Friday, January 29, 2016

Breaking news: CNN proposes to Donald Trump!

Source: NewsBusters
For three days now I haven't seen anything being discussed on CNN but Donald Trump. I know the news network must have covered some other things, but every time I've flipped over to the channel, the topic has always been Trump. Always. Morning, noon, night, one round table after another of the well-heeled intelligentsia has been discussing the impact of Trump's refusal to participate in the latest GOP debate.

And CNN spent most of yesterday pimping Trump's counter-event, both on the air and on it's website. From what I understand, CNN also carried much of the event live (I didn't watch; you couldn't have paid me to). Today has been no different so far, with all of CNN's morning-after-the-debate coverage seemingly focused on whether or not Trump magically "won" the debate by having his own event. Which, on its face, is quite ridiculous, given that FoxNews routinely massacres CNN in the ratings. With a GOP debate, the numbers are going to be even worse than usual, I'll wager.

Of course, this is the real gambit for CNN: a roll of the dice with the non-stop Trumping, a hope that somehow this will translate into big ratings for the network. That's all there really is here. CNN has basically dropped the idea of being a news network completely, in favor of being what amounts to 24-hour reality show starring Donald Trump and a cast of hundreds of pseudo-intellectuals.

If FoxNews is a faux news organization that serves as a mouthpiece for the Far Right (it actually is not), then CNN is little more than an empty vessel seeking nothing but ratings (it actually is).

To be clear here, though, I don't fault Trump in this particular instance at all. He's out there, doing his shtick. No one has to pay attention to him, no network is required to provide him with nonstop coverage. The decision to do so was wholly that of CNN's management, I am sure.

Full disclosure: CNN has always been my news network of choice, not because I like the talking heads there (I don't), but because the crawl is well done and breaking news is generally well-handled. But I can't stomach non-stop self-promotion, which is exactly what was going on here. CNN was pimping Trump in order to be cast as the go-to source for Trump news. It's shit TV, shit journalism, shit reporting. So I won't be watching anymore, at least until CNN cleans up its act or Trump implodes into a fog of dandruff and snark.

For point of comparison, I've had to adjust my radio listening habits for similar reasons now and again. I used to listen to the Glenn Beck Show (because I found it entertaining) many years ago. Then, the show became a non-stop infomercial for some stupid sweater book Beck had written. I turned it off and have never looked back. More recently, I had to stop listening to the Rush Limbaugh Show (again, I listen because it's entertaining). Why? Just like Beck, Rush started pimping his books non-stop. In this case, the books were Rush's children's series: Rush Revere and the somethings or others. Not entertaining. In both cases, it was shit radio. So I stopped listening.

As bad as the above two were, though, CNN is worse because Beck and Rush never claimed to be news sources. Both recognized that they were entertainers (Beck eventually went off the deep end). CNN actually still claims to be a news org. But it's not. Not as long as it persists in this extended romance with Donald Trump.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Kid gloves, bees, and fleas

There is an expression that I'd wager most people have heard or even used themselves: to handle (or treat) something with kid gloves. The sense of this expression is that of a gentle or delicate approach: whatever is being handled is being handled carefully. For instance, a tense diplomatic situation might require "kid gloves." Or someone tasked with laying off employees might be told by management to "handle it with kid gloves."

Source: Harvard Business School
But what does the phrase actually mean? Some might assume that the "kid" in the phrase "kid gloves" is some sort of age-based reference, that the idea is to be as gentle as one would be with a child. And while such an understanding works, for all intents and purposes, it is not correct in the least. Kid gloves are in fact a specific type of gloves that became popular among the upper class of 18th century England (and other parts of Europe). They are gloves made from the skin of a kid, a young goat. As such, they are delicate, soft, and very light-colored (almost white, in fact). Think of the gloves butlers are usually depicted as wearing in period pieces and you'll have the right idea. Or of a wealthy woman sitting in a salon sipping tea and wearing white gloves.

Thus, the sense of the expression—to handle something carefully—is a product of the nature of the gloves. Kid gloves are not work gloves, they are not appropriate for farming, for loading cargo, for working in a factory, etc. They are too easily dirtied and damaged, so one must be careful when wearing them.

