together had always seemed to cancel each other out. Jews were both the winners and losers of history.

The third myth was that of the Promised Land, which we have seen had already been enshrined in American mythology. The fourth is closely related to the third, and is crucial to the Zionist project: the “wandering Jews” who had been expelled from the Holy Land 2,000 years before and had been yearning to return to Eretz Yisrael ever since.

The fifth myth was the idea of “empty land.” As we have seen, it originated in the Mosaic story. However, like any narrative that does not arise organically from people indigenous to the land, it is rife with contradictions, and they relate directly to our American story.

Since neither the Hebrews nor the Europeans found unpopulated lands, the settler colonization project required that they develop rationalizations of how those people did not deserve their lands, the Philistines because they were pagan idolaters and the Native Americans because they did not practice private land ownership. Both groups were savages, barbarians, barely human. They were, in fact, dangerous because they might infect the innocent newcomers with their evil ways.

If the land was empty of anyone of value, it was easy to slide into the next fiction: perhaps there really were no people there at all. Or if they were there, human progress demanded that they be removed. Once the invaders internalized these notions, anything – including genocide – was possible, acceptable, inevitable and eventually logical.

Both groups of invaders could now perceive the indigenous people as lacking merit. In Protestant terms, they were guilty of original sin and therefore deserving to be mistreated. And they could resolve the contradiction of victim/chosen by seeing themselves as the innocent targets of unprovoked military attack (otherwise known as popular resistance), yet selected by God to multiply and be fruitful. In Protestant terms, they were among the elect.

Here, the American and Israeli myths almost seem to merge on the question of “A land without people for a people without land.”

This was a phrase first used in 1843 by the Christian Restorationist clergyman Alexander Keith, a Scott. And he had a distinct agenda. American evangelists soon used it it in their campaigns to return the Jews to the Holy Land – to hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. But it certainly was no surprise that Americans would be so excited about this idea; it was a fundamental aspect of their own mythology, which itself had been born in Old Testament language. All they had to do was substitute the phrase “deserving Jews” for “deserving Christians.” In a further political irony, their ideology continues to motivate millions of American Protestants in their political and financial support of American Mid-East policy.

Ten years later, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, President of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, wrote to Prime Minister Aberdeen that Greater Syria was “a country without a nation” in need of “a nation without a country…Is there such a thing? To be sure there is, the ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews!”

Some intellectuals argued that the phrase meant “a people” – a self-determined national entity. If the Holy Land was populated by “Ottomans” or “Arabs” whose loyalties were primarily to Islam or some pan-Arabic identity, then it was open to be inhabited by a more deserving “people.” See Diana Muir’s essay  to see how complex this debate has actually been.

In 1878 some 460,000 people resided in Palestine, three percent of whom were Jewish. The first Zionist settlers arrived four years later, and they soon learned that Palestine was not “empty.” 3263562875_b38d496f42_b They reported back to their colleagues in Europe: “The bride is beautiful, but married to another man.”

Granted, people were living there, quite a lot of them in fact. However, as in the 16th century American myth, the Zionists used their own standards to determine that the inhabitants (Muslims and many Christians) were not making full and efficient utilization of the land. Once again, we see a crudely drawn distinction between European settler colonialism, motivated by the highest and most sacred of ideals, and lazy, undeserving (and eventually violent) “others,” barely surviving because they had no work ethic.

But we are not talking about the pronouncements of a few academics. We’re talking about the growth and acceptance of a myth, even if this was a new one. And the horrors of World War Two invested it with further meaning. By the mid-1950s, most American children were learning that the early Jewish settlers – the Kibbutzniks – had found a useless, baking desert and turned it into an agricultural Eden of well-tended farms and orchards. Although the popular narrative never mentioned that most of these people were socialists, their image still fit perfectly into the mythic narrative. However, Pappe argues that Palestine

…was not a desert waiting to come into bloom; it was a pastoral country on the verge of entering the 20th century as a modern society, with all the benefits and ills of such a transformation.

Zionism was a settler colonial movement, similar to the movements of Europeans who had colonized the two Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand…The problem was that the new ‘homelands’ were already inhabited by other people. In response, the settler communities argued that the new land was theirs by divine or moral right, even if, in cases other than Zionism, they did not claim to have lived there thousands of years ago. In many cases, the accepted method for overcoming such obstacles was the genocide of the indigenous locals.

