Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Alternative Universes in American Politics?

The so-called mainstream media, obsessing about its own concerns with 'what is truth?', seems to have given up on the job of reporting what is actually happening in Washington as the Trump administration gets into gear. One of the best short accounts comes from the personal economics blog of John Maudlin and I refer you to that posting as a starting point. Here I want to look at the 'what is truth?' debate with as little rancour as possible towards a global media system that is part infotainment and half partisan advocate for its own fixed positions.

Looking at events from the United Kingdom, you get a distilled view of the situation in which the BBC offers snippets from American politicians - the classic 'sound bite' - and interviews with people who happen to be in town promoting a book or passing through. It is not a true picture of events. These can only be properly understood by someone in Washington with some access to Administration officials. Nevertheless, if I cannot comment as Maudlin comments, I can see how things are going pear-shaped on the cultural level. I listened to what Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway said about 'inauguration numbers' in their sound bites and then to Thomas Friedman promoting his book on BBC Radio 4 yesterday and came to some conclusions.

First, the Trump camp are surprisingly inarticulate under close questioning, seem appallingly ill-prepared (the incorrect facts that tumble out are gifts to their opponents who give no quarter) but not necessarily entirely wrong. Before he started throwing out ill-researched claims, Spicer was clearly referring to the global internet and broadcast viewing figures of the Inauguration rather than the numbers who actually turned out on the day in Washington. Partisan commentators refused to recognise that claim and decided to concentrate not on all the facts that might apply (that is, that global interest in the Trump Inauguration was probably unprecedented) but one set of fact - the lesser numbers on the ground at the Inauguration - in part because Spicer allowed himself to be moved on to that territory himself. The commentators were not actually interested in the interpretative wider truth which is that, while Trump had less people on the ground than Obama, there were fair reasons for that fact (which was a demonstrable fact) and internet and global media interest was probably higher than in any previous election. Commentators were only interested in weaponised facts where they had the advantage and in demonstrating that truth was to be defined only on their terms.

Something similar is going on in the UK with May's blunder over not revealing a failed missile test to Parliament before a vote on the extension of the nuclear deterrent. It was a fact that was inconvenient that she should have presented factually and then argued her case as to why this fact was not relevant to the decision before the House. Her opponents are now able to avoid a discussion on that decision and simply concentrate on a partisan piece of 'amour propre' because of her blunder and her continuing inability to admit the facts for entirely spurious 'national security reasons'. She dug a hole and keeps on digging as we write but that does not stop her opponents being self-serving partisans. Neither is actually interested in the truth and so it is with the American case.

When you consider that Washington is a City that lives off Government, that it has a large poor black community (possibly disproportionate to all other cities) and that Trump's support was largely based outside the East Coast and in States where significant cost and effort would be required to travel to Washington in the working week - especially for lower middle class and working class supporters - then it is reasonable that the numbers on the ground should be significantly different between the Obama and Trump administrations. Spicer was right that the media and elements in the administration were trying to use the 'fact' to delegitimise the President even if, like Prime Minister May, he blundered badly in his handling of the situation.

Spicer seemed unable to make his points clearly and articulately to the point where one really does have to ask whether he is the right person for the job and that is what is interesting, not so much which facts are true and which are not. Conway's contribution on TV was much the same - when she said 'alternative facts', she should have said (according to the articulacy standards of the mainstream media) 'alternative interpretation of the facts' (see above) or that there were facts (see above related to global reach) that the mainstream media wilfully ignored in order to offer an interpretation that suited its narrative (which would be true).

This is part of the frustration of the Trumpers. They are both wrong and not wrong. Things are more complicated than the attack dogs of the mainstream media allow. The mainstream media's methodology is to select facts but then fail to add further facts that would indicate complexity and suggest alternate interpretations. This creates a partisan and self-serving editorial narrative that is designed to de-legitimise what has now become an enemy, an enemy that they largely created for themselves in the second half of 2016. By systematically concentrating on specific 'facts', ignoring other facts and then expressing a partisan and manufactured outrage when inarticulate responses seem to question the facts they have decided to make significant, the mainstream media is often playing a sly game that is deeply embedded in their way of doing business.

The Trumpers, meanwhile, are contesting the media interpretation and the lack of fair presentation of all facts as well as the obvious purpose behind the selection of facts. This is ground that cannot be conceded by the media in case it raises questions about their right to act as intermediaries between power and the people. This methodology on the part of the media is not specific to the Trump case: it is how the media works normally. Politicians before the populists arrived always understood this. They adapted with their own techniques in return and both parties (politician and journalist), in playing a confrontational game with rules accepted by both, created the widespread distrust that both professions suffer from today. Both sides fought over interpretation according to rules set by the media but where the media did not always inquire too deeply into the facts that underpinned the politicians' position. The partial politicisation of the executive has brought civil servants into the frame of distrust as well - the Rogers case in London earlier this month demonstrated this. In effect, the public was 'informed' with half truths in a contest of competing 'weasels' and its model of the world shaped by what 'weaseldom' decided was the shape of the world. Now that game is over.

