Muddy Waters: The DJT Arguments

The video below is “Trump mocks reporter with disability.” Meryl Steep brought this moment back to light with her acceptance speech at The Golden Globes for the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Donald Trump’s response on Twitter was predictable, calling Meryl “overrated,” which, although an opinion, is difficult to see how it would apply to Meryl, one of the greatest actors of our time.

Donald’s other response is below: “I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter….” You can judge for yourself.

I handed my syllabus out yesterday for a class called Justice in Literature. There are a few rules of discussion that I include.  One of them is “no personal attacks: critique the issue, not the person.”  It’s one of few rules I enforce, and I wrote it years ago, but I watch and read a lot of news media, and it’s apparent we’re in a new era of personal attacks.

In this instance, even if Trump is not mocking the reporter’s disability, he’s still mocking the man’s intelligence, which is still a personal attack (an ad hominem logical fallacy). It’s designed to distract us from the issue. And it works for Trump. I don’t remember what the issue was then.  Do you? And even if it was true that Trump had no intent to mock the man’s disability, it sure looks like he is mocking disability. A human being with any trace of compassion would apologize for even the appearance of mocking someone in that way.

Trump’s main rhetorical strategy is muddying the waters.  Ad hominem attacks distract us from the issue.  People will remember Lyin’ Ted, Low-Energy Jeb, Crooked Hillary, but few will remember the substance of the issues. His larger strategy is distraction: Trump is letting fly with tweets about nuclear weapons and North Korea and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s television ratings, meanwhile confirmations of his crony-capitalist unqualified nominations are flying through the senate at record pace and the man isn’t even sworn in yet.

So the argument strategy is not just distraction, it’s a certain kind of distraction. Back in 2014, Ted Cruz seemed the most likely demagogue to win office, and The New Yorker ran a profile of him where he gave away his trade secret:

In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative . . . . As Sun Tzu said, Every battle is won before it’s fought. It’s won by choosing the terrain on which it will be fought.

Setting aside the philosophy-lite reference to Sun Tzu, this passage is a key insight into image-based politics. It’s next-level argumentation.

I play Magic: The Gathering, and I’ve played for a little over a year now.  The rules are relatively easy to learn.  The first thing I learned that improved my game was that although you can win by playing the best cards that fit the rules, but you’re more likely to win by playing cards that change the rules in your favor.

Trump has framed the narrative from the beginning. He has, by his own admission, sought a strategy to dominate the discussion:

I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.

So he out Cruzed Cruz.  “Lyin’ Ted” he said.  It is true: Ted Cruz lies a lot. But somehow, Donald Trump managed to lie more and make Ted Cruz out to be the liar, the same way he out-crooked “Crooked Hillary.”

In fact DJT is so slippery, it’s hard to quote him, because whatever he’s said, he’s said the opposite at some point. Meryl Streep was apparently “excellent” in 2015.

The man lies so much that he makes the idea of truth seem impossible.


On Bullshit

I recently found that T.S. Eliot wrote a throwaway poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” which many people consider to be the coining of the term bullshit as we understand it today.

Given our current political climate, i.e., the fact-free campaigns of many current political candidates in general and Donald Trump in particular, I was hoping Eliot’s poem would be a statement on the broader culture. Unfortunately it is not. The poem is a petty jab at female poetry critics with the refrain “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.”

I’m a fan of Eliot in general. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the founding poem in my origin story as a poet, the first poem that blew my mind and made me think about the world differently. But Eliot has characteristics that I find unseemly: he’s elitist, sometimes anti-Semitic  and given to some statements that people today would find extremist. For instance, in his essay on Baudelaire, he writes:

“So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist.”

This passage sticks out in my mind as the most bullshit statement in poetry that I’ve ever read. I’m using bullshit in a particular way, in this case, a statement made by a major figure that sounds like philosophy but is really nonsense. This sense is different from political bullshit, which I’ll get to later.

Eliot’s statement is ten kinds of bad. The argument relies on an either/or fallacy. As a human, if I’m sitting alone on my couch watching a rerun of Fringe and I sneeze, that sneeze is neither evil or good, it just is. I could imagine a scenario of an evil sneeze wherein I could sneeze extra loud to purposely distract a driver and cause a deadly car accident. But my solo sneeze just is. I suppose you could argue that an involuntary sneeze is not an act in the sense of “do”-ing. But come on. Not all acts are either evil or good. From that premise we get to the faulty conclusion that it’s better to do evil than nothing. Which I’m sure all sorts of evil people have used to justify themselves.