Historians are gatekeepers of the cultural consensus, and few are truly objective. In this case, it’s clear that many are conflicted about what happened and who was to blame over the next sixty years. Depending on their personal agendas, they blame the Jews, the Arabs or the British. But one of the key players, Major-General Orde Charles Wingate, an admitted Christian restorationist, trained and led the “special night squads” of Jewish guerillas (or death squads, from the Arab perspective) that engaged in collective punishment of Palestinian villages. Jewish leaders such as Zvi Brenner and Moshe Dayan claimed that Wingate had “taught us everything we know.”

And most historians agree that in 1947-1949 the Israeli army perpetrated over thirty massacres, destroyed over 530 Palestinian towns a2065d57b7e1ef04eb5fe8704b7fb4c2--arab-world-palestine and forcibly expelled some 750,000 Palestinians (whose numbers have since grown to over seven million refugees).
American Professor Norman Finkelstein states:

According to the former director of the Israeli army archives, ‘in almost every village occupied by us during the War…acts were committed which are defined as war crimes, such as murders, massacres, and rapes’…Uri Milstein, the authoritative Israeli military historian of the 1948 war, goes one step further, maintaining that ‘every skirmish ended in a massacre of Arabs.’

From the first Zionist settlements in the 1880s (when the U.S. Army was completing its forced removal of the Native Americans to concentration camps, otherwise known as “reservations) all the way through to the current (U.S.- subsidized) impasse, we have the same historic contradiction: In a place where the land was already occupied, Nakba-AFP the restoration and prosperity of one population meant the violent exile of another one, or what we now refer to as “ethnic cleansing.”

(A historical side note: I have heard that some descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 still hold the keys images-1 to their former front doors, just as many Palestinians hold the keys to their pre-1948 homes.)

In one case – the ancient city of Lydda – they forced between 50,000 and 70,000 Palestinians out into the desert. The world has erased the memory of this event, but the Palestinians remember it as the Lydda Death March.  Think “Trail of Tears.”

But why was it so easy to convince the world, and especially Americans, that, despite the Holocaust, these people should not remain in the land of their ancestors? Because this story was sold to a willing public as merely a variant of our American origin myth.

Even so, it was necessary – the myth required it – to so demonize the Palestinians as to imply that they were somehow less than human, as countless Israeli politicians have implied:

There was no such thing as Palestinians; they never existed. – Golda Meir

The Palestinians are like crocodiles… – Ehud Barak

(The Palestinians are) beasts walking on two legs. – Menahim Begin

But another Israeli leader, David Ben Gurion, understood the reality behind the myth quite well, and felt secure enough (due to American support) to spell it out:

If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?

Myths, especially origin myths, are messy. They are not logical or consistent. And they borrow liberally from each other, as I have shown. But it gets even messier in this case. Consider how these iconic phrases of the 20th century flow almost interchangeably into each other in our imagination: Indian reservations. Palestinian refugee camps. Vietnamese strategic hamlets. Ghetto. In each case, a population is segregated from the dominant society, and always (originally a Christian conceit) for their own good. Eventually that population becomes less than human.

And don’t forget ethnic cleansing and concentration camps. Consider that Adolf Hitler, architect of the phrase “master race,” openly admitted that he learned his genocidal ideas from studying American history:

…twenty-seven (American) states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers. The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans. The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s…Meanwhile, in Mein Kampf, Hitler praised American eugenic ideology, and in the 1930s, Germany copied American racial and sterilization laws. Years later, at the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis would quote Holmes’s words in their own defense. (from my book, Chapter Eight).

Master race? Consider Menachem Begin again:

Our race is the Master Race…We are as different from the inferior races as they are from insects. In fact, compared to our race, other races are beasts and animals, cattle at best…human excrement. Our destiny is to rule over the inferior races. Our earthly kingdom will be ruled by our leader with a rod of iron. The masses will lick our feet and serve us as our slaves.