A journalist guest commentator on British TV was (unusually) corrected by the BBC presenter last night when he referred to Trump as a 'monster', No one rational who disagreed with Trump has any justification for calling him a monster and yet the Twitter feeds of journalists and academics and the comment columns are filled with similar aggressive claims without real substance other than personal prejudice or arederived from particular ideological judgments that should have nothing to do with straight news gathering. One can disagree with a man without having to call him a monster and agree with him without deludedly expecting him to be a saint.

What we have here is the arrival of inarticulate populists in high office trained on 'heuristic' thinking where everything is connected. This is at its worst when poor connections are made so that conspiracy theory results but it is at its best in giving a more realistic picture of the complexity of the world to a person than he or she can get from theory of book-larnin'. They are facing off 'rational' intellectuals, all operating within a framework of pre-set rules that have the double effect of containing them within a social structure and allowing them privileged status within that structure. The intellectuals are actually highly selective and partisan in their fact collection procedures because they see the world in terms of competition between ideas and persons. They competed in order to get a position within the game and so they see those outside the game offensively as risks to their hegemony. Part of their mythos is that a 'fact is a fact' rather than a fact in relation to other facts. Friedman unintentionally grasped the problem this morning when he said that this was a matter of an 'alternative universe'.

Friedman certainly intended the notion of Trump's people being in an 'alternate universe' as an insult at their expense but the accusation could be turned on its head. We have two alternative universes neither of which is entirely real. One is based on complexity and life actually lived in which two incompatible thoughts are possible before breakfast because that is how the world actually works and where leadership is making judgments that parse dialectical tensions. It also happens to be anxious, occasionally paranoid and certainly defensive. It sees itself as protecting itself from the world.

The other universe is based on absolute and simple notions of fact and non-fact that fail to understand how facts are selected for interpretation, how inconvenient facts are omitted to effect change and how facts can offer us multiple interpretations. Facts are accumulated within unspoken paradigms where inconvenient facts can be sidelined until their insistent knocking at the door of reality forces them back into the game - by which time 'rationalisation' has found a way to incorporate them into the model without affecting the essential structure of reality - or rather what passes for real amongst those with the power to define reality. It is also a universe based on the 'logos', the connectedness of words rather the connectedness of experiences and things. It takes emotion or sentiment and rationalises these into strings of words that may be perfectly coherent but may well be a map that is not accurate to the territory. It sees itself as being co-terminous with the world.

This clash of universes is profound because it is a clash between the ways that minds work as profound as the difference between the ways men and women think. It is not a case of one being right or one being wrong but simply one of of difference. Men and women can get along just fine in the good society through norms that respect difference but, here too, recent political conditions have created conflict through confrontation and identity politics (also associated with 'logos'-type thinking). In the good society the 'heuristic' and intellectual approaches can also get along through the medium of the effective politician but Trump has arisen (as have other national populists) precisely because the intellectual has not only despised the heuristic but has demonstrated publicly that they despised the heuristic.

The national populists have thus not caused 'reaction', they have arisen as a reaction to the long term effects of having society run from a position of aggressive intellectualism. Why is this? The massive increase in the graduate class, in regulatory capitalism and in the scale and reach of government has created a mass base for the intellectual stance which never existed before. Until this period in history, intellectuals were either servitors of power or manipulators of the levers of power. They are now power itself - or thought they were until 2016. The loss of leverage (literally) has de-intellectualised the intellectuals and turned many of them into ravening wolves seeking the blood of those who unexpectedly removed them from hegemonic power whether democratically (UK) or merely constitutionally (US). The loss of control of democracy and of constitutional forms is part of the agony of this class.

Until the post-internet era, the 'logos' political system could command and control through relying on limited information and communications systems in society. The agents of information were of the same broad social origin. The adaptability of politicians in finding the right rhetoric could defuse the bomb of populist resentment. FDR and Reagan are perhaps the models of how the American political system found the right person at the right time to defuse political discontent by conceding just what was required to salvage the system. The arrival of the internet at the same time as the unresolved economic issues arising out of 2008 combined with the inability of the liberal side of the equation to 'get' what Bernie Sanders was perhaps trying to tell them - that the old politics was creating its own opposition, its own nemesis, through hubris. We should note here that Trump has been careful to invite labor union leaders to his first meeting on manufacturing today and that many trades unionists were not happy with the liberal espousal of NAFTA which Trump has vowed to renegotiate. A million marching women may find that the heuristics of increasing job security are as or more important than their cultural politics.