Now, kid gloves—made from kid leather—were not cheap in the eighteenth and nineteenth century world. And since they were not useful in the ways that other leather gloves were, they were very much luxury items (thus making them even more expensive, since the people buying them tended to be wealthy). And in the past—like in the current world—there always existed "knock off" kinds of goods, especially with regards to fashion. Kid gloves were, as I said, made from the skin of young goats. But glovers (people who made gloves) often used lambskin instead, as it was more plentiful and cheaper than goatskin. As long as such knock-offs had the right color and seemed soft enough, few buyers could tell the difference. And really, what difference did it really make? One was as good as the other, right?

Sure. Tell that to someone with a knock-off Rolex or Chanel bag today who thought they were buying the real thing. We're talking major status symbol here. A well-to-do women in eighteenth century England would be mortified to discover her gloves were not real kid leather, especially if this was pointed out by a contemporary. So, getting lambskin gloves when one paid for kid gloves was a real thing, on par with getting an 8-karat gold ring today when one paid for a 24-karat gold ring. Rip-off! Outrageous!

As evidence of this, consider the following passage from Bernard Mandeville's 1705 poem, The Grumbling Hive (which I've previously provided in full):
One, that had got a Princely Store,
By cheating Master, King, and Poor,
Dared cry aloud; The Land must sink
For all its Fraud; And whom d'ye think
The Sermonizing Rascal chid?
A Glover that sold Lamb for Kid.
The poem itself is often wrongly (though understandably) referred to as The Fable of the Bees. In reality, the latter is the name of the book Mandeville wrote about the ideas in the poem, principally that of how private vices resulted in public goods, essentially an argument for spontaneous order in the market place, for a laissez-faire approach to the economy.

The poem is the story of a hive of bees who succeeded in creating a powerful and wealthy hive, as compared to others, because of the industry created by vices like vanity, pride, and greed. Ultimately, the hive collapses because many bees complain about theses vices and the corruption and fraud they cause to the point that their god strips them of all their vices. This destroys most of the industries in the hive, production and trade all but cease, and the hive becomes weaker and weaker and smaller and smaller.

The verse quoted above references the beginning of the end, as it were, as people who have gotten rich from the system begin to complain loudly about how unfair the system is. In this particular case, we have a bee who is a supremely wealthy—he has a "princely store"—by virtue of his own gaming of the system—"cheating Master, King and Poor" (which we might easily rephrase as his financiers, the state, and the poor)—loudly complaining (whining) about how he has been cheated. By who? By a glover who sold him kid gloves that were actually lambskin. And that one affront, that is enough to cause his massive overreaction, nevermind how he's been doing far worse to so many others. The fact that he was cheated/mistreated means the whole system is corrupt and needs to be changed.

Sound familiar? Am I too clever by half (another interesting turn of phrase that could use some backstory, though not right now)? Of late, we've had a series of billionaires mouthing off about corruption and the like, about how the government needs to clamp down on this vice or that vice (Bloomberg), about how there needs to be more taxes on the wealthy (Buffett, Soros, and previous versions of Trump), about corruption in general (pretty much all of them), about the media playing favorites (again, pretty much all of them), and so on and so on.

Think about this. These turkeys used the system, manipulated it for their own benefit across decades. Now they're screaming foul? After they've made their billions? Since Trump is currently in the national spotlight, lets focus on him. His bankruptcies are common knowledge. He'd have us believe that's a positive, that this history demonstrates his business acumen. It probably does. It shows he knows how to game the system. Because each time he declared bankruptcy, someone else had to eat the debt he accrued and couldn't pay back. Okay, sometimes these somebodies were banks and the like (who still didn't deserve to get used), but other times they were individuals and small businesses (especially in construction). Trump's bankruptcies ruined many of them. Ruined.

Then there's the current hoopla between Trump and FoxNews (Megyn Kelly). Trump is whining up a storm because he imagines he's being treated unfairly, so much so that he's refusing to participate in a debate with Kelly as a moderator. Awww, the poor wittle billionaire! Kelly was mean to him and he thinks its unfair! Never mind his unceasing misogynistic comments, his constant name-calling, and the fact that he is getting non-stop media attention, regardless. This is wrong! It's not right! The mythical establishment controls FoxNews and it's out to get him!


Yet amazingly, Trump's supporters are still there, still continue to back him, accept his mealy-mouthed justification for his actions and buy into his over-arching point of view: that the system as is completely corrupt and it needs and outsider in the person of Trump to fix it (and to be fair, Hillary Clinton is steadily walking this same road, carrying the same sort of baggage as Trump).