The idea of ethnic cleansing is so indefensible, so morally repulsive, so evocative of what Germany had done to these same Jews, that it requires still more mythologizing. In this case, it requires the common narrative that the Palestinians chose to leave. Pappe, however, reveals that there has always been a master plan for the expulsion on the Palestinians. The Israeli government still insists that Palestinians – even those beleaguered residents of Lydda – became refugees because their leaders told them to leave. But

…there was no such call—it is a myth created by the Israeli foreign ministry…What is clear is that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians can in no way be justified as a ‘punishment’ for their rejecting a U.N. peace plan that was devised without any consultation with the Palestinians themselves.

(Here, Pappe is using the common meaning of myth as “untrue.” But we need to remember that the “myths” we are talking about are the stories that people tell themselves about other people but which are in fact stories about themselves.)

In order to justify these crimes, it has been necessary to demonize them, just as Americans demonized the “wild Indians,” or to forget them entirely, as Israel attempts to do with eb415108ce0947dde85e017e47267c2f55f893be its barrier wall in the West Bank.

It has been easy to do this partially because the Jews really had been victimized, but also because the Western World in general and the American public in particular have long been steeped in mythic narratives that told only the colonizers’ versions of history. And this has resulted in two generations of liberal and even leftist Americans (“PEP” – “Progressive Except for Palestine”) who regularly criticize American foreign policy crimes yet innocently defend those same crimes when Israel perpetrates them.

The common justification is that Jews must have a place where they can be safe. There’s nothing wrong with that statement, unless we remember how it implies the idea of a divinely Promised Land, and the fact that only Antarctica has no indigenous people.

So this notion requires the pseudo-innocence that is generated in the context of literalized religion and black-and-white, “us-or-them” thinking. This form of innocence – undiluted goodness and purity – requires an equally undiluted evil Other to be measured against, so that, once again, “we” can know who we are because we are not them. As the title tune to Exodus proclaims, This land is mine. God gave this land to me. The only other option, the honest one, would be: we know who we are because we are the ones who stole this land.

So in order to construct a mythology that (at best) ignored and (and worst) terrorized the Palestinians, it was necessary to expand and elaborate the narrative of Jewish victimization. The story, of course, is a thousand years old. But it took its real energy from twenty years of the twentieth century – the Holocaust and American Westerns – and from the relentless media propaganda that followed.

Of course Palestinians have committed terrible atrocities. But there simply is no equivalency between their actions and the long-term, collective punishment in Gaza and the West Bank, or in the mass deportations of 1948.

The Israeli stance was not always so monolithic. But as a million citizens (many of them fed up with the nation’s contradictions) have emigrated in the past twenty years and right-wing fundamentalists have proliferated, the haters and their myths have won out. Uri Avnery, the Israeli writer and peace activist, writes that the Israeli army is filled with “teenagers who are indoctrinated from the age of three in the spirit of Jewish victimhood and superiority.”

Victimhood and superiority, of course, are contradictory terms that can only be resolved by recourse to mythic thinking.

Now, the longest colonial occupation in modern history is impossible without the $8 billion in unconditional U.S. aid that flows annually to Israel. Yet despite having the fourth largest army in the world,   and despite the obscene disparity of casualties between Israelis and Palestinians, most Israelis believe their own propaganda. They are racist, violent and fascist, and they are deathly afraid of the Other.

This is why the political expression of this myth is so hard to disentangle. We all remain stuck in this endlessly repeating tragedy not for the lack of political solutions. Israel’s economy is absolutely dependent on American aid. Any American president – at any single moment in the last fifty years – could have immediately brought peace to Israel/Palestine by simply threatening to plug this financial pipeline.

But this will never happen until American public opinion (perhaps the politicians will follow) finally rejects the necessity of an American empire and the corollary that Israel is its indispensible surrogate.

And if you are not aware of the extent to which both the political class and the religious leadership are willing to go to maintain what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent,” consider that 36 states are debating or have already enacted anti-BDS legislation.

We’re stuck because we can’t perceive the myths that invisibly determine our responses to history. And when we can’t identify the emotional ties generated by mythic narratives, we can’t perceive how politicians manipulate us. A fundamental aspect of this ongoing tragedy is that the Israeli myth of innocence is so bound up with our own, and with our own imperial project. No American politician on the national stage – not Bernie Sanders, not Elizabeth Warren – has the courage to challenge this story.

