Both the Post and the Wall Street Journal have articles today about how Trump was motivated to attack Syria after seeing images on television. And in fact we do not usually see video of people dying, twitching in agony and fear, gasping for air, heaps of dead children, after a military event. But this time the Internet and television were flooded with these gruesome images.
I think it's because chemical warfare is so much cleaner than the kind of military attacks that happen every day somewhere in the world. When innocent civilians are killed in normal warfare their buildings get destroyed, limbs are blown off, skulls are crushed, there is blood and body parts everywhere. People don't want to see that on television. Assad's chemical attack generated no such repulsive imagery -- people might have vomited but not on camera -- and consequently their suffering was judged appropriate for American mass media.
The President saw what had happened on TV, and the result was that he and his military advisors decided to call for a military attack on a Syrian airport, a hail of rockets. Nobody knows what will happen next. Maybe this was better than nothing, maybe it was the wrong thing to do. At least we didn't kill any Russians.
He was not alone in his shock, of course, all people were horrified by what they saw. But here's a question: who decides what we see?
If you think about what you know, you will quickly realize that your own personal experience accounts for a tiny fraction of your total knowledge. Most of what you know comes from other people, and almost all of what we know about events outside our immediate circle of friends comes through a formless cluster of institutions we call "the media." If a news show is thirty minutes long, then some people in a corporate office meet and decide what stories they will feature in today's narrow time slot, they will identify an event and decide how to portray it, based on the story's potential for selling advertising time, and that's what we will know. Everything else gets left out, and we won't know about it. This isn't any great insight, everyone understands this: the media shape our knowledge about the world.
Mr. Trump was in the Oval Office Tuesday morning as images of lifeless children who had been gassed in Syria were displayed on the medium he favors most: television.
Politically, this is probably a good way to operate. Say, a terrorist killed a bunch of people in a mosque in Quebec, six dead and another eight injured. Based on its commercial value, the media chose not to feature this story; the President remained essentially unaware of it, did not respond to it, and the American people also remained largely unaware of the incident. Due to public ignorance of the incident his inaction did not hurt him politically, and what else matters?
The media are shared by everyone, so by basing his decisions on media reports Trump is sure to play to the popular opinion of the moment. Whatever he learns in his daily security briefings is secret government stuff, nobody knows about it and so nobody cares if he blows it off.
This means that the media, the corporate committees who meet to discuss what will be on TV, are in fact running the country. They are not voted into power, not held accountable by any elected persons or processes, the corporations want to sell ads and so they want to attract viewers in certain lucrative consumer demographic markets and that is how they decide what will determine the President's decision-making.
This is the first time we have had a leader who worked exclusively with publicly-held information, where the issue is not what he believes or what he decides but how he looks on TV. The President could be informed by the very most knowledgeable people on any topic but chooses to watch Fox. The effect is tough to beat politically, a merger of the commercial media and government that controls public knowledge and official decision-making.
By now you know that there was a violent rape last week in the high school a few blocks from where I live, and you know at least one of the rapists was an "illegal immigrant," which is a loaded term used for undocumented foreign residents. It is not clear what the status of the other one is, but both have been in the country less than a year.
The Post has written about the response to the incident:
One caller threatened to burn down Rockville High School. Another vowed to show up to “shoot the illegals.” Hundreds more have weighed in with emails, calls or tweets bashing immigrant students, assailing school policies, demanding the ouster of the superintendent.
The anger and vitriol that flooded a suburban Maryland school system have not let up in the days since a 14-year-old girl was allegedly raped by two classmates who are undocumented immigrants, fueling the contentious national immigration debate. Threats and safety concerns follow Rockville High rape case
Photographs of the police report were circulated online, which I presume is not a fake though it could be -- I found it on the Twitter site @nia_4trump, charmingly titled "Nia RussianBot" -- and the rape as reported was indeed violent.