In my view, Trump's supporters are in for a rude awakening, should Trump win the nomination and somehow the Presidency. He's not equipped to fix anything. He is personally far too invested in the system and its inherent corruption to manage any sort of real change, apart from blowing the whole thing up, not unlike our erstwhile cheating bee. Because Trump—like that bee—imagines that he can  somehow emerge untouched from such a purge, despite the reality of his own background. And those flocking to his side? Well, we all know what happens when you lie down with dogs...
Qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Palin and Trump in Iowa: is the (Tea) Party over?

It had a pretty good run, didn't it? The oft-cited, usually maligned, rarely understood (in Medialand) Tea Party changed the political landscape of the United States. It delivered Senate and House seats to the Republican Party; it served up a complete flipping of power in State legislatures across the country, where Republicans managed to achieve control even in some supposedly hard-core blue States. It provided a national platform for some politicians, doomed some others (despite their supposed conservative bona fides), and—let's be honest—fattened the wallets of far too many people who tried to assume ownership of the movement or otherwise used it for their own agendas.

I've discussed the actual background of the Tea Party before, the background that most in the media rarely seem to understand. Short and sweet, the movement began during the Bush Administration, circa 2008, then hit its stride under the Obama Administration during the 2010 midterms. It was a response to the bailouts under Bush, the Stimulus under Obama, and the general lack of fiscal responsibility exhibited by leaders in every level of government. As early as 2011, people in the media began to predict its demise, but it continued, propelling more new faces in both 2012 and 2014, though it also led to some notable failures, not the least of which was the reelection of Obama in 2012.

Throughout this period, from late 2008 until now, the Tea Party movement (because that's what it really is: a movement, not a political party) has had to deal with two primary problems: first, the willful ignorance displayed by people in the mainstream media with regard to the movement, and second, the attempt by social conservatives and other agenda-driven groups to co-opt the movement for their own purposes.

With regard to the first, the ignorance of the media by and large is easy to understand: the people really participating in the movement didn't fit the media's preconceived notions with regard to the Far Right (which the media mistakenly assumed to be the primary impetus of the movement). The core Tea Partiers came from all walks of life, men and women were equally represented, and most were political novices, not hardened partisan activists. This was something most in the media simply could not comprehend (even those who tended to lean Right).

The consequence? The media—spurred on by a fearful Democratic Party (whose leadership could see the consequences in the rise of an unchecked grass roots movement that opposed Big Government)—tended to focus on outliers in the movement, the small numbers who showed up to events with dim-witted signs (often racist) about Obama, thinking the movement was fundamentally an "anti-Obama" one. Thus, we were treated to years of articles and debates over the racist elements in the Tea Party, as opposed to rational analysis of just what was going on in the movement, what it was really about, and why it was having so much success in political races, despite being populated by political novices.

This has always been something of an albatross for the Tea Party movement, this lack of thoughtful analysis and understanding in the media and elsewhere. It became something that had to be countered, but by people who lacked the access and experience to offer an effective retort.

And really, this is what made the Tea Party movement a ripe target for being co-opted by other groups, the second major issue with which it's membership has had to contend. Because it was on the outside of the political structure, had no actual leadership, and no requirements for membership (all one had to do was say they were a member), there was nothing to prevent someone from using the movement as a platform for some other issue. Thus, we saw many social conservatives flock to the Tea Party banner, along with some nastier sorts of people like racists, homophobes, and xenophobes.

From this co-opting, a number of organizations sprung up who attempted to claim some level of leadership for the movement as whole, like FreedomWorks, Americans For Prosperity, and Tea Party Patriots. Tellingly, a number of the the earliest leaders of the movement (who never actually claimed leadership) never tried to set up such organizations and are rarely heard from these days. Regardless, these orgs successfully used the Tea Party movement to grow themselves and impact politics, sometimes for causes consistent with the movement, and sometimes for ones unrelated to the same. But either way, these orgs where and are more about sustaining themselves then about sustaining the movement as a whole. They seek funding and in that respect are in competition with each other for the same dollars. That's not a grass roots movement. It can't be.

Still, as I noted, the Tea Party movement kept going well into 2014, despite all of this co-opting by other orgs and groups and despite the high level of ignorance in the media, proper.