And we must eventually admit – it will have to begin here – that one of the most appealing – and appalling – of those narratives took its modern appearance in this land in the seventeenth century. We will have to admit that this crazy idea of racial purity generated a holocaust in the twentieth century, and that the victims of Nazism have continued to apply that same ideology in Palestine, making themselves into God’s chosen race and the Palestinians into a disposable population. Or perhaps not completely disposable. Consider the stereotyped image of African-Americans in our own myth. Any society built upon lies needs to keep at least some of the evil Others in constant view as potential scapegoats and to remind the good citizens of just how good they are.

As long as we insist on our own purity and innocence, we must have an Other to project our darkness upon. And the longer we require the Other to do this, to dwell in our own underworld, the angrier he/she will get. So we apply one of the basic insights of Depth Psychology to politics. The Other who is actually ourselves, but whom we refuse to acknowledge, will turn deadly, because he will feel like he has nothing to lose.

Update: This essay dates from January 2013. I wrote the final sentence in a poetic mode, referring back to the mistreated god of The Bacchae, and toward the simple psychological truths of repression, projection and the inevitable, angry return of the repressed.

Gaza, with two million residents in 141 square miles, is the third most densely populated political unit in the world,   following only Hong Kong and Singapore. Due to the Israeli and Egyptian border closures and the Israeli sea and air blockade, the population is not free to leave or enter, nor allowed to freely import or export goods.

Gaza is a concentration camp, no more, no less. And now, Gaza is running out of water. 

In July of 2014, in the midst of “Operation Protective Edge,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri lamented:

Our backs are to the wall and we have nothing to lose…In Gaza we have nothing, and we have nothing to lose…Let us live in dignity, and you will receive quiet and love in return. 

 After the cease fire, another Hamas leader spoke:

If we don’t witness a change for the good in our lives over the next few weeks, another war will erupt soon…It’s impossible to live this way any longer. We have nothing to lose any more. People hoped that after the war, something would happen. We’d feel change in the offing, we’d finally breathe, but nothing has changed.

Four years later, amid the crazy distractions of the Trump era, most of us have forgotten that Operation Protective Edge killed 2,300 Gazans, including over 500 children, and that Barack Obama immediately replenished the Israelis’ ammunition.

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Barry’s Blog # 230: The Flag and the Hummer – How We Display Ourselves, Part Two of Two

Then came the Hummers (and improbably yet predictably, stretch limousines built out of Hummers), which finally won the status battle, being the largest, heaviest and most wasteful of all, with the bonus factor of having military associations. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq greatly boosted Hummer sales. Many of the Californians who elected the most macho of governors seemed quite proud of the fact that 0422-06 Arnold Schwartzenegger owned seven of them.

American myth is always about race. A Chrysler marketing manager admitted that the industry had designed the whole class of gas-guzzling SUVs to appeal to Americans’ fears of crime and other imagined threats:

SUV buyers want to be able to take on street gangs with their vehicles and run them down.

Another industry researcher and anthropologist observed that consumers understand logically that these vehicles are too high and not built for safety, but that their feelings seem to override their logic:

You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion.

Hummers, writes Colin McAdams, are a civilian version of the U.S. military vehicle known technically as the High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, commonly as the “Humvee:”

Here’s the Hummer (original Model H1) on a city street: a swollen Jeep; an SUV with a bad thyroid and a bloated ego…Pedestrians and other drivers stare relentlessly, mouth their derision, (wondering) …How much steel goes into making these monstrosities; how much gas to make them move…how quickly can they stop? Outside the United States, Hummers are loathed for added reasons. They are the America of cars – a crass, overbearing, imperial presence on the road. They have a menacing wartime mien…My brother drives a Hummer. People spit on it as he goes by. Sometimes they hold their thumb and forefinger close together to suggest he has a small penis…Women, for the most part, are the least approving. Only little boys and a certain type of man will approach and say, “Can I see inside?”

But a Chrysler market researcher explains, “…people are looking for something that offers protection on the outside and comfort on the inside.” The second generation of Hummers, writes McAdams, were to be family vehicles:

The H2 is different. It is still gigantic, but it is built for comfort. It has a smooth suspension, a luxurious interior, can be endlessly accessorized, and celebrates immodesty in a more flamboyant manner. It can reach high speeds on the highway, which the H1 cannot. More women drive it than drive the H1, although most still frown at it. The H2 is too tall for commercial garages. Its fuel consumption is appalling (a fat man’s puff of twelve miles per gallon – and it does not run on diesel, like the H1).