My kid went to that school, and he and his friends really can't imagine it -- they describe Rockville as being very safe. I remember back-to-school nights, and there were always a lot of Spanish-speaking parents there, they wanted to learn how to support their children's education in their new country; the school was recently rebuilt, it is a big, clean place, well organized and well run.
Montgomery County Police issue an annual report on crime; the latest year covered is 2015. You can read that report HERE. To put the Rockville High School rape in perspective, in 2015 the MoCo Popo received reports of 278 rapes, using a new FBI definition: "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." The number jumped from the year before because they changed the definition. There was also a category "sex offense - sex assault," with another 138 incidents reported.
That's about four hundred reported sexual assaults in a population of approximately a million people every year. Every one of those events was traumatic to some person -- a majority or rapes and sexual assaults are never reported, so this obviously underestimates the actual problem. The point, by the way, is not to trivialize or attempt to "justify" any particular incident.
But it leads to a question: assuming there are 400 reported rapes a year in Montgomery County, what is your opinion about the other 399 of them? There were hundreds of "emails, calls, and tweets bashing immigrant students" regarding this one -- where is the outrage when American citizens rape women in our county?
These are not people who are committed to opposing rape -- which, by the way, is a great cause and a very difficult problem to solve.
For these angry people the issue is that the perpetrators are foreign.
I wonder how many of those people tweeting and calling and sending angry emails have ever been to another country. It is a humbling experience to try to buy something when you don't know what it's called, or to try to figure out what to eat when you have no idea what the stuff on the menu is. And paying for something, you look at some strange bills and coins in your hand as the locals become impatient. When you travel you realize it's a big world out there and there are lots of ways for people to be, and our way is just one of them.
It is impossible for us to imagine growing up in a Central American country that is a theater for international violence, with murderous gangs supported and armed by one government or another as the world tries to maintain strategic advantage in the region -- you can't imagine that, random murder, random violence, arbitrary authority. When we use the word "immigrant" we are talking about someone who has decided to leave a culture they know, who has moved to a place where they have to look at the bills, the coins, and learn a new language, a new way to cross the street. Mainly these are people who left a dangerous place to establish a hopeful new life in America.
Our American immigrants cannot be typified as criminals. In fact, a few months ago the New York Times had an interesting story that said:
The first of those links, a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, theorizes that "the process of migration selects individuals who either have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native." The fact is, immigrants commit fewer crimes per person than native-born American citizens. By far.
Somebody that would rape a woman or girl is a bad hombre, no matter where he's from. It isn't something that happens accidentally, it doesn't come from a lack of judgment; one person decides to overpower another and violate their body in a humiliating and personally devastating way. This is what jails are for, someone who does this should be "taken off the streets." I see that the guy is saying he didn't do it, and okay, that's cool, this is America; bring your evidence, the state will bring theirs, and a jury of ordinary people will decide. I don't think the prison system works very well but there is one argument for it, and that is that some bad people need to be removed from public society because they are a danger to innocent people.
I would love to see a real movement spring up to end rape. Not something to blame people, not something that urges women to dress modestly and hide indoors at night, more than punishment after the fact, a movement that gets to the bottom of the kind of culture that results in thousands of rapes every year. And actually there is no chance of this happening, no chance that the United States is going to dig out the roots of rape when we have a President who brags about molesting women and presents himself in every way as the poster child for rape culture. Rape is a serious problem that requires hard analysis and strategic planning, and we are not very far along in taking it seriously.
It is human nature to prefer your own group. We are more comfortable around people who are similar to us, who share our way of talking, our sense of what's funny, what's interesting -- that's just how people are. And in a state of war people almost certainly demonize and dehumanize their enemy, "they" are at war with "us," and we support "us," so "they" are stupid, ugly, immoral, wrong. Doesn't matter which side you're on, both sides of any war do that.
It is pathological to demonize and dehumanize people just because they are different from you. Mature human beings should have the sense of self and the objectivity to recognize that the world is a big place and there are all kinds of people in it. There can be "us" and "them" without "them" being despicable in every way. This blog has been here now for more than twelve years, and if there is a single theme through it all, it is stated in this paragraph.