But now it's 2016. Is there still a Tea Party to speak of? My twitter feed says yes there is. Sort of. It's not what it once was. Many highly active Tea Party supporters have gone quiet in the last several years. But others push on, undeterred by the seemingly decreasing footprint of the Tea Party on social media.

In the media proper, the Tea Party is still used—sometimes as nothing more than a simple pejorative—though usually in reference to a particular politician, rather than in reference to the actual movement. And really, that's understandable. There aren't any true grass roots Tea Party events taking place these days. People who claimed membership in the movement have chosen up sides, whether a side is one of the above-mentioned orgs or the supporters of a politician or national figure.

When the Trump campaign began to get serious traction last year, many assumed the Tea Party was lining up behind the brash-talking king of self-promotion. There was plenty of pushback in that regard, as this piece from Reason notes. Little that Trump was saying was actually consistent with the Tea Party's original ideology. Still, the maverick nature of the Trump campaign and the way the candidate and his supporters were (and are) treated by the media, this was all very familiar. So unsurprisingly, the assumption of a strong Tea Party element supporting Trump is standard fare, despite the protestations.

And as far as the media is concerned, the deal was sealed a few days ago when the supposed Queen of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, took the stage at a Trump event in Iowa and endorsed the real estate tycoon for President.

Still. There is nothing about Trump's platform that meshes with the original ideology of the Tea Party movement. Well, maybe that's not entirely accurate. The problem is, Trump doesn't really have a platform, just some slogans, a self-righteous nationalism, and a liberal dose of bigotry. As such, his Tea Party appeal is securely rooted in the worst elements of the movement, the late-comers who misread it from the beginning and the agenda-driven crowd who sought to co-opt the movement for their own purposes.

So why is Palin endorsing Trump now? Short answer: she's abandoned the Tea Party movement. And she craves the spotlight, above all else. Which is, in my view, kind of a shame. Back in 2008/2009, Palin was a breathe of fresh air on the political scene, despite her many shortcomings. And true enough, she was saying the right things—from the movement's perspective—even when those things had a negative impact on the McCain campaign.

Now? She's talking gibberish. And there's a good reason for such gibberish: she's no intellectual giant and she can't effectively manufacture a link from what she used to say and stand for to what Trump is saying now. So she babbles incoherently in an attempt to justify her endorsement of Trump as being an endorsement by the Tea Party movement as awhole. It's not going to fly. Or at least it shouldn't. And yet...who is there to contradict her, really? Who is there to tell Trump that the Tea Party is not in his corner?

Well, there is Ted Cruz. And Rand Paul. And Marco Rubio.

But despite the past support these three enjoyed from the Tea Party movement, none can claim a mandate from it now. Hell, Paul can't even claim 3% of the overall vote. Cruz and Rubio are at war, with both fixated on the establishment/non-establishment issue (very possibly the dumbest political issue in decades).

And this speaks to something about the Tea Party movement that most have forgotten: it's both localized and nebulous. Its effectiveness in political campaigns was always limited to smaller races because of this reality: a national movement, true, but never a national, unified party. The attempt to create the latter—by individual politicians and by national orgs—has failed. It was always going to fail. All that's left now is the terminology, the name, and the sense of history behind it. But the movement itself is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Over. Kaput.

It's been a slow death, to be sure. And as I noted, previous claims of this nature were proved wrong. But this time it's different. The fact of the matter is that the money involved here, the donations exhorted from people in the movement to fund FreedomWorks et al, was always poison to the Tea Party movement. Death was inevitable from that moment on. But the final nails in the coffin were driven home by Palin and other pseudo-members by raising the banner in support of Donald Trump. Because the Tea Party movement was, if anything, always anti-authoritarian. In contrast, Trump is very much an authoritarian. In fact, he may be an actual fascist, the first one to ever have a legitimate shot at the Presidency in the United States since...well, since FDR, but maybe that's a discussion for a different day.

Rest in peace, Tea Party. It's been a helluva ride.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Gatekeepers and social media content

This morning, a friend on Facebook shared an interesting piece from Shurat HaDin, a Tel Aviv-based NPO that focuses on terror victims and Jewish/Israeli issues. Here is Shurat HaDin's Facebook page. Here is the YouTube link to the piece in question, "The Big Facebook Experiment."