In 2002 Keith Bradsher wrote the definitive expose of the SUV (High and Mighty: SUVs The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way) and asked, “Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles?” He concluded that

They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities. No, that’s not a cynic talking – that’s the auto industry’s own market researchers…

Clearly, many consumers were willing to pay $75,000 (or twice that for the largest Hummers) to symbolize a complex mix of of individualism, power, security, family, machismo, patriotism and freedom. And the auto industry, slap-happy with greed, ignored all signs of impending environmental and financial doom as it remade itself into suppliers of these tanks.

Political freedom appeared to be identical with freedom of the road and freedom, or license, to behave without any concern for the consequences – the freedom of the child in the crib to soil himself, who knows that mother will be there to clean up. At a Hummer rally, writes McAdam, two men traded stories “…about how much people in their neighborhoods hated the sight of them.” The founder of a Hummer owners’ group boasted, apparently without irony, that his vehicle symbolized,

…what we all hold so dearly above all else, the fact (that) we have the freedom of choice, the freedom of happiness, the freedom of adventure and discovery, and the ultimate freedom of expression. Those who deface a Hummer in words or deed deface the American flag and what it stands for.

This sense of freedom as freedom from restraint on the natural enthusiasm of the radical individual is another fundamental aspect of American myth, as I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book:

Freedom became a holy term that meant all things to all people. Liberty (from a Roman epithet for Dionysus, Liber) implies release – the return of the repressed – and liberation, in both its Marxist and Buddhist meanings. Americans struggled for a while with the difference between positive liberty (the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential), and negative liberty (freedom from restraint, what one didn’t have to do). Eventually, the two forms of liberty birthed a monster: freedom became entitlement to do what one wants, regardless of the needs of the community, the power to achieve it, and the privilege to take liberties with others (“to liberate” is military slang for looting). This interpretation of the pursuit of happiness led eventually to the liberties extended to non-human entities – corporations.

(This was) freedom without responsibility, but it had unexpected results, writes Historian John Hope Franklin. The passionate pursuit of liberty by some resulted in the “destruction of the rights of others to pursue the same ends…the freedom to destroy freedom.”

The white, fundamentalist, pickup-driving, emerging base of the Republican Party had been spoon-fed the language of freedom for decades as states rights, anti-tax, anti-Civil Rights, anti-Big Government, anti-East Coast liberal, anti-atheist and anti-abortion (yes, freedom to restrict access to abortion) rhetoric. The GOP, unlike the Democrats, was well versed (and well funded) in this mythological thinking, or, as George Lakoff writes, framing the debate.

A disturbingly large percentage of their target audiences had known quite well, at least since the Nixon years, that this kind of freedom meant We won’t give your hard-earned tax dollars to the Niggers. By the year 2001 was anyone surprised when George W. Bush used “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty” 49 times in his second inaugural address?

A few years later, with elegant and astounding disregard for the lives of the hundreds of soldiers dying to secure Iraq’s oil (do you remember that Operation Iraqi Freedom was originally called Operation Iraqi Liberation until someone in the White House realized the acronym?), the oaf at the Hummer rally proudly expressed the philosophy of those Americans who have no problem equating patriotism, freedom, status and denial in a grand and adolescent statement. As I conceived this essay I found myself behind yet another Hummer – an H1 – with a bumper sticker that read, “The more you disapprove, the more fun it is for me.” He had eloquently cast himself and his crowd as the Dionysian rebels and me and mine as prudish parental figures.

For a few years the Hummer was one of those deeply potent symbols in which the paranoid (irrational obsession with fear) and predatory (narcissistic exhibition of control) imaginations meet each other. In this new gilded age, public gestures now declare one’s membership in a particular tribe.

e6f112f75e21d707eb4f997c3da44e4eThat tribe, to invoke American myth – and religion – once again, is the tribe of the elect, those whom Providence has declared to be the winners in life. For at least 120 years, at least since the closing of the frontier, this has been a zero-sum story: for every winner, many, many losers.

hummer-from-your-sister

Thus, to readers familiar with my writing, we have another fundamental, emblematic image for the new century. The first, of course, is the picture of the collapsing twin towers. I have suggested that the second is the woman in the burkha, as I wrote here.