To be clear, the issue at RHS is rape, it is not immigration. A crime was committed, suspects were apprehended, and the criminal justice system is on the case. The people who are protesting, sending nasty emails, when Sean Spicer and Fox News talk about this case, they are not sympathizing with the young lady who was violently attacked. They are focusing on this case because an undocumented foreigner committed it. And the issue is not that undocumented foreigners are dangerous, or that they commit more crimes than "us" native-born citizens, because they don't; the issue is that foreigners are different from "us." The reaction to the Rockville rape is not rational, it is racist. People are seizing on this tragedy to reinforce a stereotype that is not accurate.
Mensch: It's legit, it's a court of the United States. Contrary to rumor, people just can't go around wire tapping everybody and etc. What was interesting to me and I think probably many of the other journalists who later corroborated my story or at least reported the same thing, which includes the BBC and the Guardian, is that nobody that reported this warrant ever mentioned so much as a wire tap at all. We just reported the warrant that our sources told us existed and we all reported the same thing. So this, the only people that reported a wire tap at Trump Tower were Breitbart News. Nobody else! And if there's been some leaks, maybe Steve Bannon or some of these other ex-Breitbart staffers have got something to answer to.
FOX: Well, do you think it's that they have more information than you initially had or do you think it's a misunderstanding of what the FISA warrant is?
Mensch: Uh, it could be a little bit of both but after all, tweets came out from the President's own accounts. Now, I don't know, I don't even know for sure if he himself is making those tweets but somebody made those tweets under his name and they said he just found out about a wire tap just before the victory. Well that's fascinating to me 'cause I never reported it. Uh, so either the President has a terrific imagination or the President is receiving some solid information that somebody in his team has been caught up, like your correspondent Catherine Herridge, said in incidental collection and that's not very good for team Trump.
FOX: Well original sourcing and reporting on this you mentioned came from you, from the BBC, and the Guardian all say they've got sources as to these FISA warrants, or FISA warrant, singular. Now the former DNI Director James Clapper appeared on the Sunday shows yesterday. He says if it existed, he would know about it and he categorically denied it. What do you make of that?
Mensch: Well I don't know that he categorically denied what I reported which was a FISA warrant on communications between two Russian banks. He was being asked about the President's accusation that President Obama had targeted a warrant politically at him or at Team Trump and at Trump Tower. There's no such FISA warrant and it would be impossible to get one and indeed, I faithfully reported that the couple of times that Director Comey apparently went to the court and asked for a warrant that named Mr. Trump, he was turned down flat. So I think you heard DNI Clapper, former DNI Clapper denying that there was a politically motivated, targeted FISA warrant at Donald Trump. And I haven't reported that to my knowledge nor has anyone else.
FOX: Yeah, my remembrance of his discussion was that he was asked if there was such an order.
FOX: So but is it possible that the DNI wouldn't know about it?
Mensch: Um I don't know because I don't, honestly, I don... I try not to bluff when I don't know things.
FOX: Good for journalists, we should stick with what we know
Mensch: I believe he has, but such an order, does that mean no FISA warrant of any kind, which I think would be really hard for a DNI to deny or confirm. I think that would be kind of illegal even. But I think what he was saying is there's no order of a politically targeted FISA court warrant that was aiming directly at Trump Tower and the political campaign.
FOX: And you're confident in your sources and what you've reported and again it was dealing with banks that were communicating with each other and if Trump staffers or Trump campaign officials or people connected to him in any way were caught up in it, that would have been secondary.
Mensch: It gave permission, incidental permission, for people caught up in this secondary communication, incidental communication, it gave permission for the FBI to look at that but they were not the target. Communications between two Russian banks were the target my sources said.