I can think of several caveats to defend Eliot’s passage. He his after all abstracting Baudelaire’s aesthetic from the man’s work, so you could say that this passage Eliot means to say that “In Baudelaire’s mind . . . .” Or you could say that Eliot means that this kind of thinking is endemic to human brains. But the rest of the paragraph says otherwise: “It is true to say that the glory for man is in his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is in his capacity for damnation.” Again, this could be some kind of yin-yang, you-need-to-have-evil-to-have-good definition, a Blakean turning things on their heads along the lines of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Okay, but the conclusion I find problematic. I can think of a million cases where it is better to do nothing than to do something evil. So I call bullshit.

But it is erudite bullshit. I’d say a faulty conclusion, but based on extensive research and thought, perhaps due to some arrogance or hubris, but I don’t think it’s a lie, I think it’s what Eliot actually thought.

So it’s bullshit of a different order than Donald Trump bullshit. Trump’s bullshit is all about impressing us. Whereas Eliot is misguided, Trump is dishonest and self-aggrandizing. Here’s Harry Frankfurt on the subject

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

For a man whose attraction for many is that he “tells the truth,” Donald Trumps lies are clearly demonstrable. I mean, we have the internet now. We can look things up.

Besides the big lies, I’m struck by the blatant gaslighting. For example Trump was booed at an event, and on the way out told reporters, “those weren’t boos, those were cheers.”

But concerning the big lie, Trump’s recent call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. is the biggest bullshit so far. In his announcement he cited two polls. First, a possibly non-existent Pew poll and another poll. He said:

a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.”

He said this, reading from a printout, which is a sure sign he’s laying it on deep. Of course the Center for Security Policy is known to be an anti-Muslim think tank, but more problematically the data was gathered using a self-selected group of people who answered questions on a website. This, in social science, is known as a convenience sample. In academic circles, that’s shorthand for “totally worthless” and the number one warning against such polls is that they are absolutely not generalizable to any larger group. Fact-free bullshit, in other words.

But it doesn’t matter. If you criticize Trump, he deflects. On the morning shows today, he was pathetic. He tried to charm, bully, and red-herring his way out of the criticism, but at least Joe Scarborough stood up to him

Trump’s actually not hard to figure out. He lives by three principles:

  1. There’s no such thing as bad press.
  2. Say whatever benefits me personally.
  3. Never ever admit mistakes or apologize.

The rest, such as always speaking in superlatives, is style. Because he is fabulously wealthy, and therefore not dependent on campaign donations, this mix is toxic. Most people see through him as the great exaggerator, but if you take him at his word, he’s running for Dictator In Chief. It would require unprecedented power for a U.S. President to enact everything he promises he would absolutely do so fast your head would spin.

We’ve seen the pattern before yesterday’s proposed Muslim ban.   Outrageous statement, walking back and/or misdirection, new topic. Yesterday he called for “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Today we find out he doesn’t mean American citizens, not exactly “total and complete.” I expect at one point for him to say “I never said ‘total and complete.’”

It’s kind of transparent, but even though he’s not hard to figure out, his staying power in this campaign is perplexing, unless you understand the power of bullshit, which is all but impervious to information.

I began my teaching career at the dawn of the internet as we know it today. I got my first real email address when I began my current job. At the beginning of my career I was frustrated by the amount of bullshit that my students were willing to accept and replicate, and I was also frustrated by the bullshit in the media, especially because I taught academic writing and argumentation. Because of the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle grading papers that contained bullshit required extra work. I hoped for the day when we would realize the information superhighway. I found my students alarmingly uninformed about many issues and thought if they had better access to information there would be less bullshit.

That did not come to pass. People are willing to believe bullshit now more than ever. In fact, what has happened is that people now have easier access to bullshit.   I don’t want this post to turn into a bunch of griping about students, but I am astounded at some of the things I hear a few of them say, such as the Civil War was not about slavery, or that the United States Constitution is based on The Ten Commandments.  It’s not just shocking that some students say these things, but that they say them when they carry around access to huge amounts of information in their pockets. It is a small minority of students who believe such bullshit, but it is also a minority of Americans who are true Trump supporters. I believe that most political differences come from competing values and most of those values are valid. But I have to speak out against fascism and xenophobia.

Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims is ten kinds of bullshit. For many reasons but for one that it is impractical. Again on Morning Joe, when asked how the government would know if someone was Muslim or not at the border he said they would just ask. Because no terrorist would lie about that. A sure sign of bullshit is that it lacks even superficial practicality (deporting all undocumented immigrants, building a 2,000 mile wall at no cost, etc.).

I believe that the greatest force on Earth is denial. People who might still support Trump are in denial of facts. They are understandably afraid of terrorist attacks and economic uncertainty, but when those emotions turn into scapegoating and hatred and support of fascistic ideas, the key ingredient is denial: denying both basic facts and denying other people of their basic humanity. When people cling to fear, they deny reality.  When this behavior accumulates, terrible things are possible, holocausts and pogroms and slavery. Us vs. them. A level of bullshit like no other. Evil bullshit.

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass, Donald.

Uncle Trump

Donald Trump has gone full Drunk Uncle in his plan to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.  It was fun for awhile, but this reality show needs to be cancelled. Otherwise, we need to call him by his true name, Il Duce.

He’s even too extreme for Dick Cheney. I guess he really can’t stand being in second place.

By the way, there’s a name for Trump’s strategy of tying together protectionism and xenophobia with a slogan like “Make America Great Again”: it’s called palingenetic ultranationalism.

I call it bullshit.

Republican Debate Night Live Blog

Having Fox Business and The Wall Street Journal host the Republican debate is like hosting a compulsive shopper support group in Wal Mart.

Here’s what should happen: Fox News should host the Democratic debate and MSNBC host the Republicans.  And then Ben Carson and Lincoln Chafee can debate each other in front of a unicorn.

Hey, Mr. Rubio.  Higher education is already modernized.  It’s just too expensive because we have shrinking government funds.  Would you like to spend some more?

I think Ted Cruz is a secret communist who wants to destroy America from within the Oval office.  I mean, his name isn’t even Ted.

Obamacare is crony capitalism?  I thought it was socialist Nazi death panels.

Current least desirable job: debate moderator.  Part of the job description: “Must randomly press button to sound meaningless bell.”

Michael Bay did a Benghazi movie.  This is the true story you were never told.  With explosions.

“Whose [tax] plan would God endorse?” Um, no words.

It’s a flat tax system.  Except with rebates.

Rand Paul still uses pencil and paper to design tax plans.  How quaint.

It’s a flax tax system.  Except with exceptions. And no IRS.

How do you abolish the IRS and collect tax?  I guess the Department of Leprechauns will go door to door.

There should be three debates on debate night: the top-card debate, an undercard debate, and a demagogues panel.

Debate participants according to Trump: sweaty guy, low-energy guy, weak guy, guy who got lucky and found oil, Ted Cruz, look-at-that-face woman, guy who should not be on this stage, and President Trump.

Yay for military-industrial complex!

Really liked MSNBC’s forum format much better.  An argument in a bar has more decorum than this debate.

Trump just ended a protectionist tirade by saying “I love free trade!”  Hello Fox BUSINESS Network did any one of you ever take an economics class???

Getting really weary of typing the word “debate.”

HAHAHAHAHA Audi commercial where man loves his Audi more than his family!  It’s so funny because it’s true!  What a great way to sell a car!

Carson just gave his beauty pageant answer to the Middle East question.

Wait, did Bush just say Indiana was a caliphate?  I may have been eating Doritos and not heard him correctly.

Did Fiorina just say she personally knows everyone in the Middle East?

I keep thinking of Trump and Fiorina as the divorced mom and dad of this debate.

Can’t believe we’re talking about Russia as a threat again.  It seems so 80’s.

Kasich; “China doesn’t own the South China Sea.”  Hello?  It has their name on it?  Next you’re going to say we own part of the Gulf of Mexico. Sheesh.

Sorry, Neil Cavuto, I am not going to stick around. Time for bed.

OMG, What!?

It’s been four years since I posted here. I kept another blog for quite awhile here:

But it’s been two years since I posted there.