The third image is the Hummer bedecked with the American flag. In my analogy to The Bacchae, I compared the towers to Pentheus’s palace in Thebes. The woman in the burkha evokes Dionysus and all of the Others of the world, from women to oppressed minorities to terrorists. And the flag-bedecked Hummer represents Pentheus, in all his defiant, adolescent, blustering, willful ignorance of his impending initiatory catastrophe (Greek: “to overturn, turn down, trample on,” which is indeed what the crazed women do to him, and what the economy would soon do to the Hummer). It is the ultimate symbol of both “Boy Psychology” and the myth of enduring innocence, as it taunts all of the Others of the world, in Bush’s words, to “Bring ‘em on!”

In 2008 the financial crisis hit and sales of all autos quickly plummeted by 18%. But sales of large pickups and SUVs collapsed by 55%. General Motors and Ford announced plans to close or suspend production at plants that made them, throwing thousands out of work. Chrysler, which had invested the most in these vehicles and the least in fuel-efficient ones, went begging to the federal government for a bailout. It was, like the banks that had caused the crisis, “too big to fail.”

One environmental writer saw some good in the disaster (Greek: “against the stars”) and predicted many public benefits in the demise of the SUV. Less gas would be burned. Drivers of all vehicles would be less likely to die in car crashes. Fewer children might be run over. There would more room on the road for everyone, perhaps less road construction and maybe even less road rage. Eventually, most people awoke from their omnipotent dreams, realized that hybrids and electric cars would be the transportation of the future and adjusted accordingly.

But the Hummer and its impersonators had already done their damage. They gave a whole generation of knuckleheads permission to further degrade the public realm by displaying even more self-destructive and/or bigoted gestures. The Republicans soon accepted that these people were also signaling their willingness to elect someone like Trump, the grandest symbol of waste, violence, hatred and comically transparent masculinity, and the grandest con man of them all. And he, master of the ignorant yet carefully framed public gesture, signaled his own sense of permission to let the dogs out of the kennel. It was another Dionysian moment.

In this story of ironic juxtapositions, perhaps the greatest of all is this 2015 admission by the Iraqi government: ISIS had captured huge caches of US-made weapons, including at least 2,300 Humvees, from Iraqi forces retreating from Mosul and had been using them against American soldiers.isis-1.si.si

Of course, American men – young men especially – had been drag racing, running ”sideshows,” “ghost riding,” playing “chicken” and speeding through wet puddles and around curves on motorcycles while shooting at highway signs long before the SUV was invented, ever since cars themselves had been invented. And before them, generations of Good Old Boys had ridden their horses through markets and vegetable gardens, terrifying Indians, slaves and proper, church-going citizens.

All this behavior, some will say, was never anything more than the healthy expression of the essential, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, individualistic (restless and indomitable are the mythmakers’ preferred terms) American spirit that conquered the wilderness. To restrict or penalize such enthusiasm (Greek: filled with a god) is only to damp down the essence of what makes (or once made) America great, to throw out the angels along with the demons. There is wisdom in that view, as William James wrote in 1897:

Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, his preeminence over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants – physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary…Prune down his exuberance, sober him, and you undo him.

But such people, perhaps, have never sat in a funeral service for one of those wild young guys who in his unconscious search for initiation and meaning had run a car up a tree – and have to listen to some pastor intone that the driver was now in a “better place.” And that’s not to mention the kid he ran over before he killed himself, or the trees he knocked over. A shout of the spirit can also be a cry of the soul.

We must acknowledge that it is a cry of the soul, and indigenous people such as the Gisu people of Uganda always knew this. Michael Meade writes of their concept of litima:

Litima is the violent emotion peculiar to the masculine…source of quarrels, ruthless competition, possessiveness…and brutality, and that is also the source of independence, courage…and meaningful ideals…the willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an individual…source of the…aggression necessary to undergo radical change. But Litima is ambiguous…both the capacity to erupt in violence and the capacity to defend others, both the aggression that breaks things and the force that builds and protects.