Don Trump is too confused to know what he is doing in Washington, beyond being a cranky old man. But that's okay, as he is not the one running things. Steve Bannon spelled out the plan at CPAC this week. The Post:
Atop Trump’s agenda, Bannon said, was the “deconstruction of the administrative state” — meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president and his advisers believe stymie economic growth and infringe upon one’s sovereignty.
So ... now they have told us exactly why they selected the nightmarishly worst people for every cabinet position. They want to destroy the government.
This is not okay. Good Americans complain because the government is slow, unresponsive, expensive. Politicians are self-centered and vain ... lots to complain about. But you can drink the water in most places, you can eat the food without getting poisoned. You can drive on the highways. You can walk in the park without fear. In America anyone can grow up to be President. You can say what you want, even if you're Milo Yiannopoulos. Some of us actually loved our country, and hoped to work together to make it better.
Do you think this is what the people in flyover land were hoping for, when they voted for Trump? Deconstruction?
RealClearPolitics quoted Bannon further:
Every business leader we've had in is saying not just taxes, but it is -- it is also the regulation. I think the consistent, if you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction, the way the progressive left runs, is if they can't get it passed, they're just gonna put in some sort of regulation in -- in an agency.
Trump signed an executive order requiring that agencies rescind two regulations for every one they initiate. This EO will be declared unconstitutional, but the concept is at the heart of the Bannon/Trump agenda. They want to neutralize the government so that it does not protect the country's resources, medicines, foods. It is easy to understand: regulations cost corporations money. I am not being cynical, that is the whole explanation.
By the way, Bannon doesn't know what "deconstructed" means. It's kind of a fancy word from literary criticism and semiotics. Bannon is using that word because it sounds so much more refined that "destroyed." Voters will cheer you on when you "deconstruct" their country, not so much when you destroy it.
There is too much going on for me to write about all of it. Like, right now the court is hearing an appeal of the Muslim ban, Betsy DeVos has just squeaked by as education-hating Secretary of Education, Kellyanne is insisting that lies are truth, Elizabeth Warren is accused of disdain, Trump accuses the media of not wanting to report terrorism and they are producing facts showing they obsess over it, Yemen has asked us not to protect them, Trump is mad because he didn't know the executive order he signed put Bannon on the National Security Council, and also because Sean Spicer was played by a giiirrrlll ooh-ick on TV ... There's too much but now and then there is one that catches your eye, so let me point to an article in Al Jazeera.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that he was grateful to US President Donald Trump for revealing "the real face of America".
"We are thankful to this gentleman ... he showed the real face of America," Khamenei said in a speech to military officers in Tehran on Tuesday.
"[It was] what we have said for more than 30 years - that there is political, economic, moral and social corruption in the ruling system of the US. This gentleman came and brought it out into the open in the election and after the election."
He referred to the case of a young Iranian boy who was pictured in handcuffs at a US airport following Trump's ban on visas from Iran, among other countries.
You might question Al Jazeera as a news source but it is the perfect source for this story. (And, actually, Al Jazeera is often a surprisingly good source of international news.)
So, for one, the Ayatollah's trolling us. Nothing will upset a real American more than somebody who thinks that Trump reveals our "true face." Most of us are just the opposite of him, or try.
But Ayatollah Khamenei isn't saying this for an American audience. He is talking to his own Persian people, and to his fellow Muslims. He is saying that Trump proves without doubt that America is just as corrupt as they have always thought we were. The image of a five-year-old boy in handcuffs is offensive to good Muslim people, just as it is offensive to good Americans of all faiths, and it is having an impact. Why did that happen, why was a little child put in shackles? Oh, no reason, America just doesn't like people from certain countries, like Iran. They scare us. So we take it out on a random five-year-old, take him away from his mother and handcuff him for hours.
As far as they know, we are all like that. Our elected President ordered that to be done, and it reflects on all of us. You think this doesn't motivate people to hate us? Do you think this actually makes us safer?