I ran into some of life’s difficulties. First, my children’s health. My younger son was diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma) in 2013 at age 7. He just finished his chemo this August.   My older son has epilepsy. Both of them are autistic. Yay us.

I also ran into some conflict that has led me to become estranged from my birth family, which left me loathe to reveal any information publicly. Hence blogging went away. I struggle with how much of myself to reveal to a wider audience, and I got burned with some painful blowback that shut down most of my writing for a good part of two years.

Also, fate has dealt me a combination of ADHD and anxiety, hence, hence, hence . . .

But I’m back.

I’m starting to gain some momentum as a writer and editor again. I’m lucky to have secured a sabbatical this semester.   My project is The Michigan Poet, a publication I co-edit. I’m editing a book of poems. And I’m also working on my own writing again, finally, ready to start submitting my poetry manuscript to contests and journals. I’m also growing a beard. Funny, the last time I tried that, it didn’t have any gray in it.

Today was a good day.

I got the strange notion this morning to rewrite a newer poem as blank verse and I like the result. Of course, I always like the result of writing in the short term. One feature of my ADHD brain is I’m forgetful, and highly subject to context and feedback. If I write a draft of something and it goes well, I feel I can do anything. After this morning’s draft it felt great to hang out with the kids all day while my wife went to rehearsals. The sun seemed brighter and the fall landscape out the windows looked right perfect all day. The other side of that coin is as soon as I run into a roadblock or get a string of rejections, I’ll feel like a hack again.  I’ll get into my everything-sucks mood again, which feels like my baseline state when I’m in it.

I honestly believe I have the talent and ability for writing, but in the literary sphere you have to endure tons of rejections and I am ill-equipped for that.

In other words, I have a muse, but she’s skittish.


Here I am. . .

. . .  another frustrated poet.  I’ve written a lot of poetry.  I did an MFA and graduated in 1996.  But alas, little of the world knows of my work.  I am terribly underpublished.  I have given publishing a serious try a couple of times, but not a truly dedicated try.  I spoke to a well-published poet recently and said that I sent out about thirty submissions in the last few months and had one poem taken.  He said that was a pretty good ratio.

I am taking seriously a couple of admonitions I’ve read recently. The first is David Biespiel’s essay “This Land Is Our Land” in the May 2010 issue of Poetry.  At first I thought it just another one of the hundred or so essays I’ve read complaining that no one in America reads poetry, appreciates poetry, thinks poetry matters, etc., and doesn’t that suck for us suffering poets. (Opening sentence: “American poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy.”)  But I kept reading, because, well, it’s Poetry.

Instead of bashing the tastes of the masses, though, he focuses on civic discourse and blames both sides for the falling out. American poets have given up on civic discourse, and the public eye has rightfully turned away.  He concludes the essay by saying “just as soon as the America poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both America poetry and American democracy will be better off for it.”

The essay spoke to me, so I am going to take baby steps here in order to become more engaged in public life.  Granted, a blog is a low-risk way to do it. But I need baby steps.  The first step is to be more public.  I have spent my years, as Biespeil describes it, “as a kind of cultural tinkerer, secluded in his rickety kiosk in the dead mall of American civic life.”

Another book I’ve been paging through again is Victoria Neslon’s Writer’s Block.  I suffer from many of the problems she describes, the umbrella problem having been diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  I teach writing at Ferris State University, mostly business, technical, and research writing, but I gravitated toward the portfolio/process method of teaching because you dwell forever in possibility.  I have trouble with grading the same reason I have trouble with submitting poems and publishing my work—it is much more pleasing to my brain think of what might be than to get down to business of doing.

In her chapter on “the myth of unlimited possibilities,” she writes

For the writer, involvement in life always means putting a word on a piece of paper to initiate the act of art, and then putting enough words down after that first one to produce a finished work–short, long, or medium-sized.  Length is unimportant, completion is.

So here I go, writing complete works.  Blog posts are mostly throwaway items, but they are done.  I have trouble with “done.”  I also have trouble following up on my announced intentions, but have to risk it here.  I have no illusions about readership (this is one of almost 300,000 blogs on WordPress).  But I feel nervous anyway.  It’s the same sort of nervousness I had on Facebook at first, and now I am a full-fledged junkie.  It really helped me come out of my shell.

Without any stunning concluding insights, this post is done!