For much more on this subject, see Chapter Five of my book. Here are a few relevant thoughts:

Litima poses a dilemma: how to transform those raging hormones from anti-social expression into something positive? This cannot be stated too strongly: uninitiated men cause universal suffering. Either they burn with creativity or they burn everything down. This biological issue transcends debates over gender socialization. Although patriarchal conditioning legitimates and perpetuates it, their nature drives young men to violent excess.

Rites of passage provide metaphor and symbol so that boys don’t have to act their inner urges out…Boys must be transformed into men; without deliberate intervention by elders, they remain boys.

Martin Prechtel, of the Guatemalan Tzutujil Mayans, writes that his people called adolescence the “holy illness.”…Mayan youths traditionally got captured in whirlwinds of emotion: “…the madness of their holy pollinating illness made them run directly toward death and ruin.”

Malidoma Somé of Burkina Faso observes: “…they say in the village that an unruly youth is asking in his own way for someone to guide him.” An archetypal hunger for renewal drives his self-destructive behavior. Something must die. The symbolic death of initiation, however, can substitute for actual death.

All this, of course, barely touches upon the subject of initiation. And what is the relationship between initiation and these yahoos who broadcast their thuggish unconcern for the environment or for the opinions of liberals? I suppose it’s all quite personal. But consider how far American life has come from this:

There was an African tribe in which the elders deliberately delayed the initiation rites, actually withholding this difficult yet necessary experience and privilege from the adolescent males, until those boys demonstrated the intensity of their desire to be seen and accepted as adults. How did they do this? By dancing continuously outside the elders’ hut without a break for days and nights at a time. Then the elders knew that they were serious.

Let’s imagine such a world. Before we can make one, we must be able to imagine it.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 229: The Flag and the Hummer – How We Display Ourselves, Part One of Two

Can you remember what public life was like in those first days and weeks after the tragedy of 9/11/2001? You know, back before the beginning of the longest war in American history. I’m thinking of how expression of our reactions and feelings seemed to follow a certain sequence. The first thing we saw, even as the ruins were still smoking, were spontaneous shrines on walls and fences, universal gestures of grief that anyone could understand.

Then, within only a few days, people began to display their American flags. The first ones available tended to be conventional ones erected on homes and lawns.

In a few weeks came flag decals applied directly to car and store windows. Soon, as American opportunism flowed seamlessly with patriotic sentiment, flag posters appeared on store windows everywhere. USA_American_Car_Flags_12_In_By_17_In__Only_25_Cents_Each Next came cloth flags tied to antennae and plastic flagpoles that attached to windshields.

Many of those cloth flags quickly deteriorated in the wind and weather. So, eventually, store-bought, pre-tattered flags, designed to look like they had returned from battle, appeared. 920x920 When a car sped by boasting one of them on its own, flexible pole, the intention seemed to be to remind viewers of a John Wayne cavalry charge.

But as memory of 9-11 faded, so did most of the flags. They re-appeared at the beginning of the Iraq invasion and faded away again, after George W. Bush’s flight-deck declaration of the end of hostilities in May 2003, with a brief spike after Saddam Hussein’s capture. By 2005 (and 1,700 dead Americans) they were rarely seen; they had been replaced by decals in the shape of yellow ribbons mysteriously exhorting passers-by to “support the troops.”

The questions of flag desecration and improper use of it on clothing, etc,  had been raging for quite some time. But traditional display of the flag had been disappearing from much of American life ever since the Viet Nam War.  Much of the nation had split between those who were ashamed of the genocide that the U.S. had been perpetrating and those who used the flag, its “Missing In Action” variants and a narrow appreciation of war veterans to symbolize the reactionary movements and the racist politics of the 1980s and the Gulf War of the early 1990s. How do we make sense of this iconic 1976 photo from Boston’s school desegregation protests?

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This image inverts the iconic 1945 image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima at the end of World War Two,  when America was attaining the apogee of its power and goodwill in the world. But in 1976 (the bicentennial year, and less than a year after the end of the Viet Nam War), the white man is planting his phallic staff in the fertile black soil of his opponent’s belly. How ironic that the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo is titled “The Soiling of Old Glory.” He is doing literal harm to the Other, and he is metaphorically attempting to re-establish that neo-colonial superiority that had been lost a mere 31 years after the first photo.