Here's something to chew on:
He ridiculed the idea of being grateful to former President Barack Obama, saying he was the one who placed "paralysing sanctions" on Iran and helped create the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group through his destabilising actions in Iraq and Syria.
Okay, readers, break into discussion groups and talk among yourselves. Topic: Ayatollah Khamenei and Don Trump are right, Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS, or not. Five minutes.
Trump is making the rest of the world resent us. He is a corrupt, small-time gangster but he is our figurehead and for someone in a distant country he might be the only American they are aware of -- they think we're all like that. He is making the world a more dangerous place for all Americans, and for innocent people around the world.
This week Don Trump and his right-hand man, Steve Bannon, have decided to label the media as "the opposition party." This makes sense from their point of view, and in fact it may be a more profound observation than they realize.
I have said on this blog many times that when history is written about our era, the main topic will be the media. The newspapers and networks take sides, often without seeming to realize it, nudging our understanding to favor one conclusion or another. Simultaneously blogs and social media have given a media voice to every citizen and the roar from the bleachers has occasionally overpowered the commercial media but the almighty dollar wins in the end. The story of our times will be about who got to tell the story.
There have been plenty of times when I have thought of the media as "the opposition party." When our suburban county of a million good, decent people was attacked by a dozen or so rightwingers over a sex-ed class, the media turned their cameras on the small group and amplified their narrow-mindedness in a way that made it seem that they were a significant force in our bluest-of-blue community. What should have been a simple adjustment to a health curriculum became a "culture war," due entirely to the presence of the media. So I get that.
At any moment, in any place, there are an infinite number of things going on. We choose, as social beings, to focus our attention on the details that are relevant to us. And we interpret those details in whatever way serves our needs. A single thing may be a blessing, a threat, or we might ignore it. When something happens right in front of us we interpret it and deal with it.
Some things happen where we can't see them. We only hear about them. And that's where the media come in.
Have you ever seen something happen, and then read about it in the paper or seen it on TV? It's shocking, isn't it! The media have to boil an event down to a narrative, they have to make a story out of it, and that means they focus on certain facts and ignore others. That's just how it is, they do the same thing we do as individuals and groups, they make a story out of an infinite sea of information -- but they might not make the same story we would make if we had been present. We give up the ability to control our attention in exchange for some condensed information about events that we do not personally witness.
Part of living in the modern world is understanding the media. You cannot take a media representation as a truth, it is only a story. It may contain facts, and you need to know something about the source and the topic in order to evaluate that. If you are not sure about how to understand the original incident that is reported, you might want to look at alternative tellings of the story. Reading about an event or seeing it on TV is not the same as being there, and actually -- this is important -- "being there" is not the same for you as for some other person. I mean, you know this already, but it is important that two people can attend the same event and see it two entirely different ways. This phenomenon is magnified when one of the observers has a TV camera and sponsors who want the numbers to be big.
The media have loved Don Trump. He is everything that draws a big audience, flashy, brash, personable. He says the craziest things and expresses ideas that are so obviously wrong-headed that you just want to see what will happen next. Remember when Charlie Sheen went off the rails? Don Trump is like that all the time, and the TV cameras and newspapers love it. There is always a story, some crazy thing will come out of his mouth.
But the media, like the rest of the country, had an epiphany that Tuesday night when we watched the returns coming in, and those red states did not turn blue. It turns out that the requirements for reality TV and the requirements for being President of the United States of America are different. Who woulda thought? The media, pursuing their own business goals, pushed this charismatic lunatic out in front of us hundreds of times through the campaign. Jimmy Fallon patted his hair, Saturday Night Live made him the host, CNN cut into their regular programming to show his antics of the moment. MSNBC obsessed with him, even the "liberal" talk-shows talked about nothing else for months. They're just trying to sell soap, but people sitting at home forget that.