The heuristic approach does not rely on interconnected and carefully calibrated coalitional politics and the dumping of single issues into packages of measures demanding loyalty but tends to see life as a process of constant negotiation and even struggle. It also places much emphasis on promise keeping whereas the logocratic approach is not interested in promises but only in shared values and the law. Judicial activism is the final position of the logocrat just as the 'movement' is the final fall-back position of the heurist. Trump symbolically epitomised that sense of life as a set of deals just as Hillary Clinton symbolically epitomised the other form of thinking which has become culturally dominant - order being imposed through fiat by regulation based on theory. Her slight popular victory reflected that cultural dominance (ironically, the conservative desire for the maintenance of order) but Trump won the formal victory which was based on the carefully balanced prejudice for a form of heuristics implicit in the original but now perhaps partly dysfunctional Constitution.

Where does this lead us? Possibly to disaster? The absolute incompatibility of slave owner values and non-slaveowner values by 1860 did not lead to a civilised separation and a different form of struggle for freedom from slavery in the South but into a vicious war. Its lack of resolution gave us the current race problem that is America's most serious continuing internal crisis of social cohesion on which a lid is kept simply because black Americans are not a majority, are concentrated geographically and America has the rule of law to fall back on. The incompatibility of populist heuristics (shared in fact by many libertarian and advanced thinkers on the East Coast as well) with ideological rationalism built on the 'logos' is now absolute - as incompatible as the differences of opinion between states in 1860.

There is now no effective dialogue between the two universes. One represents vast and well paid special interests embedded in the State and the Academy as well as the Media. It certainly means well and has noble values but it did not deliver what it promised to many people while its own elite members got richer. It is important to note that the black American vote did not surge for Hillary and that this was not because she was not black. As many have pointed out, inequality between whites and blacks certainly did not improve and probably worsened under Obama, a mixed race wealthy (by their standards) lawyer.

The other universe of Trumpers, however, seems unable to develop a language for articulating its own complexity just as the first is blind to the limits of rationalism and the extremely weak philosophical base for its Kantian 'pragmatism'. There are palaeo-conservatives, libertarians, identitarians, Judaeo-Christian communitarians and all sorts of essentialist dreamer floating around the nether regions of the Trump movement but it really is a case of a 'thousand flowers blooming' with no clear core. This may be a good thing for a heuristic way of dealing with reality but it also means that we cannot expect coherence any time soon. The mainstream media (outside Fox and RT and sections of the British right-wing media) is wholly trapped within one universe and the centres of power in Washington, increasingly in London and possibly elsewhere later this year, are now either in or being drawn into the other universe by necessity.

The problem gets more difficult for the intelligent citizen who understands that the heuristic approach to the world is intellectually correct (though it need not come up with the analyses of Trump by any means) but that both universes are spinning towards a clash that will not result in war yet might well result in a collapse in internal cohesion, political violence and attempts to change the Constitution ... perhaps worse. At best, it may mean a cultural war in which one or other has to win or die, leaving the loser in a state of simmering resentment like the Confederacy after 1866.

This is an international problem not confined to the US by any means. Our putative intelligent citizen has a difficult choice whether to assist the heuristic universe to articulate its position more effectively (that is, to adopt the technology of the 'logos' without its ideology or special interest aspects) and so bring it to some sort of compromise with the rational - but will it or cannot listen? Alternatively, he or she could try to introduce a more informed heuristic understanding to the other universe, the one which has become self-serving in its use of the 'logos' to drive ideology. The inhabitants of the latter universe have already weaponised language and the Trump camp are right to see this weaponisation, making use of the mainstream media, as a threat for which they have developed little protection. Perhaps they feel like an insurgent liberation army facing a ramshackle but well armed state military that won't admit defeat after losing control of its capital and is now inclined to warlordism.

The protection that the Trump camp may employ (since human beings are adept at survival) is likely to be asymmetric and culturally subversive. The lack of respect for the new Presidency may become something that the 'educated' but not necessarily always 'intelligent' preceding elite may come to regret since the one thing that the incomers have which they do not command is the internet under the conditions of the First Amendment. The battle for control of the social media platforms comes next. Already, the German logocrats are trying to intervene to manage and control Facebook and other media in anticipation of their own trial of strength in the Autumn. The most probable outcome of all this, much further down the line, is a dialectical one in which both sides exhaust themselves into something new, perhaps a younger generation adopting heuristics as a way of life but directed towards more liberal ends and less intolerant of difference. Perhaps that is just wishful thinking. Perhaps history will look on 2017-2018 as America's bloodless (we hope) Cultural Civil War because that is what it is shaping up to be.