Perhaps we make sense of the Boston photo only by remembering what a critical part the Confederate flag has played 1435631743_070015z00-RebFlag-003_t1070_h183037b5ecfb4b96f9329f5c4294108a5ff82ee1 in our traditional military and conservative displays.

For a much deeper analysis of the flag’s traditional meaning in the context of nationalism and sacrifice of the young, see Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle. You can read a brief synopsis here.

The flag made another comeback in 2009, when the Defense Department (under Barack Obama) drastically increased its “sports marketing” outreach to professional sports, especially pro football, which promptly “encouraged” its players for the first time to stand for the playing of the National Anthem. Qui bono? Follow the money…nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars was paid out to NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 alone to encourage these public displays and admonitions to patriotic sentiment and “support for the troops.” In 2016, after adverse publicity, the NFL announced that it would reimburse the government for some $723,000 of those funds.

The grand spectacle of the Superbowl, and eventually most championship games in most major sports, pro or college, eventually included gigantic flags  that covered entire playing fields.151104-vet-flag-jets-football-344p_d061554c7660126d7d598f470ae01fe4.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

And fans (Latin: mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god, originally, pertaining to a temple), aided once again by opportunistic businessmen, could now broadcast their tribal membership with team flags on their cars.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What were people saying with the displays on their cars? One could only imagine what messages were implied. And that’s my point. One might assume that these gestures were expressing nationalistic, even belligerent feelings, but could one be sure? Were they saying less about the sentiments and more about the drivers themselves?

And what about the decals that appeared next, the ones that read “God Bless America”? God-Bless-America-Decal-Sticker-Eagle-Flag-Black-Vinyl  Was this a declarative statement about fact (as in God most certainly does bless America, and more than other countries!)? Was it a demand, in the imperative mood (God: bless America, right now!)? Or was it a subjunctive plea, or a prayer (God, please Bless America! She really needs it!)? For some, it may have implied grief for the victims or solidarity with the firefighters and soldiers, or even shame for the nation. For others it meant rallying around the flag, the traditional gesture of identifying with the nation under the stress of war, silencing its shadow of self-doubt and marginalizing the anti-war movement. lna277-900x700 Or maybe it was simply a fashion statement.

All this points to one of the characteristics of what Joseph Campbell called the “de-mythologized world” – the fact that, along with the myths that once bound us together, we have lost most of the ritual gestures we once shared in common, such as wearing black in public to indicate mourning, and many of the public processions – weddings, funerals, second lines – that told the world: we have been changed forever.

Similarly, just as there were public gestures that people understood, there were words and tones of voice that polite people didn’t say, at least in public. The middle class and much of the working class had long subscribed to notions of propriety, decorum, modesty, respectability and decency, at least until the Age of Trump.

On some cars, the increasingly larger pickups and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicle), it seemed that the flags really bespoke a kind of vicarious (and non-risky) heroism, a smirking defiance intended for any terrorists who might be lurking in the neighborhood. It was a game in which people (well, men, really) were displaying their gang colors. Perhaps the sentiment was also directed at liberals, with their smaller, more economic, slightly effeminate and perhaps a bit preachy cars (years later, some wag was the first to call the Prius, the Pius.

These gestures seemed to be saying, “They can attack us and hurt us, but we still have the biggest, the best, the most, and the most wasteful, of everything. Even if we die, we do so with the most toys.” Or simply: “We can afford to waste gas money!” After all, President Bush had told the nation to show the world – by going out and shopping – that America stood tall and united. Meanwhile, despite the slow economy, the Ford Truck Plant in Wayne, Michigan (at least until 2008) was still running three shifts per day, turning out the “Expedition,” Ford’s largest S.U.V. These were, perhaps, the gestures of the people driving the largest of the SUV’s, with the largest of the flags. How ironic that many of these patriotic behemoths had been built in other countries.

This idiocy was nothing new. The hardware was contemporary, but the ostentatious contempt for the natural world was deeply embedded in American myth. As I relate in Chapter Eight of my book, an association of Texas cattlemen bragged in 1898:

Resolved, that none of us know, or care to know, anything about grasses…outside of the fact that for the present there are lots of them… and we are after getting the most out of them while they last.

 

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