Source: Shurat HaDin
In a nutshell, this is what happened with "the experiment": people at Shurat HaDin set up two Facebook pages (Communities). One was called "Stop Palestinians," the other was called "Stop Israelis." They then added some updates to each that basically called for violence against both groups (ending with "Death to Palestine" and "Death to Israel," respectively). After this, they simultaneously reported both pages to Facebook for violating community standards. The pages were set up on December 28, 2015 and they were reported to Facebook on December 29, 2015. The "Stop Palestinians" page was suspended by Facebook on the same day it was reported. The "Stop Israelis" page? It remained activity (garnering some 972 "likes") until today, January 5, 2016. Here's a cached copy of it which shows this.

Now, Shurat HaDin only revealed the experiment today on Facebook. It was soon being shared by thousands of people and was picked up by Israeli media, as well. So, it's not much of a stretch to suggest that this was the reason behind Facebook's decision to finally suspend the "Stop Israelis" page. Shurat HaDin's overriding point/argument is that there is bias at work here, bias against Jews in general and Israel in particular, on the part of Facebook. It's a pretty easy argument to make, given how the "Stop Palestinians" page was shut down almost immediately, while the "Stop Israelis" page was allowed to remain activity until it became a PR problem.

That said, it occurs to me that the exact nature of the "who" making these decisions is important. Facebook is a big company and given the number of active users, pages, and updates, there's simply no way that the same person or persons reviews every reported incident. Different people are making decisions on different incidents. Granted, there are guidelines in this regard. But there's a lot of wiggle room in there. It seems to me that both pages were obviously calling for violence or trying to justify violence as a means to an end, however my point of view is not that of a hardcore activist/sympathizer for either "side." There is a political angle available here where one might argue that the calls of violence were only with respect to defense against persecution and violence already being committed by the other "side."  

It's a narrow road, no doubt, one that I think is in fact too narrow with respect to the community standards Facebook claims it is enforcing, but I can still see it.

Which again returns us to the identity of the actual decision makers at Facebook, the gatekeepers if you will. They are individuals, and as such they don't necessarily see things the same way as someone else. Indeed, they don't all see things the same way withing their own limited group, either. So one person charged with reviewing reported pages at Facebook may agree that a particular page is a problem while another person at Facebook may not. It seems to me that there is some measure of uncertainty here. Of course, that uncertainty is somewhat mitigated over time, as a particular page may be reported again and again and again, until it is seen by a gatekeeper who agrees that it is a problem and suspends it.

Maybe that's what actually happened here. Maybe the "Stop Palestinians" page, when it was initially reported, was seen by the "right" person. Maybe if it had been seen by a different person at Facebook, it wouldn't have been suspended so soon. And the reverse for the "Stop Israelis" page: maybe the "right" person would have suspended it immediately.

Who can say?

But the larger issue remains, with regard to gatekeepers on social media, on Facebook and Twitter, on comment threads for news stories, and on messageboards: someone is deciding what is acceptable and not acceptable on all of these things (apart from the rare completely unmoderated website). True enough, most all of these vehicles have posted standards for comment and participation, but it is still a matter of human choice when it comes to deciding what comment/post/update/page crosses a line.

As a regular participant on one particular messageboard, I say that's okay, as far as it goes. The messageboard is a limited community, not a news site nor a social media platform like Facebook. If people don't like decisions made by moderators, they're free to go elsewhere on the internet to express their opinions.

Yet, the large social media platforms have become an ingrained part of life for much of the population. And supposedly, they represent the "free and open exchange of ideas" that make the internet such a great thing. Ditto for comment trails on news stories. Barring direct threats made against specific individuals and other comments which would be overtly criminal, should there be any purging going on here? I find myself leaning strongly towards saying "no," to allowing that these platforms are too significant now to allow the limiting of any sort of speech, unless that speech is clearly breaking laws. Because these platforms, despite being privately owned, are public communities. Any discussion I can legally have in Starbucks, on a college campus, or at a town hall-style meeting should be a discussion I can have on Facebook, on Twitter, on a CNN comment thread. Anything I can say in the first group, I should be able to say in the second group.

I think we, as a society, have to be very wary of anyone limiting information that we depend on or opinions that we may want to hear, regardless of the offered justification. If social media is going to continue to be a dominant force in our lives, we can't allow what we can see on these platforms to be spoon fed to us via subjective standards enforced by people who may or may not have their own agendas. It's yet another dangerous road we face going forward.