Don Trump is a media creation. He is an ordinary, vulgar, hometown gangster in real life, but you put a camera on him and he is every bit the equal to Snooki or Honey Boo Boo, or Dog the Bounty Hunter. He's good TV, the media lifted him and he rode that wave of attention right into the White House. But as President he is a buffoon. He doesn't know what he is talking about. He is a clown. The media still love him, the story sells a lot of soap, but the story line has changed. Where it was "Brash Millionaire Takes on the World" it is now "Ignorant Bigot Signs Executive Order Screwing Millions of Innocent People," "Thin-Skinned Old Man Argues Against Proof About How Big His Stuff Is." The media still love him, but now they are loving pointing out the character defects that they aggrandized in the past as lovable quirks.
So, yeah, the media have become the opposition party for him. We have a noble narrative of journalists investigating and checking public figures, but they don't really do that very much, or very well. These days they report tweets, if somebody doesn't call them with leaks. What we call "the media" are mostly huge corporate entities that serve their stockholders, and there is neither a mechanism or incentive for them to be truthful, honest, thorough, or fair. They aren't for you or against you, they sell soap.
Yesterday's Women's March was amazing, millions of people all around the world, uniting in a common desire for peace and freedom and decency. Meanwhile our new president turns out to be a petty, greedy little pig whether he's campaigning or actually working in office. Pivot? Uh, no, he is not going to change. Today the front page of the Washington Post had an article headlined "Trump uses CIA visit to rip media." It has a different headline online. Here's how the story kicks off:
President Trump used his first full day in office to wage war on the media, accusing news organizations of lying about the size of his inauguration crowd as Saturday’s huge protests served notice that a vocal and resolute opposition would be a hallmark of his presidency.
With Americans taking to the streets in red and blue states alike to emphatically decry a president they consider reprehensible and, even, illegitimate, Trump visited the Central Intelligence Agency for a stream-of-consciousness airing of grievances — including against journalists, whom he called “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” Trump wages war against the media as demonstrators protest his presidency
Reprehensible and, even, illegitimate.
You won't hear somebody like me saying how great the CIA is. I have a bit of a problem with our democratic government secretly disrupting economic and political processes in foreign countries, arming rebels and assassinating people. I know it happens and that's about it. Sometimes something comes out and it is usually ugly. Has the CIA ever gone into a country and brought food to hungry people? The idea kind of makes you laugh.
Still, this is Washingon DC and the people all around us work for the government, including the CIA. The agency works very closely with the president, forming strategic plans, conveying intelligence, they meet and it is not something the world knows about. The CIA and the president have to have a very close relationship built on trust.
So if Trump goes to visit them, you'd think he'd talk about that. He could mention the success of one of their missions, lament the sacrifices of agents, discuss trouble-spots around the world that he is counting on the CIA's help with, there are lots of ways he could have started his presidency forming an important alliance.
Instead, he complained about journalists, because they had published estimates of the size of his inauguration crowd that he did not like. His inauguration in fact was dismal. There were bleachers with nobody in them, streets lined with nobody. No self-respecting performer would perform for it. Celebrations were canceled. The streets were torn up by violent protestors, a couple hundred arrested.
And ironically, even as he spoke the streets of Washington and every other city in the US were jam-packed with people protesting his deplorable presidency. In DC alone the Woman's March drew many times more people than the inauguration. Half a million in LA, ten thousand in Portland, Maine. Ninety to a hundred thousand in St. Paul. Boise had five thousand people in the street. People streaming through the streets in Paris. Every city had it, people protesting the reprehensible orange man who has been inaugurated as president and the vile, vulgar things he stands for.
And rather than begin the work of running the country, rather than build a relationship with the CIA, the president complained to them that the press had miscounted his crowds. And then he sent his press secretary out for a surreal press conference. As CNN put it:
"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," Spicer said, contradicting all available data.
So there it is. They will tell you what to believe. There may be people who accept this. There must be a lot of them. A great proportion of America is going to be living in a kind of reality that they hear about from authorities, denying the evidence of their own experience. It is going to be difficult to deal with them.